Stranger In Fiction

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We tried. I really tried, I did.

While I’m sure the Netflix series The OA appeals to some, a weird mixture of science fiction, fantasy, and some kind of semi-spiritual journey, after three episodes, I have to admit I lost interest. It’s spacey, it’s sparse, it’s highly-reliant on mood and atmosphere and what I’m guessing is supposed to me dramatic pauses and dramatic interludes in general that just draws a lot of it out.

I don’t really like it, and I feel that not liking it (or feeling particularly interested in the vast majority of “Netflix Originals” or “Amazon Prime Original Series”) has a lot to do with some kind of TV burnout.

Overall, TV these days feels burdensome, to be honest, though when we finished watching WESTWORLD, I’d felt like I’d been exposed to something really amazing. That was a great show, an interesting ride I went on, just letting the story happen and seeing some great acting and great visuals. I really enjoyed WESTWORLD a lot more than I thought I would, in an inversely-proportional way that I didn’t care for The OA as much as I thought I might.

I remember when Netflix first launched. It was such a weird idea, an online version of Blockbuster’s, where I spent a lot of time as a teenager. At first, they had almost nothing, lots of shitty movies, Japanese anime, no real TV shows. It was early on in releasing TV for home media at the rate that it comes out these days. Because no one knew who the hell Netflix was, or what it was, no one gave them the time of day. The stuff they had the rights to rent was insanely bad, b-movies, foreign stuff, things like that. It coincided with an uptick in my taste in film, right as the local video store that sold the good stuff was closing down. The idea of a movie rental service being some kind of place for critically-acclaimed TV shows to exist on (or the great potential that I don’t think Netflix is capitalizing on as much as Hulu does in my experience, having troves of B-movies), was ridiculous and non-existent.

I loved the access, suddenly, to this trove of weird stuff, stuff that I’d never been able to find, much less conceive. It was early on in my exposure to regular cable TV (which meant I mostly just watched horror movies and scifi shows), so the idea of stuff like obscure channels and corners of public access on basic cable for old movies, weirdo documentaries and special, or bad cult stuff to watch for kicks wasn’t fully fermented in my head just yet.

We talk a lot about the “golden age of TV” (hell, even I have) in a post-BREAKING BAD, post-THE SOPRANOS world, where television is getting treated like somehow it’s this magic new and strangely-legitimate venue for artistic work. Which isn’t to say that it used to not be, but it was also very much a thing that for a long time wasn’t respected as good (even when it was very, very good). A huge part of this “golden age of TV” too is the ability for TV shows that want to be serious, dramatic, and “deep” now to have a wide range of possible outlets to be seen on. Regular TV, cable TV, HBO, streaming services like Netflix and Hulu and Amazon Prime, not to mention web-based TV channels that are on the far-left (edge of the dial) end of the cable channel options, popping up available on specific providers or through devices like a Roku or Amazon Fire or whatever Google decides to do to get in the game, which you know they will. Semi-related, I’m a little surprised that there’s no Apple TV network of shows, though Apple’s desire to stay in the hardware game is a much better cash flow, so…yeah, that probably answers my own question.

The issue here though is that, in the same way that you can’t pre-emptively create a true “cult” hit (which defeats the purpose of it being cult), you can’t expect something to be considered “serious” and dramatic if you try to aim for those as targets to hit rather than as after-effects of something that’s simply good.

And that’s the thing. Not a lot of what’s out there, what’s pushed at us, is actually good. But the desire to try to get the next actually-good thing kills what made me initially like and actively use a service like Hulu or Netflix (weirdly enough, I also remember when Hulu initially sold itself as a place JUST to watch broadcast TV online to catch up).

I’d rather watch movies, to be honest. I’d rather be able to watch a couple of movies a week instead of “marathoning” a TV series (being one of those young modern households that watches TV through the Internet rather than broadcast or cable), one of the dozens that seem to pop up weekly ,half of which are just knock-offs of other shows, or just suck, or are just repackaged British and Norwegian or whatever TV, not an original new show just for that outlet as they claim half the time. It can be an overwhelming selection, and getting burned over and over again looking for good storytelling fucking sucks. Movies are, to me, a better option for trying this out because even thought you might fall into something shitty, the investment of time, something I find myself much more conservative with wasting these days, is less. Sure, I can lose two hours or so, but better that compared to eight to twelve hours that I have to slug through over two to three nights to get to the goddamn point.

