Monday, September 26, 2011

The Sad, Tortured Little Audience

I've become one of those fans who dislikes a canon and wishes it were different. Before that, I was someone who followed the absolute word of a creator or creators of a work,  seeing it as the primary thing above all else, and was totally happy to do it. Fannish works were fun indulgences, but there was still a hierarchy involved.

And after wrestling with the feelings brought about by this change, I still believe this. No matter how much literary theory I read, the creators will always be above the fans, and the ideal state is for a creator to do what they want, without worrying about pleasing the fans. Fans are free to imagine their own versions of things, and can offer any criticism, but it does not exist on the same level as the original work. Creative ownership is paramount, even when I dislike what results.

Thus, I have a boundary: a fan can say anything they want against a creator's work and actions, imagine any alternative scenario they wish, but when they start to say that fans own a work, that the creator must obey them, their arguments lose all value.

Naturally, this makes this entire George Lucas/Star Wars debacle fascinating to watch. I know there's nothing in the middle of the road but yellow lines and dead possums, but I find things to hate on both sides of the debate.

Before the boundary was crossed, I agreed with the disgruntled Star Wars fans. Yeah, what Lucas has been doing with Star Wars sucks on a lot of levels: he keeps tweaking the original work, and refuses to release the originals in the same good quality that the Special Editions and the other films and cuts have been. He uses excessive CGI, his scene alterations usually make things worse, and he’s apparently a terrible writer when unfettered by editing or collaborators willing to disagree. It’s just so easy for me to buy into the image of Lucas as a vain dude surrounded by yes-men and piles of money, who tries to frame everything as a grand and considered part of his vision.

But when the cry comes down that Lucas has done so much damage to the Star Wars franchise that it ought to be taken away from him for its own good, I come to side with Lucas, however grudgingly. The same is true for claims that Star Wars is now “bigger” than Lucas, and thus he has to take the millions of fans into consideration as well. That’s when the line is crossed.

Refusing to offer a good release of the theatrical Star Wars cuts is just being rude, nothing more, and nothing less. To offer that coveted release would simply be the nice thing, something for Lucas to do out of the kindness of his heart (or a desire to add to his money bin). Yet like all good deeds, the choice to do them rests on the one who could do it. Lucas apparently won’t, and that’s his prerogative.

This notion of ownership is of such concern because, while I am a nerd, but I also have aspirations of production. Although I make those little vows never to go back and remake my own work, to always push forward and try something new, I keep asking myself, “How would I feel if fans started to say my work should be taken away from me, because they disagreed with its direction? Pretty damn sad.” I want to claim possession of something I made, I want it to be mine. It’s satisfying. By all means, discuss the direction and connotations of a work, but don’t grant equal shares of ownership to everyone who’s ever invested themselves in a text.

While severing Lucas from Star Wars may seem different than demanding an author put a fan-favourite couple together, or give their favourite character more scenes, they are all ultimately the same things. They all rely on the principle of “We own you”, and it’s not a statement that many authors want to hear. Creators are not gods, but they do have power. Fans can have that power when they make original works, but they shouldn’t have power over others’ work.

It’s true that the name of creator is not as simple as it appears, especially with films. Many people were involved in making Star Wars the phenomenon it is, and I believe them when they say that Lucas needed the input of other people to produce something refined—that is true of all artists, because even novelists have editors. Yet the subjects related to the notion of a "creator" are so fascinating and so integral that it’s not worth it to give up idea that works of art have creators whose actions are worth paying attention to. Lucas and others need to exist as a focal point when discussing their works. The author could be dead, but never buried. Therefore, name Lucas as the originator above all else, because he generated the ideas that would become Star Wars.

And yet he can is what I always come back to. If Lucas wants to keep doing those things, he can. He doesn’t owe it to anyone to stop. To feel this way is not passivity: it is simply giving Lucas his due as a man who has made something. And because he is, he can do what he wants, even if it means being a rude bastard.

Saturday, September 17, 2011

The Peculiar Olympians: Shizuku Tsukishima

“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.

Like most anime nerds, I worship at the Church of Ghibli. And yet I find that among all the iconic films produced by the studio, the one that stands out the most to me is a relatively obscure work, one not headed by the giant Hayao Miyazaki, though he did have some notable involvement. Yoshifumi Kondo’s Whisper of the Heart is a story that resonates, a coming-of-age tale made for a different sort of child than usual.

