Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Crossovers and the Sandbox

NOTE: This bit of blogging began as an email to a friend about inter-company crossovers in the comic universes of DC and Marvel. The discussion also included the related topic of the convoluted, universe-changing story arcs that both companies seem to like to put on from time to time. This is pure-geek territory and I would probably not include it on the blog, but I do discuss the nature of crossovers in terms of copyright issues and notion of the "sandbox," a free-play area where ideas can mingle without it being a "big deal." So the thoughts are pretty random and perhaps disorganized but I think they are a good starting place for a broader conversation about legitimate concerns for intellectual property and the right of creative people to mix-and-match cultural signs and signifiers a la mash-up culture. Indeed, Alan Moore's League of Extraordinary Gentlemen is most certainly a sandbox creation that is immune to the vagaries of a too-punitive copyright law only because the characters involved (Allan Quartermane, Mina Murray, Captain Nemo, the Invisible Man, etc.) are in the public domain. But what if one wanted to team James Bond with the Six Million Dollar Man? Or have Lara Croft meet Indiana Jones after she stumbles into a Tardis? Those crossovers would have to be preciptated by months if not years of negotionations with lawyers and accounts. The final agreement, if one were to ever be reached, would be anondyne, like the awful Alien vs. Predator film franchise. This short essay comes from a child's head-space, ultimately. It comes from a serious jones for "what if" ; a kiddie-hood of waiting for the annual Justice League/Justice Society team up from DC, and frantically scribbling away on drawing tablets trying to get Batman to punch Darth Vader. And, of course, it finds it's origins in the ancient debate between who-could-beat whom... could Superman lick Tarzan? Is Popeye stronger than Captain Marvel? Are the Lone Ranger and Zorro friends? Before I get to the article itself, I will leave you with this bit of wisdom from Mr. Moore:
"The planet of the imagination is as old as we are. It has been humanity's constant companion with all of its fictional locations, like Mount Olympus and the gods, and since we first came down from the trees, basically. It seems very important, otherwise, we wouldn't have it."

The word that comes to mind when I think about DC and Marvel attempting these big arcs that promote inducements to purchase titles a collector would not normally purchase is "anodyne." Vision gets lost when one person brings it to a table with 20 other guys. The committee has to decide between:

1) doing nothing because the vision of one person is pure and no one else can agree whether the continuity to should be altered in a certain direction;

2) doing something that takes into account about 1% of everyone's "stake" in the plan;

Obviously, when you do #2... it's just shit! Watered down, compromised, and the vision is totally lost.

Secret Wars was a terrible series but I don't think the Marvel folks wanted to do much more than make toy profits. I actually thought Contest of Champions was a more interesting project. Squadron Supreme (though the writing was terrible) was an example of true vision because it was under the radar. Gruenwald couldn't do a JLA storyline and The Avengers was not on offer so he used these forth-and-fifth string heroes from a different non-mainline continuity to play in his sandbox and explore the various things that can happen when power if given to and taken by super humans.

Crisis on Infinite Earths, perhaps the most ambitious crossover project in comic's history, was an attempt to create a DCU for the next fifty years (well, from 1985 onward). DC has purchased all these different comic book universes (Fawcett, Charlton, etc.) and had to integrate them into their already complicated multiverse of duplicate continuities (two of each major hero... overlapping origins... I mean, Hawkman's story is out of control!).

The multiple Earth's concept (I felt/feel) worked because it allowed for variations on a theme. You had aging and even dying superheros (Batman), heroes who could live alternate lives in variance to their "mainline" (i.e. "Earth 1") counterpart, and options for occasional crossovers (the annual JLA/JSA teams ups). It was sort of a "have your cake and eat it too" scenario.

On a personal level, I adored the idea of mainline heroes meeting legacy heroes - Superman meeting Superman; Alan Scott meeting Hal Jordan; Al Pratt meeting Ray Palmer... and even having competing "legacies" meeting each other - Superman meeting Captain Marvel. It was murky and difficult to keep up with (and harder to explain to outsiders!) but it made for compelling reading. Also, it reflects (I believe) the way life actually is... the patterns are there, but it looks pretty chaotic on the surface.

