Film Review: The Chernobyl Diaries: A Foregone Conclusion

Yes, there are going to be spoilers.

So yesterday, after my lengthy digression on The Avengers, I went to see a film I’d been intrigued by for a while. The premise of Chernobyl Diaries caught my imagination almost immediately following my viewing of the first preview. Pripyat was a city in Ukraine founded in 1970 to house the Chernobyl nuclear power plant’s workers and their families until the disaster of 1986. The city–and most of the possessions of its inhabitants–was abandoned almost immediately following a flood of deadly radiation into the area.

Think about it: somewhere out there in Ukraine is a city still stuck in the mid-late 80s Communist period–a place that could have easily seen all three of George Lucas’ Star Wars original trilogy like everyone else before its doom–gathering dust, rust, pools of water, weeds, and trees growing out of and into buildings. It is a ghost city where abandoned swing-sets still sway in the winds, old photographs lie on the floors in abandoned homes, and a ferris wheel still stands to celebrate a May Day Festival that never happened. There could even be collector’s items there–such as a tattered first issue of Action Comics–that would prove just as poisonous to a would-be collector as Kryptonite is to Superman. In a lot of ways, it is more sad than creepy. There is so much tragedy there–soaked as indelibly into the stones as the radiation that has doomed it–that it makes you wonder why it happened: makes you wish that it never did. When I first saw Pripyat and the Chernobyl reactor looming ominously in the distance, I wondered what it would have been like had the disaster not happened. But that is neither here nor there: just like legacy that Chernobyl has left us, or that we left it.

If any place could be considered cursed by human action and hubris over Nature, this area would be one of those places. When I came into this film, I thought that the protagonists would be dealing with psychic manifestations of the ghosts within Chernobyl and Pripyat–of the loss of potential and life made incarnate–while at the same time making you–the viewer–wonder if any of it is truly happening and if its not the protagonists having hallucinations by the slow encroaching inevitable horror of man-made radiation poisoning.

Instead, we have a different movie. Extreme Tourism is something I have heard of and I also know that there have been many tours near Chernobyl and possibly into the area even before this film was made. I was really surprised. I always thought that the place would be a complete wasteland, but evidently Nature is more powerful than humanity. The protagonists were young–and I personally think stupid to risk themselves to radiation poisoning despite what their guide said about two hours being a reasonable amount of exposure–but they were all likable: which I’ve not seen happen often in horror movies these days. It actually made me sad knowing that even if they got out of this, they were still going to die from radiation and cancer. That in itself is horrifying enough.

The film plays on three fears and layers them well. The first is the radiation that will slowly kill them if they do not leave and even if they do, it will still be in them. I winced every time they picked something up in the city or dipped their hands into presumably irradiated water like their guide Uri did. The geiger counter they had in their possession as it crackled louder and louder and started to beep was like a timer to their death. Then there were the wild, crazed dogs that lived in the area that they had to avoid: a case of feral Nature turning on protagonists that had few resources to help them.

The main characters had the advantage in their general solidarity, if nothing else, and even when that solidarity was challenged by fear and the realization that they would not be able to leave the city before their two hours were up was offset by their mutual need to survive and their basic empathy as fellow travelers. But then: we have the creatures.

The creepy–the truly creepy thing–about the creatures is that we barely even see them. We just have hints of them: things from the corner of the eye, a distant photograph, a still smoldering fire, a limping shape behind a table in an underground room that hints at deformity, a recording of a car being turned over and people being taken, dead eaten soldiers, a sole, solitary little girl with her back to the protagonists, a flash of a multitude of distorted faces at the end and not much else. It’s as though the director of this film observed an age-old horror genre convention in not revealing what the monster looks like. The unknown is the most terrifying aspect of horror: especially as it comes for and consumes you.

In that sense, for all the trappings of modernism around it, Chernobyl Diaries is a classic horror story: relying less on sex, gore and spectacle and more on a slow, mounting, creepy horror: with the gothic romanticism and terrible majesty of a Nature have reclaimed civilization, a contamination for which there is no cure and little hope for surviving with each passing hour, and–lastly–the presence of monsters and the unknown lurking never too far away in the dark. All of three primary fears are interlinked and even interchangeable. After all, it is no coincidence that at the end of the film the creatures are referred to as “patients”: robbed of individuality by their nature, sick, and no longer even human. It was a film that started out slow–exceedingly so–and then became fast-paced with characters dying at an alarmingly accelerated rate.

I can see why the above elements–combined with the fact that the “diaries” part of Chernobyl Diaries barely plays any role in the film–might make modern horror and movie critics pause and heap negative reviews on it, but if you are a classical horror reader or viewer, you can definitely appreciate the grim fatalism–the inevitability–of the three-fold fear and its triumph over human curiosity and common decency that lies at the heart of this film. I give Chernobyl Diaries a four out of five.

Film Review: The Avengers and their Mythology Revisited

There be spoilers here. You’ve been warned.

I wrote a very short review of The Avengers film a little while ago, but in light of much more detailed reviews and analyses: such as the relationship between genii Tony Stark and Bruce Banner, and Loki as master manipulator and challenger of the once and future geek status quo I thought that I might expand on some things a little more and maybe even respond to a few of these articles as well.

Remember, this is a spoiler alert: if you have not watched this film–and you should–then you have again been duly warned.

