April 29, 2011

Superman . . . Because I Just Had to Say SOMETHING . . .

Back in the late '70's and the early years of my life, this was Superman. It wasn't until I grew up that I understood how cynical things were in that time and that part of what made Superman and Star Wars, as movies, successful was the earnestness of optimism.

So there's a whole lot of talk about Superman renouncing his American citizenship. It's funny -- I was just thinking about how Superman really represents the best of America. He's an immigrant, he believes in good and evil, he believes in using his powers for good, and he's okay looking like a square doing it.

And he stands for "the American way", which is, simply put: "We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness."

And now he's saying:

Followed up with this:

Now, I read the story in question. It's an okay story. Superman decides to give up the "American citizenship" because a Middle East government took his participation in a peace rally as an endorsement of the American government in the peace movement. So Supes decides to give up his citizenship to avoid things like that in the future, with his reasoning in the above panel.

In other words, Superman is now a citizen of the world. And the truth is this: Superman, in the stories he inhabits and also in the real world, is a symbol. A symbol of "truth" and "justice" and the "American way". Remember when, in Superman Returns, they didn't say "and the American way"?

This is nothing new.

This says nothing about the symbol Superman has become. It says everything about the people in charge of the symbol.

The same could be said about America. America is a symbol, but what America actually is says more about the people in charge of the symbol than the ideal the symbol represents. The American dream, the American ideal -- these are good things. It's the people who make it look bad.

Anyway, the American way isn't enough? I guess it depends on what you see as the American way. Corporate greed? Political corruption?

Or "truth" and "justice"?

America's not perfect. But the things America stands for? They are ideas worth standing for. Maybe not if you're from Krypton, I guess . . .

~ Ben

PS -- The fact that this is causing a stir, does that mean that comics are still relevent?

PPS -- Is Clark Kent retaining his citizenship? That changes the story a bit if he does, don't you think?

April 25, 2011

What Stargate's "Demise" Can Teach Us About Life (and Storytelling)

If you know me, you know I am a big fan of Stargate Universe. This is obvious if you follow my tweets (I'm @whisperingloon on Twitter) or if you listen to my podcast (The Fanboy Tollbooth), especially the most recent episode and it's "The Adventures of Ben and Lou, Lou Bitterman" segments, which features a sci-fi fanboy dealing with Lost withdrawal and finding comfort in a Lost replacement show: Stargate Universe.

Spoiler alert for "Ben and Lou": Stargate Universe was canceled.

Which is what this blog post is about. No, not Lou. Stargate Universe. And the universe of Stargate.

Here's the deal, for those who are unfamiliar with Stargate. I'm going to avoid arcane details for people who could care less about the Stargate franchise, because this blog post is both about Stargate (which is really only for geeks -- which I am) and the art of storytelling and how it relates to life (which is really only for humans -- which I am as well).

But you do need some background. There have been three Stargate series (although I count them as four because I'm a geek). Series 1 is Stargate SG-1, which ran for 10 seasons. To me, the last two seasons were a new series because it featured two new cast members in lead positions and had a completely different story arc going. Meanwhile, during the last few seasons of Stargate SG-1, Stargate: Atlantis was also on the air. It ran for five seasons. Finally, after an abrupt cancelation of Stargate: Atlantis, a third Stargate series, Stargate: Universe, was launched.

So what happened? Well, much has been written about how Stargate died and how it didn't pull in the numbers and all of that, and how science fiction fans are not watching television live, when advertising matters, but instead are watching online or recording it to watch later, when they can skip advertising. Much more will be written about the issue in more general terms, because while science fiction is ahead of the curve in these matters, all of Hollywood, from movie makers to television creators, are trying to figure this out. And they are a lot smarter than me, so I'm not going to figure this out.

Okay, they're a lot richer than me anyway.

No, I'm looking at this with an eye toward storytelling and connecting with your audience. Again, without getting into the arcane details, here's what happened with the different Stargate series:

 Almost the entire "main" cast from the ten seasons of Stagate

Stargate: SG-1 always seemed to be ready to be canceled, to me anyway. So the show was very episodic, with self-contained stories, but as they went they started doing some longer story arcs that resolved themselves at the end of the season, when they thought they'd be canceled. Now, I don't know if that is true, because I only started really watching Stargate last summer. This is just my impression. But a number of seasons have season finales that would have made for very satisfying series finales. Toward the end of the series, though, the season finales started becoming big cliffhangers. Like "how will the universe survive?" type cliffhangers. And after one of those cliffhangers, at the end of season 10, Stargate: SG-1 was canceled. But no fear, the storyline was resolved in a very well made direct-to-DVD movie. And then, to top it off, they made a second direct-to-DVD film, a stand alone movie that gave a satisfying send off to some of the characters. Another direct-to-DVD movie was planned . . . more on that a few paragraphs in the future.

