Thursday, April 26, 2012

monkey cooperation and fairness - youtube

monkey cooperation and fairness - youtube

Class, Race, Fandom, and Dr. Who

Dr.Who is a BBC TV show that's run, off and on, since the 1960s. The Doctor reincarnates whenever a new actor takes over the role—so far, all the Doctors have been white, male, British, and vaguely middle-to-upper class.

Except one.

Christopher Eccleston is known to fans as the Ninth Doctor. I loved him because his incarnation of the Doctor, with a Northern English accent and a black leather jacket, evokes the working class. Some people didn't like him for that reason; a snobbish Guardian writer refers to Eccleston's Doctor as "looking like an EastEnders extra".

The Doctor is traditionally accompanied by a companion or two, the show's Watsons. My favorite, Billie Piper's very working-class Rose Tyler, began with Eccleston and continued when David Tennant  became the Doctor's tenth incarnation. You may argue whether the Ninth Doctor's working class status was a matter of sympathy or identity—though he was reborn in a new human form, he was still a Time Lord—but Rose Tyler was, in the words of the actress who played her, "a bit of a chav." (The show made that explicit when Rose, possessed by an alien intelligence, looked in a mirror and exclaimed, "Oh my god! I'm a chav!")

Many fans saw what that Guardian writer missed. Backword Dave at “The new Doctor Who” at A Fistful of Euros noted:
Both Rose and the Doctor seem to be “working class.” So far they’ve stood up for enslaved corporate hacks against unnamed bankers, overthrown a despotic billionaire who considered his staff “disposable,” supported an honest (and Labour seeming) MP against a corrupt system, visited a Victorian funeral parlour (where the most likeable characters were a maid and Charles Dickens). In the second episode, the sympathetic character was some kind of maintenance worker, and in episode 1, Rose worked in a department store. Where is the middle classness?
The white Rose Tyler had a black boyfriend, Mickey Smith, who could be considered a companion, but his part wasn't as important as Rose's. The first major black character in Doctor Who was Piper's successor, Freema Agyeman, who played Martha Jones, a middle class medical student.

Just as Rose was an excuse to acknowledge class issues, Martha was an opportunity to explore race. How well the writers did depends on who you ask.

Now, the Doctor always reincarnating as a white male has bugged me for ages. Whoopi Goldberg hinted decades ago that she would love the part, and she should've had it. Or if the producers insisted on someone male and British, Lenny Henry would've been great, as he proved in a spoof in 1985.

But when people talk about race and Dr. Who, they focus on Martha and especially on a scene from "Human Nature": Martha, who had been pretending to be the Doctor's housemaid in 1913, tries to convince an upper-class Brit that she's from the future:
MARTHA: I'm training to be a doctor. Not an alien doctor, a proper doctor. A doctor of medicine. 
JOAN: Well that certainly is nonsense. Women might train to be doctors, but hardly a skivvy and hardly one of your color.
It's a brilliant scene. The comment about "hardly a skivvy and hardly one of your color" tackles race and class simultaneously: To an upper-class Brit in 1913, being a doctor isn't for the working class, and it's especially not for brown-skinned members of that class.

But some of scifi fandom's Critical Race Theorists hate that scene. K. Tempest Bradford denounced it on a Tumblr page. then accused its writer, Paul Cornell, of "unintentional" racism at “Let’s Talk About Human Nature”, where she also complained about the Doctor getting to pass as a teacher, while Martha had to be a servant.

Two important points:

1. Bradford's comment about "unintentional" racism absolves no one of racism. All racism is unintentional: racists do what they do because they believe what they believe, not because they intend to be racist.

2. In this story, the middle-class Martha has accepted a working-class role to avoid calling attention to herself. Martha’s predecessor, Rose, wore a maid’s costume at least once; the Doctors companions have often passed themselves off as servants, I suspect.

What fascinates me about the discussion is that no one at Tumblr said a word about class, nor did Bradford at her blog.

But Paul Cornell, replying at Bradford's blog, mentioned class immediately:
...the question is, do we have everyone in (upper class, somewhat sheltered) 1914 be portrayed as absolutely non-racist, or do we note the possibility? I hate it when series set in the past ignore the racism of previous eras to extraordinary degrees. (To not have Martha hammered with it *every time* she sets foot in the past was, though, I think, the right decision.) I think it airbrushes the suffering of individuals back then out of history, by implicitly saying things were always all right. However, as you’re in the group portrayed here, I think your voice should have weight, and I don’t want to push it aside through my own privilege. It’d be really good if we could manage to have the (perhaps first ever) caring, dignified chat about race in the series. Mainly because I’m an enormous wuss and if it gets heated I could well disgrace myself with the wailing and the sobbing.
What Cornell missed with his "you're in the group portrayed here" is Bradford is not, because there's not a united black race. Bradford is a middle class fan whose Angry Black Woman blog excludes class from its concerns. She once said, "I rarely mention class because it’s not an issue I’m particularly familiar with." It's no surprise that in the conversation with Cornell, she continued to ignore class.

Cornell did not. He said:
I think it’s clear that, in some ways, we simply let you down, and I’m sorry about that. Some of this stuff one just can’t argue with, really. Back then we saw ‘chosen by the Tardis’ as a more poetic way of saying ‘by a roll of the dice’, but yes, it’s our choices that mattered. As a British person, the idea that in 1914 Joan would have known about women of colour being doctors feels very strange to me. That sort of cultural information would have been hard to come by (people of her class would have been surprised by that, I think, up until the 1950s, some much later), and I don’t think it’s a stretch at all to assume her ignorance. Correct me if I’m wrong, but I think one of the reasons the text is problematic for you is that you feel kicked by the heroine expressing such things. The way institutional bigotries touch good people (because I think it’s important to be able to acknowledge one’s own racism, so I also think it’s important to show racism as a flaw in otherwise positive characters) is a theme in my work. I’ve read the Butler, which is, as you say, the best sort of SF.
Bradford then replied:
I will have to defer to historians on this one, because I admit I don’t know.
Despite acknowledging her ignorance, Bradford didn't change her mind. At Tumblr, she said:
Having a discussion with Paul Cornell about this episode over on my blog. I’m realizing again (always have to re-realize this stuff) how some people just do not see the world the same way as others. They just don’t fathom how everything in this episode is just… arg.
To people like Bradford who care only about the depiction of race, class and history are always irrelevant.

