Spores, Molds, and Fungus

Pop Culture Miscellania


Not An End
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Okay.

I know I’ve addressed most of this before, but I wanted to say it again.

For the past couple years, my blogging output has shrunk to almost nothing. Which I felt a wee bit self-conscious about, and made note of, but not enough to change it or go on hiatus. Now, these days, while I still have all these geeky thoughts, I don't feel motivated to put 'em down on paper, at even the slow rate I've been doing it.

It's part of my larger, unconscious shift away from fannish activities. I've never been a powerhouse in that department, but now it's slowing down even more. Maybe it's because I'm turning thirty next year, maybe it's the inevitable result of never being able to embrace a current franchise and as a whole thing, meaning my small, obscure interests run out of steam much quicker. In that light, I consider my time in Transformers fandom to have been the best, since I had the widest range of stuff to do, and I kept up with current and popular stuff.

Maybe it's that I'm thinking seriously about a writing career, and no magazine wants to take a nostalgic ode to discovering Rodimus Prime in 1999. I have to focus on what I could sell, what I could build something on.

All of those explanations don't quite work, but here we are. I'm not about to turn, snarling, on fandom as a self-absorbed waste of time or a fundamental sign of immaturity. I don’t think getting rid of fandom is a necessity for growing up as an artist or a person, even if you mean “fandom” in the sense of engaging with others or in speculation, and not simply consuming the work itself. It’s all in how you handle it.

I enjoyed the time I've spent in fandom, mulling over whatever it is I do. I've got a lot of good memories, and was also extremely lucky for a woman in fandom (you know what I mean). I also never became a fanatic or a jackass.

I still have fannish instincts, towards fanfiction, meta, and certain eccentricities. Which means that I'm still not done-done, it's just that things will be even slower from now on. I have many things I would like to get around to, but don't know when I will. I’ll keep the nerdery confined to a few places, but don’t know how much energy I’ll have to keep up with it.

Gegege no Kitaro
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I don’t keep finding old anime: it finds me. I manage to stumble into things, really, and don’t place value in media solely because of age or obscurity. In this case, I heard the name “Shigeru Mizuki” dropped in Princess Jellyfish and ended up finding Gegege no Kitaro, Mizuki’s most popular manga, and the one that started a vast multimedia franchise and re-started Japanese interest in yokai (a broad definition for supernatural creatures that can be anything from lake monsters to living household objects).

Kitaro started life as a character from Japanese folklore, portrayed in the kamishibai picture plays. The manga started out as the slightly darker “Graveyard Kitaro” before being changed to the friendlier title, with some of the early manga stories recycled into later tales. The interjection “Ge!” has been said to be everything from an exclamation of disgust, to the sound of spooky laughter, or the sound of frogs (each anime opening includes a chorus of frogs). All of these things can apply to Kitaro.

Kitaro is the last member of the Ghost Tribe, born from the grave of his mother and accompanied by his father, manifested as an eyeball with a tiny humanoid body attached. He hangs out with various yokai, usually helping save humans from the bad ones, but the earlier versions of the manga, Kitaro was more like one of the fair folk, apt to give deadly or at least frightening reprisals if you crossed or offended him in some way.

The later volumes of the manga, and the anime, did soften Kitaro into a generic do-gooder. That’s not a bad thing, since the appeal of the franchise is how strange it is. The plots and characterizations are always extremely simple, and I enjoy what I’ve managed to find because it’s weird.

I don’t call the Gegege no Kitaro weird because it deals in unfamiliar legends from a foreign culture--I already have some grounding in Japanese mythology, and found the newer information easy to digest. Calling something “weird” because it’s from another culture always feels sketchy to me, and Gegege no Kitaro is “weird” because it’s got a strangeness that seems to come from Mizuki himself, and not just because it’s Japanese.

Stories include Kitaro being injected with cryptid blood and becoming a giant hairy kaiju; a vampire and an ox yokai attacking the same prey and winding up a dead ball of hair; Kitaro letting himself be cooked and eaten as part of an ultimate gambit; souls fried in tempura batter, rescued faces that are going to be excreted...things that make you buck backwards and laugh in surprise at how bizarre they are.

Kitaro himself is possessed of a host of odd abilities as the plot demands. Some are portrayed more than once, but he is akin to Silver Age Superman, who had new powers at every turn. Kitaro can fire off his fingers like a giant robot, keeps a snake in his stomach that becomes handcuffs, can detach his hand, fold into various geometric shapes, fire his hair like quills, and generate electricity from this flesh.

These strange things are the real appeal of the franchise.

Besides Kitaro, the major recurring characters are his father Medama Oyaji, and their friend Nezumi Otoko. Medama Oyaji, as I’ve said, is an eyeball atop a tiny humanoid body, which crawled from his original dead form to protect his son. In the manga, he sometimes rides in Kitaro’s empty eye socket, popping out and startling people to provoke the running gag, “Oh, that’s just my father”. Kitaro himself is one-eyed because he was thrown into a gravestone as a baby, though this and the rest of his gruesome origin is left out of most adaptations.

