Playing Favorites (Part 1)

As a music writer of dubious note, I often get asked one question: “What are your favorite bands?” Which is, of course, the worst possible question you can ask a music writer. It’s the easiest way to get our brains to seize up with option paralysis. So many factors! So many things to consider. Do they mean all-time, current, what? What do I do when you stare at me blankly because you’ve never heard of the bands I mention? IT’S HARD.

So, let’s look at the question. It seems so deceptively simple, but it’s so very deep. It’s a deeply personal, illogical thing. Like, for example, do I consider bands/artists like Alice Cooper, AC/DC, Van Halen, Ozzy, Nightwish — bands that I loved back in my formative years, and still do, but rarely listen to these days? They can’t be a favorite artist if I don’t listen to them, right? Do I go with the current crop of bands I listen to a lot but haven’t necessarily passed my test of time yet?

Priest or Maiden? PRIEST OR MAIDEN?

Plus there’s the instinct to include representative artists that cover the sheer breadth of music I listen to. My high school and college listening focused mostly on rock and metal, so while that’s what I’ve probably listened to the most, and have the most sentimental value for, they don’t necessarily indicate who I am right now. Then there are all the artists I really like but, for reasons due to the sheer amount of new music I inhale, I haven’t really sat with enough to bestow upon them the superlative of “favorite.”

In order to answer your INSANELY COMPLICATED question, let’s start with the perennial shoe-ins:

Monster Magnet. Blue Oyster Cult. Sisters of Mercy. Judas Priest. Rush.

The bands that I turn to when I need to find my grounding again. Not a lot of variety, I understand. A bunch of white dudes from the 70s and 80s playing, basically, rock music. I offer no excuses; those bands were important to me and I still love them. They will always be at the top of my list. Those are all bands I discovered in high school or college that not only made an indelible impact on me, but stood the test of time.

Monster Magnet, I knew “Space Lord” from the radio and “Look to Your Orb for the Warning” from the Matrix soundtrack, but when I picked up Dopes to Infinity on a whim from the Princeton Record Exchange, it blew my mind. That’s still their best album, but Dave Wyndorf’s weird, poetic lyrics, psychedelic freakouts, and knack for hooks grabbed me and fired up my imagination.

Blue Oyster Cult, of course I’d heard “(Don’t Fear) The Reaper.” “Godzilla” was the big one for me, though — that was during my big Godzilla phase in high school, and it prompted me to order the Workshop of the Telescopes anthology from Columbia House (LOL), which opened my eyes to how weird and wonderful their music really was. No two albums are the same; they all contain idiosyncratic tunes ranging from proto-metal to doo-wop to AOR to the most beautifully sinister track ever composed, “Astronomy.”

My first exposure to Sisters of Mercy came from fishing the single of “Detonation Boulevard” out of the throwaway bin at my college radio station. Certainly not their finest hour (although I still have a soft spot for it), but the arena goth grandeur of Floodland perfectly articulated a niche in my soul that I didn’t know existed. Andrew Eldritch’s sardonic misery and unusual blend of influences (Bowie, Meat Loaf, Joy Division) will forever be the perfect soundtrack to a rainy day.

Judas Priest and Iron Maiden are always neck-and-neck for me, metal-wise, but Priest always wins out slightly. They had a more varied career (for better or worse), but even their worst albums had at least one all-time classic on it — Ram It Down may be rancid garbage, but “Blood Red Skies” might be the greatest cyberpunk song ever written. Nobody (except maybe Maiden) wrote metal anthems as iconic, and nobody encapsulates everything I love about metal quite as well.

The first time I heard Rush I though Geddy Lee was a woman. Then I saw a picture of the band and still thought he was a woman. I have since been corrected. As much as I love their 70s prog stuff, it’s actually the 80s synth records that put them over the top for me — talk about a band with a diverse discography. As much as people make fun of prog for being cold and detached, “Subdivisions” hit me really hard as a misfit growing up in the unforgiving suburbs.

Anyway, those are the sentimental faves. Tune in next week for a look at what I’m digging now!