I can suggest answers to her plot complaints, though whether my explanations are implied by the script or are only fan-spackling, I don't know. She says:
People have pointed out that the Doctor did not choose the time and place, the TARDIS dd. Well, TARDIS: wtf? Still not okay. ... In the world of the show that is bad enough. But I find it to be handwavy and bull on the part of the writer/creators/whoever came up with this idea. It looks like they’re trying to absolve the Doctor of responsibility here, and that’s a dick way to do so. Plus, it doesn’t fly for the TARDIS, either, as it’s been well established by this point that it has a consciousness, too.
1. Having the Tardis rather than the Doctor choose a time and place at random seems like a good plan if you're trying to hide from creatures who can travel in time and space.

2. Throughout the show's history, the Tardis has been presented as slightly damaged and not completely dependable. Maybe it goofed up when it chose 1913 Britain.

3. A time-traveling vehicle with an alien consciousness might not know or care to avoid sending Martha to any place with a history of racism. That choice would rule out Martha visiting much of Europe and the Americas after slavery in those places was restricted to one race.

4. The Tardis may have thought the Doctor's pursuers would never think they would hide in a racist time. If so, it was being considerate in sending them to 1913 Britain rather than the Antebellum South or Britain before 1833.

Bradford also complained:
It’s yet another example in a long list of examples where Martha is put into the Mammy role. I might have let it slide except it happens so often it’s a damn theme, and that’s really problematic.
It's actually another example of companions put in servant roles. Did anyone complain when the working class Rose Tyler was put into a maid's role?

For these critics of the handling of Martha Jones, the question doesn't seem to be whether the stories accurately present prevailing attitudes toward race and class. The question is whether it's racist for a middle-class black woman to visit a time where black women are assumed to be working class. That Martha is heroic isn't doubted; she's a much-loved character in Who fandom. I think her fans who wanted her written differently are missing something the writers know: part of her heroism comes from confronting racism. She could have been written like Star Trek's Uhura and only visited post-racial and non-racial places. That would have been a valid choice of the writers.

But it would have meant keeping her out of the last five hundred years of history where English was spoken.

Or it would have meant ignoring racism in those times.

Good writers know a truth about storytelling that fans don't: A writer's job isn't to give fans what they want. It's to give them what they need. If fans are upset because a beloved character faces hard realities, their upset may only be a sign that the writers are doing their job well.

