Five Way to Fix #TheFlash

I didn’t want to love The Flash. Even after seeing Grant Gustin’s infectious performance on two episodes of mothership Arrow, I greeted the many promos for the show’s debut with a shrug or an eye roll. But I tuned in anyway, and that first season was something no superhero show had been since I was a kid watching OG Wonder Woman Lynda Carter swing her golden lasso: fun. A ridiculous amount of fun, in fact. Season 1 The Flash eschewed all the grimdark portentousness of the DC universe, instead imbuing a science-positive coming of age story with a lightning-fast touch. The writers packed all the thrills and excitement of the show into one simple line: “Run, Barry, run!”

Season 2 had some stumbles, but stayed the course, delivering a solid show with a great villain in Zoom, not to mention the epic crossovers with Arrow. But the season finale saw Barry make a huge mistake in initiating Flashpoint, a move that seemed motivated more by the writers’ manipulations than the character’s personality. Season 3 has had moments that returned to form–the Arrowverse crossover, episodes like “The Present” and “Dead or Alive”–but continues to suffer from some potentially fatal flaws, alienating the audience with inconsistent character motivations, some very retro morals, and angst for the sake of angst.

If it weren’t for the strength of the cast, led by outstanding turns by Gustin, Tom Cavanagh, Jesse L. Martin, and Carlos Valdes, I would have turned out long ago. But I just can’t quit the characters I’ve loved for three seasons. The show still has so much potential and, as we’ve seen with Arrow this year, the writers can still turn things around.

And I’ve got five (humble) suggestions for how to drag this show out of the Speed Force and back to Earth 1…

No more keeping secrets, period. I get it. Secret identities are a superhero show’s bread and butter. But The Flash has washed-rinsed-repeated this particular trope too many times to count. A character learns something that will upset someone else/the group. He/she hides this for several episodes, until the truth is finally forced out. Everyone gets angry. The team splinters. Bad things happen. They come together to learn the valuable lesson that they are stronger as a team when they are honest with each other.

But the lesson never sticks. It’s gotten so absurd that almost every week someone is keeping something vital and life-shattering from someone else, leading the show to go through the same emotional beats over and over again. Imagine the drama that could be wrought from them being upfront and honest with each other. The truth can be terrifying. Loving someone but deeply disagreeing with them can be heart-wrenching. Actually earning one another’s trust and having it stick, having them act as a team and still lose–that’s real drama. Regardless, there are so many other ways to create drama and conflict between the characters. Writers, it’s time to dig another well (but no more Wells’s, please).

Retire the speedster villains. First it was Reverse Flash. Then Zoom. Now Savitar. I think we’ve exhausted the speedster rogues’ gallery. (Alas, I know that’s not really true. But comic books are not TV shows, and you need to change it up, stat.) Doctor Alchemy had a different skill set, but he’s done now. Maybe part of the reason the plots keep recycling is that the villains are too similar and how the heroes defeat them is starting to have a same-y quality. For season 4, please challenge the team in a new way.

Give the supporting characters stronger storylines. Nobody ever does their job on this show, unless, like Cisco and Caitlin, their job is “support The Flash”. We haven’t seen Joe genuinely investigate anything as a detective since season 1. Iris got one episode where she did some investigative reporting this season, but it was coupled with her going against Barry and Joe’s wishes. Julian and Barry have both ceased to be crime scene techs altogether, and I don’t even think Wally has a job. Why does every story have to involve the whole Flash team and take place in Star Labs? Why not give Joe a spotlight episode based on an actual crime? Have Caitlin called somewhere to use her doctoring talents? Have an old friend approach Cisco to design him something amazing and have it go horribly wrong? You have one of the strongest ensembles on TV. Give them more to do.

Stop fridging and stereotyping the female characters. It’s getting kind of gross, to be honest, the way Iris has almost entirely given up her life–and might literally sacrifice it–since she and Barry got together. The writers have never really known how to use her and, while the WestAllen romance has increased her screen time, it’s given rise to such 1950s-esque moments as Joe chiding Barry for not asking his permission before he proposed to Iris, and then Iris chiding Barry for the exact same thing! Because God forbid Iris decide for herself who she wants to marry, or put her job before her relationship, or push back against the helicopter parenting/boyfriending of the two main men in her life. Not to mention the fact that the entire season hinges on Barry’s vision of her being killed, which we have to see over and over, as the various men figure out how to save her. Wouldn’t it be great if, in the end, Iris saves herself.