O Superman

A lot of chatter about Superman happening on the ol’ interweb this morning, and it got me thinking about the character and what he means, both in general and to me. I was a (post-Frank Miller) Batman guy for years — that constant struggle between his higher ideals and darker methods inherently makes for good drama. Plus, there are some great stories out there that explore both the character and the world around him (Greg Rucka and Ed Brubaker’s Gotham Central was one of the best comics of the past few decades). Superman, I’ve always been lukewarm on. He has a reputation for being the ultimate square (even moreso than former soldier Steve Rogers), this all-powerful guy who always does the right thing. How do you write interesting stories around that?

As I get older, though, the more I realize that’s exactly what makes the character so interesting — he can do anything, and he chooses to do the right thing. He’s been given the keys to ultimate power, and instead of letting absolute power corrupt him absolutely, he tries to follow his moral compass. And that’s an interesting character, one that many people (myself included) feel was betrayed by the ending of Man of Steel (dir. Zack Snyder, 2013). Faced with an impossible situation, he chose to succumb to his darkest instincts and snap Zod’s neck. Compare and contrast that with Joe Kelly’s story What’s So Funny ‘Bout Truth, Justice, and the American Way? in Action Comics #775. Superman encounters a team of incredibly powerful anti-heroes called The Elite who want to use their powers to police the world through violent and fascist means (echoes of Warren Ellis and Bryan Hitch’s The Authority, to be sure). He’s pulled into an impossible showdown with the villains, in which their leader, Manchester Black, tries to prove that the only way Superman can defeat The Elite is by killing them and showing that his morals are a sham. Supes uses his abilities to make it seem like he’s killed them — only to reveal that it was all a trick, and he used their powers against them to neutralize them. He could have snapped Black’s neck and been done with it; he did not. He chose not to. He found another way.

Of course, that story was from March 2001, before September 11 let America give vent to its own darkest instincts. Which is what makes Superman more important than ever. With a literal Lex Luthor in the White House, we need a pop culture figure who doesn’t use the power for his own selfish ends. There’s the argument that it’s not a great character, that his nigh-omnipotence makes for boring stories. Which is why he requires a great, cynical foil — in some cases Batman, in some cases worldly, jaded reporter Lois Lane, in some cases power-hungry, narrow-minded industrialist Lex Luthor. When he’s the cynical one, it’s just cynicism bouncing off cynicism and that’s boring.

Some of the very best Superman stories revolve around the dichotomy: Grant Morrison’s All-Star Superman run, for example, shows what happens what different people do when they get Superman’s powers, including Lois and Luthor, and how Kal-El’s selflessness makes him so special. Similarly, the writers of the cartoon series Justice League and Justice League Unlimited did some really smart things with the character — putting him up against a fascist version of himself in “A Better World,” stripping him of his powers and showing that he’s still a badass in “Hereafter,” facing Superman off against the very government he’s loyal to and forcing him to make hard moral decisions in the overarching storyline of JLU seasons 1 and 2. No character exists in a vacuum, not even the most famous character of the 20th century.

That’s not to say he’s an easy character to write, and certainly people have different interpretations. The version outlined above is the one that speaks to me, though, and I think it speaks to a lot of people — hence the cultural dissatisfaction with the current film version of the Man of Steel. We need a Superman who doesn’t find anything funny about truth, justice, and the (idealized) American way.

Losing (and Finding?) My Religion

It’s been a while since I set foot in a synagogue. Maybe right after the current president got elected, when I briefly turned to my religion for answers? Even on the high holy days last year I skipped services, since my father insists on going to the Chabad house near him and I can’t stand that place (I understand the draw, but it seems like Judaism for fanatics by fanatics and that’s not my style). Having recently moved to Burbank, though, and with a synagogue almost literally right around the corner, I decided to give Temple Beth Emet a try for Rosh Hashanah. A reform congregation in a fairly liberal area? More my speed.

It wasn’t like a momentous thing, my return to the fold; I grew up in a conservative congregation, so it wasn’t an entirely familiar experience (Judaism is split into three basic factions: reform, conservative, and orthodox). Still, the building definitely felt familiar — mid-twentieth century architecture and design, that musty smell of old books, the usual accoutrements of the American Jewish faith. It’s sad, because Judaism feels like a dying thing, at least here. The attendees were mostly older, with a few younger couples (and, to be fair, the children were sequestered in a different area), and the rabbi made repeated pleas to build the congregation by bringing in new folks. It’s tricky — we worship digital gods now and have no time for the old ones.