This different child is Shizuku Tsukishima, a girl who loves to read and finds beauty in the mundane, for whom even discovering a new shop is an adventure. Her eternal sense of wonder is charming and uplifting, and she also dreams of becoming a fantasy writer. She’s the kind of kid I wish I was, though in some ways I am.

Shizuku is a junior high school student who finds that every time she takes out a book, the same person took it out just before her: Seiji Amisawa (using library cards as a plot point dates the story, but is no large issue). Seiji turns out to be a boy of her own age, with aspirations of becoming a violin maker. He could be going to Cremona, Italy, to learn the trade instead of high school.

Shizuku, feeling inadequate in light of Seiji’s drive, resolves to write her first novel before he decides whether to leave. In doing so, Shizuku neglects her schoolwork and possibly her future, but gradually comes around. She needs to wait to get good, as she and Seiji will wait for each other, and get married when he comes back from Italy--after high school, since Seiji has also compromised.

I fell in love with this film upon first viewing, and each time I watch it, I love it even more. There are flaws, certainly, but Shizuku resonates so much with who I was, who I am, and who I wished to be, that her place in my personal character canon is doubtless. Shizuku’s story also remains grounded: for all Shizuku’s dreamy and sometimes melodramatic nature, which the film does not condemn, Whisper of the Heart reminds viewers that one needs to work to follow their dreams, and there will be obstacles and heartache. It’s a bold statement, and one that does not detract from the film’s sweet nature, but merely adds a new dimension to it. Pragmatism will not be confused with cynicism, and it only sweetens idealism when combined with it.

Of course, Whisper of the Heart did not begin as a film, but instead as a manga by Aoi Hiiragi. I don’t usually say this (and feel a bit guilty when it’s a male-headed film versus a female-headed comic), but I enjoyed the film adaptation far more, because Yoshifumi Kondo, the director, and Miyazaki, the screenwriter, added greater dramatic tension and more focus on Shizuku and Seiji’s artistic pursuits.

In the original comic, Shizuku’s main concern is whether Seiji loves her or her older sister, a product of the standard romantic misunderstandings. In the film, Shizuku’s conflict is more layered and distinct, and Seiji is much less of a jerk. Her bookish aspects still exist in the manga, and she’s still an appealing character, but Shizuku’s manga story does not touch upon the conflict involved in being a creative person who is just beginning to write. That’s not to say I dislike the manga—I certainly like it a lot, and it’s a shame that Viz never published an official translation in English. The film is, however, what I prefer.

Instead, much of the English market’s attention goes to The Cat Returns, which is a sort-of spinoff from Whisper of the Heart in that it re-uses some of the original film’s feline characters (the dapper cat-doll Baron and the fat cat Muta), re-imagined as sapient fantasy creatures. Perhaps it is one of Shizuku’s stories, but without Shizuku herself, and her own story, I’m not interested at all in The Cat Returns. In fact, I’m a bit jealous that its manga was translated, and so was a storybook, while Whisper of the Heart was comparatively neglected.

Monday, September 12, 2011

Julia Phelps

I’ve bought more girls’ toys in the past couple of years since...ever, and that includes my actual childhood. The natural culprit is My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic, but just as that show began making waves outside the target little-girl demographic, Monster High was making something of the same headway. There’s been no explosion of guy nerds or notably visible fandom interest in Monster High, but there’s still the feeling that this is another little girls’ property that has made more nerd headway than I usually see.

My relationship with girls’ toys is complicated. I’ve come to realize that fandoms do exist in the same way for girls’ American cartoons as they do for boys’ ones, but I still find that things targeted towards boys have more appeal to me. Not necessarily in that they’re more “butch”, but they tend to have storylines with more conflict and more firmly rooted in fantasy and science fiction, all of which I prefer. Femininity needs to be respected, but it also needs to be said that storyline types shouldn’t be gendered, and that stories with conflict and non-saccharine fantasy aren’t necessarily masculine things. I still can’t shake the feeling that the parameters for female entertainment are actually narrower than those for male, and it’s not just a matter of what women like being automatically disrespected.

Anyway, I know that its high school setting dooms it to a more domestic conflict, but it still bothers me that Monster High’s adventures usually have little to do with the fact that the characters are monsters. I also still consider the positive qualities of Monster High to be overrated: it’s not that much more developed or daring than most other girls’ toylines, and to call it such depends on a far too pessimistic vision of what girls’ toys promote. Girl’s toys have always been about friendship and “being yourself”, and only try to promote a narrow female ideal through unspoken means.