Avengers really reminded me of a lot of the lore that I used to read from Marvel cards and it totally played on the fandom that has generated around the Marvel universe and the superheroes that make up the Avengers team for decades. Again, I was at somewhat of a disadvantage myself in viewing this film because I have not seen Thor, or Captain America. Unlike Ex Urbe in the second link I posted, I knew that this wasn’t an extension of the great Ragnarok event that plagues the Nordic gods and it deals with the Marvel comics mythology instead: unfortunately I have been pretty rusty to that regard and having not been there in a very long or consistent time.

Each character was bang-on with regards to their comics incarnations as far as I remember. But like I said, I really like how they were played for the most part. If Captain America had been created in our time, he would been seen as a very transparent and tasteless living embodiment of propaganda. I know that during his Death in the comics world, there was a whole thing about selecting a new Captain America and showing just how different that Captain in our time would have been from Steve Rogers we know from WWII.

The Captain America in the film was played as a legendary hero–a relic of a certain moral structure that not even many people in his time or country embodied–and I like how he is seen as a piece of history: which for all intents and purposes he is. He is also still a human being who–while he follows orders–does not follow them blindly. After all, even after ages of suspended animation, Cap is not like the enemy soldiers he used to fight during the second World War. In fact, he makes reference to that time at one point in a very poignant but quick way that devolves into another battle.

Tony Stark is still a wise-ass that always thinks about contingencies, while Thor is still a strong being yet also very noble and cautious. I like that portrayal of the Asgard: because while his mythological archetype was generally stupid and little more than an over-sized brute that would have rivaled the Hulk in mentality and action, the Marvel Thor that we see is a being that wants to protect others and actually thinks about the implications of his advanced people’s presence and technology on the people of Earth.

I can’t say much about Black Widow and Hawk-Eye except to say that they seemed more like secondary characters compared to the others. I do like, however, how Loki plays on them: how he plays on both of them and you see as a viewer just how–for all everyone involved are supposedly superheroes–they are not all innocent. Certainly Samuel L. Jackson’s Nick Fury is as no-nonsense and as much of an “inglourious basterd” as ever: though a little more refined than the comics Fury (who I believe was a contemporary of Wolverine and Cap during WWII and he was the one who fought H.Y.D.R.A. instead of Cap) and in some ways very much more underhanded for the “greater good.”

I think though that the performances that really got me were Bruce Banner and Loki. First, let me deal with Dr. Banner. I have in fact seen both relatively recent films created around the Hulk, yet this film does something the others really don’t. Avengers looks at Bruce. You notice how I don’t say the Hulk and there is a reason why I do this in particular. In almost every other bit of media–film or otherwise–the green gamma beast is brought out for his spectacle effect and Bruce Banner simply tries to contain him. But here we see Bruce Banner as a person. We see a brilliant but haunted man who does not want to cause destruction and pain. He has suffered and yet despite this still tries to help people with his knowledge. He is a solitary person by his own perceived necessity if not by choice and in a lot of ways he is a very sad man.

A good portion of the film has people walking egg-shells around him and thinking they have contingencies in dealing with the “green nuclear djinn in a human bottle”: not realizing just how strong Banner actually is and how many “contingencies” he himself has undergone. Beth in her own review shows that the only person who doesn’t treat Banner as an accident waiting to happen or a potential resource is Tony Stark and she gives very compelling parallels between the two: to the point where I remembered Tony Stark taking a drink before dealing with Loki and actually wincing at that segment alone more than anything else in the film. They are both brilliant men that have their own demons. and they can relate to each other. However the difference is that Bruce Banner has a lot more control over the Hulk than people even think.

Personally, I think there is a difference between Banner being agitated enough to release him and purposefully bringing his alter-ego out. When he does the latter, the Hulk is in a lot more control and in fact–when it comes down to it–there is no difference between Bruce Banner and the Hulk. They are and always have been the same person. “The Other Guy,” that kept Bruce Banner from killing himself, is not just anger but a fury for passion and life and ironically as the film progresses you see Banner actually almost coming to terms with that. It is no coincidence how in the comics, Bruce Banner changes into the Hulk permanently yet manages to keep all of his intellect along with the righteous fury. Even in the movie, Banner says that the secret to controlling his power is that he is “always angry.”

And then you have the threat that brings all of these disparate beings together: Loki. Loki himself, like Thor, has his precedent in the Nordic mythological cycle. Loki is a trickster god and an agent of chaos. He is not biologically related to the Asgard deities but instead has Jotnar (or frost giant) blood in him. While Loki begins as a mischievous prankster, he ends up creating Ragnarok: the twilight of the gods. He transforms from trickster to destroyer. Perhaps in Thor, this role is prevalent as well in its own Marvel incarnation, but I want to talk about him in the film: something that I only alluded to in my earlier article on this Blog.

Loki feeds off of chaos and he is not an overt player. Ex Urbe really goes into immense detail with regards to Loki in the film, but let me just reiterate something I said in my last article in that he plays a really good game. He manipulates and feeds on the power of discord that the Avengers feel towards each other. His very presence caused their assembling and exacerbated the cracks between them. In many ways, he arranged it so that they were almost as dangerous as he and his allies were. As to how far his foresight goes–if he knew they and they particular would be chosen to deal with him–is another matter entirely.

