Navigating Uncharted Waters

November, 2013.

I’ve managed to “win” my first NaNoWriMo, and give myself a victory treat by going to see a movie. I go see Frozen. It’s good, and I enjoy it a lot, but I’m processing that “like it or love it?” feeling I have. Mostly my thoughts are about racial representation (which the film does poorly on) and female representation (considerably better), as well as the somewhat cipher presentation of Elsa as a gay character. But more importantly, there’s something else sitting there in the back of my head.

A couple weeks later, I go see it again. And again. Over the next few months, I see it at least a dozen times, often manufacturing an excuse by going with a friend or family member, but often enough just by myself. It’s a film I needed to see. Need to see. In many ways, it’s the most important piece of fiction I’ve encountered in my life.

At Emerald City Comic-Con 2014, Frozen Fever is big. Many, many people are talking about it and selling prints and generally making a big, Frozen happy atmosphere that I fall into comfortably.

I chat with Jay Edidin about it, and they indicate that after the hype build up, when they finally saw it, it didn’t quite move them. I can understand that. I managed my first showing before the wave crested. Before it became a phenomenon. And for anyone who didn’t get swept up into that, it might just seem like an enjoyable, well done, Disney musical. But, I add, in Elsa I saw something that reflected me. I saw myself in a fictional character, pretty much for the first time in my life.

I repeat this conversation with several people over the course of the convention weekend. I don’t know if it comes across as anything other than fanboy babbling about the latest cool thing, but for me it’s important to try and get this out. There’s something that I want to convey that so far has been elusive.

There are two things I’m sure of about Elsa. One of them is that she suffers from mental health problems, primarily anxiety.

In June of 2014, thanks to the ACA, I’ve got medical insurance that’s something beyond the “get in an accident and maybe you won’t die and go bankrupt” level.

In the previous decade plus, I’ve probably been to a doctor twice, when I scoured around for a free clinic to take a look at my hand, which had broken out in a painful way during a cold snap. The people at the clinic were nice, but it’s only open for a few hours on Saturdays, in addition to being well out of the way from where I live. I’ve researched the plans and doctors as meticulously as I can, but I largely settled on a decision because the doctor is just a few blocks from my apartment. Being able to walk to appointments seems nice.

When the doctor comes in, I feel like a load’s been taken off my shoulders in short order. We establish what I think is a rapport, and she explains that they try to take a holistic approach to health, seeing the physical and mental as combined. I like the sound of that. She gives me a little worksheet of questions regarding mental health and a packet of information on what to explore, both in terms of counseling and medication. I leave feeling like I’ve got a plan for how to proceed.

Over the next year, I’ll contact the doctor maybe three times, for various ailments, including shingles. I’m thankful I have insurance, but somewhere along the way I let the plan I had fall by the wayside. I still haven’t seen a counselor or spoken to anyone about medication.

Part of this is due to problems with the system. Navigating my way to physical health is easy enough, but mental health is seen as an additive for the insurance, so requires an entirely different navigation system. I make a few calls here and there, but don’t make any headway. Eventually I just let it drop. It’s too much work to try and pull it together, and I’m mostly surviving.

In early 2015, I get a call from my supervisor at work. I’ve been slacking off. It’s not the first time. She gives me a warning and mentions vaguely about possible cutbacks. I say I understand and that I’ll do better. I’ve been doing the job for nearly ten years at this point. It’s comfortable and familiar and not especially difficult. I do it at home, in my pajamas, while marathoning TV shows on Netflix in the background. There are worse ways to earn a paycheck, but also better ones. It’s a contract position, and while it was exciting and full of promise when I got it, by this point it’s just become a rote activity.

Of course, some of this is a reflection of the change in the company. No longer are there any plans for new and exciting games. An acquisition by SEGA (which held promise and excitement at the time) has turned the studio into one that’s localizing Japanese content rather than developing new material. But some of it’s also me. I’m bored and it shows. It’s also reflective of other issues.

I start guessing when I’ll get the next call. I assume it’ll be in April. It actually comes in June, about a year after that promising first doctor’s appointment. During the phone call from my supervisor, I have warring emotions: complete ambivalence for an action which I’d fully expected to happen at any time, and shock that it’s happening right now. I cry a bit and hang up. Before they cancel my account access, I manage to send off a hurried thank you and good luck to my co-workers in our group chat. Several of them I doubt I’ll ever speak to again, even as I see their birthdays come and go on Facebook.

