All death is dumb, it feels pointless and heartless, like somehow in some fashion life has gone out of its way to fuck you in the ass. Even when we expect it, when we know it’s coming, or what we logically and rationally know that it can’t be helped, that it might even be a good thing in the long run, it just feels like shit. My grandfather died a few years ago about this time of year and even though he lived a year over the time the doctors gave him, the last few months were torturous for him and I knew that when he finally did die, it was in a way an alleviation of the pain that I knew was racking his body along with the cancer and the constant discomfort of pissing himself and always having to lay in a hospice bed we had in the house.
It was still dumb and it still makes me sad and mad to think about it.
How people deal with death is another matter, in that coping varies so much we never really know how well people are feeling or if they can even figure out how to move on from something so shitty. The idea of coping, and the myriad of ways in which it can both help and harm someone, is the root of the video game What Remains of Edith Finch.
What Remains of Edith Finch (from developers Giant Sparrow) has been a game we’ve been anticipating for a while in this little household, so when it was available to preorder we jumped on it. A walking/exploring game (which is pretty popular these days for better or worse) where the titular character explores her weird old family house discovering the secrets of various family members, we see that the Finch house is rooted in sadness and denial and tragedy that has led varying members of the family to think they’re “cursed.” You’d think it’s true based on just how messed up the family appears, and by how many of them ended up meeting tragic ends. One poisons herself by accident as a child, while another witnesses his sister’s savage assault and murder, retreating to live in a bunker underneath the house unknown to other family members for years…for starters.
The title’s ultimately the biggest giveaway, because of the dual definitions of “remains”, in being a verb as well as a noun. As a noun, remains are a term for what’s left behind from a death. As a verb, it means to leave behind. Edith’s both left her remains somewhere (because she’s dead, as revealed at the end of the game) but also is looking at literally what she left behind in that house throughout the game via the extended flashback that is the gameplay.
Reliving the very history of your own lineage and seeing not horror, but depressing tragedy, in those stories as Edith does throughout the game gives you a real sense of why the family might think they’re cursed, and how it could feel tragic enough to actually influence people into putting a supernatural spin on it. The way that Edith actually experiences these moments throughout the book intersperses supernatural elements with reality, creating a difficult thing to interpret, with the implication of heavy subjective experiences. What really did happen? What really did cause it, and what does it mean that we don’t fully understand and get more clues and implications?
There’s a lot here in the game’s story that is left undiscovered and unsaid, employing a lot of what we’ve seen in other exploratory walking/narrative games to fill in background and story that we’re not allowed to fully know. What are the entirety of the secrets of the Finch house? What was the great-grandmother trying to tell young Edith the night they left? What’s the full story of the family’s need to identify themselves as “cursed,” which is a self-fulfilling prophecy but also a convenient excuse when it comes to not wanting to discuss uncomfortable family things like mental illness, unspoken feuds, and bottled-up feelings/aggression. While this can definitely be frustrating, at the same time it’s arguably more realistic in trying to mimic the fallibility of memory, of family memory, and of the limitations of someone’s personal patience, personal feelings, and (importantly, though another big dangling thread in this story) the limitations of being able to help someone who is suffering from mental health issues and you don’t understand why.
As I’ve mentioned before when talking about games like this, leaving some of that unspoken creates a definitely stronger line between short stories/novellas and these kinds of games and further emphasizing a game like Edith Finch’s primary role as an interactive story as opposed to a competition.
Sometimes, we don’t get over it. We just can’t. We’re scarred by death, scarred by our pasts, scarred by the burdens placed on us by other people that we’re unable to shake. We don’t always really acknowledge it, but sometimes, death wins in ways beyond just simply taking someone away. Sometimes it breaks, cracks, leaving nothing but remains. You can’t always put something back together from remains, no matter how hard you try. Edith Finch tried, and it didn’t work for her, thought it does make an interesting experience to play.