I’m equally baffled by the Caitlin storyline this year. I don’t think we ever got an explanation why her getting powers means she automatically has to fight this inner evil twin that constantly threatens to overtake her life. Way to promote the idea that women + power = evil, writers. Earth 1 Caitlin has never been evil–why would getting powers make her so? Why is Killer Frost written like a second identity/possessing demon? I understand wanting her to struggle to come to terms with her powers; I don’t understand why that struggle has to be against an ‘evil’ persona, or why she has to restrain herself when Wally is getting training for his new powers (women + power = danger!), or why it’s always a man who manages to bring her back to herself. “I’m scared of this thing inside of me” can be an effective plot, but there’s too much gender-loaded baggage here.

It would also be nice if, you know, the two women on the show were friends. Take a page from Riverdale, The Flash.

Barry needs to stop being such a dick. In the hands of a lesser actor, a lot of people would have tapped out on Barry by now. Grant Gustin is a jewel, and they need to pay him all the money for how he salvages their mediocre, repetitive storylines and selfish version of Barry. The show falls over itself to underline what a great leader Barry is without providing a shred of evidence to prove it. Every time Barry is challenged in the slightest way by someone on the team, he pulls ranks and acts out like a cranky toddler. Every time he’s tried to teach Wally or Jesse or someone about their powers and they make a mistake, he flips out on them and tries to fix everything himself. He regularly goes into “bullying jock” mode when threatened. He is a horrible teacher. He keeps essential, life-threatening secrets from his team. He makes decisions based on personal griefs, which screws things up catastrophically for everyone else, then sulks about it when someone points it out. These are not the actions of a capable leader. They are the reactions of a guy still maturing into adulthood. Which would be fine, if the narrative acknowledged that Barry is still on his journey to adulthood. Yet time and again, we’re told how great Barry is, quite a lot of evidence to the contrary. I mean, the guy proposed to his girlfriend just to change the future! Classic dick move. The only place we really get to see this wise and capable Barry is in the crossovers, when he’s dealing with Oliver/Green Arrow or Supergirl. I wish that Barry was the star of The Flash. Now he’s a guy I would follow anywhere.

Everything I’ve said here come from a place of love. I don’t want to tune out. I want The Flash to be awesome again. I know this is the family show in the Arrowverse, but that doesn’t mean it has to be repetitive, inconsistent, or flirt with sexism. And while we’re at it, how about some serious LGBTQ representation? There are currently three straight couples on the show. And the POCs often get shoved into their own marginalized subplots, away from the main action.

I criticize because I love, The Flash. Because we need a hero with Barry Allen’s spirit and optimism in these troubled times. He’s a speedster, after all–nothing wrong with keeping him on his toes.

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Best Movies 2015

I see a lot of movies because of my job. Around 150-200 a year. I am not kidding. So while my tastes and yours may differ in terms of what’s good, I promise you that I am a rock-solid authority on what’s bad. I have seen the worst movies of the year. Every. Single. One. Of. Them. I have seen things that I can never unsee. I am intimately acquainted with the garbage that Hollywood and indiewood produce on a weekly basis. That comedy that looks like the worst thing ever committed to film starring a beloved movie star? Seen it. That fantasy occult movie starring some marble-mouthed action star? Sat through it. Twice. That gratuitous, exploitative horror movie made for five cents in someone’s backyard? Watched half of it, puked, had to go back and watched the rest. (Spoiler alert: I am not a fan of horror and therefore haven’t seen It Follows.)

So when I see a movie I enjoy, it shines like a diamond. Sometimes I weep with relief. It’s like Fagin brought me a cookie after months of eating gruel. That’s why I love to celebrate the best movies of the year. Also why I couldn’t limit myself to just ten, but awarded a bunch of honorable mentions as well. Because for the first time in a long time, this list could have been 20 films long. Filmmakers got their act together this year, and we are the richer for it.

Without further ado, here’s my list of the 10 best films of the year, in no particular order, with honorable mentions because I just can’t make the tough choices, damn it!

Ex Machina–One of the best science-fiction films to come out in a good long while, a creepy, prescient tale about a remarkable woman and the men who try to control her. Also highlights one of my favorite themes of the year: great roles for women.

Spotlight–You think you know the story of how the Catholic church covered up rampant pedophilia for so long, you think you understand the scope of the problem and the human element, but you don’t. This is more than a film about great journalism. It’s a film about how the system doesn’t always fail the victims.

Steve Jobs–This could have been an epic disaster. The director and screenwriter seemed mismatched. Fassbender seemed miscast. Instead, it’s a visual and verbal symphony, and every single actor captivates you. But none more than Fassy, in the first of two Oscar-worthy performances he gave this year.