The TV I like to consistently watch (on repeat, in the background) is so far from what would actually be considered popular or modern (science cooking shows and old true-life mystery and crime stuff like old episodes of Mythbusters or Forensic Files, or the latest season of Top Chef and episodes of Chopped), stuff I can watch and not pay too much attention to, something that doesn’t present itself as a puzzle to be solved, just entertainment to be enjoyed. TV shouldn’t be a fight, it shouldn’t be a chore (no entertainment should, ultimately, be a chore, but that’s a broader thing). It should be some dumb mindless downtime to unwind you at the end of the day, it should be some background noise while you putter around the house and can’t find something good on the radio or in your music collection.

Maybe I’m just hard to please, but less and less, I don’t care about TV. I don’t care about TV we all claim to love, or adaptations of other medium, or TV on some new interesting platform. I just want something actually good and interesting that speaks to me, that entertains me, not something that demands respect or fucking homework.

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Old Fears, New Frontiers

Airport novel(s) represent a literary genre that is not so much defined by its plot or cast of stock characters, as much as it is by the social function it serves. An airport novel is typically a fairly long but fast-paced novel of intrigue or adventure that is stereotypically found in the reading fare offered by airport newsstands for travellers to read in the rounds of sitting and waiting that constitute air travel.

Considering the marketing of fiction as a trade, airport novels occupy a niche similar to the one that once was occupied by pulp magazine fiction and other reading materials typically sold at newsstands and kiosks to travellers.

I know I’ve talked about it before, but I have a weird nostalgic soft spot for things that seemingly don’t seem that nostalgia-ready, or nostalgia-inclined, to be more specific. Nerd culture is so geared in the past few years to take advantage of that roughly 20-year cycle that captures and re-packages work for a new younger generation (either rebranding it as something new or revitalizing it in its original entirety) that

I finished up watching the Netflix original series Stranger Things last week. My girlfriend and I broke up watching it over a period of three days, this story of middle-school kids in a 1980s suburb getting caught up in the disappearance of their friend Will, and the sci-fi/supernatural elements of the whole incident as it spreads through the whole town.

The Stephen King homages are all over the place, rom fthe story elements, a variety of little King homages in the background of the story and dialogue, to the similarities to King’s Firestarter (I love whenever anyone mentions MK-ULTRA). It’s capturing a lot of elements that had started to build up in the 1970’s and were fully coming into fruition in the 1980’s about the remnants of military experiments, the height of the Cold War (which is floating in the background of this whole thing), and the beginning of suburban malaise creeping into the perfect middle-class facade being built here, in the shadow of military industry and of degrading lives.

It’s obvious tells, and one that I’m good with, because I really enjoyed Stranger Things. It’s fun and doesn’t allow itself to be overcome with in-jokes or references to the 1980’s, but rather, simply uses it as a background for telling a story. Most of the interesting bits about the story are little things that hint at so much more going on, or have had gone on, that the show doesn’t feel compelled to touch on. It can be easy to be distracted with offshoots and flashbacks, instead of allowing multiple elements like that to enhance a singular narrative.

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So much of modern nostalgia is heavily drawing on what is seen as relatable to popular imagery and consumerism nowadays, so nerd stuff is popular now, hence why nerd stuff from 20 to 30 years ago is also popular again. This issue here though, is that whether or not that’s genuinely nostalgia is interesting, because then we get down to the definition of the word itself;

pleasure and sadness that is caused by remembering something from the past and wishing that you could experience it again

My girlfriend really likes Dean Koontz novels. For some reason, they’re something from her childhood, something that sticks out as a standard of the library, of the 99-cent shelf at the bookstore. I read Koontz too as a kid, with King, with Grisham, with McBane and who knows how many I’ve forgotten.

I’ve forgotten a lot of them.