Akashic Books are a great publisher with a variety of awesome titles, including their NOIR short story collection series like Haiti Noir, Twin Cities Noir, Brooklyn Noir, and they’re the home of author Joe Meno, who wrote some of my favorite books, The Boy Detective Fails and Hairstyles Of The Damned.
Seriously, what else have you got going on on a Monday? Check out “Hit The Till” and other Mondays Are Murder stories, spread the word!
It’s weird, I always tell myself I’m not going to work on comics but I can’t help but get sucked back into it, even though I never really think they’re that good. Always learning, always trying new things, I guess, hard to shake off a way of telling stories when you actually do like doing it.
Anyway, besides this there’s some more work coming out in the upcoming weeks, so stay tuned.
So, I powered through Are You My Mother? by Alison Bechdel in a day. It was a slow work day, and I haven’t gone through a book like that in a while.
I didn’t know what to think going into it, mostly because despite the fact that I loved her previous memoir comic work Fun Home, that one’s a weird book that’s basically a critical and thematic literary analysis of not only her relationship with her father and his death, but also her own sexuality, lesbianism, and her father’s sexuality. This one was a lot of the same, but also different, in that the relationship Bechdel has/had with her mother (who died in 2013) wasn’t the entirely abstract thing that the one with her dad was.
A lot of the book deals with the history of psychoanalysis, the application of psychoanalysis and the great minds involved in it, as well as interweaving Virginia Woolf in there as well. But when you boil it down, the really important (or at least impactful to me, but more on that in a second) elements are the ones where her intensely sloppy but passionate relationship with her mother is examined. It’s really clear that Bechdel, in trying to accurately depict her relationship with her mother, does the same thing that she did when describing what she had with her father;
Still, and for reasons I haven’t fully gotten through and been able to articulate, the story of her and her mother didn’t have the same impact on me that the one with her father did. I feel, in a way, that the form in which she writes and draws about it is why, drawing as she does on a lot of psychotherapy and psychoanalysis. Her intertwining her own growth (or at least mental unwinding) during therapy felt, at times, kind of draining. While I understand that in a narrative sense, her own mental well-being was tied into the growing and reinforcing of a positive relationship (as much as it could be) with her mom, I personally couldn’t really find any connection to that. However, that’s also in synch with the fact that her mother is alive through the story of this book and that Bechdel actively struggles to make a connection to her mother in a conventional child-mother way, a conventional daughter-mother way. While not all of her issues (and there are a lot of issues, many of which I can’t really understand) dealt with through the book and through her therapy relate to her mother, a lot of them seem to orbit around her, at the very least.
This of course makes me immediately jump to the conclusion that because it’s a book about therapy (in a stripped-down oversimplification), I don’t like it because therapy is boring. After all, it’s just people talking to each other back and forth,* and on a comic book page. Why would anyone want to read that?
That doesn’t mean, like I said, that it’s a bad book, because there are amazing elements that are right up there with Fun Home, which I really adore. The ending of the book has the same impact that the first did, a concise moment capturing an adult realization against a childhood visual, which creates an effective stamp of an ending, something literature in general can struggle with. It’s hard to stick a landing.
What I do think though is, what does it say about me that the elements of a book dedicated to relationships and interaction which talk about the roots of how those relationships work is what I like the least? Part of me wants to admit some anti-snobbery brutalist attitude, but at the same time, I know that’s not entirely true. Part of me also wants to express it as some kind of denial thing, like I dislike the psychoanalysis because I need it or connect to it more than I care to. Again though, not something I think is actually true.
The older I’ve gotten, the less self-introspective I’ve gotten, feeling more and more self-aware of knowing who I am, what I am, and how my brain and psyche probably work. Yeah, part of it is because I’m a simple kind of person (read: boring), but part of it is also in growing more and more certain with my own sense of self. On the other hand, in the book, Bechdel isn’t sure of herself, of her own identity (constantly feeling a need to not only be there for other people but also to push herself to the limits in terms of self-introspection and self-harm, metaphorically through self-criticism).
