Wednesday, December 28, 2005

Why couldn't I have had Dick Jones as a teacher?

If I had, I might not have dropped English Lit at sixteen, grown up to be a properly responsible person and my writing might now be as lyrical as his Patteran Pages. And if he can fill up space with a meme then, damn it, so can I.

Four jobs you've had in your life:

Kitchen porter at a holiday camp. A rancid, violent environment. I spent twenty-four hours throwing up after a particularly wild night in Lowestoft. Haven't been drunk since.

Aimless government programming drone.

Temp for Norwich City Council. Surprisingly more fun than it sounds.

Self-employed company setter-upper. What I should be doing right now.

Four movies you could watch over and over:

I couldn't. Except maybe Groundhog Day, ironically.

Four places you've lived:

The Sholver Estate, Oldham, Lancs. A hideous estate on the edge of the Pennines where packs of wild dogs stalked the streets. I, terrified and six years old, hated it, and hate it still.

Woking, Surrey. During my brief period as an aimless government programming drone. Paul Weller wrote A Town Called Malice about Woking, you know.

Wallyford, East Lothian, Scotland. "Welcome to Nedville", said the graffiti at the railway station. I took the decision to leave when my two year old daughter got knocked over during a fight between a woman and a man in the children's play area at the Miners' Gala. The woman started it.

Ashby St Mary, Norfolk. Where I live now. So beautiful I could cry.

Four TV shows you love to watch:

Ski Sunday

Four places you've been on holiday:

Hitching through New Zealand
The Trans-Siberian railway
Egypt on honeymoon
Ruin-spotting in Greece

Four websites you visit daily:

Wrath of the Barclay
Delenda Est Carthago
Dick Jones' Patteran Pages
Manchester Buccaneers

Four of your favourite foods:

I know this puts me in the "my God, he's some sort of freak" category, but I just don't like food very much. I eat because hunger pangs are unpleasant and if I don't, I'll end up like Karen Carpenter. These ones are OK, though:

Dried mango
Corn Flakes

Four places you'd rather be:

Les Arcs
New York (not that I've been there)
St Petersburg (haven't been there either)

Four albums you can't live without:

Blue Aeroplanes - Swagger
Beth Gibbons and Rustin Man - Out of Season
Doves - The Last Broadcast
Half Man Half Biscuit - Cammell Laird Social Club

Does critical choice exist? Or, tell Gandalf where he can stick his Fellowship

Once you start thinking about plot structure, you start to notice it everywhere. Through a whiskyish Christmas haze, I found myself counting down the climax-reversal-resolution at the end of Bridget Jones' Diary. I keep watching programmes like Lost with one mental eye on the plot structure, ticking off the arc points and thinking things like "Hmmm, the surprise is going to have to come soon".

It seems to me that critical choice is the most slippery of the eight-points. How is it possible that, in a linear narrative, that there can be any idea of choice at all? Obviously, in a strict sense, once you've read the book, there is no choice. The protagonist was always going to choose this way or that, and any sense that there was ever any chance of it going the other way has disappeared forever.

But there's a more subtle sense in which critical choice doesn't exist. Take Ted Kord in Countdown to Infinite Crisis. Why couldn't he have joined up with Maxwell Lord? The narrative establishing his character had made it clear that he was genuinely a hero, despite what his friends might think. If he had joined Lord he would have become a traitor, something which nothing within the story has prepared the reader for. The writer would have broken the unwritten contract with the reader, who would then feel short-changed.

The clues to the solution to the critical choice have already been established, and at the point of choice, the reader should be able to work out what the protagonist will do. In this sense, the critical choice doesn't exist at all.

Marionette questions whether Kord's conversion would be believable, either to Lord or the reader. Unless Lord was playing mind games, we have to assume that he thought Kord might convert, as otherwise there would be no point in even asking the question. Ongoing readers who know these characters probably wouldn't have bought the idea, I think, since it doesn't fit their idea of Kord's character. As a new reader, I would have accepted it, though, if the story had hinted at the idea that Kord might be capable of such a decision.

The critical choice in Lord of the Rings is Frodo deciding to take the ring to Mordor. A choice so critical, in fact, that he makes it three times - in the Shire, Rivendell, and on the Anduin. Each time, he makes, has to make, the decision to go on, no matter how badly events have turn. And it's fairly easy to guess that he'll make it, since the book is going to badly lose its direction if its hero (who, incidentally, isn't particularly heroic) decides to give up.

