Saturday, December 15, 2012

The Hobbit: Yes, I Loved It

I saw THE HOBBIT and I loved it. I'm saying that now because most people I know seem to be really polarized about it, and whether they liked it or not seems to in large part be based on a few very particular expectations. SO MANY SPOILERS AHEAD. You have been warned.

Expectation 1. That this would be an adaptation of the original book only, with no added materials that connect and contextualize it with LOTR (which, with 3 movies, was clearly never going to be the case. Jackson was also up front about this and discussed some of what would be added, so it shouldn't really be a surprise to anyone that it's not just a straight adaptation. I mean, LOTR wasn't, either.)

Expectation 2. A nostalgic and personal attachment to the story that led them to want "their" adaptation be what Jackson would tell, which makes it pretty impossible for Jackson to do much of anything right unless he ignored all of LOTR and what Tolkien actually wanted for the story. And even then, when you start wrapping up personal attachment in something, anyone else's version or interpretation of it will come up lacking.

Now, I'm not going to say anyone should like THE HOBBIT if they don't. We all have subjective preferences and sometimes things just don't click. That's the nature of stories and definitely the nature of adaptations. It's even more true when we're talking about a beloved book that so many people remember fondly from childhood.

That said, I want to explain why I do love it, and why for me personally it hit all the right notes. I don't want it to come across as fanier-than-thou, and I fully acknowledge that I'm the sort of Tolkien nerd who loves all the history, the appendices, the Silmarillion shout outs, and has not viewed THE HOBBIT as a separate entity from LOTR since I was about 8. And, to be frank, as an adult who recently re-read THE HOBBIT...I find it to be a highly flawed narrative with little to no characterization. The last 3rd of the book feels drastically different than the first 2/3rds, a lot of essential material and character motivation is left out until that last third, and it has a weird pace. It has great scenes, like the riddles with Gollum, but that's largely because Tolkien went back in after the first edition and fixed things because he had much more fully fleshed out his world and wanted it to be more integrated. He also established THE HOBBIT was originally Bilbo's recounting of the tale with severe omissions and even some outright lies, especially about The Ring and how he came by it. He only tells Gandalf the truth after some haranguing. You can look it up, Tolkien knew what he was doing. And before anyone argues that he "shouldn't" have wanted to change it...he did. Because he was a world-builder and epic storyteller and he wanted it all to matter. He was something of an obsessive consistency nut. In this case, he was right.

Beyond that, unless you've been reading the 1937 first edition version only, you've never read the THE HOBBIT that's not connected to LOTR. So, whether you personally like it or not, it's been connected to a larger and more "mature" narrative for a long time. And it had events happening concurrently and parallel it, that give it weight it otherwise wouldn't. A weight that the later events and tone of the book, to me, clearly indicate.

I've always thought THE HOBBIT was quite dark even with the quicker pace and levity. As dark as LOTR? No. But then, LOTR isn't as dark as The Silmarillion. The latter makes everything else look like a fun, sunnily lit romp. However, THE HOBBIT is full of things trying to eat our merry band, from trolls to goblins to spiders to a dragon. There's also Thorin's arc, which gets incredibly dark towards the end. There's some really complex stuff going on there, but it's a bit confusing because it has little context. Which the movie, by bringing in elements like the Arkenstone earlier, builds much more consistently. The book just drops that on you out of the blue, in the last act practically. It's a major point of contention between Thorin and Bilbo, Thorin and Gandalf, and nearly leads to a war between elves and dwarves. Thematically, that's not very "light-hearted".

Which brings me to characterization. Look, I love Tolkien. My dad read me THE HOBBIT when I was about 5 or so. And to a degree it's a "kids" book...with darker subject matter than you might grasp at 5, but certainly will later. But as I mentioned earlier, it has issues. A big one is a lack of characterization for even main figures like Bilbo for quite awhile. And that really can't be swept away by saying it's "just a kids story". We all know many kids stories can be (and are) WAY better about that sort of thing. It's really because Tolkien was not yet the writer he became. So regardless of how much we may love it, in comparison to what he later achieved with LOTR and The Silmarillion, it's not even remotely as solid a story or world. The fact that he wanted to fix that later makes absolute sense to me, and the fact that he did some of it via "retcon" shouldn't be nearly so surprising to some fans.

By changing a few things, Jackson gave Bilbo a bit more agency up front (choosing to go on the quest instead of Gandalf basically shoving him out the door, figuring out he should maybe try stalling the trolls until daylight, coming to Thorin's defense). This makes his arc as a character more believable because he does have some of these positive traits already. They just need to be brought out by the circumstances. He starts out fussy, with glimmers of risk-taking and cleverness. Which come up again later in various circumstances (trolls, Gollum, spiders, barrel ride, Smaug, info via thrush to Dale, they all build toward each other). That's how you work a character arc.

Likewise, opening with just how dangerous and deadly Smaug is gives context to what the dwarves lost and shows us just how nutty their quest is. This dragon laid -waste- to them. They could die. In fact, they probably will, because there are 13 of them (and one hobbit)  and they're going up against a DRAGON. With that history we now know Thorin feels obligated to make things better for his people and that dwarves might be just a little bit crazy. I mean, in LOTR the only dwarf we get to know is Gimli. THE HOBBIT allows us to find out that they're all a little mad, but also that they -matter- to this world beyond Gimli's lack of running skills and quaffing. I can't help but think that's a good thing. And certainly something Tolkien would have approved of.