Macbeth–This is the second. But more, it’s a streamlined, visceral, and mesmerizing interpretation of the Scottish play. It strips the text away, but in the service of really making the story into a film, with visuals and reaction shots conveying more than even Shakespeare’s prose could. And Justin Kurzel is a major new talent.

Mad Max: Fury Road–A batshit crazy feminist action film. The epic visuals. The death-defying practical stunts. Furiosa. All from the mind of an unsung master.

Inside Out–Still sobbing.

Diary of a Teenage Girl–A beautiful, honest, and enrapturing coming of age film about the real travails (and dreams and ambitions and fumbles and fights and love affairs) of a teenage girl. Must-see.

Sicario–Another portrait of a flawed female character thrust into circumstances not only beyond her control, but a situation that governments and law enforcement agencies are struggling to come to grips with. It’s strength, like hers, is in its stillness. And props to my fellow Quebecois Denis Villeneuve for his masterful direction.

Crimson Peak–A love letter to the Victorian Gothic. Two strong vital female leads in Mia Wasikowska and Jessica Chastain, and Tom Hiddleston at his creepiest and most romantic. What’s not to love?

Star Wars: The Force Awakens–Watching this was like being a kid again. There are movies not on this list that might be technically better, but nothing that comes close to rivalling the experience of watching this and loving it. And loving the new characters as much as the old. And seeing Han Solo be Han Solo again.

Honorable Mentions:

Excellent movies about difficult but riveting subjects: Room, ’71, Beasts of No Nation

Best comedy that didn’t quite make the list: Trainwreck

Mediocre movie I loved: Victor Frankenstein

Has everything working for it but just fell short of perfection: Carol

I liked this a lot more than everyone else: Avengers: Age of Ultron

More entertaining than any movie about real estate and economics has any right to be: The Big Short

Because seeing movies on film, in the cinema, with a crowd is still the most fun thing ever: The Hateful Eight

Further proof that Andrew Haigh is one of the most insightful and observant filmmakers working today: 45 Years

Further proof that Ridley Scott has still got it, even if he often hides it: The Martian

Furthermore (i.e. not among the best of the year):

Film critics are falling all over each other for that I loathed with every fiber of my being: Anomalisa (seriously, do not waste your money)

Yes, I am a woman and I sat through this macho BS twice: The Revenant (cinematography is beautiful, though)

Films I haven’t seen yet: The Danish Girl, Sisters, Creed

Hit me up in the comments with your picks and pans!

 

 

 

Summer TV Catch-Up: #iZombie, #MrRobot, #Sense8, #Transparent

Anyone who tries to tell you that this isn’t the Golden Age of Television needs to go back and watch all of those classic TV shows from the ’50s and ’60s with an objective eye. Not to say that there aren’t some gems—of course there are. But in an age where everything is an homage to something else, if not a soulless digital double, it’s easy to mistake nostalgia for quality. Which is not to say that today’s shows are any different—they can still be subdivided into the good, the bad, and the ugly—but with cable and streaming services constantly upping their game, the result is some spectacularly good TV.

Possibly too much. I’m a regular TV watcher—unrepentantly so, given the slim pickings at the multiplex these days—and even I can’t keep up with all the good stuff. And there is *so much* good stuff on TV these days: ambitious dramas, cutthroat fantasy, inspiring superheroes, auteurism at its best. If you would rather go see Furious 7 or Jurassic World than watch a season of [insert popular and critically acclaimed show here], then… you should probably go read some other blog. 😉

This quality TV glut is one of the many reasons I love the summer. Even though some channels have smartened up and started featuring original content in the summertime, mostly the powers that be might as well have a great big “Gone Fishin'” title card playing 24/7.

So once I had my fill of baking in the sun, I had time to catch up on four shows that I personally think are worthy of a few of your precious viewing hours. While they are far from perfect, each is fun, provocative, and egregiously entertaining, at least in my humble opinion.

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iZombie

I resisted this one for a while, even though it comes from the creator of Veronica Mars, Rob Thomas. Mostly because I am zombied out. I also don’t like gross body horror stuff. But I should have known better since a) this is on network TV, so the brains and intestines are kept to a minimum, and b) Veronica Mars is one of my favorite shows of all time. The plot is about Liv, a promising med student with a hunky fiance and a great family life who goes to a party one night where there is a zombie attack. She gets infected and has to give up everything in her life to work at the morgue so she has a steady supply of brains, brains, brains. The brain she’s eating also gives her the personality of the deceased, which she uses to help solve their murder.

