RSS Feed

Monthly Archives: March 2013

Questionable Content

Written and drawn by Jeph Jacques

Questionable Content is currently the only comic that I read every day, and a jumping off point for the other webcomics that I do read. There were times, a few years ago, when I wondered why I still read it, and even a few times when I stopped reading altogether. I can’t remember exactly why, now: was I annoyed at the pacing, the characters, the general sense of drama? The strip has been running for over ten years, so it’s possible that we were both just going through a phase. Once a somewhat derivative slice of bizarro life comic about an awkward young man and his talking robot navigating the emotionally fraught lives of women, QC has matured into something deeper, with emotionally complex characters trying to figure out what to do with their lives, while still consistently bringing the funny weirdness.

2371 crop

Looking back, QC’s initial cast is superficially similar to more venerable webcomics, like Sluggy Freelance: awkward guy with talking pet, a slightly cooler best friend, and a girl for awkward guy to pine over. In searching for a unique voice, Jacques also wound up owing a debt to John Allison’s ScaryGoRound, a British comic about quirky young persons getting involved in stroppy weirdness. Faye, Marten’s early love interest/roommate, even used a stilted speech pattern similar to the high formal weirdness of Allison’s Shelly Winters. What made QC stand out was its indie music motif (indie music being one of Mr. Jacques’s enthusiasms), and the fact that very rapidly the comic became about the characters and their relationships to each other more than Wacky Hijinx. Faye’s speech, rather than being an unexplained quirk, became an affectation brought on by her unique past. The “will they or won’t they” tension between Marten and Faye drove a lot of the early series, but it becomes clear that Jacques was actually trying to get beyond that, rather than exploit it. Even Pintsize, the obnoxious little AnthroPC, gets odd moments of character development, because Jacques isn’t willing to just let a thing be.

610 crop

This need to constantly improve is evident in the writing and storytelling, but it is most clearly obvious in the art. Look at the difference between when it started and seven years later. Jacques never seems to stop improving and tinkering with his style and technique, trying to find the perfect way to visually present his characters. It’s fair to say that ten years after he started, after drawing Marten and Faye and Dora literally thousands of times, he’s found a style that works for him, one that is unique to his style of storytelling and comedy. That constant tinkering applies to the characters as well. The characters have to grow and change and, in some cases, move on. Sometimes they move to California to be with family, prompting Marten to grow up a little bit. Sometimes they disappear for a while, because they were possibly being a superspy. In one case, they were eaten by an allosaurus and never referred to again. Jacques isn’t afraid to change things dramatically if the story requires it, and even though the pace can sometimes seem slow, especially for a daily comic, there is always a lot going on. Witty banter! Terrible revelations! Bros! It’s a whirlwind.

1862 crop

A frequent source of drama and comedy in the strip is mental illness, but it’s handled with an insider’s sensitivity. Jacques has been pretty open about his struggles with anxiety and depression, which informs the way he handles Marigold’s self-loathing, Dora’s insecurity, and Hannelore’s…more complex set of neurological disorders. Sometimes comedy ensues, such as Marten’s crippling awkwardness ruining a speech at his dad’s wedding, or the many, many sick burns Marigold lays on herself, or what happens when those two interact. But the strip is never making fun of mental illness itself. The comedy comes from how the characters deal with the challenges created by their insecurities, anxieties, and personal growth. Watching these people face their problems, or handle them badly, is part of what makes QC great.

That sensitivity to character is what eventually brought me back to QC to stay. Jeph Jacques really cares about his characters and wants them to do well, and that translates to the reader, although he’s also not afraid to push them through some dramatic and difficult changes, ranging from Marten realizing he’s being an asshole to Dora realizing she needs therapy. Jacques loves his characters, so there are many moments of sweetness and friendship, a bunch of fucked up people loving each other as best they can. And all of that in an alternate universe in which AIs are not only real but common, and cyborgs and space habitats are completely normal and feasible. Somehow, in spite of those moments of weirdness, the world of QC never stops being relatable, or the troubles of the characters less believable. I’d even say that the series has benefited from the way Jacques decided to double-down on his Pintsize gambit and extrapolate an entire setting from one annoying robot sidekick. It’s still recognizably our world. Just a little stranger.

1749 crop

Questionable Content is something special. Like its characters, we’ve had our disagreements. I’ve never really liked Pintsize enough to enjoy strips in which he is the focus, and I find Penelope and Wil a strange blend of obnoxious and boring. But I keep coming back because it is consistently well written and beautifully drawn, and because Jeph Jacques loves these characters, and really, I love them too. I want Marten, Faye, Dora, and Hannelore to do well, and I love the way their expanding circle of friends pulls in good people and makes them better. It’s an alternate world of science, indie rock, friendship, sex, and love, and it makes me glad that I can visit it almost every day.