This is also the reason I was very happy to see the White Council scene. Mostly because I just want more Galadriel, but also because what happens with the Necromancer is pretty important in explaining why Gandalf basically effs off and lets the dwarves flail around in Mirkwood and deal with a dragon all by themselves. Which otherwise seems pretty weird. At least now we'll know he had a pretty good effing reason to do so, and deal with more of what leads up to LOTR which is the "big" story, like it or not. And in any case, it already exists as film adaptations.

To me, THE HOBBIT is structured not all that dissimilarly to FOTR. It begins with backstory about the dwarves rather than Galadriel recounting Sauron and the Last Alliance. It moves into Bilbo and Frodo on the day of the party, with Bilbo deciding he should maybe write down the REAL story instead of the altered one he clearly told Frodo. Not unlike how he then moved into talking about hobbits and their less than wise or great status in the world. After that it leads into the quest at hand, gives both Thorin and Bilbo solid arcs within this installment, that will lend themselves to their overall arcs. Gandalf gets a bit less there because his arc is for the way long haul, but even he is less sure than he is in FOTR, and obviously way less than when he becomes Gandalf the White.

The reality is, no one should be surprised that Jackson adapted THE HOBBIT this way. He adapted LOTR, he couldn't just ignore that or pretend THE HOBBIT was some separate thing with no context or parallel events. The fact that he took so much time to line them up is actually a testament to how much he values the work, the stories, and Tolkien.

The other thing is, Jackson couldn't make THE HOBBIT after LOTR and not have to consider a myriad of viewers. Those who may not be familiar with any of it, those who may only be familiar with THE HOBBIT, those who have read and watched LOTR and read THE HOBBIT, and those who have only watched LOTR. He gambled on including more context and story because I think that's the way he personally prefers the stories, and because Tolkien provided a great deal of the material, so the amount of "added" stuff isn't actually a stretch. And because that allows it to gel more thoroughly with LOTR. Which is obviously going to work or not work for you. He couldn't have made a film version for "everyone" because there's no such thing. When your'e adapting a work you are making choices and no two people will agree with some, most, or even any. At a certain point you can't worry about that, you have to just go with what you think is best and hope most people will go along for the ride.

The reason I'm not being nitpicky about story changes in THE HOBBIT is because I'd have to go and do that to LOTR. And to be honest, I like the story changes he made in THE HOBBIT. They work for me. They give me more characterization, more history, more context, more cohesion. There's a structured narrative that's building towards an end goal. There are actual personalities to relate to.

I mean, in THE HOBBIT, the troll scene exists pretty much exclusively to get Thorin, Bilbo, and Gandalf elf blades that glow blue. In the book, because Gandalf fixes the problem by throwing his voice, it serves no real narrative or character purpose, other than that Bilbo is a really crap burglar. In the film we see Bilbo being at least slightly clever and Thorin & co get to be brave and then quarrelly dwarves. Gandalf still saves the day, but we get some personality quirks and relationships established. Frankly, that's better use of a scene as storytelling.

I guess, at the end of it, I get that this version of THE HOBBIT may be so different than what some people wanted/expected that it just won't work for them. In my mind it's important to put your expectations aside when you view an adapt, but I don't mean that as a judgment, or to imply anyone who doesn't like the movie is stupid. That would be absurd. Liking something is entirely subjective, and as a hugely nerdy Tolkien fan, I am absolutely aware of my own lack of objectivity. But it's not because I'm just such a huge fan that I can't see flaws. If you get me going I'll tell you every nitpicky issue I have with some ROTK story choices in particular. Or the individual LINE changes that still drive me crazy (Galadriel's line in FOTR at the pool is "Things that are, things that were, and things that yet may be." NOT "things that have not yet come to pass". I will NEVER understand why it was changed to something so unwieldy when the original was simple and poetic).

For me, an adaptation works or does not work based on a bunch of factors. One of them being how closely it retains the "spirit" of the original creators work, even if it deviates hugely in how it shows that. LOTR, for instance, has a LOT of story deviations. Just as many as THE HOBBIT, actually, since a great deal of what's added in this is direct from Tolkien, and quite a bit of what was added or changed in LOTR was not. The results take the characters to more or less the same places narratively, they just take a bit of a deviated path to get there. You can see that "literally" in TTT when Faramir takes Frodo and Sam to Osgiliath and nearly turns them over to his father, something that didn't even come close to happening in the book. Or take the entirety of Denethor where, because they took out him having a Palantir, he becomes just an obnoxious lunatic, not a pathetic and damaged man whose mind has been corrupted by false information. Those are choices Jackson made, and whether I agree with them or not (to note: I agree with the Faramir one, not the Denethor one) the end results were still pretty close to what Tolkien wrote while maintaining the changes they needed to make the film work.

I've seen film adapts that are incredibly different from the source in terms of how the story is told, but equally viable. What's interesting about THE HOBBIT is that it's both true and not-true to the original. The parts that are directly from the novel are, obviously, "true" to it. But they add layer and depth that I personally think it desperately needed to be adapted to film, especially in the area of characterization and actions happening over more than a sentence.. The "added" material, which is somewhat tonally different, doesn't, for me, undermine the "spirit", however...because to do that you have to look at LOTR and what Tolkien was doing with the entirety of the Middle Earth tales he told. It simply doesn't exist as a separate entity, especially because there are already 3 films that established that world. Basically: you can't put the genie back in the bottle. Just because it's not a faithful retelling of the book doesn't make it "bad". It's actually a strong, cohesive narrative. I honestly and truly believe that it would have been way too incongruous and strange not to have given it this level of context.