A few months later, half the remaining support staff will be let go. Less than six months after that, SEGA will announce that they’re closing the studio entirely and letting everyone go. I wasn’t just a one-off firing due to my poor performance, but a harbinger of things to come.

One of the questions in the doctor’s mental health questionnaire is something like “has a mental health problem ever impeded your ability to work or caused a problem at work”. At the time I answered no. But now I’m not so sure.

I’ve long been resistant of self diagnosis. Too many people present it in a cutesy way, like “this is my OCD” which always seems facile and missing the real meat of what these problems entail. If you haven’t gotten a professional diagnosis, then how will you really know? I wonder. So I look askance at people who self-diagnose their mental ailments and I resist saying that I have any such ailments myself, at least until I get a professional diagnosis, which I’ve avoided up until now.

Part of this is the fear. The fear that I do get one and come up clean. The fear that the problems I have aren’t because of anything particularly wrong with me, but just that I’m a fuck-up of a person.

But in my discussion with my doctor in that one, illuminating appointment, I try to bring some of the thoughts that have lurked in my head in the months since I saw Frozen for the first time and the years previous when I’ve probably just subconsciously looked at myself and wondered. Part of what I’m not sure about, I say, is that I only have one frame of reference to view the world: my own. I don’t know whether I’ve got mental health issues or not, because there’s no other baseline to compare against.

I’d like to speak to a counselor, and my doctor agrees. But see the aforementioned pitfalls of navigating insurance and how very, very tiring it is to try and figure out. And also the need for phone conversations. Which are The. Absolute. Worst.

But even if I haven’t made the headway I’d like in the direction of professional diagnosis, I do start to try and process what I am and what I feel.

What I’ve gotten are two concepts that generally cover the times when I’m pretty sure I’m having mental health issues. And I’m fairly certain, contravening my position against self-diagnosis, that I suffer from both anxiety and depression. But I don’t like to call them that. One of the problems with mental health issues is that our entire language to describe them can be incredibly misleading. Depression is seen as this sort of grand morose sadness, and maybe for many people it is, but it doesn’t feel that way with me.

The first concept is The Fog.

The Fog is an enveloping thing. It muffles sensation. It closes me off from the world, setting me at a distance, where it’s difficult to emotionally connect to what’s around me. During periods when The Fog closes in, I tend to retreat more than normal. Far from being something I feel in my brain, The Fog seems to largely exist in my ears and eyes to give a sense of unreality to the world. The Fog isn’t sad, but it’s obstructive, and it takes energy to work through it. Regular, scheduled activity makes The Fog easier to navigate. It’s a lighthouse which keeps me from going adrift.

But, as previously noted, I got laid off from my job. I lost that focusing anchor for what to do with myself. Even if I was largely trying to ignore the duties assigned to me, I still had it as something around which to build my day.

Without the job, I make the decision to try and start my writing career. Flying in the face of pretty much all advice to do so WHILE holding down a regular paycheck, I decide to make a go of it anyway, even though I haven’t laid any of the necessary groundwork. Some of this is the hubris of a mediocre white man. Some of it is a lack of options. I’d done my previous job for a decade and gotten very little that makes a compelling case for “hire me!” Writing is the one thing I feel like I have any skill at, even if I don’t have any good idea for how to make money doing it.

Over the course of 2015, I write and submit short stories, animation pitches, comics pitches, and work on a few of the novels I’m picking at. I collect several rejection letters and no sales. The Fog, it turns out, is omnipresent, and it’s incredibly difficult to keep moving forward without any positive feedback.

I reach out to a few friends to try and get them to read and provide feedback. Few agree, and none get around to reading anything enough to respond. I consider reaching out to more distant acquaintances, friends who are actually professionals, but stop myself because THEY ARE ACTUALLY PROFESSIONALS, and I can’t afford to pay them without a steady income. More than that, I can’t see myself as a close enough friend to ask them a favor.

