Gal or Fella

There’s a lot of discussion going on lately about LGBT diversity in books and other forms of media. Even with all the ways we’ve made things better over the last few years, there is still a long way to go. It’s important for people, from children to adults, to have strong role models they can relate to, no matter if they are straight, gay, bisexual, pansexual, asexual, or anything else in between. But there are a lot of barriers to achieving that level of diversity, and those barriers exist even in independent works.

It’s one thing when big companies, such as Disney, fail to include LGBT representation in their works. While it would be a huge victory if a company like Disney were to include a nonbinary protagonist in one of their family-friendly animated movies, the fact is that there are tons of producers, corporate managers, and other “gatekeepers” we need to get past in order to make it happen. These gatekeepers continue to operate under the flawed assumption that non-heternormative characters are too “risky” or not “appropriate.” Whatever excuses they make (potential backlash from conservative audiences, reduced sales, etc), the fact is that they refuse to allow greater diversity into the works their companies produce. This means that even if an individual writer were to create a script that included more diversity, there are far too many people at the corporate level who can either force the writer to change the script to be more “traditional,” or simply refuse to produce the script all together.

Independent works don’t have these types of gatekeepers. Whether it be an independently produced film, a self-published novel, or an online comic strip, independent works can be made however the creator wants to make them. However, that doesn’t mean these independent creators won’t face other obstacles along the way.

An example I’ve seen dealing with this issue over and over again recently is The Order of the Stick, written and drawn by Rich Burlew. Rich has been writing The Order of the Stick for over ten years and has published eight graphic novels based on his online work. Recently, he’s been working towards greater inclusion and diversity in his comic, such as by creating a new character who is a lesbian airship captain. He is on the record stating that he feels it is his personal responsibility as an artist to be more inclusive, and that he regrets not showing greater diversity when his comic first started. For example, when the comic first began, there was only one female main character out of a cast of six, and she was often portrayed in an over-sexualized manner. According to posts he has made on the site’s forums (which are indexed here), he is now doing what he can to correct mistakes from his earlier writings and to use his comic to deliver a positive social message. One of his more noteworthy posts on the matter states:

I have the social privilege that allows me to be heard and now I have the commercial success to weather the consequences thereof, so therefore I have a responsibility to say something. To do otherwise would be self-serving cowardice.

Unfortunately, Rich suffers a great deal of backlash from people who seem more closed-minded and resistant to the idea of diversity in the comic. Many of these people veil their protests as complaints about the “quality of the writing” or what they feel is “hamfistedly shoving a message at us.” Yet either way, these people are saying that they believe Rich should not be including as much diversity in his writing, regardless of the reasons they give for their protests.

The most recent example of these protests came after The Order of the Stick #983, “A Healer’s Reason.” In this comic, one of the main characters, Durkon Thundershield, is going through an internal struggle between his real self and an evil vampiric spirit that has taken over his body (vampires in The Order of the Stick are similar to those in Buffy the Vampire Slayer, in that when a vampire is formed, a new spirit takes over the “shell” of the victim’s dead body). The vampiric spirit is searching through Durkon’s memories, and comes across a memory of Durkon talking to his mother before he decided to become a priest. At one point in the dialogue, his mother says, “All I really want is fer ye ta grow up an’ find a nice gal or fella ta settle down with.”

To me, this is a sweet line that shows us that Durkon’s mother is someone who is supportive and loves him no matter what his sexual orientation might be. I think it sets a good example of how parents should be with their children, and that we need to see this kind of message more often. Personally, I applaud Rich for writing it this way.

Protests against this line of dialogue started on the forums, with people saying things like,:

“That felt really kinda forced. I mean is there any mother who would actually say that to their own little-kid son? In casual conversation?”

“. . . it didn’t feel REAL because it was too directly connected to what’s going on in our own world.”

“What sucks about this gal/fella thing is that it feels like Giant was intimidated by the SJW community enough to put an out of character remark, just in case someone takes offence from a sentence that they shouldn’t. “

“This was definitely an awkward word choice that clumsily promoted a social agenda on Rich’s part.”

“I disapprove of the [author] teaching things to my face, if he really wanna do it he’d better do it subtly. The subject doesn’t matter. “

You’ll notice a lot of lines on the posts I linked that have been {scrubbed}. This means that the person in question said something particularly offensive or in some way violating the forum’s code of conduct, such as bringing real-world politics into the debate about the fictional comic world. I also picked out what I felt were some of the more directly offensive and/or argumentative lines from the discussion, so it’s worth noting that a lot of the forumgoers had much more supportive, open-minded, or neutral viewpoints than those expressed above. But enough people were against the idea of a mother suggesting her son find “a nice gal or fella” that it led to a debate which spanned approximately 1000 posts before the comic’s author locked it down and put a stop to it.