Simply put: I believe Jackson made THE HOBBIT this way to acknowledge the depth and scope of the world the story exists in, the story it leads up to, and the importance of the story itself. Because it really isn't "just" a kids story or "just" a happy quest. It matters more than that, and I'm happy to see it filmed that way. If the other two are anything like it, I will be a very thrilled fan.

Monday, December 10, 2012

Dwarves, Dragons, & Incest : A Conversation on Tolkien

With THE HOBBIT coming out this week and my little hands happily grasping my super special early preview showing tickets, you would think there wasn't anything nerdier I could do than Tweet obsessively about it nearly ever day. YOU WOULD BE SO WRONG.

This is the conversation I had with my friend Christine who indulged me lovingly in my crazy. Because she's the best. Enjoy! Also: apparently I lost the ability not to curse a lot in this particular chat. Oops.


Christine:  I can't wait to hear what you think.

I saw some clips that were all awesomey with context and I died.

Christine:  hee!

me:  I am nerding the fuck out over it.

Christine:  as well you should

me:  Because it ties shit directly to Saruman starting to go bad, only Gandalf doesn't know that yet, and I was like OMFG I LOVE YOU PETER JACKSON.

Christine:  fuuun

me:  I'm especially happy because in rereading The Hobbit right now I'm like, yeah, boy howdy does this need more context.
Also: Thorin needed more character. Actually, that goes for EVERYONE in that book.

Christine:  can haz!

me:  I'm fucking STOKED about that.
And the historical context of the dwarves.
Because they're awesome.
And LOTR didn't really deal with any besides Gimli.
Which is fine, they're all off dealing with shit on their own turf.
The dwarves have the most AWESOME creation story, too.
Which Armitage TOTALLY ref'd in a bunch of interviews and then I was like, please stop being so amazing.

Christine:  ::giggles::

me:  Because that shit is from the Silmarillion.
Which no one reads.
Want to know it? It's actually really awesome storytelling stuff.

Christine:  I tried...

me:  I love it, but I am a Tolkien  history nerd.

Christine:  yeah I was bored to tears inside of 20 pages lol
but I never liked Tolkien's writing as much as I liked his stories.

me:  You would have LOVED it when it got to the fucked up elf stuff.
Like, you would have such a lady boner for Feanor.
And Beren.
Seriously, if you can find the Feanor stuff separately, you should.
He is SUCH an asshole.
But also very awesome.
Yeah, Tolkien's world building is still unparalleled.
Because he was so obsessive about it.
So! The dwarves...
I promise you will love this…
So, Illuvatar is basically god.
And then there are the Ainur, who are sort of sub-gods he made.
Some of them become elements of Arda, the world.
One of them is Aule, the smith.
He makes mountains and all kinds of stuff.
Illuvatar creates elves and men and tells the Ainur to make Arda ready for them, but keeps their actual awakening time a secret.
So Aule, who is really very sweet, gets impatient.
He makes some creatures, who are crudely shaped and unlovely because he’s not Illuvatar and doesn’t really know what the hell he’s doing, and because he wants things that are alive that he can teach his craft to.
Illuvatar is like, dude, couldn't you wait a hot minute? And Aule is about to destroy them when Illuvatar goes, hold on there man, they're alive and cowering. You can't do that.
Because you did this in secret they won't be as special as men and elves, and you need to put their ugly asses to sleep so they wake up after my pretty, pretty elves.
But otherwise, we are cool, bro.

Christine:  lol

me:  And that is the totally awesome story of the dwarves.
Who see themselves as a race apart.
Because they kinda are.
And Tolkien NEVER ever mentions dwarf women.

Christine:  yeah that's totally awesome

me:  But everyone is someone's dad or grandad.
Which is hilarious.
Like they just show up and have dad's.

Christine:  freaking dwarves.

me:  I'm pretty sure they're going to use some of that in The Hobbit, because there's a shit-ton of dwarf history beyond that, that is also awesome.
They were basically little shit-kicking fuckheads.
Who are like, whatever, you elves are just SO pretty. Go ahead and flip your hair, assholes. We'll be here making chainmail that wards off fucking troll spears. And gigantic underground palaces for our tiny, ugly asses.

 me:  Thus endeth this incredibly nerdy lesson. >:}  (ONLY IT WASN'T! READ ON!)

Christine:  I love your nerd. That was definitely one of the best Tolkin rewrites ever.

me:  I got mad skillz, yo.
Only someone who has studied that shit like a crazy person could be that totally disrespectful.

Christine:  best part of knowing a thing 

me:   It is seriously one of my fave things ever when Illuvatar basically goes "dude, your little people are FUGGO. Put them back in the box until my pretty peoples wake up."

Christine:  ::giggle::

me:  And then there's Feanor, who is like the prettiest, smartest, most amazing maker of things ever...and he LOSES HIS SHIT when his fucking Silmarils get stolen.
I mean, the world loses its light because a giant damn spider sucks it out of some trees..and he's all, no way, guys, you can't have my pretty jewels to light it back up.

Christine:  I don't even know what you're saying to me right now, but it's awesome.