Yet Tolkien presents this choice three times. Why do we, the readers, not just think, "this is just bleeding obvious"?

I think the answer lies in the enormous suspension of disbelief which the reader is willing to undertake. We'll accept aliens, superheroes and speccy 13 year old wizards, all of which are blatantly ridiculous ideas. And we'll stick with it all, as long as the writer is good enough to sustain an illusion. We're willing to imagine that the events were witnessing are actually taking place in real time, that there is a geniune choice to be made.

It might seem that having the hero make a choice which goes against the grain of the story would be an exciting turn of events, but it seems not to be true. That would be the surprise in the arc, like Gandalf getting killed by a previously unmentioned Balrog. To maintain the suspension of disbelief, the decision in the critical choice has to fit with the reader's preconceptions. Ones which were fashioned by the writer themselves.

Which, to come full circle, is why you shouldn't analyse plots too deeply. If you're aware that what you're watching is a construct, rather than a series of events, then you just stop believing in it, and your enjoyment suffers. In the case of Bridget Jones' Diary, fortunately, there's not too much enjoyment to be had anyway.

Sunday, December 18, 2005

The eight-point arc

I came across the concept of the eight-point arc in Nigel Watts' Writing a Novel. Watts describes the stages of the classic plot (and there is, apparently, only one) which many of the great novels follow. Obviously, I was learning about this in order to write my own novel, but I soon found, true to Watts' word, that the eight-point arc crops up all over the place. And one good example is the excellent Countdown to Infinite Crisis, written by Geoff Johns, Greg Rucka and Judd Winnick.

The structure of the story is complex, with a set of flashbacks bringing the reader up-to-date with the action with which the story starts. But the eight-point structure is there nonetheless.

The first point, stasis, is the initial state of the characters in the story. In this case, Ted Kord, the Blue Beetle, is portrayed as a fading hero, down on his luck and not regarded as an important player. We know this because Kord tells us himself. Stasis is not necessarily the same as continuity. This being the only Blue Beetle story I have read, for all I know Ted could have been portrayed as a happy-go-lucky winner in all previous outings. But, to the new reader, this doesn't matter, as long as the story has internal consistency.

We then have the trigger which sets the main plot off. In the present, where Kord is breaking into an unknown building, we see that someone has discovered the identities of all the main DC heroes, presumably for nefarious reasons. This is followed by a flashback where Kord discovers his corporation is being robbed by an unknown corporation.

Like most of the great stories, this is working on two levels. By this point, we have established the two mains conflicts in the plot - the physical threat of the unknown figure, and the internal conflict of Kord's self-belief.

We now head off into the main part of the story, the quest: the journey of discovery. In the physical sense, we find out more about Kord's assailant, and, from the dismissive reactions of his friends, we uncover the root of Kord's self-doubt. In particular, we encounter Maxwell Lord, a snotty friend of Kord's, who tells Blue Beetle and his partner that they should give up crimefighting altogether.

In keeping with the traditional description of a story as a beginning, a muddle and an end, we now head off into some diversions, some of which just fill up space and some of which set up some of the mini-series DC launched as part of the whole Infinite Crisis spectacular. The story tends to lose its way in these diversions, which is a problem typical of multiple crossovers.

The next ingredient in the eight-point arc is the surprise, which occurs quite near the end of the story. Kord has located his enemy's hideout in a rather beautiful Swiss castle, which he breaks into with some ease. Having found the main computer system, the flashbacks are finished and we are back in the present time. The surprise is that the mystery assailant is Maxwell Lord, Kord's erstwhile friend.

This sets us up for the climax, as Lord, in typical villainous fashion, explains his fiendish plans to destroy all heroes. This is followed by a fight between Blue Beetle and Lord, which Blue Beetle wins. He turns to flee, defeating Lord's minions along the way.

This leads naturally up to the reversal, where Lord transforms one of his minions into a cyborg OMAC, and sets it onto Blue Beetle, who it quickly defeats.

We're not quite at the finale here, because we still have the critical choice, a difficult decision which the central character has to take in order to succeed. In this case, it comes in the form of Lord, with his opponent defeated and helpless, asking Kord if he will join him. Kord has a stark choice: to die with dignity or compromise himself by joining his enemy. He can only maintain the external fight by losing the internal battle for self-respect. Kord tells Lord to "rot in hell, Max". Kord has chosen death over dishonour.