Nezumi Otoko probably has the most personality. A liar, cheater, and swindler, he’s always looking to make a quick buck and doesn’t care if he’ll run over Kitaro in the process. Nezumi Otoko also ends up the brainwashed minion of assorted powerful enemies, but can also be consciously treacherous. Why Kitaro keeps the whiskered bastard around is a mystery to everybody, I’m sure.

The anime versions often took minor manga characters and made them into recurring cast members. The best known are Neko Musume, a little girl who sports catlike features when angry; Sunakake Baba, a sand-throwing witch; Konaki Jiji, a childike old man who can turn to stone; Nurakabe, a walking wall; Ittanmomen, a living strip of cotton. They’re all derived from Japanese folklore, though Neko Musume is closer to the anime “cat girl”, if not as ridiculous-looking. In the original manga art, she’s downright scary in feline mode.

Even though there must be people out there who prefer the earlier Kitaro stories, I don’t mind the sanitized versions, because there is still weirdness, and because, well, the characters are adorable. Kitaro is just a cute little bugger, and so was Neko Musume before she was prettied up and turned into a clothes horse, probably in the name of appealing to older male audiences (don’t think about it too hard, it’s an ugly thing).

As near as I can see, Gegege no Kitaro is as popular and venerable a franchise in Japan as Scooby-Doo. There’s been an anime series each decade until 2007, as well as the “Graveyard Kitaro” series in 2008, along with films and merchandise and public decorations, including statues and decorated train cars in Mizuki’s hometown. However, only one piece of official material has been released in the West, and fan translations are also scarce and fragmented.

Drawn and Quarterly recently released a compilation of Kitaro stories from the post-Graveyard era, along with information about the author and the folklore. The sheer size of the franchise, its advanced age, and maybe its fundamentally Japanese nature, might have all been reasons that Gegege no Kitaro was never touched during the anime boom. And now, it likely never will be.

There are scanlations and fansubs take some digging to find, and are fragments, a few episodes here and there of the various anime series, whose full runs are always long. From what I’ve been able to see, these series frequently retread the same manga stories for a new decade, but are always charming in their way. The series never loses its fun strangeness, no matter the form it takes.

Was the Zentradi Alliance Self-Destructive?: Part 2
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All right, the flip side: if Zentradi aren’t inherently dangerous to humans, what about the other way around? After all, the Zentradi are often described as being "defeated" by humanity. It's possible to view the Zentradi story as one of forced assimilation, akin to what real cultures have experienced, and therefore the Zentradi as victims. Or their story can be seen as one of emasculation of powerful warriors, domesticated by humankind.

But while the Zentradi story can be compared to such real assimilation in order to study where Macross stands in relation to the culture of 1980s Japan, the specifics of the event are not analogous to any kind of human-human cultural assimilation. In the case of the Zentradi, unlike real human civilizations, they had nothing to lose and everything to gain.

While "warrior races" are common in science fiction, the Zentradi are different from that norm. Fictional warrior cultures tend to have developed societies alongside their war-making, as well as codes of glory and honour. Zentradi, in contrast, have nothing but their military.

Again from Aaron Sketchley:

The entire society of the Zentraadi, who were originally Protoculture weapons, was a military organization that was controlled by strict military regulations. From the time that they were born, they were brainwashed and psychologically manipulated by the Protoculture in order to not take productive actions or do cultural things. Even after being separated from Protoculture control, only the uppermost individual of a main fleet knew of culture only as recorded knowledge, and the system didn't change. However, the Zentraadi who met mankind each awoke to culture due to the culture shock of such things as songs.

However, the Zentraadi weren't a completely uncultured race. The Zentraadi were created by the Protoculture as a combat race, and as such, they must be able to have a strong mutual understanding of each other in combat, so the Protocultures arranged a language and letters for them and gave it to the Zentraadi. As language and letters are things that establish the foundation of culture, one could say that the Zentraadi language and letters existed as the groundwork that received Earth's culture.

However, their language and culture is specialized in simplification, or military affairs, as the Zentraadi didn't create an advanced culture themselves (the language and letters are assumed to have been based on the Protoculture language and culture).

In reality, words that aren't directly related to military affairs don't exist in the Zentraadi language, such as "love", "marriage", or "mother". This is thought to have been caused by male and female Zentraadi living separately, and new Zentraadi being produced by cloning technology. (http://sketchleystats.webatu.com/Trans/MCRworldguide/10BZentraadi.php)

While Exsedol once said there was a Zentradi proverb that combat was life, later events of the series suggest these words were meant to be hollow ones, since the ideal of combat is soon discarded or shifted by the sympathetic Zentradi--those that remain in the military make a choice to serve the human military instead. This is presented as a positive thing, and Exsedol himself shows an interest in the human world.

The statements from Macross Chronicle paint a bleak picture of the Zentradi life, and these, along with the content of the TV series, makes it easy to define the Zentradi alliance as a net positive for their race, and something completely different from the assimilation of existing cultures.

The Zentradi knew nothing of love or sex, and their only rewards are a boost in rank or the thrill of killing; this is a life they have not chosen, but were simply slotted into. These characters were, in short, lacking many of the fundamental experiences that make life wonderful. They were slaves, some of whom make that choice to rebel because they have seen something genuinely better.