My generation is a big source of the problem — all my Jewish friends in LA basically abandoned their faith. Their choice! I’m not rebuking them. For me, though, that’s not entirely an option. As agnostic and rationalistic as I may be, I spent many hours in Hebrew school and in services and studying for my Bar Mitzvah and confirmation. It’s a deeply ingrained thing; one that I don’t often talk about or touch on, but my Judaism is a part of my identity, no matter how deep I bury it. Whether or not I believe in God, I believe in Jewish culture and community as a thing worth preserving.

It’s funny how easily the tunes for the old prayers came to my lips. Some of the arrangements were different, but the big ones were the same, and they’re as imprinted in my mind as Bon Jovi’s “Wanted Dead or Alive.” That ritualistic aspect of religion may be the most important part. Whether you consider it brainwashing or not, it brings a level of comfort to an embattled mind by allowing you to slip into familiar tones. I’m fully aware of the forces religion bring to play on my psyche: nostalgia, comfort, familiarity. It’s still nice. All the little rituals of putting on the tallis, singing the prayers, standing as they unspool the Torah — it’s reassuring.

I think a big part of the disconnect between me and the faith I was raised in comes down to exactly that: a matter of faith. My inability to give myself over fully to a belief in an omnipotent being, especially considering the world we live in (and have always lived in). Of course, the Jewish God isn’t perfect — there are many instances in the bible where Jewish prophets argue with Him or He makes a mistake or does something kinda shitty. Which is more interesting than an infallible being; even God needs to get His shit together sometimes. That said, I can’t wrap my head around such a being — and I’m definitely not going to solve in an internet essay what great philosophers and thinkers have tried to accomplish for centuries. All I can speak of is my own experience, and it’s a deeply conflicted one.

A lot of people think Hannukah is the big Jewish holiday, but really, Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur are: the New Year and the Day of Atonement. The week-long period in which we reflect on who we were in the prior year and who we want to be in the following year, when we remember those lost and try to find ourselves. In other words, the perfect time to reflect (especially with my impending marriage to a non-Jew) what role I want my religion to play in my life. I can’t help but think it would be nice to embrace it again. The question is if, after a lifetime of cynicism and disbelief, I can.

Metallic Aftertaste

Taste is subjective. Everyone has their own — which doesn’t mean it isn’t fun to argue about it online, of course. It’s all a matter of perspective. I’m reminded of a Film Crit Hulk article where he talks about a Steven Soderbergh quote in the context of a discussion about whether King Kong (2004, dir. Peter Jackson) is good or bad: ““Try explaining it in a way that makes you all correct. Because whatever you think, that’s what the movie really is.” I read that as meaning that every reaction to a movie is a valid one and must be taken into consideration. Of course, that extends only to emotional responses — certainly someone with expertise can critique the film/book/album/whatever for the technical factors. But it’s important to remember that everyone has their own viewpoint and experiences and preferences, and they are human beings, which makes them exactly as valuable as every other human being — and therefore makes their perspective equally valuable.

In my critical writing, I try to be even-handed, but I’ve certainly done my share of hit pieces. I stand behind them. That said, my reaction to something is exactly that — my reaction. My response to the new Machine Head album, for example, is mine and mine alone. If the music speaks to someone, then awesome, I’m glad the band succeeded. They didn’t in my case, and I can only offer my informed thoughts and hope it helps others. It’s partly based off my experience and knowledge of the subject, and partly based off what I like. I can’t help it. There’s no way to be purely objective. Everything in your life to that point informs your approach. You can’t view something in a void. It’s subjective. All of it.

Also, it’s fun to write mean things.

I have friends who absolutely love the movie Red (2010, dir. Robert Schwentke). I do not. And yet, they hold it up as an example of why I have bad taste, or why my taste should be discounted. And it’s baffling to me. Still, it’s true that it does make my recommendations suspect to them — we clearly enjoy different things. And that’s okay.

The more times I travel around the sun, the more I realize that taste doesn’t change — it clarifies. My parents listened to classical and showtunes (my mom) and The Doors (my dad). I tried listening to chart rock when I was in middle school, had Hootie and the Blowfish and Dave Matthews and Alanis Morrisette CDs (I know I’m dating myself), but something always seemed to be… missing. It wasn’t until I discovered Van Halen and AC/DC and Ozzy that everything clicked into place for me. And honestly, it’s never really clicked out of place. I’ve pushed my taste in more extreme directions, but no matter how many times I listen to Morbid Angel or Cannibal Corpse, it’s just not gonna do much for me. I can have fun with it, I can appreciate it, but it’s not really my thing. I’m always gonna be a Judas Priest-Iron Maiden-In Flames guy. I just love those melodic classic rock riffs.