What I am saying is: you would love Feanor.
Because he is SUCH a flawed character

 Christine:  awwww.  well I do love those kinds of characters.

 me:  They are pretty awesome.
And then there are Hurin and his children who get RUMBLE FUCKED.
Like, for reals. With incest and everything.
I think it's the only time Tolkien even acknowledges that sex is a thing, sort of.

Christine:  and of course he does it with incest

Because 1. Ew.
3. There is also a dragon involved.

Christine:  oh my

me:  Well, not in the incest.

Christine:  bwahaha. whew

me:  Tolkien was WAY too proper English for anything like that.


Saturday, December 8, 2012

Adventures in Germany Post 1

Sitting in our new living room at nearly 8am, German time, watching snow fall outside. It's quiet in here, just the occasional sound of a snore or cat meandering around. My kitty, Monkey, is sitting on my left wrist, purring, and laying his head across the back of my hand.

Sundays in Germany are rather deserted. People stay in, shops are closed, and it makes me a bit reflective about all the changes in my/our lives in just the past week. We've only been here that long. Feels like both longer and shorter than that. I don't know why.

Having the cats here has made all the difference, I think. Without them it didn't feel like we were complete and we couldn't even begin to get comfortable until they arrived. Having pets you really care for is both wonderful and awful. Wonderful because there is nothing like the friendship you can really have with an animal, even when you can't communicate through words. It becomes about trust and touch, about just being together and not having to say a thing. It's also awful because you can't explain some things to them, like why they had to be in crates for 5 days, away from you, thinking you were never coming back for them. If I think about that too much I kind of want to throw up, so I just pet them and cuddle them and think about something else. Like how Monkey is now doing his Superman pose across my hand, polydactyl paws stretched contentedly, drifting off to sleep.

It's trite, but being in another country where I don't speak the language is definitely odd. But I find, at least right now, something incredibly peaceful and comfortable about it. I can't watch TV, it's all in German. I have the internet, but I'm on nearly opposing hours from everyone I know, so there's a kind of lag and limit to communication times. It's isolating, and I'm sure I'll feel that more and more, but right now it's not upsetting. It's almost soothing.

My goals for this year, personally, 1. write as much as possible 2.  travel, see places I haven't, and 3. take things as they come. For the last 33 years I've been a worrier, anxious and scared about taking big risks. I'm taken some all the same, but nothing quite like this. Moving cross country was the first really huge leap, which made deciding to do this somewhat "easier", though still obviously scary and stressful.

At the moment, though, I'm enjoying the fact that it's real winter here with snow and hats and gloves. I'm enjoying the fact that I get to say I live in a flat in Europe. I'm very much enjoying exploring the city of Hamburg, which is incredibly beautiful and cobble-stony and, you know, European. I'm enjoying listening to people speak German and only occasionally understanding a word or two. I'm enjoying all the things made with cherries and chocolate a lot, and the fact that grocery stores here seem to have all the yogurt products you could ever want.

It's all very strange and surreal because everything is just different enough to be slightly off-putting, but familiar enough not to be completely alien. It's a collection of changes, though. The weather, the language, the way the building creaks. But then I hear gentle snores from the other room and it all feels quite normal and grounded again. We change the litter and take naps and eat meals just like we would anywhere. But now we're doing it in Germany.

I have no idea how all of this will turn out. Which is terrifying and exhilarating the way any big change and risk is. Frankly, that's how life really is all the time, we just set up ways to avoid thinking about it and pretending it isn't. We're all living on a rock floating in space.

So, today is going to be quiet and writerly, and will probably involve some serious navel-gazing and existential story theme explorations. That's another kind of adventure, too.

Monday, December 3, 2012

I Love Comics Because of Karen Berger

When I was roughly 13 years old I read Death: The High Cost of Living by Neil Gaiman. While I had read some comics before, they hadn't quite gelled as a medium for me. I'd tried Catwoman and Wonder Woman, X-Men and Spawn, Lone Wolf & Cub, The Hobbit, and Samurai Cat. I liked many of them but didn't quite connect the way I felt I should.

Reading that first Death mini-series by Vertigo was like coming home. The character, the story, the hooked me completely and I became obsessed with Vertigo the imprint. I also made a point of knowing who was responsible for it, and was immediately thrilled to find it was a woman, Karen Berger. This was all in the 90's, in the hey-day, and it meant a lot to 13 year old me to see a woman accomplish so much.

When I was a Junior in college I decided that although I loved art and wanted nothing more than to be a working artist, it wasn't exactly realistic to hang all my hopes on that. Freelancing is tough and even if you were lucky enough to be hired, there was no guarantee it would sustain you. I was curious about the editorial side of comics, so I marched into the internship office and asked if they would find out if Vertigo was looking for any. They asked me if I would take a general DC internship as backup. I said no, it was Vertigo or nothing.

About a week later I was called into the office and they said I had an interview. This was in 2000 or so, before I turned 21. I was really excited and dressed "up" so I wouldn't look like the schlubby art student I actually was. I took the elevator to the 7th floor and waited in reception, where there was a life-size Superman sitting and reading a newspaper, and a huge mural of a collapses Metropolis.

I was expecting to meet maybe an Assistant Editor or whoever I would potentially be working for directly. Instead, Karen herself met me in reception. At first, I didn't realize who she was. She was very friendly, a little flustered because they were doing some office moving around stuff, and they were perpetually under-staffed. Vertigo has always put out a kind of insane amount of books for the number of editors, so they were always happy to have help.