Love this image of the Stargate: Atlantis cast. Can you tell that Atlantis had something to do with water?

Stargate: Atlantis is much more cut and dry. Every season ended on a cliffhanger, and they were told that Stargate: Atlantis was going to be canceled and they had just enough time to make their final episode serve as both a sort of conclusion to the show and a sort of cliffhanger. And the cliffhanger was going to be resolved in a direct-to-DVD movie . . . more on that a few paragraphs down.

 Stargate: Universe's Lost-like ensemble cast

Stargate: Universe was even MORE cut and dry. Less space opera fantasy and more Lost-like or Battlestar Galactica-like, it was a continuing story that was meant to be more gritty and more "real". Very few episodes were just stand alone episodes. Instead, you had to watch every episode to make sense of what was going on. Ratings got lower and lower . . . and then, after season 2 was in full swing and had pretty much been set in stone, Stargate: Universe was canceled. The finale airs next Tuesday, and it is supposed to end on a cliffhanger. (I've heard someone say that it would either serve as an exciting cliffhanger or a bittersweet finale, or something similar. we'll find out next week.)

Of course.

So the suggestion of a direct-to-DVD or direct-to-digital download has been floated around. Something that would give some closure to the novel-like storytelling used for Stargate: Universe. But it was just announced that MGM has officially stated it will not happen, and now sets are being struck and offices cleared out.

This means that the Stargate: SG-1 movie, which was supposed to be an incredible adventure to send off the main character of Stargate (Richard Dean Anderson's character O'Neil -- can't remember if it's one "L" or two -- who wasn't in the first DVD movie and was a minor character in the second) is dead. This means that the Stargate: Atlantis movie, which was supposed to wrap up any dangling plot threads (and there were a few) is dead. This means the Stargate: Universe movie which would have completed the planned plot (three seasons worth!) is dead.

It also means no resolution for the Saturday morning Stargate show, something no one cares about anyway (although I strangely want to see it because of the intense negativity toward it)

This makes me sad. For two reasons. One, I like the story and the characters! A lot! Two, I've had comic series canceled on ME before, before I had a chance to finish the story I wanted to tell, and that hurts! It happened with ArmorQuest (although I've had a chance to revisit that, and more AQ stories in in process as we speak) and it happened on Lullaby and The Imaginaries. Like the Stargate: Universe people, I dream of a chance to make the comic book version of a direct-to-DVD movie . . . perhaps just 48 pages to complete Alice and her fellowship's quest in Lullaby or 48 pages to complete Tanner and Greatman's mission. So far as I know, that chance will never come.

But on the flip side, ending the Stargate franchise like this is, in a way, satisfying to me. The more I thought about it, the more "real" this felt. And not in the way that Stargate: Universe was supposed to be more "real" because it was all gritty.

 Stargate: Universe also boasted some of the best and most beautiful TV sci-fi visual effects

I understand that a satisfaction comes from a completed story. There is something in human nature that wants an ending for a story, and especially wants a satisfying ending to a story. I do not know exactly why this is. I have some ideas, mostly philosophical (in the loosest sense of the word) and religious, and maybe just a little bit psychological . . . but only accidentally. As humans, we want to see justice. We want to see people we care about (and characters we care about) prevail. We want to see people face challenges and overcome them. We want to be encouraged that there is a happy ending to all this strife. (Because, as I believe, there IS in truth a happy ending to all this strife.) This is when we are watching the news, watching our friends, and watching our stories.

So, for Stargate fans, when they watched the characters they grew to love on Stargate: SG-1, they were glad to see the heroes beat the bad guys and overcome their personal issues.

And when they watched the characters they grew to love on Stargate: Atlantis, they were sort of glad to see some conclusion to the problems those characters faced, even if there were some lingering issues.