I am aware though, that in the end this isn’t a book meant for me. I mean, it is, it’s out there, and it’s not like it’s labeled “NOT FOR COSTA FUCK THAT GUY” on the cover. However, I’m a heterosexual white male who has a set of alligator-luggage privilege for getting through life and for building my sense of self, nevermind a relationship with my family that’s drastically different with what Bechdel has/had with hers in her work. It’s inevitable that my own lens will be skewed when reading this work and when I strain to make a connection, because my brain, so used to automatically and easily finding connections to art, is floundering here, making me work for what few tenuous connections I can find.
Basically, in this book I see the shadow of who I was and who I could have been, rather than the kind of person I feel like am now. Now, at 33, I’m more confident in my self, in my role in the world, in my own power, and in my own voice, which makes me appreciate Bechdel’s work, but not connect with it. I connect with Fun Home because it’s about coming to terms with self, in the end, as opposed to Are You My Mother‘s battle between an evolving sense of self and how that strains the limits of a difficult relationship. It’s a relationship, and a book, that I’m going to come back to over and over, that I know, but it’ll probably be a slow-going process to fully be able to empathize with it, if I ever do. And I’m OK with that.
Mostly paperwork, essays to read and grade, and my to-do list, but there’s usually project notebooks and whatever I’m reading or referencing. Actually, I think there’s a D&D handbook off-frame I was using as a reference for something Nightmare Party-related.
Oh, and of course the knife I keep around in the desk drawer for opening mail.
To get done;
THE SECRET PROJECT – Something I’ve been working on slowly. Involves working with other people. The script is haunting me, forever haunting me.
THE ACTUAL WORK – There’s a stack of essays to read and I’m working hard to stay on top of it all, better than previous semesters.
A FINAL SUBMISSION – The last of the batch of short stories and nonfiction essays I’ve been working on and shopping around, submitting since the end of last year.
CHAPTER 2 OF “PIONEERS” – I have…three pages of notes and haven’t even technically started yet. I should probably start.
THE THING ON THE THING – There’s a few blog posts to do, which I guess count as essays, with one in particular coming up next.
So, everyone likes Twin Peaks, right? Well, not everyone, because I know how weird and how strange it can be, melding a lot of stuff that was either too insane to be true what what was kind of groundbreaking, especially for TV.
A lot of entertainment since then, from TV like The X-Files (which you could probably consider a spiritual successor to Twin Peaks in a way) to the current wave of weird fiction podcasts, like Tanis (from production company PNW, aka “Pacific North West”, get it?) that all happen to take place in the Pacific Northwest, all have some root tracing itself back to that show, which basically helped establish that modern concept in fiction of weird towns in remote locations full of forests, full of secrets, and full of strangeness that crosses lines between the supernatural and the sci-fi, the humane and the inhuman.
The real problem with a lot of this tends to be my primary criticism with most of the world drawing influence from earlier works, which is that the wrong things are being drawn from influence-wise. If you’re going to be influenced by say, The X-Files, then the thing that really should be the impact and influence on you is not just internal government conspiracies revolving around aliens, but also about growing relationships and trust while encountering the unexplainable of the wide world, especially parts of the world that don’t usually get seen or are passed off as too mundane. The X-Files is as much weird horror as sci-fi in that sense, which a lot of “inspired-by” work fails to capture, in my mind.
Twin Peaks is the same, in that the idea of small-town weirdness in an imposing setting is a surface inspiration that often gets used as a fairly cheap-and-easy “spooky” look and vibe. However, the other elements of soap opera-drama, intense personal relationships that can damage and crack at larger things like plans and investigations, as well as the overall larger concept that you CAN’T explain or fully explore these supernatural things…all that seems to be lost in the translation of “inspiration” onto more current work.