As Karen led me back to the actual office, I realized I was chatting happily with the woman who had actually MADE Vertigo. Who had edited The Sandman and Swamp Thing. She'd been casually asking me about the books I read, what titles were my favorites, and what had made me want to intern there specifically, because apparently at the time it was rare for people to request to work there. I was shocked, who WOULDN'T want to work for Vertigo?? So I told her what I was in school for, how much their titles meant to me, especially Death, and before long I was hired to work two days a week in the afternoons.

I learned a LOT in those first 6 months and apparently was helpful enough that I was allowed to intern for an additional 6 months after that. They even threw me a 21st birthday party. I learned how to balloon pages, edit scripts, and see the original art come in on so many titles before digital became the norm. I got to work on Transmetropolitan and Preacher. Some of my balloons are in the last issue! I worked on all kinds of books and did a lot of the usual intern stuff: making copies, putting together dummy books, making phone calls, etc. Karen was always very encouraging and checked in with me, made sure I was getting something out of it. I was even consulted on the early Hot Topic Sandman stuff, and was given a Death dress when I left by Shelly Bond (who would become my boss over a year later).

When I left, I knew a lot more about comics as an art form as well as the reality of publishing them. It's a complex industry we work in and Vertigo has always had an interesting challenge being technically part of DC, but quite different in terms of structure and audience. I had an enormous amount of respect for the editors there, and Karen in particular, who was always busy and slightly mysterious to me, but also kind and soft-spoken and thoughtful. I felt very lucky to have had the experience and stayed in touch after I left. When I graduated I stopped by the office and gave them my resume, expecting absolutely nothing to come of it.

Which is why I was floored to get a call a scant few months later asking if I'd come in to interview to be Shelly's Assistant Editor. I had only graduated a little while before and was really nervous. I figured, well, do your best. I could write a whole other post on Shelly's impact in my life, but I'll save that for another time. This is about Karen and what she did when she made Vertigo, at least for me.

Somehow, and I'm still not sure how, I got hired. Generally Assistant Editors are quite a few years older than I was when they get hired, with more actual work experience. However, being an intern helped, especially because I had spent my time learning, not pitching (apparently other former interns had done that, so do yourself a favor and LEARN when you intern, they remember it when you don't) or trying to convince anyone to hire me. That attitude was part of it, and it didn't hurt that I was already familiar with how they worked and what they needed.

I worked at Vertigo for the next 4 years. I learned so much from Shelly and Karen that I can't really put it into words, all the ways they influenced my personal philosophies as an editor. I remember how Karen would look at books for final sign off and inevitably catch things you couldn't believe you'd missed. Like, immediately. She's that good.

Of the many things I noticed about Karen Berger, the high level of respect and esteem in which the other editors and creators held her was the most obvious. People -liked- working with her. They respected her opinions even when they disagreed, and she was a huge reason why people wanted to work there. Creators felt understood and encouraged, while also challenged and held to an extremely  high writing standard. Her story notes were always simple and insightful, asking questions, never criticizing, but not letting things slide either. She made sure the story worked and helped the creator tell it, without trying to write it for them or push an agenda. She clearly understood how to be a story collaborator and agent, without ever taking anything away from the writer or artist responsible for its creation.

Although I didn't work with Karen directly most of the time, she would encourage my writing and ask my opinion on pitches from time to time. She was always very fair in her reviews of my work and seemed to really believe I had the ability to be a good editor in my own right. It meant a lot. Before working at Vertigo I had somewhat taken my writing abilities for granted, even though I loved to do it.  During my tenure there I was encouraged to do interviews, press releases, and copy a great deal, and learned a lot about what worked and what didn't.

When I left, Karen was incredibly sweet and kind, wishing me well and thanking me for the work I'd done and re-emphasizing that she felt I was already a good editor and shouldn't stop working with stories. She didn't have to, but I really appreciated it. Later, I would see her at conventions and she would always take some time to ask how I was doing and catch up a little. Considering how busy she was/is, taking even a minute to say hi was incredibly gracious. At this last SDCC I ran into her at the Hyatt and we hugged, chatting for awhile and discussed my current writing. She said she was proud of me and knew when I left Vertigo I would go on to do more of my own work. I got quite a bit emotional. You don't often get a personal hero telling you they're proud of you every day.

It's a testament to the contribution to this industry that Karen stepping down from Vertigo was trending on Twitter today, and the absolute outpouring of support and well-wishes I saw all over my feed. The amount of creators Karen got into this industry has shaped it into what it is today, and Vertigo has contributed stories, worlds, and voices, that continue to be the benchmark of quality, and the works many of the top creators in comics cite as direct influences on their work and introduction to comics. Not to mention an aesthetic point of view distinct and unique from anything else.

I have absolutely no doubt that Karen will go on to do other amazing things, and she'll have people who want to work with her in whatever capacity when she does. But even if Vertigo were all she contributed to comics, what an incredible legacy. How many people can say they helped shape comics and changed the way they were viewed both within the industry itself and in the culture at large? How many people can say they challenged the medium to do more and be more, and created a lasting body of work that shows a breadth and depth of what this art form is capable of?

To that, all I can really say is: thank you, Karen Berger. Many of us wouldn't be here without you or Vertigo, and the industry owes you an internal debt of gratitude. I know I do. Thank you.

