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The Books I Read in March 2017

My reading continued to be a disappointment in March, but I am enjoying more of the books I’m reading. So, not everything is doom and gloom.

I already reviewed Every Heart a Doorway and The Collapsing Empire, so I will just mention them here.

On to the rest of the books.

I started the month reading Miranda and Caliban by Jacqueline Carey. It is a retelling of The Tempest. I read the first chapter or two and set it aside. I am not a fan of Carey’s style.

I also didn’t care for Chris Colfer’s Stranger Than Fanfiction. Colfer isn’t a terrible writer, but he needs to rein in his camp and metafictional fanboy impulses. I genuinely hope he improves.

Wanting to read some classic science fiction, I tried Sherri S. Tepper’s Grass. The descriptions are lovely. The story is boring.

I finally read Kirstin Valdez Quade’s Night at the Fiesta. I enjoyed the collection very much. I especially liked “Nemecia” and “Mojave Rats.” I will keep my eye on Valdez Quade’s future work.

My success with Night at the Fiesta inspired me to seek out a number of short story collections (with much less success). Among these books are: Difficult Women by Roxane Gay, The Refugees by Viet Thanh Nguyen, The Tenth of December by George Saunders, Foreign Soil by Maxine Beneba Clarke, The World to Come by Jim Sheppard, and Homesick for Another World by Ottessa Moshfegh.

Keeping with George Saunders, I attempted Lincoln in the Bardo. Oh my, that book is weirdly structured.

After my success with Leviathan Wakes, I moved on to Abaddon’s Gate after Caliban’s War. I grow less impressed with The Expanse as the series progresses. A lot of my issues lie with the world building. But I also feel James S.A. Corey fall into the George R.R. Martin trap, too many point of view characters disrupt the narrative.

I’ve been wanting to read Brain Staveley’s The Emperor’s Blades for years (ever since I listened to a podcast interview with Staveley). I finally got around to it. I feel a world building rant coming on. And I wanted to like this book. Damn it.

I had the most success this month, honestly, with several history books I read for research. These books are: Life and Society in the Hittite World by Trevor Bryce, Byzantium Greatness and Decline by Charles Diehl (translated by Naomi Walford), and Lords of the Horizon by Jason Goodwin. All of these are good. The best book is by far Life and Society in the Hittite WorldByzantium Greatness and Decline is outdated (but hey, it is what my local library has). And Lords of the Horizon is a good popular introduction to the Ottoman Empire.

I also had some success with the comics I read this month. Among those are: Scarlet Witch Volume 2 World of Witchcraft by James Robinson, The Mighty Thor Volume 1 Thunder in Her Veins by Jason Aaron, Batman Volume 1 I am Gotham by Tom King, Detective Comics Volume 1 Rise of the Batmen by James Tynion IV, and Wonder Woman Volume 1 The Lies by Greg Rucka. I really liked Scralet Witch. I enjoyed The Mighty Thor though I am tired of the Roxxon Malekith plot, disliked the handling of Loki, and have issues with Aaron’s world building. I am not a fan of either Batman comic I read. I would much prefer James Tynion IV writing a dedicated Tim Drake book. And the first volume of Wonder Woman Rebirth surprised me. But I am not a fan Rucka’s rewritting of Wonder Woman’s history so soon after the last rewritting of her history. I just really liked the handling of Cheetah. I feel a comic book rant coming on.

That is all I read in March.

On to April!

 

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Thoughts on a Villain: James Gordon, Jr.

Scott Snyder’s rise to comics superstardom lay in his American Vampire series and his run on Detective Comics before the advent of the New 52. One of the most memorable events of Snyder’s run on Detective is the reintroduction of James Gordon, Jr., the son of Commissioner Gordon.

But James is nothing like his dad (or his sister, either). Junior is a psychopath. He is a menacing force that terrorizes the pages of “The Black Mirror” almost from the inception of the run. But what kind of villain is he?

James Gordon, Jr. starts out as this mysterious force, a blast from the past, if you will. He hasn’t been to Gotham in years. His activities are little known to his father. And barely followed by his sister, Oracle. How can the world’s foremost heroic hacker and information broker be stumped and stymied by her own brother? 

