Geek music

There’s a lot of nerdily-themed music out there. Whether it’s songs about steampunk, sci-fi rapping, or a hymn to the joys of board games, if you’ve got a hobby you can bet someone’s made a tune about it.

And sure, a lot of it isn’t great. But have you listened to the radio recently? I’ll take something amateurish but interesting rather than over-produced pop six days out of seven (on that seventh day I’ll be leaping around the house to Take That and Taylor Swift, because even over-produced pop has some great talents).

Neither am I saying that nerdy music is all amateurish. Any genre in any medium has a lot of amateurs and a few skilled or lucky pros. Here, for your weekend listening, are some of my favourites.

The Geeks Will Inherit The Earth by I Fight Dragons – geek rock with computer game bleeps, wonderfully exuberant:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HV0YPfJ_EoU&w=560&h=315]

 

Drawings With Words by Wordburglar – the joys of comic collecting as expressed by a Canadian rapper with a talent for unexpected rhymes (contains swears and obscure superhero references):

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=8JK93xfHZug&w=560&h=315]

 

Fire Fire by Steam Powered Giraffe – steampunk robots sing about a space disaster:

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kLNgD5vsZsM&w=560&h=315]

 

We Do Not Sow by Adam WarRock – the latest in a string of Game of Thrones raps from an incredibly prolific artist (again, it’s hip-hop, do not play this language around young children):

[youtube https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=yU6HAc1K4Go&w=560&h=315]

 

Stan Lee cameos and the cult of the creator

Hey, did you all notice that cool cameo by Ed Brubaker in Captain America: The Winter Soldier? Seriously, sinister scientist number two was played by one of the greatest living comic book writers. What a guy. What a beard.

Trust me, he was there, thought without that hat
Trust me, he was there, thought without that hat, and with more beard

OK, if that one passed you by did you notice Stan Lee in his role as a museum security guard? Of course you did. Stan turns up in every Marvel film these days. He was even on a train in Agents of SHIELD. You don’t need your comic nerd friend to point him out to you any more – he’s one of the most recognisable faces in the whole Marvel Movie Universe.

I have huge admiration for Stan Lee. His plots and dialogue are old-fashioned for my tastes, but the guy co-created some of the greatest characters in comic book history and was instrumental in making Marvel the giant it is today.

But having him turn up in every film makes it seem like he’s the guy behind every aspect of Marvel ever. Which is true, except for the many characters he didn’t create. And the fact that they were all co-creations with artists. And the fact that all of those characters have been given their depth and richness by generations of writers, not just Stan.

Art is never really a lone activity. It’s about collaboration, not isolated acts of genius, and the cult of the individual creator bugs me. It’s why the endless Stan Lee cameos are starting to vex me as much as they amuse. Maybe it’s time to cut down on Stan’s screen time and give some of it to his hundreds of collaborators down the years.

 

Ed Brubaker picture copyright Luigi Novi / Wikimedia Commons

Trying my hand at scripting

It turns out I officially have talent. Or half a talent at least, as I’m a runner up in comics publisher Top Cow’s 2013 talent hunt.

Top Cow logo

This is only the third time I’ve even tried to write a comics script, and I clearly got something right because they’re going to publish a short comic story written by me. It won’t be the one I entered in the competition, which is a shame because I’m quite proud of it, but this is still very exciting. It’s a great thing to have in my portfolio, and a way to sell myself when approaching other companies.

Writing a script was a very different experience from writing prose. It’s not just a matter of dialogue, it’s explaining other aspects of the scene in the right type of detail for your medium, in a way that will make the story flow. Comics have their own particular challenges and opportunities, and I’m glad I’ve read plenty of Scott McCloud‘s books on comics storytelling. If you’re at all interested in how to write comics, or just how they work, then I really recommend reading McCloud, he has a fine analytical mind and explains things very clearly.