What’s interesting, if you take the time to read through the entire discussion, is how the people protesting the inclusive line go a long way to say they’re (supposedly) not protesting inclusiveness itself. Instead, they claim they’re defending art and story and good writing, and claiming that when the author “forces” his message on them, he’s hurting his work. But after reading through all of these arguments, I’ve come to a conclusion: the people protesting the inclusive lines are trying to normalize their prejudiced behavior. In other words, they don’t want to admit that they have biases, so they hide behind arguments that “the wording felt awkward” or that “a good story is more important than a moral lesson” and so on.

Which means that an indie creator faces two different obstacles: One, dealing with the backlash they’ll get from people who don’t approve of their attempts to show greater diversity; and Two, the way some people will try to separate the art itself from the politics, moral messages, and values that the art portrays. Quite a few people in that message thread stated that they feel a “good story” should be one that is entertaining and appealing to the audience and that anything that detracts from that is a bad thing. Yet these people, aside from any biases and bigotry they might show, fail to realize that art has always existed as a form of social commentary and a way to spread important political and moral messages.

Painters like Pablo Picasso have used their art to protest against wars and violence. Singers and musicians have done the same thing with their music. And even comic books have been used to spread political messages. I think that many people would agree that the most memorable and significant works of art, books, songs, movies, and so on have always been those that have some deeper meaning and teach us something about the world around us. And yes, you can show that deeper meaning even if you’re telling a story about magic and wizards and dragons and vampires.

And if people try to tell you it seems forced . . . well, maybe they’re the ones who need to rethink the meaning of the stories they read.

Review of Biowars

NaturalKillerCell-SyrinxI was recently introduced to Biowars, an online comic book series, created by Gabriel Shaoolian along with a team of writers and artists. Now, I’ve been a fan of webcomics for some time, and I regularly follow works like The Order of the Stick, Girl Genius, and Schlock Mercenary. Right from the beginning, Biowars gave me a different impression from the other webcomics I read. It seems to be less of a webcomic and more of a digital comic book.

What’s the difference? Well, while webcomics like The Order of the Stick release their work online, they do so in a page-by-page format. Readers see each new page as it’s released, and once an entire story is complete, the pages are compiled into a book and released as a completed story. I’ve seen this format across enough webcomics to consider it a sort of “industry standard.” Fans of the page-by-page work can buy the print versions in order to have their own hard copies of the books and to get the bonus content that comes with it, which usually includes deleted scenes, author commentary, and other additional material not found online.

Biowars seems to operate on a very different concept, which is closer to the way traditional print comics work. A full issue is uploaded to the Biowars website once a month, and they have a page where you can view all of the issues currently released. They’re free to read, but unlike other webcomics, you get a full story at a time. It can also be read online as a digital book or downloaded for free in PDF format. This is definitely a different style than I’m used to seeing, and I can see some advantages to it. Since the comic is released a full issue at a time, there’s no waiting in the middle of a storyline to find out what happens next. Though of course, there is a “To be Continued” at the end of every issue, and an ongoing story arc continues across the entire series.

As of this writing, there are nine issues currently posted online. I decided to start at the beginning in order to find out what kind of world these comics would create. The first page of issue #1 started out with some very vivid and interesting artwork, and introduced an interesting premise. The beginning of the story takes place inside a human body, with quasi-mystical beings engaging in a conflict against a “pathogen from the beyond.” This intrigued me right from the start; it gave me the impression of a story similar to Innerspace or Osmosis Jones, but with more of a fantasy and supernatural feeling, rather than being purely sci-fi. As if our inner workings are controlled by magic and other arcane forces, rather than by medical science. The concept seemed so unique that I had to read more and find out what would happen.

SuturaThe story does show some sci-fi aspects, though at times it’s hard to tell where the science ends and the fantasy and mysticism begin. There are soldiers who seem to represent white blood cells and who use some kind of biotech scanners to search for infections. They fight with biological weapons or in hand-to-hand brawls with their enemies. But then there are characters with more mystical natures. For example, Sutura (pictured to the right), is described as “a healer.” She’s able to use some kind of empathic ability to “sense” how “the world” (the human body the characters live in) is in pain. This makes her seem like a cross between a component of the human nervous system and a Druid who uses magic to understand the plight of Mother Nature. She then performs healing on damaged tissues, and her healing powers seem much more mystical than technological.

Similarly, the “bacteria” that the characters are battling against are depicted as demonic monsters, alien in appearance and swarming in a massive horde. The battle sequences are in the style of proud soldiers doing battle against a swarm of alien invaders. When reading the battle sequences, you almost forget that this is a collection of cells fighting off a bacterial infection. It’s depicted more like an army defending their homeworld from invasion.

Then, about halfway through the first issue, my entire understanding of the world got thrown upside down.