Monday, April 23, 2012

the Buffy lessons: learning from the dead

The following thoughts are edited from blog posts. I’ve trimmed them, but I haven’t tried to make this a proper essay, so some parts end without formal conclusions.
For its first five years, Buffy the Vampire Slayer was my favorite TV show, and may be my favorite TV show of all time. Sure, not every episode was great, but the show had what I love: strong women, funny dialogue, clever plotting, a fun fantasy setting, and my kind of moral subtext, that friends matter and it’s better to do what’s right than what’s popular. I’ll admit that in many ways, other series are better than Buffy, but I didn’t love them so much for five years that I would then endure them for two more.
So, what did I learn about writing a series in those seven years?
1. Honor the metaphor.
Buffy began with an astonishingly clear metaphor: “high school is hell.” When high school ended and Angel got his own show, the writers didn’t take the time to rethink the underlying nature of their shows. At that point, two choices could’ve been made about the metaphor for Buffy:
They could’ve stuck with “school is hell” and examined the conflicts at college between frat kids and ROTC kids and radical kids and town kids and rich kids and scholarship kids and tenured professors and new professors and administration and sports departments and arts departments and kids who have enough money that they don’t need jobs and kids whose part-time jobs are killing their social lives and their study time —
Or they could’ve evolved the metaphor: “college is heaven, and heaven must be defended.” That’s the story that still involves all the groups that exist in “school is hell,” but it’s about the joy of finding what you want to be. What made Buffy’s seasons four and five fun was that they started down this path. Well, they started Willow down it. They let Buffy thrash around — which is not an unreasonable choice for your main character in a series. But they forgot that it would’ve been very easy for Giles to get a job at the U. teaching or in a library or a museum. They decided to leave Xander living in the family basement, even though Sunnydale’s university is a state school, which shouldn’t have been too tough or expensive to get into. They finally put Giles in the Magic Box, a setting that’s more appropriate for a sitcom than an adventure series; it made the show’s universe a little less grounded in the world we all know.
Whether the show stayed with “school is hell” or evolved into “college is heaven,” Buffy could’ve stayed in college for four years, then gone on to grad school. School is a limbo realm, neither home nor work. It’s a place of becoming, of transition. And that’s the perfect backdrop for Buffy, whose hero role was forced on her, not part of her personal world of friends and families nor part of a professional world of co-workers.
A piece of what went wrong with Season 6 was that the writers decided to mature all the characters, to make them post-collegiate, as though there really is an objective “real world” that is more valid than the world of education. They ended up creating a much smaller world in which almost everything seemed to happen in Buffy’s house, the Magic Box, or the graveyard.
A metaphor may sound restrictive, but it’s not. A series’ metaphor isn’t a template that every story must fit. A metaphor is a proposition for a series to explore. It’s the way the settings, characters, and situations comment on life. The metaphor doesn’t narrow possibilities. It points out possibilities.
Every series has at least one metaphor, though the writers may not realize it and may not exploit it. It’s the metaphor of the genre. This is going to be a gross oversimplification (and for the first and only time, uh huh), but to some extent, all genres have an implied metaphor:
In mysteries, the world is a lie, and only the dedicated seeker can find the truth. In romances, the world is lonely, but love conquors loneliness. In fantasies and westerns, the community is threatened by greed or power, but selfless perseverence can set things right. In superhero stories, the world is always under assault, but struggling anonymously will bring the reward of knowing you’ve done the right thing. In science fiction, the universe seems like a strange and threatening place, but knowledge will save you. In horror, the universe is a strange and threatening place, and you’ll only survive with the right combination of the virtues and luck. All of those propositions say something that’s true about being human.
But the best series also have a specific metaphor that distinguishes them from others of their type. In Buffy ‘s case, the specific metaphor for the first three seasons was “high school is hell.” That metaphor gave us shows in which popular kids acted like hyenas, teachers were monsters, parents had their minds taken over, the principal was evil, and no one recognized that the supposedly uncool kids were really the heroes. You know, the basic high school experience that everyone can relate to.
And that specific metaphor was layered onto the genre metaphors of fantasy, horror, and superheroes. That’s a great combination when it’s explored well.
A series doesn’t need a specific metaphor for its writers to do good work. The Angel show has had some great episodes, even though it only has the same general metaphors as Buffy. Angel ‘s stories are about a group of friends who live together and don’t want much more from life than to fight evil and have satisfying romances. Well, to be fair, there’s one other general metaphor that applies to Angel, the metaphor of most shows about friends: “Friends are family.”
The best or most memorable series mix general and specific metaphors. With the X-Men , the metaphors of superheroes and science fiction are layered with a strong metaphor from young adult fiction: “We’re all freaks.”
The metaphors can certainly change over the course of a series. What’s sad about Buffy is that the specific metaphor became vague. If Season 6 had a metaphor, it was “life is hell.” And if Season 7 had one, it was “life was too much hell last season; how do we wrap everything up?”
One last point: Metaphors in fantasy are especially tricky because fantasy is literalized metaphor. Huck Finn’s journey feels like an epic quest; Frodo Baggins’s journey is an epic quest. They’re different ways of doing the same thing in a story, of exploring the implications of being human, and encountering problems, and learning or failing to learn to change.
2. Remember the destiny.
The “destiny” is a sense of fate in a series: Robin Hood must defeat Prince John and marry Maid Marion. The destiny can be less precise: James Bond must defeat many different villains, each deadlier than the one before, and he must have many loves, each more exciting than the one before. If the main characters aren’t moving toward something that seems like their destiny, despite or because of the many obstacles between them and it, a series feels stagnant.
The show began with a clear romantic destiny: “The vampire slayer’s true love is a vampire with a soul.” When I watched the first three seasons, I didn’t like Angel because, face it, he’s only interesting when he turns evil. But boring Angel was a small price to pay for an otherwise great show. When Angel went off to his own series, Buffy’s creators were at a loss for what to do next. They tried Riley, but they didn’t think through his function as a romantic interest. Then they decided to send Spike down the same path we had already seen Angel take, making him another “vampire with a soul,” making him Robin to Angel’s Batman and making neither of them unique in the Buffyverse.
The show also began with a clear dramatic destiny: For five seasons, Buffy’s opposition grew more powerful than what she faced before: the Master, Spike and Drusilla and Angelus, the Mayor and Faith, Adam and the Initiative, Glory. But that fell apart in Season 6, when the recurring villains were three nerds who could’ve made a fun standalone episode or maybe a two-parter, but had insufficient weight to carry a season. Season 6 was like watching three James Bond movies in a row in which Bond was unable to defeat Curly, Moe, and Larry. Yes, the ultimate villain of Season 6 was the evil Willow — but that was too little, too late.
As for seventh season, the theoretical Big Bad was fine in theory: The First, the oldest and greatest evil. But what did we get? Actors we’d already seen, who couldn’t touch anything, and who talked a lot. Bringing in Caleb helped, but, as in Season 6, we got too little, too late.