So anyway, now I need to spend some time working out how to make the most of this opportunity, and of the possibility that I don’t suck at scripting. To the keyboard!

Wait, I’m already there.

Agents of SHIELD – upping the continuity game

I don’t normally blog on a Saturday, but last night I caught up on Agents of SHIELD. And I have to say, Joss Whedon, Jed Whedon, Maurissa Tancharoen, I bow down before your superior program-making skills.

I’m not saying that Agents of SHIELD is a flawless work of genius. I’m not saying that every line of dialogue, every moment of acting, sparkles with the dark brilliance of Damages or The Wire. But the way they connected the show together with Captain America: The Winter Soldier is the best example of cross-property continuity I’ve ever seen.

Do I see tentacles underneath those wings?
Do I see tentacles underneath those wings?

Usually when TV shows share a universe the connections consist of cameos and small references, maybe a crossover plotline that emerges for a couple of episodes and then fades into the background. Agents of SHIELD has gone further than this. It has taken the plot, events and themes of The Winter Soldier, created a pair of episodes that run alongside that film, and emerged transformed. The dynamic of the program has been fundamentally changed in a way that makes it far more interesting. The fallout from Cap 2 is being explored in a way there was no time for on screen. It all makes sense, both in-world and aesthetically. And it’s been done not only in crossing over TV shows, but in crossing over with cinema, a more challenging and as far as I’m aware unprecedented approach to media.

What was previously an adventure-of-the-week action show has been turned into something darker, more twisted, more tense. It’s the same shift in world view that The Winter Soldier brings to Cap’s big screen outings, and that is presumably going to play into the next round of Marvel films. It can be read as a reflection of and comment on changes in comic books since Marvel’s early days.

It’s a glorious thing.

If you’re not watching Agents of SHIELD, consider giving it a go. Like all the best genre TV (Babylon 5, Farscape, Buffy) there’s far more going on here than you might realise at first glance.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier – the march of progress

Progress is a problematic idea, one that rings an idealistic bell for some people, but for others smacks of smug superiority. Once seen by our society as an obvious ideal, it’s now challenged and made more complex, struggling to retain its original idealistic shine.

It therefore seems appropriate that Captain America: The Winter Soldier, Marvel’s latest superhero blockbuster, raises issues of progress in the Marvel universe, the Marvel brand and beyond. Because that description of the problem of progress is also the problem of Cap.

Captain America

 

A reader’s progress

My view of Captain America has changed over the years, as I suspect it has for any reader who’s stuck with him. When I started reading superhero comics I was put off by what looked looked like a symbol of blind patriotism. But then I started reading comics with him in, particularly those written by Ed Brubaker and Mark Millar, and I saw something else. Not jingoism but idealism, a dream of what a nation and a person should aspire towards. More nuanced and reflective than that costume might make you think, but still with his ideals intact.

This marked progress in my understanding of characters like Cap, the way that, even if I don’t buy into everything they represent, the way they represent it can be of value. I’m not patriotic, but Cap showed me how even that ideal could be a positive influence.

This mixed up Captain America, bound by an ideal of his country rather than blind loyalty to it, is the Cap that we get to see on screen. He’s a man out of time, a less cynical figure from a less cynical age, who challenges us to stand up for ideals. It’s not that he isn’t conflicted, but that he doesn’t let himself become jaded. Chris Evans is brilliant in that role, one of the best bits of casting in recent mainstream cinema, really bringing the character alive.

A company’s progress

Marvel have made great progress since they set up their own film production team. Sure, it hasn’t all been an upward curve – progress never is. But they’ve found the confidence to try different styles, as exemplified by the darker, half thriller tone of The Winter Soldier, and by the upcoming cartoonish space romp of Guardians of the Galaxy (for which I am super excited – seriously, have you seen how fun that trailer is?).

