every woman adores a fascist -- sylvia plath

Wednesday, September 11, 2013

Guest Blog Post: Stateless Media

The Rise of the Geek, Slave Leia and Why You Are Very Important


OBVIOUS FACT THAT SHOULD BE OBVIOUS: We are all geeks now. Not just would-be sex-bombs dressing up like Slave Leia. More ordinary people and stuff that courses through the culture and is everywhere. Everyone is on Netflix, streams The Daily …

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Thursday, July 05, 2012

Aristotle's Poetics in 5 Easy Steps. Step 5: Theme

Step 5:  Theme.   I don't know if you've noticed, but something very peculiar is going on in Aristotle's Poetics.  The audience brings a certain set of expectations about characters (certain people act a certain way) and the outcomes of actions (certain goals are achieved in a certain way).  These are all based on the audiences' set of precepts about life (we all have them).   Those act as the basis of the audiences' interpretation and expectations for the story.  The story depends on those precepts to be intelligible, as well as for the twist ending to work.  Remember, it's because of those precepts that the audience is surprised by the turn of events and reversal of fortune for the main character.  It's that surprise that makes them wonder (which is the goal of the tragedy).  The tragedy in order to work, must crush one or many of those precepts in order to be effective. The audiences' precepts about life are thus challenged by the story.  To this point, Oedipus, then, isn't just about some tyrant sleeping with his mom and killing his father.  It takes the audiences' belief that happiness is achieved by being a genius with absolute power and crushes it.  In some ways, it's a massive critique of the Ancient Greek (if not our own) take on life:  happiness is beyond you no matter how excellent your life is or seems.

Your story is an opportunity to comment on  life.  Your story is intelligible due to the audience bringing their precepts about life to it.  The tragedy turns those precepts on their head.   Given that the tragedy only works if our precepts of life are turned on their head, then it's your opportunity (and duty) as a writer to figure out which precepts of life are best turned on their head.   For example, in the story "Of Mice and Men' Steinbeck takes our precept of the American Dream and shows that it's really a fantasy:  it's something that does little more than keep us going through hard times.

When you design your story -- before you even write down a word of it -- start with determining your theme.  Figure out which precept of life you want to turn on its head and make a statement about it.  Maybe it's that the American Dream is a fantasy that keeps us going in the worst of times.  Maybe its how we treat the elderly and the despair we cause them.  Maybe its about fast food.  Whatever it may be, make it your honest revelation you've had about life and write about that.   Because when you write your tragedy and make your audience wonder about what happened, they're going to start wondering about the precept of life you just crushed, and then, maybe, they'll understand the revelation you've had about it and shared through your twist ending.

And then, maybe, you've successfully shared your revelation about life with the audience and made us all a little bit wiser.

Wednesday, July 04, 2012

Aristotle's Poetics in 5 Easy Steps. Step 4: Beginning. Middle. (Twist). End.

Step 4:  Beginning.  Middle. (Twist).  End. 
  They're not arbitrary points in the story.   Remember, your story describes a single human action (the tragedy), made up of multiple characters influencing and creating that one action.  Human actions begin in certain ways, end in certain ways, and are attained (middle) in certain ways.  Human actions don't happen by virtue of gravitational pull, or the laws of thermodynamics.  They happen because people desire and want things.  Your beginning must express the situation the character is in and their desire for a certain end -- be it an object, a state of being, a solution to a problem, whatever.  That want is held by a person (or group of people) and impacts other people (the other characters).   The desires and wants of other characters impacts the main character's means (middle) to the end.  That the Tragic Hero does not know everything (the 'hamartia') is the basis of the twist ending -- as a new reality and set of circumstances is revealed to him or her, and the tragic reality is introduced.  And to that point, the middle of the story is precisely where those two different realities (the one perceived by the main characters at the beginning, and the true reality described in the twist) collide.  The middle is often described in terms of conflict and complications.  Those conflicts and complications are the clash of those two realities.  The middle thus "builds" to a crescendo of the revelation of the true reality and the reversal of fortune for the main character (the twist).


One of the worst interpretations of The Poetics involves the so-called "classical unities".  These "unities" state that the tragedy must be one action occuring in one place at one time.   This interpretation is derived by conflating action with motion.  It states, thus, that since all motion is understood by referencing absolute space and absolute time, all action can therefore only be understood in the same way.  Thus, the tragedy must occur in absolute space (one location) and absolute time (one day).  This conflation of action and motion is the basis of the bad interpretation.  Human action, however, is not the same as bodies in motion.  Human action involves intention, a goal, morality and character, unforeseen consequences, etc.  Bodies in motion, on the other hand, involve vectors through timespace (or, in Newtonian terms, a body moving though absolute time and absolute space).   The so-called "classical unities" is the horrible attempt to construct an "absolute time and space" through which the tragedy occurs.   The good news is that the so-called classical unities have largely been disregarded in practice.  The bad news is that for whatever reason, high school English teachers (and some college professors) croon over them like.. well, whatever it is they tend to croon about.  Ignore their crooning.  The classical unities don't exist, have never existed, and should not be used as "rules" of drama.  If a tragedy needs to occur in a darkened room with a bunch of people sitting in it, then by all means, have the tragedy occur that way.  But if your tragedy takes place in a variety of places, then so be it. The only "unity" you need to be concerned about is the unity of plot and the unity of character.  That's it.