Keep doing what you’re doing, Mr. Jacques. I appreciate it.

Read the comic. Buy the books, or perhaps some shirts. Follow Jeph Jacques on Twitter (but not in real life, he doesn’t like it.)

Skyfall (2012)

Starring Daniel Craig, Judi Dench, Javier Bardem, Naomi Harris, and Ralph Fiennes

Directed by Sam Mendes

Image

After the disappointing mess of the last one, I struggled to find enthusiasm for a new Bond film. Casino Royale raised my expectations so high, and Quantum of Solace dashed them so completely, that I didn’t want to hope that the series could recover. Still, everyone told me the movie was fun, at least, and described it as a return to form. Some people even seemed genuinely excited about it. So I compromised and saw it at the dollar theater.

And I was blown away.

I don’t want to oversell it for you, but Skyfall is a damn good movie, and as an action movie and a Bond movie I’d say it’s even legitimately great. This has partly to do with the gorgeous cinematography, which is master-class work by Roger Deakins, but the screenplay and direction are also leagues beyond what we’ve seen before in the Bond franchise. Instead of the excessive chase scenes and clumsy plotting of the last film, Skyfall takes us back to the character of Bond, makes him human again, and gives us a bonus: a story about M.

I’m not the first to say that Skyfall is as much about M as it is about Bond, but it bears repeating. Beyond the flash and colors, beyond the grim deaths and reintroduction of classic Bond elements, there is an emotional core built around Bond, M, and the relationship they share. M clearly has a personal investment in Bond, complicated by both his inherently rebellious nature and the nature of the work, which requires her to send him into danger, perhaps to his death, over and over again. This is set against the changing nature of intelligence work, and the literal aging of the characters of Bond and M, to create a very satisfying story, and a worthy marker for the Bond franchise’s 50th anniversary.

The basic plot involves an existential threat, not to the world at large, but to the more limited world of Western espionage. A list containing the names and whereabouts of NATO spies has been stolen, presumably to be sold to the highest bidder. Not only does this place lives at risk and jeopardize dozens of intelligence operations, it also causes the British government to question the competence, and even necessity, of their top spy, M. Simultaneously, Bond is shot and out of pocket for months, and only intervention by M keeps him on the active duty rolls. Meanwhile, the one behind it all begins a campaign of harassment against M, indicating that this may be more personal than mercenary terrorism. The agents dying in foreign lands, far from home, may be merely collateral damage to a villain looking to settle a more intimate score.

This idea of human beings as collateral damage runs through the entire film, especially when you realize that the goal is not about money, or power, but revenge. The plot forces you to consider the high cost of the kind of life, and the kind of world, that requires a person to sacrifice other people for Queen and country. It’s an indictment of M’s entire life. And into this comes Bond. I don’t think any other Bond film has made me feel quite so strongly Bond’s place as a tool of the Secret Service. Past Bonds have always seemed more like gentleman adventurers, doing a favor for the Crown while out on a holiday. Even though he’s probably the most rebellious and irreverent Bond we’ve ever seen, and a highly competent agent, Craig’s Bond is clearly in service to M, and knows no other home but this service. The relationship between them, the care they have for each other, even after all Bond’s been through, after all she’s asked of him, gives this movie the emotional weight that’s missing from nearly every other film of its type. I care about their pain, emotional as well as physical. I care, and so, despite the film’s length, I never get bored.

Admittedly, it did occur to me, a few times, to wonder how long I’d been in the theater. Skyfall feels long, but without the multiple endings that marred Casino Royale, I’m not sure what could be removed, exactly, where the fat could be trimmed. The callbacks to classic Bond, while occasionally too cute, are not gratuitous, and are subtly handled. Some of the longer establishing shots might be cut down, but I’m loathe to sacrifice any of that beauty. I left the theater feeling like I’d just seen a work of art, with images from Macao, Turkey, and the Scottish moor all imprinted in my brain. Skyfall is long, but, ultimately, worth every minute.

Several people described Skyfall to me as the most “Bond-like” of all recent Bond films, and I guess I can see what they mean. It’s all here, everything we want and expect from Bond, from Q to Moneypenny, from car chases to explosions, from unflappable hero to memorable villain. But there’s something more here that takes Skyfall beyond being a good action movie or a good Bond movie. Alongside everything we expect is a good story, carried by sharp writing, smart direction, and flawless performances from Dench, Craig, and Bardem. Skyfall is beautiful, and a very good movie, in which a venerable action franchise is commemorated with a story rich in believable characters, emotional depth, and mature themes that reward reflection. I never thought I’d say anything like that about a Bond movie. It’s tempting to be cynical about this being a long-lasting change, but in the meantime, I’m happy to have been surprised, and looking forward to watching Bond again.