I should point out here that in an earlier post I said that if someone points and gun at you and asks you to join them, the correct answer is "When do you want me to start, Boss?, which can be followed by a back-stabbing much later. If the authors had done this, we would have had a horrible, morally compromised ending which would have readers chucking their comics in the dustbin. Don't listen to snide reviewers.

We're now at the resolution, where Lord kills Kord/Blue Beetle, and sets the previously unknown Project: OMAC into operation. With Lord now a villain and Kord dead, the stasis of the subsequent Infinite Crisis stories will be significantly different. This story has elegantly used the classic plot to change the lives of its protagonists. Which is why it's a great story.

Monday, December 12, 2005

Big in Japan

Avengers #13

Marvel's gutting of The Avengers was a landmark in the tenure of editor-in-chief Joe Quesada. It would be difficult to argue that most of his moves up to then (killing crossovers, putting Grant Morrison on X-Men, resuscitating Amazing Spider-Man) weren't good ones, but Disassembled, which marked the return of the Big Crossover by terminating the careers of several under-performing Avengers, was the point where Quesada's touch seemed to be deserting him.

Once I got over the obvious continuity flaws I rather enjoyed the carnage of Disassembled, but plenty of readers didn't, and it seemed that the evidence of its worth would only emerge once we had seen the shape of the New Avengers (though I refuse to use the New as it reminds me of Tony Blair's unpleasant rebranding of New Labour) . Disassembled, as the name would suggest, was about taking the old team apart, but it was Brian Michael Bendis who would have to construct something better if we were not to get a swift backslide, with the result that in two years time we'd all be reading about the Pyms and Wonder Man and Triathlon taking on Ultron #97.

Bendis has done well, so much that I doubt that Marvel would think of returning back to the old team. Having a top rate artist (David Finch) alongside a top rate writer has been an unqualified success. Thought has clearly gone into team composition - a couple of oldies (Captain America, Iron Man), two well-known non-Avengers (Spider-Man, Wolverine), two underused seventies characters (Cage and Spiderwoman, craftily cast as the traitor-in-waiting) and two wild-cards (Sentry and Ronin). New Avengers has been designed for the long haul, carried there by Bendis' mastery of dialogue and plot.

That said, this arc was my least favourite. It's in Japan, home to more duff Marvel stories per square kilometre than any country outside of the UK, perhaps because all the plot elements appear to come from James Clavell's Shogun. You can usually expect to see the following

- an internecine conflict which has been going on "for centuries"
- an old, bald bloke given to making cod-profound statements
- Viper narrowly escaping death in an unfeasible manner
- a vast herd of silent, sword-wielding assassins
- the Silver Samurai doing his "stupid as fuck" Colossus impersonation
- Wolverine stopping acting like the intestine-slashing thug he is and dribbling on about honour

This story went pretty much to plan, right up to the point where I realised that Clan Yashida and the Hand were not the same organisation. Over twenty of reading these stories, and I'd never even noticed. Granted, I should probably be paying more attention, but it does make you wonder if, like Shakespeare's famously interchangeable Rosenkrantz and Gildenstern, there's actually only a need for one of them.

So, anyway, it all rattles off, with Stark disposing of the assassin flock with a concussion blast. Why these assassins don't, like all self-respecting murderous scum these days, use long-range rifles with telescopic lenses escapes my understanding. The Avengers fly home, with Bendis readying us for his next big announcement, the secret identity of the mysterious Ronin.

Like the best Bendis foreshadowing, he's given us enough clues to have a go (Ronin was a friend of Daredevil, apparently), but I'm nowhere near smart enough to guess these things. Which is why I was utterly shocked to find Echo, my favourite underused character in the Marvel universe, working with the Avengers. As casting goes, this is a stroke of genius, evening up the sex imbalance by introducing a genuinely complicated and mysterious woman. Few characters have as much potential as Maya Lopez.

It also leaves open the possibility that deity-level artist David Mack, who created Echo, might come in and draw an issue or two. Mack, of course, made his name writing Kabuki, set in Japan.

I know he has his detractors, but Bendis is the best comic book writer in the business right now. While he retains a touch as sure as this, Bendis is going to stay at the top of the tree.

