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Putting Grace Into Grease: Greasy Space Monkeys

One of my favorite webcomics is Greasy Space Monkeys, by Reine Brand, with the help of her mysterious editor Mark Kestler (who may be a robot or AI program, but who I hope is a human).

The premise – our Big Damn Heroes, Nathan and Caspar, are actually under-appreciated maintenance workers on a run-down space station – looks like it will make for some nice low-maintenance throw-away humour, but not for sophistication, satire, emotion, eloquence, or superb storytelling. Guess what?

It is true that there are many one-off jokes that are not the most graceful, and often even outright gross.

But many jokes are on the theme of robots vs. humans, and those are connected, and even quite deep, sometimes.

There’s also something for the aficionados of fighting in space, and it’s done with wonderful visuals, which is all the more astonishing given the strip style format of the comic.

And there’s also some romantic tension to be found, which is, IMHO, done so well that I’m dead serious in calling Greasy Space Monkeys my favorite romantic comedy.

But the most awesome thing about this comic is that there are several storylines, of different length, often intertwined, and typically also with tie-ins from the trow-away jokes.

But before I discuss these storylines, I admonish you to check out and read Greasy Space Monkeys first, because there will be spoilers.

Now, if you are back, or if you don’t mind the SPOILERS AHEAD, click for more, read on, and discuss (that’s what the comments are for, duh).

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Provocative Praise Picks #6

Today’s Provocative Praise Pick is last Friday’s page from Opportunities by sincerely and Elliwiny, who, by the way, recently answered my Seven Questions About Opportunities.

That page illustrates the unique ways in which comics can combine visuals with dialog and plot to tell an interesting story.

First in case you aren’t up-to-date on Opportunities, the two aliens are security officers charged to protect the alien diplomats and decision-makers (not seen on this page) on a goodwill and negotiation mission to Earth. Kyan, the female-looking alien, is in charge, and frustrated at the difficulties in her job due to diplomatic necessities. Rex, the male looking alien, is a laid-back type of guy who wants to make sure Kyan is not more p*ssed off that usual by others, and doesn’t p*ss off other.

The humans are all involved with the negotiations, and they want to use some spare time to visit the alien spaceship and have fun. Cortez, the suave hispanic man, is trying to impress the other humans, especially Sara, his newly-aquired lover. Sara is, unbeknownst to the other humans, but highly suspected by Kyan, actually an assassin who want to wreak havock on the aliens, posing as the secretary of a man they killed before he could have introduced her.

Now let’s do an in-depth analysis:

Panel One, we see Cortez approaching Kyan, who is still in her suffer-no-fool-especially-not-these-ones mood, clearly visble in her posture.

Panel Two, Sara tried to back out, because she doesn’t want to risk exping her fake identity. Note the changing look on Kyans face, and note how her ear is very prominent in the panel, reminding us that she has excellent, superhuman hearing and can understand Sara clearly.

Panel Three, we see Rex going through hoops trying to deflect the humans wish to see the spaceship without being too obviously rude.

Panel Four is the most interesting, the encapsulating the crucial plot point. Kyan is now determined to make use of the crazy situation, and play the player, Sara, thinking that it may be better to keep a dangerous person close, if you have control of the situation. Note how the panel itself is visually unassuming, but fraught with meaning, and the dialog is sparse and only hints at her thoughts. It’s our own mind that makes this panel so great and important.

Panel Five gives us the crucial decision in one line of dialog, visually zooming back to show all the persons affected by it.

Panel Six & Seven show us Rex trying to understand what’s happening, inviting us to muse on it as well, and figure out the stuff that I wrote above.

As you can see now, this page serves well to show why I love Opportunities.

Do you notice more interesting details on the page? Tell us in the comments!

What To Expect When You Are Expecting (A Great Movie To Be Made From A Great Book)

With the release of the movie The Martian being imminent, I want to talk about, you guessed it, the expectations people may have about it. This was triggered by the article The Martian – Already A Problematic Adaptation, written by Ian Dawe on Sequential Art Magazine.