However, I’ve never forgotten how they made me feel, and more importantly, why they made me feel the way that they did. They have heavy ties to memories of being a lonely kid obsessed with books, of being an English-speaking kid in another country, and of summers even more isolated from friends and TV, reliant on almost any kind of English-language books I could get my hands on, including cheap “airport paperbacks” from

So much of nostalgia is mischaracterized as some sort of rosy-tinted view of the past, though in fact, a lot of that comes from the commercialization of that concept to be able to present flawed (“problematic,” ugh, I hate that word, but that’s another story) artifacts as aspirational objects and concepts to once again reach for, now fully armed with the resources to “appreciate” them. In fact though, nostalgia should be not finally being able to get that cool NES poster or vocalizing for a so-called simpler time in your childhood, because that’s not actually nostalgia. That’s fantasy.

The Merriam-Webster definition not only states that sadness, as well as pleasure, fall under the auspices of nostalgia, but it also specifies the element of experience, and of wanting to maintain or relive that experience.

That point exactly about the reliving of an experience is, at the heart of it, what worked when it came to STRANGER THINGS.

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 A lot of the nostalgia surrounding this show, I think, has to do not necessarily with the era per se or with the elements of the story that are sci-fi and horror related, although they are very much a part of it as well. What I connect to here, and what makes it work, is the idea of young kids participating in an adventure that’s so much bigger than them, but they want to be a part of it so badly.

Overall, the nostalgic effect of STRANGER THINGS isn’t necessarily the setting or the story itself, but rather then sense of the story that we connect to, as kids who were for the most part left alone to our own devices. In that freedom, however limited it was in hindsight (age, experience, range of travel within our communities, etc) we were heroes of our own stories, and we tried to involve ourselves a seriously as we could in them.

The D&D the main characters all play, opening and closing the show, is more than just a set of thematic bookends here. It’s an experience, and ultimately, that experience of heroism brought to life is the heart of STRANGER THINGS. It’s what truly makes people really love this show, because we feel a level of nostalgia for a time not of walkie-talkies and D&D, but of the experiences of youth that are tied into our own personal journeys of becoming the heroes we wanted to to so desperately be. I know I did, a dorky kid into comics and fantasy novels who so badly wanted to be a part of those worlds at times, because I knew that I had the fortitude and demeanor for black-and-white hyper-simplified conflicts that were waved away when the going got too tough for a 12-year old in glasses and a dorky haircut who got picked on.

What I loved about this show was that I felt like that could have been me, thinking that as a kid I could engage in this grand adventure, an adventure that felt so intensely serious and that only I knew the truth of. While mine never got beyond exploring old empty houses and creating a “hidden cave” in a space in my backyard between some trees, the back of a garage, and the shrubbery (which ended up being fucking infested with spiders), Mike, El, Lucas, and Dustin really did have that adventure. Fuck, in some tiny way, I’m jealous of these fiction characters for that, and that is why this show worked.

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Being nostalgic for things and overall larger cultural movements and items sort of defeats the purpose of any kind of positive nostalgia, honestly. Be nostalgic for feelings, for personal moments and memories, instead. Be aware of what it is you’re trying to recapture, because if it isn’t in something with an actual connection and backing of context, more often than not it won’t work.

“TV Party Tonite…”

destroyer

I remember watching CHEERS as a kid. I specifically watching the famous last episode of the show, with the “Sorry, we’re closed” line and straightening of the Geronimo photo on the wall. The show has a weird place in my memory and my heart.

Strangely enough, even though I didn’t really realize until I was older and watching reruns did I realize the true impact of that show, including a lot of episodes that at the time would be considered “very special,” and nowadays in the so-called “Golden Age” of television, would be considered “important.”

(I’m using the quotation marks to create critical reads of those words and phrases on purpose, so bear with me.)

The episode with Sam and his lucky bottle cap (“Endless Slumper”) in particular is incredible to watch later on, now aware and more informed about addition, addict culture and behavior, so those last few minutes are surprisingly intense to watch. It’s one of those standouts of writing and acting and set all working together really well, the uncomfortable silence of the live audience adding so much to the pain coming across. It’s up there with those episodes of THE GOLDEN GIRLS dealing with dementia and elder care (“Old Friend” and “Sophia’s Choice”) that have really rough endings that just hit you, or the entire run of MASH or the first 3/4 of ROSEANNE (two serious masterpieces as far as I’m concerned).