Sunday, November 25, 2012

Twoo Wuv

For some reason I get sick right before every big move we have ever made. I say that like it's not really obvious that it's the insane stress and lack of sleep that makes my immune system run away screaming.

When we moved to San Diego from NY about 4 years ago I got the worst flu maybe two days before. I was so sick I basically lay around on our futon trying not to die. I was still sick when we started the 5 day drive and slept through most of the South. I remember New Orleans, thankfully. I also remember the 2 days through Texas less thankfully. Lots of tumbleweed, rocks, and serious state pride there. And then we were west coasters and that was rad. When we moved up to San Francisco I didn't get sick, but that was like an 8hr drive so I don't count it as a "big" move. The cats didn't pee themselves so it was just a solid win.

And now, in 5 days, we are moving to Germany. I'm not sure about the mileage, it might technically be less than the 3k we moved to get here. It is, however, 9 hours into THE FUTURE. Also, German. Which I don't speak. So. That's a thing. That's happening. In 5 days.

Which of course means that I got sick. This time with a cold which is generally your standard mucusfest. A few hot showers, some lying around sleeping, a bit of cold medicine, you get the drill.

But because I am incapable of ever having anything not be totally humiliating, things had to get weird. It didn't start off that way. Basically, yesterday I decided to take the previously mentioned hot shower. I figured it would help clear out my head. Well. It did. Kind of.

You see, about five minutes into the shower I got extremely dizzy. I thought, okay, this is different. It'll subside. Not so much. Everything spun, and continued to spin, and I tried to stay upright but it was really difficult to tell what direction that actually was. And then I fainted.

No, seriously. I fainted. Like some swoony girl in a novel. Only, you know, minus the corset and flowing hair and grace. More like naked in the shower with a thud.

Somehow I managed to not fall on any of the myriad bottles that seem to sprout like mushrooms in every bathroom I occupy. Which is good because I don't think being impaled on shampoo would've improved the experience. I wasn't out for long, but it was a distinct faint.

My husband called out "Are you okay?" and I said "No." He came in and opened the stall to find me, sprawled, water still pouring down. I looked up with a face apparently drained of color and said "I think I'm going to..."and then I did. Throw up, obviously. While naked and plunked down on the floor of the shower with my husband worried about me.


Always with the dignity. That's me.

He helped me up. Got me a towel. I felt a LOT better, though obviously just ever so slightly embarrassed. My color came back. I got dressed and lay down. He went out and got me ginger ale and bread for toast. Gave me a kiss and a hug. Later, we watched movies and napped.

That, my friends, is love. And it's why I'm not really worried about moving to Germany, because I'll be with Chris, and a guy who doesn't bat an eye when you yak on yourself while naked in the shower (not to mention all the assorted humiliations of my kidney stone episode earlier this year) is the kind of person worth moving anywhere with. And it'll be okay because we'll be together and all that other sappy stuff. And even if it isn't, we'll figure it out. Because that's what we do.

Thursday, November 15, 2012

Dear Comics: Please. Stop.

So. It's Thursday and it's 5:30am and I can't sleep, so I'm writing because that's what I do. It's been an "interesting" week so far in this grand old comics industry of ours, and by "interesting" I mean "OMFG what is going on???"

On Sunday night I wrote this blog post addressing a certain meme posted by a fellow comics professional that unfortunately perpetuated, among other things, the apparently scary and rampant issue of "fake" nerd/geek girls. It also equated "some" of them with whores, and the whole thing was kind of really not great. I got a lot of comments on the post, some incredibly, you know, bad, but there were also a lot of interesting discussions and it's now been reposted over at the New Statesmen. It's a really long piece, but I thought I needed to say it and be as thorough as possible. It's not the first time I've had to deal with this particular discussion within our industry and I knew it wouldn't be the last.

How right I was. Unfortunately.

Because the very next day this happened. I was already pretty tired from the previous "debate" and was up at some other weird hour, and about the only reaction I had for a good long while was this:

Because, I mean, seriously??? Just, no, comics. No. Please stop. This makes us look really bad.

Frankly, I could probably just go and change the name in the open letter of my last post and swap out "meme" and "whore" for  "cosplayer" and "con hot" and "yer not comics" and be addressing almost the exact same issue. Which seems to basically boil down to: there are more women in nerd/geek spaces than there used to be, participating in ways they enjoy. Some guys are very suspicious of this and wish they would either go away or participate differently because by not participating the way they think they should, they are "fakers" and should be called names for reasons. Because they're there. Wearing costumes and maybe not reading comics and stuff.

Now, I've been told a LOT the past few days that in both cases they weren't talking about "me" or "all" women or "all" cosplayers, so why is everyone making such a big deal about this? They're only talking about "those" girls and they DO exist and they're infiltrating our subculture and ruining everything with their cleavage and lack of interest in whatever subjective geek/nerd rule is currently being dictated to them. Apparently, because they aren't talking about "all" women, just the ones they don't like, it's totes fine and poseurs are a HUGE problem and anyone who disagrees is overreacting and being irrational.