Oracle, however, suspects that her brother is not only a psycopath, but also a murderer. As the arc runs the course, that assumption is proven horrifically true. James Gordon, Jr. has to have a body count in the dozens, probably far more, if the box with keys is anything to go by. And it is clear that James’s first murder occurred when he was no more than ten. Scary. Hell, the kid even creeped out another serial killer. And, he gets on rather well with the Joker. Think about that. 

As the arc progresses, James Gordon, Jr. begins to take center stage as the main antagonist for the entire run. And, as such, there begins to be hints of a plan, of something sinister, at work. 

Junior’s plan is revealed to be two fold. First, he plans to poison the baby formula with a drug that will increase the likelihood that those children will become psycopaths like him. Secondly, he plans to murder his sister and stake his claim to being Dick Grayson’s Joker. 

During Barbara’s kidnapping, she calls her brother out. During the majority of the arc, Junior has been a menacing presence. In many ways, more frightening than any of Gotham’s usual array of villains. But, as his plans are revealed and take shape, James becomes just another villain, just another Gotham crazy. 

Is she right? Does James, Jr.’s shifting into more traditional supervillain territory render him less a threat than he was before? 

My reaction is to agree with Oracle. James is far more frightening when the reader doesn’t know what he is going to do. For Oracle, dealing with a villain that wants to poison baby formula to create more psycopaths (and then ham it up) is par for the course. But not knowing when Junior is finally going to come for her? Not knowing when she would, “wake up  with your hands around my throat,”? That is, I think, truly frightening. 

So, why does James Gordon, Jr. become just another bat villain? I don’t know. Perhaps it is the genre itself that forces the change. I don’t know. It does take a little bit of the bite out of the character though. 

And, of course, there is his moment of villainous hamming. Obviously, the intention is to cast James Gordon, Jr. as Dick Grayson’s Joker. Okay, now he is Batgirl’s Joker, but anyway. 

So, what does this tell the reader about Dick Grayson’s character? Well, it is plainly stated in Junior’s rant, so I won’t rehash it (if you haven’t already read Batman: The Black Mirror, you should).

Is a supervillain less frightening than a run of the mill serial killer (or psychopath)? Is that because the audience knows one is fictional while the other is, often times, too real? And, thinking of the impossible, what would a world where superheroes and supervillains really did exist look like? Hmm, thoughts for another day. 

Next time: I’m a teenager with superpowers. I want to be a superhero (or supervillain)!

Research and Realism

Research:

Reading Bryan Thomas Schmidt’s blog the other day, I began to think more about researching. How extensive does one need to be? How experiential? Can the research be minimal or does it have to be on the level of a lay doctorate? In reading a lot of writing advice sites, I’ve come to the conclusion that it is likely up to the reader (as much of the advice is colored by the experience of the writers themselves). In the end, I think, the amount of research is up to the writer. There is no universal “goldilocks” level of research.

But, I do think certain genres in speculative fiction require more depth in the research compared to others. I think Schmidt is right that hard science fiction demands doing the research, of being as well informed as possible on the science of today and extrapolating out.  I also think that urban fantasy needs quite a bit of research (at least to get the setting right- though it probably helps to actually live in the city one writes about). Of course, the other major fantasy genre that demands getting it right is historical fantasy. While I question if getting the world and details absolutely right is absolutely necessary for the “suspension of disbelief,” I do think taking the time to get it right is important. It reveals a commitment to the writing, a commitment to getting it right.

Now, how much research does a constructed world fantasy need? That is a tricky one. I would say as much as the writer wants to put in it for the world building. But at the same time, you don’t need to have every little thing planned out. I mean George R. R. Martin only created a few words of Valyrian and Dothraki, but the politics of Westeros is excellently well done. Compare to Tolkien who has several immense constructed languages, but the politics of Middle Earth are rather shoddily sketched in, if you ask me.

The amount of world building and research in constructed world fantasy  is, I think, up to the writer. Do what feels best for the story, and play to your own strengths as a researcher. If you are better at anthropology, do that. If you are a stronger historian, do that. You get the idea. Just because someone else argues that a world building should be this way or that way does not mean that they are right.

Realism:

Moving on to realism. I read a post yesterday by A. Lee Martinez complaining about the usage of adult languages (and the portrayal of Catwoman, period) in Arkham City. His argument got me to thinking about my own attitudes towards more “mature” content in fantasy. I am beginning to wonder if it is necessarily appropriate to use “realism” as a defense against critics who desire the tamer works of yesterday (and today).

