Like Shakespeare But With Lots More Punching

I’ve been reading a lot of comics lately (shut up! It’s part of my job!) and I have to say, my favorite comic out there right now is Nextwave. Following up in a close second is Neil Gaiman’s take on the Eternals. And while the Eternals has a much better story (for those who are interested in such anachronisms of the 20th century) it follows the Gaiman formula pretty closely.* Nextwave wins out though, even if there is no story to speek of. I’ll let Warren Ellis explain it:

“I took The Authority and I stripped out all the plots, logic, character and sanity. It’s an absolute distillation of the superhero genre. No plot lines, characters, emotions, nothing whatsoever. It’s people posing in the street for no good reason. It is people getting kicked, and then exploding. It is a pure comic book, and I will fight anyone who says otherwise. And afterwards, they will explode.”

Seriously, there’s no real story: Five C-list Marvel characters are recruited by an anti-terrorist organization that turns out to really be a front for terrorists. So they blow shit up. But, as is with most simplistic concepts, it’s all in the execution. And Nextwave is executed brilliantly. There are funny asides, like in the Family Guy; absurd reoccurring villains, like in Monty Python (or James Bond); and monsters, like in Godzilla. There’s absolutely nothing redeeming socially, morally or spiritually, which means it is almost perfect. If it only had some sex, it would be three bucks of Nirvana on a monthly basis.

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* I mean no disrespect to Mr. Gaiman. He’s probably one of the best fantasy writers alive. But all of his stories follow the same basic formula: Normal, Boring Person is either chosen or accidentally stumbles out of his every day world into the mythic world that exists just below the mundane surface reality and is guided by a not altogether reliable native of the mythic world along a quest in order to set right a wrong/restore balance or do something mythic. As formulas go, it’s solid Joseph Campbell stuff and there are plenty of variations on the theme of self discovery. But it is a formula.

Critcal Mass Market

Jane Espenson the great TV scriptwriter* makes an interesting point about writers and aspiring writers:

[Branko in Croatia] points out something I hadn’t consciously noticed, which is the tendency of aspiring television writers to get hyper-critical about television. Good point. This does happen. In order to acquire tv-writing skills, you have to start applying critical thinking to those shows you want to emulate. And the side effect of critical thinking is that you start thinking critically. You notice things: Hey! That important event happened off-screen! Hey! That moment sold out that character! Hey! That act break didn’t leave me wanting more!

Keeping Steve’s letter in mind, I wouldn’t be surprised to hear that the same thing happens to writers of other kinds as well.

It very much does. Case in point: For the last week or so, I’ve been reading J.D. Salinger’s Nine Stories. Now, I was never a huge Salinger fan in High school. I tried reading Catcher in the Rye but I think I was too old (I was 17 and if you haven’t read it by the time you’re 15, don’t bother. Everything that strikes a 15 year old as startling and profound hits your jaded 17 year old like a sack of doorknobs. “Yeah, great, Holden, I figured that shit out a while ago.”) But lately, every writer I read about or story I find interesting circles back in some way to Salinger and his extra special Nine Stories. So I decide to try him on for size again. So far, I’ve read about half of them and they are hit or miss. My attitude is probably colored by my poor reception of his only previously perused work but I’m just finding these stories to be lacking something that other people claim to find there. Sure, the dialogue is decent (though dated) and he is a technically good writer. But still, something is missing. Most of the stories I’ve read so far start off week but build to an interesting if not altogether satisfying ending (except for, For Esme, With Love and Squalor, which goes in the oposite direction).

But perhaps this is just the over-analytical side of my writing getting the better of me. The stories work, most of the time and for your average reader, I’m sure they’re great (so long as you aren’t yet out of your early twenties. Salinger may have broken ground in the world of Serious Fiction 50 years ago, but today he would be a Young Adult Author).

of course, having said that, I’ve decided to borrow Salinger’s structure for my novel-in-progress and am writing it now as a series of interconnected stories. So he’s clearly doing something I like, it just isn’t telling a story a 29 year old can relate to.

So yeah. We aspiring writers can get hypercritical but it helps hone our craft. Maybe when I’m done with Nine Stories I’ll pick up The Martian Chronicles again. Ray Bradbury is the antidote to age and overanalysis.

And By “Seriously”, I Mean, “Don’t Laugh In Their Faces”

The Secular Outpost reviews a fascinating new book, The Secular Bible: Why Nonbelievers Must Take Religion Seriously, by Jacques Berlinerblau.

Berlinerblau premis is that Secularists don’t take religion seriously:

Today’s secularists too often have very little accurate knowledge about religion, and even less desire to learn. This is problematic insofar as their sense of self is constructed in opposition to religion. Above all, the secularist is not a Jew, is not a Christian, not a Muslim, and so on. But is it intellectually responsible to define one’s identity against something that one does not understand? And what happens when these secularists weigh in on contentious political issues, blind to the religious back-story or concerns that inevitably inform these debates?

It’s a bit of a generalization but he has a point: Sometimes, for some of us, we define ourselves by what we aren’t. I disagree that we need to take religion as serious as the true Believers would like. That gives the fundies too much leeway. If we start granting their beliefs prima facie value, they have enough wiggle room to build their usual wicker traps, “But you agreed that the Bible has some validity, and God wrote the Bible, therefore you admit there’s a God!”

But that’s not really what Berlinerblau is suggesting, which makes this book sound all the more intriguing:

Jacques Berlinerblau suggests that atheists and agnostics must take stock of that which they so adamantly oppose. Defiantly maintaining a shallow understanding of religion, he argues, is not a politically prudent strategy in this day and age. But this book is no less critical of many believers, who–Berlinerblau contends–need to emancipate themselves from ways of thinking about their faith that are dangerously simplistic, irrational and outdated.

To this, I wholeheartedly agree. You must know your enemy and why they believe the crazy ass shit they do. You also need the scholarly tools to pick those irrational beliefs apart, leaving the rational though dodgy bits intact so that, eventually the believers begin to doubt their long held superstitions and reject them on their own terms. That’s how you help people see the light without being thought of as an asshole. But to suggest that Secular thought is in some sort of crisis, as Berlinerblau does, is a bit of a stretch. Tanner Edis, from the Secular Outpost made a similar point:

So I’m not sure about secular thinking about religion being in a state of crisis. I don’t want to deny that Berlinerblau has a valid point, and that it would be good if there was more explicitly secular reading of the Bible going on. This would have immense practical value, and it might even help break the isolationism within religious studies. Nevertheless, there’s a lot more secular thinking about religion going on that Berlinerblau does not recognize. And in this wider context, I suspect that a certain lack of interest in the Bible is more understandable.

still, it sounds like a fascinating book and will be added to my Amazon wishlist, forthwith.