If a lot of Macross material refers to the Zentradi as being “defeated” by humanity, that’s only because it’s technically true: the Zentradi do abandon their goals due to a challenge by their enemies. It also sounds more dramatic than “defected”.

But the Zentradi never chose to support the cause they were born for, so it’s no loss for them to abandon it. And while the two sides fought, the engineer of this “defeat” was actually song, and it did this by accident and was also wilfully accepted by the enemy. It’s not an ordinary defeat, and so the use of the word “defeat” can’t be used to show why the alliance wasn’t meant to be a positive ending for the Zentradi.

There are also enemy Zentradi who get vanquished in the more traditional sense; the definition “‘Zentradi” includes both friends and enemies. “The Zentradi were defeated” doesn’t demean the alliance. For some of the Zentradi, it really is true. For others, it's technically true, but the details are more complex and it’s ultimately a good choice for them.

Furthermore, some view the pre-human contact Zentradi as embodying a machismo that gets destroyed when they fall for Minmay and are no longer badass warriors unbound by pansy interests like love and song. It's similar to the view of the character Kamjin Kravshera, who eventually finds himself concerned with the Zentradi's reputation despite being a hedonist himself. But whether it’s coming from a character or a real person, it’s untrue: Zentradi are strengthened, not emasculated, by human contact.

As has been said above, the Zentradi led a deprived, repressed existence. Yes, their armies had great physical and mechanical strength, but it’s hollow because there’s no glory in slavery. Physical strength is not enough to make a group of characters worth cheering on. They have to be "into" it, be dealing with something they chose, to become idealized figures.

Because of that, the Zentradi who allied with humanity are the real badasses. Even if they did so just in pursuit of pleasure, they were strong enough to resist Bodolza, and to stick with their new lives. It sounds trite, but the courage to resist a system is more laudable than just being able to blow shit up because one’s absent creators told you to.

To some, "self-destruction" refers not to the disassembly of any Zentradi defeat or emasculation, but to the deaths of many Zentradi soldiers at the hands of humanity and the allied Zentradi. It's the trope of making peace with the enemy, but the climax of the story still involving fighting those of the enemy that peace can’t be made with. It’s often considered a contradictory or hypocritical trope.

In the case of Super Dimension Fortress Macross, the allied Zentradi and humans respond immediately and violently to Bodolza’s forces coming to destroy all of them. One could argue that this was justified because of the swiftness of Bodolza’s retaliation. The alliance has no choice but to respond equally swiftly. On the other hand, humanity could be condemned for not even trying to open negotiations.

Yet if Macross isn’t a totally sunny series, humanity might have had no time to do anything else but defend themselves. It might be the consequence of telling a story where nothing is totally perfect. But again, that lack of perfection doesn’t mean the positive aspects are invalid.

As long as some portion of the Zentradi benefitted from the alliance, the moral contradictions of Space War 1 don’t meant that the Zentradi/human alliance was meant to be self-destructive.

This is also true when you bring up the fact of Macross’s background, where it’s said that most contact between spacefaring humans and new Zentradi after the first war usually did not end in a Zentradi awakening. Circumstances could be better, but it is not all bad.

To view the Zentradi/human alliance as dangerous and self-destructive is to only look at the story in the most simplistic way. It is to assume that the presence of conflict automatically means the entire event was worthless. It is to believe that a series would squander all its time establishing sympathy for characters, and then yanking it away in the most clumsy manner possible.

At this point, I want to mention the Robotech universe, including the non-canon material published in the 1990s. This was where my interest in the Zentradi started, and so I’ve always got to mention it.

The novels and comics present a much more downbeat view of the Zentradi than the Macross universe does, though without the guts to mess with the canon Zentradi. Instead, they create numerous original characters to advance their cynical viewpoint.

The friendly Zentradi are whittled down into a small faction that settles into a nice space colony on the planet Fantoma after a life fraught with post-war infighting--they are also mostly unable to reproduce with humans, a fact that contradicts previous material.

The most shocking conceit was that after the internal wars died down, the last of the Zentradi who live on Earth retire to the decrepit Factory Satellite and wait around to die off, refusing aid or contact from Earth: the best they can do is fight the incoming Invid invasion by sacrificing the satellite and themselves.

These things happen in the novels The Malcontent Uprisings, The Master’s Gambit and Before the Invid Storm, three midquel novels which are much more nihilistic and violent than the rest of the book series, and not only in regards to the Zentradi.