I have at least one thing in common with Ian, namely that I Am Not A Superhero Fan, either, but in the article he expresses concerns and misgivings about the upcoming movie that I do not share. (Even if I see most of his points. I certainly do.)

So I try to disagree with him as respectfully and politely as possible. Please keep in mind that while I react to Ian’s article, there will be many others who have similar thoughts, so there’s really nothing personal in this discussion. You could say I use his name as a shorthand for a particular mindset.

As a starting point, I guess we can all agree on on thing: Andy Weir’s book The Martian is awesome! (Note that the statement is tautologically true as long as I do not define who’s include in we.)

The question at hand is: Will the upcoming movie be just as awesome?

Now, what does that mean? What does that require?

Ian Dawe has a clear vision: A straight-ahead adaptation would (be) magnificent and refreshing in science fiction cinema.

But what exactly would constitute straight-ahead adaptation of a book that consists mostly of first-person narration, most of it in presented as diary entries? Isn’t there the very real possibility that the straight-ahead adaptations would turn out magnificent and refreshing, but also artsy-fartsy rather than awesome?

But Ian is more concerned about the danger of the film making this story “too Hollywood”, and sees this concerns validated by the trailer.

Make no mistake, I can see very clearly that the constraints imposed on movie-making by Hollywood are severe. For example, I see the difference between a movie like Kingsman, which is not subject to them, and Guardians of the Galaxy, which is very Hollywood. And I definitely prefer the former style (pun intended)!

But on the other hand, I really enjoy a Hollywood movie when it shows the love, the passion, and the skills that the creators put into making it. Like Guardians of the Galaxy. If the weathermaking fairy gave you the power to let it hail and drizzle, would you complain that you can’t control the size and form of the hailstones and raindrops?

Now let’s have a look at Ian’s specific concerns:

  • He complains that the main character is first and foremost a nerd, and shouldn’t be played by some sort of handsome muscular leading man.

    To this I have to say two things:

    First, I’m p**sed off so much by the (stereo)typical depiction of nerds that we see so often on the screen, that I really want to see nerds who deftly defy those stereotypes. Frankly, I don’t understand how someone who’s so adamant against stereotyping like Ian wants to see nerdy nerds.

    Second, Mark Watney is not depicted as handsome and muscular, he’s mere played by an actor who is. This is a movie! You don’t think that the people in Sin City actually are black-and-white and live in a world that is devoid of colour, do you? They are just filmed that way.

  • In my opinion the most serious issue raised by Ian is that about 85% of the story takes place with one character in an enclosed environment on Mars. Everything else is B story. The trailer features very little of Mark Watney himself, and much more of the crew and mission control.

    I suspect that we will see proportionally more of Mark Watney, alone on Mars in the movie than in the trailer. But I have to agree that the story will be changed massively by refocusing away from Mark Watney, alone on Mars as the only really important plot. The movie will be a very different movie than the straight-ahead adaptation that Ian would have preferred.

    But unlike him, I don’t think that’s bad. In fact, I’m more than happy about it. Novel and movies work very differently as storytelling devices, they have very different strengths and weaknesses. What is absolutely wonderful in a novel can be boring in a movie.

  • In the book, there’s very little action in this story. It’s about one man solving problems using his ingenuity, but in contrast to that, the trailer is chock full of action sequences, focusing on the finale involving the Hermes.

    Like the last point, this is certainly an important difference. And again, I support the change, because the medium works different. In a novel, gratuitous action scenes will most likely distract from the real issue at hand, but in a movie, action scenes can used to highlight deep themes. Of course, this has to be done with skills and taste, and it is entirely possible that The Martian will suck because of ham-fisted handling of action scenes. To find out, we will actually have to see the movie!

  • Ian comments on some change to the ethnicity of characters. These are debatable, but at least they didn’t diminish the diversity of the cast, as far as I understand; for example, they changed an Indian character by casting a Nigerian actor.

  • The crew of the mother ship […] the Hermes, is referenced throughout the book but rarely seen, […] the most cliched and least interesting part of the story. You can feel the momentum of the book slow down […] each time we flash to them. On my second reading, I pretty much skipped every segment featuring the crew.

    I’m curious: How is the last sentence supposed to be something laudable about the book? Something to be truthfully recreated in the film adaption?