We played the first-person narrative game Virginia, from Variable State and 505 Games recently. I like weird video games, I like first-person exploring narrative-types, and claiming obvious references (mentioned above) is a cheap way to get me to check it out. The X-Files and Twin Peaks (rookie agent and disgraced veteran partner, small town surrounded by forests and a military base, supernatural elements, a missing child, secrets) are all over this game from the get-go, as you (the new agent) end up looking for a missing boy in Freedom, VA. The game’s minimalist to a T, almost to a fault, though not quite, which in a way is supposed to be part of its charm of nostalgia, being set in the 1992 as well. Hell, it works and sells, so why not? A lot of other video games these days in this vein seem to be on the same wavelength of near-past settings, which establish not only a plugging of story holes that a cell phone and interview could solve, but also establishing a visual aesthetic that is meant to deliberately evoke feelings and connections to other media (like TV and film) set in that area, albeit an evoking that only works so well with the minimal art style of the game.
I do like that you can actually see yourself in the mirror, though.
I guess if we’re talking about comparing to other similar games, Virginia is probably closest to Everyone’s Gone To The Rapture, where you literally move through the game simply to advance the literary narrative, with little to no actual “work” involved. It just plays out for you, which isn’t necessarily a bad thing (though Rapture was a game that I found boring and dragging personally) though it does require you to have something involved to make it stand out. Gone Home and Firewatch, the standards in this kind of game as far as I’m concerned, require a little bit of actual work on your part to figure out the narrative, solve some level of puzzles, and most importantly, they help you along in figuring out that narrative.
Virginia‘s main standout element, being entirely wordless with only minimal text, isn’t that big a deal for a video game, because ideally a video game is something where you interact and figure out through playing. You don’t need a lot of literary exposition, because the actions and interactions give that to you. However, Virginia‘s claim that there’s not much if any vocal/text communication but then still have some level of reading involved is where the flaws start to pile up.
There are a couple of mysteries within the overall story of the game, and the big problem is that with no one talking, you have to snatch at bits of text when they appear and devour them as soon and as quickly as you can. Because the game sometimes makes jumps on its own (even though you’re being prompted to act to move forward) you can’t read what’s available, and not catching every little thing all of a sudden creates massive gaps in your understanding. I spent a good 1/3 of the game assuming a character’s mother was in fact her wife/life partner, because I wasn’t allowed to look at a text document (provided for information) long enough to read it, and I couldn’t go back once the scene moved on. Didn’t see the dates related to the related character, lost the narrative thread. The screen changes, I’m forced to close the file folder, or the character looks away and the scene changes.
That this happened a few times, all at what I later on realized were fairly crucial moments in the story (in terms of actually learning what’s going on) was probably my major complaint here. Things just moved on with little to no space to understand, to learn, to even move on your own. So much of the criticism of these types of video games is that they’re basically short stories or movies that you’re just along for the ride, and that criticism actually feels pretty apt when applied to Virginia.
If you’re going to include elements in your storytelling that require some level of independent thought and analysis, you still need to include some level of “jump-starting” to fill in the blanks that would start the reader/player down that road, and ultimately if you can’t take the minute or two it requires to grab that information you need to be able to continue forward with a story and then make your decisions and interpretations of the story, then what’s the point of giving someone that interpretative freedom?
When I teach literature, I semi-jokingly tell my students that in literary studies there are “no wrong answers,” which is a really simple way to introduce them to the idea of informed subjective analysis of material. Too often students are scared to give their own opinions when they start out doing this kind of reading and writing (college-level lit classes) so I encourage them to just throw interpretations out there, see what sticks. However, as the class eventually moves on, I introduce more basic concepts to help round out the “but”‘s of “there are no wrong answers,” which include the concept of context.
Context is king. Context is key.
Without even basic context of a story, or the story’s background, you can have all sorts of great connections and some real deep influences going on connecting your work to other works, and you have have a setting that’s rich with emotional punches, but it can feel like it’s too scattered across the board, which is what kind of happens to this game.