But Crisis, if anything, was too short, and not altogether respectful of legacy heroes. Superman and Batman are totally forgotten in favor of their bronze age counterparts... the Earths are collapsed into one Earth, thus negating decades of story lines which could have been sorted out better on an ad-hoc basis. I mean... it's a fictional universe... they could have come up with a better solution simply through by letting individual, writers, and artists come up with plot points!

So twenty three years on what do we have? We've seen the advent of Elseworlds which is... the mulitiverse under another name! We've had another Crisis series and at least one major clean-up series (52)... thus recreating the Crisis/Legends paradigm of the late 1980s. Now, the DCU has... another multiverse that is more complex that includes not only the mainline Earth but also the Wildstorm continuity, the Kingdom Come heroes, and even the animated universe.

Why has this gone down? Because it opens up avenues for crossover and merchandising. The Red Son Superman story has generated dozens of statues, posters, action figures... and it is only a matter of time before there is a crossover with the mainline hero.

Maybe in a decade or so DC will blow itself up again. It is the way of things. It's like Hindu mythology... cycles of creation and destruction. It is, after all, a modern, pop cultural mythology.

I believe there should be a space for universal crossovers in the fictional world. A space where copyright is intact but trademark is loosened enough so that creators can mix and match... We've seen DC/Marvel and Aliens/Predator. Star Trek/Star Wars would be a good place to go next. How about Indian Jones vs. Predator? Or how about James Bond meeting Jason Bourne? How about the gang from Lost finding their way to the Lost World? Starfleet vs. The Green Lantern Corp? Darth Vader makes an Alliance with The Cylons? A lot of this already happens in fan-fiction. It doesn't dilute the characters at all. Batman has been involved in so many crossover scenarios (Dracula... Predator... Punisher) that it's hard to keep track. It doesn't affect the mainline continuity . Batman can kill Superman but that won't affect them teaming up to form yet-another incarnation of the Justice League. Wonder Woman can have that lesbian affair with Seven-of-Nine... why not? A Golden Age Spider-Man (webgun... suction cups... is a teen detective) run afowl of The Bat-Man when his case takes from New York City to Gotham...

Of course, if the artists/creator owns the work (rather than these semi-public domain icons like Superman, Spiderman) than that should be respected... but at some point, a character grows up and leaves the nest. Siegel and Schuster's Superman didn't fly! Fortunately, he's developed over the decades...been powered and de-powered over and over again... Composers write the music and the musicians play variations... they do "covers," they play in the sandbox!


Monday, March 30, 2009

Hamlet: "Play upon me"

Enter one with a recorder

Hamlet: O, the recorder. Let me see. (To Rosencrantz and Guildenstern whom he takes aside) To withdraw with you. Why do you go about to recover the wind of me, as if you could drive me into a toil?

Guildenstern: O my lord, if my duty be too bold, my love is too unmannerly.

Hamlet: I do not well understand that. Will you play upon this pipe?

Guildenstern: My lord, I cannot.

Hamlet: I pray you.

Gildenstern: Believe me, I cannot.

Hamlet: I do beseech you.

Guildenstern: I know no touch of it, my lord.

Hamlet: 'Tis as easy as lying. Govern these ventages with your fingers and thumb, give it breath with your mouth and it will discourse most eloquent music. Look you, these are the stops.

Guildenstern: But these cannot I command to any utterance of harmony. I have not the skill.

Hamlet: Why, look you now, how unworthy a thing you make of me. You would play upon me, you would seem to know my stops, you would pluck out the heart of my mystery,. you would sound me from my lowest note to the top of my compass; and there is much music; excellent voice, in this little organ, yet cannot you make speak. 'Sblood, do you think that I am easier to be played upon than a pipe? Call me what instrument you will, though can fret me, you cannot play upon me.

Here, in act 3 scene 2 Shakespeare commands the extended metaphor into battle against the treachery of a king and the mutiny of friends and in the speaking, effectively destroys the listener with sheer conviction. Hamlet begins simply enough, playing the role of madman for his erstwhile chums. In the wake of his treasonous play indicting his uncle, the king in the murder of Hamlet's father, Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dispatched by the queen to see out the prince. The engage him seriously with a demand that he visit his mother in her bedchamber. Instead of embracing the matter or even acknowledging the events which have just transpired, Hamlet engages in coy banter. Indeed, this passage leading up to the recorder metaphor is rather light with speech from the prince - R or G will say a piece which is then turned on its ear by a pithy non-sequater:

Guild.: Good my lord, vouchsafe me a word with you.