The procedural element is the weakest part of the show, since it’s the same case of the week structure that endless cop shows use, and it’s impossible at this point to bring anything new to that. But the serial aspects of the show won me over very quickly, mainly the stellar supporting cast. Also, the show never cuts corners in the suffering department. In the first season alone, each character is put through the ringer emotionally, and the writers always choose the most painful development for them. And all this with a ton of witty banter and just plain fun interactions. Liv taking on the personalities of the people she eats results in some side-splitting and heartbreaking interactions. Thomas, like with Veronica Mars, is committed to strong multicultural casting, and the best part of the show is her fellow mortician Ravi, who needs to be my boyfriend, like, now. Also great are David Anders as the big bad zombie Blaine and Robert Buckley as her ex-fiance Major Lilywhite (best name ever). The only character who didn’t quite hit for me is her detective partner Clive, partly because he isn’t aware that zombies exist, and therefore is kept out of a lot of the serialized aspects of the plot.

If you’re looking for a fun, fresh take on the zombie genre, or even just some witty banter, check out iZombie.

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Mr. Robot

And the award for the worst title of a new television show goes to…

A lot of factors kept me away from this one when it first started airing, but, wow, was I wrong. This is easily one of the best first seasons of a show I’ve seen in a long time, a cinematic pressure-cooker that had me holding my breath when not theorizing about what exactly is going on. In the tradition of ’70s paranoid cinema but with an up-to-the-minute take on technology and societal woes, this show evokes Kubrick, Fincher, and those nightmares you can’t wake up from.

Our unreliable narrator is Elliot, a mega-introvert who works at a tech security firm but who moonlights as a hacker Robin Hood, righting the wrongs in his environment through cyber blackmail. He nemesis is Evil Corps, an Apple/Google-esque company that controls, well, everything. He and his best friend Angela both lost their parents to cancer caused by Evil Corps’ negligence, so it’s no surprise Elliot gets in bed with fSociety, a group of hackers set on eliminating everyone’s debt by destroying the corporate infrastructure. The enigmatic Mr. Robot is their fearless leader… or is he? Elliot is the Alice in this tale, and as he steps through the looking glass, he discovers a whole other world, and parts of himself that he never expected. ‘Unreliable’ is the watchword here.

By the end of ten riveting episodes, every one of your expectations will be met while subverting all character tropes. Angela, Elliot’s friend, is a tigress in disguise. Sweet Shayla at first seems one-note, then turns into an aria. Menacing businessman Tyrell Wellick and his snobby wife at first seem like stereotypes of the up-and-coming business class, but prove far shiftier, and more human, than first expected. Then there’s Darlene, who just plain rocks. I can’t say more for fear of ruining the many, many surprises to come, but trust me, this is one roller-coaster you want to ride.

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Transparent

Despite the overwhelmingly positive critical reception, I had resisted watching this show because of the conflicting opinions within the transgendered community about whether the way it represents that community is a good thing or not. To read more about their criticisms and concerns, click here. (Like any community, there are a variety of opinions, but from what I could tell, the common consensus leaned towards the negative.) I personally cannot speak to whether the show accurately or positively depicts the experience of transitioning, so I’m going to focus on the show as a show.

It’s an exceptional show. These are flawed human characters—some might say they are characters defined by their flaws—that you will recognize and cringe over. You will panic and think, “Is that me? Please don’t let that be me.” Nominally, it’s a show about a 67-year-old father of three’s transition, but it’s actually a show about a family, the Pfeffermans. There’s Maura, trying to navigate this major change in her life with dignity and grace (her family does not make it easy). There’s lackadaisical Sarah, the oldest, who reconnects with her long-lost girlfriend, leaves her husband pretty much on a whim, and spends the rest of the series white-knuckling it through that decision. There’s petty Josh, the commitment-phobic middle brother who has an ongoing affair with his former babysitter. There’s self-centered Ali, still on the gravy train, who will try anything once and can’t seem to make any solid decisions for herself. And there’s Shelly, the distant mother more worried about trivialities than whether her current husband is missing.

Watching them battle through their respective life challenges could seem like torture, except that creator Jill Soloway and her team of writers imbue the show with whimsy, emotionality, and an honesty that is beyond affecting. There’s definitely an Office UK version of this show to be played for squirm-inducing laughs, but they go the more fulfilling route. It’s also nice to see a show that depicts a religion other than Christianity (they are Jewish), and isn’t afraid to engage with it on a critical level. That said, the writers’ interests quite obviously evolved away from Maura and towards the children, with her barely appearing in the last episode. Irritating Ali, who I believe is the character that stands in for Soloway herself (the show is semi-autobiographical), is given showcase after showcase, as if the narrative is somehow as narcissistic as she is. But that is a small criticism in what is really a beautiful and heart-rending depiction of family life.