As I said, Ex Urbe really looks at how clever Loki is. You notice, for instance, he barely ever fights and he likes to make his enemies think that they can always beat him. The moment Black Widow thought her interrogation strategy had worked on him, I knew she was screwed. Never try to trick a trickster or play their own game because they will beat you with experience. He sat back and let Captain America, Iron Man and Thor fight each other. And then, when he seemed to have failed in his mission to conquer Earth, he conveniently gets captured by Thor and they go to Asgard with the cube away from the wrath of the trickster god’s vengeful allies. All and all, I think he was right to postpone and then later ask for that drink.

I also really like the part where Loki is in Germany and he asks everyone to bow down to him and one old German man won’t who states, “Not to men like you,” and then later adds, “There are always men like you.” The thing that you need to understand is that Nordic mythology really played a powerful role in German culture. Others, including Richard Wagner, played off of these archetypes in the collective unconsciousness of the German and Germanic people. Wagner was also a really well-known anti-Semite and his operas were well loved by various members of the Nazi Party later on. Nietzsche referred to a figure of the “actor” or “demagogue in music.” Looking at Loki forcing everyone to bow in front of him–with the compelling words and presence of a trickster and “god”–with all of that historical resonance the immediate background and that old man standing up to him really put chills down my back.

In this, Ex Urbe might seem wrong in stating that Loki is attempting to help humans and gods beyond the status quo: that he is just another fascist power. Of course, there is another way of looking at this in an analytical sense: that by posing as a dictator (and one really bad at ruling apparently and inefficient in other ways), he is making humanity challenge him and the established order of things. Remember that the role of a trickster deity in mythology is to challenge the status quo and subvert authority. A trickster also helps humanity by giving it something that can potentially destroy itself and stealing it from the divine order, but also creating an order with it. In addition, trickster gods can take a lot of physical punishment–a lot of it–and they almost seem to goad others into delivering it to make them think they have the upper-hand. In this way, Loki is almost a comic mockery of the things he rebels against, a Wagnerian parody and by serving as that cardboard cut-out effigy he helps to subvert it. So perhaps in that way, Loki is more like Nietzsche’s Zarathustra than his “demagogue in music.”

Then there is Captain America’s reply to that–which actually plays well into the above idea: if Loki is leading him and others by the nose. There is also something else Captain America says afterwards. When Black Widow refers to Loki and Thor as virtual gods, he states, “There’s only one God, ma’am. And I don’t think he dresses like that.”

While this last quote can be seen as very culturally chauvinistic, because there are many different beliefs out there, it definitely shows Cap as a relic of his time: as someone who views the world in a certain way. At the same time though, if looked at from a different perspective, Cap could be seen as stating that even these perceived gods and superheroes–least of all himself–are not above a greater morality or law of some kind. He interprets that as God. The others interpret it as something else. Loki probably interprets it as freedom of power and chaos.

Of course, there are other concepts of absolute powers or incarnations of concepts as well. Long after the film is over and Loki is captured, you find out that the invaders were working with someone behind the scenes. The leader of the invaders tells his real master that invading Earth will only bring destruction and Death. Notice how I capitalize *Death.* Neil Gaiman was not the only writer who created incarnations of certain facts of life in anthropomorphic figures. In the Marvel Universe, there are beings called Embodiments and while you do not see Death at the end, you do see the being that … serves her female incarnation. And if you have read the comics, you know who I am talking about and you begin to realize that Loki is not the only being that plans things out. This is the Marvel plots-within-plots structure in film form, social commentary and mythological cycles of sequential drama all done well by Joss Whedon.

I think that I am going to leave this off right here. All and all I really loved The Avengers. I never even thought of a movie based on them and it worked very well. The mythology–both comics based and older–created excellent resonance along with Whedon’s trademark snappy dialogue. I also look forward to its sequel and I wonder … just what was that small dagger that Loki stabbed Thor with towards the end of the film? And just what role will Death and her harbinger play in the scheme of things? I hope to find out soon enough.

ETA: Here is an obligatory and intriguing article by M. Leary on gods in Avengers and Marvel. Excelsior!

Mini-Opera Aftermath

So, after the events of the Impromptu Mini-Opera Escapade I undertook with only three days to spare, I came up with two small supposedly five to seven minute operas. Like I said before, this is something I’d never done before until this point and, quite frankly, I didn’t really know what to expect. This was one of the great challenges of doing something like this: basically showing the judges my writing skill through a form which I was almost completely unfamiliar.

I came up with one concept and then after sleeping on it, I came up with another that ended up superseding it. So because I really want to talk about my recent works, here is something of an outline about what I did in writing them and what I learned.

Words on a Screen: A 16-Bit Opera on an 8-Bit Track was the unexpected piece of the two that I made. It was derived from the seed-story On Paper by A.L. Kennedy: a story about two lovers that maintain a long-distance relationship by letters across the world. It was a very interesting story that talked about how people can touch each other perhaps more intimately through correspondence and words than even face-to-face, but I didn’t really know what–if anything–I could do with it. I was more interested in doing something with Neil Gaiman’s “The Sweeper of Dreams.”

Then I read an example opera taken from this seed-story entitled Facing the Truth by Tamsin Collison: the English National Opera’s librettist. She took what was in Kennedy’s short story and expanded on it into an interaction between two Soloists texting each other and debating whether or not it would be a wise idea to meet in the flesh. The irony is that as they interact and contemplate their decision, they are already in the same coffee house but are completely physically unaware of each other. It really struck me just how much that reflects the human condition: how we are an inherently social species yet at same time we are separated by space and our own heads.

