22 April, 2011

A Horse Is A Horse: Mr. Ed's Guide To Objectivism

Ah, the life of a federal employee (minus all the long hours and heavy physical labor part). Four-day weekend, I've given myself a bit of pampering for the first day. Among other things, I saw the Atlas Shrugged movie and did my semi-regular round of buying books and then reading them at Hooters.

The books were, for a change, actual prose books. One of them was a look at the Civil War in perspective, which doesn't look quite as interesting once I read the sentence about extremist Catholics (and, presumably, other Christians) and their influence on the Republican Party which led to the whole bloodshed in the first place. I'm sorry, but when an account of the origins of the American Civil War is indistinguishable from a leftist blog (or rightist) it tends to lower my opinion of what is being written.

I can find writers who tell me what I want to hear on the internet (or their opposite numbers if I want some self-righteous indignation), if you've done an actual book that I'm willing to pay for, at least make it worth writing the book. I'm not even past the introduction and it's already reading - along with some skimming ahead - like an anti-religion/Republican tract, to the point where slavery itself is excusable. It's like trying to read a Shi'ite history of Islam, a lot of stuff will have to be ignored to make the theme fit the narrative.

The anti-slavery movement came out of the churches, just like the feminist, civil rights and prohibition movements. Republicans were at least as much in the forefront of each of those movements as anybody else (for good or bad; cf Sarah Palin as feminist) so, yeah you can blame them, but what's the point?

The other book I bought was much more interesting, a translation of Gilgamesh - the world's oldest written story - by someone who freely admitted in the introduction that it was his own version. Not a scholar, he looked up what he thought were the most accurate translations in multiple versions from multiple eras, and synthesized them into modern English as he thought appropriate, which differed according to the story and available translations, doing for Gilgamesh what Alan Moore did for Jack the Ripper. That's fine, I have my own pre-existing notions of what Gilgamesh was and is (a sub-scriptural tale from the beginnings of modern civilization which encapsulates the basic goal of writing, like every other worthwhile story tries to do).

I'm only a short way into the book, but already we've seen fundamental literary tropes as The Hero (Gilgamesh) The Sidekick (Endiku) Religious and Nationalist Propaganda (mighty-walled Uruk, the various pagan gods and goddesses) Woman As Civilizer of Man (Endiku is an animal beast-type creature, the head priestess/slut is sent out to get him laid for a while, then he's all about the civilized life) Man as Alpha Male (examples too numerous to mention)

[However Gilgamesh the pimp makes a specific point about having every virgin bride in his kingdom before her wedding night. Unless this is a massively screwed up society wherein large numbers of people have to work and act as though they care enough to make sure that any woman is ready for the ceremony of king/thug/two-thirds divine Gilgamesh showing up at every wedding like Santa Claus on Viagra, it reads more like the intent is that lord high almighty Gilgamesh respects a man's property (i.e. wife), but if he wants her first, he gets her and there's nothing you can do about it. It would be thousands of years before the Magna Carta took the concept of property to a proper level, but given Lara Logan, we have an idea to what extent Endiku-like behavior can dominate. From our perspective, this is a trivial and nonsensical concept, but these people were at the dawn of civilized behavior, and they were just beginning the daily rituals of peaceful co-existance.]

Gilgamesh and Endiku together are going through the basic traits of character pairs. The first couple of books are almost entirely about what an awesome heroic alpha male Endiku is - vowing to best G. at billiards or Nintendo or whatever they did for fun back then - before he becomes Robin to G's Batman. I'm genuinely curious about whether there's an actual payoff, and the story turns out to be about Endiku all along.

Then they do the buddy movie thing, heading off to fight Humbaba (I'm not looking it up, so that's just a guess), which I'm still not clear if it's a monster or a man or what. But, following the Batman/Robin/Lethal Weapon type of story, although there's absolutely no reason given for G to go off on this great heroic quest, the implication (if only by ommission) is that the monster Humbaba (or whatever) was responsible for the condition of this bestial Endiku that he's taken under his wing. If this is the Continuing Adventures of Gilgamesh, ok, he finds another fight and there you go. Tune in same Gilgamesh-time, same Gilgamesh-channel.

If this is Gilgamesh: The Novel, then yes, the story of Endiku superceded by the story of Gilgamesh would naturally be followed by a continuity of what led before. For a brief period of time (fifteen minutes or so), the story of Star Wars was two droids stranded on a desert planet. That makes sense as a narrative. Certainly as much as Gilgamesh's Latest Greatest Fight does.

While reading the author's account of the history of Gilgamesh: The Story, it turns out to be (for all intents and purposes) a very recent story. A hundred and fifty years ago, people didn't know it existed. They knew about the locomotive and the telegraph and George Washington, but not the oldest story ever written.

Like other surviving stories from the dawn of civilization, this one has a Great Flood at the chronological beginning. One gets the feeling that the story wasn't relevant to the centuries that followed, so it lay fallow until modern man could discover it. It's almost literally from another world entirely.