I don’t hate Virginia. The more I think about it, the more I kinda like it quite a bit, especially in certain areas. I think the concept is really bold honestly, and mechanics-wise this could have been really great if a few things were fixed, because those few things really skewed (not ruined, not quite) the game away from being really great. Also, as I mentioned a bit when I wrote about my frustrations with prestige TV’s obsession with attaching homework as a level of even basic understanding of the story, having to almost immediately jump into external reading and analysis to not just understand the thematic elements but the very basic linear narrative of a work, then I start to feel like maybe we as creators have kind of forgotten the point of there being different storytelling mediums. Yes, good stories are universal, and Virginia is, when you put the work in, a really good story. However, is it best told as a game like this? I don’t know. It could work well in a bunch of other settings (which I sort of suspected might have been the origin here, but that’s another story for another time) and it’s not a bad game, but it’s not what it could be.
Ultimately it left me more frustrated than satisfied, though that frustration is a little tempered knowing that I can go back and try to re-understand better with another play-through. I guess it just depends if I feel like the work is worth it whenever I get around to it. I don’t know, it might be.
Want some more weird short fiction for free? Of course you do, you read material on the Internet. Most of what I’ve been working on these days isn’t finished or is being done for other people, which explains the relative silence.
Anyway, I came up with this based off some notes and can’t really do much with it, but it’s in a semblance of linear order and I like how it reads.
Check out my new little short story, just for you guys, “Speaking The Void.”
I’m watching Too Late on Netflix as I write this, January 29th in the year of our Lord, 2017. I started writing about 4pm, EST.
It’s highly-stylized, it’s intensely-dialogue-driven, it’s very much a passion project-looking work, right at the edge of ostentatious and focused/personal. The movie’s a series of long single-shot scenes with little-to-no cuts/edits, told in a non-linear order. I came up with the idea to start writing this as I watch the second of the vignettes, figuring whatever comes to me will go into the keyboard.
I’m on vignette 3 of this film now, and I’m getting the sense of what’s going on here. This is, in a literary sense, a modern novella in film, nonlinear, framework but not that much flesh, just a hint of the things that could be. John Hawkes is a great actor, seeing him in this film creates a really great sense of someone who’s there when he’s active, unnoticed when he’s not active. I think you know what I mean, a character who rolls in, who’s invisible until he’s active, but not in a way that implies some level of superhuman blending-in. He’s not Jason Bourne, but maybe more like a sensitive version of The Continental Op and Mike Hammer, which could possible make a connection to Marlowe, though Marlow is a character that’s hard to try to reach towards.
Hawkes is playing the guitar in this scene, and now, we’re at a classic movie theater. Man, this is definitely one of those “spirit of (a particular place in) LA” movies, which isn’t necessarily that bad. It’s something I think of as a shadow of Chinatown, not the movies and the glamor, but not necessarily the “working-class” element either, at least not a surface-honest one either. It’s a barely-above-the-surface hustler class, which can make for interesting work to appreciate and really are in.
I’m starting to get the full scope of the narrative, but at this point, I kind of like it enough to not really need it, and just appreciate the film itself. The whole one-long-shot-per-scene thing is growing on me.
That’s a good twist. I’ll admit, I didn’t see that coming, but I can be dense like that, I guess.
This is the bit that I write after I watched the movie.
I mentioned this above, and it’s a comparison that I don’t really like to do in any serious sense because A) books and movies are two completely separate forms of art and B) in this case, I feel like not enough people know what a novella actually is these days for the comparison to be actually workable in a consistent setting, but I liked the novella atmosphere of this film. It reminded me, in particular, of a less-focused and less-linear version of Comfort To The Enemy and Other Carl Webster Stories, an Elmore Leonard book (who I mention almost pathologically when talking about noir/crime/mystery in film) that combines a short novella, the titular one, with some short stories within that “universe” of the character.