As Buffy ends, we feel cheated on the story as a whole. Buffy can’t achieve her romantic destiny since it’s been derailed. And she can’t achieve her dramatic destiny, because the threat she’s facing feels like it’s less of a challenge than Spike and Drusilla in Season 2.
3. Preserve the tone.
I noticed tone for the first time when looking back at , a show that my wife and I adored as kids. It began as a semi-serious spy show in its first season. It became a hit. People thought it was fun and a little silly. So the producers decided it should become campier, and making it campy killed it. The fourth season producers made it more serious, but that change of direction came too late.
By Buffy the Vampire Slayer’s sixth season, we had too many supernatural characters that were more goofy than menacing: the three nerds, the floppy eared demon, Anya’s hex-demon friend, etc. Sure, Buffy’s villains always had some silliness to lighten their menace — the Mayor was an amazing mixture of funny and frightening. But tone is a tightrope. With Season 6s, the writers began leaping back and forth over the rope rather than staying on it.
Their leaping included inappropriately dark elements involving Buffy’s sexuality. Glum, loveless, submissive and subordinated sex is the wrong choice for a show that’s supposed to be about strong women.
4. Make most episodes complete unto themselves.
As a comic book fan, I remember the thrill of the first two-part story I read. I loved it because the story was big. I hated it because I had to wait for the conclusion; I lost the satisfaction of experiencing a complete story in a single reading. Multi-part stories were rare in comics then, a treat and not the main course. Then comic books became more and more episodic. And comic book sales plunged for many reasons, not the least that it was hard for new readers to start a series.
The show’s first five seasons had plenty of episodes in which the season’s story arc was a minor element in an otherwise standalone story. Then they switched to soap opera storytelling, abandoning crisp beginnings and ends in favor of unending middles.
5. Keep the world larger than the cast.
For five seasons, Buffy balanced school and home and her duty as the Slayer. She lived in a world in which characters could become significant for an episode and then disappear. Her world felt enormous. In the last two seasons, she gave up school and her world shrank, consisting almost solely of the people who lived in her house, something you’d expect in a soap or a sitcom, not in an adventure series. As a result, it looked like the show had cut its budget at a time when it was making more money than ever, and Buffy’s world felt claustrophobic.
6. Respect the story’s character types when the casting changes.
In the first three seasons, the writers found a balance that worked nicely for the main cast: Buffy as the champion learning about life, Giles as the mentor finding his own purpose by guiding the champion, Xander as the champion’s goofy but dependable sidekick, Willow as the champion’s quirky but capable best friend, Cordelia as the goofy sidekick’s self-obsessed but oddly dependable love interest, Oz as the best friend’s kind but troubled lover, and Angel as the champion’s extremely troubled romantic interest,
With the fourth season, the show lost Angel, Cordelia, and Oz. They did an excellent job of moving Anya into Cordelia’s job. They did a fair job of moving Tara into Oz’s, though in retrospect I believe that had more to do with the charm of the actors than in the way their story was presented. But the writers floundered for a new love interest for Buffy.
7. When one character’s love life sucks, make sure another character’s love life is good.
I was reminded of this on  when Rory’s romance fell apart as Lane’s evolved. It kept the show from becoming too depressing, and it heightened the pathos of the crumbling relationship by contrasting it with the evolving one. Buffy knew that in its first fiveseasons—Xander’s finest moment is when Buffy’s romance with Riley fails, and Xander commits to Anya—but forgot it in its sixth.
8. Don’t marry off main characters.
Adventure includes romance, so romance must stay as uncertain as every other element. You have at least three choices: move your character through a number of romances in search of the right one, create a triangle so your character is torn between two equally promising people, or set up an insurmountable obstacle to romance with the lover who is clearly right for the character.
The show took the third path in its first three seasons. But when they lost Angel, Buffy began a relationship with Riley that had no inherent tension, that was every bit as comfortable as a main character’s relationship on a sitcom. The only tension in the Buffy-Riley relationship came at the end, when the writers desperately shoe-horned in an excuse that felt false because it had not been established.
9. Don’t hesitate to marry off supporting characters.
The Xander-Anya relationship was a comforting piece of stability in an unstable world; it reinforced the sense that friends stood by each other, and friendship could become love. Friends understood that when they let Chandler and Monica marry. Buffy the Vampire Slayer threw away the Xander-Anya romance and left both characters hanging around with no strong function in the show.
10. Eliminate characters that don’t have a distinct dramatic purpose.
The greatest tragedy of Buffy’s seventh season was the number of actors occupying the set with no distinct role in the story. Xander and Andrew both occupied the awkward nerd-guy niche. Dawn and the potential Slayers were all girls who were kind of like Buffy, but less interesting. Principal Wood might have developed into a love interest for Buffy, or a new mentor, or a new menace. Instead he became Mr. Token after he attacked Spike. He would seem like less of a token black guy had he at least gotten a heroic death, perhaps saving Buffy — or better yet, Spike — from the First as soon as the writers realized they had nothing more to do with him.
11. Let your villains love.
Buffy’s best villains were capable of love — twisted love, but love nonetheless: Spike loved Drusilla, and the Mayor loved Faith. That love gave them dramatic possibilities that the Master, Adam, Glory, the three nerds, and the First never could have achieved, not because of the actors or their parts, but because the writers restricted their possibilities by not giving them anything more to do than be evil.
12. Divide your hero’s wants and needs.
Buffy wants a human life. Buffy needs to save the world. That’s a classic dynamic. Buffy, as a character, is fascinating when she tries to balance her needs and wants. She only becomes tiresome when she stops trying to balance them and mopes around for several episodes or most of a season.
13. Burn story.
For the first five seasons, the plots for the main arcs evolved rapidly: look at the changes with Spike and Angel in the second season, and Faith in the third. Then look at seasons six and seven, where there were few surprises beyond, “Yeah, Willow’s going to turn evil, how much longer do we have to wait for it?” and “Yeah, Buffy’s going to fight with Caleb some more, what’ll happen next? Oh, she’s going to fight with Caleb some more.”
14. Stay true to each character’s history.
At the very beginning of sixth season, Spike selflessly protected Dawn and went on patrol with the Scoobies while Buffy was dead; he seemed to have learned about love and loyalty during the two years when he believed the chip was keeping him from killing humans. But after Buffy returns, we’re told that Spike has always been evil and can only be redeemed by getting a soul.
Xander made one of the all-time great commitments of love to Anya at the end of season five; he’s not the man who wimps out in Season 6.
Dawn hung around for three seasons with plenty of potential, and that potential might’ve been realized if the writers had focused on her. They dropped the question of what it means that she was in some sense made from Buffy. She could have become the Slayer-In-Waiting, someone that Buffy trained and who was capable on her own. Or Dawn could’ve developed as Buffy’s human self, the girl Buffy would have been if she had never become the Slayer.
At the end of season five, Buffy loved life and the world so much that she was willing to sacrifice her life, but in Season 6, having been in heaven makes her think life doesn’t much matter, a storyline that looked like it would be resolved with the musical episode, but instead dragged on.