In NaNoWriMo 2015, I get my third win by cruising past 75k words. It’s my third straight win, and I’ve managed to be even more productive for the third straight time. But also for the third year running, though, I fail to have something complete. I start and restart the same novel three times over the course of the month, and feel like I may only have a small fraction of usable words from the whole.

Afterwards, my production drops. I write one more short story in January, and set it aside, for nobody to read. I pick at some other things, but largely stop writing entirely around the end of winter. It’s not that I don’t want to, or that I lack ideas. I tend to spend inordinate amounts of time mentally refining the stories I want to tell. But I know that in order to tell the stories, I need to write them, and with The Fog generally everywhere, I don’t know what or how to do it. Many of my stories feel too ambitious for my meager skills to convey.

When I tell people I’m going to try writing as a career, most of them nodded appreciably and mentioned that they thought I’d be good at it, since I was able to keep myself on task and work from home for a decade. I shrug, because it isn’t true. I lost my job because I wasn’t able to stay on task, and it’s an order of magnitude more difficult to sit down and write, only to get distracted and look up and see that half the day is gone. After a few days of that, I can’t see anything in terms of a goal because of The Fog, and I start to think “maybe tomorrow” which becomes “maybe next week” which becomes some indeterminate time in the future, but probably November, because I’m really good at knuckling down when a NaNo deadline is looming.

Deadlines are great. The hard part is getting to the point where you actually have them.

Somewhere in here, I start to realize that I’ve been coasting without income for the better part of a year. That I’ve managed to finally go through my final paychecks, and that even if I told myself I could keep going for maybe two years, doing that would mean burning through all of my savings, and I start to twitch. So I realize I’ll probably need to get an actual, paying job, and I start to twitch more.

It’s not that I haven’t been looking for work, but it’s been half-hearted. The one industry I know, video games, leaves a sour taste in my mouth. I’ve seen enough friends get burned by it in various ways that I don’t really relish trying to find another spot in it for myself. Still, because of that familiarity, I send off my resume to several positions. Most never respond. Those that do are firmly in the negative category, joining my several writing rejections.

Outside of video games, I’m even more adrift. I don’t have a good assessment for my own skills, and have a strong need to not sell myself too high. (This, uh, can cause issues with selling writing as well, I’m sure.) But I do apply for positions, in a sort of abstract way. If I don’t focus on them too hard, maybe I won’t feel so twitchy.

The second mental concept is The Fizz. Or The Fuzz. I’m not sure. I waffle between them.

The Fizz is like I’ve been stretched taut like a string and then twanged. I imagine I sound like a samisen (the sound of a plucked nerve) when that happens. The Fizz is being tugged in various ways and feeling like if I go in any of them, I’ll be hauled around violently, unable to regain my footing.

Where The Fog exists largely in my senses, leaving me adrift and cut off, The Fizz is mostly in my stomach. Pulled thin and then, pluck, right in my center of being. It’s being perpetually unbalanced, and set on edge. It’s being touched by electrical contacts, and never knowing when they’re going to be set off, sending a jolt through my system which results in unplanned activity.

The Fizz, when it’s present, instills a sense that I just have to not move, not do anything, for fear that what might happen will be worse than inaction. Although it’s not fear, exactly, just this looming sense of chaos.

I sit in the theater watching Frozen and see Elsa hug her arms tightly around herself, trying to keep control over this chaotic power inside of her. I feel a shock of realization and familiarity, as I do that exact same self hug. A tight grip of personal containment, to try and keep some semblance of control over forces to set me adrift and in the full thrall of The Fog.

With each passing rejection, both on the writing and job front, I start to wonder if I’ll ever amount to anything else successful. It’s a demoralizing process, and I I feel increasing unable to fight against these two forces that largely intrude upon every action I take. Even if I can see some way to gain a course correction, the steps I must take, the hoops I need to jump through, makes such efforts a fight against a storm of impossibility.

In March my SNAP benefits are put on hold, since I’m an “able-bodied adult without dependents.” The letter informing me of this phrases it as if I’ve received a gift, since they were granted for far longer than the normal three months I’d have had. This extra time was due to the poor economy, which has now largely passed, so they’re not sure why I haven’t gotten a job but I clearly don’t need help paying for food.

I still have several hundred dollars in my account, still, and I start to plan out how long I can go with them. The end of summer seems possible.