    I, for one, don’t want boring and uninteresting scenes in my movies. So if they trumped up that part of the original story, hooray!

    The crew is featured , if anything, more than Watney, and “cast up” to prominently feature the two female crew members [..] one of whom is the Captain in the movie, whereas the most important members of the crew in the book are the German scientist Vogel and ace pilot Rick Martinez.

    Well, in my opinion it is only sensible that the trailers make it clear that the movies isn’t just about one or more guys. And in the additional material, e.g. the fake crew interviews, Vogel and Martinez are certainly featured prominently enough.

  • According to Ian, the most troubling thing, though, is a shot of Watney looking at a photo of a woman and child and crying.

    I have to agree with him that it’s very important, and very refreshing, that Watney in the book is not married, and is in fact a single guy, and fine with it. The issue simply doesn’t come up. I found that aspect tremendously appealing. We need more positive images in our culture of single people, and Watney’s romantic life is simply not relevant to the story.

    If they changed that aspect of the book for the movie, this would indeed constitute a grave error, a missed opportunity. And like Ian, I suspect this may well be the case.

Ian’s conclusion, in The Martian Already A Problematic Adaptation, is I’ll still see the film, of course, but my enthusiasm for it is severely tempered.

As you can see, I’ll certainly see the film, and even if I can understand some of the issues he raises, my enthusiasm is still great. In fact, the trailer, and the additional fake NASA press kit material recently released, have increased my enthusiasm.

And if Ian’s article has increased my awareness of some of the issues involved, this will hopefully make the experience of seeing the movie even more enjoyable. Thank you, Ian!

What’s your take? Tell us in the comments!

Stay tuned!

On Friday, it’s time again for another Storytelling Scrutiny Squared article. I’ll talk about Story Structure Models.

Spy vs Spy vs Spy vs Spy

In case you wonder: No, I’m not trying to channel MAD Magazine here.

The four movies I liked best during the last twelve month were all surpise hits for me, where I went into the theater thinking Yeah, this will be fun, but didn’t really anticipate how great the movie actually turned out to be: Guardians Of The Galaxy, which I didn’t write about, yet, Kingsman – The Secret Service, which I wrote about here, Spy – Susan Cooper Undercover and The Man From U.N.C.L.E., which I write about today. (I’ll also throw in Jonny English Reborn, which I saw on DVD recently.)

The reason I want to talk about the four spy movies is that I’m fascinated with the extraordinary suceessful combination of action and comedy that they represent.

Comedy vs Humour

Note how I say comedy, not humour. Mixing action, drama, and humour is standard for any spy thriller, modern or ancient. What differentiates comedy from humour, in my opinion, is that comedy is based on humour that exceeds the limits of the setting.

In real life, people make jokes, behave funny, have quirks, and run into ironic situations. So if, for example, a doctor, or a lawyer, does any of these, that’s simply humour. However, in real life, doctors and laywers rarely make offensive jokes, at the expense of their patients / clients, in their face, thereby putting their own job at risk. If that happens, we are in comedy territory.

Along these lines, James Bond is a thriller with some humour mixed in, but the four spy movies mentioned above are action comedy.

Action Comedy

A true action comedy needs a pretty solid – if somewhat over-the-top – action plot as well as a strong comedy element, and they need to fit together well.

In my opinion, Spy – Susan Cooper Undercover and Jonny English Reborn have the strongest comedic element, Kingsman – The Secret Service has the least, and The Man From U.N.C.L.E. stands in between. (To reiterate, comedic element refers to humour that breaks the limit of the action setting.) For the record, I love the humour in all four movies, even if it is of very different type: Foul-mouthed and irreverent language in Spy, slapstick and absurdity in Jonny English, irony and self-awareness in Kingsman, and a piece of all of those in U.N.C.L.E..

The Action Plot

To evaluate the strength of the action plot of an action comedy one can look at three questions: How solid is the world-building behind the plot? How precise is the execution of the plot? How does the comedy element interact with, or interfere with, the action plot?

