The Words Of The Prophets…

by Buzz on 11/10/2014

…are written on the subway walls
and tenement halls

WotP Bertolt Brecht

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John Steinbeck On Writing

by Buzz on 9/10/2014

JohnSteinbeck

If there is a magic in story writing, and I am convinced there is, no one has ever been able to reduce it to a recipe that can be passed from one person to another. The formula seems to lie solely in the aching urge of the writer to convey something he feels important to the reader. If the writer has that urge, he may sometimes, but by no means always, find the way to do it. You must perceive the excellence that makes a good story good or the errors that makes a bad story. For a bad story is only an ineffective story.

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Fictoid: One Day In The Strike Zone…

by Buzz on 7/10/2014

did it hurt cap

“Did it hurt”///

“Did what hurt?”///

“When you fell from heaven”///

“Wait — did you just call me Satan?”///

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On The Convention Trail…

by Buzz on 2/10/2014

1950_04_cartier_gnomepresscalendar

I’ll be at the Dallas / Fort Worth GI Joe and Action Figure Show 2014 in Grapevine, Texas on Oct. 4 & 5 tap-dancing like a Nicholas brother discussing*my involvement with G.I. Joe, Transformers, Thundarr The Barbarian, and a host of other questions about my career in animation / comics / videos games.**

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*  Now that the statute of limitations is up…

** Besides the obvious one of “Who would hire you in the first place?”

 

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Grudge Match: Norman Rockwell vs Edward Hopper

by Buzz on 30/09/2014

So I was reading a discussion on art (specifically what differentiates “good” art from “bad” art)[1] and it occurred to me that while usually comparing one artist to another is typically at best comparing apples to artichokes, there was one comparison where we could at least get granny smiths compared to jonagolds.

Norman Rockwell (1894 – 1978) and Edward Hopper (1882 – 1967) are near perfect compare & contrast subjects. Both lived at the same time, both staked out small life America as their prime subject matter.

Make no bones about it, Norman Rockwell was a phenomenally talented painter, and easily one of the best illustrators ever. A good eye for detail and composition, an even keener eye for anatomy, characterization, and facial expression. Look at his paintings and a whole story unfolds before you. Clever, witty, a consummate illustrator of the American scene.

Norman ROCKWELL Going and Coming 1947

Note that word:
Illustrator.

As much as I enjoy Rockwell’s work, as appreciative as I am of his talent and ability, Rockwell only brought so much to the party. He expected — nay, required his audience to already be familiar with his subjects before his put brush to canvas.

norman rockwell the-discovery

There was nothing new he had to offer, nothing original besides his personal style which, while good (arguably the best in his field) was not demonstratively different from literally scores of other artists working for the same markets.

norman rockwell cover_9260626

Yes, there is something unique to Rockwell’s work, and you can almost always spot a Rockwell painting…but there are a whole lotta guys who were doing pretty much what Rockwell was doing and they were all pretty much interchangeable.[2]

Norman ROCKWELL Christmas Homecoming 1948

This is not to diminish the talent or the ability or the skill sets of Rockwell’s direct competitors, but the difference among them was pretty slight, typically one of degrees, never of magnitude.

Amos Sewell - baseball-in-the-hospitalcase in point:  Amos Sewell

Cross to the other side of the street to see what Edward Hopper was doing with the same subject matter and –

HOLY @#%& — LOOK AT THAT LIGHT!!!

edward hopper - nighthwk

NOBODY EVER SAW LIGHT THAT WAY BEFORE!!!

Whatever Rockwell saw in a scene, Hopper saw something…else. He saw something that was truly unique, something that no other artist had ever put on canvas before.

conference-at-night

Something we had all seen but had never realized we had seen, and so when we saw it through his eyes it was a shock to the system, a startling realizing that yes…it was like that…it did look that way!

Summer Evening by Edward Hopper

Hopper didn’t rely on us to bring our own past knowledge to the experience; Hopper brought something we didn’t even know existed.

Office at Night

And that would have been remarkable by itself, but Hopper took it several steps further.

morning-sun_custom

He used light as no one ever used it before, taking the quality of his light — be it a melancholy setting sun or an office like by a single stark bulb or a nether zone of shadow between the dreamscape of the cinema and the tawdry lurid lights of the lobby — and putting it to work to literally shade and illuminate his characters.

tumblr_mex7awoYXs1s0psoao1_1280

It’s pretty easy to figure out the story in any Rockwell painting, and with the exception of the occasional rained out baseball game we know it’s going to be a happy ending.

hotel-lobby

Not so with Hopper. There are dark, unseen melancholies we can’t recognize not because we are unfamiliar with them but because we are too familiar with them, locking them up and blocking them off deep in our hearts, pretending they do not exist.

cdec177946b613760fa806e405ec86cf

Hopper brings them forth, and we are forced to admit we have no pat, happy answers to banish them, that they will stay with us now, circling around the edges of our consciousness, a sad but constant reminder that we are not the masters of our fates / the captains of our souls that we want to be.

Kinda special for daubs of paint of stretched cloth, huh?

