Friday, March 25, 2011

The Peculiar Olympians: Khisanth

“The Peculiar Olympians” is a series of blog posts about my most favourite fictional characters. They are each here for some combination of sympathy, empathy, inspiration, humour, quality, staying power, and/or significance to my relationship with fandom. These are not all the characters that I like, but they are the ones that have stood out to me the most. The list is also alphabetical and nothing more.

I’ve loved dragons since before I can remember, but I can also be extremely picky about them. Usually I’m not interested in saintly magical companions or creatures of absolute evil, and keep hunting for something a little bit more interesting.

However, it’s surprisingly easy for me to pick just one dragon character as my favourite: Khisanth, from the novel The Black Wing by Mary Kirchoff. She’s from the Dragonlance series of books, which I know are mostly drivel, but Khisanth’s portrayal is that kind of happy cosmic accident that Peculiar Olympians are sometimes made of.

Khisanth is a black-scaled dragon, which in this setting means she is greedy and impulsive, breathes green acid, and prefers swampy, wet areas. She is the offspring of Takhisis, the Queen of Darkness, along with four other chromatic dragon breeds. Khisanth was at some point ordered to go underground and sleep after her Queen’s defeat in a war, waking up an adult, after which she wandered the world and had several adventures, before being exiled to an underground city to guard a magical artifact.

Khisanth, a.k.a. Onyx, is far better known as the minor antagonist that appeared in the first Dragonlance novel, Dragons of Autumn Twilight. In that book, she is an utterly generic villain, easily dispatched through the touch of a magical staff that turns her to ash, the same one she was to guard. The Black Wing is then a prequel, written by a different author, though it was years before I understood this, having completely avoided the founding Dragonlance books in favour of reading stories about dragons.

Normally these conditions would be several kisses of death to a book’s quality, but what emerges instead is a new take on a generic fantasy world, told through the viewpoint of an evil minion, one who is a tragic but also aggravatingly stupid anti-hero. Khisanth in the book has a personality that’s a combination of a spoiled child and a sadist carnivore, but manages to be sympathetic because she is capable of forming friendships, and does not directly serve evil until the final third of the book. Even then, because it’s from her viewpoint and before the latest war truly begins, it’s harder to see her as a mere villain.

Furthermore, Khisanth’s life is horrible. She regularly makes huge mistakes and never learns from them, and in the end fate throws her together with a human that she despises, one who murdered Khisanth’s friend and comrade because he felt Khisanth was a more worthy dragon. This is an assignment which she eventually breaks in the worst way, killing the man when she is sure that history is about to repeat itself. Yet Khisanth continually believes that she has a great destiny in store for herself. Readers who have read the original novel know exactly what is in store for Khisanth, and that tinges The Black Wing with a sense of clumsy tragedy.

Khisanth is my ideal dragon character because she operates between two extremes. She is like the “monstrous” dragon in terms of power, but instead of being a plot device, something saved for the climax, she is a protagonist. Unlike the saintly companion dragon, she actually has flaws, and in a subversive twist, refuses to have a rider until fate intervenes. Furthermore, with humans to contrast herself against, she retains some dragon grandeur, rather than being a talking animal as in some dragon-viewpoint books. Thus far, none of the professional and original dragon characters that I’ve read have managed to achieve this kind of potent mixture. Part of me does wish something  like Khisanth emerged in an original work, but I’m usually content to accept what it is.

Wednesday, March 9, 2011

The Peculiar Olympians: Sir Integral “Integra” Fairboork Wingates Hellsing

“The Peculiar Olympians” is a series of blog posts about my most favourite fictional characters. They are each here for some combination of sympathy, empathy, inspiration, humour, quality, staying power, and/or significance to my relationship with fandom. These are not all the characters that I like, but they are the ones that have stood out to me the most. The list is also alphabetical and nothing more.

It’s another conundrum: how do you stretch “She’s awesome” and “this is another cliché” into a full blog entry? Unlike many characters on this list, my interest in Sir Integral Hellsing was sharp and immediate, and there is little about my feelings towards Integral that really sticks out among her legions of fans.

Descended from supernatural expert Abraham Van Helsing, Sir Integral Hellsing carries on the family tradition of heading the Hellsing Organisation, a group dedicated to the destruction of England's supernatural enemies. She inherited the mantle at age twelve, having to thwart an assassination attempt by her usurper uncle by finding underground the "fruits of the Hellsing family's labours", the vampire Alucard (spell the name backwards). Sir Integral Hellsing will stop at nothing to achieve her goals.

In Integra I could see the things I understood, such as female-centred androgyny (which means having a definite and matching physical and psychological gender but not bound by the old rules of how one of said gender should act), glasses, and deskwork. In addition, I saw what people universally covet in our heroes: emotional strength and control, steely nerves. There is something about a stoic female character, standing tall and serene, eternally ready, which I admire intensely.

Granted, Sir Integra is religious and patriotic while I am neither of these things, and as the manga progresses she engages in increasingly vicious behaviours in the name of her duties. Yet because Integra doesn't exist, there's no moral objection to admiring a character that isn't entirely clean or would likely disagree with me on certain matters. Besides, good heroes should have flaws, even if they are flaws that make the character actually "bad" on some levels instead of simply making them more approachable or giving them dilemmas to solve.

I first encountered Integra through the TV anime adaptation of Hellsing, which was one of those works that seems great until you review it more deeply and then make the inevitable comparisons with the original manga. My interest in the Gonzo-produced anime has been eroded down to a persistent nub, but this is still where I discovered Integra. She’s not that different in the manga but a secret part of me is still drawn to the Gonzo anime’s slightly more cool-headed and stoic characterization of Integra, at least in the early parts, before she is a cripple for the remainder of the show. And then there’s that snazzy green suit/blue ascot combo which is still striking to the eye. All of this lingers pleasantly in my memory even though I am a Hellsing manga die-hard.

