29 November 2011

Pulling out the Red Notebook Again

The New York Trilogy
by Paul Auster

The stories in here are, I think, increasingly less successful, but they're all very good. "City of Glass" is the first and the best: a riveting tale of a man losing identity with an ending that makes you think you can almost put the whole thing together, though you never quite manage it. (Thankfully.) "Ghosts" is also quite good, the tale of a private detective with a strange assignment to simply watch someone else, which leads to the disintegration of his own identity. This one is fun in a morose way, if that makes any sense. "The Locked Room" is the least interesting, perhaps because it's the most grounded, and consequently, it's not possible to project yourself onto the characters to the same extent as the others. Still, it has its moments-- and what moments they are.

It's easy to complain about Paul Auster that he doesn't make any sense, but that misses the point entirely: these are stories about a world that doesn't make any sense, and there's no other way to confront it.

28 November 2011

Drawing in the Red Notebook

City of Glass
by Paul Auster
adaptation by Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli

This past spring, I taught my students Paul Auster's "City of Glass" (I forced them to apply Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics to it, defying all reason), instilling in me a desire to 1) reread the graphic novel adaptation and 2) reread the rest of The New York Trilogy. So, ages later, I finally did both.

I like Paul Auster, but I find his brilliance difficult to put into words; with this graphic adaptation of the first volume of The New York Trilogy, the problem is even more difficult. All of this is appropriate, of course, for a story where the main theme is the inability (or unreliability) of language to capture truth. When I first read this comic back in 2006, I hadn't yet read the prose novel; upon reading the prose novel some months later, I could not find anything in it that had been subtracted for the comic. Furthermore, the addition of a visual dimension meant that there was a whole new layer of meaning.

All I can do, then, is praise Paul Karasik and David Mazzucchelli's artwork; their simple, stark style suits the narrative perfectly, and their use of transitions between panels is astounding, showing a complete mastery of the comics medium. City of Glass is heavy with meaning in the best of ways.

25 November 2011

Which The Next Generation Film is "The Bad One," Anyway?

Fade In: From Idea to Final Draft: The Writing of Star Trek: Insurrection
by Michael Piller

This is, as far as I know, one of the most honest and straightforward books published about the making of Star Trek, especially from the productions of the last couple decades. (I was going to write "last few years," but then I realized that Insurrection came out thirteen years ago!) Piller, the sole screenwriter for Insurrection, takes the reader through the process of writing the ninth Star Trek film, from the moment Rick Berman called him and asked him if he wanted the job, to the moment he watched the film premiere on screen. Insurrection is one of three problematic The Next Generation films, and for that reason, its creation makes for an interesting read. Piller includes a lot of treatments and dialogue extracts to show how the story changed over time. Even from the beginning, the story never quite worked, and it seems like lots of people know this... but no one knows how to solve it.

The problem, I think, ultimately comes down to the central conflict. The hook of the film is that Picard must figure out what made Data go rogue. Or rather, this should be the hook. It can't be the hook, though, because it ends up having a really dull answer: he malfunctioned. If Piller and company had been willing to pursue this more and create a Picard/Data conflict that had some actual teeth to it, we would have had a much more interesting story. Butting up against this, though, is the desire to make Insurrection more lighthearted, a return to The Voyage Home style of Star Trek... only no one can figure out how to actually make it funny, or make the humor work with the content. A lot of the book is Piller receiving notes from various people: producer Rick Berman, the actors (especially Patrick Stewart and Brent Spiner), the Paramount execs. It's very noticeable that everyone is thoroughly committed to making a quality film, and indeed, most of the comments Piller gets are spot on... but the fixes he comes up with feel more like patches than solutions. Everyone agrees that the Fountain of Youth idea doesn't really work, but rather than toss it, Piller just tweaks it. Insurrection has a good idea at its heart, but the story needed a fundamental reworking that it never got. Piller praises Berman and company for never taking the film out of his hands, letting it ultimately remain the work of a single writer, but what you end up wondering is if the whole thing could have benefited from someone else doing a strong rewrite. But then poor Piller, who clearly gives his utmost to the project.