 

Skyfall is now available on DVD, Blu-Ray, and Amazon Instant.

Lost Girl (Seasons 1 and 2)

2005248

Lost Girl shouldn’t be a good show. With a premise like “bisexual succubus with a werewolf boyfriend investigates supernatural crimes and uses sex to heal herself”, it should, in fact, be an unsightly mess. But somehow, it takes that easily exploitable premise and turns it into a terrifically watchable light-hearted urban fantasy action series stocked with characters that I absolutely love. It’s funny without descending into Hercules: The Legendary Journey cheesiness, and dramatic without ever taking itself, say, Battlestar Galactica seriously. Obviously a show about a woman who eats sex and fights monsters has more than its share of sex and violence, but what drives the show is how much the characters seem to genuinely care for each other, especially the main character, Bo, and her best friend, Kenzi.

The world of Lost Girl is a secret world of Fae creatures, including goblins, werewolves, sirens, will o’ wisps – as well as mesmerists, telepaths, and other less obviously folkloric creatures – who live among, and feed off of, humans. Their near immortality allows them to acquire tremendous power and influence in the human world, as police officers, club owners, and wealthy patrons of the arts. Bo, the protagonist, is the titular lost girl, raised among humans with no knowledge of her Fae heritage. When her uncontrollable appetite for sexual energy emerged ten years ago, she went on the run, leaving a trail of bodies in her wake. After she uses her powers to save a human girl, however, the local Fae of her latest refuge apprehend her. Now she must choose between the Dark and the Light, but Bo’s been on her own a long time, and she’s not so sure she wants to play by anyone’s rules…

If that sounds ludicrous, well, it often is. Episodic threats range from pregnant nightmares to cursed tribes of circus folk to existential evils from a prehistoric age. In the background is always the centuries-old truce between the Dark and the Light Fae, and the possibility that Bo, unaligned as she is, might tip the balance and spark a new war. There is also the more personal mystery of who Bo’s real parents are, and why she was left to be raised by humans. These tensions drive the arc of each season, with Dark or Light characters trying to manipulate Bo into serving their interests, or Bo taking particular jobs because they promise answers about her origins. While these are handled pretty well for what they are, the strongest drama and overall emotional payoff comes not from the Epic Battle of Good and Evil and What is Evil Anyway and Is Bo the Chosen One, but from the way the characters interact with each other and this strange, magical world. The characters are what makes the show fun, quality entertainment.

Before giving Lost Girl a shot, I tried to watch Once Upon a Time, which is also about a strong female lead with mystery parents who finds herself in a fantasy world trying to right wrongs. I only made it about two episodes in; something in the story didn’t click, felt stilted and forced. They’ve got great actors, an interesting premise, and yet…I didn’t care. About any of it. Meanwhile, in Probably Canada, I’m tearing up because Bo’s heart is breaking and Kenzi is being the bestest friend. Relationships in Lost Girl feel immediately real and genuine because the writing and the acting meet each other and make it work. Characters like Dyson and Trick convey a real sense of history between each other, Bo and Kenzi’s affection for each other feels so sincere it breaks your heart a little bit, and a sweetness develops between the characters as they go on adventures together. I believe these characters, and I believe that they actually like each other, and that makes all the difference.

I don’t think I can emphasize enough how important that central friendship is to the show. Bo should be a ridiculous, exploitative Super Sexy Action Chick stereotype. Kenzi should be the obnoxiously “cute” comic relief. Instead, they are the emotional heart of the show, as they live in a drafty squat and take odd jobs from magical weirdos to keep themselves in booze and breakfast cereal long enough to scare up a job that doesn’t pay them in secrets or character development. Lovers betray them, go missing, or die, but it’s Bo and Kenzi against the world every time, and I think that’s what makes this show great. It’s really a show about two women who care about each other, and support each other, whether that’s against the pain of deceitful lovers or the midnight attacks of morag assassins. I believe in this core relationship. It’s what brings me back, whatever other missteps that the writers may make along the way.

I guess I’m making this sound a little soap opera-esque, so let me emphasize that Lost Girl is way too fun to get hung up on heartbreak and melodrama. Your OTP broke up? Don’t worry, Mama Kenzi is going to take you out on the TOWN. Going to the bar is a Once an Episode occurrence; actually, half the important scenes in the show might happen at the Dal, and half the booze in the show goes right into Kenzi. Relationships end, human and fae alike die horrible deaths, and the end of the entire world is probably just around the corner, but Kenzi will crack a joke, Bo will wear leather pants, and we’ll all go drink about it at the Dal afterward.