I start to do similar accountings of everything that drains my resources. Rent is insurmountable, but I cancel my internet and decide to make do with the hot spots I can check out from the library, which gives me home internet about 50% of the time for 0% of the cost and doesn’t leave me feeling slimy for giving money to Comcast.

In a way, I’ve figured out how to turtle my life’s expenses, but it’s done without any clear end-game. If writing isn’t going to happen, I can only hope for something else to magically appear. I begin to make vague contingency plans. Maybe I’ll go live with my sister’s family, I think. I can hermit out in their basement and really focus on my writing.

The plans never get anything more than vague, though. In June, a year after I’ve been laid off from my previous job, and two years after that one hopeful doctor’s appointment, I get a phone call while I’m sitting in a no-phone zone in the library, so I don’t answer.

Phones are a tool of The Fizz. I get twitchy when I get a phone call, something that’s been true for a couple decades, at least. The phone ringing is a harbinger of bad news. In the ten years I had my previous job, phone calls were sporadic. Most of our communication happened online, in chat. For there to be a phone call indicated that it was Important with meant that it was Bad News. I probably only had a dozen or so phone calls in those ten years relating to the job, and I can only think of two of them that were positive. One of them was the phone interview (“This is largely superfluous,” I was told, “Because we’ve already met. You’ve got the job.”) and the second was a few years later where I was told I got a raise.

Outside of work, I grew to dread any other phone calls, especially from family members. Once when I was in college, I got a call from my dad. “I have some bad news,” he said. Oh god, I thought, grampa died. But, no, it was my brother, who’d checked himself into a place for depression and such. (My grandfather is still alive, so many years later. He just celebrated his 93rd birthday.)

But my phone rings and I ignore it because I can’t answer it in this part of the library. It goes to voice mail.

When I get home, I listen over the voice mail several times to understand. It’s someone from the library and they want me to come in for a job interview for a position I applied for a few months ago but has forgotten about. It feels like a godsend, but I’m also thinking, pulled by The Fizz, that it’s going to go wrong.

I navigate the instructions: if I can call back by 8pm that day, to call the person who called me. If I can’t, call a different person. It’s simple to write out, but it feels treacherous and yawning and involves so many phones. The person who called me feels like a lifeline. Even though we haven’t talked, I feel a connection that is more sure than this vague other person. But I check the time and realize I’m too late. It’s after 8 and I’ll have to call this other person tomorrow.

I wake up and do so, after mentally running through what I’m going to say. With a speech rehearsed, I tremble as I dial in the number and wait. It goes to voice mail. I let out a small sigh of relief, since I just have to recite rather than interact. The Fizz is in full force, but I keep my voice level as I say my name and phone number and why I’m calling.

What follows is probably very standard for getting a job, but feels very unorthodox for me. My previous jobs I got largely by being in the right place at the right time or by knowing someone who gave me an in. This is the first where I’ve sought it out and reseted pretty much entirely on my own merits. There’s a bit of scheduling to figure out the right interview date. I inform the people I’d put down as references to expect a call or e-mail. I go into the interview and it feels good, even if I’m sure I flubbed a few of the questions. I say a few things that get them to laugh. I take an aptitude test. I meet up with a friend afterwards for lunch and talk about it, saying that I’m optimistic about it. A week or so later, I get another call saying I got the job. In another few weeks, I get through all the required paperwork and orientation and training and I’m ready to work.

It’s not a glamorous position, but it’s something to provide another anchor. Something to help me navigate The Fog when it appears and to keep The Fizz in check. The ironic thing is for me to do the job, I have to answer the phone. I’m on call, only finding out that I’m working if they need me.

Suddenly, that dread about phone calls vanishes. Now if I get a call, it’s good news. “We want you to come work. Are you available?” So far, my strategy when they ask has been to say yes. To prove, counter to all the evidence, that I’m not a flake. To show up and see people and have positive interactions and to make a good impression. The job is decidedly not a long term gig, but it’s a step in the right direction.

It’s not a perfect fix. I know enough about myself that I tend to attach strongly to things, with greater loyalty than is necessary or probably healthy. There’s a sense that if I do anything that gives a bad impression, it will end the job right there. Say no once, and I’ll be fired. Make a mistake, and I’ll be fired. That maybe they’ll realize that I’m a fraud and not really that good at what I’m doing and they could easily do better, so I’ll be fired.