And when they watch the characters they grew to love on Stargate: Universe (admittedly, fewer Stargate fans seemed to love these character, partly because they were harder to love since they weren't as heroic or perfect) they aren't going to get a chance to see them overcome their main conflicts. (Although, in reference to the last parenthetical, there were a LOT more conflicts and the characters have had to make greater strides to overcome their problems and some problems were, indeed, overcome.)

 No more new journeys through the gate to explore strange new worlds and seek out new . . . sorry

But here's what I like about the Stargate franchise going out like this: it's a lot like watching the people in our lives. Life doesn't wrap up a character arc in a nice bow and then roll credits. No, we overcome a problem and then face another or perhaps the other problem comes back to bite us. And so things that I have seen people complain about in Stargate: Universe, and things that bugged me, don't anymore. For example, in Stargate: Universe, characters from the other two series have shown up. And they've shown up in ways that are a little vague. One character was promoted to command a starship. Another character has become the "big boss", having been promoted to general. Another character, who used to be a "suit" (in SG-1) and was made into an "officer" (of sorts, in Atlantis) showed up as a "suit" again in Universe. How? Why? They never said. Meanwhile, another character shows up and very little seems to have changed. And in the meantime, the crew who make up the main cast of Stargate: Universe? Their story is either going to have a bittersweet ending or just be forever a cliffhanger.

In other words, here's what we can take away from Stargate: Universe:

Life goes on. No, I don't mean that in the William Shatner telling Trekkies to "get a life" sense. And I don't mean "you show was canceled, but don't worry, life goes on".

I mean that "life goes on" has become the THEME of the entire franchise.

People grow.

Challenges come and go. And come. And go. And . . .

There's only one set of end credits.

Now, for some these kind of statements may strike a negative chord. For others, it's a positive one. And for others, it's bittersweet. But this is the theme of the franchise, and like any theme of any story, what the audience does with it is up to the individuals of the audience.

Am I reading too much into a science fiction fantasy? Perhaps. Is this what the creators intended people to think about? I doubt it.

But this IS what science fiction is for, isn't it? To make us think about our world and our place in it? Come to think of it, that's what all storytelling is about.

This is a situation where the theme is unintentional, I think. But, like any story, the theme must be grappled with (or ignored) by the receiver of the story. And I think that too often, storytellers forget that the themes of their stories do connect with the readers or viewers. Conversely, sometimes I think storytellers think too much about their themes, forcing a theme that's not there and missing the theme that has appeared.

 Maybe Stargate will get some sort of hipper, edgier reboot?

I'll still be interested if they do a new Stargate series or movie . . . and if they ever came knocking on my door to ask me to help them out with a Stargate: Universe comic, I'd not hesitate to say yes. But unless they REALLY botch next week's episode I have a feeling that even if the plot is left hanging, I'll have a good feeling about the franchise.

Until then, I have two more episodes of Stargate: Universe to watch. (Yeah, I would be watching as I write this, but I watch it using iTunes . . . so not only do I have to wait until the day after the show airs, I'm also one of the fans who contributed to its demise by not watching it live . . .)

~ Ben

UPDATE: The third to last episode, "Epilogue", could have (with just a few tweaks) been the final episode of the series. And the whole "life goes on" aspect of things I was talking about was directly addressed in the episode.

2nd UPDATE: The penultimate episode, "Blockade", was tense and emotional and exciting and satisfying. This series just kept getting better and better, especially this season.

LAST UPDATE: There is NO way the producers and creators did not know they were facing cancellation when they wrote the finale. In fact, it felt to me like the episode itself, when the characters were talking about a life or death situation they faced, it was almost like they were talking ABOUT the show. And it ended as I hoped . . . (without spoiling it for you) it ended with the implication that the characters have more stories in front of them, but we just won't see them . . . for now.

April 22, 2011

THE WAY OF THE WRITER: Some Under 140 Character Thoughts on Writing

Here's a collection of some of my Tweets on writing. I'm @whisperingloon on Twitter, and I usually tweet about writing, comics, and movies. You know, geek stuff.

As a creator, don't ignore negative criticism. Ignore negative critics. There's a BIG difference.

I've found as a comic book writer, I learn MORE from actually drawing my simplistic little comics. 24 Hour Comic Day was a GREAT boon to me.

Drawing, however awfully, pushes me to think like an artist. So when I script for an artist, I've walked a few miles in their shoes.

Ugh. Not a good sign when the WRITER is bored by the story ... time to take a step back and start over, methinks.