The author's forewards (and Wikipedia) give the basic story, I know the basic story that I haven't read aren't going to disabuse me of these notions. But the interest comes from where they will go regardless, or how they will surprise me as the reader. Action, romance, propaganda, I can already tell this story has everything for every possible audience (including generations of college undergrads, with the lines that are basically 'and then the two guys fucked each other').

However the people of that ancient time lived, they were still human beings, and had the same interests and motivations that human beings have today. Being Semites, the writer(s) and audience were part of the culture that birthed the three great monotheistic religions and civilization itself, even if the work itself is clearly pagan. Besides being a great story - and I'm definitely interested in What Happens Next - the value is in thinking about how different society is from then and now, and how much it has progressed.

I also read Part 2 of Astro City: The Dark Age at Hooters, having read Part 1 this morning. This was the story where we finally found out how the Silver Agent died (which I, for one, hadn't cared about) and it began as a sequel to Busiek and Ross' Marvels. It actually was the reason Astro City existed.

I don't remember the specific chronology at this point, but Busiek and Ross did Marvels, a fully-painted retro-progressive (to coin a term) look at the history of the Marvel Universe and a major touchstone in ushering in a respite from the Dark Ages comics were going through.

[Also, I am convinced to this day that I was standing next to Alex Ross when he showed his samples to whoever-the-guy-manning-the-show-me-your-samples-booth was at a Chicagocon in the early '90s. The guy running the booth was saying 'you're way too good to do superheroes' and the chubby comic-book-fan-looking guy with the incredible superhero pics was clear that he'd draw anything they wanted to get his foot in the door, but those superheroes were what he wanted to do. Years later, I read an interview with Ross that mentions he's from Chicago. Unless he did some series in the 80's that absolutely no one mentions - even (Nebraska native) Chris Ware occasionally has to acknowledge Ford Future (or something like that) which he did for Eclipse; the Hernandez Brothers have Mr. X from the same company - that Chicagocon would have been roughly at the time he broke into the business, and he'd probably go for a local con to make his first steps. This is all unprovable speculation, but it's fun.]

Anyway, Marvels was deservedly a hit. Ross went on to do Kingdom Come for DC, which was a hit largely because he was painting it. He wasn't interested in doing a sequel for Marvel, but encouraged Busiek to do so if it would help him as a writer. He'd brought the original idea of a look at a series of points in Marvel history, Busiek was a secondary party. He wrote the damned thing, and it wouldn't have worked if he hadn't, but the writer was a vehicle for the artist, and he was the perfect writer.

He wasn't interested in doing a sequel to Marvels, but he eventually came up with an idea. Marvel, not knowing they'd have a hit with the original, was all over the sequel in ways that irritated him to the point where he withdrew his contribution from the project and kept the original story.

(from memory) He was talking with Dark Horse about doing a comic, and when he now had 'the story that would have been Marvels II' to work into the concept, they loved it. In fact, they wanted to do it before a regular series. Things started bogging down there, and eventually Busiek moved on to Image, and the regular series became the focus, Astro City.

To this day, I think the original collection is the textbook for how to do superheroes that aren't Marvel or DC trademarked properties. Six basic stories of likeable superheroes and the world they inhabit, six stories which are about much more than "good guy fights bad guy". Brent Eric Anderson does gorgeous art, and Alex Ross even provides covers and character designs. This is how you do it, whether you want to rip off a specific character or throw a few different inspirations into a mix or espouse a worldview or go a whole new direction entirely, or just plain have someone else with their own life who turns around for a second and sees these kind of characters. It's like, ok, this is how it's done. And then everything else is just a natural extension. This is superheroes with a manga influence, or a modern director influence, or in the Bruce Timm style.

Anyway, after far too many years of absence, Astro City is now a fairly regular series, and they have completed the sixteen-part epic based on the original sequel-to-Marvels story.

The virtues are subtle. This story spans years, and most of the supercharacters we've never heard of before. I still love the genre, but it makes my head hurt to think we're expected to have any idea who these people are or what the hell they're doing. It works, in the sense that it helps us identify with Charles and Royal Williams, the main characters, and the general everyman sense of what it's like to live in a world where lunatics with capes go around destroying things in the name of truth and justice that the series is about.

But the actual superheroics aren't that interesting in and of themselves. Because this is a generation-long tale, they walk in briefly and then step out again. Except for the Silver Agent, who is travelling backwards in time, eventually to reach the end of his career, where he is tried and executed for a murder he didn't commit. That's the hook of the novel for the superhero fan anyway.

The main story is about Charles and Royal, brothers from a poor black neighborhood. One became a cop, the other a crook. The dynamics between the two are played up in novel-like complexity. Their parents were murdered in a fight between the Silver Agent and a low-level criminal, and it takes half the book before we realize that they have the slightest interest in tracking him down and making him pay.

Their descent into moral ambiguity is paralled by the superheroes of their times. The first 4-issue miniseries is set when Nixon descends into Watergate, Vietnam falls and the Silver Agent is executed. Then there's the heroes who kill without hesitation, the counterculture druggies, the rip-offs of bad-70s movies. Afterwards, the Silver Agent specified Morning in America as his next appearance, when they use some artifact from the previous era to create new problems in the future. [The generic early-80's Point Man, having just fired The Innocent Gun, a rip-off of Kirby rip-offs with its awesome name and relevance to continuity, is told he just made a mistake, and rants "Excuse me, did anybody think to put a sign on it saying 'do not fire this gun or the Earth will die'? That would have been a good idea."]