The novels were penned by two authors, Brian Daley and James Luceno, under the psuedonym Jack McKinney. Brian Daley died before the series finished, and James Luceno penned the three midquel novels alone, and larger portions of the books near the end of the original run. I’ve often wondered if the most extreme pessimism in the collaborative novels is due to Luceno, and this interview with him (http://www.megascifi.com/Q_A_WITH_JAMES_LUCENO.html) seems to confirm it:

JIM: The appeal for me, at any rate, was that the Zentraedi were an engineered, “vat-grown” race, created not only for exploration and, ultimately, warfare, but also one deprived of the ability to access a full range of emotions. As against, say, STAR TREK Vulcans, who had trained themselves to suppress or sublimate emotions, the Zentraedi were closer to cyborgs; until, of course, contact with humanity both provided at least some of them with a sense of what they might have been and doomed them as a race. This facet, more than the Imperative, is what made them interesting as characters, coming slowly unglued by music, interpersonal contact, and love. If only every “villain” was so easily seduced and redeemed.
In my original notes about the Zentraedi—jotted down sometime while I was working on the Malcontent Uprisings—I found the following quote, lifted from Orson Scott Card’s Ender’s Game:
"If one of us [one race or another] has to be destroyed, let’s make damn sure we’re the ones alive at the end. Our genes won’t let us decide any other way. Nature [emphasis, mine] can’t evolve a species that hasn’t a will to survive. Individuals might be bred to sacrifice themselves, but the race as a whole can never decide to cease to exist.”


Say what one will about the dubbing quality of Robotech, there is nothing in it that changes the ultimate story of the Zentradi or undermines its benefit for both sides. Describing the Zentradi as “becoming unglued” and “doomed as a race” is a complete reversal of what actually happened. He seems to view the Zentradi alliance with Earth as another stage in their race’s defeat, and not their freedom. That the Zentradi only “might have been” a full people.

Since there are Robotech creations, they involve other authors interpreting Macross, and have little more authority than fan interpretations. But it doesn’t mean that Robotech initially presented the Zentradi story on pessimistic terms. The dub of Super Dimension Fortress Macross, whatever its other issues, presented the Zentradi story as positively as the original did. It was only later authors that twisted things.

Those Zentradi characters lucky enough to ally with humanity became a real people with human contact. Others, sadly, were only shown the initial shock of human emotions because they were approaching enemies, but that shock was only a pathway to a new life.

Overall, as long as the human/Zentradi alliance remains a part of future Macross series, and as long as we have good Zentradi and part-Zentradi characters on the side of humanity, the alliance can’t be something that should have been avoided. Not only because the earth would have been otherwise destroyed, but because the Zentradi would also have never been able to experience their own humanity.

That’s what makes the Zentradi one of my all-time favourite fictional races (though that doesn’t mean I like all the individual characters equally). It’s a feel-good story without falling into simplistic sappiness, with the value of art and freedom being paramount, but also a bit of comic relief.

The Legend of Korra: Potential Dripping Away
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I’m terribly, terribly disappointed with “The Legend of Korra”.

Anger would be too strong a word, but apathy doesn’t cover it, either. It’s the sad knowledge that the series could be so much better than it is, that it has so many unconventional elements for cartoons and for fantasy but it keeps squandering most of them.

A series with political complexity, modernized technology, a female lead, and then exploring how the role of magic might change with modern times sounded delicious. I am a fantasy fan, but don’t consider the genre inherently conservative, or inherently about anachronistic grandeur. I wanted to see what could be done with a less common fantasy setting.

But.

I maintain that the problems with Legend of Korra are not the plot elements or setting, but what has been done with them. Execution is often lazy, taking the most simple and predictable path, and then not making us care about where it leads. And it is just heartbreaking.

Korra is likely intended to be the “young hothead who learns better”, which is fine. It’s been done a lot, but can be made to work. But Korra never seems to learn anything, and never seems to change. I don’t hate her, I just wish there would be some character development, because she’s getting dull. But she remains stubborn, petty, and naive.

Her relationship with Mako is also dull. Mako is still a colossal prick for leaving Asami, and it wasn’t until last week’s episode that season two Mako actually did anything as a character, or he and Korra did anything meaningful as a couple--and that involved breaking up. There’s just no spark between them, making their love and their anger both hard to get invested in.

And the series keeps shifting its focus away from things that would actually require Korra to be the Avatar. A lot of noise is made about the role of the Avatar in this world, but Korra is frequently swept up in circumstances and never does much that an ordinary Bender could not.

The result is that there doesn’t seem to be much of a reason for the series to star an Avatar. I know it must be hard to re-interpret the Chosen One narrative for a modernized fantasy setting, but again, the writers don’t seem to be trying to decide how an Avatar would fit into a complex new world.

Like with Amon from season one, Unalaq looked like a villain cast in a different mould. He seemed to have compelling, sympathetic motivation, but handling things in all the wrong ways. Since the premiere, however, Unalaq has been steadily revealed to be power-hungry and deceptive. It’s still not clear if he was right about the spirits, or if he even believes in his previous words, but I’m preparing for him to become completely dull.

I would not be surprised if the barrel bottom were scraped further, and Unalaq was shown to not care at all about angry spirits or cultural degeneration, be manufacturing the whole thing, or trying to take advantage of circumstances so that he can gain power.

It’s so frustrating because the potential to tell an interesting story was right there: the writers just had to reach out and grab it. Not take the easy way out by making him a simplistic villain. What makes it worse is that if Unalaq had stuck to his originally motivations, he would also be a conservative (small c) villain, which goes against the stereotype of the fantasy genre wanting to preserve the past.