The most solid world-building from our four examples is to be found in Spy: Terrorists getting hold of a small nuclear weapon is a scenario on the agenda of real-world agencies. U.N.C.L.E. and Jonny English use more-or-less believable variants of real-world scenarios. The evil mastermind’s plan Kingsman, on the contrary, is totally over-the-top, as is the agency depicted in either of the latter two movies.

The plot is executed very solidly in all four movies. I’d even argue that it is executed (almost) flawlessly, and that all four movies are examples of Terminating With Extreme Prejudice.

My article on Kingman, and even more the vivid dicussion in the comments of that article, shows that the Kingsman plot has many missed opportunities, something that I’d not say of any of the other three movies. But in my opinion this simply reflects that both the world-building and the plot of Kingsman are richer, more twisted, and more intriguing than those of the others.

Comedy-Plot Interference

In my opinion, Jonny English has the worst comedy-plot interference: The entire plot would fall apart if the titular hero wouldn’t be an idiot who is totally incapable of doing his job.

The plot of U.N.C.L.E. depends in details on some comedic mishaps, but is otherwise straightforward.

Since the comedic element in Spy is mostly language-based, plus some visual styles, it is mostly independent of the plot. If you cut out some of the more outrageous speeches, and dub some others, you could get an actual non-comedy (but humourous) action movie.

Kingman is a special case: There is a lot of comedy-plot interaction, but since the comedy is, as I stated, mostly ironical and self-aware, this doesn’t affect the plot negatively. In fact, I’d call the strong, overbearing humour in Kingman satire rather than comedy (but I think comedy can be satirical). And because according to my own definition, satire is equivalent to making fun of something by taking it seriously, this kind of satirical humourous influence is actually beneficial to the plot.

Which One Is The Best?

This may be the most interesting question, but I’m unable to answer it. I love all four movies, and if I love them in different ways, I still cannot rank my love for them.

But I’d be quite surprised if all of my readers share this thinking. Please tell us which movie you think is best in the comments. And also tell us where you agree or disagree with my opinions!

Stay tuned!

Next Wednesday will see the second Seven Questions About installment, where I’m asking sincerely and Elliwiny about their webcomic Opportunities. To fully understand what the questions and answers are about, you may want to take the time to read Opportunities.

Storytelling Scrutiny Squared: Honest Trailers

Today, I start another new feature, Storytelling Scrutiny Squared, where I link to other folks who are interested in storytelling and provide information and insight, and demonstrate appreciation, attitude, or amusement.

One of my favorite sources of information about movies I’ve not seen, and amusement for movies I have, are the Honest Trailers that the Screen Junkies put on the web semi-regularly.

Screen Junkies created Honest Trailers for tons of movies. The most recent ones are Kingsman: The Secret Service and Mad Max: Fury Road, or, as they call it Mad Max: Road Trip.

Screen Junkies also targeted a couple of TV show, like Game Of Thrones or my personal favorite Breaking Bad.

In almost all cases, while the Screen Junkies mock the movies or TV shows they cover at will, and expose flaws and oddities without mercy, you still can feel how much they love what they watch. Which is why the directors or screenwriters of the flicks they love typically take it in good grace, either reluctantly or wholeheartedly.

Occasionally, the Screen Junkies will be somewhat condescending towards movies that they seem to consider overhyped and overrated. (I will not give examples, mind you.) And if you think, well, these movies just had it coming, then a) you are absolutely right, but also b) you are not entirely clear on what condescension means.

Anyway. What are your favorite Honest Trailers? Tell us in the comments!

Casting Comic To Film Adaptions: Opportunities

Some time ago I came saw a discussion about which actors should play the main character in a live-action movie of a particular comic series. I don’t remember what triggered this discussion, and I don’t remember what comic series they were talking about. But I think it’s a cool game to play, to think about how a comic you like might be cast for live action movie or television.

I invite you to join me in casting some of my favorite webcomics, all of which have been mentioned in previous post on Provocative Praise. I will look at each webcomic in a separate post (hopefully interspersed by posts about other topics; I don’t want to become too predictable). Let’s have some fun!

I’ll start with Opportunities, which would be best adapted as a TV show rather than a movie.