I receive hundreds of e-mails promising brutal, unrelenting, depressing, raw, violent, aggressive, extreme stuff — and it bores me. I don’t have any interest in underground black metal or retro death metal or hardcore or grind. I feel bad, because labels or promoters will reach out in the hopes that I’ll check out their bands with unreadable logos, and I’m just the wrong guy. I can write about the stuff intelligently, I can listen to it with an open mind, but it’s not what I reach for when I want to listen to metal. Hell, I rarely reach for metal anymore. When I do, it’s either something awesome like Striker or something interesting like Horrendous, or more often something with a sweet rock n’ roll groove. Otherwise, I’ve been delving into synth-based music, psychedelic rock, jazz; things that tap into where I am now.

Of course, as I mentioned, where I am now isn’t very different than where I’ve always been. I just know more what I like and what I feel like listening to, and I don’t feel obligated to pretend to care about the latest Blasphemy rehearsal tape. My fascination with synthesizer music and jazz goes back to my mom’s love of classical, my interest in psych rock clearly goes back to my dad’s love of The Doors, my interest in prog and trad metal goes back to my own early experiments with music. The fact that I’m listening to less metal doesn’t mean my tastes have changed. It just means I’m more in touch with what my tastes are. And that, hopefully, makes me a better writer.

Blood in the Water

Killer shark movies have been a staple of cinema since Bruce the shark first terrorized the beaches of Amity Island. None of them have come close to the excellence of Jaws (1975, dir. Stephen Spielberg) — but then, very few movies have. I consider that film to be a perfect film (yes, some of the day-for-night shots are unconvincing, but who cares). So that’s a lot to live up to. To their credit, most shark movies don’t even try. But which ones have teeth, and which ones just bite? With the recent release of Jason Statham vs. The Meg (2018, dir. John Turteltaub), I thought I’d take a brief look at the history of the genre.

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The knock-offs started almost immediately after Jaws blew up the box office (the schlockmeisters smelled blood in the water, clearly). I’m sad to say I haven’t seen Tintorera: Killer Shark (1977, dir. Rene Cordona, Jr.), but it seems I’m not missing much. There were a number of Jaws-but-not-sharks films around that time as well. Frankly, a lot of them blur together — I think I’ve seen Tentacles (1977, Ovidio G. Assonitis), but I may be confusing it with the Mystery Science Theater 3000 takedown of Devil Fish (1984, dir. Lamberto Bava). Orca (1977, dir. Michael Anderson) stands out — although mostly because the writers’ cleverness in adapting Frankenstein into a killer whale movie is overshadowed by the stupidity of adapting Frankenstein into a killer whale movie. Piranha (1978, dir. Joe Dante) should, by all rights, fall into the dustbin of history, but canny direction from Dante and a surprisingly sharp script by future indie darling John Sayles make it a standout.

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Most of those movies don’t actually have sharks, though. Just shark stand-ins. Funnily enough, a number of the Jaws knockoffs came in the form of the Jaws sequels themselves. Jaws 2 (1978, dir. Jeannot Szwarc) tries the hardest to be a real movie, but mostly succeeds in boring the viewer — at least until the shark eats a helicopter. Seemingly spurred by that memorable moment, Jaws 3-D (1983, dir. Joe Alves) ups the silliness by setting it in SeaWorld (which had its own horrors going). Despite a script by Richard Matheson and Carl Gottlieb, though, its attempt to jump on the 3-D craze doomed it to camp classic status. Jaws: The Revenge (1987, dir. Joseph Sargent) is actually quite a lovely story about overcoming tragedy and finding love again late in life that’s saddled with a shitty shark subplot. That opening scene scared the hell outta me when I was a kid, though.29906170001_4963805891001_4963805289001-vs