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[1] As distinguished from hack work.   Hack work exists all along the spectrum.

[2] Don’t believe me, go look at the “slick” magazine covers of the 1940s – 60s: Saturday Evening Post, Collier’s, Liberty, plus dozens of regional and special interest magazines. If Rockwell had been abducted by aliens in 1940 the genre would never have missed him and would have continued on pretty much as it did, only with more work for the other guys.

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This Is Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

by Buzz on 29/09/2014

CREEPY92-41

Russ Heath goes to town
(from Creepy #92)

found at Pappy’s Golden Age Blogzine

Happy Birthday, Russ

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The Words Of The Prophets…

by Buzz on 27/09/2014

…are written on the subway walls
and tenement halls

WotP Jacque Fresco

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M / T / Faking A Dump

by Buzz on 26/09/2014

Frank R Paul - ralph 124d41 city

Frank R. Paul’s illustration for
Hugo Gernsbach’s unreadable Ralph 124C41+

I’ve just started in on a Very Big Book by a Very Important Writer, and man, is it ever tough slogging.

It’s like trying to hack my way through a room filled with tofu armed with only a spoon.[1]

The problem is that the VIW feels it is important that the reader knows all sorts of important background information before the story actually begins so that the actual plot, once it starts, will be easier to comprehend.

This is a bad habit VIW has developed in latter years.  Some time back I began reading one of the author’s previous Very Big Books and was dismayed to the point of despair at all the background information I was being required to read through.  In fact, I was on page 99 and decided that if things didn’t improve on the next page I was bailing out –

– and luckily on page 100 the VIW finally introduced the main point of the book and the story kicked into high gear and it ended up being one of the best sci-fi novels I’ve ever read.

But pages 1 – 99 of that book coulda / shoulda been jettisoned, especially since they amounted to little more than roman a clef fan-fic of a Very Popular TV series.[2]

All that stuff could have been omitted without harming the actual story.  All the human characters were cardboard dolls who could have been easily replaced, distinguished from their pulp archetypes only by the stray extraneous supercilious detail.

The info dump is often important in very many novels and films; the necessity of explaining or better yet, demonstrating important information that makes the rest of the story comprehensible.

In detective stories the info dump usually occurs when the private eye is hired to solve a case and the client fills him and us in on all the basic particulars.  In spy fiction the spy master calls in the super secret agent and hands them a dossier with all the crucial background information on the supervillain.[3]

Sci-fi and fantasy stories often have an additional hurdle:
Contemporary or even recent (i.e., post industrial age) historical fiction does not need an elaborate explanation of the times / culture / infrastructure that supports their stories. We know how big cities function, so the private eye does not need to explain the working of the highway system or the interdependent symbiosis of automobile manufacturers / petroleum producers in order for us to understand how they drove from their crummy office downtown to the client’s elegant mansion uptown.

But make enough significant changes in the background, and leaping that knowledge hurdle becomes problematic.

There are different approaches to this.

Alfred Bester did it most baldly, literally starting off his classic novel The Stars My Destination (Tyger! Tyger! for you folks in the UK) with a historical essay on how the discovery of “jaunting” (teleportation by effort of mind alone) drastically changed the culture of humanity.

Noriyoshi Ohrai - stars my destination

Noriyoshi Ohrai’s cover interpretation of
Alfred Bester’s novel for the Japanese edition.
You’ll note the Japanese editor thoughtfully
corrected
William Blake’s spelling…

Bester got away with it because he’s a stylish, flamboyant writer and his essay was a rollicking word picture of an extravagant future with sly and hilarious observations.

It was entertaining, and as such no spoonful of sugar was needed to make it go down easier.

Mark Hollmann and Greg Kotis of Urine Town took the same approach with “Too Much Exposition”, a meta-fiction number that not only acknowledges it’s a standard trope in a Broadway musical, but also cheerfully admits the entire premise of the production is ridiculous![4]

That trick doesn’t work for everyone, however, and far far FAR too many sci-fi novels begin with a scene (read “lecture”) where too many characters are introduced much too quickly and much too blandly (no matter how much eccentric fringe is hung on them) with no purpose except to discuss amongst themselves the radical changes in human society that occurred since atomic toilets were installed a generation before.

Hack, please…

On the opposite end of the spectrum, we have Ray Bradbury’s Fahrenheit 451. A close reading of the story reveals a society technologically far advanced from ours, with hunter-killer robots and buildings so fireproof that firemen no longer fight flames but are government sanctioned arsonists.

But for Bradbury’s purposes, none of the technological background is important to explaining how and why his society works, much less what drives the thirst for forbidden knowledge that makes his protagonist Guy Montag so memorable where other sci-fi characters are interchangeable ciphers.

Fahrenheit 451’s world seems at first glance no different from our own…except for one little thing. And that approach makes it more timeless and translatable — not translatable merely in the sense of one language to another but in the sense of one time & culture being able to grasp the meaning of another.

There are, of course, a wide variety of approaches in between. Robert Heinlein is perhaps the prime example of a writer who skillfully / seamlessly weaves in great big info dumps without drawing undo attention to them.[5]  Have Spacesuit, Will Travel famously starts off in Norman Rockwell Americana and ends up in Star Wars backyard and does so with a casual series of reveals that literally doubles the scope of the novel chapter by chapter.