Friday, March 4, 2011

Did You Catch the Fever? Flying Towards the Moon?

In addition to the Peculiar Olympians series, I have to make a confession that can’t wait: I’ve become one of those people who’s fallen for the multi-age, multi-demographic, bi-gendered appeal of the new My Little Pony cartoon, My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic. My interest is nowhere near as strong as the pony die-hards, and I’m still surprised at what has befallen the internet, but nonetheless, here I am.

It started with this thread on the forums for the Transformers fansite The Allspark. New converts literally hyped this show as Pixar-level and the best show of the new cartoon season, and soon an avalanche started. It was mostly of .gifs, screengrabs, and avatars, but with a lot of earnest episode and toy discussion, too.

Always in the market for a good cartoon, and having a love of bright, colourful objects and the increasing ability to appreciate traditional cuteness, I sampled Friendship is Magic several times, and for a while didn’t quite “get” it. I saw plenty of material for funny image macros, but the show itself seemed like a wafer-thin layer of eccentricity over a stereotypical girls’ cartoon.

But I returned to the show again and again, because it sounded so much like something I would like. Sometimes I felt like an investigator, trying to find out what had made these ponies so exciting to other nerds, and why it didn’t click with me despite my being open to it.

Slowly FiM started creeping up on me, even when I was beginning to feel like it wouldn’t. Before I knew it, it had a lock on me; I feel like I’ve been hypnotized. I started watching out of order, and am still trying to fill in some gaps in my viewing history. The one that really sold me was “The Ticket Master”, which is really odd, because it’s a very standard plot, but the way the characters act out the plot is hilarious.

I now have two Pony figures on my desk; one tiny PVC, and one slightly larger one with hair. Both represent the same character, the very unfortunately-named Twilight Sparkle. She’s the nominal protagonist of Friendship is Magic, a bookish, serious unicorn pony. She was the obvious choice.

However, I don’t feel that Friendship is Magic quite lives up to the hype. I really want  to see this show as being on the level of the illustrious things it’s been compared to, and start of a renaissance for girls’ animation, but I just can’ t.

One reason is that no matter how quirky and fun it can be, this show still indulges in a lot of explicit moralizing. Twilight is often seen writing seen writing notes to
her mentor Princess Celestia about what she learned about friendship in the episode, and when she isn’t, the morals of the episode are pretty explicit anyway. There are no PSAs at the end, but there’s just about it.

The fact that it’s the girls’ cartoon that’s indulging in the transparent moralizing says a lot, and none of it good. Perhaps there is a feeling that girls are in more need of being taught virtues, or that animation targeted to girls remains stuck in a bygone era, while the rest of the cartoon world is now more apt to make fun of explicit moralizing.

I shouldn’t be surprised, given the series’ subtitle and that it’s a My Little Pony show, but explicit moralizing in stories is something I just don’t like. Most stories do indeed take moral stances, but such stances are made clear through the events of the story, without stopping to talk about it.

Secondly, the show is episodic. Episodic shows aren’t a bad thing in themselves, but when the series is held up as something groundbreaking, to see it episodic just reminds me that most girls’ shows are like that. There is a definite double standard involved when nerds of both genders much more easily accept boys’ properties to follow, but one aspect is that boys’ properties more often try for some kind of story arc and overreaching mythology (usually failing until recently), or are more likely to have a subversive sense of humour. Many cartoons that challenge the possibilities of American animation (in a certain way), while they may come up with great female characters, are also targeted to boys.

So the reason I feel a bit guilty about enjoying Friendship is Magic is that it seems in a weird way like supporting that dichotomy, that boy’s cartoons are not only more violent, but they’re also more developed. It’s the same reason I feel a bit odd for enjoying Monster High which is also subject to similar claims of mould-breaking that I don’t entirely agree with.

On the other side of things, I feel a little guilty about feeling guilty, since I may be trying to put too much on Friendship is Magic’s tiny shoulders, and Lauren Faust seems to have designed the show to address complaints about girls’ cartoons.

Yet this is the best set of explanations for why I find Friendship is Magic to be a guilty pleasure, even though I’m not the Internet Tough Guy who finds himself squeeing over ponies. (I’m not even male!)

If this is all true, than what does Friendship is Magic have? Well, you can’t underestimate the desire to give an A for effort. Friendship is Magic may not completely tear down the wall for girls’ cartoons, but it does do it, and in such a wasteland, effort should be rewarded. In the same vein, nor can you dismiss the fact that it’s much less treacly than you would expect from an MLP cartoon.

In fact, it’s not that treacly, period. Everything I’ve said about the moralizing is still true, but much of the rest of the cartoon feels very natural, very normal. The series is not trying too hard to present itself as sweet or nice. It certainly is, but in a very organic way that won’t make your teeth rot.

The animation is pretty to look at, with a lot of appealing character design and fluid movement, and I’m still fond of animation that uses simplistic character designs but gives them weight and depth. There’s also some hilarious slapstick and wonderful comic timing.

As others have mentioned, the main pony characters all have distinct personalities, and the characterization is pretty good. I’d hesitate to call them “multifaceted” as some are doing, but you could never mistake one pony for another.

My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic is also earnest. I do have a love of fourth-wall-breaking humour and snarky lampshade hanging, but it’s oversaturated, with only the greatest of the greatest shows being able to keeping pulling off this kind of mockery well. FiM doesn’t keep winking at the audience, or try to be hip and self-aware. It just presents itself as it is, which is very nice.

So yes, I like the ponies. I like the ponies. I like the ponies.