Tuesday, July 03, 2012

Aristotles Poetics in 5 Easy Steps. Step 3: The Horror

Step 3:  The Horror.  The tragedy must be horrifying to the audience.   It must take the liked, well respected main character, and unexpectedly destroy them... but not completely.  The best tragedies are ones where the character avoids the tragic end, but it still lingers as a probable ending in their lives.  It's far more frightening to know that your violent painful death (or killing your child or whatever) can come unexpectedly at any time than to actually do it, or know when it will happen.  The actual tragedy is the constant potential fate of the character.  Yes, they avoid that tragic ending in your story, but only temporarily and not in a happy ending kind of way:  the don't defeat their fate.  Quite the opposite, the tragic ending is now known by the tragic hero and it now constantly lingers in the background of their life, waiting to strike at any moment.

When you design your story, your character's suffering should be something they are able to avoid but never defeat.

Wednesday, June 27, 2012

Aristotle's Poetics in 5 Easy Steps. Step 2: The Tragic Hero

Step 2:  The Tragic Hero. So, based on Step 1, we know that we have to excite wonder in the audience and make them want to figure out what happened to the main character and why.  In order to do that, they need to be afraid that the horrible end that met the tragic hero could happen to them.  The audience's fear must be excited in order for them to want to understand how and why the tragic hero suffered his or her misfortune.  Thus, the tragic hero must be like the audience, (and hence "liked" by the audience).  More to the point -- and to create an even greater sense of wonder -- the tragic hero should be someone the audience would like to be -- someone they admire.  This heightens the sense of fear and wonder as the audience sees such a person as someone better than themselves -- better at life -- and thus less likely to suffer downfalls.   The 'tragic hero' thus, is the audience's ideal surrogate.  If you don't give the audience a character they like or admire -- someone they can connect with and thus believe their misfortune could be their own -- you've simply delivered an interesting quandry that nobody personally cares about (let alone fears might happen to them).  Your tragedy will be something akin to a math problem on a chalkboard ("How do you square a circle in 2-dimensional space?")  Nobody cares, even though it's legitimately puzzling.  Thus, make the main character likeable, admirable, and someone who is able to accomplish the ends they set out to achieve.  They don't need to be perfect.  They don't need to be virtuous.  But they do need to be like the audience and admired by them.  


The idea of a "tragic flaw" -- the vice that dooms the character -- is a massive misinterpretation of Aristotle from the Romantic period in Western history.  You see, there's this word in the Poetics, "hamartia" that has caused a lot of confusion, primarily because it can mean so many different things in Ancient Greek.  Some people translate it as "sin", others "mistake", and others as "flaw"... and so on.  In The Poetics, Aristotle attributes the main character's downfall to "hamartia".  And so, people are led to believe that his or her downfall was due to his or her sin or vice or, or whatever ('flaw').  The correct interpretation of Aristotle's use of the word is that the main character made a "mistake" in his or her calculations for obtaining their goals and thus suffered the tragedy.  The tragic mistake is not a personal failing, but the very human failing of not knowing everything at all times:  Oedipus cannot possibly know who is true parents are, and thus he makes the (human) mistake of marrying his mother.  Now, that unintentional "mistake" can be seen as a "sin", but only accidentally and not as a matter of his character. Oedipus' intention (marrying the queen of Thebes) is neither vicious nor a sin (as he does not know), however, the objective act is (as a matter of divine law).

When you design your story, you must have in mind a character whom the audience admires and whom they do not expect will suffer a paradoxical and tragic end, as this will excite their fear and wonder in the story.

Monday, June 25, 2012

Aristotle's Poetics in 5 Easy Steps. Step 1: Wonder

M.C. Escher's Waterfall
Step 1:  Wonder.   The key to a great tragedy is to excite wonder  in your audience after they've experienced your story.  They must want to understand what happened and why.


I know, I know, you're saying "What about the tragedy, Aaron?  What about the incest and accidental father beheadings?"  We'll get to that.  But don't make the mistake that your tragedy must only be organized around a mom sleeping with a son, or something.  Sure, that's shocking, but that's not the entire point.  Such things are simply the means to the end of creating wonder in the audience.  The audience must want to know what happened to the main character and why it happened after experiencing your story.  Shocking things alone are a part of it, but not enough by themselves to prompt the question "why?" for the audience.  Since wonder is best caused by something unexpectedly happening, the audience must expect one thing to happen, and then experience another -- something paradoxical.   (Aristotle uses the term "para ten doxein", from which we derive the word "paradox" to describe this twist.)  On that note, anyone who has read Aristotle's Poetics probably knows that his work  has confused many readers by expressing two goals with tragedy:  both creating wonder in the audience, and also the main character's horrible downfall.  The reason why people get confused by this is because they think he's talking about the same goal. It's not the same goal.   One goal (the character's downfall) is subordinate to the other (exciting wonder in the audience).  The character's horrible downfall excites wonder in the audience by happening completely unexpectedly. 