Recent shark movies have fallen into three varieties: Asylum MegaShark/Sharknado garbage, tense thrillers, and big dumb blockbusters. I’m going to ignore the former; I don’t like that company’s cynical approach to filmmaking.  [EDIT: A kind reader reminded me about Shark Attack 3: Megalodon (2002, dir. David Worth), a hilarious trash fire in which it’s a toss-up as to which is less convincing, the special effects or John Barrowman’s attempts to act like he’s attracted to women.] The big two entries in the tense thriller subset, Open Water (2003, dir. Chris Kentis) and The Shallows (2016, dir. Jaume Collet-Serra), both have their flaws, although one succeeds where the other doesn’t. Open Water has a phenomenal setup (swimmers stranded in shark-infested waters by their tour boat) but has no idea where to go with it, resulting in 80 minutes of screaming and crying to no end. The Shallows is much more ludicrous, with its sub-Hitchcockian constant raising-of-tension. Weirdly, that helps it work — it becomes almost a fever dream for Blake Lively’s character as she slowly comes to grips with the death of her mother. The thematic elements save it, as do surprisingly solid command performances by Lively and a seagull.

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So that brings us to the blockbusters: Deep Blue Sea (1999, dir. Renny Harlin) and The Meg. Deep Blue Sea is notorious for a few reasons. The sheer ridiculousness of the concept (smart sharks trying to sink an underwater research center so they can escape while the heroes try to get out), the LL Cool J theme song (“Deepest bluest, my hat is like a shark’s fin), and, of course, the fantastic shock moment of (SPOILER) the shark eating the presumed protagonist, played by Samuel L. Jackson, in the middle of the film. In my opinion, the film succeeds wildly. It’s ridiculous, but it whole-heartedly embraces the dumb without winking at the audience. I love the audaciousness of the shark’s plot — they have a genuine plan that drives the story forward. The way-overqualified cast (Jackson, Thomas Jane, Saffron Burrows, Michael Rapaport, Stellan Skarsgard, J) seems game, and they help elevate the material — as does Harlin, who’s never met a movie he wouldn’t over-direct. It is so-bad-it’s-good at its finest; it’s not only fun to watch, but a genuine thrill ride as well. It’s still the second best killer shark movie.

the-meg-film-summer-horror-jason-stathemThe Meg, unfortunately, doesn’t quite live up to the promise of Jason Statham fighting a shark — although it comes tantalizingly close. It shouldn’t have been remotely good; its source material, a truly trashy beach read by Steve Alten, was even worse than Peter Benchley’s Jaws novel. The filmmakers thankfully disposed of any attempt to make it a serious movie: there’s a loose theme of “it’s not about the people you lose but the people you save” that doesn’t come into play at all, and Statham’s protagonist doesn’t really have a goal other than “well, I let the shark out, I guess I should kill it.” It kinda works, though, mostly by making it an Adventures of Robin Hood (1939, dir. Michael Curtiz)-style romp. The writers populate the film with fun characters played by solid character actors like Cliff Curtis, Rainn Wilson, Ruby Rose, and Li Bingbing, and basically lets you hang out with them while they fight a shark. It just feels like it pulls its punches with the shark stuff, whether because of the PG-13 rating or need for international appeal. There’s just not enough shark mayhem, and the shark doesn’t have much of a personality. Still, it does have Jason Statham at his Statham-est, which makes any movie better. He does not get to kick the shark, unfortunately, a truly missed opportunity. It’s a fun ride, if ultimately forgettable.

Shark movies are at their best when they’re about the people, not the sharks, but you also can’t skimp on shark mayhem; otherwise, just make it a drama. It’s a tricky balancing act, and one that makes this genre an especially tough one to pull off. I’m sure we haven’t seen the last of shark movies, though. There are still depths to be explored.

4’33”

The noise inside (and outside) my head gets loud at times, threatens to drown everything out. Sometimes it feels like the only way to quiet it down is to anesthetize through music/TV/video games/movies/food, but none of that actually works in the long term; it just makes it worse when it inevitably comes back. The only way to calm the cacophony is to write. Whether fiction or nonfiction or just to-do lists, I literally have to empty my head to silence the thoughts. It’s a practice I learned from the book Getting Things Done by David Allen, but one I’ve proven to have difficulty keeping — partly due to the unstructured nature of my profession, partly due to laziness.