Now that Unalaq’s daughter Eska is pursuing Korra and her friends, I’m wondering if the writers are unconsciously mimicking the Ozai and Azula dynamics. That’s very bad form, since it’s lazy and the results here don’t measure up to their predecessors. I don’t believe the fan theory that Korra/Mako was meant to throw a bone to the Katara/Zuko shippers, but if the writers are trying to save themselves by calling on their previous success, the efforts are already doomed.

Which is a shame because I liked Desna and Eska, but no one can seem to think of anything interesting to do with them. Torturing Bolin isn’t interesting, nor is being their father’s attack dogs.

Bolin is how not to do a comic relief character. The first season Bolin wasn’t so bad, but here, he is full-tilt stupid, contributing nothing to the plot or the characters except for screaming pratfalls. Because of this, I can’t get upset at the irreverent treatment of Eska’s abuse of him.

Everyone is going to say that Sokka was done better, and that’s true, but there are so many other examples, including Varrick, who is right in the same cast, is comical, but also smart and useful. Putting him right beside Bolin makes it all worse: if the writers can handle one comic character decently, then why not?

As many have said, Tenzin’s nuclear family make for great characters. I love the idea of a main character being a family man, when parents are so often assumed to make uninteresting characters just because they are parents. Also, the mentor figure is usually assumed to have no life outside of his protegee, and here it’s obviously untrue.

And even the goofy-faced and fartbending Meelo got some subdued moments to himself in last week’s episode, making Bolin look like an even bigger failure of characterization.

But Tenzin and his own siblings...while I like the idea of Aang as an imperfect parent, and the personalities of Bumi and Kya (though I had assumed Kya was the firstborn, due to her grey hair; I sort of wish she was, given how heroes seldom have daughters first), to throw it at us after Aang has died, and offering nothing to contrast it except a swift wrap-up with a family photo, is too pessimistic for the series. The scenes didn’t even need it: a teasing but loving sibling relationship would have served the same purpose and not left dirty footprints behind.

At this point it almost seems like, set free from the more conventional plot of ATLA, the showrunners and writers can’t handle something different, and lose all the prowess that made the first series so brilliant. From that I hear about the comic interquels, this is also true for them.

Another way to describe it is that this series is starting to feel like a first draft: it’s a writer’s aphorism that first drafts suck. First drafts suck because things are just starting, because you’re throwing things at the wall trying to figure out what will stick; true direction is found later. Legend of Korra just feels like a first draft, the writers spewing out material that could be refined into something more--but this is the final product.

Yet laziness also fits perfectly. Legend of Korra could be so much better if only people tried.

It’s a shame because while I liked ATLA just fine, the setting and premise of Korra got me excited on an individual level. It sounded like it would deal with settings and plots that I preferred as a thing distinct from artistic quality. But it keeps doing the least it can.

I am still determined to finish the entire series, and right now that’s not a hard promise to keep. The series is still mildly entertaining on the surface, and still at least is visually impressive. But my hopes were much higher.

Here's Johnny (Again)
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http://www.salon.com/2013/10/01/what_stanley_kubrick_got_wrong_about_the_shining/

The novel "Doctor Sleep" has been published: it's Stephen King's sequel to "The Shining". That’s the reason that Salon has asked him again about Stanely Kubrick’s film adaptation of the book, an adaptation which King still dislikes, mostly because he disagrees with its interpretation of the characters.

There's nothing here that King hasn't said before. Going over old ground is irritating for us nerds who know that, but I don’t blame anyone involved with this. The public at large probably doesn’t remember what King said about Kubrick’s adaptation, and reminding them helps stir up interest in “Doctor Sleep”. A little mercenary, but hey, who’s counting?

The real irritations are both the claim that Stanley Kubrick “got wrong” anything, and the claim that his film’s quality and popularity means that King has relinquished his right to complain about it.

Firstly, a director, whether they are as strong as Kubrick or not, can’t “get wrong” something in an adaptation simply by changing it. Even if they alter the core of the story (which King argues that Kubrick has, especially in casting Jack Nicholson as someone who already looks about to go crazy, instead of a broken man who is the unexpected victim of the hotel), they are not “wrong”, but only putting their own spin on things, because they are a separate person from the original writer and must retell the story as they see fit.

That is not to say one can’t dislike adaptations, just that “wrongness” really doesn’t factor into such dislike. It’s all about a personal reaction, not the absolute that “wrongness” suggests. But this also means making room for those who continue to dislike an adaptation, even when the culture at large loves it.

Just because Kubrick’s version of “The Shining” is an excellent film, might be better-remembered than the book, and the TV miniseries can’t surpass it for quality, doesn’t mean that Stephen King can’t say it misrepresents his work. There is no adaptation so good, or so well-known over the original, that it can make an original author’s negative reaction “wrong”.

Even if it’s instinct to pit adaptations against the original work, one version can’t actually “win” over the other. The only complaint might be that King is still airing his grievances after so many years, but he was asked to do it, and so the act can only be met with a shrug, not replying that Kubrick’s version has “won” over his novel and so he should be quiet.

Geek Culture Isn't Mainstream
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When people describe geek culture as now being “mainstream” because certain evergreen science fiction and fantasy properties make gobs of cash at the box office and are marketed to every new generation...I disagree.