While it dragged on, Buffy began working for a fast food restaurant, a choice that ignored the character’s job history and her needs at that moment: income and a flexible schedule. She had worked in a diner a few seasons earlier; an experienced waiter would get better pay and far more flexibility working anyplace other than a fast food restaurant. (And, I confess, I think a diner would’ve made a more interesting setting for Buffy than a fast food restaurant.)
Concept and execution
Here’s the quick list of what the audience wants from a story: intriguing ideas, characters, settings, dialogue, narration, and observations about life. Observations come in two forms: the way things should be, as in Mr. Smith Goes to Washington, or the way things are, as in The Grapes of Wrath. The list can be roughly divided in two: Ideas, settings, characters, and observations about life are concepts; dialogue and narration are the execution.
For five seasons, Buffy did a generally good and often great job at all of those. The ideas were interesting, the characters were fun, the settings were enjoyable, the dialogue sparkled, the narrative moved briskly, and the observations about life focused on the way things should be: women were powerful and friends were true to each other, no matter what.
The story arcs for the last two seasons were conceptually as strong as any that came before. Season 6 set out to explore what it meant for Buffy to return from the dead and make a new life as a mentor instead of a student, for Willow to be tempted by power, for Spike to explore the nature of love, for Xander to confront his fears of his family, for Anya to face what it meant to have been a creature of vengeance. Season seven promised the First Evil, something that understood the primordial darknesses in all of us and knew how to exploit them, something that would test the Scoobies individually and as a group, something that truly would be the greatest opponent anyone could face.
But other aspects of the concept changed.
The settings focused on the boring (Buffy’s house) and the silly (the fast food place).
The characters changed. Buffy moped around. Xander became middle-class and incapable of committing to love. Willow developed an addiction to power. Giles ran away to England because he thought the best way to help someone who had literally returned from the dead was to abandon her. Anya sulked a lot because Xander had become a jerk.
The observation on life changed from charming idealism to bitter realism. For Willow, the message was that women can’t control power. For Buffy, it was that women should endure abusive relationships. For Spike, it was that sex is about power, not love or fun. For Xander, it was that if your family history is terrible, you must not commit to a future of love. For Anya, it was that if you were violent, you’ll fall back on violence, because you can’t learn and grow. For the Scoobies in general, it was that friends betray you.
As for execution, those seasons were disappointing. The dialogue provided few memorable lines. The pacing became jerky: much was said but little was done, and little changed over the course of a season. The writers seemed to have forgotten the histories of their characters.
The interesting ideas of the last two seasons were often developed in simple-minded ways. The notion that being tempted by magic, a metaphor for power, could be a metaphor for addiction is not inherently stupid. Having Willow go down what looks like a sleazy alley and into what looks like a crack den to meet a guy who looks like a crack addict is incredibly stupid, because it ignores the nature of the thing that’s being used for a metaphor. If you want to write a story about magic and addiction, don’t think about crack dens. Think about Hollywood and Wall Street, where temptation comes in a beautiful shell.
I realize I’ve come down on BtVS awfully hard, but that’s tribute, honest. You don’t see me listing what I learned from .
For me, the canonical BtVS ends with Buffy’s death at the end of season five, and the musical and the season seven finale are pleasant pieces of apocrypha. But for all that I love many things about seasons four and five, like the Xander-Anya relationship and “Hush,” the purest BtVS consists of seasons one through three, when the show’s metaphor and destiny are firmly in place, and the hero’s journey properly ends when she saves the world in general and her classmates in particular, and they recognize her as the champion we’ve always known her to be. The only thing lacking was a kiss from Angel of “hello” instead of “goodbye.”
While the first three seasons are the strongest overall, I prefer the characters in seasons four and five. Spike is more fun than Angel, Anya is more fun than Cordelia, and Tara is more interesting with Willow than Oz. As for the original cast, Buffy and Giles are as entertaining as ever, and Xander is remarkably well delineated. In those seasons, the actors and the writers knew exactly what to do with the characters’ dialogue and relationships, despite shaky steps with the story arcs.
For all that Riley wasn’t used well dramatically, I thought he was swell; ignoring the fact that it makes for a boring story, why shouldn’t the heroine have a dependable, good-looking boyfriend who is great in bed? (And, okay, I always identified more with Captain America than Batman. I like people who do the right thing because it’s the right thing, and not because they feel really, really guilty. And I like spies. So I didn’t mind the absence of dramatic tension in the original Buffy-Riley romance. I rather liked it, in fact. Riley’s approach to Buffy — being there when she needed him, getting out of her way when she didn’t, and not being threatened by or envious of her strengths — is exactly what I’ve strived for in my marriage to the multi-talented Emma Bull.)
There were moments that I liked throughout seasons six and seven. But the only episodes during that time that I thought fired on every level were the musical and season seven’s finale. I don’t, for example, understand the fondness for “Conversations with the Dead,” which was conceptually nice, but dragged out and had some odd choices for the First’s manifestations. That was probably based on the availability of actors, but still, if a choice is dramatically odd, it’s odd, whatever the excuse. All the actors did their usual excellent work, but my advice to someone who has not seen Buffy is this: Start at the beginning and go forward. If the sixth season doesn’t feel like fun to you, watch the musical and the seventh season finale, then quit.
Foolish things smart people say
Hey, we’re all human, so I hope anyone who comments on my inanities will be kind enough to preface them with something like, “Will Shetterly’s an astonishingly talented and insightful person, but — ”
Joss Whedon’s an astonishingly talented and insightful person, but in his interview, he says, “…the characters have to feel the way the audience does. If the audience doesn’t buy that Buffy’s brought back from the dead, then Buffy can’t buy it. They’ve got to go, “I can’t believe this has happened. It’s horrible.” If the audience is feeling the loss of Angel and feeling that she can’t have a relationship with Riley, she’s got to feel the same way. You feel that out.”
Sorry, but that’s not true. The characters need to be ahead of the audience, not with them. The audience needs to be running to catch up. The audience needs to be saying, “Hey, that’s not what I thought. That’s so much cooler!” I had not thought before that Mutant Enemy was too guilty of listening to its core fan base, but I think that explains a number of things about the show, beginning with the decision to dump Riley.
Which ties into this comment from the same interview: “…we had Angel go bad when he and Buffy got together. Because — and I’ve gotten into so much trouble for this phrase — what people want is not what they need. In narrative, nobody wants to see fat, married Romeo and Juliet, even if fat, married Romeo and Juliet happen to be Nick and Nora Charles and they’re really cool and having a great time in their lovely relationship and really care about each other and have nice, well-adjusted children. Guess what? People don’t want to see it. “
He’s dead on saying, “what people want is not what they need.” But that has nothing to do with the fact that some people want to see Nick and Nora. They also want to see Steed and Mrs. Peel. They want to see Holmes and Watson. Sometimes we need to see partners who work together well, and whether they’re having sex is irrelevant to their partnership. It might be dramatically more fun for partners to have tiffs every story. But it’s not your only choice.