This isn’t rational, especially for the library. The demands on my time are pretty healthy and accommodating. If I can’t work, I just need to tell them I can’t and it’s fine.

But, even if it’s not exactly what I need to be doing for myself, it is helping. I do get out and meet with people. I’m pretty sure I’m making a good impression. And, because of the institution that it is, in the city we’re in, I’m suddenly not worried that the job is going to disappear out from under me. The library isn’t going to up and decide to close a branch and lay off half it’s workers. I even had a discussion about it with someone who told me that in the time he’s been working there (over a decade), there have only been about 11 such layoffs, back during the worst of the recession. And all those people were ones who’d put in their decades and were okay to go into retirement. That’s not the sort of thing that would affect me, far down at the opposite end of the worker pool.

It’s such a different experience than being in video games, but it’s almost totally more positive, even if it doesn’t have the cachet of being a “cool industry.” And it’s given me a sense of direction. Maybe this is the thing that I’ve been needing. I’ve wanted to go back to school and get my master’s degree for years, but haven’t known what for. Perhaps Library and Information Science is the thing I’ve been wanting. There’s still that desperate, treacherous navigation, but it’s something. A dim lighthouse in the distance with which I could bring about to see

The Fog and The Fizz are still present. They still affect me greatly. Even as I’m doing my job, and doing it well, I can see obligations and connections that fall by the wayside. People I should contact and things that I need to do but don’t. I might forget to pay a bill or to go do something I said I would. I know enough that I’m not in an entirely healthy situation, even if things are Better right now. But those steps to take into unknown areas are still fraught with danger. The Fog and The Fizz combine to create a massive “here there be dragons” outside of a small, largely controlled bubble.

And even if I told myself that I’d work to balance the job with the writing, I haven’t put down more than a few paragraphs in the past several months. Yet even with that, I woke up a couple weeks ago and had a revelation. A little snippet became a scene which bloomed into a scenario and a full story. Not complete, and there’s work to do to fill it out with characters and plot, but it felt crystallized in a way that hasn’t happened in a while. It’s exciting and invigorating.

I’m not better, or even managing particularly well, but even if I take no further steps for recovery, I’ll know about that moment, sitting in a darkened theater and seeing a facet of myself made real on screen. “Oh. Oh!” the revelation hits me and I feel a connection and understanding about myself that’s been missing for over thirty years. Frozen didn’t provide me any real answers, but it did make me understand the questions.

Oh. I did say that there were two things I’m sure about Elsa, didn’t I? Well, the other thing also connects to me, but it will have to wait for another time.

Marvel & DC: Culture & Design

Well, two months have passed since my last blog post. Partially I can claim that I was distracted by NaNoWriMo, which I’m still working on. (Got to my target word count just fine, but the project still needs a lot of TLC to get it in the right shape.)

In light of the recent trailers that have dropped for Captain America: Civil War and Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice the discussion of Marvel and DC is especially high right now. I ended up writing a couple posts on a forum about them, which I think I can edit together into a rough blog post for posterity’s sake.

In general, I’m loathe to delve into a DC vs. Marvel discussion, I think there’s some interesting points of comparison. Especially since a lot of the naysayers seem to be saying that General Audiences aren’t going to care about the BatSoup fight or eventual teamup.

There’s obvious differences between the Marvel and DC setup for their shared universes. Marvel started with a series of solo films, laying bits of groundwork in each of them, essentially seeding the teamup film over the course of four previous. DC did a solo film and now they’re pushing forward with the teamup in the sequel. And, really, neither of these approaches is better than the other. I’d argue that in their own ways they’re both the best for the characters presented.

Marvel, circa 10 years ago, wanted to get their film slate rolling, but had to deal with the fact that the characters they controlled were not especially well known. Captain America is, but Thor and Iron Man are just some dudes that people may have heard of. So while Avengers might be the end-game, they need to create the setup and make sure people know the characters first. They drop Avengers by itself, or too early in the process, and they probably give people the impression that the Avengers are mostly like the X-Men: heroes that almost always tend to fight as a team, or perhaps are Wolverine/Iron-Man and their Amazing Friends.