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Sense8

Before I get into the nitty-gritty, I want to say I loved this show to bits and pieces. It is daring, it is passionate, it is avant garde, it is maddening in all the best ways. It’s about a cluster of eight people who can feel and communicate with each other even though they are spread across the globe, but this sci-fi premise plays a backdrop (a deep backdrop) to an exploration of other cultures and life experiences. The creators tip their thematic hand pretty early with the idea of the universality of human experience, but you never really mind because the message is a strong and resonant one.

Structurally, there are some very slow and navel-gazing parts, but you forgive these because the phenomenal cast gives it their all and then some. My personal favorites were Sun, the badass corporate dragonslayer; Lito, the melisma-loving Mexican soap actor; and Nomi, the former hacker and current LGBTQ blogger. And so many others. The show was shot in the eight different countries the lead actors represent, and it works if you turn the sound off and just gape at the beauty of each place.

Still, I would be remiss in not mentioning that I had some serious issues with the representation of all these diverse cultures. Specifically, the inability of the creators to escape privileging the white characters. Though Sun does get a few good fight sequences, overwhelmingly it is the white male cis-gendered American who jumps in to save the day for the male, female, and trans characters. He’s also the one who has all the agency in terms of learning about them being sensates and the hazards of that new world. Not to mention that the narrative for every character of color is resolved in the penultimate episode, so that the last episode can concentrate on the romance between the two white straight characters, and how the white American dude rushes to save his love interest. To top it all off, the series ends in a Pieta-style tableau of the characters around the white male savior.

Whether consciously or not, the creators really struggled to subvert these common narrative tropes and get away from archetypes. I also think they should re-evaluate the need for gratuitous action and violence in a show that purports to be about authentic human experience and multiculturalism. I’m not saying they should turn it into some kind of We Are The World sing-along, but several of the characters drop a lot of bodies with little to no consequences. That Wachowski-style, “Guns, lots of guns,” approach to the action doesn’t quite mesh with the show’s themes. For the second season, I hope they work harder on the plot structure, so that every act, violent or no, is character-motivated and realistic. But is it worth your time? Hell yes.

Have you watched any of these shows? Share your thoughts in the comments!

Selina

It’s Not Much Ado About Nothing: Female Fan Opinions in Pop Culture

If you were anywhere near a computer this week and are even remotely interested in pop culture, you may have seen a headline or two about the great controversy of the week. The UK general election, you say? The earthquake in Nepal? No, we’ve already moved on from that. How about the fact that crazy weather events are making it harder and harder to deny the truth of climate change? Nah, we’ve stopped caring about that a long time ago. I’m talking about the fact that a bunch of “feminists” allegedly chased Joss Whedon off Twitter.

Now, I realize I’m giving this story even more of a shelf life by writing about it myself. But I’m interested in something a bit deeper than this eye-roll of an “entertainment news story”. If you would like to know Whedon’s actual reason for quitting Twitter, which I believe because it’s not some gross assumption, but rather the words straight out of his mouth, go here.

What disturbs me most about the traction this story got in the media is the subtext behind almost ever post, blog, and think piece about it: “Oh, those crazy women and their opinions.” It was basically a bunch of pundits giving life to and pursuing a story that was the equivalent of a dude reaching for the remote and turning up the volume to drown out his wife’s nagging. Oh, those feminist fangirls. They’re always so outraged! Look what they did this time! Poor Joss Whedon—one of their staunchest supporters—can’t even catch a break!

I am *so* tired of this narrative. It’s just another way of othering people of different genders, sexual orientations, races, and social classes. It’s a narrative that assumes that, 1) all the people upset about the treatment of Black Widow in Ulton are female; 2) all of those females hate the treatment in exactly the same way; 3) all of those females are feminists (Why? Because they dared to open their mouths?); 4) all of them banded together to blame Joss Whedon for the film’s flaws; and 5) there is something inherently wrong in criticizing a piece of pop culture, especially if you’re a woman.

We saw it with GamerGate, we saw it with the Hugo Awards debacle, and we’re seeing it again with this non-issue. Apparently, a raging horde of feminists and their opinions are so terrifying that there’s actually some white-dude panic button that gets hit every time someone who—let’s be real—opened himself to criticism by making a public work of art does something some women somewhere judge to be sexist or problematic. Cry me a river. The only good thing about this story is that it attributes a certain level of power to the collective voices of women—the wrong kind of power, a bullying power, but power nonetheless. That’s poor consolation when the reaction is akin to sticking your fingers in your ears and shouting, “Lalalalala! I can’t hear you.”