racism equals prejudice plus power, so only whites can be racist?

it's all one thing: racism equals prejudice plus power, so only whites can be racist?

Racism equals prejudice plus power, so only white people can be racist?

Blond and brunette Iranians

Search keywords that bring people to this blog include "blonde iranian" and "blonde persians". I'm sure I disappoint a lot of people looking for skin, but I like to think some are checking on the validity of the claim that Iranians are dark-skinned.

If you're wondering, the US government has always categorized Iranians as "white."

My original post:

Nick Mamatas was surprised that Prince of Persia had a character who looked like Aryan Jesus, so I gathered some Persian/Iranian references for him. In case anyone else thought all Iranians looked like stereotypical Arabs, here are some Iranians:

bloneIran.jpg image by Sunshineenfred


And here, Merlkir offers some art showing members of the Persian Empire:

And a Roman representation of the Three Wise Men, who were believed to be Persians because "magi" is the Persian word for a Zoroastrian priest. (History geek Will notes that we're actually talking about the Parthian Empire at this time, not the Persian, but ignore the nerd here.)

Blond and brunette Iranians

Search keywords that bring people to this blog include "blonde iranian" and "blonde persians". I'm sure I disappoint a lot of people looking for skin, but I like to think some are checking on the validity of the claim that Iranians are dark-skinned.

If you're wondering, the US government has always categorized Iranians as "white."

My original post:

Nick Mamatas was surprised that Prince of Persia had a character who looked like Aryan Jesus, so I gathered some Persian/Iranian references for him. In case anyone else thought all Iranians looked like stereotypical Arabs, here are some Iranians:

bloneIran.jpg image by Sunshineenfred


And here, Merlkir offers some art showing members of the Persian Empire:

And a Roman representation of the Three Wise Men, who were believed to be Persians because "magi" is the Persian word for a Zoroastrian priest. (History geek Will notes that we're actually talking about the Parthian Empire at this time, not the Persian, but ignore the nerd here.)

Stephen Fry on being offended, plus Penn & Teller

Sunday, April 22, 2012

The art of the critique

When people ask for comments on their writing, be polite and be honest. Some commenters favor a policy of “brutal honesty,” but polite honesty is always more effective. Try this:

1. Find the strengths in the work and mention them first. You may have to dig to find them, but they’ll be there. You may only be able to find one or two good things, and they may be as minor as a sentence, a metaphor, a piece of dialogue, a character’s name, or an observation of nature, but there will be something there that’s worth preserving or developing further.

2. Make your general observations next. Here’s a tentative check list:
  • Do the characters change over the course of the story? Or is the point of the story that they fail to change?
  • Does the setting come alive? Does it seem like the right setting for the story?
  • Is the style smooth? Does the story flow from sentence to sentence and paragraph to paragraph?
  • Does the writer seem to be trying to tell too much or too little?
3. Make petty points last. Write minor suggestions on a copy of the story and give that to the writer rather than belabor small things like typos and suggested deletions.

4. If the writer seems to be having trouble with your suggestions, point out that you’re only doing the best you can, and you know that your suggestions may not be right. Criticism should never get in the way of friendship.

The art of the critique

When people ask for comments on their writing, be polite and be honest. Some commenters favor a policy of “brutal honesty,” but polite honesty is always more effective. Try this:

1. Find the strengths in the work and mention them first. You may have to dig to find them, but they’ll be there. You may only be able to find one or two good things, and they may be as minor as a sentence, a metaphor, a piece of dialogue, a character’s name, or an observation of nature, but there will be something there that’s worth preserving or developing further.

2. Make your general observations next. Here’s a tentative check list:
  • Do the characters change over the course of the story? Or is the point of the story that they fail to change?
  • Does the setting come alive? Does it seem like the right setting for the story?
  • Is the style smooth? Does the story flow from sentence to sentence and paragraph to paragraph?
  • Does the writer seem to be trying to tell too much or too little?
3. Make petty points last. Write minor suggestions on a copy of the story and give that to the writer rather than belabor small things like typos and suggested deletions.

4. If the writer seems to be having trouble with your suggestions, point out that you’re only doing the best you can, and you know that your suggestions may not be right. Criticism should never get in the way of friendship.

Saturday, April 21, 2012

if I rebooted the DC universe

This is a collection of posts about revamping DC characters. The first one is tongue-in-cheek, but the rest are straight fanboy.


  1. Dear DC, Please Keep Captain Marvel Black!
  2. If I rebooted Wonder Woman
  3. If I rebooted Batman and Robin
  4. If I rebooted Superman
  5. If I rebooted the Justice League: Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkwoman, Martian Manhunter
  6. If I rebooted Atom and Green Arrow
  7. If I rebooted Aquaman
  8. Why Aquaman is the greatest superhero ever (or, rebooting Aquaman, part 2)
  9. If I rebooted Zatanna
  10. If I rebooted Sgt. Rock
  11. The gender-reversed Justice League
Dear DC, Please Keep Captain Marvel Black!

Dear DC,

You’re about to reboot your universe, and I approve. Comic books should be rebooted every decade to keep them vital. Having a younger Superman who was never married makes sense. I only have one plea: please, keep Captain Marvel black.

I’m old enough to remember the early ‘70s when DC had the best female superheroes, Wonder Woman, Supergirl, and Batgirl, and Marvel had the best black superheroes, the Black Panther, the Falcon, and Luke Cage.

But everything changed in 1973 when DC expanded its universe with characters that had been published by other companies. Justice League #107 introduced the Quality Comics superheroes. Here’s that groundbreaking cover:

With one stroke, DC accomplished two things. The obvious one: it leapt ahead of Marvel on diversity, creating four African-American heroes, a Mexican-American Black Condor and a Japanese-American Human Bomb (which seems simplistic now, but was a daring commentary on nuclear weapons then).

Sure, DC got flak from racists who said Uncle Sam had to be white. DC bravely answered that the spirit of America could manifest in any of its citizens, and all the major media news media agreed, giving DC publicity that no amount of money could buy. Until then, Marvel Comics had threatened to surpass DC, but DC's bold integration of its world pushed Marvel back into second place.

DC's other accomplishment is easy to overlook now. When independent comic book companies were competing, they had slots to fill. Among them:
  • The white supernatural guy.
  • The white woman in a skimpy costume.
  • The white guy who flies.
  • The white guy who shrinks.
  • The white guy who is super-fast.
  • The white guy whose power makes him a tragic freak.
Imagine if DC had left the Quality characters white. They would’ve been redundant: the Spectre, Wonder Woman, Adam Strange, the Atom, the Flash, and Robotman had those roles covered. But with a simple change, DC made the DCU look more like the world of its readers.

When DC saw that sales didn't suffer from having characters who weren’t white, they did it again with the Fawcett characters in Justice League #136 and #137:

Can you imagine what those covers would've looked like with all-white characters? You would think you were in an alternate universe where Hitler won.