Fretting over whether something is mainstream or not isn’t the issue: I don’t care if geekdom is mainstream or not. But I still see a partial division between the popularity of genre entertainment, and the “geek culture”.

It’s because of one of the ways people are geeks. It’s not the only way to be a geek, certainly not the “right” way to be a geek, but it’s a way. A distinct way of dealing with media.

Some geeks, you see, they dig deeper. They engage with media that the culture at large has forgotten. They fall in love with minor characters (literally or not). They pick apart every tiny little detail, and then dig up more.

Not every geek does this, but enough do that I feel like, even if Star Wars and Spider-Man are explosively popular, there are these practices common to “geek culture” that the public as a whole doesn’t engage in, and therefore it’s not accurate to say the entire thing has gone mainstream just because certain things geeks like have become popular.
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TMNT “Random” Reviews: “Insane in the Membrane”
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Written by Matthew Drdeck, Michael Ryan (story editor)
Supervising Director Roy Burdine


--Once upon a time, I was working through some Baxter Stockman episodes to review for my blog. To try to jumpstart that same blog, it’s time to review the most infamous one: the “banned” 2003 series episode that was completed but never shown in U.S. TV. But it made it to other regions and to DVD, so that hopefully no one will have to miss it.

--I’m not being sarcastic here. While the episode isn’t important to the serial parts of the TV series’ story, “Insane in the Membrane” is great for what it allowed to be shown on kid’s TV, and what it did for Stockman’s character. The episode helps to enrich him and proves why he is the best version of Baxter Stockman, easily surpassing the Mirage version.

--Unlike many characters in the TMNT franchise (and in multimedia franchises in general), Baxter Stockman isn’t tied to one single character archetype. He’s been a different race, been an independent or attached to the Shredder. He’s been transformed voluntarily and involuntarily, into a fly and into...this.

--But the cartoons keep establishing a characterization for Baxter with surprising consistency: a character who is prideful and self-destructive, in a way that’s different from your usual supervillain, and also a put-upon henchman who is abused and transformed, but is also not innocent. It’s my favourite image for him, and what drew me to the character.

--There is a subtext of failure in this portrayal, one that’s usually not brought to the surface. But “Insane in the Membrane”, though only for a brief moment, actually makes this subtext overt as Stockman breaks down and admits his life has been wrecked. While the privilege of a viewer is to put emotions in a character that the writers did not intend, it’s still gratifying when your emotions align with the writers’. 4Kids Stockman is from a story where the writers can look at villains sympathetically, and that makes a story better.

--But we start with Stockman’s opening monologue, recapping the destruction of his physical form, until he became a brain/spine/eyeball in a tube. But no matter what else he is, 4Kids Stockman maintains his carefully-manicured pride. He refers to The Shredder and Hun as “cruel-minded brutes”, implicitly placing himself as their intellectual superior; Stockman also seems to skip over his own moments of fear in their presence. In part it’s a display of strength, but Stockman also does little to back up that pride, making the same mistakes over and over again.

--Yet Stockman also used to be on top of the science community. By giving him some period of success (detailed in the same monologue) before his fall, it makes things all the more painful and easier for the audience to empathize with him.

--There’s not much to say about the opening segments with the Turtles chasing down monsters in the sewers, except that they serve as a reminder that Stockman is far from perfect because these monsters are all a result of his mistakes. There’s also nothing to say about the discover of a new van, but good on the Turtles.

--Stockman’s spider-centaur robot body looks cool, but also really awkward, taking up a lot space and sporting many limbs. It seems to have been changed for no reason, when there were no problems with his simpler, humanoid robot form. Perhaps they were intending to get a toy out of it? Or they felt the design would become stale? Or somebody figured Stockman’s body designs just had to keep changing.

--Nerds traditionally take glee in creepy shit appearing in children’s cartoons, and that’s another part of the appeal of “Insane in the Membrane”. However, by thinning the boundaries of “child-friendly” entertainment, “Insane in the Membrane”, also makes Stockman’s pain more intense and improves the story. Children’s entertainment shouldn't shy away from that kind of visceral intensity.

--While I consider 4Kids Stockman the best version of Baxter, that doesn't mean he's a strong person in comparison to other characters. He's a weak man and an ultimately ineffective villain, sometimes even comic relief. But as long as he’s an interesting character, that’s what counts.

--As proof of this, the horrible events of "Insane in the Membrane" are partially Stockman's fault. He wanted a human body so badly that he was willing to go through a process that has been proven unstable. It's credible that he'd be this impatient, and it's good for stories to allow characters to make huge mistakes.

--So this doesn't make that a bad episode, but his impatience is both a new, fitting weakness, and shows Stockman's chief weakness: his pride. Stockman thinks he would be immune to whatever complications befell a clone body. Because he's better than everybody.

--But he wasn’t always that way. L’il Stockman is adorable, and it’s heavily implied that his mother was a stabilizing influence on him. In the first flashback, Stockman was ready to use his homemade corrosive on a bug he’d captured. After his mother comes home, Stockman lets the bug go outside instead.

--That’s a bit of a worrying cliche, that a woman was needed to give positive influence, and he might have crumbled without his mother, but it also shows how far down Stockman has gone from the child that he used to be.