They’ve also gained more confidence in tying their films together. They started out with little nods and post-credit sequences. Then they gained faith in what they were doing and went a bit too far, with a chunk of Iron Man 2 that served continuity at the expense of the film. Now they’ve become more confident again and so don’t over-sell it, simply re-using characters and elements, like when Agent Sitwell emerges from bit parts and DVD extras to take on a significant role in this film. It adds richness for those who watch all the films, and does no harm for the casual viewer.

It’s this balance of variety and interconnectedness that’s making the Marvel movie universe so compelling.

Progress in the film

Which brings me round at last to the theme of progress within Captain America: The Winter Soldier.

There are some obvious nods to the wonders that progress can achieve, like when Cap gets introduced to the sweet sound of Marvin Gaye. There’s also an acknowledgement of its alienating effect, as Cap suffers from an extreme form of the alienation many people feel in a fast changing world.

But progress really comes to the fore when we learn about the plan of the film’s villains. This is forced progress, one group’s view of the future being pushed forward at vast cost to the rest of mankind. It’s the sort of progress that 20th century dictators were so fond of, pushing society down a controlled path towards what they saw as its inevitable destination. It’s progress towards oppression.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier is a story of the benefits and the dangers of progress, but like Cap the film retains its idealism, showing that even through setbacks we keep moving towards better things.

Progress in our depictions

The film’s central plot is also a sign of progress in how we discuss one of the biggest political issues of recent decades – the ‘War on Terror’. At first those using the arts to critically discuss this movement were shouted down. Then critiques began to emerge on the fringes and through subtle metaphors. These became more blatant and more popular – The Wire being a fine example – until a decade later we’ve reached the point where a multi-million-dollar Hollywood blockbuster can turn a thinly veiled analogy for the War on Terror into its central villainous plot.

When a taboo subject becomes the centre of a Captain America film, we can feel confident that people feel free to speak their minds.

So that was good then

I really enjoyed Captain America: The Winter Soldier. As a cinematic experience it was full of action and excitement. As a source of reflection afterwards it’s been surprisingly thought provoking. It’s got to be seen as another success for Marvel, and I can’t wait to see the next.

If you like the Marvel movies then you should go out and see this one. If not then you can probably wait until it’s on TV. But you should all still be excited for Guardians of the Galaxy, because seriously, have you seen that trailer? That’s some big, dumb, fun progress right there.

 

The familiar and the strange

I’ve recently been listening to a lot of 2CELLOS. Their particularly charismatic brand of classical pop song covers makes for a hugely energetic sound, and as my friend John pointed out, there’s something about the cello that gets you right in the gut. But this morning, listening to their cover of Kings of Leon’s ‘Use Somebody’, I felt the penny drop.

These guys play music like Robert Kirkman writes zombies.

The Kirkman hypothesis

Robert Kirkman is the creator of The Walking Dead, the hugely successful Image comic that’s become a hugely successful TV show. As a comic, The Walking Dead doesn’t have the sales of the big X-men books or the latest take on Batman, but it does have something those comics don’t – sales growth. Most comic books see their biggest sales at the point of launch. Lots of curious readers pick up the first issue. Less of them bother with the second. Sales keep dropping off in a slow death slide, until the comic is cancelled or re-launched amid a blaze of publicity.

For years The Walking Dead was the only comic that defied this trend. Its sales kept growing as word of mouth spread about how great this book was. Its success was unprecedented.

I once read an analysis of The Walking Dead that argued that Kirkman’s success came not from creating something completely new, but from getting the right balance of the familiar and the novel.* Kirkman’s post-apocalyptic soap opera got readers because they saw something they knew they liked – zombies – and found within it something even more fascinating that they’d never have looked for. If he’d just given them the new thing no-one would have bought it. If he’d written just another zombie comic it would have suffered that familiar slow decline.

Kirkman’s comic kept growing because it found the perfect balance between the two.

Nothing is new

When I read that analysis my mind was blown. It made perfect sense, and it was something I could use as a writer – combine the familiar and the unfamiliar, draw readers in with something they know but keep them reading with something new.