“Words on a Screen” was something of a response to both Collison and Kennedy. I thought about a scenario where two geeks meet on the Internet, fall in love, correspond through different media and then actually plan to meet and follow through with it. I also wanted it to deal with the themes of human communality verses isolation, and distance and connection as well. Some of the verses just seemed to flow into place, but for the most part the entire opera–such as it is–struggled with me and it took a day indoors, and a food and Calvin and Hobbes break to finish what I started. The aesthetic of the thing–resembling an online chat room transcript–was inspired once I finished typing the thing on this site. For all it was an unintended piece, I was very pleased with it and saw a lot of ways it could be used to challenge what the operatic form can actually be.

Then there was my intended piece that turned into something else: The Sweeper: A Teardown Epilogue. Like I said before, the story-seed for this miniature opera was Neil Gaiman’s The Sweeper of Dreams: a story about a being that cleans up the detritus of dreams once dreamers awaken or are finished with them. I have read this story before in Neil’s Smoke and Mirrors collection, and then on the Mini-Opera site and got to listen to Neil read it on there as well: which is always a pleasure. Tamsin Collison’s own libretto of the story, What Dreams May Come, was also really intriguing in that it was specifically from the point of view of the dreams themselves.

Reading the seed-story and Collison’s creative example made me really think about my very intricate idea. Unfortunately, I didn’t spend as much time on it as I wanted to and my original idea would have been much longer than the five to seven minute duration we were given. I also realized that I needed more research on certain details and I wasn’t as qualified in my own mind to use my idea in the way I wanted to as I thought at the time. I will pursue this outside of this context, but let me just keep on track here. Although Neil’s story dealt with the Sweeper on a purely distant third-person level and Collison created her libretto from the first-person collective perspective of the dreams, I started to ask myself a question: how does the Sweeper of Dreams feel cleaning up the dreams and nightmares of others? Isn’t it a lot of work to keep being on teardown duty? Doesn’t it get tiresome after a while? Would he get tired of the long hours between sleep and daydreaming and absolutely get fed up by harassment and abuse? And does the Sweeper of Dreams dream?

In the end, the libretto that I wrote ended up dealing with exactly these kinds of questions. I looked at a possibility as to what it would be like to be the Sweeper of Dreams. In retrospect, I am not sure how well this piece turned out. There are some elements from my first idea that I couldn’t resist adding in there as an example of what happens to those who refuse to have their dreams cleaned away, but I don’t know how well that meshes and flows in there. Also, I think the piece ended up being more like a Musical than opera material.

But hey, they were both ad hoc experiments: done on the fly and with only the examples I looked at. I got to make some new things and experiment with a new form. In addition, although I am not a musical expert or creator, I could almost “hear” something in the almost poetic verse rhythms that I ingrained into both pieces to some extent. This Challenge really made me think and I am grateful for that. It was totally worth doing and definitely worth being the first creative works to end up on my Blog.

May there be many more.

ETA: I just found out that the Script Entries have seemingly been all posted up on the Mini-Opera site here. Unfortunately, it seems as though “Words on a Screen” didn’t make it, but The Sweeper: A Teardown Epilogue did. It also seems a few few other people are making their librettos from the Sweeper’s perspective as well. It’s a pity about “Words on a Screen.” I really liked that one, but I will say that my “Teardown Epilogue” has its moments as well. I don’t know how I will do–the judges have to choose ten entries out of all the ones that are posted there–but you know I’m just glad that I will get some reading.

ETA: ENO added my Words on a Screen script after all. Hurray! 😀

As they might say in the opera business, may the best fat lady sing. 😉

Wise Words and Timeliness

I really don’t have much more to add to the above video. I also don’t know how long this video will last given the mercurial and transitory nature of the Internet. I think it’s really interesting how I found this link–where Neil Gaiman is addressing the 2012 graduating class of the University of the Arts–a few weeks before my own Convocation at York.

He touches on a lot of different issues and points that I’ve been having to deal with and he has some very good advice as well. You know, I almost didn’t make this Blog. I’m a perfectionist and sometimes I get technologically challenged. I also tend to find myself in a place where I get used to doing things in a certain way and I have to fight myself to go beyond my comfort zone. I started writing this online journal to do exactly what Neil is talking about: to make my works seen.

Neil is right in that things are changing and there are different ways to have yourself and your work seen now. I thought to myself that if Neil or the Bloggess or even some of my friends could make Blogs to get their work “out there,” why couldn’t I? Yes, I know that this journal is not particularly decorative and I am still toggling with a lot of stuff here. Hell, I didn’t even know if WordPress would show my video link as something already embedded but I learned through some common sense trial and error instead of fretting … too much over it.

But more than the technicalities of this, I think there is something that Neil said that applies to my work and my current situation even more succinctly. He says in his speech to the graduates that he told someone to pretend to be someone who can do what they need to do. He didn’t say to pretend to do this, but rather to pretend to themselves that they can and just go with it from there.

And that is exactly what I am doing right now. I am pretending that my writing and my opinions as such are valid, unique things that deserve to be seen by others and this is how I am operating this Blog: just precisely like that. I’m going to pretend to myself–to actually and truly believe–that I can do this. Perhaps it isn’t perfect, but having something imperfect at least is a starting point and something to build upon and changing. It is something to work with. If you wait for the perfect clay, you definitely won’t make that sculpture or even get that clay.

