Friday, July 27, 2012

Funny, animals

My mind rolled around today to a somewhat geeky subject that I have been pondering on and off for some time, and that is the question of how to anthropomorphize animals in fiction. I'm not talking about literary style or descriptive language but of rules of internal logic.

This isn't a fully-formed idea yet, but it seems to me that like, say, time-travel, you need to have your system down before you build your little furry cultures and the stories that happen in them. I mean, you can approach time travel in a couple of different ways: that the past already happened and any attempt to change it is doomed to failure, or that when you change the past you create a new time-stream and a new reality. There are different variations and nuances, of course, but these two schemes seems to comprise the main divisions of that trope.

So, for anthropomorphic animals, it seems to me that we are also faced with a choice between two main categories. In one, prey animals are the human-like protagonists and predators are more like monsters; in the other, predators are the human-like protagonists and prey animals are, well, still animals.

In a story about a brave and noble band of deer making their way through the forest to a new grazing area under the guidance of a stalwart leader and a sage elder, the wolves might be demonic pursuers providing a constant threat. In a story about a bold and heroic pack of wolves on a quest under the guidance of a courageous leader and a scarred elder, the deer would be... deer?  I guess it's just hard for me to see how to make both the deer and the wolves people, since the one group routinely gets eaten by the other in a totally amoral, course-of-nature way. How could our wolf-warriors meet deer, negotiate with them, ask directions from them, and then eat them, without destroying the anthropomorphism?

It seems much the same in a household situation. If the mice are my characters, with little mice families and mice mayors and mice police and whatnot, the cat must be like a beast that lurks outside of town. But if my character is a philosopher-cat commenting on life from his windowsill lyceum, I don't know how to make mice the students that she just happens to occasionally devour.

Of course, this might be more about my limitations as a writer than the demands of logic. Aesop and Rudyard Kipling, of course, had talking animals that were still animals, but those stories were deliberately fabulous. If I recall correctly, in The Secret of NIMH, the owl is both a source of ancient wisdom and a predator; but Mrs. Brisby's interactions with him echo more to me the typical interactions between a hero and a dragon than a conversation between two people. And Brian Vaughn has lions and monkeys and deer all talking to each other even as some are eating the others in the great Pride of Baghdad, but that wasn't so much about anthropomorphizing animals as it was about animamorphizing the reader, I think.

So maybe what I am really talking about is a restriction I see on the construction of conventional genre stories using animal protagonists - when heroic fantasy or science fiction or picaresque adventure happens to feature people-like critters instead of people. The sort of rules-making that preoccupies me would certainly make it easier to write those stories, although it wouldn't necessarily make the stories any better. But I guess it wouldnt becessarily make them worse, either.

Remember, the Fantastic Mr. Fox ate chickens.

Wednesday, July 11, 2012

Six of one: the cut of his jib

Let's start out with something direct and colorful. I was recently browsing though some search or other on superhero comics and was struck once again by the sheer, outrageous garishness of superhero costumes. Superheros almost never work in live-action films unless the costumes are dialed down from 11, modified into body armor or motorcycle leathers, and otherwise made more "real."

Costumes are part and parcel of the whole superhero genre, arguably definitional, and I have no problem suspending disbelief when it comes to the outfits some characters wear - I've had a lot of practice, after all. My recent perusal of the cavalcade of images of this hero-wear got me to thinking: which superhero costumes - not characters - do I really dig, just for how they look? Here's the six that made the cut.

6. Spy Smasher. Full disclosure: Spy Smasher is one of my all-time favorite characters, but I do think that one of the reasons I like him so much is his costume, and it's not that his costume made the cut because I like him so much.

Spy Smasher is a classic of the Aviator Hero mold, with tight leggings (instead of jodhpurs) and a cape that take this WW2 comic book hero out of the pulps and place him firmly in the superhero camp. Added awesome: the detail on his belt includes the symbol "⋅⋅⋅—",  which is Morse Code for "V" (for Victory, of course) and which also represent the first four notes of Beethoven's 5th Symphony, which tune SS was always associated with. Pretty cool.

There were other superheroes, most notably Captain Midnight, who tried this look, but never quite captured the elegant simplicity of Spy Smasher. One modern hero deserves honorable mention: Marvel's Crimebuster was a late 70s hero who incongruously hung around with some space types but carried on the look pretty well.*

Man, you just can't go wrong with goggles.