Fun fact, I basically tried to rip off Leonard and Comfort… when I wrote Running The Train…and Other Stories, which is basically the same thing (one longer short story and a few short minis, flash fiction almost, in the same world). I even did the same thing of making the longer work in the collection the title of the book, “Running The Train.”
It fits though, because novellas, with their micro-version of full novels that push beyond the simplicity of the short story but don’t entirely flesh out a narrative, which focus more on building something out of clever scenes (if they’re good), and which work best when they can loosely tie a collection of work together into something that might be a narrative, are good. Even if it doesn’t become a fuller narrative though, it’s OK, because modern literature works just as well in what it started from, the idea that we can simply write about life, and all the out-of-order nonsense that we encounter ever single day. The day is snippets, it your to-do-list done out of order, it’s incomplete and the resolution at the end is just getting things done, getting to the end without a reward.
Maybe a cold beer is your reward at the end of the day, or maybe making things better for someone else, even yourself.
Some days you can’t make anything better though, you can make things right. Which, ultimately, seems to be the goal of Too Late. It might be too late, but maybe, just maybe, you can make it right, even if it doesn’t make sense to anyone else.
It’s probably the most noir of noir sentiments and I appreciate an honesty about that. Noir is harsh, crime and mystery stories are hard and cruel, because they reflect a world where cruelty and hardness happen in random fits and bursts. It’s also full of unfulfilling moments, where we try to get something in, one last hit, even though it’s futile. That last hit though, it can feel good for a second, a second that sometimes human beings need.
This is the end of the essay but it was written before I get to the rest of the scenes, written because the idea for the end has come before I finish watching the movie itself. Not done writing the whole essay before I got this ending in, either. I don’t know if I liked this, because I don’t know what to make of work that has large and non-satisfying but ultimately, nourish endings almost immediately at the beginning. Not RIGHT at the beginning though, which somewhat lessons that ending’s impact.
In terms of stylized noir, nu-noir, non-nu noir in that weird area of between the years of 1980 and 2012 though, Too Latecaptures a weird crossover sub-sect of America, not the noir of Chandler, which is tragic, ultimately. It’s the noir of Leonard, which I appreciate in its daily-life patter.
I think sometimes, appreciation of a thing is a lot better than outright loving something.
While I’m sure the Netflix series The OAappeals 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 ofTop 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.
Summer is winding down, and with it comes the end of beach weather, vacation, and of course for those of us who threw ourselves into the ocean that is nerd subcultures, the latter third of con season. There’s a few conventions left, and for the most part I never really paid too much attention to them or to what could be considered “con culture.” When I’ve gone to them, it’s for short jaunts, and I’m usually in and out in a few hours, seeing people I know, buying some art or books, and just taking off.
I recently went to Baltimore with my girlfriend and some of her friends to spend the weekend at Otakon 2016, the last time that the well-known anime convention will be in Baltimore. Next year is going to see the convention in Washington DC, which from what I hear is related to the expanding popularity of Otakon, which focuses on Japanese anime- and manga-oriented fandom. I can tell that the move is a good one just by being there, because the numbers of people flooding Baltimore year after year to wear homemade and intricately-crafted terrycloth and sculpted plastic costumes and weapons has apparently been climbing upwards almost exponentially. The name itself comes from “otaku,” a word meaning “a slavish fan,” and used initially somewhat derisively. However, the term has come, at least in North America, to be positively embraced as the terminology for fandom of Japanese comics, cartoons, and thus-influenced art and pop culture. It’d make sense for one of the biggest anime-themed North American conventions to name itself that, though again, we’re faced with the blessing/curse thing right there just in the name.