I guess what I am saying is that this show will continue, and I look forward to revealing a lot more of what I can do, and what I can ultimately say: because, really, I just want to make “good art.”

Film Review: Joss Whedon’s The Avengers

So, after a basically last minute scramble to do no less than two mini-operas for the contest that Neil Gaiman posted on Facebook, I found myself tired yet at the same time also full of energies. I will talk about just what was involved in making the two mini-operas soon enough. But today was Victoria Day in Canada and my dad and I decided to go see The Avengers movie.

It’s been a long time since I’ve seen a movie with my dad. I’ve been very preoccupied lately and I had to ignore the impulse not to go out anywhere today. Also, even though many of my friends liked this movie, I was still leery of it and the perfectionist side of me also hesitated: wanting to see all the individual movies of the superheroes involved in this film. Joss Whedon’s name as the Director also helped a lot in my decision and so I went to see what this was all about. So today, you’re going to get a little bit of a film review with very few–if any–spoilers for those of you who haven’t watched this yet.

Before I go on, I just have to add that I’d known the Avengers ever since I was a child. I collected three series of Marvel cards: including the holograms. I also read as many comics as I could get my hands on and any trivia as well. I really loved to read superhero and villain origin stories and information. While I know there were a few cartoons and such, I never gave much thought of an Avengers film on the big screen.

The movie started out in a somewhat confusing way, but was also pretty straightforward. I didn’t exactly recognize the main villain at first, but once introductions were underway his identity made a lot of since. Basically, the plot structure of this whole film was adding one potential catastrophe after another and seeing how the characters dealt with this “series of unfortunate events.” I guess you can say that about any action film, mind you, but then there is another element that was really interesting to see as well.

The best way to explain it is character conflict. Imagine a few super-powered or highly skilled people placed in a single place with differing viewpoints and agendas. This has been done before, and to death, of course but Whedon excelled in bringing this out and actually making it an integral part of the film. Chaos is a central force in Avengers–one which this particular villain is traditionally gifted at causing his foes–and watching it play out was just being able to look at pure, destructive genius. As you continue watching this film, you realize that in some ways, the heroes have just as much potential to be dangerous to the world in their state of disharmony as the villains that are actively and consciously trying to cause mayhem and destruction.

Of course, there is a lot of genius and epic courage in just how that chaos is–for the moment anyway–resolved. And even all of this would have just been slightly above the par of usual events that occur in an action or superhero movie if not for Whedon’s humour, witticisms and pop culture references–especially with regards to the Marvel heroes–that he is so known for in Buffy and all of his other works.

I actually really enjoyed this movie. It was a challenge. There have been many films where heroes and villains team up from different places and become generic cast-off or one-function characters. One character in this film perhaps functioned that way, but Whedon put a fair amount of psychological dialogue and character development in there to more than make up for it.

All and all, I would give this film a four out of five if not a five. Also, I had a few guesses as to whom the real power behind the chaos was and I was not disappointed: just awestruck. And I look forward to the near future when the Avengers assemble again.

Mini-Opera: The Sweeper: A Teardown Epilogue

Notes: Basically I visualize a grey stage with a grey man–the Soloist– and a broom. He is sweeping away a pile of bodies: some monstrous, some beautiful, or alien. I can also see him sweeping up flowers, gemstones, coins, bones, computers and various other strange things.

It’s a thankless job

though I couldn’t give less a damn about being thanked.

Some call me the Sweeper:

like it’s something special

like I do something sacred.

But I’ll tell you, now, since you are here

that every good foundation is judged by its plumbing.

Cleaning the bodies of monsters and fairies,

lost memories clogging the arteries of the brain:

the backlog of  secrets crammed up to make someone

topple over.

A dreamer is a hazard

an accident waiting to happen

if you don’t clean them out.

It’s easy to get caught up in their garbage

in their filth

and no matter much you do

how many fairy-tales you wash away

or props you take apart,

they always leave you stained:

in some way.

That’s why I can’t stand them.

I’m a glorified janitor of the unconscious

and people pay me no mind

which lets me see all of their

mysteries and secrets

all day and every night.

Yes, that’s right.

Unicorns are a hazard

try surprising one sometime.

Zombies are a mess

to get out of the cracks in the mind.

Vampires wear out their welcomes fast

and gods really don’t know when to die.

I won’t even go into the sex dreams,

but I’ve seen worse.

Whether dream or nightmare, neither smells like roses when the dreamers are done,

when they throw them away.

It’s the lucids that make it annoying:

always getting in your way,

trying to change the scenes you’re already cleaning

and they think they’ve got so much to say.

I don’t care if they can fly or how many wishes they’d like.

But the strangest thing I’d ever seen:

was from a man with a Kaiser mustache

who dreamed of a World-Tree and a ladder:

of flying women in armor and wings,

of blond-haired, blue-eyed heroes with swords and rings

all wearing Swastikas and killing dwarves with yellow stars

on faded coats.

Add the women drinking and ripping men apart

and a dark spirit chasing the white-robed Kaiser-man and you see what I mean.

You see?

He called himself Zarathustra: though I know that wasn’t his name.

He claimed he separated good and evil and then united them again.

I bet he regretted what he called when they all came.

What a mess.

He even asked me to clean it all up for him,

that it wasn’t what he dreamed for

I could have just said nothing, but instead reminded him that he didn’t want my help

that, “God is dead.”

Then I left up the ladder.

because I don’t get paid nearly enough to kill overgrown weeds, Nazi gods

and drunken cannibals.