Superman, Supergirl, Batman, Robin, Hawkman, Hawkgirl, Green Arrow, and Green Lantern had already taken these slots in the DCU:
  • The white guy with demi-god powers.
  • The white woman with demi-god powers.
  • The rich white athlete guy with gimmicks.
  • The rich white guy's boy sidekick.
  • The white guy who flies.
  • The white woman who flies thanks to her boyfriend.
  • The white detective guy.
  • The white guy with a supernatural doohickey.
By making the Fawcett characters black, DC told its readers that anyone could be a superhero, regardless of race or gender. Who was stronger, the white Superman and Supergirl or the black Captain Marvel and Mary Marvel? No one knew whether a Kryptonian could defeat the magic of Shazam, but one thing was very clear: the people at the top of the power spectrum could be of any hue or gender.

Comics could sell a million copies in those days. Did the black Captain Marvel and Isis make it a little easier for Jesse Jackson to be elected president in 1988?

Probably not. Comics can’t change the world, even if they change the discussion for a few people. If DC had stuck with a white Captain Marvel, I'm sure capitalism would still be in crisis today and the Republicans would've still given us a moderate like Barack Obama to cope with our changing world.

But it’s nice to imagine that things would be a little better because DC saw a need and acted on it.

So, DC, when you revamp your universe, don't make the most powerful men and women white again. Keep the Marvel Family black.

ETA: RAB reminded me of this panel from Animal Man, which features characters this fanboy would love to see again:

Sunshine Superman

ETA 2: Walaka reminded me of the alternate Justice League in Legends of the DCU: Crisis on Infinite Earths #1, with Earth-D's black Superman and Superwoman. For pics of the rest, see his post, Earth D-lightful.

If I rebooted Wonder Woman

This is the Wonder Woman I would choose:

She's from a one-shot, Legends of the DCU: Crisis on Infinite Earths #1. The designer solved a problem that's defeated every other attempt I've seen to fix her costume: he turned the original bird insignia into something that both holds up her costume and suggests armor.

I dunno who suggested the costume, but I strongly suspect the writer, Marv Wolfman, suggested that she look Middle-Eastern. It makes sense. In classical literature, the island of the Amazons has been located in Libya and Asia Minor.

ETA: While I like the skirt, I would be tempted to give her pants. 

If I rebooted Batman and Robin

This is a light modification of a panel in Legends of the DCU: Crisis on Infinite Earths #1. I could go either way on making Batman's costume black and gray or blue and gray, but for a creature of the night, the yellow belt made no sense, and the panties were just too 1940s.

My Batman's personality is inspired by the 1960s "New Look" Batman: he's a detective who has mostly made peace with the fact that he can't bring his parents back from the dead. He doesn't like putting Robin in danger, so Robin would be a supporting character, someone who goes undercover in places where Batman can't and who usually has adventures on his own or with the Titans. Their styles are so different that they shouldn't team up often: Batman's inspiration is the creature of the night; Robin's inspiration is the people's hero, Robin Hood. The only reason Batman trains Robin is because he realizes that the kid will fight crime no matter what Batman does, so he might as well do what he can as mentor and friend.

The Bruce Wayne playboy is not a "cover". Batman thinks of himself as a soldier or a spy who works hard and parties hard. He knows he needs R&R to keep doing his duty, and he wants fun that won't result in anyone becoming too fond of him. He's an adrenaline junkie, and sometimes, late at night, he wonders if he has a bit of a death wish. If so, so long as it helps him do his job, he's fine with that.

ETA: The capes can become rigid and serve as gliders. Otherwise, why are acrobats wearing capes? Other than they look cool? Which, I grant, in a comic book is never automatically the wrong answer.

ETA 2: The trick to making the original Robin cape work is to use the collar. Perez understood that:

ETA 3: I would be tempted to make Robin's cape green.

If I rebooted Superman

For background on Superman's look, try SupermanPage and Superman's Symbol, Shield, Emblem, Logo and Its History!. Part of what I like about them is they disagree. For example, was the original Superman meant to have red boots, and the printer or the colorist screwed up? No one seems to know. Blue boots are plausible:

So are red:

What's clear is that Superman was meant to resemble a circus strongman. And that's what's wrong with DC's current attempts:

Is he supposed to look like a kid playing superhero by tying a towel around his neck?

The amount of blue and the high neckline makes it look like a he's wearing a uniform, and the hints of armor make it worse: a superman doesn't need armor.

The fact is that the basic Superman costume is surprisingly delicately balanced. Get rid of the cape? It works too nicely in flight. Get rid of the panties? He becomes too streamlined. I considered giving him red pants and blue boots:

But that does odd things to the icon, too. Much as I hate taking the conservative choice, on Superman, this can't be improved:

Make fun of his panties. I do. It doesn't matter. Superman is perfectly comfortable with his sexuality, thank you very much. I hear men mocking his look, but I can't remember ever hearing a woman saying there's something wrong with calling attention to his crotch.

As for powers, he should be able to fly into space, but he shouldn't be able to move planets and he shouldn't be faster than the Flash.

Clark Kent works for the Daily Planet as an investigative reporter. He doesn't worry about the deadlines that come with TV or radio reporting. The Planet has a web presence that's giving the New York Times a run for its money.

Romance? Complicated. Lois Lane is simultaneously a best friend, love interest, collaborator, and, on some stories, competition. Clark and Lois should see other people while they're working that out.

Best friend? Jimmy Olsen, the only reporter with less experience than Clark, and the only reporter who is as gutsy as Lois.

Boss? Penny White, a black woman.

Completely new character? A Korean-American male reporter and former Marine who works with Lois and Jimmy, and is Lois's current romantic interest.

Clark's current romance? His relationship with Lana Lang is getting rocky. His work has taken him to Metropolis, and she's on an archeological dig in South America, where she's falling for a local. 

If I rebooted the Justice League:
Flash, Green Lantern, Hawkwoman, Martian Manhunter

According to a friend I trust, when the trailers for the Green Lantern movie appeared, kids asked, "Why did they make Green Lantern a white guy?"

That's not a joke like "Paul McCartney was in a band before Wings?" It's because, to folks under thirty, this is the Justice League:

But this is DC's reboot:

How many ways is it awful? The short list:

• Instead of being a team of individuals, they look like they went to the same tailor.

• Aquaman is one of my favorite characters, but he shouldn't be part of the core League. He should only appear when a case involves the seas.

• Cyborg is great in the Titans, but he doesn't have a distinct role in the League unless they turn him into a brilliant scientist. Also, his name is generic—it's like calling a character Robot. Give him back to the Titans.