The first issue cuts from the battle raging inside the body to show what is happening outside. We find out that the infected body is that of Alexander Hawking, a man on the run. He’s being chased by some kind of high-tech secret agent through the streets of New York. What the agent is after isn’t immediately apparent, but the entire “real world” sequence immediately raises all kinds of questions. Was Alexander infected with some kind of top secret genetically engineered supervirus? Who are the people responsible? Suddenly I feel like I’ve been pulled out of a mystical-slash-sci-fi-fantasy-alien-warzone story and into something more like a traditional comic book story. Alexander may turn out to be like Bruce Banner or Peter Parker, a man who has been genetically altered in a way that might end up granting him superpowers (though the exact nature of the infection has yet to be revealed).

Despite the way these two halves of the story have a very different genre and feel, I can’t help feeling like they’re going to be woven together in a combined plot line. The concept is fascinating, and not quite like anything I’ve ever seen before. I can see all kinds of potential for the way the two halves of the story might interact, with Alexander’s experiences in the real world affecting his body in ways that impact the struggles of the “soldiers” living inside of him. Or the victories and failures of those soldiers affecting Alexander’s life in ways that I expect will go far beyond a simple cough and cold. The story goes back and forth between the two halves, so you constantly see the balance between Alex’s struggle in the real world and the internal struggle of the biological soldiers inside of him.

I’ve read all nine issues that are currently available, and I found the story to be quite intriguing. So far there’s mad scientists, high-tech secret agents, mystery, intrigue, political scandal, murder, and a genetically engineered supervirus created by a secret organization with plans to change the world. And that’s just on the outside. Meanwhile, inside Alex’s body, the struggle against the virus continues, with mutations causing it to spread, while the bio-warriors struggle to stave off the infection in order to protect their biological universe.

I’m curious to see where the story will go from here, and I’ll definitely be checking out future issues.

If you’re interested in checking it out, you can find the Biowars comic here. You can also find updates and previews on Facebook and Twitter, and the creators run a blog where they discuss comic books, superheroes, and similar topics.

Privacy and Respect

About three years ago, I had a very bad breakup. I almost got murdered. I’m sure I’ve mentioned this on the blog before, and nowadays it’s a story I’m usually quite open about. The short version is that my ex-fiancee was cheating on me with a drug dealer. When I found out, I kicked her out of the apartment. The guy she was cheating with got angry about this, and he came to my apartment with a knife. He tried to break down the door and kill me.

Needless to say, I survived, there’s now a restraining order keeping either of them from ever setting foot on the apartment complex grounds, and I no longer speak to my ex-fiancee.

When I told my father about the breakup, he asked, “What happened?” Naturally, I didn’t want to go into deep detail about the whole “almost getting murdered” thing with my dad. It was something I had to deal with in my own way. So my only answer was, “It’s complicated. Long story short, she cheated on me.”

That was it. That was the only explanation I gave. And my dad never asked for more. The only thing he ever asked, about six months later, was whether I’d talked to her since then. Obviously, I hadn’t. My dad respected my privacy and the fact that I didn’t want to go into detail. He never pressed me for information, and he never tried to find out through any other source. Because that’s who my dad is.

One time, a few months ago, we briefly discussed privacy. It was after I found out my sister was getting divorced after about 9 years of marriage. Similar to my own situation, she had been cheated on by her husband. The only thing my dad said about it was, “Whenever someone cheats in a relationship, there’s always something else going on that leads up to it. But that’s not my business. When you kids reached a certain age I decided your lives were your own business.”

My dad and I have a lot in common. I try to respect people’s privacy. Oh, sure, occasionally I’ll tweet an #OverheardAtRowan comment or some other funny tidbit I see or hear out in public. But those things aren’t private. There’s no expectation of privacy when people are having a loud conversation in a room with a dozen other people in it. There is, however, an expectation of privacy in the things people don’t say.

For example, I have a few friends who are gay. One of them, I had the impression that he was gay long before I ever found out for sure. When he introduced me to his boyfriend, that was a pretty obvious sign. The other, I had absolutely no idea until he came out to me. So I was surprised, but it didn’t make any difference. But in both of their cases, I never pried, and I never asked any of our other friends. Because I respect people’s privacy. I’m not going to go up to someone and ask, “Hey, you know such-and-such? Is he gay?” No. That would be wrong. It’s up to someone as an individual to decide if and when they want to share any such personal details with others. Even if they’re completely out and open about it, it’s still up to them. It’s not anyone else’s place to share such details.

As far as I’m concerned, asking someone else to confirm your “suspicions” about another person is a horrible violation of their privacy. Maybe you think you know something about them. And maybe you’re right about it. But if they want you to know, they’ll come to you when the time is right. And if they never come to you, then that’s how it is. You don’t have a “right” to know privileged information about another person’s life. No matter what. If my own father, who has more “right” to know about my life than pretty much anyone, can respect my privacy and not press me about things I don’t want to share, then everyone else can respect each other’s privacy as well.