There are a lot of nice moments we never got to see, including the people of the Federation itself showing up at the end to protect its ideals, a moment of Gene Roddenberry utopianism that I think would have really shined if there had been a way to make it work within the context of the script as a whole.

That said, Fade In is an enjoyable insight into the writing process, nearly the Star Trek version of the Doctor Who tell-all The Writer's Tale. Piller fills the book with interesting anecdotes and insights into what make the writing process work, especially in a place as fraught with competing interests as Hollywood. The book is no longer available from TrekCore, but I recommend getting hold of an e-copy if you're interested in how Star Trek does get or has gotten made.

23 November 2011

Faster than a DC Bullet: Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane, Part VII: Mary Jane 2

Mary Jane 2
by Judith O'Brien
illustrations by Mike Mayhew

Even though Gwen Stacy preceded Mary Jane Watson in the original Spider-Man comics, it seems to be a law of Spider-Man adaptations that Gwen only shows up once Mary Jane and Peter Parker are ready to get together, as that's how it happens here, in the Sam Raimi films, and in Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane. Of course, Gwen's arrival makes our already insecure Mary Jane even more insecure, one of many subplots struggling for dominance in this unfocused novel. Unfortunately, the most prominent plotline is also the most contrived, with the narrative dumping on MJ unbelievably hard-- and then resolving that problem unbelievably easily. I liked the first book okay, but struggled to enjoy this one. (Even the pictures aren't as good; clearly no one told Mike Mayhew that 1) Peter's not wearing his glasses anymore and 2) the book takes place during the winter.)

22 November 2011

Faster than a DC Bullet: Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane, Part VI: Mary Jane

Mary Jane
by Judith O'Brien
illustrations by Mike Mayhew

A friend of mine who studies children's and YA literature mentioned the term "teen issue novel" the other day (while bemoaning them), which is an apt description for this book. We see the very beginning of the Spider-Man saga through Mary Jane's eyes-- while Mary Jane also deals with anorexia, an absent father, and a semi-abusive mother's boyfriend. All that plus she's starting a new school and Harry Osborn is coming onto her and she's been reunited with Peter Parker, who was her lab partner in fourth grade, long ago. It's too much, and it doesn't fit together tonally all the time: a subplot about evil energy drinks just jars with the more serious material. Plus, the serious material isn't always handled well: Mary Jane's descent into anorexia feels plausible to me, but the way it stops definitely isn't. There's definitely some stuff to like in this book, especially the depiction of Peter and MJ meeting as kids, and again as high schoolers, but this conceit was executed much better in Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane than it is here. (Mike Mayhew's pictures are gorgeous, though.)

21 November 2011

Faster than a DC Bullet: Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane, Part V: Sophomore Jinx

Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane: Sophomore Jinx

Writer: Terry Moore
Art: Craig Rousseau
Colors: Guillem Mari
Letters: Dave Sharpe

From its first page, Sophomore Jinx has a different tone and voice than the previous volumes of Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane; new writer Terry Moore introduces the device of Mary Jane narrating the book. The whole thing instantly feels different. Not in a bad way... but it's not what drew me to the series to begin with. The transition isn't assisted by the myriad discontinuities between volumes. Mary Jane and company were at least sophomores before, if not juniors; now they're starting sophomore year. Flash Thompson was star quarterback; now we're told he warmed the benches all last year. Mary Jane had a job in a clothing store (among many other places); now she's never had one. All of the recurring characters have vanished. Worst of all, the series left off in November or so; now it's the following August, yet the characters' emotional lives don't seem to have changed at all.

The main plot of the book, MJ discovering that someone's made a website devoted to mocking her, is no worse than any of the goofy plots that ran under McKeever's pen, but without his fun dialogue and Miyazawa's fun art, there's nothing to sell it, and so it falls flat. Plus, five issues go by and MJ and Peter's relationship hardly changes. (Under McKeever, it'd've changed five times.) I can see why the series cut off at this point. It's all right, but it's got nowhere near the charm that it used to. The McKeever/Miyazawa run is good enough for me.