Best tool for great comics: EDITORS
Dragons! Big 'splosions! Swords! Mechanical armor! I love my job! Some days more than others. This is one of those days more than others! :)

In the days of ink and scroll the only hard drive crash you had to worry about was a club to the head or insanity. So I guess I have it good

Worst part about freelancing: Being told outright you don't get the job A. b/c you're not good enough or B. b/c you're not important enough. <-- That tweet followed by this one --> I should have a thicker skin by now, but I still don't. <-- which was followed by this one --> There's got to be some sort of cream that can do it. Probably prescription only, tho. :)

These were all posted on the same day:

To writers: If you give a character dialogue in a panel make sure to actually mention that character in the panel description. <-- That tweet followed by this one --> To artists: writers are sometimes forgetful, so remember to look at the dialogue to see if you need to draw someone in a panel

EVERY page should end in a "mini-cliffhanger" to take readers to the next page.

The page doesn't have to end with someone's life in danger. Just give the reader a reason to want to know what's next.

Your page could end with a question in dialogue. An unexpected event. Something to push the reader to keep reading.

Think of the end of each page (esp. odd numbered) like the commercial break of a TV show. Make readers curious what's next.

And these were also all posted on the same day (it's about writing for comics, but there's a lot that can be applied to prose and film):

some people say a comic is like a movie mixed with a novel. It's not.
a comic book is like a movie mixed w/ poetry. Make every word count. Each line should push your plot forward.

each action and line of dialogue should reveal something about your characters.

long conversations are easy/lazy. Edit yourself. Push yourself to reveal the same thing in fewer words.

& make sure something visual is going on. Movement, setting, or action. Point OR counterpoint to the dialogue.

Long dialogue? Short? There is no right or wrong. What's best for the story? Strive for that.

You may love a bit of dialogue, but let it go to serve story/characters/pacing. That's what readers care about.

Edit yourself. Push yourself. Have someone else edit you (very important!). Ask & answer hard questions. Repeat.

Back to solo tweets:

Overweight. Scruffy. Wearing a black t-shirt ... w/ a comic book character on it. I'm not doing the comic book writer stereotype any favors.

And from my alter-ego, Professor Negatron:

Tip #1: The bigger the explosions, the less character development you actually need.

Tip #2: Snappy, semi-witty dialogue is easier than character driven dialogue, so use it often. Or only!

~ Ben 

April 21, 2011

Dinosaurs and Fraggles (more thoughts about comics and kids)

I have kids.

I read comics.

I write comics.

I like comics.

I love my kids.

My kids like comics.

Now, for the record, my kids like my comics. But obviously, that's not enough. My kids like to read -- a LOT. And my son and daughter can only read ArmorQuest or TimeFlyz so many times. So that means I'm constantly looking out for appropriate books for them.

Today I left the comic shop with two titles that were supposed to fit the bill. And beyond that, a day or two ago I got some in the mail.

First, I picked up last week's Fragle Rock vol. 2 issue #3.

My feelings about the Fraggle Rock comic series thus far are no secret. I've reviewed them twice already (here and here). This latest issue is more of the same. Nice stories with sweet endings and wonderful art. (The Uncle Traveling Matt story is simply gorgeous!) I can't wait for the hardcover collection of these three volume 2 issues, mainly because the floppy copies don't last long in my house. I told you, my kids read a lot!

So the money I dropped on Fraggle Rock wasn't a gamble. I love the thought and care and creativity and energy that goes into each issue.

But the money dropped on the next book, this week's Super Dinosaur? I had no idea what to expect. But I went ahead and bought it anyway.

Super Dinosaur is interesting, although I feel strange reviewing it. Generally speaking, I only review things I really like. I figure, if I really like it I should tell people about it. if I don't like it, why waste my time being negative?

The thing is, I'm on the fence about Super Dinosaur.

Now, the art is simply amazing. No doubt there. And the concept? It's everything a kid could possibly want. Lots and lots of explosions. I mean LOTS. And lots of bad guy dinosaurs with names that are amusing puns. Lots of action. Lots of cool high-tech toys. But I have to wait until the next issue to know if my "inner child" is really falling for the story. There are some elements that seem to want this to rise above just being a Saturday morning cartoon concept into being an emotional story for all ages. Bottom line, though: kids who like dinosaurs and big 'splosions will like Super Dinosaur.