Social media only exacerbates this, of course, by filling my head not only with its own noise but everybody else’s as well. It’s empathy overload. Atlas may have had the world on his shoulders, but he was a lot bigger and there was a lot less world (civilization-speaking) when he first had to heft his burden. This goes back to themes I’ve explored in this blog before, of course, but it has a definite deleterious effect on my sanity.

Nothing causes anxiety like a crowd shouting at you from inside the confines of your own skull. Not in a James McAvoy Split kind of way, mind you. I don’t need other personalities to drive me mad; the one is enough. Feedback loops, frustrations, projections, unbidden memories, fantasias, random reminders — it’s a busy place up there. It gets in my way. I truly am my own worst enemy most of the time, letting myself drown in the swirl of doubts. It can be hard to hear myself over myself. This only gets worse when I get stressed, of course, and nothing kills productivity quite like telling yourself you need to be productive over and over again.

Creativity lies in the specific, I’ve learned, and in order to be specific you need to stop focusing on things that don’t matter. I tried doing that earlier this year, and it worked well; the only conclusion I can draw is that I need to get back to that. The sound of silence is sweet.

Post-Mortem: The Sword Dancer

My latest writing endeavor for myself, which I completed yesterday, was a bit outside my comfort zone: a YA historical fantasy romance graphic novel with queer themes. It presented a few different unique challenges. A new approach to drafting, a new format, and a new genre (with difficult subject matter). I’ll tackle each in turn, although there’s certainly some bleed-over.

First, there’s the way I approached the first draft. I always knew the core of the story, but I had several different, conflicting ideas of how it might play out. At a friend’s urging, I just started writing the damn thing, putting down words every single day, and finding my way as I went. Instead of extensively pre-planning my rough draft, I just winged it, but with the beginning and end always in mind. The story took some weird turns along the way — a time jump I’ll probably retcon in the next draft, subplots that didn’t turn out to go anywhere — but the process of just vomiting story onto the page ultimately helped give me a pile of material to work with that I can easily shape into a coherent story next go-round. In fact, it helped me reevaluate the core. I initially thought it would be primarily about the protagonist’s journey, and it still is, but the romance wound up playing a significant part that rung very personal to me (possibly because I’m getting married and that’s where my head is at right now). The process of organic discovery was much more satisfying and effective than dithering on prewriting. Overall, that aspect was successful.

I have also never written a long-form graphic novel. I’ve toyed with the format, but never more than single issues. Forcing my brain to think in single images and limited word balloons for 240 pages was a good way to switch things up for a while. I’m not sure I entirely succeeded in making it feel like a graphic novel (I definitely slipped into screenplay-style back-and-forth dialogue and discussion scenes that take way too long), but I feel like, overall, the format fits the story. So much of it relies on visual cues, but also the ability to freeze frame on a character at their moment of decision. There’s a whole new skill set that needs to be learned just to figure out those perfect snapshots. I’m not sure I’ve exactly mastered it yet, but this went a long way towards helping me understand it. Also, doing it for a YA audience meant that I had to be cognizant of the content, walking a fine line between having some mature situations but not free of them like my cartoon work or straight-up explicit with my screenplays.

And, as someone who’s primarily worked in action flicks and children’s programming, this wasn’t exactly my usual genre; I couldn’t resolve everything with a crazy gunfight or the characters learning the true meaning of friendship. That actually made it a little tricky to put together. I had to figure out how to make the big moments emotional instead of visceral. There’s swordplay, so it’s not like there’s no action, but it serves a slightly different purpose. Although action, when done well, allows for those big punctuation marks on the story, in this case it was secondary to the interpersonal relationships.

The historical aspect was also tricky. I know it’s my job to make shit up, and for the most part I chucked historical accuracy out the window, but I still had to work within the society of the setting. For this draft, at least, I wanted to make sure the character stuff was there without bothering to do a research deep dive. My philosophy with historical stuff is that the story is fiction — who cares how accurate it is as long as it’s not egregiously offensive? Still, it did lead to me questioning some things, especially considering the central relationship between two gay women — do I try to approach the social reaction to them as it really would have been, or do I try to paint a better world where people ultimately accept them for who they are? I ultimately went with the latter, as it kept with the theme of the story. It’s a fairly light-hearted tale for younger readers so I wanted to present their relationship as the healthy, natural thing that it is.