Wednesday, December 07, 2005

If there had been ink at the Angleterre

Vladimir Mayakovsky, self-proclaimed "drumbeat of the Revolution", was Esenin's great contemporary and rival, and a striking contrast to the bohemian, dissolute, nostalgic Esenin.

Mayakovsky had been imprisoned by the Tsarists while still in his teens, and after the 1917 revolution became its foremost poetic cheerleader. A role similar, I suppose, to that played eighty years later in the Blairite Revolution by D:Ream's Things can only get better. Mayakovsky, a formidable romantic as well as revolutionary poet, was a Futurist, given in his younger days to denouncing any work of art created by anyone before, well, the Futurists. Mayakovsky wasted much of his time after the Revolution creating Party doggerels and designing posters for the railway board. Something he was happy to admit in At the top of my voice:

Agitprop sticks in my teeth too
And I'd rather compose romances for you
More profit in it, and more charm
But I subdued myself, setting my heel
On the throat of my own song

Passionate, unsubtle, and buzzing with ideas, Mayakovsky's work has a force and an immediacy about it. By wearing his heart on his sleeve, Mayakovsky personality floods off the page.

His personality, though, can be a problem. "Nonsense, arrant stupidity, and pretentiousness" is how one critic, Lenin, described 150 000 000, one of Mayakovsky's most famous works. Stalin (by all accounts more of an appreciator of poetry than Lenin) was by contrast something of a fan, and after Mayakovsky's death, he became the official chief poet of the Revolution, forced down the throats of many an unwilling Soviet schoolchild. Being the favoured poet of a mass murderer is a bit of a PR negative, and Mayakovsky's reputation has suffered accordingly. Mayakovsky has as many haters as fans. I'm in the latter camp.

Anyway, Mayakovsky wasn't at all pleased with Esenin's final poem, and set about writing a reply, To Sergey Esenin. Perhaps not entirely a hatchet job, this is nonetheless a rare example of one literary great administering a kick to the cobblers of a recently departed colleague.

Mayakovsky is relatively restrained with his alcohol jibes,

You've gone, as they say, to some world or other...
No advances for you there, and no pubs

but makes two comments on Esenin's wrist slashing:

...having put (your suicide) off by just cutting your wrists

Maybe, if there had been ink at the Angleterre,
There would have been no reason for veins to be slit

The latter, referring to Esenin's unusual choice of writing fluid, could be seen as a little callous, if not brutal and contemptible. But it's a great line, and maybe Mayakovsky just couldn't resist putting it in. That happens sometimes.

After spending some lines praising Esenin and slagging off his (and Mayakovsky's) denigrators, Mayakovsky then puts the boot into Esenin's memorial concert, where the tenor Sobinov sang some of Esenin's poems put to music, a sentimental occasion which sickened Mayakovsky.

But it's the last two lines which cause most offence.

In this life, to die isn't hard
To make life, however, is much harder

Mayakovsky, outraged by the nihilism and defeatism of Esenin's final two lines, was attempting to dull their impact by rewriting them to give a message of Mayakovsky's choosing. I love Mayakovsky's work, but this bit is hard to stomach.

And it gets worse. Having denigrated Esenin for having the temerity to commit suicide, on 14 April 1930, five years after Esenin's death, Mayakovsky shot himself through the heart, leaving behind an unfinished, touching poem in his notebook.

Once we disregard the usual conspiracy theories that Mayakovsky's suicide was engineered by the NKVD, we're left with a problem of how to reconcile this poem with his own suicide. Presumably, if he'd known he would eventually shoot himself, Mayakovsky would have restrained his pen. But that's no excuse. Mayakovsky was human, and got this one horribly wrong.

Tuesday, December 06, 2005

Goodbye, my friend, goodbye

I mentioned in my last post about the banality of death: the idea that death is so commonplace, so ordinary, as to be almost uninteresting. The problem with writing about this idea is that any author would have to acknowledge the banality of their own deaths and, by extension, their own lives. Which, obviously, few rational people are going to do.

In 1925, the poem Sergey Esenin, staying in the Hotel d'Angleterre in Leningrad, asked reception to send up him some ink. On being told there was none, he opened up his wrists and wrote his final poem in his own blood. The next day, he hanged himself.

Esenin is best known in the West for his marriage to the American dancer Isadora Duncan, a union always likely to have its difficulties as they had no common language. When they met, Isadora seduced him using the only two words of Russian she knew - "angel" and "devil".