In fact, I don’t get paid at all.

I don’t even remember how I got this tattoo–

this dragon-tattoo like from some book in a drugstore–

though I hope it was from something fun.

The truth is

I do not remember much

except for one thing.

Because I know

that for all the sweeping I do here

all the time I spend in your daydreams

and your sleep,

I never dream.


And I … never will.

Mini-Opera Contest: Words on a Screen: A 16-Bit Opera on an 8-Bit Track

Notes: The aesthetic of this script as looking like an online chat forum is more than intentional. I visualize two Soloists. This can be an animated 16-bit cartoon with pixelated sprites or even an interactive basic video game. I can see a male and a female character sitting in front of their computers: with their heads to us, but we can see their faces as icons on each other’s screens. For example, the boy’s face would be on her screen and her face would be on his.

I can also see them playing a video game RPG with basic pixel characters: especially when they talk about “epics of epicness.” I also see their dialogue appearing in blue boxes over their heads when they sing.

In addition, I can hear the music as being synthetic and electronic like the soundtracks one would find in old Nintendo video games or old-style arcade games.

These are obviously just suggestions though and live-performers and stagecraft can be used as well.

<<Him>> They say this isn’t real.

<<Her>> They tell me not

to waste my time.

<<Them>> She/he’s not flesh or bone enough

to hold me.

<<Him>> A keyboard is not the texture

of her skin.

<<Her>>  My headphones aren’t his lips at my ear.

<<Him>> But I can look at her text and feel her grin.

<<Her>> I can hear his voice

both deep and


<<Them>> These are the games we play

when the medium is the message

of connection.

<<Him>> Words on a screen.

<<Her>> Touch on a phone.

<<Him>> Our love can be seen.

<<Her>> But we are forever alone.

<<Him>> But are we?

<<Her>> Are we really?

<<Him>> We live trapped in our

blood and bone.

<<Her>> We put on our social

masks, our created


<<Him>> You can walk among people

all alone.

<<Her>> We live personal space

where only silence falls.

<<Them>> Background chatter

white noise

to lose yourself in

a distance of static.

<<Him>> So I played the game of life

where you can’t beat your bosses

<<Her>> because you work for them.

<<Him>> Where you can’t find coins

from floating boxes or the bushes

<<Her>>  The money runs out.

<<Him>> And your princess is never in another castle.

<<Her>> There are no extra lives

and few second chances.

<<Him>> Each day lags.

<<Her>> Each day an epic battle of


<<Them>> Until we played the games we play

where the medium is the message

of connection.

<<Him>> Words on a screen

<<Her>> Touch on a phone

<<Him>> Our love can be seen

<<Her>> But we are forever


<<Him>> But are we?

<<Her>> Are we really?

<<Him>> I used to hate two-player games.

<<Her>> I’d not be some fanboy’s

“girl-gamer” trophy.

<<Him>> Devolving into

player vs. player

<<Her>> Disgusting words and


<<Him>> But just when the Flame Wars

seemed to never end

<< Her>> I’d just about given up …

<<Him>> We met on a Fan Site

<< Her>> Looking for an 8-Bit

Convention Flight.

<<Him>> And on the Internet

<< Her>>  something

<<Him>> was

<<Her>> finally

<<Them>> Right.

<<Him>> We planned to share a room

with friends as our cash

was tight.

<<Her>>  We talked on the forum

about our 8-Bit tracks

<<Him>> exchanged e-mails

<<Her>> chatting deep into the


<<Him>> We got to talk

about martial arts.

<<Her>> I got to pick his brain.

<<Him>> I told her in the Matrix

I’d side with the Machines.

<<Her>> I told him about my art

in different fanzines.

<<Him>> Until the glass of the screen became

a permeable thing

<<Her>> As we Skyped

our voices rang with


<<Him>> Until

<<Her>> After exchanging pictures

<<Him>> wireless electricity crackled

<<Her>> just as Tesla had intended

<<Them>>  And we

exhaled …

pixelations ….

For we played the games we play

where the medium is the message

of connection.

<<Him>> Offline they still say this

isn’t real.

<<Her>> That passion and pain

are just words on a


<<Him>> Sound and fury flying across

digital space,

signifying nothing.

<<Them>> On our 8-Bit Convention Day

we plan to meet

<<Him>> Face-to-face

<<Her>> Flesh-to-flesh

<<Him>> Text-to-text

<<Her>> and brain-to-brain

<<Them>> Even if they think we’re insane.

<<Her>> Perhaps it could be a


<< Them>> For words on a screen

connect pure and clean

and Offline can be messy.

<<Him>> I think

<<Her>> Yet I believe

<<Them>> Yet we know

in this 8-Bit Theatre

this 16-Bit Opera

our epics of epicness

will unite past blood,

bone, sex and continents

to make the greatest

multi-player role-playing

game of all!

For words on a screen

and touch on a phone

make love visible

and we are not alone.

Our medium is our message.

We are our medium,

and we are … real.

A Challenge

I’ve been very busy lately with a few things. This is going to be a short post. A day or so ago, Neil Gaiman’s Facebook profile informed me of a Contest he contributed a story to called Mini Operas. Essentially, the object of this competition is to create a script for a 5-7 minute opera using a “seed-story” contributed by one of three writers as inspiration. Neil himself sent in his “The Sweeper of Dreams” short story.