I started seeing this pattern all around, in many of the best things I read, watched and listened to. Hence the 2CELLOS connection – songs I like (except Coldplay) played in a way I wouldn’t have looked for (including Coldplay, I never look for Coldplay).

But actually, what Kirkman achieved wasn’t all that new. Just take a look at The Lord of the Rings, a foundational text of the fantasy genre. Tolkien wanted to share his own wacky enthusiasm for detailed secondary worlds full of magic, mystery and invented languages. The familiar trappings of medieval Europe gave it an aura of familiarity that let people get drawn in and find enthusiasm for this new world.

Balancing acts

It’s an interesting exercise to consider as you’re reading. Think about what’s new in a book, what’s familiar, and what all of that is doing to your interest in the story. The right balance varies with the reader, and even their mood. Some days I want to watch Breaking Bad, some days I want to wrap myself in the comfortable tropes of Castle. Being aware of that balance has even helped me judge my own mental state.

As writers it’s a useful question to ask as we approach the page. What am I including that’s familiar, that will make people comfortable and draw them in? And what’s new, whether in content, style, or the way I mash elements together? Because that’s what will make the story interesting.

And in the meantime, here’s 2CELLOS doing unexpected things with a Greenday song. If you like this I recommend watching their Arena Pula gig on Youtube – an hour and a half of fantastic stuff.

 

* Apologies to whoever wrote that article, but it was years ago and I can’t even remember where I read it, never mind provide attribution. But hey, you probably aren’t reading this, so we should be OK.

Wildcats 3.0 – the super corporation

‘So here we are now… A world where corporations dominate the global economy. And they have more rights… more freedoms… more powers than we do.’ – Joe Casey, Wildcats 3.0

In among the other fictional businesses I mentioned yesterday was the Halo corporation, as featured in Joe Casey’s Wildcats 3.0. It’s such a good example, and such a favourite comic of mine, that I want to take a moment today to talk about one of the best comic books you’ve probably never read.

Wildcats 3.0 - even the cover's classy
Wildcats 3.0 – even the cover’s classy

Context

Somewhere around the turn of the century the folks running Wildstorm Comics suddenly got all adventurous. A brand previously devoted to superheroes who were supposedly edgy but actually about the eye candy, for a few years they turned into something more unusual. Warren Ellis shook up the world of superhero teams with the brutal and politicised Authority, as well as beginning his archaeological tour of modern culture in Planetary. Brubaker and Phillips proved the slickly malevolent power of superpowered noir with Sleeper. And Joe Casey cranked his long-running work on Wildcats up a notch with the relaunch as Wildcats 3.0.

Wildcats 3.0 was a superhero team book, and like many superheroes that team used a corporation as their cover. But unlike those other books, Wildcats 3.0 turned the corporation into a central feature of the book. This was superhero comics reflecting on the age of global corporate power, and still telling an exciting story along the way.

Big issues, big action

Wildcats 3.0 looked the growing power of corporations straight in the eye. It was the first place I read about the disturbing precedent set by Santa Clara County vs. Southern Pacific Railroad, giving corporations many of the rights of people. It showed the terrifying reach and potential of these entities.

But it didn’t get preachy. This was no anti-globalisation rant. The Wildcats took the power of the corporation and ran with it, using it as a way to transform the world, spreading technology and ideas through this most modern of institutions.

The concept was mind-blowing to me and gave the comic a whole different edge. That isn’t to say that Wildcats 3.0 was a one trick pony. There was corporate espionage, superhero action, and some wonderfully messy inter-character conflicts, as the interests of big business, benevolent world domination, crime and personal satisfaction all came into conflict. It was a book that said ‘look what corporations could do’, but also one that reflected the costs of their impersonal power.

It helps that the art was also great. Bold and dynamic throughout, Dustin Nguyen and Richard Friend’s early issues in particular showed that a scene of talking heads could be visually exciting.