Perhaps now is a good time to define the realism defense. The realism defense is an argument that posits the acceptability of including objectionable or mature content into genres that have, until recently, been seen as exclusively for children or young adults. Therefore, it is likely that the recent inclusion of mature content is as a means of titillation for older young adults or as a means to maintain an older audience who continue to read the material long after “one is too old” for that material.

So, maybe realism isn’t the best defense. Maybe the best way to go about it is to argue that adding mature or arguably objectionable content is two fold: to acknowledge that this work is aimed at older consumers and to acknowledge that the work at present is a reaction to the old sugar coated reality of the genre.

Batman is a fantasy whether he is the goofy Adam West or the hyper serious Christian Bale. The Joker can be just a clown prince of silly crime or a truly terrifying and psychotic monster, he is still a fantasy either way. Indeed, the darker Batman (and comics in general) of today is a direct result, I think, of being bottled up by the comics code for decades.

In a similar way, I think that fantasy is undergoing a similar process. Some older fantasy readers don’t want to read sugar coated idylls of the Shire. They want the nasty, the brutish world of Earwa.

Post Script:

Damn, I did not want this post to be so long. Another thing on research: don’t let it consume you! Find a point and stop, write the story, and do further research in the editing phase. You don’t want to have a story gestating for a decade or more doing research. By that token, you might as well write a dissertation on the subject.

Thoughts on Superhero Movies

With next year’s The Dark Knight Rises ending the current Nolan Batman trilogy of films, I am wondering what exactly is coming next with the franchise. Is the succeeding films going to follow along with the Gotham City envisioned by Nolan or will it be a reboot, with a new origin for Bruce Wayne/ Batman? Given the recent changes in the Spiderman franchise, I wouldn’t be surprised if we get a reboot.

Earlier today, I was listening to Comicvine’s podcast, and they were discussing the latest news about The Dark Knight Rises.  When the discussion came around to what comes next, they seemed to suppose a reboot is on the horizon. I am honestly wary of such a prospect.

To be honest, I like Tim Burton’s Batman and Batman Returns to Nolan’s two outings. I do like the gritty realism that Nolan imparts, but the adherence to realism also causes some problems (like limiting the possible villain pool or no Robins).  With a new direction, could a redemption of Poison Ivy be in the offing or better interpretations of Robin and Batgirl? Hell, will Jason Todd or Tim Drake or Damian Wayne get a chance to be Robin in addition to Dick Grayson?

I want continuation in the Batman series. I want to see Dick Grayson, Barbra Gordon, Jason Todd, Tim Drake, and Damian Wayne all get some screen time. I don’t want to have a retread of the Joker, Catwoman, Ra’s al Ghul, etc. again. I don’t want a repeated origin story. I get that Hollywood is, for the moment, obsessed with origin stories and reboots. Spiderman is getting one, Batman’s already had one, the X-Men may or may not have had one (I hope that one has had one), and I don’t know if Superman is getting one or not.

I want something like the James Bond series applied to these comic book movie franchises. Except for a few interruptions (and the recent reboot), Bond has been both steady and easily open to reinterpretation. The first Bonds with Connery are different from the Bonds with Moore. Now, as long as there aren’t any more Schumachers or Die Another Days, I don’t see why the Batman series cannot continue on like the Bond series, just change directors and lead actors every few movies or so.

But with my luck, I’m thinking that the next Batman movie will be another reboot with a whole new cast and another take on the Joker. Now, I know that most of this post has been about Batman, and I haven’t touched on many of the others. The thing is that I’m a huge Batman fan and am not as fond of some of the others (I liked the X-Men trilogy, Thor, and a few others). However, my concerns are mostly linked to Batman.

My hand wringing over The Dark Knight Rises‘s successor film my be an indication that, for me, film may not be the best format for comic books. I get that they make the most money, but really, a serial format is more suited to the serial format of comic books. To be honest, I think Batman the Animated Series and X-Men are the best adaptations of those series. Above the cinematic portrayals of the Joker, there is Mark Hamill’s definitive Joker.

Of course, I look forward to The Dark Knight Rises and whatever Batman movie follows.