I remember being in college when cable’s Cartoon Network launched their [adult swim] evening block, a mix of weird adult humor-themed cartoons and licensed Japanese anime, which had always had a cult following in the US since the 80’s. My exposure to the style had actually started as a kid when I stumbled across a broadcast of the now-cult-classic Akira and regular airings of stuff like Robotech on TV when I was living in Europe at the time. Later on when I came back to the US as a teenager, I was exposed to Ghost In The Shell, Ninja Scroll, Cowboy Bebop, and the Gundam franchise, all of which appealed to my punk, sci-fi/fantasy, and trashy personal aesthetics. The crossover of punk, metal, video games, skateboarding, and Japanese cartoons peaked during my high school years, especially among the little circle of friends I developed in high school and college, though after that it eventually tapered off. The field was overflowing by the time I hit graduate school, and I was beginning to become more and more critical of the fandom, with its cultural fetishism, sexism, and weird obsessions with surefire crowdpleasers like hypersexualitzation, fanservice imagery, Nazi iconography, and of course, casual racism. I’ve since started to slowly float back to the field, and of course the good stuff that floated to the surface has always stayed on my DVD shelves and in my personal mental lists of great TV and movies. It’s hard to stay so attached to something though, when your primary problem is with the idea of that attachment.
I have a complicated relationship with fandom and with fan conventions. I have complicated relationships with the fandoms and subcultures I’ve been involved with my whole life in general, from punk music to anime to comic books to horror to literature, all of which I’ve found solace and fun in, but also clashed against ugly puritanism, hypocrisy, and toxicity in as well. I think it’s important to be aware of those two sides of any fandom and not throw yourself whole-heartedly into them, expecting everything to be roses, unicorn farts, and rainbows.
I tend to view conventions, like the large Wizard World-run NYCC (which I’ll be at for one day this year), or the smaller MoCCA (which I try to go to when I can), as weird idealized microcosms of fan worlds, which can be both a blessing and a curse. As a blessing, they’re the original “safe spaces,” places where we could find others who connected to the same things we did in a supposedly-pure state. A lot of this is also the curse aspect, because it creates a false illusion that fandom communities need to be pure and isolated in order to exist in peak “true” form, which ultimately leads to toxic fandom, gatekeeping, and the various other surprisingly-conservative and bullying aspects you wouldn’t necessarily expect from what is seen as, at least by those in it, as outsider culture.
However, the idea of a place to completely indulge in your hobby, see hobby-related stuff like talks and screenings and the like, it’s not bad, especially if you’re new to it all in general, and probably younger. If you’re an old bat like me who constantly yells and gripes, then you’ll be a little bitter about all the unbridled optimism and enthusiasm, free from the taint of the self-reflective critical eye. I mean, that doesn’t mean they’re bad, necessarily. Especially if you’re making an extended weekend of it camped out in a hotel room two blocks from the convention, which I’ve never actually done before. I went into this as an intensely-critical and borderline-grumpy observer who only barely skimmed the surface of the subculture attached to this, and I came out of it not entirely changed, but definitely a little bit unsure of of my lack of a place as a complete outsider in this sort of subculture immersion.
We left relatively early on Thursday, taking the bus from New York to Baltimore in order to get there early. It’s a four-hour trip by bus, and at the start of what ends up being a monumentally-awful heat wave blanketing the East Coast the whole time I’m in Baltimore.
The trip there the day before the con officially opened felt like we’d already arrived, with a few groups on the bus obviously also headed to Baltimore for the same reasons we were. It’s a little obvious with the anime-themed t-shirts and the Japanese parasols popping up while we were in line for the bus outside.
We checked into our hotel, which was already crawling with cosplayers, either checking in, in costume, or heading out into the oppressive heat in costume for badge pickup at the Baltimore Convention Center, where Friday through Sunday would become otaku-central, spikey wigs, giant cardboard gunswords, and all. After checking in at the con and realizing that the BCC is a sprawling decentralized structure I haven’t been in since I was about seven years old, the rest of the afternoon was spent relaxing, reading through our schedules of the upcoming weekend, and dealing with dinner and drinks.
The heat was intensely oppressive. How people in full and very oppressive costumes weren’t passing out left and right in the streets by the harbor, I don’t know.