The challenge for me here is three-fold. First of all, I have never written an opera script before. I have barely even seen sample scripts of this kind. I am operating with a basic structure in mind: a story summary or idea outline followed by dialogue or script placed in creative or poetic stanza arrangements. I also know it will probably have a soloist and a chorus. The second difficulty is the idea for this impromptu mini-opera. I do have at least one idea, but it will take time to do it: assuming it is not still evolving. Then there is the final aspect of this challenge: I have approximately five days to develop an idea, evolve it, write it and send it in.

You might ask yourself why it is I’m doing this. What do I hope to gain from it. The answer to this question is weird. One reason is that Neil is involved in this Contest and he is one of my writing influences and inspirations. But another reason is very simply this: I want to see if I can in fact do this.

The Contest link is:

We will see what happens.

ETA: Sorry, I just have three days to make something. My bad.

It’s Funny: Jeff Smith, Bill Watterson and Cartoons in the Real World

I know I promised to write a story after my comic review, but I guess I lied: if only to articulate something else that’s been on my mind for a while.

It is an observation that relates to, well, my last article on characters that someone can relate to and it also brings together some thoughts I’ve had since my own reading and the Toronto Comics Arts Festival where I got to listen to a panel with Jeff Smith: the creator of the comics series Bone. Aside from the fact that Smith is hilarious–and he would have to be in order to write something with enough pacing as he would Bone‘s plot–hearing him talk reminded me of the Bone characters and the world that he made for them.

The Bones are these small blunt-shaped white cartoon beings with beady but expressive black eyes that somehow manage to convey a lot of different emotions. There are three of them: Fone Bone who is a dreamer and likes to read Moby Dick, Phoney Bone who is greedy and always scheming, and Smiley Bone who is tall, silly, and really crazy but has this almost serene “just so” tiger Hobbes demeanour to him. The entire story arc actually takes place in the Valley: a place far from their own home of Boneville filled with talking animals, dragons, rat creatures and humans. Basically, the Bones are not human at all or even animals and we watch them interact with a world with some humans, but not our world.

And somehow, readers relate to the Bones and I never really wondered why. You would think that we would relate to the humans in that world, though they aren’t the primary characters. What is also interesting is how the Bones are so simply–yet deceptively–drawn cartoons, yet the world around them is very dark, detailed, naturalistic and realistic: and–again– it somehow works.

This is also something that Bill Watterson has employed in Calvin and Hobbes: creating the basic exaggerated shape of a spiky haired six year old boy and a cartoon tiger while using the rest of his brush work to depict a very natural world, but also very detailed ones of fancy and imagination. The seemingly simple cartoon character as an icon manages to unify the reader with that world through its own interactions with it.

I’m obviously not the only one to have noticed this, and they are not the only ones to have used this strategy: Tezuka Osamu also does this to great effect in his work in Phoenix, Buddha, Astro Boy and other works as well. In my own studies–both in University and outside of it–I read up on Scott McCloud’s Understanding Comics and he states something to the effect of how we as viewers tend to find some kind of sympathy or empathy with a simplistic, more essential depiction of a person or an animal than we would a more realistic one. It is a matter of being able to somehow identify with “the cartoon” and by doing so being able to follow that cartoon’s journey into a stranger world: sometimes like, and sometimes not like our own.

In my Images of Animals course, our teacher explained to our class that humans seem to identify with, and be more comfortable around neotony: with animals that are more child-like. In fact, we actively breed them to be this way. This mentality fits well with why “animal stories” exist. I wrote a paper explaining that talking animals in these kinds of stories are “animal-teachers” that serve as a bridge between the natural or unconscious world and ourselves. They somehow manage to shield us from the harsher elements of the world through their appearance–giving us the illusion of distance (because nothing like them can be “real”)–but they also expose us to that world as well. It can be very subversive. Art Spiegelman, in his graphic novel Maus, gives us animal characters to look at his family’s experiences in the Holocaust yet he also makes it clear that these humanoid animals are masks: which he lets slip from time-to-time and even shows how meaningless they are as human labels.

The cartoon is a lens or a focus of reality. It can serve as a protective barrier–a kind of irony–against the dangers of that world, but they all slip occasionally and purposefully to expose us not only to the threats created in those worlds, but the mysteries and joys that lie in them and ourselves. I can just come out and saw that cartoons are archetypes or essential basic shapes that we can identify with to guide us through the alien or the Other that is the world.

You know, when the panel with Jeff Smith was opened for questions I was almost tempted to ask him one in particular. I always wondered that if Bone takes place in a series of worlds–bounded by the Dreaming–and the Bones themselves come from a place that is not Earth or the Valley, then how does Fone Bone even know about Moby Dick, never mind read the thing? I was tempted to ask Smith this question and a part of me regrets not taking that opportunity, but at the same time I also recognize that I would have been somewhat of an asshole if I had put him on the spot like that and I didn’t have the heart to.

I have my own theory: that the Bones and Boneville are another part of the Dreaming or are more Dream creatures than even the ones in the Valley: which would explain a lot about why they are so important. But then I realize that of course they are part of the Dreaming. Everything is. So is Watterson’s Hobbes. So are all cartoon characters. Alan Moore would call the Dreaming “Idea Space”: a psychic space where all ideas and concepts come from, while Carl Jung would call it the “collective unconscious.” So would it be that inconceivable that Moby Dick could exist in that area and be found by a race of Bone-creatures? Or that Hobbes could be a more livelier version of Schrodinger’s cat in–or not in–Calvin’s transmogrifier box?