--I didn’t notice this until the second viewing, even though it was obvious: Stockman notes that his clone body has been enhanced, and we can also see that he doesn’t wear glasses and is notably more muscular. Which is noticeable when he’s walking around with nothing but his modesty metal briefs from the cloning tank. But you can’t blame him for not covering up.

--It doesn't go without notice that there's a scary subtext in those certain versions of Baxter Stockman: that he's also got no allies, no ties to anyone, and is completely alone. Up until "Head of State" (which will be my next episode review) that is true of 4Kids Stockman. He works with Bishop, and Bishop isn't as grotesquely abusive as the Shredder, but he’s not Stockman’s friend.

--Here, Bishop's warnings are perfunctory, and he leaves Stockman alone through most of his degeneration, except the very start and finish. It is only what you can expect from a business relationship, but it's disturbing all the same. Nobody gives a damn about this guy.

--As the degeneration starts, Stockman puts his glasses back on, as well as his signature lab coat, representing that his body is more vulnerable than he thought. The crude way that he tries to hold his body together (nails! industrial staples!) is a more dramatic show of that loss of control and strength.

--“Why am I a failure? My whole life! Oh, Mama, I started with such promise. Where did it all go wrong?” There we are--there’s the payoff. Stockman’s failure is acknowledged and the character is at the most open and self-aware that we’ve seen him. It’s a punch in the gut every time.

--It’s difficult to put myself in the shoes of the many people who have said they never liked Stockman until this episode. I already thought he was likeable, but if someone finds his failures and arrogance tedious, then I suppose this episode would help make him sympathetic.

--But his ultimate conclusion is to shift the blame to April. Eroding sanity plays a part in this, but it seems in-character for Stockman to never blame himself for anything, because of his pride.

--His mother dying is a little cliche, too, but oh goddamn it tugs at the heartstrings.

--I don’t expect the Turtles to show any concern for Stockman when they see his state, but their total lack of reaction to the sight is a bit surprising.

--I’m not sure what’s the most shocking thing: Stockman’s finger falling off, Stockman nailing himself together, or his damn jaw falling off on strings. Either way, I’m surprised at the moxie that the 4Kids crew had in producing scenes like that.

--Once again, Stockman is not an innocent victim. Though insane, though pained, he seems to be enjoying his attack on April a little too much.

--“Can’t you remember when your work helped people? When it was about the science?” Now, April’s quote is interesting. We never really saw this benevolent side to Stockman in the series. It would have been interesting for him to have started out good, to further show that fall.

--There were limits on the time frame, of course, but if there was never any time to show what April meant--I know it’s to set up April and Baxter’s mother both saying, “The sky’s the limit”, and to show that not all might be lost for Stockman, but...it rings a little hollow if we never saw the adult Stockman being a stand-up guy.

--It is unfortunate that the things revealed in this episode don’t actually change much about Stockman. When he’s brought back after this, Stockman is far more melancholy than before, but it gradually fades into his usual arrogance, and he never seems to change otherwise.

--To be fair, Stockman doesn’t have much of a role in the 4Kids series after “Insane in the Membrane”, but if we’re going to judge him based on what we’re given, then the repercussions of this episode are lacking.

--That doesn’t mean those flashbacks and realizations are worthless. Stories aren’t simply about The Plot; you need to take time to explore the characters and show us more about them. Simply providing this knowledge is reason enough for such scenes to exist.

--For a while, TMNT co-creator Peter Laird has been posting transcripts of the e-mails he had with the 4Kids production staff, suggesting changes to their scrips. It’s a fascinating look into the production of the 2003 series, and into how much Peter Laird was responsible for whipping it into shape.

Here are the links to his notes on “Insane in the Membrane” (some of which are appropriately dated for October)

http://peterlairdstmntblog.blogspot.ca/2011/12/blast-from-past-342-october-27-2004.html

http://peterlairdstmntblog.blogspot.ca/2011/12/blast-from-past-340-october-16-2004.html

“Insane in the Membrane” was also going to be a Justice Force episode, with nothing to do with Baxter.

http://peterlairdstmntblog.blogspot.ca/2011/11/blast-from-past-329-september-16-2004.html

http://peterlairdstmntblog.blogspot.ca/2011/11/blast-from-past-328-september-12-2004.html

One interesting note is that Baxter was originally going to have an abusive father, which Peter Laird pointed out had Unfortunate Implications and this is apparently the reason it was nixed. It didn’t add anything to the story anyway.

There were also cut scenes showing Bishop and other members of his agency talking about where Stockman is going, which might have been cut for time. These scenes would have shown that the agency was watching Stockman, but offered no clue as to why they did not intervene. It doesn’t alleviate the bleakness of Stockman’s lack of allies, though.

--This episode is overall excellent. It redeemed the character for a lot of people, but if you’re already on board with Baxter Stockman, “Insane in the Membrane” tells you a lot of new things about him while enforcing what you already know. The infamous goriness is also key to emphasizing Stockman’s hardship, so it’s not there without reason. The episode deserves to be remembered for all of these things.
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Legend of Korra: Spirits
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I saw the Legend of Korra premiere, and was happy with it. Not pushed into throes of ecstasy, but I'm very interested to see where it goes next.