Just as with FiM, my primary focus was on a nerdy female character. My favourite character in the toyline is undoubtedly zombie girl Ghoulia Yelps. I don’t like zombies as a monster genre: I just see them as dull and gross. However, Mattel keeps making me adore Ghoulia, who started out as the smartest kid in the cast and is now portrayed as a bona fide nerd.

I’m always drawn to the intellectual characters, and Ghoulia, being a zombie, can only speak in groans of various pitches. It’s an appealing and funny contrast between her intelligence and her physical mannerisms, as well as the expectations of zombie smarts. There’s a further joke about a zombie being “brainy”, which the doll manufacturers have been playing up by putting brain patterns onto her latest outfits.

Besides this small cleverness, Ghoulia is also the closest the cast has to an actual female grotesque. While Monster High bills itself as being about “freaky being cool”, naturally the characters are still designed to be mostly human and attractive, with small features like odd ears or skin tones, or tiny fangs--although to the series’ credit, it mostly goes for handsome male monsters, too (mostly). Ghoulia, however, has a twisted spine, shuffling legs and her mouth often hanging open, with the occasional thousand-yard stare or twisted smile; in one cartoon short, a fly comes from her mouth. Her toy likenesses eliminate these tells, and she isn’t really that “monstrous” at all (and as if to make up for it, her “boyfriend” character is probably the ugliest one), but I like to give some props to the fact.

In her own way Ghoulia still has a great character design, one of those whose colour and shape immediately strike the viewer as memorable, in ways they usually cannot define. I love most of Ghoulia’s outfits and the way her red and black and white clothing works with her blue colouring, even if her enormous platform heels still hurt to look at.

For the San Diego Comic Con, the Monster High exclusive toy was Ghoulia sporting some in-universe cosplay. She was dressed as the Flash-like Deadfast, a jokey play on zombie slowness. She had her own tiny fan-comic accessory and con badge, and it was enough to induce a sugar coma. Not enough to make me dig out my wallet to buy one, but thrilling enough that a girl’s toyline had considered such blatant displays of nerdery.

This continues outside of the SDCC exclusive, with the related web short “Daydream of the Dead”, in which the costumed Ghoulia imagines herself saving a rare comic at a convention. If Ghoulia were real and Deadfast fictional, we would all be crying “Mary ‘Sue!”, but because they’re both fictional, the story becomes cute instead.

Another toy release for Ghoulia was a set of extra clothes to dress one of her dolls in. Said set includes a tiny comic book, a Deadfast t-shirt, and a tiny action figure on a teensy blister card. It’s absolutely adorable, and is another purchase to add to my Monster High collection when it reaches Canada, even if I’ll have to rebuy a Ghoulia doll to dress her in it.

 In addition, there have been small hints throughout the franchise that horror nerds might be part of the process, in the form of little references and injokes. In Ghoulia’s case (the one I’ve paid the most attention to), her long hair and hairband may be reminiscent of Barbara from Night of the Living Dead, and her red and black outfit with musical decoration might be an oblique reference to “Thriller”. Her pose in the artwork for the “Dawn of the Dance” sub-line is also quite reminiscent of the Thriller Dance.

Kid’s toys don’t directly and malevolently slam intelligence, but girl’s toylines tend to push “normal” characters far harder, setting their premise in the real world and leaving them as ordinary humans. Who would have thought they would have gotten nerdiness so spot-on?

What is sadly not surprising, however, is that while Ghoulia is considered part of the main cast, “Daydream of the Dead” is the first time she has been the central character in a cartoon (“Cyrano de Ghoulia” doesn’t count, since the viewpoint characters actually were the rest of the cast who were helping her). It might just be because she can’t speak English and so would be harder to interpret without other characters to filter her words through, but it’s hard not to imagine that the world isn’t ready for a nerdy character as a lead, even if she is fashionably dressed and relatively conventionally beautiful. Thank goodness FiM had better luck with Twilight Sparkle.

I also like that she enjoys fast food and is best friends with Rich Bitch Cleo De Nile, and attracted to jock zombie Slow-Moe…it makes her a little bit different than other nerd characters, showing that Monster High isn’t quite so strongly bound to the weird American obsession with high school class divisions.

However, Ghoulia isn’t exactly a deep or resonating character; I’ve pretty much said all there is to know about her. There’s a lot of clever little jokes and a good character design, but that’s it. This ensures Ghoulia is confined strictly to the C-list. But it’s a good C.