That led me to making this face at my computer a lot as I read this line of reasoning, over and over:

I have to tell you: it's really not the amazing argument they think it is. First of all, I am not an "exception" to these supposedly "specific" rules. You know why? Because I'm a woman and I exist in these spaces. That is literally all it takes for people to assume you don't know anything about comics, films, TV, sci-fi, horror, whatever. It gets applied to all of us, all the time. How do I know that? Because I've had to field those questions. I don't go around with my resume taped to my back as a handy reference guide, so how would you know I'm one of the "good" ones? And being one of the "good" ones didn't stop a fellow comics professional from groping me at SDCC one year, or another asking me at a new gig, after 5 years of editing stuff like Fables and Lucifer, "Oh, so, you think you might want to work in comics, huh?" because he just assumed I was an intern. Even though those things happened (among lots of others) I do not assume all fellow male nerd/geeks are creeps. I should technically be able to, based on the above logic, but I don't.

Depending on who you are, if I Cosplayed at conventions people could then, like, EXTRA assume I'm just there for attention and not for fun or spending time with friends or enjoying the scene or, you know, to be a professional and get work. Because the only reason women wear costumes, especially "revealing" ones is for male attention. Nevermind that "revealing" is a highly subjective term. They must be objectifying themselves and/or taunting male nerds. Judging them. Whispering about them behind their backs. It is, apparently, unfathomable that these girls and women might be there because they want to be and do not care at all about you or what you think. That, supposedly, is not possible. It must be for attention because, in our culture (nerd/geek and general), women do not exist for themselves, but to be looked at and judged by men. Our sexuality is not our own, therefore we can't possibly express it for ourselves on our own terms.

Of course, we're ALL at conventions for attention to some degree. Sometimes we want the attention of a creator whose work we really love. Sometimes we want someone to notice the work we do. I don't go to conventions hoping all the publishers and editors I meet will ignore me. I don't do signings hoping no one will show up. I have no desire to suffer in obscurity and I'm glad that convention attendance across the board has been up. Do I get annoyed at the crowded aisles? Yeah. But the alternative is barren aisles, and that's a whole lot worse than a stray wing in the eyeball or stroller over the foot. More people means more potential readers of comics, more potential watchers of shows and movies, which means I get more of the stuff I love for longer. Yay!

Part of the problem I'm seeing here is a lot of really hyperbolic language about supposed "interlopers". I've seen all kinds of terms tossed around from the kind of mild "poseur" and "faker", to the more epic "infiltrator", "predator", and "barbarians storming the citadel". Look, that's all a bit much. No one has any battering rams aimed at your geeky nerdom. They're just people. Some people know as much as you about whatever it is you love, some don't, and some even know more. Sometimes they're genuinely interested, sometimes they aren't, but absolutely none of it changes what you love about the things you love. It really doesn't.

And seriously: don't refer to women as predators, sucking the life out of men with their costumes and voidness. There's a reason that sounds like misogyny. And no, it doesn't matter that girls have sometimes been mean to you. That is not a good reason or valid excuse for perpetuating that rhetoric.

Now, I know quite a few Cosplayers, have met and seen lots at conventions, and I think they're pretty marvelous. The amount of detail that goes into some of these costumes, the willingness to stay in character, to take pictures with fans, to be friendly and accessible in crowded sweaty a whole lot more welcoming and nerdy than anything I do. I mean, I'd even go so far as to say that a lot of Cosplayers are like ambassadors, especially if they're dressed up as recognizable characters. They're part of the atmosphere and general "Hey, we all love this stuff, isn't it AWESOME??" vibe.  It's fun, is really the point. Do some of them have bad attitudes? I'm sure. But so do, you know, people. I've met and worked with some pretty cranky and grumpy comics creators. I didn't then jump to the conclusion that "most" comics creators were mean.

I don't want to belittle the obviously real concern a lot of geeks/nerds seem to have that the things they love are being overrun by people who don't love them as much. On a personal level, I can see why that feels bad and upsetting. As a generalization, I think nerds and geeks tend to be a somewhat sensitive bunch and it's true that a lot of us faced social ostracism and even abuse for loving the things we love. I know I did. There's an identity in that, and I guess I can see how that might feel threatened by the perception, real or not, that that identity is being commodified or adopted by those who don't really understand what we've been through or what it means to us. But so much of that is built on assuming that certain types of people don't "get it", and it's not really based in anything rational. Being a pretty girl (or just a girl, period) does not mean you have never experienced abuse or nastiness. Being a woman doesn't mean you didn't have an awkward adolescence. Being considered conventionally attractive by others doesn't mean your life has been aces and easy and full of respect and fun times. The amount of people who assume attractive women are stupid, incapable, and have just "coasted" is pretty staggering. It's just a bad idea to assume you know a person based on your interpretation of how they look.

And beyond that, being abused has never entitled anyone to turn around and be abusive. Ever. The thing that makes our subculture awesome is the passion and love we have for these stories and mediums. It has never been based on exclusivity and it shouldn't be.

So, please, comics...don't let me down. Start taking a look at this phenomenon with a more objective eye. Worry less about "poseurs" and more about how we can welcome new fans. It's a much more rewarding way to spend our time.

Saturday, November 10, 2012

"Fake" Nerd Girls, "Whores", and Sexism

(Note: This is an open letter to Newsarama columnist and writer Dirk Manning, who earlier today posted this meme on his Facebook. I'm responding to that and the comments that followed.)

Dear Dirk Manning,  

I'm a fellow comic book writer and editor, for about 10 years now. I’ve read your posts at Newsarama and while I don’t know you personally, I generally found them helpful for those looking to write and create work in comics.