The most infuriating thing of all was that not one of these news outlets quoted any of the so-called abuse directed towards Whedon in their stories [Note: No, I did not read them all, but in general]. Throngs of angry feminist fangirls allegedly had their pitchforks out, but not even the most reasonable of their arguments was worth quoting. It’s not like there was a lack of source material. The most cursory Tumblr search yields reams upon reams of thoughtful, well-articulated opinions on the subject. There’s also quite a bit of caterwauling, but so what? Why aren’t those fans entitled to express their outrage on social media? If those fangirls are really to blame, why aren’t their perspectives represented in these news stories and think pieces? Could it be because that would require a level of nuance these paint-by-numbers stories lack? Could it be because the “rabble of raging women versus beleaguered feminist-sympathetic auteur” angle wouldn’t work if someone reported the actual words of actual women who criticized him? Could it be because there isn’t one single totalitarian feminist fangirl voice, but a multiplicity of opinions, on this and every subject?

As usual, the media took the easy way out. But one day, that collection of diverse, insightful, knowledgeable voices is going to band together—to drown out the misogynistic subtext, to change the narrative, to scream for their right to be heard.

And I, for one, will be proud to lend my voice to the din.

Selina

 

P.S.: One of the few good opinion pieces I read on Whedongate was by the lovely Sarah of LaineyGossip and Cinesnark fame. Read it here; it’s definitely worth your time.

Image Comics: Age of Auteurism

“You’re not a real geek if you don’t read comic books.”

If I had a dollar for every time this sentiment, or something like it, has been spat at a female geek by some ignoramus, I could retire in style and have enough left to form a kick-ass, “let’s get more girls in STEM” charity. There’s nothing geeks love more than to accuse some newbie of not knowing the secret handshake (see: #Gamergate). So, I’m hear to say it, loud and proud: I am a geek, and I do not read comic books!

Except… now I kind of do. And it’s all because of the stellar, creator-driven output of Image Comics.

First, let’s backtrack a bit. It’s not that I’ve never, ever read any comic books in my life. I had a brief flirtation with Wonder Woman in the late ’80s. I remember a Twilight Zone-like horror comic that I picked up at random at the library and which scarred me for life (seriously, I remember every suffocating panel of that thing). A few years ago, I read an article on Alan Moore and decided to finally read Watchmen, which, if you haven’t read it, drop what you’re doing now and Go. Read. It. That book is the blueprint for everything that’s come before it and after, and better than whatever the next generation will dream up. I also somehow fell into Y: The Last Man, and didn’t come up for air until I had read every last one (Filmmakers: Jennifer Carpenter is still young enough to play Hero!). That is when I discovered the beautiful mind of Brian K. Vaughan.

Before the holidays this year, I was reading The Mary Sue’s geek gift guide when, lo and behold, they recommend a new comic series by Brian K. Vaughan called Saga. And that, friends, is when I fell down the rabbit hole.

Saga and many other awesome comic book titles are published not by the big two, Marvel and DC, but by the number three comic book publisher, Image Comics. But unlike the big two rivals that we never stop hearing about–especially now that their Greeks vs. Trojans-level war has bled into their own respective cinematic universes–Image gives their creators free reign to let their imaginations go wild. They also allow them to own the rights to their comics and characters, something Marvel and DC would never permit (understandably, since it would be insane to let a single comics writer own Batman or Captain America). Much like the great auteurs of the cinema, this gives these writer/artist pairings the leeway to create original, complex, and fantastical worlds, full of multi-faceted characters of every color, gender, sexual orientation, or creed under the sun–or, you know, the three moons of Endor.

(Calm down, I know Endor doesn’t have three moons. It sort of is a moon. Maybe. The cannon is unclear.)

Image titles have women who equal men in their power, ferocity, and flaws—like in ODY-C, a phantasmagorical re-writing of the Odyssey by gender-switching the characters. People of color who are regularly cover stars—like in the pop fantasia The Wicked + The Divine. Queer characters—like the many trans characters in the dystopia Trees. Female creators allowed to push things to the limit—like in Kelly Sue DeConnick’s new series set in a woman’s prison in outer space, Bitch Planet.

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Take Saga, a space opera with imagination to spare and themes as profound as any play by Shakespeare. Specifically, it references Romeo & Juliet in its story of two lovers from warring civilizations who have found each other despite cultural differences and being force-fed propaganda about the other since birth. But Alana and Marko are only the beginning of the story, which spans across galaxies but always stays with the impromptu family at its heart. It has warrior mommies, TV-headed closeted alien princes with short fuses, a disembowelled ghost nanny, a lie-detector cat, a tree spaceship, and just about the ugliest-looking spider assassin woman your worst nightmares couldn’t dream up. Most of all, it’s the story of two houses, both alike in savagery, who have been fighting so long that they couldn’t stop even if they could see the end of the conflict. But it’s so much more, and artist Fiona Staples jam-packs each frame with such atmosphere it’s as if you’re dreaming her panels, not reading them.

