Strange Animals 10mar2019: The Wine-Dark Sea

It’s been a couple of weeks since I wrote to you. I was in a minor motorbike accident in which I injured my right arm, so it was difficult to type for a while. I’ve mostly recovered now, thankfully, so you can be subjected to my ramblings once again.

I do have a new thing for you to look at, in the meantime: I recorded a video of myself lettering a page from the upcoming These Savage Shores #4, along with commentary on my approach to various elements on the page such as placements, storytelling, style and so on. If you like the idea of listening to me ramble on about lettering (I mean, that’s why you’re here, right?), it should be worth a watch. It’s my very first time doing something like this (I do a podcast with Hass, but Hass actually edits that stuff), so it might be a bit rough. I hope to get better with time.

I’m gonna try and embed it below this paragraph, but if that doesn’t work, here’s an actual link for you to click.

One

I came across a tweet recently, quoting someone talking about Jordan Peele’s upcoming film Us. The original person had said:

The trailer for Us suggests that Jordan Peele still doesn’t understand that horror films are green and amber. There is a definite colour coding for film genres that instantly labels them for what they’re supposed to be. If it’s all through a blue filter with a lot of muted or dark colours, it’s a serious film. If it’s blue and orange, it’s an action film. If it looks like ’70s 8mm film colours, it’s a quirky indie film etc. You rarely see green in space; if you do, we’re probably moving away from science fiction and into fantasy that happens to be set in space (2001 vs. Star Wars).

There was enough commentary on Twitter regarding the motivations of someone writing this about the creator of the most successful horror film of its year, so I’ll stay away from that. Instead, I wanted to talk about this tendency in talking about stories of confusing the code for the message.

Let’s get the basics out of the way: No, horror films are not “green and amber”. A genre is not a colour. As I said at the time, this feels like a comment from someone who just read If It’s Purple Someone’s Gonna Die and decided they understood movies.

Second, genres are not bound by rules. Genres are an easy way to talk about tendencies in stories – they are not rulesets that you can’t break, as too many people assume them to be.

And finally, how boring would it be if you could look at 40 seconds of something and know everything about it because it’s all coded and nothing surprises you?

The problem is, though, that this does describe a lot of how media is presented to audiences, and how audiences are expected to engage with it. The above is of course an extreme example, but at a lower ebb, this shows in all these movie trailers which essentially show you the entire film in a minute and a half. Surprise, while eventually gratifying, is something that takes you out of your comfort zone, and it’s easier for creators and audiences to stay comfortable.

Two

The week of February 27th saw the release of Euthanauts Vol. 1, with Tini Howard, Nick Robles and Eva de la Cruz, of which I lettered the first two issues (Neil Uyetake lettered #3-5), and of Punks Not Dead: London Calling #1, with David Barnett and Martin Simmonds, both from Black Crown, and edited by Shelly Bond. I had no books out the week of 6th March, which means my resolution to work on fewer books and spend more time writing and relaxing is finally catching up with reality.

Next week sees the release of Little Bird #1, a book I’ve talked about before. I’m planning to do something special for the next edition of this newsletter tied to Little Bird. Apart from that, Little Bird is going to be the featured book for the March edition of PanelxPanel magazine, so you will want to check that out.

Three

There are two things I’d like to tackle here. 1) Codes are not the content. And 2) Codes can be insidious – don’t trust codes.

(I had more here about who precisely benefits by this kind of reading of media, but I think I’ll leave that for a later edition of the newsletter because it’d take over the rest of this.)

The first one – codes are useful to represent something else. Guy saves a dog from an oncoming car – “this is a good guy”. Cop gets chewed out by his superior – “this is a loose cannon trapped in a system that doesn’t understand him”. Popular fiction does a lot of these so they can quickly move on to something else. You do these things when you don’t want to set something up painstakingly which would take up time and space, especially when you don’t intend to explore nuances of a situation but instead indicate the situation.