Starting out with a new direction was inevitable, since the series wrapped up its conflicts in the first season. Parts of that were unsatisfying: I was fine with Korra regaining bending so quickly, and gaining Airbending, but her romance with Mako had no chemistry, and Asami had to be dumped to do it. Furthermore, Amon was a great idea and a great villain, but we never saw exactly *how* Benders were oppressing non-Benders. It's easy to imagine how it could happen, but remember the golden rule is still show, don't tell.

Now we have a story where the plot and the new characters are more interesting than the current characters. I still want to like Korra, but she doesn't seem to have been changed by her experiences. You can see what they're *trying* to do with her character, but it's not fleshed out enough.

Korra's problem (from an in-universe viewpoint) is that she's too concerned with the physical side of her powers and her world. The crux is that she has to learn to be in touch with the spiritual aspects of it, and by association, be less hot-headed.

This looks to be a key point in the upcoming season, but her spiritual experience in the first season finale doesn't seem to have rubbed off on her yet. Her first impulse on meeting hostile spirits even in the sacred forest is to cold-clock 'em, even after everything Unlaq has been telling her. I hope Korra's character development will actually start to happen, instead of being promised.

Mako is still bland, Bolin is simplistic comic relief. Being that this is the second season, I'm still hoping Bolin will be more fleshed out, the way that Sokka was.

Asami continues to be dynamite, wasting no time in trying to get the family business back in full swing, and investigating new technologies to do it. This time, we see the beginnings of movies in the Avatar world, which is wonderful because unlike many fantasy worlds, that of AtLA is looking towards the future and embracing progress.

I still enjoy the characters of Tenzin and his nuclear family, though. Too often in children's entertainment, families and parents are regarded as un-fun, not deserving of attention, but LoK fleshes out them into real characters instead of props, proving that a character can be a parent and still have a personality, and also without idealizing what families go through. Tenzin’s kids can still be total brats.

We meet Tenzin's other siblings, and Bumi and Kya look like fun characters with a lot of potential. The way they play off Tenzin is great, and they are all distinct from each other, which is the best way to create a family of characters.

The expanding on Korra's family, however, makes me wish that the writers knew more about what they were going to get in terms of episodes, so that matters could have flowed better. As it is, it comes off as, "Remember the uncle and cousins you had that we never mentioned before?"

Other viewers say they called Unalaq as a villain, but he's really more nuanced than most "evil uncles". At this point, he comes off more as a corrupt extremist with a valid point, rather than out-and-out evil. Hopefully he isn't lying about the anger of the spirits or faking something for his own gain, because that would be lazy and predictable.. By having a core of truth to his beliefs, Unalaq would become more credible as a villain.

However, it's also good that in defiance of fantasy conventions, Unalaq, the character who looks to the past, is cast as evil and misguided. It connects nicely with Asami's interest in upcoming technologies, forming a larger contrast to stereotypical fantasy.

Despite how useful a character Unalaq could be to the plot, the conflict that leads up to Korra deciding to be Unlaq's protege is very stereotypical and insincere, and with a lot of talking heads. A teenage girl shouting at her father and father figures about how she wants something more and to make her own choices is morally correct but also overdone. Compared to how real the relationships among the other characters can feel, including previous interaction between Korra and Tenzin, this is a disappointment.

But I want to see more. I’m still hopeful that the good parts of this series will come to overshadow the issues, that the potential will come out as LoK grows more comfortable in its skin.

As always for the Avatar series, everything looks gorgeous, with a cinematic quality to it.
The modernized setting is still one of the best parts of Legend of Korra, and it would be great to see more television fantasy embrace such settings. Some have expressed disappointment with the lack of traditional fantasy grandeur in the Korra universe, but it’s not the setting that acts grandeur

True Confessions
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Okay.

Deep breath.

I know that this blog doesn't have much traffic, which is one reason that I let myself go, and go so long without saying anything. But that's no excuse: I should keep to principles even when nobody's watching.

So, this blog isn't dead yet, but I'm struggling with it. I have a lot of ideas for posts, including ones that I've promised since forever, but I've somehow lost the blogging mojo. For some reason, I keep finding other things to do, and the blog posts move to the bottom of the pile and never get touched. The main culprits:

1. I'm working on a novel. I have been for a while, but really trying to get the lead out for it, to this time produce something intelligble. Because of this, I have less time for other writing.

2. I'm also trying ever harder to find a job. This also takes up some of my time.

3. Tumblr. I've done a few blog-worthy posts to Tumblr, and am trying to keep the meta flowing instead of just posting pictures, but the format is easier for me to handle, since ittakes less time. But I also know this wouldn't be a problem if I had the energy for blog posts.

4. I'm making tiny steps towards trying to become a professional writer (while searching for a steady job), so my thoughts are turning to articles that might be publishable, instead of minutae that only I care about.

I'm not calling this the end, though. I'm still going to give it a try.

Small TMNT Thing:
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http://pterobat.tumblr.com/post/58036776807/in-which-i-talk-way-too-much-about-a-minor-spoiler
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