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I also picked up Sex Criminals, a bawdy and hilarious title by their number two go-to guy, Matt Fraction, and artist Chip Zdarsky. The best way to describe it is as some kind of X-rated rom-com noir, with a female lead character who is in charge of her own sexuality and is not shamed for it. If anything, she’s actually more in control and self-aware than her male love interest (no, that is not one enormous typo). The premise is insane (and I won’t spoil it), the artistry is moody and sensual—but best of all, it’s hella funny.
Whether your jam is personal stories or fantastical allegories, space tragedies or pop culture philosophizing, I’m betting there’s something here to tickle your synapses. Diversity. Originality. Author-controlled creative works with no boundaries save the limits of imagination. These are the kinds of stories we’re always begging Hollywood for. Well, Hollywood better get in line.

So, what are you waiting for? Dive in!

I Ain’t Afraid of No Ghostwriters

One of the by-products of the Western world’s celebrity obsession is something that really sticks in my craw: the branded celebrity novel. I’m not linking to any examples because I refuse to give them an ounce of promotion, but I will point you towards this article that I was reading on Entertainment Weekly’s website this morning, which both names and quotes several of the ghostwriters that are hired by the celebrities’ management teams to write these novels.

Yes, management team. The making, marketing, and packaging of these books is just another way of expanding a celebrity’s brand, akin to perfumes and nail polishes, at least in the minds of their handlers. Per the article, the ghostwriter is paid “a negotiated fee typically between $20,000 and $40,000” to “churn out several hundred pages that will ultimately be passed off as a celebrity’s creative endeavor.” While I have no doubt several conversations about the contracted book’s creative elements happens between the celebrity’s team and the ghostwriter, I find EW’s claim that celebs “usually create a novel’s characters and plot, providing a foundation for a ghostwriter to expand on” highly suspect, yet another bit of propaganda meant to make these books more palatable to people who, you know, actually care about writing.

Which these books’ young fans clearly do not, at least in the opinion of Valerie Frankel, Snooki’s ghostwriter. (Now there’s something you want on your resume.) “Fans don’t really care whether or not a celebrity wrote it or not, as long as they can visualize the characters and the setting.” You don’t say?

Say what you will about Dan Brown or E.L. James or James Frey or whatever hack author everyone’s shaking their fist at this week: they actually wrote their books. Of course there’s plagiarism, but even that takes more work than these celebs put in. While the ghostwriters likely see more money than the average author does in their lifetime, you have to wonder at what cost? Is someone going to pick up one of their own books on the strength of their name being associated with a celebrity? Unlikely. Per the article, they only get credit for their ghostwriting work if they have an agent as savvy as the celeb’s. There isn’t even a guarantee of success, since, like everything else in the publishing industry, some of these celeb novels have done well and some haven’t.

But it’s not so black and white. Who I am to criticize this particular brand of ghostwriter, when most celebrity autobiographies are ghostwritten? Do those celebs/politicians/whathaveyou get points for spending more time with the writer, or being more honest about their involvement? When I think about it, I’m really a bit of a hypocrite in this regard, because I read S. by J.J. Abrams and Doug Dorst (aka by Doug Dorst) last winter, and loved it. Is it okay for Abrams to put his name on that book because I thought it was well-written? Genre-busting? Original and wildly creative? Because he readily acknowledges he didn’t write a word of it? Because I like him more? Because I feel like he could write a book, if he wasn’t so busy directing movies and developing TV shows?

For an in-depth look on how much Abrams actually participated in the conception and execution of S. (which is an incredible book that you should definitely buy in hardcover), this interview with him and Dorst says it all.

There are no easy answers. In developing this piece, I tried to look at the issue from multiple angles, and each one led back to those super-annoying shades of gray. As a writer who is passionate about her characters and her craft, it irks the heck out of me when people compare books to nail polish and perfume, like they’re just another flashy, disposable product meant to generate profit for people who are either grossly overpaid for doing nothing, or grossly overpaid for doing a lot of creative things that do not include writing an actual book. But isn’t that ultimately how most publishers see the books they sell? Aren’t there plenty of so-called airport books, quick reads that scratch an itch when you need it, but don’t have a place in your library? Not everyone has to be David Foster Wallace. 