I just find it remarkable that we can sometimes relate so much more to basic shapes on a piece of paper configured to look like an exaggerated being than to something that we see everyday: that this being can guide us–like a comic psycho-pomp–through so many levels of our own underworld. I also find it intriguing that the very term “comics” refers to the old “funny-pages” of newspaper strips–and comedy–and how comedy has always in some ways been used to recognize the sublime within the ridiculousness. Someone should really examine Romanticism and its influence within the world of cartooning, or with regards to Jungian psychology and mysticism but I’m not going to be the one to do that.

I’ve gone on longer than I thought but like any joke, I do want to end with a kind of punch-line. In ancient Greece, there were nine Muses and nine Arts associated with those muses. Thalia was the Muse of Comedy: of the Comical. The Belgian cartoonist Morris referred to comics as–or at least a part of–the Ninth Art.

And honestly, I think that is just… funny.

Comics Review: Jonathon Dalton’s Lords of Death and Life

I know I’m not doing very much Creative Writing on this site yet, but I want to write about this particular work before I forget. I’ve always been interested in comics: both in particular stories and in comics as a literary art-form and accepted medium. A lot of my own academic studies focused on certain comics works, though I will also admit that I’d been studying them long before I ever applied to York’s Humanities Graduate Program.

So this is going to be a comics review: which is something that I like to do from time to time. Like I said in my last review, I appreciate the difficulty in analyzing a comic: especially when you don’t feel comfortable copying or pasting parts of it for others to see in your review. However, I will do my best to make clear references here, but to also not spoil any of the details.

Unlike my last review, which looked at an examination of a cartoonist creator of a comic strip, this review will focus on a comic I picked up not too long ago. I found Lords of Death and Life at this year’s Toronto Comics Arts Festival at the booth of its creator Jonathon Dalton. The cover struck me first: with a fallen Mayan man and a priest above him with an obsidian dagger. They are surrounding by Mesoamerican glyphs or pictographs. It looked like the cover of a children’s storybook or an introductory junior level book into Mayan or Aztec culture: much like something I would have looked at in back when our class examined the Aztecs back in elementary school.

It’s storybook illustrations did catch my eye, but I admit I almost didn’t buy the book: even when talking with its creator for while. Very few books at this year’s Festival intrigued me enough to buy anything with the little birthday money I had left over. However, something called me back to it. And I noticed there was a small review by Scott McCloud on the back cover talking about how Dalton’s book was “an intoxicating fusion of ancient design and modern imagination.” Scott McCloud is not only a well-known cartoonist in his own right, but he is also a comics-scholar that wrote a series of books talking about the comics medium in and through the comics medium–as comics themselves–such as Understanding Comics: The Invisible Art, Making Comics and the rest.

The reason I mention this is that he, along with the legendary comics creator legend Will Eisner–considered by some to be the grandfather or godfather of the comics medium–point out that many ancient cultures possessed a sequential pictographic format of telling stories, or recording language. I believe both Eisner and McCloud look at Egyptian hieroglyphics and Mayan friezes as examples of a “sequential art” used to depict stories and record information.

This is another thing that I found so fascinating about Dalton’s comic. He actually incorporates Mayan or Mesoamerican glyphs into his comic. There is an entire section of panels that tells a part of the story as if the reader is looking at a Mayan frieze. At first, this can be very confusing until you realize that he has a very handy glossary at the end of his book which also tells you which glyphs he had learned and which ones he also had to make some creative approximations or guesswork for. If you don’t know about this, however, the beginning can be very confusing: especially when the main character Mol Kupul keeps referring to the date of each day from the Mayan understanding of time.

I also don’t know what to say without spoiling the story, but as I read on I was greatly impressed with where the plot went. You begin to see that a series of seemingly unrelated events are actually quite related and there is a truly epic battle at the end of the narrative, followed by an ending more bittersweet than Mayan chocolate drunken out of a golden cup of blood: so much so that I think it really opens itself up to the potential for a sequel and one I would definitely not mind reading.

If Lords of Death and Life has any more issues, it would be that there are many Mesoamerican cultural references and names of which many readers might not be familiar and would have to greatly pay attention to or reread carefully to get full reading comprehension. Also, the speech of the spirit character in this work–the uay companion spirit–is more than a little over the top and sometimes choppy. However, Dalton does succeed in bringing you into a whole other world with the interaction between Mayans and Aztecs and he definitely plays with your expectations as to what will happen. Also know that by the time the story begins, it is already over and you as a reader are only beginning to find out how everything transpired. It is an excellent storytelling device and it gives you a peak into how an ancient Mesoamerican mindset functions as well.

I am very impressed with Jonathon Dalton’s work here. He manages to make a comic that goes back to the basics or the essentials of the form’s creation, and tap into that place where ancient pictographs and modern comics both parallel each other and meet. He has made something special and I wish I had talked with him more about it: though I take solace in that he signed the book I bought from him with an ancient Mesoamerican monster growling out my name. I think more people need to know about his work and more of it–along with information about him–can be found on his website here: where he has a few more comics and a work in progress.

I’d definitely give Dalton’s Lords of Death and Life a four out of five stars. I just find it incredible that one person could have done this much illustrative and written work along with all of the research to get there.

Now, hopefully next time, I will have a story of my own to begin here. Perhaps even a series.