Alas, poor Wildcats

Of course it was too good to last. The comic was cancelled after 24 issues, and the Wildcats went back to their old action adventures. But if you want to see what a fictional corporation can really be like then try to hunt out the first volume, entitled Brand Building. It really is a superior slice of superhero comic.

‘There aren’t any shes’ – reading old books with a new generation

We are quite rightly cautious about how we expose young people to the literature of previous generations. There may be values and ideas in there that are no longer acceptable, like the infamous Tintin in the Congo or Enid Blyton’s golliwogs. But there are different approaches to this, as a four year old recently taught me.

The problem

I love Asterix the Gaul. The illustrations are fabulous, the adventures are exciting, the jokes are perfect for a kid or for an adult who grew up with them. All those silly names and enormous noses. Just brilliant.

But the Asterix books are, at their heart, very problematic. There’s the casual racial stereotypes on which they are built, which never quite reach Tintin in the Congo territory but can come damn close. There’s the fact that women are in short supply and when they do appear usually do so for the sake of comedy. Just occasionally they also get to be upset, rescued or the objects of lust – you can tell which women those are because they’re drawn differently. And underneath all this is an insidious racial and national essentialism – one nation, the Gauls, is made up of good and heroic people; another, the Romans, is made up of villains and incompetents. Looking at the broad strokes, as readers we’re cheering on a morally, physically and intellectually superior master race, who just happen to be largely conquered at the moment. When I put it in those terms I feel kind of creeped out.

So should we stop reading Asterix with children? Surely we don’t want them taking in these values? Lets stick with equally awesome but more enlightened texts shall we?

But then they won’t get Asterix, and that’s kind of sad.

From the mouths of babes

Despite all these qualms, a couple of weeks ago I found myself reading Asterix with my young nieces. Because, as I mentioned, Asterix is awesome, and they love the pictures. As we were reading, the Princess came out with a phrase that made me feel better:

‘There aren’t any shes’.

I was so proud. My niece, who is only five this week, was smart enough to recognise the gender inequality in that story and to want to challenge it.

Because a few stories like this, in isolation, won’t warp children’s views. I grew up reading Asterix and Tintin and I’m about as socially liberal as you can get. As long as the kids read other, more balanced stories, and get to discuss what they mean, then they’ll work this stuff out for themselves.

In fact, being exposed to old-fashioned stories, being given the chance to challenge them, may be an important part of developing those skills. It gives them a chance to work things out for themselves, to challenge the words they are presented with, to become independent thinkers. It also gives us, as adults, a chance to help them express what they’ve noticed and to think about it more deeply, which can only be a good thing.

It’s easy to underestimate the intelligence and agency of children. And it’s a sad thing, because treating them as smart and independent helps them learn to be smart and independent. So next time I’ll get the Asterix out again. And maybe I’ll ask if she thinks that all Spaniards look like the ones in the story. Lets challenge some racial stereotypes too Princess.

Truly unfamiliar values – Conan: Queen of the Black Coast

I’m getting a little tired of the fantasy hero whose first value is loyalty or honour. Or the supposed antihero whose dark, compromised behaviour turns out to be for some greater good. It feels like the values that once let fantasy authors make their characters different from modern people have become another over-used part of pop culture.

Noticing the difference – Conan

This issue really sprang out at me while reading Conan: Queen of the Black Coast, a comic collection written by Brian Wood, with art by Becky Cloonan, James Harren and Dave Stewart on colours. Wood’s an interesting writer, treading a difficult path between the expectations of a mainstream comics audience and a desire to try different things with character and story. His riff on Robert E. Howard’s classic barbarian character is no exception.

Like Robin Hood, if Robin Hood was killing people for fun
Like Robin Hood, if Robin Hood was killing people for fun

The character’s values are a key part of this. There is a search for adventure in there, and a certain attachment to protecting the people on his side. But this doesn’t translate into an unswerving sense of loyalty. Conan will compromise and join the side of the people who just slaughtered all his friends. He turns pirate on the whim of circumstance. He bends others to his will for no goal beyond his own quest for adventure and self-preservation.