Which is I why I have to say, I'm disappointed to see you perpetuating the “Fake Geek/Nerd Girl” meme. Sure, it’s a repost, but what we choose to share on our social platforms matters. You’ve endorsed the underlying sentiment of the meme, to the degree that you feel that women who aren’t “real” nerds by your definition are "objectifying themselves", pandering to a lowest common denominator, and therefore it's okay to imply, based on how objectionable you find the word "whore" to be in this context, less-than for the sake of humor. You reposted this particular take on it because you felt it was relevant, I’m assuming. All I have to go by is the fact that you reposted it and then defended it. What you're like in your personal life is beside the point, as you chose this particular meme to express your views on a particular subject, and further explanation was dedicated to justifying it.

I’m sure it seems harmless and “fun” on the surface, but memes like this are indicative of a much larger and much more problematic attitude within geek culture. Namely: if we don't like how (specifically) a woman/girl identifies as a nerd, or displays their nerdery, based on rather arbitrary & subjective definitions of what being a “real nerd” is, we can label them a whore/slut/fake. Which, by proxy, indicates that they are not only not a nerd, but are also something of a social/cultural pariah. The word “whore” is pretty specific and, especially in this context, is clearly not meant to be anything other than demeaning and dehumanizing. That you don’t think “all” women are whores is really not the issue. The underlying sexism of the "fake" nerd/geek girl rhetoric is.

This meme unfortunately perpetuates an attitude that is exclusionary and unnecessary. For those of us who have to deal with that attitude frequently, just for being in nerd culture and being female, it’s not really so funny or minor. Reposting those sentiments condones them, if that reposting is not followed by either a criticism of the meme or a real call for discussion on it. Anything else is, at best, passively granting it legitimacy.

The thing about sexism, even when it seems “minor” or playful, is that it has real world consequences. The idea that women in particular must adhere to a set of arbitrary standards in order to be treated with respect and not called “whores”, makes it difficult for all women in a given space. Because although I’m sure you think your idea of what is and is not acceptable is fair, it changes from person to person. What, exactly, is dressing “slutty”? Who defines that, you? Me? How does being a fashion model exclude someone from also being nerdy? Why is it different when a girl poses in a costume then when a guy does? How much cleavage is "too much"? Is being conventionally attractive enough to justify people being suspicious? How are these things mutually exclusive to being a nerd? What criteria must we meet to be a considered a “real” nerd? What are the parameters? Do I go by your definition of "slutty" and "pandering" or some other random internet poster? What about my own definition, does that not count? How long do I have to be a nerd in order to be a "real" one? What nerd activities must I participate in? Can I like Lord of the Rings and not Superman? etc.

It’s too subjective. We aren’t all nerdy about the same things & we don’t all participate in nerd culture the same way. By attempting to make ourselves the arbiters of nerdom, we create a space that’s hostile and more like a high school clique than an inclusive culture. Which, frankly, hurts industries like comics a lot. Mainly because we alienate huge audiences with this attitude.

In terms of how something so "harmless" can be applied to the real world: there have been two recent, high profile instances of this memes attitude in action. First: Anita Sarkeesian and the reaction to her Kickstarter about sexism in gaming. She was (and continues to be) subjected to a level of misogynistic outrage and harassment that is frankly unconscionable. The idea that women are not "real" nerds, or have no right to discuss nerd topics, was quick and vicious. She was called a "whore" a lot. It did, however, bring this issue front and center. This resulted in a lot of other women in games, comics, and other nerd spheres coming out and discussing the backlash they get, constantly, for being women in these spaces. Aisha Tyler was one of the most vocal.

Second: Felicia Day. A writer on a gaming site who clearly did not know her resume made comments that reflect almost exactly this meme’s rhetoric. It showed not only a stunning lack of any knowledge of how influential she is in nerd culture, but showed exactly how problematic those assumptions are. They are based exclusively in personal definitions and criteria, and are applied to any woman who happens to exist in nerd spaces, no matter what. 

The reality is: this kind of meme exists to criticize women, specifically, and does not bring anything constructive or useful to nerd culture. All it does is perpetuate a tired and frankly absurd generalization that’s highly gendered and erroneous. It doesn’t call out men who are apparently “using” nerd culture unscrupulously, and it is not a catch all for "anyone" displaying this behavior. Men simply don’t have to deal with the assumption that they don’t belong, automatically, because of their gender. They aren’t required to “prove” their dedication to nerdom based on their gender. They aren’t asked to dress differently. They aren’t called specifically gendered insults if they don’t meet a given person’s standard.

Further, the comments aimed at Jennifer De Guzman, a highly respected, intelligent, and dedicated former Editor-in-chief and now PR and Marketing Director at Image, are pretty condescending. Just because she disagrees with you does not mean she is “overly sensitive”, that she has no right to be angry, or no right to voice her objections. Being angry does not mean she cannot also be rational and articulate in her criticism. Suggesting otherwise, or allowing others to make that claim, is highly irresponsible. If you have the right to post this and have it as a pet peeve (which you do) then someone else addressing a concern about why it’s problematic is equally valid. We have the right to say what we want. Other people have the right to comment on it. Being able to post whatever we want to doesn’t absolve us from criticism about it.

For instance: there are people who will disagree with this letter. That’s their right. They may even get angry about it. That's also their right. 

At the end of the day, we define our nerdom for ourselves, it is not dictated to us by the whims or definitions of others. No matter how other people may arbitrarily disapprove of us or how we display our nerdery individually, women are nerds. No meme will change that.

-Mariah Huehner
Editor, writer, nerd