Then we're into the flashy mid-80s. Enough of the rip-offs, here's the real thing. The low-level criminal who murdered Charles and Royal's parents becomes the villain who ties countless threads of continuity into his absurdly-powerful plans for poorly-defined world domination. He is "Lord Sovereign", a villain for the 80's. Subplots intertwine and culminate with the darker heroes having an arc of their own. The distinction between hero and villain, citizen and crook, become blurred in a variety of ways.

The heroes are more distinctive, the flashy name-quipper, the big plant-god who resembles Alan Moore and is actually the trippy 60's magician reincarnated. And when the Silver Agent reappears for the first time, he gives a description of heroism that would never come from Captain America's mouth, but Marvel (especially under Jim Shooter) liked to pretend it did. And when Point Man hears it, he legitimately mutters 'wow, that's hardcore'.

Then SA runs into Charles and Royal. They're slack-jawed at his appearance. He knows, he's heading back in time to die, but there's no time for that, so he's deputizing them to... They're all 'you let our parents die, screw you.' This is the sort of effect that only a long narrative can have. Short stories and pop songs and 80-minute comedies simply can't have this effect.

Speaking of complex ideas boiled down into easily-digestible entertainment, did I mention that I saw "Atlas Shrugged: The Movie"? It wasn't bad. Nothing leapt out at me as especially brilliant. They did accomplish the seemingly-impossible job of turning the first book of the novel into a self-contained story like it was supposed to be, which the book didn't do for me. Yes, I get the reader is supposed to feel exuberance and triumph as Dagny and Hank make their journey on the John Galt Line, which is then cruelly dashed by the flood of government imposition and Wyatt burning down his own oil fields. It works for the plot, but I was never the least bit invested in the story itself at that point. Interested enough to keep reading, sure, but whether the John Galt Line succeeded or failed, who cares?

The movie did what shorter works are supposed to do, and placed this scene in a more sensible context. Amidst picturesque Colorado scenery, a train goes really fast, yay. Moving on. For the Star Wars-equivalent, the droids have been separated, reunited, they have a new master who's introduced them to "old Ben", and now they're headed off to the hive of scum and villainy that is Mos Eisley.

As I said, there's nothing especially brilliant about it, but it is a decent job of doing what I described earlier (I think; keeping track gets tough at times) as taking the basic plot, using the ideas as inspiration and changing the dialogue to make it work better. The opening sequence clearly explains that aircraft are uncommon, and new dialogue has Rearden planning to build commercial aircraft with his metal. There's a lot of changes that make sense, just to shorten things. Sometimes dialogue is copied literally, not always for the better.

And they don't do a whole lot of talking about the ideas themselves, displaying a lack of self-consciousness that made Rand's later prose so difficult to read. That helps, mostly. I have no idea what the movie looks like to someone who hasn't read the book, but it seemed reasonably coherent as a movie version. There's actually room to make this grow as a longer work. The picturesque Colorado scenery mentioned earlier might look dangerous and forbidding when later scenes take place there.

The actors, I have no idea how to describe. The characters they portray are too much the deliberate puppets of their creator, so it's a matter of how good the adaptation material they're given to work with is, and beyond that it's whether or not they're watchable. Nobody embarrases themselves, although I can't imagine anybody who hasn't read the book having the slightest clue who Francisco is or why he's in the movie. Anything that made him interesting (or distinct, try distinct) in the book is removed for the movie. This is where the recent trend to movie series is actually a good thing, from a creator's standpoint.

All of the great movie franchises of the earlier eras depended on the success of the previous installment. They filmed Superman I and II at the same time, and Back to the Future II and II, and that's about it as far as being confident there would be a follow-up installment and depending on the audience's involvement. I don't believe Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings were filmed simultaneously, certainly the Star Wars prequels weren't. But they've been able to plan further in the future. In the first Spider-Man movie, Harry Osbourne was a boring non-entity character. In the second, he was quite believably obsessed with Spidey, going nuts about it and becoming the noble villain in the third. It worked a hell a lot better than the origin of Darth Vader, I'll tell that.

So as far as the actors go, nobody did horribly, at least no worse than their context [although we don't need an impenetrable foreign accent]. Stuff was glossed over, newer stuff was added. There's reason to be optimistic about Parts 2 and 3. People seriously invested in movies can look forward to watching the epic over and over again.

Some of the mystery is gone. We see John Galt several times (looking remarkably like Steve Ditko's Question) we're told that they're on strike. What that means, wait for the sequel. It's like Star Wars ending with a caption that said "Next episode: Luke meets his father". That wouldn't be a bad teaser for someone who'd just discovered Star Wars and loved it.

Anyway, the movie's nothing to avoid if you're otherwise remotely interested. It's no Gilgamesh though, or Secret Wars II.

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