5. (Sword of) the Atom. Okay: first, the Atom was a Golden Age hero, a 40s tough guy in a costume, who just happened to be short. In the late 40s, he got super-strong, but was just still a short tough guy. When superheroes were revived and renewed in the late 50s and early 60s, the Atom was a college professor who had learned how to control his size and weight through white dwarf star matter, so of course he fought crime in spandex. Then, for a time in the 80s, the Atom was trapped at his six-inch size and lived with some tiny people in the South American jungles, having the kind of sword 'n' monster adventures that suited Conan more than crimefighters.

He still had the spandex costume, but supplemented it with bracers, a loincloth, and sturdy boots. The whole effect should have been goofy, but thanks in no small part to the art of Gil Kane, I thought it worked.

4. Pow Wow Smith. Not quite a superhero, I guess, the "Indian Lawman" fought Old West crime as part of DC's contingent of Western heroes. I liked his all-dun rawhide look, especially with the added touch of white kid gloves and the black shirt collar sticking out. (Hmm... khaki, black, and white - add a green apron and those are Starbucks Uniform colors.) I thought this outfit was a nice deviation from the boots-jeans-blouse-and-mask get-up that most gunslingers favored.

3. Sandman. No, not Neil Gaiman's darling-of-the-Goth-set, but the original Golden Age hero. I first encountered him in the 60s when the Justice Society characters of the 40s were being taken out of mothballs and revived in the pages of Justice League. In the middle of Biff! Bam! Pow! Batmania gaudiness and camp, my attention was caught by Sandman's double-breasted suit, slouch hat, and cape - I mean, take off his gas mask and his outfit would hardly rate a second glance. It managed to help him maintain some modicum of pulpy gravitas when they swapped out his gas-gun for ray gun that affected people's nerves and made them do the Watusi. (I wish I were only kidding.) Anyway, great kit.

2. Ferro Lad. This could-turn-into-living-iron guy had a short career with the Legion of Superheros in the 60s - short because he Sacrificed Himself to Save Earth®. There was a lot about this costume I thought (and still think) was cool: the pale color palette, the "Fe" symbol, the buttons that look like rivets, the banded belt and cuffs, and the almost featureless metal mask. That helmet-like contraption served not to hide Ferro Lad's identity - all the LSH members were public figures - but rather to hide his Horribly Disfigured Face®. Hey, when you're ten, that's real pathos. And the costume just seemed to capture Ferro Lad's no-nonsense, can-do personality while looking clean and slick.

1. Daredevil. For an inveterate DC guy, I have to 'fess up and admit that my all-time favorite costume is that of a Marvel Comics character. While most would associate Daredevil with his all-red outfit, he premiered in this yellow-and-red get-up designed by the great Jack Kirby. While he only wore it for a half-dozen issues,  I thought it was way cooler than his red longjohns - the contrast, the details in gloves and boots and billy-club holster, and the subtle evocation of old-timey athletics. The costume would become the fulcrum for a Daredevil graphic novel in 2001, but to me, it is the distilled essence of Silver Age superhero couture.

*Bonus geeky nit-pickery: If you check out that image of Crimebuster above you can see he's wearing two pistols in cross-draw holsters on his chest. This makes a lot of sense, and actually could be just two shoulder holsters worn a bit forward. But a lot of more recent images of this character, such as the one to the left, show him with two holsters way forward on his chest, with the gun butts pointed outward. It would be really awkward to try to draw those weapons, and the whole thing is stupid.

Not that I've over-thought it or anything.

Sunday, July 8, 2012

Once more into the breach

Once upon a time in high school, I drew a picture of Edgar Rice Burroughs's creation, Tars Tarkas of Barsoom, on a piece of looseleaf paper during class; it was certainly not as well drafted as the one in the banner above, but full of exuberant energy nonetheless. The student sitting next to me looked over at this sketch of a four-armed warrior with a quizzical expression on his face; by way of explanation, I simply wrote "He is a Thark" on the page, next to the figure, presuming that would be sufficient.

I have long since lost that sheet of looseleaf, but I have never lost my affinity for certain genres and forms and fascinations, and can still tell a Green Martian from a Red Martian without a thought. Science fiction, comic books, sword & sorcery, movies, superheroes, roleplaying games, action figures, myths & legends, steampunk, alternate history -- these are still the things that captivate me, and the things that I want to talk about.

So that's what I aim to do here. I have had comics blogs and general interest blogs and special interest blogs before, and I guess I don't know when to quit. I'll be flying the geek flag high at this place - to spare my Facebook posse from what might be a little too abstruse and to let my pals with the same predilections and penchants know where I'll be, ahem, holding forth.

Good to have you aboard!