18 November 2011

Faster than a DC Bullet: Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane, Part IV: Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane, Vol. 2

Spider-Man Loves Mary Jane, Vol. 2

Writer: Sean McKeever
Art: Valentine De Landro, Takeshi Miyazawa, David Hahn, with Rick Mays
Colors: Christina Strain
Letters: Dave Sharpe

This picks up right where Super Crush left off, with the arrival of new girl Gwen Stacey at the exact moment that Mary Jane Watson decides to tell Peter Parker that she has feelings for him. But first, events are interrupted by a two-part story called "The Origin Thing," where MJ discusses the events of a year ago with Liz Allan, the events that led to her losing her carefree attitude. The flashback format lets regular artist Takeshi Miyazawa take a break while Valentine De Landro fills in. The story of the flashback is kinda weird-- MJ is dumped, so she turns goth, but then she decides that she's not a goth, so she just goes back to normal-- but De Landro's presence makes the whole thing terrible. Putting characters in the hands of a different artist is like recasting characters on a television show: even though the dialogue is the same, the delivery is completely different. Things just don't sound right coming out of these characters' mouths. It doesn't help that De Landro draws some ferociously ugly art... especially at moments where the characters are supposed to be smiling and attractive!

Thankfully, things are soon back to normal, with Mary Jane, Gwen, Liz, Peter, Flash, Harry, and Spider-Man rotating affections in their usual complicated dance; by the end of this volume I'm pretty sure we've seen every possible permutation of male/female pairings. I feel like it shouldn't work, but it does; just flipping through the pages now to remind myself of what happened, I have a strong sense of affection for the story-- and those heartbreak moments (like where MJ sees Gwen kissing Peter) are always killer. There's more Spider-Man in this volume than in the previous ones, too, especially his ongoing battle with the prosaically named "the Looter," the climax to which was hilarious and fantastic. The issue where Gwen relates a Spider-Man/Sandman battle in flashback is also great, even if we have to put up with another fill-in artist: McKeever puts Gwen's rendition of the dialogue in the balloons, such as, "Hi, I'm Peter Parker? And I act like I like you? But now I'm totally gonna ditch you without warning for no reason whatsoever."

Other things are silly, though, like a subplot about the football players considering wrecking the school play. And of course MJ continues to be the best at everything ever without even trying; the entire male population of the school falls in love with her after her play performance. The bit where a writer for the school paper tries to get Harry and MJ to explain why they are such big flirts is also weird, though it has some nice moments. I do like that the MJ-is-so-popular subplot gives us some moments of vulnerability from our often-invulnerable heroine.

Things go as they do for most of the book, until the last third, when Miyazawa departs permanently, David Hahn takes over. Hahn is okay. I suffered from the dialogue-just-sounded-wrong problem again, but since he's there for five issues, I was able to get used to it eventually. (Except for his weird eyes.) Firestar comes back, which is one of the best plots in the whole series: she attempts to put the moves on Spider-Man, not Peter Parker, at a moment where he's feeling particularly vulnerable. Meanwhile, Harry Osborn is receiving advice from his evil father on how to win MJ to himself forever; he alternates between seeming manipulative and seeming like he genuinely wants to be with MJ. The Felicia Hardy subplot isn't so great, but on the whole, the end of the book comes together very nicely, just in time for Sean McKeever to jump ship too!

16 November 2011

Sapphire and Steel Have Been Assigned

Sapphire and Steel
by P. J. Hammond

The spookiness of Sapphire & Steel came from the visuals and mood more than anything else, and so Peter Hammond is at a disadvantage in this novelisation of the first television story, given that he's not exactly the world's greatest prose stylist. It's still good, though-- the first story was always the best Sapphire & Steel tale-- and Hammond is able to make up for the lack of visual and auditory cues by entirely filtering the story through the perspective of Rob, the young boy whose parents have been swallowed up by Time. Never since have Sapphire and Steel been so utterly unknowable.