And more than anything else, if you’re ever thinking about asking a third party for private information about someone, stop for a second and ask yourself this: Why aren’t you approaching the person themselves about it? If you have ANY reason to think this person wouldn’t want to share details of their private life with you, then why the hell are you asking someone else about it?

Treat people with respect. It’s not that hard to do.

Ultron’s Motivation

Today I saw Avengers: Age of Ultron. I enjoyed it a lot, and my eyes were glued to the screen throughout most of the film. The action scenes were amazing, there were all kinds of surprises, and a few shocking moments that made me gasp.

That’s not to say the film was without flaws. I was analyzing the story structure as I was watching it, noticing a few issues here and there. Most of them I was able to shrug off; they didn’t affect my enjoyment of the film as a whole. I kept my suspenders of disbelief on snugly the entire time. But there was one issue that stood out and bugged me enough to want to analyze it in detail.

Spoilers ahead, consider yourself warned.

Early in the film, Tony Stark semi-accidentally creates a super-advanced artificial intelligence that, naturally, goes insane. While Ultron spends a lot of the movie inhabiting various robotic bodies, he also exists in the internet and has access to all the world’s accumulated knowledge. Stark was trying to design him to protect the world, but like every other insane AI before him, Ultron decides that isn’t enough. In order to protect the world, he decides the world must evolve, and he starts planning to wipe out humanity so that only the strongest and those who are able to adapt will survive in the new world. He even equates himself to Noah at one point, implying that he’s destined to eliminate the unworthy to make room for a new world.

This is a common trope, but it’s one that I don’t think quite works. This isn’t just a question of it being done too many times. It’s a question of whether it really makes sense to begin with.

This is more or less the same problem I discussed awhile back with alien invasion movies. The motivation behind the conflict isn’t explored in enough detail, and the audience simply accepts it. I think part of this is because the “insane genocidal AI” is such a common trope that people assume, by default, that any AI given a sufficient amount of power will turn evil. I suppose it’s related to how “absolute power corrupts absolutely.” But without sufficient development, it makes me feel like the main villain is a two-dimensional character.

Ultron was an entertaining villain. He was quirky. He got off some good one-liners. He was dangerous and powerful. But he shifted into evil-mode within the first sixty seconds of his arrival on the screen, which is the part I had a problem with.

I think the film might have worked better for me if Ultron had at least seemed to struggle with his morality for awhile. If he’d shown some kind of depth and the ability to consider that maybe he was wrong. Instead, I felt like he was evil just because he was evil, and that was all there was to it.

This didn’t stop me from enjoying the movie. There was plenty of depth and moral ambiguity from the other characters, particularly Tony Stark himself. But I didn’t feel like Ultron got the development he could have had.

In some ways, it makes sense for writers to draw on the elements of existing tropes in order to build characters that the audience can more easily relate to. I could analyze every character of the Avengers and show how they are built based on classic tropes. But most of them show a lot more depth and complexity. I just wish Ultron had as well.

mani_promoManifestation is available in paperback format through:

CreateSpace and Amazon

and in ebook format through:

Kindle and Nook

Review of Night of the Living Trekkies

nightof-the-living-trekkiesA zombie outbreak at a Star Trek convention. Yes, that’s right.

I’ve always been a Star Trek fan, so this book was right up my alley. But even if you’re not a Trekkie (I’m sorry, Trekker), you will get a kick out of this.

The premise is pretty simple. There’s a zombie apocalypse starting in Houston, and a group of survivors is stuck in the Botany Bay hotel, where they were attending the fifth annual GulfCon Star Trek Convention. Most of the attendees came in cosplay, dressed up as officers from the Enterprise or as Klingons, Vulcans, Andorians, and other classic alien races from Star Trek. There’s even a zombie Borg marching band. Yes, a zombie Borg marching band.

The con attendees are forced to fight for survival, using whatever they can get their hands on, which luckily includes some bat’leths and lirpa that a convention vendor brought to sell to some eager fans. There’s a lot of classic zombie hacking with a sci fi twist as the survivors fight their way to safety while trying to discover how the zombie outbreak started and what they can do to stop it.

There are enough Star Trek references in this book to delight any fan, from the more well-known movies like Wrath of Khan, to more obscure episodes of the original series, like Spock’s Brain. But the references are spaced out well enough that even someone who’s never seen an episode of Star Trek will be able to enjoy the book for the offbeat humor and the zombie-slaying action. The characters are well-developed outside of their cosplaying and love for sci fi, and you’ll end up rooting for them by the end.

Seriously, Star Trek and Zombies. Go read it.