• One woman? Are you kidding me? Humanity is 51% female, and there's one woman in the core team?

My reboot would have the Big Three, Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, and:

• Green Lantern. John Stewart, a black man who is the one and only Green Lantern of Earth. In the reboot, he's the guy Abin Sur Katma Tui* chose to wield the ring. (Hal Jordan and Guy Gardner would make cameos as people who might've been picked, if things had gone differently.)

• The Flash. Ricky Estrada, a Mexican-American man with the personality of Wally West.

• Hawkwoman. Shayera Hol, a Thanagarian cop who comes to Earth in pursuit of an alien crook. Her partner, Katar Hol, is killed, and their ship is destroyed, so she stays on Earth for longer than was planned, and comes to love the planet.

• The Martian Manhunter: The original always seemed goofy to me: a green version of Superman who can change shape and gets weak in the presence of fire? Use Miss Martian instead:

Miss Martian photo

A fundamental principle should apply to characters like Green Lantern and Hawkwoman: Heroes should be unique—unless someone offers a lot of money to make a movie or TV show about a variant like Supergirl or Batgirl.

* Using Katma Tui instead of Abin Sur to make it clear that the ring can go to anyone who is worthy.

If I rebooted Atom and Green Arrow

On the list of simple comic book truths: Superhero comics need major female superheroes. I like the idea that the Flash should be a woman. A speedster called Jesse Quick briefly took over the role:

It'd be great if The Fastest Man On Earth was a woman.

But DC is conservative with the characters it considers its most valuable properties, so I doubt they would go with a female Flash, even though that's the best way to get a second woman into DC's Big Five of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern, and the Flash.

That argument doesn't apply to the Atom and Green Arrow.

There've been several male Atoms over the years, including an Asian, Ryan Choi. I'm a big fan of the Earth-D Atom:

And the female Atom on Earth-15:

So I would make the female Atom a black or Asian-American scientist, then give her a jet pack and ray guns. That would be an Atom who'd be a lot of fun to write.

Then there's Green Arrow, one of DC's most durable characters, probably because he's usually a supporting character. He's Batman if Bruce Wayne was inspired by Robin Hood crashing through his window instead of a bat.

So let Batman be Batman, and let a woman be Green Arrow. An American Indian woman could work nicely if you avoided the obvious cliches, or you could use the character who has been called Arrowette and Miss Arrowette:

She was updated for Young Justice:

Put her in a hooded costume:

And that's my Green Arrow.

If I rebooted Aquaman

For at least a summer, Aquaman was my favorite comic. It was the only comic I subscribed to, and the only reason I stopped subscribing was because as I was such a fanboy that I wanted to be able to pick out the best copy of each issue from the spinner.

I loved everything about Aquaman. I loved his weird underwater world. I loved his relationship with Mera, his girlfriend and then wife who could do everything he could, and could manipulate water as well. I loved his orange and green costume with the scales. I loved his conflict with his half-brother.

Okay, I didn't love his sidekick, Aquaboy in his stupid shorts. But annoying teen sidekicks were the price of DC superheroics.

So, what would I change?

Make him Polynesian.

Aquaman and Green Arrow appeared at the same time, in More Fun Comics #73 (Nov.1941). Like DC's Big Three, they slid from the Golden Age into the Silver with few physical changes: Green Arrow was briefly a brunet; Aquaman's gloves were often yellow before they settled on green.

This is the Aquaman DC is rebooting:

I don't mind the neckline, though I prefer the boatneck collar of the '40s and '50s. But the trident is just a stupid thing to have to carry around. If you want to give Aquaman a gimmick, give him a harpoon gun.

Also, ditch the gloves. He doesn't have a secret identity or any reason to protect his hands.

Here's an early appearance of Mera:

I wouldn't change a thing about her. Superhero comics could use an interracial marriage. If you have to give someone a trident, let it be hers.

Aquaboy? Aquagirl? Heroes should be unique. Forget them, and Topo the Octopus too.

PS. I don't know how many Aryan heroes DC needs, but really, they can spare a few blond guys.

Why Aquaman is the greatest superhero ever (or, rebooting Aquaman, part 2)

Aquaman has a bad rep for one reason: Superfriends didn't know what to do with him. And to be fair to the show, he doesn't fit as a regular member of a team that operates primarily on land divided into nations.

Here's why:

1. Aquaman is the ultimate anarchist superhero. His father (or, in some versions of his origin, step-father) was an American and his mother was an illegal alien, an Atlantean. He grew up an outcast, a citizen of no nation.

2. Aquaman works for justice on the whole planet, but especially on the three-fourths where human law is weak. Every other superhero has a home beat, the city they live in. Even Superman, who should be international, is seen by the world as an American because he operates out of Metropolis. Only Aquaman roams the world.

3. Aquaman is strong enough to survive at the bottom of the sea. How many other heroes can keep him company there? Only Kryptonians, the Marvel Family, Green Lantern, and a few magical folks.

4. The creatures of the sea obey Aquaman because he's just that awesome.

5. Aquaman has a strong enough sense of self-worth to marry someone who is objectively more powerful than he is.

So, what mistakes have been made with Aquaman?

1. Originally, he didn't have any limit on how long he could be out of water. A limit makes sense for Atlanteans, but Aquaman should be unique, half-human and half-Atlantean, incorporating both group's strengths and neither's weaknesses.

2. He should never have become King of Atlantis. The job should've been offered and rejected.

How would I write Aquaman?

He and Mera are kids in their early '20s, cruising the world and looking for adventure. She has the power to shape solid things out of water and he does not, but she can't stay out of the water for more than an hour or two, while he can survive anywhere a human or an Atlantean could.

If I rebooted Zatanna

I would have her look like a dark-haired Marlene Dietrich in drag:

But this cosplayer could sell me on keeping the old costume and making her Asian or black:

(photo from here)

If I rebooted Sgt. Rock

I would make him the black leader of a black company. Popular culture has forgotten that the US Army was not integrated until the 1950s.

I was reminded of that by My Very Own Captain America -

The gender-reversed Justice League

From The best cosplay of Comic-Con 2011: