A Few of My Favorite Things
I’m trying really hard to get back on track with my writing schedule, plus next week I’ll be writing a more involved blog post for a cross-blog promotion I’m taking part in (It’s about elves and mine is going to be in the style of the old Dungeon/Dragon magazine ‘Ecology of…’ articles), so this week, we’re going with something lighter and less mentally intensive for me.
Nonetheless, I think many of you might enjoy this. People have routinely asked me to post more stuff about myself here and being a kind of private guy, I usually… don’t. So for those of you who want another peak under the ol’ brain-bonnet of Vaal, here you go: an entire article about the kind of things I like when it comes to both writing and consuming entertainment.
These, my friends, are a few of my favorite things…
Ever notice that she likes the whiskers, but not the kittens?
Let’s get the big one out of the way because it actually explains a lot of what come after:
I am a very visual kind of guy, even when reading prose. I like big set pieces, huge action sequences, things exploding (even—ESPECIALLY–if they shouldn’t), those kisses where the guy leans the woman all the way over like he’s dipping her, and just big, exciting stuff in general. While I appreciate subtle, intelligent dialogue, I’m a sucker for the rousing speech.
There are some that will say that attitudes like mine are responsible for the degradation of popular culture, the dumbing down of entertainments, blah-blah-blah. I disagree most vehemently, sirs and madams. For while I do love the bright shiny bits and the loud exciting stuff, it still actually have to make sense and serve the story. Just throwing big huge crap out there doesn’t cut it.
So while I very much love movies like Independence Day because it has awesome alien-on-fighter plane dogfights and gigantic alien ships murder-nuking entire cities (plus one of the best damn St. Crispin’s Day Speeches in the modern era), that’s because they add to the plot and the feel of the story.
I want to go fight space aliens right now.
On the other hand, I can’t stand the American Godzilla film thanks to removing all the goofy fun of my beloved kaiju and that infuriating, nonsensical and completely tacked on sequence with the thousands of velocer… I mean baby Godzillas because the exciting bits aren’t part of a good story and didn’t deliver on the promise of naming a movie Godzilla and the basically making it half colossal-scale Mouse Hunt, half people being chased by a generic swarm of monsters.
This is especially sad when a movie has good spectacle but terrible everything else. G.I. Joe: Rise of Cobra had drill tanks, the Eiffel Tower eaten by nanobots and a freaking submarine battle, but it was hung on a story so flimsy (and which couldn’t stop making fun of GI Joe in it’s dialogue for some reason) that it all comes to nothing. (And to address what some of you might be thinking since I mentioned that movie: 1) yes, the accelerator suit sequence was highly, viciously stupid, and 2) No, it was not ice falling, it was parts of the metal and concrete base encased in the ice falling. You can even see spars sticking out of it in some shots.)
Now that we have that out of the way, let’s move on to stuff I can just completely nerd-boy over like…
Some people say ‘mad science’ and/or ‘super science’, but I say ‘SCIENCE!’. Capital letters and exclamation point not optional.
Science, just the plain old vanilla stuff we have in our regular old world is freaking awesome. It is, in fact, the most awesome thing. Economics is never going to top that time that science dropped a nuclear-powered SUV on Mars with the help of a winch system that was itself flying on a jetpack; and that was just the encore to landing a dune buggy on it by sealing it in a protective orb of beach balls. Nor is Latin (the language, not the music) going to top science’s ongoing efforts to tell extinction itself to get bent and bring back mammoths and dire wolves.
Science is what got us where we are and science will be what saves us, not just individually, but as a species, whether that be from asteroid impact or the kill-storms, rising sea levels and weather pattern changes of global warming (That’s right, science can fix problems it caused. When’s the last time the English language fixed things like spelling definitely without an ‘a’?).
And that’s why I love ‘SCIENCE!’ so much. It takes the greatness that is Science as it exists in the hear and now and gets rid of all the need for patience, trial and error or resource limitations. Tony Stark needs not your marketability reports, he is going to build a suit of armor to punch the Incredible Hulk in the face. No scientist in any iteration of the Gundam universe had to wait for material engineering and plasma technology to catch up to his wild imagination before building a giant robot with a plasma scythe.
In my opinion, in the grand scale of human existence, Science represents the ability to do anything. We just have to keep plugging away at the problem until we solve it. ‘SCIENCE!’ takes that concept and puts it firmly into an individual time scale where one man can seriously overcome the barrier of death just by putting his mind to it.
With a million+ words in the Descendants Universe, you better believe I have a special love for overarching stories and plots. If you look back on many of the things I’ve flogged as my favorite works in the past; The Dresden Files, Stargate: SG-1, Slayers, Castle, Sluggy Freelance, Order of the Stick, etc, you’ll notice that I love the long runners with plenty of continuity; stories that take the time to build themselves and their world up rather than dumping a lot out in exposition or simply not having a lot of complexity in the first place.
I also find it particularly rewarding when a story rewards you for sticking with it and remembering all that lore by making it important or at least relevant later on down the line.
This, I lay mostly at the feet of the 90’s X-men animated series, which was the first cartoon I was ever exposed to that had plots that continued on from episode to episode. That’s fairly common now, and it’s almost universal now to at least have little nods and recollections of previous episodes where appropriate, but I was coming up in a time of the highly episodic fare like Eek! The Cat (The entire series is on YouTube!), Bobby’s World, and Life With Louie where that wasn’t a thing that happened. If you wanted to follow X-men, your ass had better be on the couch that Saturday or you would have no idea why Morph was alive again, or where the hell that firebird thing came from.
In addition, I tend to fall in love with characters and settings and don’t particularly want to see them fall into limbo just because the story is over. There are more than a few stories that frustrate me to no end because they’re over and we’ll never going to see their like again. You might remember my mention of The 10th Kingdom in my ‘under-appreciated‘ article, but there are way more than that. There is, of course, Firefly but at least that got 13 episodes, a movie and comics. Let’s talk about my favorite movie no one else loved, Green Hornet.
Seth Rogan has gone on record saying that a sequel is not in the cards, which means we’ve only got that ninety minutes of what I think were excellent characters and a great premise. Sometimes that’s enough (Just the one Billy Madison movie was good enough for me; even though I love the film [and own it], there really isn’t anywhere else to go), but for movies like Green Hornet, it is far from it.
A point of maddening frustration for me because of this is the Japanese standard of doing anime series in 13 or 26 episodes and done. I don’t know about you, but I’m still hungry for more Cowboy Bebop, Rune Soldier Louie, and Kaze no Stigma. I suppose it’s balanced out by manga that go on for-freaking-ever. I thought Love Hina was mammoth for approaching thirty volumes, but that’s nothing compared to Bleach, which if my calculations are correct, will take up more paper than actually exists in the Eastern Hemisphere by the time it ends.
Anyway, those three are big, highly abstract things I like, but my intention for this article is more along the lines of what TVTropes.org calls author appeal, where they talk about thing the author likes to include in their stories, like Tarantino’s creepy ultra-violence fetish, or his even more creepy foot fetish.
I’m… going to keep anything creepifying off the blog though and just go on about…
I’m… not a dog person. I was bitten as a kid, which probably explains it, but I’m also kind of uncomfortable with the whole ‘allowing a large predator to share your home’ deal. I’m not a fan of smaller dogs either, but that’s largely because of this paranoia I had as a kid of the bigger ones snapping and reacting if I looked at them funny.
These days I’m not really afraid of dogs as much as not in favor of them hanging around me, but those childhood fears stay with you at least in memory and so when I try and think of the biggest, scariest SOB (pun totally intended), it usually takes the form of a big dog with all the ‘man’s best friend’ good PR stripped off and all the ‘murder demon’ bad PR wolves (undeservedly) get put in.
And really, a dog is not a bad chassis to build a monster on. They’re fast, can learn, and most importantly when I think of monsters, can get anywhere a human can try to hide from them. Add in nice, sharp teeth, a tendency to latch on and wrestle prey to the ground, pack hunting, and claws that are always out (am I seriously the only person that notices that?), and you’ve got yourself a head start on your killing machine.
Hence, the inugami, who add being heavily armored and directed by a malevolent intelligence (or just Bill the lab tech) to the mix on top of various superpowers. I honestly think comic writers don’t give Krypto enough credit. Yes, being Superman’s mutt makes him the quintessential Good Dog, but just like Supes, that doesn’t mean he won’t beat your ass if you need it. Also, unlike Superman, he’s got built-in slashing and piercing weapons (let me just put the mental image of a bite backed with super-strength in you head) and really not enough mental faculties to pull his punches. In short, a super dog will mess you up.
Over in Rune Breaker, we also had the hailene hounds. In the original game the book was based on, they were actually a type of Kaydan demon called Kaydan Fangs. Either way,t he deal with these things are that they’re not just animals, they’re wholly malevolent. I’m not sure if people understand my thinking here, but I find things far scarier if they want to hurt you badly and leave you in agony instead of simply killing you.
And finally, we have the new inugami strain introduced in the latest volume of The Descendants, the barghests. Their deal isn’t so much that they have powers as that they’re infiltrators. Like I said before, part of the thing I was bugged about was that people allow big predators into their homes, then routinely let their guard down around them. The barghest poses the question of ‘what if Fido decided he had enough of you or worse, got a better off from someone who doesn’t have your best interests at heart?’ Creepy? You better believe it.
Sweet dreams, dog lovers. 😉
Recreational Power Use
I’ve mentioned here before how much I loved those moments in X-men when they would play baseball or basketball or something and use their powers. It’s a minor tragedy that those kinds of things don’t happen that often in comics now. Everyone seems to be set on using their powers for combat or survival these days.
That doesn’t make sense to me, especially in the context of so many comic book universes turning most of their characters into damaged, dysfunctional assholes in the name of making them ‘more realistic. Just stop and think about that a moment, will you? If you had superpowers… say telekinesis that was about at strong as you are physically. Ignore the question of if you would fight or cause crime with it (of course you would) and ask yourself: would you not use that power at every opportunity to make your life easier?
That’s why I’m always happy to see Wolverine fixing a sandwich by slicing meat and bread with his claws, and why it always kind of bugs me when Jean Grey bothers to use a doorknob like a chump instead of TKing the door open or worse climbing stairs when she can levitate. [Admittedly, she could do it to keep in shape, but still…]
Sometimes the ‘rules’ of the series will prohibit this kind of thing and actively disallow power use for personal gain, convenience or profit, punishing the heroes for trying, or simply not allowing the powers to work for anything other than ‘heroing’. Charmed as much as I love it for having Alyssa Milano and Holly Marie Combs, is a particularly big offender when it comes to this, magic seeming to warp to the most horrible manner possible for minor transgressions.
Personally, I don’t go in for that. I’m not a fan of some higher arbiter with a hand on the throttle of a character’s powers. Instead, I just like them being… people… with their abilities and getting the rewards and punishments that fit their actions.
The Descendants is chock full of this, of course, from Warrick cooking with the help of the twins, to Cyn using her shapeshifting to make hand puppets and clothing (I’ll confirm it here: while Cyn buys clothes, she only buys them to copy their design and texture [because she isn’t very creative on her own]. 90% of the series, she generated whatever she’s wearing herself, much like Mystique.), and Alexis’s disastrous adventures in cooking with black heat.
In addition to adding some actual realism, I feel that this kind of thing adds to characterization when you really get into what people end up doing with their powers and how casually they use them. I think it really said something to show Alexis flying for the sheer joy of flying for the first time in ears.
On a related note…
Creative Power Use
Very early in Joss Whedon’s run on Astonishing X-men, there is a scene that made me forgive him for including Cyclops in the cast (for a little bit). Faced with a disable team and a room full of baddies, Rogue uses her ability to absorb other people’s powers and takes Cyclops’s eye beams and Emma Frost’s ability to turn into diamond, then fires a beam through her diamond-shifted hand to hit everyone in the room in one go.
It was my favorite moment from the whole run.
You see, it is really easy for a writer of a story involving a lot of powers to get into a rut. Strong guys pick up handy cars and throw them, blasters blast, psychics try and force people to surrender, ice uses make the floor slippery or encase people, etc. And it makes sense in-universe: if you’re fighting people in life or death situations, it’s best to have a plan, have tactics you know well and stick to them.
However, and this is a rule I want to punch into every writer and RPG fan’s face, fiction is not reality and it should be allowed to flaunt that whenever it serves the greater purposes of story, character or theme and/or to improve the reader’s experience.
That last one is the thing. Sure, it makes all kinds of sense to have the hero limit themselves to a range of techniques like I mentioned above, but who the hell wants to watch that? It gets boring seeing the same thing over and over. Power creativity is the remedy here and not only that, but if properly deployed, it can also dish up some of that spectacle I was talking about earlier.
I’ve noticed that tech-based heroes, probably by virtue of the idea of ‘upgrading’ get to do this a lot more than anyone else. Iron Man has an armor for any occasion, for example, and Spider-man has developed a lot of different tricks with webbing.
Sadly, despite Rogue getting the crowning moment of it, most characters with ‘natural’ powers don’t do this often. I’m not certain why this is. Maybe the idea that they’re born with these powers makes it hard for some writers to conceive of them figuring out new ways of using them or something. There are some exceptions like Kitty Pride, or my personal favorite X-man, Gambit (though his ingenuity with his powers varies massively from writer to writer), but they’re few and far between.
I’ve tried to put emphasis on this in The Descendants, what with power creativity even being a class the Academy and later the Liedecker Institute teach. It’s also why you see a lot of Descendants supplementing their powers with tech, which leads me to the last of my favorite things I’ll talk about this week:
Mixing Power Sources
You know one of the (many) things that sucked about X-men 3? That Juggernaut was just this random strong dude (almost exactly like Bane from Batman and Robin) and not the chosen scion of the Crimson Gem of Cytorak and thus incredibly badass.
You know one of the (many) sad things about the Spider-man movie franchise? No matter how many unnecessary reboots we get, Mysterio will never be on the menu for baddies because there is not magic or reason to believe in it and therefore, all of his possible impact is gone.
You know what one of the (many) awesome things about The Avengers is? That a gamma-powered brute, a genuine super soldier, a man in high tech battle armor, and a freaking Norse god (and also an arrow guy and Scarlet Johannssen) came together to fight a half-giant and a horde of aliens. Hell. Yes.
I hear all the time from fellow pop culture consumers about how audiences are too dumb to understand that magic and super-science and mutants can all exist in the same universe. To them, I point them toward two movies that made so much money that the director of one is funding his own company IN SPACE! (the exclamation is part of it, like SCIENCE!): the aforementioned The Avengers, and Avatar, a movie with biological robots, giant floaty gunships, a planetary god and freaking dragons.
Trust me, audiences are fully aware that multiple power sources exist. It’s just that studios are too cowardly to put them all together.
Me? I love it. I suspect that it’s that aspect of comic books that drew me to it and the fact that steampunk titles often include magic into the mix that draws me to that as well. Something about there being multiple sources and approaches to powers appeals to me by making the world seem more organic than if all powers came from a single source or event.
In the Descendants, I take this a step further. Reasoning that not all ‘natural’ (descendant) superpowers would come out ready to use because mutation does not work that way, I enjoy featuring characters who augment or supplement their powers with tech/magic (we haven’t seen magic used for this yet, but we will) like Wartorn or launch, or those whose descendant powers just aren’t that overtly useful so they turn to other means like the Whitecoat, who has super-immunity, but fights crime with his freak lab accident powers and tech he made himself.
We also have another one of my favorite things, magitech (which will have to wait until my next need for
Over in Liedecker Institute, you [spoiler warning] might have noticed that there is a new wrinkle emerging: the possibility that some descendants gained their powers through magical experimentation rather than scientific.
Anime is full of this kind of thing, as I feel the Japanese met the idea of creative restraint at one point, but has since lost It’s number, but this is one of those things I wish we saw more in all media (instead of boring-ass superheroes with the power of guns). There is just such a variety of combinations in power sources that we shouldn’t waste that potential.
With all that said, I’d like to encourage everyone who can (because I can’t >:( ) to go out and see Pacific Rim this weekend. As it has oh-so-many of my favorite things in it, I’m really hoping it makes a ton of money so the studios try to shamelessly rip it off over the next few years, thereby giving me all the quality entertainment I can handle.
All the Oscars.
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You can check in on what Vaal’s working on or just what’s on his mind by following @ParadoxOmni on Twitter, or using the hashtags #TheDescendants or #RuneBreaker. You can also browse books by Vaal by visiting his Author Page on Amazon.com.
Vaal’s latest book, The Path of Destruction (Rune Breaker, #3) is now available on Amazon.com.
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