So, do individual films and then the team-up. In the process, get the cultural knowledge out there and establish Iron Man, Cap, and Thor as bigger heroes. Good strategy. It worked. Thumbs up Marvel.

Now over at DC, they also want to get their shared world rolling. But while they have some disadvantages (such as doing so after Marvel already has), they have some significant advantages, as well. Namely, Batman, Superman, and (to a lesser degree) Wonder Woman are cultural icons. They are well known and recognized characters, up there with some of the biggest of the 20th century (like Spider-Man, Mickey Mouse, and Darth Vader.)

Cultural knowledge is an interesting beast. It’s long on presence though short on specifics. If you look at the cultural knowledge of Batman, you get a shorthand: dead parents, Gotham City, Joker, Commissioner Gordon, Robin, etc. For Superman you get Krypton, Lex Luthor, Lois Lane, Daily Planet, Metropolis, Smallville farm, and so forth. It’s really broad strokes of the pieces, and how those pieces fit together isn’t defined, but here’s the kicker: it doesn’t really matter.

Because Batman and Superman are so well known, DC has the advantage that they can basically take a short cut and just say “you know who these guys are, here’s a teamup.” And while this might be maddening for people who are invested in Marvel’s build-up strategy, it actually does work. The audience member who doesn’t really know comics minutia isn’t coming into this wondering where Batman came from. She already knows Batman in broad strokes, and that’s enough. Some of the details might be fudged around, but there’s a loose enough picture.

Basically, once you do the ground work, you can take it as a given that some things will be known. At this point, Marvel very much does the same thing. Over the years from 2008 to 2012, their characters entered cultural memory a bit, so it was fine when far more people saw The Avengers than saw any of the preceding films.

Now, despite these base differences, the two do approach storytelling in a similar manner. Superhero stories tend to be cut from the same basic cloth. There are tropes endemic to the genre that will play whether you’re telling a story about Iron Man or Superman. That’s part of the charm and appeal and why most people tend to just like superheroes rather than falling on one side of the Big Two or the other.

However, in terms of design, there are vast gulfs. Marvel has built up a fairly specific aesthetic. On one hand, their costume designs evoke the look from the comics very closely. They aren’t exact copies, but it gives a very real sense of the superheroes come to life. However, beyond that is a very real attempt to make it seem real world. This is a conceit that goes back to the comics themselves: the Marvel Earth is basically our Earth, just that some people can shoot lasers out of their eyes. While that might falter when you apply some logical scrutiny, it serves a purpose: the world has an easy access point.

DC tends not to do this. For one, their world is littered with cities that don’t exist. Unlike Marvel, which mostly takes place in recognizable New York, each DC hero has their own abode, all of which have very strong and specific design ticks. Superman’s Metropolis is Art Deco through-and-through while Batman’s Gotham has gothic roots. And that’s informing the presentation we got in Man of Steel and is showing up here. As a friend wonderfully put it, this is “Apocalyptic Golden Age SF”.

The design choices are informative, because it’s a statement that the DC world works differently. The presence of Thor on Marvel Earth hasn’t had a great effect. For most people, it’s business as normal, just watch out of the occasional falling Ultron bot. But for the DC Earth, Superman’s presence is an indication of great change. The worlds that Man of Steel showed (Earth and Krypton) had different looks and feels, but now that’s blending, which pulls us away from the familiar into this more fantastical place.

Neither of these approaches are right or wrong. They both work, and they specifically work for their respective heroes. Marvel in the 60s established their universe as grounded in human feelings and frailties. DC’s roots are from the 40s, and their universe and heroes have a more iconic status. (The latter, somewhat interestingly, allows for variations on the characters to be easier to accept.)

My 2015 movie summer (part 3)

So what is the best movie of the summer?

This shouldn’t be a surprise.

Mad Max: Fury Road

In a world that’s chock full of regressive sequels and reboots, Mad Max: Fury Road is a breath of fresh air.

Wait, that’s not quite right.

On paper, leading into the year, Fury Road seemed like yet another sequel for a long dormant franchise. True, Mad Max was never a blockbuster series, but it has fans and has carved a rather enduring niche into the public consciousness. “Two men enter, one man leaves!” is regularly quoted, even by people who haven’t seen the film. (Ironically, the line is from the oft-maligned Thunderdome film.)