There is a certain irony in one of the most gifted writers of his day being unable to communicate with his spouse, and by the time of their marriage in the early twenties Esenin, once handsome, was on a precipitous decline amply lubricated with alcohol. The couple separated in 1924.

Duncan managed to top off her glamorous and unusual life with a glamorous and grisly death - strangled and nearly decapitated by her scarf, which got entangled in the wheels of the car she was driving.

I've never particularly enjoyed Esenin's poetry, though, the ones I've read have two themes: that he represented the dying society of the Russian peasantry, killed off by modern technology; and that he was a bad, nasty drunkard. Which he was.

However, his final eight line poem, Goodbye, my friend, goodbye, is a call to those who knew him not to mourn, and is almost unbearably sad. After expressing his love for his (unnamed) friend and his belief in some form of resurrection, the final two lines are

In this life to die isn't novel
But to live, of course, isn't so new

Which brings us back to the ordinariness of death and life.

I should mention here that there is a theory that the NKVD (the forerunners of the KGB) murdered Esenin. Presumably, then, they must have fabricated the suicide note, which means the NKVD must have had a shit hot poetry department back in the twenties.

Anyway, Esenin was buried in an emotional funeral (the Russians in those days tended to treat their poets better in death than in life), and that would seem to have been the end of it. Until Vladimir Vladimirovich Mayakovsky decided he had something to say about the matter.

Thursday, December 01, 2005

On science and trapped birds

I'm mildly obsessed by Joseph Wright's An Experiment on a Bird in the Air Pump, which is in the National Gallery in London. In it, a travelling scientist is teaching physics by depriving a family pet, a bird, of oxygen. The bird is slumped to the bottom of the pump while the demonstrator (sadly to modern eyes bearing an uncanny resemblance to sleazy nightclub owner Peter Stringfellow), impassioned and charismatic, preaches to the family.

The family have a variety of responses: two lovers ignore him; a man with a watch (said to be Erasmus Darwin, Charles Darwin's grandfather) looks on intently; an older man gloomily stares at a skull hidden behind a glass. Most powerfully, a man talks to his daughters about the experiment, the elder of whom buries her head in her hands, unable to watch. But it is the reaction of the youngest which is the centrepiece of the painting.

The National Gallery Description mentions "frightened children", but I don't think that's correct. The youngest child is anything but scared. Although she sympathetically holds on to her sister, she is fascinated by the experiment, and looks on, angelic, dispassionate and cold. She is the scientist, and she want the experiment to continue to its end. And Wright, closely connected to a famous group of engineers and philosphers called the "Lunar Society", was a staunch believer in progress.

Which makes it puzzling that he should depict a subject as troubling as this experiment, the cruelty of which might bring us to question the motivation and practice of science. But what I think Wright is doing is showing us, in the way this child is learning from the demonstration, that cruelty may be necessary for progress. Even the light is saying something about science: the way the illumination from a single, hidden, manufactured candle far outshines the full moon.

It's meant to be troubling, this picture, and it is. Deliberately, Wright leaves us unsure about the fate of the bird. I do not think we are meant to assume it survives.

Strangely, there's a similar representation of a trapped bird in Don McGregor's Jungle Action #14. As a consequent of an insurrection, oil has flooded part of the jungle, and a small bird has become trapped. Tayete, a minor character, attempts to free it, only to be stopped by his leader, N'Jadaka.

Tayete, if we lost time saving each helpless stray on our road to greatness, we would never reach our destination.

They walk off, leaving the birds to its fate.

And that's it for the bird, right up to the last page, which shows its death, accompanied by one of the strongest endings of any comic book.

For some, night does not arrive. As usual.

With the last two words, McGregor, the most lyrical of all the comic book writers, pulls the scene away from sentimentality. The "as usual" changes it from the story of a bird's death to an observation on the omnipresence of death. These deaths, individually tragic, are happening all around us, all the time. Death is
commonplace, banal even.

Separated by two centuries, Wright and McGregor have both used the device of a trapped bird, with all the obvious connotations of denied flight and freedom. Wright is inviting us to challenge our own preconceptions to see that this cruelty may have a purpose, which is the attitude which McGregor puts into the mouth of N'Jadaka, implicitly in the wrong.

Both works, one a work of fine art in a national gallery, the other an eight pence comic book, are traumatic and thought-provoking.