Hamlet: Sir, a whole history.

Guild.: The King, sir-

Hamlet: Ay, sir, what of him?

Guild.: Is in his retirement marvelous distempered.

Hamlet: With drink, sir?

Guild.: No, my lord, rather with choler.

R&G are not ignorant of Hamlet's jibes, they answer sincerely in order to appear observant of in rank and status. They know full well of his madness for they have, after all, been summoned to Ellsinore at the behest of the queen and have witnessed the shades of this madness earlier in the play. They are handling the prince with kid gloves as they attempt to maneuver him towards their will. They are not surprised by Hamlet's calling for a pipe as this seem precisely the sort of inappropriate, mad behavior they have come to expect. What they are not prepared for is the coming onslaught of metaphor which will utterly dismantle the contrivance of their disloyalty to Hamlet.

This passage is not often spoken about in criticisms I have read on the play. It is a brief passage and is structurally important only insofar as it bridges two of the most important scenes - the play within a play in which Claudius is 'outed' as the killer of Hamlet's father and scene in Gertrude's bedchamber where mother and son verbally duel and Polonius is killed. But I believe that this small, bridging scene is important and noteworthy because the attendant metaphor further sharpens the contrast between the 'mad' Hamlet and the genius who in only pretending to be mad in order to solve the mystery of his father's murder. His brutal lecturing of R&G on their 'playing' of him is also a way in which Hamlet's own ego can register itself. He wants people to see that although he wears the mask of insanity he is actually a cunning and thoughtful manipulator of those around him. He never threatens to give the game away, R&G will continue to think him mad, but there is now a sense, as Polonius says in 2.2 that "Though this be madness, yet there is method in't.

Indeed, Polonius' aside in the earlier scene is eerily prophetic of the later scene in Gertrudes' bedchamber in when Hamlet stabs and kills him. The old man being the only figure in the drama to recognize Hamlet's genius-in-madness is dispatched by the madman himself. Polonius motives for continuing his investigation may be questioned - is he genuinely concerned with courtly harmony? Is he seeking advancement within the court? Does he fear for daughter's chastity in the hands of a mad prince? There is some thought that perhaps Polonius is rather a detective spurred on by his own curiosity. He numerous asides and aphoristic diatribes would seem to indicate that the old man's sense of implicit order has been trumped by the dynamism of the mad prince and that only he, the wizened advisor can get to the bottom of the matter. To this end we note how often he enters into long winded discourse to the annoyance of the king and queen! His unselfconscious waxing on matters philosophic speak volumes to the man's demonstrative ego.