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I distinctly remember the CHEERS episode “The Boys in the Bar” from when I watched it as a kid, even though I don’t think I fully understood it then. It originally broadcast in 1983 (when I was born) but I saw it in reruns a couple of times over the years, the last time being probably in 2012, which is when I realized the entirety of the impact of this episode.

Can you imagine what it was like for blue-collar sitcom TV to address homophobia in 1983? For this intensely-uncomfortable feeling to come through the screen and let you realize that passive bigotry from likable/loveable characters like Norm and Cliff is considered the standard? No one is hanging a “No Homos” sign in the window when Sam’s old teammate on the Red Sox comes out, but the idea to make it a “no gays” bar and try to basically trick supposedly-gay patrons to leave is an indication of that attitude.

I looked up a review of the episode by Cory Barker, who called Norm’s reactions “honest for the time,” and also tackled how much of the episode centers on Sam’s sympathies and support for his old teammate versus a practical wish to maintain his business, which, as the show constantly likes to tell us in more comedic episodes, was all Sam really had in the world. And yes, it’s a typical feel-good serious-issue episode of a TV show that, in typical fashion, never comes back to the topic or the character in general at the time because you only have 22 minutes to deal with that one particular moment in social growth before going back to fat jokes and baseball references no one but by dad gets.

Still though, it sticks out to me.

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I never understand “golden age of TV” talk, mostly because I grew up on TV. To me, it was always a medium with great examples.

Yeah, there was reading and riding my bike, but I grew up in a fairly good middle-class family and had an active imagination, not a lot of friends, and spent a lot of time visiting family who were significantly older so I’d just watch TV. I’d watch it with my parents, I’d watch it with my grandparents, with friends, with my little brother. I’d get older and hang out with friends and drink shitty beer and watch movies and TV shows and laugh.

I’m in my 30s now, I’ve got what I think is a pretty good sense of critical history and cultural and media awareness, so watching older TV now in reruns is an interesting experience. I watch out of fond nostalgia, curiosity, or habit because it was something I liked then, not to mention the period of time I had where I worked from home exclusively and left daytime cable reruns of sitcoms play in the background.

It was, for the most part, really fucking good. It’s stupid to fall back on this phrase but the AV Club’s CHEERS oral history from a few years ago made a reference in it that the writers of that show were from one of the last generations to work in TV who didn’t grow up watching TV, which lent a different element to their influences and writing, drawing more on theater and prose. There’s a lot of theater elements in those moments, in dead-silent confrontations that bring conflicts directly to light, directly into the focus of the audience as opposed to hiding them in the settings of the scene.

THE ODD COUPLE was really great and funny. The very last episode of MASH makes me cry every fucking time (that fucking chicken…). Even your hipster girlfriend’s ironic favorite THE GOLDEN GIRLS illustrates some character and story work that you’d never see nowadays in any serious light, with older characters (especially women) doomed forever by faux-Betty White worship and idolatry into making sex and drug use jokes and swearing a lot.

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What “the Golden Age of Television” isn’t is some sort of finally-good wave of broadcast/serialized TV shows, the first in forever because television was where talent traditionally went to die. What it is though, is a level of awareness of (at least in an utterly shallow and surface sense) of the basics of storytelling that makes more people in the audience aware that what they’re watching might just be pretty good.

Of course, another element is that TV is now seizing on the public consciousness of popular ephemera at an increasingly-alarming rate, making stuff people are interested in seeing at a faster and relatively-high quality rate. The web model (outside of YouTube, where indie web TV lived forever) of Hulu Originals, Netflix, Amazon Streaming, etc allows for even more flexibility and quick turnaround on whole-seasons-at-once, material that would be hard to approve for regular broadcast, etc.