So why that?  Why must the tragedian rely on the unexpected downfall of a character to excite wonder in the audience?   That will be answered in our next Easy Step.  

Next up --  Step 2:  The Tragic Hero.

Friday, April 06, 2012

Why You Don't Read Comics Anymore (if ever)

As an independent comic book writer, I'm constantly under pressure to evangelize the idea that "comics aren't for kids anymore" and "comics have grown up." In fact, everyone I know in indy comics says that. While the whole comics-to-film marketplace has lent a lot of credence to that notion -- and brought a lot of respect to the art form of comics creation as, well-- it still hasn't translated to massive growth in comic book reading sales, even though it has brought a lot of growth to comic book movie watching.

The fact is, is that with the entire independent comic book creator scene evangelizing this notion, you're still probably not reading comics anymore, if ever. So, why the disconnect?

1. Comics are still just for kids. The fact is, is that DC and Marvel possess a duopoly in the comics marketplace, are owned by massive media companies (Time-Warner and Disney respectively), and pretty much control distribution and comic book store interest. DC and Marvel live off their respective properties and know that they're selling to a certain segment of consumers: kids.

Independent comic book creators, in that environment, just don't have a chance competing. Of the 2500 or so comic book shops in the US, only about 700 are considered "indy friendly". And those 700 shops? Yeah, they may buy 1 of your indy books. And good luck if they've never heard of you or your artist. Don't get me wrong, stores will buy independent books, but you better have great reviews and known artists. However, compare that to the 2500 shops purchasing 20 issues of "Marvel Apes" on a whim and you get my point. A bad idea from Marvel sells 50,000 issues. A great idea from an indy creator may sell 500 issues. If you're lucky.

Here's my point. The public conceptualizes what a comic book is from what they see in the world. If the independent comics designed for the adult reader isn't in the public's experience, they're not going to consider comics as something for serious readers. They'll think comics are still just for kids.

PS. Please Google "Marvel Apes" and you'll understand my frustration.


2. Marvel and DC don't create substantial material. Adults want to read complex stories with three-dimensional characters, great twist endings, and themes they connect with. Marvel and DC simply don't do that.

3. Marvel and DC create comics that are meant to be watched, not read. If you don't believe me on this point, go pick up a comic at a comic book store and read the first 6-to-8 pages. It'll probably take you about one minute to complete. Now, go check out an old-timey comic from Will Eisner, or heck, a comic from the 70s and do the same thing. Notice the difference? 6-to-8 pages of Eisner is like a full story that took time to read, was engaging and entertaining. It probably took about 10 to 15 minutes to read. It had substance. It left you full.

Marvel and DC, on the other hand, have decided that video games and movies are the top competitors to their business, and, as such have decided to emulate those art forms in comics. Reading a book and watching a movie are two different activities: one is active, the other is passive. Instead of creating a comic book that requires active interpretation and thought (reading), Marvel and DC have created books that are experienced passively (watching). Many people blame the decline of comic book sales on movies, video games, and the death of the collectors market. However, the correlation of that decline and the decision by Marvel and DC to make comics more like movies is worthy of consideration for the decline, as well. Who wants to pay $3 for a 22-page comic book that takes 3 minutes to read and has less substance than an 8 page Will Eisner story?

(Will Eisner's THE SPIRIT)


4. Comics-to-film curtails interest in exploring comics. Why search for that next great title when so many comics are being made into films? Just wait for it to come out in theaters and then decide if you're going to buy it. And if the film bombs, then who cares? The comic probably wasn't that good to begin with.

5. Marvel and DC are museum curators. Since comics are dominated by "The Big Two", and both of them have decided to perpetually repackage and relaunch extant properties (has Supes died again, yet?), the comic book reader has become accustomed to simply awaiting the next big remake. Marvel and DC have both pretty much relinquished any desires to creating new characters, and quite frankly the risks to editors for failed new characters is so high, why would they? Could you imagine being the editor of Superman -- having DC and Time/Warner entrust his care in your hands -- and saying to them, "I'm going to launch the next Superman? A new character who is going to be as big as he is!"? No editor in their right mind would take that risk, and it's far easier to game the existing comic book customer into buying relaunches. DC's 52 was a huge event. But nothing new came out if it. And quite frankly, hearing people debate whether or not Wonder Woman should wear pants was embarrassing. That's what we're debating? That's what the supposed brain trust of nerdery is doing?

You're joking, right?

To sum it up, you're not reading comics anymore (if ever) because comics are made for kids, predictable and boring, and not worth the money you pay for them. Don't get me wrong, there are comics out there very much worth your while (and I can name a lot of the off if you ask me), but the comic book shops probably aren't carrying them, and, most likely you'll just wait to see the movie.

By the way, I don't blame you.