I am not gay, nor am I a woman, which put pressure on me to make sure I presented the characters honestly and compassionately. To do that, I drew on my own personal emotional experiences. By focusing on a young woman grappling with her identity, I centered it around my own internal struggles figuring out who I am and what I want, and society’s expectations of me. My confusion may not be related to my sexuality, but that inner battle is a central part of being human, and this seemed the most effective (and fun, considering the setting) way to externalize that dilemma. I wanted to take my frustrations from the universal to the specific while exploring a different facet of the human experience than my own. Hopefully I succeeded there, but I definitely plan on getting input from some LGBTQ+ friends to make sure it feels right.

The script needs a lot of polishing, but overall I feel the experiment was successful and will ultimately make it stronger. Now the real work begins…

Light the Fuse

So there’s this dumb thing in rock criticism where, every few years, a new rock band appears that the press anoints the saviors of rock n’ roll — inevitably, they aren’t (have people figured out that the Strokes were just straight-up boring yet?), but the phenomenon persists because every once in a while it’s nice to get back to basics and experience that primal, atavistic excitement once more. Action movies haven’t gone away, not really. They’ve just been relegated to lower-budget thrillers like John Wick, foreign markets, or straight-to-VOD schlock. Special effects-driven four-quandrant blockbusters are the name of the game right now: superheroes throwing CG at each other, motion-captured creature features, children’s fantasy stories. The funny thing about Mission: Impossible: Fallout is that it’s a totally fun big stunt-driven 90s action movie in the Bruckheimer mode (which not even the first one was), but it’s been so long since we’ve had one of those that people are flipping out over it.

It’s not a good spy movie — the twists are obvious, there’s not a lot of actual intelligence gathering, Ethan Hunt is objectively a terrible spy — but it’s one hell of an action flick. Even the Fast and Furious movies, which I love, have turned into ridiculous effects extravaganzas. While M:I:F certainly uses its share of visual effects, there’s still a visceral shock that comes from watching Tom Cruise jump out of an airplane or throw down with a martial artist in a public restroom. It’s the same reason those old Jackie Chan movies are great — as questionable as some of their storytelling and filmmaking merits may be, nothing quite compares to the reality of a man throwing himself through the window of a bus for our entertainment. You can appreciate the artistry and creativity of some of the computer generated stuff — Gravity still remains a nonstop thrillride — but that extra layer of reality adds a lot.

It’s not just a return to 90s action flicks in its approach to the stunts, either. It’s also a return to traditional action film structure. There’s a hero, flawed but with a solid moral center. There’s a bad guy, with his own reasons for being evil but still clearly evil with a very clear evil plan that’s going to hurt a lot of people. The hero must go through obstacles, setbacks, and tests of his moral certitude to defeat the bad guy, which mostly manifest through a series of setpieces and action scenes that escalate in scale, scope, and stakes until the explosive (often literally) finale. That escalation and clear establishment of stakes are what make the film so propulsive. Despite all the twists and turns and (usually obvious) reveals, the audience can follow along with what the heroes and villains are trying to do. Ironically, it’s a structure largely perfected by the old-school Bond movies before they tried to make everything about murky, moral gray areas (one of the reasons the Daniel Craig run, post-Casino Royale, has floundered).

More importantly, especially for an action film, the biggest setpiece comes at the very end. A lot of modern films, even previous Mission: Impossible films, have the biggest action scene in the middle, thus leading to a feeling of letdown when the movie draws to a close without that big final bang. That’s the Marvel model — the fight at the airport in Captain America: Civil War, the car chase in Black Panther (sure, the showdown in Wakanda had more stuff happening, but it was messy with unclear stakes and goals), the Washington Monument sequence in Spider-Man: Homecoming. It’s clearly worked for the kind of movies they’re trying to make! It just doesn’t work as effectively with straight-up action films like this. And I’m not trying to argue that three-act structure 90s action movies are the pinnacle of successful storytelling, either. It’s just hard to deny that, for the type of story they’re trying to tell, there’s a model that’s been finely honed by hundreds of movies. It just works.

And Mission: Impossible: Fallout, for all its flaws, just works.

The Strokes still suck, though.

Synth-ly Irresistable

I seem to be getting some new fans from the Summer Synthwave article I did for Bandcamp, so I figured this would be a good time to put together a round-up of the synthwave writing I’ve published on websites (can’t really link to my Perturbator and Gost reviews and features in the print edition of Decibel or my Neon Knights column there, but I can point you to their webstore.)