You know though, the bubble’s gonna burst eventually. Is it still going to be the Golden Age of Television? Probably, in some way, shape, or form. Look at nostalgic archaeology of 1990’s sitcoms and cartoons (especially cartoons) within nerd subculture. I was watching clips with friends and someone asked how so many TV shows could have been available at that time that seem to stick to the popular consciousness. The answer may surprise you, as the Upworthy headline would say…

They weren’t available. So many just existed as quarter-seasons of failed toy launch campaigns, straight-to-video TV movie pilots because the show runner or animators quit right after, or the toys didn’t do well, or the show sank after a whole season due to the glut of TMNT-esque ripoffs hoping to capture Eastman and Laird’s lighting-in-a-bottle moment they were smart to cash in on.

There was no golden age of 90’s cartoons, because “ages” don’t exist in TV. There’s only seasons.

Elmore Leonard & adaptations of books to TV and film

I just finished Killshot by Elmore Leonard recently, and I’m once again reminded of how great Leonard is as a suspense/crime writer.

A lot of people will probably best-known Leonard as the author of the stories/books that have been turned into the recent (and great) TV show “Justified” (on FX), but his work’s also been turned into “Out Of Sight” (the film), “Karen Sisko” (the TV series), the films “Get Shorty” and “Jackie Brown” (two of my favorite movies of all time), and even “3:10 To Yuma.” There’s even a film version of “Killshot” starring Mickey Rourke, Joseph Gordon-Levitt, Thomas Jayne, and Diane Lane.

I really hate to admit this, but as much as his writing his great, the film and TV adaptations of his works are just as good if not better than the source material. His off-topic ramblings and overall stream of storytelling, while really one-of-a-kind, translates poorly if not “tightened up.” The dialogue’s trimmed a bit and the story’s streamlined in terms of events organized differently, rearranged, and honestly, it helps. It helps it a lot.

This doesn’t, by any means, take away from Leonard’s writing. As a story/book, it’s excellent. As something to base a visual medium on, it definitely needed something else. I’m glad that it found it when they make TV shows and movies of Leonard’s already-awesome works.

trash tv

Morning! I’m working on stuff, watching “The Millionaire Matchmaker” (shut up and don’t judge me), figured I’d throw together a blog post for y’all!

Cell phone camera snaps of some pages from my sketchbook, nothing fancy. I’ve been drawing and writing and working on my site and stuff, just wanted to throw an update of sorts up.The first one is from an idea I’ve been kicking around, the second one is from a night I was watching “The Fugitive” on TV.  I’m pretty proud of the way the crosshatching came out in the second one, actually.  Might scan it and post a better version of it later.

Anyway, that’s about it really. There’s a new “Store” page here at the site you can check out, so go ahead.  See you guys soon.

And now, a word from your sponsors

Ahh Sundays, when a young man’s fancy turns to big pots of black coffee and the e-version of the Sunday funnies delivered through a widget on his custom Google internet browser homepage…

I’m anticipating being a little swamped with work in the next few weeks or so until I can get a groove going.  I’ve got a work conference coming up, as well as orientation and a start date for a new teaching position that’s going to eat up a bit more time than teaching used to. I’m very excited about these classes and this school, I can’t wait to start.

I’m also about a third/a quarter done with writing/thumbnailing my latest comic project, which like I’ve said before is long-form so I’m kind of learning as I go along about the real meat & potatoes of this whole “artist/writer” combo aspect of cartooning. I’ve been slacking off a little on that project so I want to try and steamroll through a few more chapters of that in the upcoming months and then start drawing pages.

To top it off, there’s a surprising amount of travel in the upcoming months for me, from small trips to NE Ohio, to a trip to NY to visit some family for an extended weekend, to a wedding in a state I’ve never been before for a few very dear friends.

As “The Nanny” would say, Oi vey.  I honestly hope I have enough coffee filters to get me through it all.

I hopefully will have some more news about my contribution(s) to the Team Cul De Sac fundraising efforts as well as some more essays at Fistfight At The Arthouse, I have a few drafts set up, books and CD’s to review I’m looking forward to getting to.  It’s just taking me a bit more time to crank stuff out these days since I try to make each piece matter, as lame as that might sound.