Let’s take the loose cannon cop. What I described above is what would happen in an action movie – loose cannon cop realises the system doesn’t work leading to eventual climax in a hail of bullets (probably aimed towards thugs coded by their skin colour). If, on the other hand, you’re making a character drama, that scene would probably be replaced by something that shows the actual relationship between the man and his superior rather than a placeholder serving to move the plot forward.

This relationship does not work the other way round, though. Content doesn’t need to adhere to code. Red can serve to indicate danger, danger doesn’t need to be represented only by red. This is fairly obvious, but given how much popular media exists, it can be difficult to realise this.

As a writer, it’s easy to go for code. It’s easy to indicate dissatisfaction in a marriage by having someone remove their wedding ring in a pick-up bar, but that’s not the only way you can show dissatisfaction in a marriage. (Also, it’s obvious, but people can cheat with their wedding rings on – it’s just a matter of clarity over ambiguity, and that is also a choice and not a compulsion for good storytelling.)

Where this is insidious is when you (as a pattern rather than in individual instances) train your audience so well that it becomes an equivalence rather than just code. Overweight people in movies being “jolly”, people with scars being “evil”, see above re: thugs and skin colour. Not only does it become ubiquitous in media without us realising it, it also creates a false equivalence between media and the real world. As I said elsewhere about my personal bugbear, the chosen one/lone hero shit is boring and it’s ruining your kids.

The instinct to write this way is understandable. Let’s say you have your hero kick a puppy in chapter 1, and then act like a paragon for the rest of the movie. Someone is going to tell you to take the puppy-kicking out because it’s not relevant/it’s confusing the story/it’s a continuity error.

Stories have an internal logic where every new element adds to the overall effect, or it doesn’t belong. The puppy-kicking would either have to indicate that our guy is a villain, or the movie has to be about that – about the man’s guilt over kicking a puppy consuming him, or something of the like.

But this is why codes are suspect. Because people are complicated. And characters are not people. Characters are codes for people. And character traits and actions and dialogue are codes for their functions in stories.

Codes can be followed, or they can be subverted, or they can be ignored. Or, just rarely, they can be used to do something else.

Four

This week’s recommendation is Shutter, a comic book by Joe Keatinge, Leila del Duca, Owen Gieni, Ed Brisson and John Workman. Over thirty issues (or five volumes), Shutter tells the story of Kate Kristopher, daughter of the greatest adventurer of a fantastical world, and herself no slouch in the adventuring department, being forced out of retirement when she discovers she’s not in fact her father’s only child as she thought she was.

I mentioned Shutter in the last newsletter, so decided to refresh my memory. Originally I’d only read the first act and had fallen off the book because it felt unfocussed at the time. But on this read, I realised that Keatinge and co. were very much building to something, and the book wasn’t quite what I’d assumed it to be.

The reason I like Shutter, apart from del Duca/Gieni’s fantastic teamwork on the art, making their way through a surprising number of art styles with aplomb, is that when it comes to the broad strokes, this is a book I could very much imagine myself writing – the fantasy world influenced by adventure fiction, the fallout of the “gentleman adventurer” archetype and its imperialist/colonialist agenda, the way the story creates a wider-ranging timeframe for itself than can actually exist within the scope of the book. In fact, there are things in here I’m a bit jealous of Keatinge for having thought of before me. And yet, it feels like a book very specific to this creative team in the way it treats its characters, and that’s what this book, beyond its trappings, is actually about.

It uses deconstruction and meta-fiction as a tool to create emotional resonance and, unlike too many books, actually succeeds in its quest.

You can buy Shutter digitally on Comixology, and, I presume, in print in bookstores where you live.

Five

This entry in the commonplace book is from last week, something that stuck with me while reading Kieron Gillen’s writer’s notes for Peter Cannon: Thunderbolt #2. This is Kieron on heroic fiction, and why some of it is interesting while the rest … not so much:

I tend to write characters who start at a low [point], either emotionally or with a serious ethical failing they’ll either overcome or not. I’m not that interested in heroes. I am interested in the process of trying to be heroic. The former is a fictional flattening of reality. The latter is the sh*t we have to go through every day.

Filed under #writing and #advice.