It’s fair to say that the writers do make some unfortunate choices, although I’d say they are fairly predictable ones. A lot of the romantic tension involves the love triangle with Bo, Lauren, and Dyson, and let me tell you, it’s rough being a long-time love interest of those last two. There’s a strong current in the show encouraging Bo to settle down to a monogamous relationship, and no one (well, no one who isn’t Dark Fae) seems to question that unspoken mandate, even though everything about her character suggests she is inherently polyamorous. She can also be a bit of a self-righteous, hypocritical dick about murder sometimes, showing little mercy for attempted date-rapists and creepy graverobbing kidnappers, but going all Louis from Interview with a Vampire when it comes to killing an acknowledged serial killer.

I do also wish there were more people of color on the show. Occasionally a glaring missed opportunity will pop up in an episode (why were the kirin and aswangs white?), although the fact that the show mines non-Western folklore at all is kind of an incredible leap forward. Only one of the main cast is nonwhite, and he’s a self-confessed sidekick. Other black characters come and go every other episode, ranging in power from murder victim to the Ash himself, Lord of the Light Fae. It’s better than the average fantasy or science fiction show, where a black actor is typically cast as the Proud Alien Warrior, but it could still be better.

That said, and the occasional shoe sale joke aside, Lost Girl feels both sex and femme positive to me. We see loving same sex relationships (although usually with a tragic twist for one reason or another), and no one cares to comment on either Bo’s promiscuity (aside from the love triangle tension mentioned above) or Kenzi’s complete lack of a sex life, which demonstrates a pretty progressive attitude toward sex, although there is a disappointingly typical attitude toward BDSM as the province of freaks and villains in one episode. There’s a lot of complicated stuff happening with the sexual content of Lost Girl, but it’s progress. They took a creature that represents everything that men fear about female sexuality, and made her a hero. Sex isn’t a weapon for Bo; it’s a power. That’s got to mean something.

Lost Girl is a surprisingly well put-together, character-driven show, and I recommend it without reservations or caveats. Bo is strong and vulnerable, a capable fighter and charismatic leader, a hot-tempered outsider prone to getting in over her head, but also wise enough to rely on the strength and expertise of friends when necessary. I have a soft spot for heroes who gather allies through their goodness, decency, and tendency to do the right thing even when it is to their detriment. Bo is good to people, and her heroism gathers heroes to her, so that when she faces the enemy, whether a powerful magical being or the darkness within herself, she is not alone. I guess maybe that’s a little cheesy, but it’s what I love about this show. Bo saves people, but sometimes needs a little help from her friends. Bo saves Kenzi, and Dyson saves Bo, and Kenzi saves Dyson. The Garuda, the Naga, the Morrigan, these big bads are all there, looming in the background, but that’s not the real drama. What really matters is which of our friends is in trouble, and what are we going to do about it?

Watch it on Netflix. Or, if you are in Canada, at its home page on Showcase.

Buy it on Amazon. Or, if you have a preferred vendor, feel free to mention them in the comments. I’d like to list additional options on future reviews.

Why is this even a thing?

Well, I think the problem is that I can’t leave a thing alone. It’s not enough for me to just enjoy something and kill some time; if I read a book, watch a movie, or play a game, I have to think about it afterward, talk about it with friends, even write something about it. Otherwise, I feel like those hours were just lost. I feel guilty, in other words, if I’m not thoughtful about my interactions with culture and the media I consume.

When I was really small, single digits, my teacher assigned book reports. I’m not  sure how many book reports I actually had to do, because I started to write about every book, every last one I read. At that age, the “about” of a book was pretty much just a summary of the plot, but I was driven to acknowledge the accomplishment, to say, “I read this!” I want to do that again, although hopefully my thoughts and analysis are a little more mature and in depth than they were at 9 years old. No promises though.

Pop Culture Pillow Talk is about the conversation I have with culture, and with others, after I’ve immersed myself in it. Topics will include whatever I happen to read, watch, or play, from Skyfall to Hagakure, from the Pathfinder RPG to The Wire. My purpose is to think the thing through, explore not just how I’m feeling, but why I’m feeling it. Often when reading or watching something, I let myself get caught up in the world of the story. I get surprised by entirely predictable plot twists, let myself be caught up and sucker punched by funeral scenes, homecomings, and other easy emotional payoffs. Only afterward do I start to really think about what I’ve experienced. This blog will be about what happens after. It will, obviously, be highly subjective. If you have a different take on a thing, I encourage you to offer it in the comments. These posts aren’t intended to be the Final Thought on a subject, and I reserve the right to revisit my opinion of something later in a future post.

This is not about ratings, and I’m not going to give anything a thumbs up, thumbs down. I’m not doing this to shit on the things you like, or to tell you you’re wrong for not liking something. If those things do happen, you should feel free to call me out. This is about my enthusiasms, and I hope yours too.

The plan is to update once a week on Friday. We’ll see how that goes!

Update: the plan didn’t go very well, so we’re updating on Saturdays now. Hurray!