These are not the values of a familiar fantasy hero, and realising that was like a breath of fresh air. I suddenly noticed how familiar, comforting and sometimes even stale the values were I was seeing in other fantasy novels.

The obvious comparison – Game of Thrones

When it comes to character motivations, Game of Thrones is one of the better examples out there. But comparing it with this single Conan story made me realise how familiar many of the motivations are. Ned Stark is obstinate and loyal. Arya is fiercely independent and, as time goes by, increasingly bent on revenge. Stannis is guided by a clear sense of right and wrong. Joffrey’s self-serving. Tywin’s ambitious. Snow has that classic heroic sense of honour, so that even when he does something terrible it’s for a great good.

There are a broad range of interesting motives at play here. They draw you into the characters in different ways. It’s very well done, and I wouldn’t change it for the world.

But is any of it really new?

George R R Martin is a fantasy writer at the absolute top of his game. He’s using those familiar values in new and skilful ways. Just think how many times you’ve read them elsewhere and it’s just been more of the same.

So what?

I’m not saying I want every character to act like Wood’s take on Conan. As someone trying to draw in readers, using the familiar and comfortable is actually important for me. But it would be nice, both in what I write and in what I read, to push the boat out a bit further at times. To see motives and values that aren’t just different from our own but are different from what we’re used to reading. For the fantastic and unfamiliar elements of stories to go a bit deeper.

What do you think? Am I being overly harsh on what’s out there? Am I missing great examples of unusual values and motives? And if you’ve read it, what do you think of Wood and Co.’s take on Conan?

Something to get your teeth into – Chew’s world building

Having raved yesterday about TV writing that explores the core concepts of its world, I was reminded of a good example from comics, one that takes its concept and pushes it in all sorts of brilliant directions – Chew.

The comic that bites off more

If you’re not heavily into comics then you probably haven’t heard of Chew. Written by John Layman and illustrated by Rob Guillory, it tells the story of Tony Chu, a government agent with a strange power – whatever he eats, he gains its memories. If he eats an apple, he remembers growing in the warmth of the sun, being dappled by the rain, what the hand felt like that eventually picked him. If he eats a piece of bacon, he gets the slaughterhouse experience, in all its pain and horror.

Tony Chu doesn’t eat a lot of meat.

Chew1Coverrevised

But Chu’s world, and the centrality of food to it, goes beyond his own power. There’s a crisis going on around bird flu, illegal chicken restaurants, poultry substitutes, and a growing level of food-related weirdness. This makes Tony, and the small handful of other people with food-related powers, really quite important.

Different powers, different directions

Layman and Guillory haven’t just created one novelty and rested on their imaginative laurels. They’ve taken that core concept – a super powered world that revolves around food – and explored it in all sorts of different ways.

There are a wide range of people with different food related powers. And it’s not just the obvious – everyone experiencing food memories through their different senses, or all gathering information from food, or being empowered by it in different ways. There’s a character who can list every ingredient in the food he tastes. Another who writes about food so realistically that readers feel like they’re experiencing it. Someone who reads the future of anyone she bites.

And a super-spy chicken, because poultry is huge in Chew, and why shouldn’t the food get the powers sometimes?

Repercussions

They’ve thought through the repercussions of all this food related madness. Government departments with a food remit have become hugely influential and heavily armed. There are food-inspired terrorists, rebellions, cults and conspiracies. There are even meta-powers, food-powered individuals feeding off their peers.

The core concept of the comic seeps into every idea in the story, every panel of the art. It’s rich and fantastic and completely consistent, despite its wild and crazy content.

You should read Chew because it’s awesome. But if you’re interested in how good world building works when it’s built around a single theme, then pick up a copy and read it for that too. Because Chew is amazing.