Anyway, hope you guys enjoy the rest of the day, the upcoming week, and the season premiere of one of my favorite shows on Monday, Showtime’s “Nurse Jackie”! Oh, and not to mention a stellar season so far of FX’s “Justified”.

on the power and rigidity of canon

Tessa brought this very awesome article about fandom and canon in entertainment to my attention, and I just wanted to share it.

Canon is what the people running the franchise tell you it is. It’s not a democratic thing. Star Trek fans didn’t have the option of outvoting Gene Roddenbury when he wanted something stricken from the record.

Check it out.

I was listening to Mike Norton on the Around Comics podcast a year or so ago and he pretty much summed the whole thing up as “I wrote it, so it’s canon, dumbass!” (that’s gross paraphrasing, but basically it), which is pretty much how I’ve always seen it (and is sadly, a minority opinion) and how I always preach it.

Anyway, like I said, it’s an interesting read, even if you’re not too familiar with the Dr. Who franchise, which is what the piece is initially about.

armchair writing

Read this great article from io9.com, about TV writers and writers’ rooms in TV writing and showrunning.  Then, go an start reading the comments, especially ones that crack jokes about writers getting out of “corners they’ve painted themselves out of”. Not all of the comments, but some.  Two in particular of course pop out at me, one from “lucky_you”;

Television writers seem so smart and interesting, but then one encounters their work — even work that they say is their favorite or the best they’ve ever had the pleasure to work on, etc. — and it’s just the same old television stories, same old dialogue, same old tricks. Where did the road collapse?

And one from “Rasselas”;

And you Ronald D Moore, what makes for a good ending?

“Well, I think it’s always a good idea to place angels at the end of a long sci fi yarn. This way, it keeps people talking and its a convenient way for writers to get out of the corner they painted themselves into.”

Maybe it’s just me, but somehow it just seems that once again, Internet commentators missing one of the points of the story, which is to highlight how hard it can be in TV writing, which is probably an even harder writing schedule than daily/weekly news writing, daily comic strip creating, or monthly comic writing.  I mean I know that I’ve done my fair share of criticism of TV shows I don’t like, but I know that in serial storytelling, continuity is a huge necessity that often, ties your hands when it comes to certain things.

I always give myself the giggles thinking about the types of output that major commenter-critic types (in terms of original work) would actually create something when under a crunch like this.

Kickin’ it olde-school

Just a general update;

A new Mayhem & Cuddles is up now, with one more coming this week, I promise.

I’m jotting down stuff for a new “webcomix”, and there are some comic book reviews over at Fistfight At The Arthouse, along with some other stuff.  I want to get back into the habit of writing essays, but it’s a little hard since I’m sort of in the mode of either writing comics or doing academia.  It’s sort of like trying to transition back to reading prose after reading nothing but comics for a while.

Incidentally, I’m about 1/4 of the way into Dan Simmons’ The Terror, which is…OK…so far.  Once I’ve actually read the whole thing I’ll be able to say for sure whether or not I like it.

That’s about it, I hear MoCCA was awesome but I was catching up on sleep and work, and Tessa and I have a shit-ton of stuff coming up in the next few months.  Oh, “Nurse Jackie” on SHOWTIME is being amazing, very excited watching this season.

Stay posi, people!

Ready to rumble…

You know you want it…the first glimpse of Super Secret Fun project that I’m really excited to start once I make a few decisions about format…

Also, since we’re being honest, a not-all-that-rare glimpse of the artist in his domicile. I’m so plaid it hurts sometimes;

Tess took this to highlight to her dad just how awesome I am. Also, to highlight just how high I wear my pajamas like Erkel.

There’s a Mayhem & Cuddles strip coming up soon about those pajamas incidentally, which I have had probably since 9th grade.  It’s epic.  I bought that shirt at a thrift store one day while wandering around.  I’m pretty sure someone died in it, because it was the only item of clothing in the thrift store that wasn’t XXXL and stretched out to the extreme, so it wasn’t given away due to someone not fitting in it anymore. That only leaves one other option…wow, I totally creeped myself out now.

Anyway, yeah, that’s about it.  Also, that show How To Make It In America that’s on HBO? Is that what people think being in NYC is really like?