We perused artist’s alley, and you could see that the need to expand out of Baltimore was necessary. The convention center is not only spread out and a bit unruly, but it’s definitely getting too small.
We ended up in line for a panel on Japanese punk rock and heavy metal at one point, which besides eating french fries covered in Old Bay at Shake Shack later was the highlight of the day for me. It was really interesting to see a panel like this magically appear, especially considering how out-of-place I was feeling at times. I’m older, I’m not as enthusiastically a part of the subculture as I was (was I ever?), and I haven’t watched or paid attention to this subculture in about a decade. So to find this type of panel going on was a really pleasant surprise, and it was one that I thoroughly enjoyed, starting a move towards what continued towards the next day.
But first, as my notes tell me, more drinks and a swim.
Had a swim and some caffeine on Saturday morning, which on a 100-degree day after the night I had in our hotel room and then going out in Baltimore, felt good.
Back to the convention center to hit the floor, wander, run into some people my girlfriend knew, and pick some stuff up. Besides the usual copyright-violating fanart prints, booths of more copyright-violating pins and buttons and hats, the sword vendors hawking every variation of katana, and of course the always-disturbing body pillows and nerdy “thing-plus-thing” tshirts, my girlfriend and I grabbed a tabletop RPG and some manga from vendors. In particular I was excited to find Black Magic by Masamune Shirow, who is probably best-known for the franchise Ghost In The Shell. As I seem to constantly do, I wrote about Shirow in my Master’s thesis on cyberpunk, so I always have a soft spot for his work.
It was, while not surprising, also notable to see levels of development and construction going on in Baltimore side-by-side with obviously clear socioeconomic and racial divisions, which was starting to make the whole weekend of plastic gunswords and elaborate homemade fictional Japanese high-school uniforms even more surreal. While this is something we’d been seeing and talking about all weekend, the dichotomy of the convention center and waterfront area working really hard to cater to a temporary influx of tourism and cash flooding the city compared to the significant homeless population camping out in the open-space areas around the harbor and across the street from the Baltimore Convention Center strikes someone as almost parody-level tragic and dystopian, which would fit oddly well with the anime theme of the weekend.
I woke up, rubbed the grit off my face, dressed myself, and found myself sucking down breakfast at a sorta too-expensive and too-fancy coffee/pastry place ended up not being run very well. My bus is in an hour, I think as I badly played a round of chess with someone and I’m processing the past few days so far still.
The sun was, of course, still bearing down in thick and suffocatingly-hot air, making escape from Baltimore like fighting to get out of a microwave.
I danced at one point the night before, the last night we went out and I continued the trend of the weekend of listening to a lot of electronic music, though Saturday night was, as my girlfriend noted, mostly the kind of Euro-trash techno she sneered at versus the gothy-industrial electronic stuff we, and she especially, prefererd, Ironically, we’ll always be music snobs.
The bus pulled out of Baltimore to head back to New York and I put on a podcast to listen to. In this case, it was a true crime story about obsession and stalking in a fandom, and trying to persevere in fandom despite it.
Not a terribly-irrelevant way to end the weekend, at least in my eyes.
I still kind of hate fandom. I think it’s something that needs to be carefully dealt with and never taken at face value, because as things like Sad Puppies, GamerGate, comic book gatekeeping, rampages of harassment in subculture publishing, and more have shown us, it’s so often a shockingly-useful screen for intensely toxic behaviors and individuals who are, no matter how many Halo t-shirts and Superman action figures they have, predators.
Still…it’s heartening to see the enthusiasm. I can still remember being younger and wanting to be in these types of immersive places where we all spoke a common language, and while that common language has evolved and grown and moved onto a circle of friends as opposed to a large gathering of strangers, knowing that those strangers are out there can be a powerful thing to someone young, confused, and eager to throw themselves into a larger world.
It’s nice to be reminded of that and know, or at least hope, that those kids are making that leap a little more prepared and knowledgeable than previous generations on how to protect themselves.