14 November 2011

My Last Visit to Damar

A Knot in the Grain and Other Stories
by Robin McKinley

Last summer I read Robin McKinley's two novels of Damar, The Hero and the Crown and The Blue Sword, and I enjoyed the former a lot, though I was ambivalent about the latter. The "About the Author" blurb of The Blue Sword promises that it is the first of many novels about Damar, but in fact, no more ever appeared. There is, however, this collection of five short stories, four of which take place in Damar, or at least on the same fantasy world. (One character from the novels shows up in two of the stories, though he is not really one of my favorites.)

I feel like I have high standards for children's/YA fantasy with female protagonists; I don't like it when the protagonists seem ineffectual or incidental, or if they're empowered in a way I find over simplistic, or if too much emphasis is placed on their relationships to men. (All of these are my problems with Tamora Pierce's Tortall novels.) I don't think I have these same standards for YA fantasy about boys, but then, I don't think I read much of that, either. Anyway, this is a long way of saying that three of the five stories in A Knot in the Grain and Other Stories fail those standards, and so I don't like them, but I don't know if ideology is a good reason to dislike a story. But I'd like to think that these are just bad stories. Bizarrely, obnoxiously bad.

The first two stories, "The Healer" and "The Stagman" are almost the same. The protagonist is a girl in difficulty ("The Healer" features a mute; "The Stagman" a princess about to murdered by her uncle), then the girl is rescued by something/one supernatural (a traveling mage; a stagman), then the girl is taken to the realm of Luthe (who also appeared in The Hero and the Crown), then the girl hangs out there for a while, then she goes home and gets married to a man she met while hanging out with Luthe. That's it? Neither character overcomes any danger or obstacle herself; in fact, in "The Stagman," the army to overthrow her uncle is raised by her soon-to-be-husband while she is content to do nothing! The girl in "The Healer" is healed by Luthe with no risk to herself, preempting what could be a potentially interesting story about someone who's never spoken learning to speak, while the overthrow of the uncle happens in passing in "The Stagman," I don't find either very inspiring or interesting.

The third story, "Tauk's House," is no better. A witch takes a newborn girl from a poor family as payment, she raises the girl alongside her half-troll son (who is seventeen years older!), the girl grows up and walks to a far-off kingdom where she heals a prince, and then she walks back and marries the troll. So what? Is there even a plot? I don't know if it's because McKinley is trying to work in a fairy tale aesthetic, but in fact, fairy tales do not conform to contemporary notions of plotting, and neither do these boring tales.

Thankfully, things picked up with the fourth story, "Buttercups," which is where the beautiful cover image comes from. It's about a hardworking farmer and the woman he marries and the strange force residing beneath a hill on their farm. The characters are engaging, the themes are interesting, the prose is excellent, and the magic is lurking-- I really liked this one. The story kind of just stops at one point, but in a literary way that makes you think you've learned something. (I am pretty sure that that is true.)

The last story is, unusually, set in the 1990s, when it was written. "A Knot in the Grain" is the tale of a girl moving across the state and adjusting. It's full of nice details, showing the thoughts and feelings of someone adjusting to change and the coming of adulthood. I particularly liked how McKinley used the books the protagonist was reading to tell us stuff; she reads Diana Wynn Jones, The Last Unicorn, Tess of the D'Urbervilles, Charles Dickens, and even Mistress Masham's Repose. It could be a piece of nongenre fiction, almost, but there is magic, which is subtle, but disconcerting and powerful. Again, the ending is kinda off, but overall I liked it a lot.

I'm glad to have read both "Buttercups" and "A Knot in the Grain," but frustrated at the rest of the stories here. I don't know that I'll be reading more McKinley after this; my experiences have been too mixed, and I'm not really interested by all the fairy tale retellings anyway.