And aren’t I a writer in an industry somewhat like that? I may kid myself that my books are going to be beloved by millions, but the reality (a reality that I am quite satisfied by) is that most of my readers will blaze through the book and promptly forget about it. Oh, some will cherish it (Hi, Mom!), but most will either like it or not, and then move on to the next. Is what I’m doing really so different from what these ghostwriters are doing?

But the one argument I can’t really talk myself out of, the one that my purest, art-worshipping self can’t ignore, is this: we are teaching young people that you don’t have to put in the work to reap the reward. You can pretend to do the work, get someone else to do it for you, and be celebrated for it. It’s the equivalent of one of the popular kids at school paying a geek to write a paper for them. Most schools would suspend you for that if you’re caught doing it, if not outright expel you. But in life? Well, like the kid with the rich parents who gets out of everything, celebrities can just play the VIP card. 

Now, I know I’m not giving teenagers enough credit here – of course most of them are smart enough to realize that this is all a fraud. If not now, then when they grow up, grow out of their teenage obsessions, and face the real world. But I wonder if the lesson, if repeated enough, doesn’t stick in some way. I wonder if they’ll take to heart the words of  publisher Karen Hunter, who “[doesn’t] know that many teenagers that could write a book, period,” and fail before they even try. 

The stuff that gives me hope? Fan fiction. Self-publishing. YouTube, and other creative outlets. Young people – or really just people – have more access and more interest in pursuing personal creative goals than ever before in our history. 

So why do these celebs and their ghostwritten novels matter in the first place? The cultural revolution is already in full swing.

Cheers,

Selina ;D

The Normal Heart

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In the tradition of And the Band Played On…, last night HBO aired the film version of the 1985 agit-prop masterpiece by Larry Kramer, The Normal Heart. If you haven’t watched it yet, especially if you are an M/M devotee like I am, it is absolutely worth your time. (Spoiler warning from here on out.)

I’ll confess I had my doubts about the project, mostly due to the involvement of Ryan Murphy. To be blunt, I’ve never liked his work. Too camp, too lightweight, too silly, too trashy. But even Murphy admits that he restrained himself because of the importance of this project, to him and to the gay community at large. The fact that he can say that about his own work should perhaps give him pause, but anyway. He had excellent source material here, and, despite a few quibbles, I think he knocked it out of the park. If you aren’t sobbing by the end of this, I think you should go in for a chest x-ray to make sure you aren’t a robot.

The story centers around the ground zero for AIDS, the NYC gay community circa 1981, in the midst of unprecedented sexual and personal freedom for homosexuals. Ronald Regan publicly acknowledged the existence of the disease in 1985, but during the four years in-between, there was a lack of information, a black hole of support from governmental institutions, and even some resistance/disbelief within the gay community itself. And yet men young and old were dying by the hundreds, from a disease that wasn’t understood and that desiccated them from the inside out.

It might be fair to ask, “Why a movie about the beginnings of AIDS when we are so advanced, both socially and medically, now?” But when you consider how quickly the government reacted to SARS or H1N1, and how slow they were to address this out of prejudice and bigotry (not to mention the fact that 6,000 people get infected with HIV daily), the timeliness of the tale becomes clear. The Normal Heart is really a story about advocacy. What is the best way to make your voice heard? Some would say it’s through diplomacy, negotiation, awareness that doesn’t challenge anyone. But how much does that really get you, in the end? Isn’t it preaching to the converted? When it comes to life or death situations, to hate crimes, to racism, to a sub-culture that has no rights and no visibility, do you barter, or do you roar? And what are the consequences of that roar, even within your own community? The Normal Heart illustrates this conflict beautifully, and gives no easy answers.

It is also, in its heart of hearts, a romance.

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Mark Ruffalo and Matt Bomer play one of the most enchanting onscreen gay couples ever. Their passion and their devotion gave me Brokeback-level chills (and tears!). Anyone who doubts that there should be more gay romances in film and on TV needs to watch these two woo each other. Their relationship anchors the film, underlining the stakes for all the men living in that time, both personally and socially.

Which isn’t to say that the movie is perfect. I would have liked some of the other men who worked at the Gay Men’s Heath Crisis Center to have been a bit more well-rounded. Taylor Kitsch’s Bruce Niles, in particular, sometimes seemed to put up a fight because that’s what the narrative called on him to do rather than because that’s what viewers felt he would do as a person. One of the most stirring monologues is given by a character who is little more than a background player. These moments land, but they could have been that much more powerful with a bit of backstory.

But I’ve not heard a better defense of how anyone who is different should be treated within their own families than the one Mark Ruffalo’s Ned makes here. And the ending is perfect: a defeat for Ned on the personal and career fronts, but he is undaunted. He knows that sometimes a series of little victories can ultimately win the war.