Now, while interviewing Patrick Scullin for the "Twitterview"segment of the podcast I co-host (The Fanboy Tollbooth) I learned he had an interesting plan for his Super Siblings comics: the print version is intended for kids with its action adventure focus, while the webcomic is intended for "aprents" with its geek humor focus. I didn't know that, because I hadn't read his print comic.

So I got his print comics in the mail a few days ago, and I enjoyed it. (Haven't passed them on to the kids yet -- that's where the real review would kick in.) I'd recommend them for anyone with kids who like comics.

UPDATE: My kids have read the above mentioned comics and I'm happy to report they liked them all. My son and daughter both especially liked the "Uncle Traveling Matt meets laundry mat" Fraggle story from Fraggles #3, but enjoyed the whole thing and said it actually felt too short. My son also gave thumbs up to Super Siblings, although my daughter was a bit disappointed because the sister is the bad guy. And Super Dinosaur got the most enthusiastic response from my son. When I asked him why, the answer was: "It's got dinosaurs and explosions." So, until Chronosaurus Rex appears in the new TimeFlyz stories I'm working on, it looks like Super Dinosaur is on the top of my son's reading list.

~ Ben

PS -- Some of my OWN all ages comics . . .

April 20, 2011

THE WAY OF THE WRITER: Best Tool for Great Writing

I'm in my minvan, waiting for a red light, my eyes are wandering as I listen to an old time radio drama and I see the tailgate of a small pick-up truck. It belongs to some sort of service company, plumbing or something. I don't know. I don't remember who it was, all I remember is seeing the slogan on the back of the truck:


And all I can think is, "MY following quality service? What do they know about MY following quality service?" And then I chuckle to myself about my grammatical joking at their expense.

And then I stop chuckling to myself because not only do I have no one to share the joke with, not only would most people not really get the joke without me taking the time to explain it . . . it's not a very funny joke.

But it does highlight an important issue I've been thinking about a lot. The company spent money to put their message on the truck, and in doing so they spent money to put an incorrect message on the truck. They were missing the apostrophe and the "e" to make "you're" instead of "your". Because the message they wanted to get across was that "you ARE following".

Simple mistake. Common mistake. Easily avoidable mistake.

The editor is the writer's best friend. (Good editors, I should say.) The editor takes what you've done and pushes you to make it better. The editor doesn't let a missing apostrophe make you look careless (at best) and uneducated (at worst).

In a world where anyone can publish anything at anytime . . . editors are needed now more than ever. And if you don't have one, because your project isn't big enough, find one.

~ Ben

Other "Way of the Writer" posts:
The Weight of the Writer
Holistic Writing
Intentionality, part 1
Nothing New Under the Sun
Intentionality, part 2
It's So Rewarding

April 18, 2011

Artistic Progression

As a comic book writer, I'm at the mercy of artists, in more ways than one. Let's face facts: the reason people like something like ArmorQuest or The Hedge Knight is because those artists are A-MAZE-ING. Was the writer any good? Maybe, but if the artist isn't . . . people aren't as likely to give it a chance.

So I've been very, very pleased to see the last two volumes of TimeFlyz are in some very, very good hands. TimeFlyz is a very important story for me. It has a lot of "educational" components, it has a fun time travel action adventure, and there's an emotional climax to a sort of deep character arc.

The artist is Eric Merced, and he's been putting some sneak peeks of his artwork on book 8 up on his Twitter-stream. One of the things he did was put the progression of a panel, from sketch to finish. I asked him if I could share his work, and he agreed.

When Eric included a comment about the artwork, I've included it here. The character he is drawing in this is Darchon, the evil time traveling spider and he's using Manga Studio to draw it.

Step 1:

Eric says: "How about some process stuff like me drawing a character from the graphic novel? Ready? Let's go."

Step 2:

Step 3:

Step 4:

Eric says, "already into the inking stage. This has replaced the whole Penciling stage in my work."

Step 5:

Step 6:

Eric says, "Despite the fact I may sketch something out a certain way, I usually end up changing it in the final."

Step 7:
"I use red to lay in details. It's better visually and allows me to draw under the actual drawing."

Step 8:
"A little bit of resizing."

Step 9:

"The final version. This is how I work on every panel in Manga Studio"

Eric likes sharing process type things like this a LOT. If you are or want to be an artist, his is a great blog and Twitter-stream to follow.

As soon as I know the release date for TimeFlyz books 7 and 8, I'll let you know. Books 1-6 are available now . . .

~ Ben