I’d give it an unconventional narrative structure:

Remember, the webcomic starts with a four-page teaser that goes in medias res with full-blown action before the story rolls back four days and starts building up tension gradually.

In the TV show, with a first season of 13 episodes, the first twelve episodes tell the story starting from four days back, but the teaser of each episode, if spliced together, tell the in medias res action, and at the end of episode twelve the back storyline finally joins the teaser storyline, making episode thirteen an action-packed finale that resolves everything.

The main challenge of this structure is the arrangement of the episode teasers. Each one needs to have some meaning for the corresponding episode, the sequence of the teasers must form a coherent narrative, and the teasers must not reveal too much, compared to the progress of the episodes up to that point.

Now for the cast:

I list roles with the actor names, to indicate which look and acting style I consider fit for the character. I try not to go to far back in time, but  every movie or TV show from the 21st century is fair game, and actors can change a lot in 15 years. With alien characters, I distinguish between casting Rubber Forehead Aliens and Voice Actors. The former are aliens that would actually be played by actors, like Yondu or Thanos, and the latter are aliens were only the actors voice is used, like Rocket and Groot. [I don’t care about technicalities like whether motion capture is used etc.]

  • Sara Emmet: Carla Gugino (Dr. Molly Caffrey in Threshold)
  • Jack Frost: Aaron Paul (Jesse Pinkman in Breaking Bad)
  • Baron: Neil Patrick Harris (Barney Stintson in How I Met Your Mother)
  • Dr. Irving Stone: Chris Noth (Peter Florick in The Good Wife)
  • Irene Vanderwitt-Fitzwilliam:  Christine Baranski (Diane Lockhard in The Good Wife)
  • George Fitzwilliam: Colin Firth (Harry “Galahad” Hart in Kingsman)
  • Collin Parish: Bob Saget ( Theodore „Ted“ Evelyn Mosby in How I Met Your Mother)
  • Cortez: HTF do you cast Cortez? I drew a blank here. Please suggets a suitable actor!
  • Kyan – Rubber Forehead Alien: Cote de Pablo (Ziva David in NCIS)
  • Rex – Rubber Forehead Alien: Michael Weatherly (Tony Dinnozzo in NCIS)
  • Nate – Rubber Forehead Alien:  Sean Murray (Timothy McGee in NCIS)
  • Atticus – Voice Actor: Bryan Cranston (Walter “Heisenberg” White in Breaking Bad)
  • Vigi – Voice Actor:  Pauley Perrette (Abigail “Abby” Sciuto in NCIS)
  • The Janitor – Voice Actor: Alan Tudyk (“Wash” in Firefly)
  • Tath Seti – Voice Actor: Giancarlo Esposito (Gus Frings in Breaking Bad)

Just in case you wonder, I didn’t have the heart to assign an actor to Ben Montiel. And I did’n find it useful to assign an actor to The Briefcase.

Do you agree or disagree with my choices? Do you haver other sugestions? Do you have favorite casting choices for other webcomics? Tell us in the comments!

 

Talking, Thinking, Threshold

For a couple of years, Firefly was the only screwed-by-the-network (I believe that’s the technical term) sci-fi TV show that I cared about. I can’t say I care about it less, now – and if I could, it would certainly be imprudent to do so – but I recently added another item to that ticket: Threshold, which aired on CBS in 2005. To be clear, Threshold is a very different kind of science fiction story than Firefly. In my opinion there is no meaningful way to compare them as such. I like both kinds of science fiction, just as I like many other, different kinds just as well. And while we are speaking, let me use this opportunity to harp on my favorite theme: One of the best things about webcomics is that they span so wide an area, and so many different styles and themes are covered. You will probably know what Firefly is about – a small crew of outcasts, making their live as freelance smugglers or mercenaries, in space, in a ‘verse that contains worlds with very different societies – but you will maybe not know Threshold, so here are the main points:

  • In our world, in our time (2005), an unidentified alien object, a probe ship, goes down over the Atlantic Ocean, in the vicinity of a Navy transport ship.
  • The probe emits strong visual, aural, and radio signals; and some radiation that can deform metal
  • The ship’s crew is affected in multiple ways: Some are disfigured and die, some go violently crazy and kill themselves or others, etc.
  • This multi-faceted infection spreads over to the US, the infected humans form a conspiracy to transform all humanity
  • Following a protocol that was created for worst-case scenarios, the US government forms a secret team to plan and apply measures to contain the threat (infection)
  • There is much strain on the team, and on its relations to other agencies, because the measures they need to apply are a conspiracy as well

I guess you could call this Serious Spy Drama meets Men In Black, which would offer an instant explanation for my love for Threshold. For all their thematic differences, Firefly and Threshold have a lot in common:

  • The visual effects are from decent up to pretty good, but not extraordinary, especially if compared to feature films which can spend a lot more time and money
  • The plot is solid, the pacing pretty fast, the narrative rhythm really good
  • The world-building is very consistent and makes sense in context
  • The characters are really good, and especially the mixture is excellent
  • The most important focus of the story is on character interaction and dialog (the style is quite different, though)

I love consistency in world-building more than scientific accuracy; I don’t care if the science is correct – whatever that may even mean in the context of speculative fiction – but I care if the behavior of the scientists and the processes used make sense (given that they are dramatized versions, not realistic depictions). And thinking about Threshold as I binge-watched it lead me to the observation that I love dramatic moments that involve people talking. Which is kind of curious, looking at the genres that I read or watch, which are all mostly about action and fast pacing: Science Fiction, Espionage, Techno-Thriller, Crime (Procedurals and Thrillers), etc.  With a couple of exceptions, I do not like genres very much that rely on talking per se. But my favorite examples of the genres I love are all, to an astonishing degree, about drama expressed as people talking (or occasionally, very noticeably not talking).

  • My favorite spy novels are the books by John Le Carre, my favorite crime thriller is The Silence Of The Lambs, my favorite naval history novels are the Master & Commander series by Patrick O’ Brian.
  • What I admire the most in Breaking Bad and The Good Wife are character interaction and dialog (though I’ll readily admit that I love TV shows with smart and sexy women).
  • The visuals in both Guardians Of The Galaxy and Kingsman are certainly awesome, but the best parts of each movie are, again, character interaction and dialog.
  • And my favorite webcomics combine character interaction and dialog with great visuals and cool action (most of the examples I’ve talked about in earlier post will fall into that category)

When it comes to dialog, webcomics seem to have severe disadvantages:

  • The word count is limited
  • If the limits of word count are actually tested, the comic can become visually uninteresting (wall of text)
  • The dynamic of the speech act cannot be depicted directly
  • There is no music

But excellent comics apply a couple of tricks to achieve dynamic and create drama when depicting people who talk:

  • Dynamic camera work can be simulated by panel composition and layout
  • Even few words can amount too much if they are emphasized by visual focus on the speaker or the listener
  • The effect of words can be conveyed by depicting the listener(s), and the effort to speak them by depicting the speaker
  • Good lettering can provide clues to context, emphasis, and meaning of the words that are spoken

A very good example for these techniques is the webcomic Validation, which updates twice a week with a three-panel strip. Most of the strips are about people talking while sitting around a table or standing in a group. Many strips show only a single person – the protagonist – sitting at a keyboard or thinking. None of these activities looks very dynamic in itself, but the depiction in the comic is very dynamic:

Set in a very different world, Space Mullet, which has many astonishing visual effect for epic establishing shots or dramatic action scenes, uses exploration of the setting as framing for discussions to make them more interesting, sometimes combined with great camera movement.

And quite different methods, all of them reminiscent of TV show or movie techniques, are used in Opportunities to create dynamic dialog pages:

There are many more examples in the webcomics that I love, and I could talk about these a long time – in fact, I plan to revisit this topic and talk about more examples in the future. But for now, I will leave it at that and ask you:

  • What do you think of the importance of dialog in action-oriented stories?
  • What do you like or dislike about dialog in (web)comics?
  • What are your favorite examples?

You can answer all these questions in the comments. You may have noticed that I changed the claim beneath the photo to Updates Every Other Tuesday, in an attempt to align promise and reality. So lets hope I will see you again in two weeks.