Goo-Goo, Comrade

America as a democracy has worked tirelessly (in a collective manner - the government, the civil service and the private sector) to establish, in the absence of economic certainty, a fully stabilized governing body. If there is such a thing as the American historical memory you can be sure that is scarred by thoughts of the early republic and its desperately inability to maintain cohesion. Then of course, less than a hundred years later, that mythic, romantic catastrophe, the Civil War further plunged the nation into a sort of mass self-doubt. In the decades to follow, and really, this is still such a young nation, through two world wars, an economic depression, and the chronic aches and pains of the so-called 'Car War' the nation and its governmental institutions have solidified into a firm and static status quo. The hunger for true, mass rebellion exists only along the desperate fringes if at all, and protesters who line the streets and boulevards do not call for uprising but for what amounts to progressive tinkering with established laws and methodologies.
However, there is something in the collective psyche - if I can further the politico-metaphysics of earlier- that understands the fundamental difference between the stability and stagnancy, the difference between a calm lake and standing water. Marxist struggle will occur at all levels of a society and at all times, those living under social contract laws require a great deal of the individual 'system' of government and while most are prepared to accept their share of abuse no citizen is without a threshold. But what needs to be understood is that in American in the past century has not required the sort of mass uprising that most Marxist theorists assume is required for change. Indeed, the great changes in America over the course of the 20th century were the result of evolutionary rather than revolutionary methods of political change. Changes in civil right's laws, arguably the most significant accomplishment of domestic American last century, was a struggle carried out over the course of the entire period. It encompassed many sub-movements ranging from the bourgeoisie to the militant and required personalities of matching variety. What is view as the final culmination of the struggle - the years of Martin Luther King's ascendancy, was really the signal of the movement achieving its most important victory - the mainstreaming of the struggle.
These 'baby-Marxist' struggles are perhaps best analogized with the magnitude of earthquakes - they fall along a continuum of degrees and intensities. More often than not, the struggles are much less romantic and earth shaking than civil rights or universal suffrage. Typically the wheres and hows of government workings are the subject of day to day scrutiny. The bellwether for these sorts of changes is the tawdry, pop-culture driven concept of the scandal. Examples are easy enough to list - Teapot Dome, McCarthyism, the secret bombing of Cambodia, Watergate, and more recently, the contested presidential election of 2000. In each case, scandal and controversy brewed and conspired to call into question the accepted methodologies of the status quo - not the status quo itself, mind you but the specific function of a government agent or agency - and from that scandal a process of change would be initiated. That change would either affect the actual operation of that agent or agency (i.e. Nixon resigns from office over Watergate, balloting standards unified after the 2000 election) or it will foster a permanent change in public opinion (the carpet bombing of Cambodia perpetuated the public outcry against American involvement in Vietnam).

Fragments: Trash

It was one thirty in the morning and all the telephone in the city were ringing.

They sat around a cafe table. Talking. Smoking. One of them wasn't talking or smoking but studying for the garbage man's exam (GME). Another one of them looked over at his friend who was in deep concentration and remarked that he saw no future in trash.

Fragments: Mandela

I am dizzy with admiration for Nelson Mandela and his country. What an antidote to cynicism, what a paragon of hope and sincerity. I watched again the PBS documentary and was most moved by scenes of the rugby world cup staged in S. Africa. A game that heretofore had been one of the symbols of oppression had become a rallying point for national unity. Mandela did not co-opt the sport from the whites he joined with it and it with him. Seeing white rugby fans waving the new flag because they felt pride for their nation is very redemptive. One of the narrators said it best - Mandela did not just liberate the blacks he liberated the whites from themselves. He redeemed them, healed them. When this man passes the nation will have lost not its Lincoln but its Christ.

Fragments: Beethoven

Faced with Beethoven it is difficult and perhaps absurd to carry on with one's chosen task understanding full well that anything less than galactic perfection will be a drizzle of urine in the Almighty's whirlwind. Mediocrity creeps in for the likes of half-talents and stays for a spell. Whatever gifts have been bestowed are frittered away by distraction and self-loathing. The insanity that is the 9th Symphony makes one’s body of work seem vulgar and wasteful, as though my life would have been better spent serving the true geniuses coffee and obtaining whores for their pleasure. So why bother at all then? I am not Shakespeare or even Carver. The work I do is on a margin somewhere between slightly entertaining and pretentious. Does anyone need to read another short story about human frailty? Another poem about the rain falling? I do it to keep myself in residence.

Fragments: Bresson

I have been watching movies all my life but prior to seeing Diary of a Country Priest I had never had a conscious cinematic experience. Prior to Country Priest my ideas about cinema were naïve. Thrity or so years of watching, digesting and mentally ranking bang-bang shoot outs, car chases, police procedurals, love scenes and vampires are to me now so much grand guingol, a shadow play of phantasms. Even the best of them, the Kubricks, the Orson Wellses, the Kurosawas, they are ultimately entertainments of various refinements. I've been moved, humored, distracted but I never saw the film as an experience unique to itself. I have always, deep down, felt that movies were an amalgam of arts rather than unified, creative impulse. There were too many things that could get out of hand, to many variables that a single person could not compensate for. Unlike the painter, or the solitary writer, the film maker seemed at the mercy of circumstance. His vision swayed by the passing of time and the demands of pragmatism. I picture him on a raft on a river, being pulled along but never coming to the place he set off for, unless by accident.