Conversely, Jack Vance and Cordwainer Smith[6] just plunge ahead with concepts and terminology unfamiliar to the reader, expecting them to hang on for the ride.

In effect, they expect readers to be co-collaborators with them, using their own imaginations to fill in details of the broad vibrant sketches they provide.

There’s no one absolute right or wrong way of m/t/faking an info dump…

…except, of course,
for the one unpardonable
writing sin: Boredom.

As a rough rule of thumb, the less you tell / the more you show, the better.
The less concrete your background and the more abstract, the better.

And ultimately,
the details don’t
matter.

Even in sci-fi, the story is not so much about what happens (and even less how it happens) than it is why it happens and (most importantly) to who it happens.

Create characters the reader is curious about,
and you’re on your way to the homestretch.

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[1] And not a serving spoon, either, but one of those dinky little sample spoons they have at Baskin-Robbins.

[2] Sidebar: I understand the temptation to take shortcuts, and in a story where the human character interaction is less important that the ideas being expressed it’s no great sin to fall back on templates that readers are familiar with through TV and movie exposure.  But, people, there’s more than one Very Popular TV series, and more than one Very Popular Movie, and it wouldn’t hurt to lift character types and tropes from other TV and movie series for variety’s sake, if nothing else.  Will, Dr. Smith, and the Robot haven’t been working much recently, know what I’m sayin’?

[3] How this information is obtained is never explained.  It’s nice to think that M may have graduates of Hogwarth’s laboring away in the bowels of MI5 to magically secure the info they hand over to 007.

[4] Harlan Ellison in his great short story “’Repent, Harlequin!’ Said The Ticktockman” famously brings the proceedings to a screeching halt to explain that his protagonist’s acquisition of $100,000 worth of jelly beans was impossible because (a) nobody uses money anymore (b) the Harlequin couldn’t have possibly accumulated that much cash even if it did exist (c) the logistics of moving $100,000 worth of jelly beans without attracting government attention were beyond any single individual’s ability (d) they haven’t even made jelly beans in over a hundred years!  Nonetheless, the Harlequin still manages to acquire / move / distribute $100,000 worth of jelly beans and literally gums of the works of his time obsessed society.  It’s Harlan’s story, and if he says it happened, it happened…

[5] At least in his earlier, less didactic stories.

[6] Psuedonym for Paul Myron Anthony Linebarger.

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Happy [belated] Birthday, Roy Doty!

by Buzz on 25/09/2014

When I was a lad, Roy Doty‘s cartoons and illustrations were everywhere.

No foolin’.

You couldn’t open a publication without finding either a spot illo or a cartoon or a strip by him.

I want to focus in on one thing he made his specialty.

My father had a subscription to Popular Science when I was a lad.  Typically each issue would have a one page comics story by Doty called Wordless Workshop.

It was a deceptively simple strip that depicted a typical household problem, an ingenious solution, how to execute said solution, and a satisfied family at the end.

Sounds real simple, right?

Guess again.

Like Fred Astaire dancing, Doty was able to do something incredibly complex so effortlessly it felt like anybody could do it.

Seriously, have you tried
constructing Ikea furniture?
Don’t give me that
anybody-can-do-it crap.

Here are three examples of a true master at work.  Bravo, Mr. Doty, born Sep. 10, 1922, for doing so much wonderful work and making it look so easy.

Roy Doty WW 1

Roy Doty WW 2

Roy Doty WW 3

 

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Banned Books Week

by Buzz on 23/09/2014

When I was in high school, the most widely read book was not found in the library.  It was a tattered paperback that passed from hand to hand under desks, and was often read furtively while the teacher was trying to get across some finer points of algebra.

Call Me Brick

Call Me Brick by Munroe Howard was a crappy book, a Candy-wannabe only without Terry Southern’s nasty edge and sly wit, but we must have read that one single paperback to shreds before the semester was finished.  I think every single student read it at least once (and Reader Zero was a girl who brought it in to share with her friends, and one of them loaned it to her boyfriend on the football team and he shared it with us and so on and so on and so on…)

I bring it up because this is Banned Books Week, in which the censors yet again fail to learn that the surest way of getting a kid to do anything is to say it’s bad for ‘em.

Look, I appreciate parents wanting to make sure their kids aren’t exposed to material they think would be harmful to them (I’ve got my copy of The Anarchist Cookbook well hidden from prying young eyes).

But that applies only to your kids and only in your home; in a public setting such as a library or a school, it’s not your place, it’s not my place, and it’s certainly not some uptight jackanape’s place to decide what is / is not right / wrong for other people’s kids or young adults when they reach their teen years.

Show some support for the First Amendment by going to your local public library branch and reading something that would get some bluenose’s knickers in a twist.

Tell ‘em Judy Blume and Steve King sent you…

And if you’re wondering how a Christian can support “bad” books, it’s because I know once you get rid of the “bad” books the next one to go will be the “good” book.

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