Speaking of Perturbator! I’ve written about him a lot (maybe more than any other artist). He was the first real synthwave/darksynth artist to capture my attention, outside of Zombi, and I’ve been a fan ever since Terror 404. Here’s an interview for Noisey: Music by Vice back in 2016. Earlier that same year, I previewed The Uncanny Valley for MetalSucks. I also reviewed his last EP, New Model, for Vehlinggo last year.

I’m a big fan of his tourmate/contemporary, the black metal-infuenced Gost, and interviewed him for Vice. Carpenter Brut, who put on a killer live show and have some pretty rad records to boot, round out my darksynth faves. I interviewed him for Decibel a couple years back and did a review of his/their latest album, Leather Teeth, for Metal Bandcamp.

As far as actual Bandcamp goes, I’ve penned a few articles on the subject for the venerable Bandcamp Daily. I’ve done a few thematic roundups, the most popular of which seems to be my piece on imaginary soundtracks. Along similar lines, I wrote a Halloween-friendly article on scary synthwave records. And on the flip side of that particular coin, here’s my latest, a look at summer synthwave jams. I’ve also featured several synthwave-heavy labels, NewRetroWave and Blood Music.

That’s all I can think of for now. I hope you enjoy the articles, and maybe even find a few new favorites!

Comic Con, Comic Cough

This past weekend, 140,000 nerds, geeks, and misfits of all stripes (including some literal stripes, in the case of the furries) gathered in downtown San Diego to, theoretically, celebrate all things pop culture. In reality, that mostly meant standing in lines to get advertised at and spending money on Funko Pops.

Of course, I was there, getting advertised at (despite not standing in any lines) and not spending money on Funko Pops. I’ve attended on and off since 2002, so I’m old hat at this. And this year, when I walked onto the floor, I had a curious reaction — “Oh. This again.” Nothing had changed. It’s the same floor, year after year. Only the giant LEGO statues change.

Not that I didn’t find things to do. I certainly partook of the 50%-off trade booths to fill in some holes in my collection. I also love wandering around the comic publisher section and seeing things I wouldn’t otherwise have. This year, I grabbed a signed copy of Ryan North’s Choose-Your-Own-Adventure version of Hamlet, To Be or Not To Be, as well as Nate Powell’s latest, Come Again, simply because it looked cool and he was signing as I walked by. Once you’ve decided you’ve spent enough money, though, it’s basically like going to Vegas and not gambling. The panels aren’t super exciting, either; there are some smart people presenting fun things, but it always descends into attendees asking rambling non-questions at the Q&A.

There’s a reason that the comic pros mostly hang out at the bar by the Marriott pool, doing work and getting drunk until they’re inevitably summoned back to the floor for yet another signing or panel.

Now that I’m (somewhat) in the industry, it’s that summer camp aspect that I enjoy the most. Hanging out with friends, meeting cool new people, seeing people I don’t normally get to see, listening to animation pros telling horror stories in the hotel bars after the floor closes. It’s the personal connection that appeals to me. Not even just the networking aspect — that’s part of it, certainly, but these are my people. Maybe that’s why I’m no longer enthralled by the floor or the panels. I’m no longer just a fan. Now that I actually have credits on produced material, I’ve moved into the professional sphere, and thus it’s more satisfying for me to talk to others in my circle. So while the fanboy stuff no longer appeals to me, the creator side certainly does. Something for everyone!

Including germs. Boy, did I catch a nasty con flu this year. What is it about nerds that makes them such potent incubators of disease?

One final thought. A lot of people complain that the con isn’t like it used to be, which is fair. However, as far as I’m concerned, there’s one last, important bastion against the Hollywoodification of SDCC: that one hentai booth. You know which one I’m talking about, the one that always has that corner endcap near Artists Alley. As long as it’s still financially worthwhile for them to pay the booth fee, it’s still Comic Con. As long as someone there still openly caters to the most ostracized among us, it’s still Comic Con. As long as people of any gender, sexuality, race, creed, and nationality can purchase naked anime girl body pillows or mouse pads where the wrist rests are the girls’ boobs, it’s still Comic Con.

As goes the hentai booth, so goes the con. And that’s why I love it.