There are at least seven franchises that are seeing their fourth or later film this year. Three of those are hitting at least seven installments. One hit twelve. Established IPs are the name of the game, and Hollywood has begun to trawl around for anything with some name recognition to slap on the screen.

So in that sense, Fury Road is another of the pack. If Hollywood had a formula, you could foresee how it would go: string together enough recognizable references to the original films, slap on some prettified computer effects, and amp up the bass line of the soundtrack. $150 million later, and you’ve got a brand spanking new film.

The big question with these sequels is whether there’s an audience. Or rather, whether the fans of the original won’t be alienated by the changes while younger viewers are intrigued enough to come along for the ride. And going into the summer, it seemed that it might not work. Much like Terminator franchise, Mad Max was one of those that had seen its time come and go, with only older fan nostalgia to keep it going.

Except it wasn’t QUITE the same. Terminator had seen creator/director James Cameron move onto (much) bigger things. Steven Spielberg had stepped back to executive producer duties for the dinosaurs. George Lucas sold off his entire company to Disney has nothing to do with the new film (for good or ill).

In the case of most of these franchises, the IP are held by studios or passed around between holding companies or somesuch. Thanks to our frankly absurd copyright laws, they will remain as such until the heat death of the universe, so we’re going to be subjected to franchise iterations until then, with only a few exceptions. (One notable: Back to the Future. Zemeckis and Gale got a good contract there.)

But Mad Max is an exception. The rights aren’t held by Warner Brothers, but by Kennedy Miller Mitchell. The Miller in the name refers to George Miller. The same George Miller who wrote and directed the original Mad Max films. So if a new film was going to happen, it was only going to be with his involvement.

Actually, Fury Road pretty much only got made because Miller had an interest. Hollywood’s normally gung-ho franchise mining nature was unusually tepid about another post-apocalyptic car chase. Miller spent over a decade pulling together the story and doing the storyboards before he got a green light.

That time taken is apparent on the screen. The thought that went into the construction of Fury Road is meticulous. Not just the sublime choreography of the action sequences, but also the details that were considered to build the world and characters without getting didactic with the dialogue. In fact, the dialogue is largely irrelevant to the film. Miller has in effect married the planning and foresight of Alfred Hitchcock with the visual presentation of classic Hong Kong. The story is one that is perfectly told in the visual, filmed medium, and not any other.

It’s a bit disappointing that much of the narrative surrounding the film has been harping on the practical stunts. They are amazing, to be sure, but it somewhat misses the point. It’s not as if Miller came in to show how things were done better, old-school style. There are numerous computer effects in the film as it stands, and it was shot digitally. Originally he wanted to shoot it natively in 3D. Plus his two previous films were completely computer animated.

Rather, what Fury Road shows is that to get a great film, the director needs to know his tools and to use them properly. It’s entirely possible for a director to return to a franchise well after the fact and to stumble. George Lucas did that with the Star Wars prequels, which even if you accept that he planned everything ahead of time were not especially well executed. Lucas possibly tried to push things too far, too fast, and it didn’t work.

Miller, instead, has shown that he’s comfortable to get any piece of technology to do what it can for his needs. Fury Road works in ways that many other films don’t because it is immersive. With few words and actually little explanation, the world on the film is fully believable. It’s one of the greatest examples of “show, don’t tell” ever put together.

While there are small nods to the previous films in the series, Fury Road is remarkably forward thinking. Too often franchises will rest on the work of previous films in the series. Whether because of continuity, limited vision, or just plain laziness, later entries will feel like empty husks with bigger budgets. Perhaps because of Miller’s desire to build a mythological figure rather than a cohesive plot, he’s made a film that stands on its own. Connections to the past provide enjoyment, but are not required.

By freeing himself from the constraints of the past, Miller instead has managed to craft a remarkably subversive and innovative film. Even as Furiosa joins a list of spectacular female action heroes, the entire craft of the film is cutting edge feminism.

Whatever genre you apply to it, whether action or science fiction or what have you, it isn’t hyperbole to claim Fury Road’s near the best in that genre, if not the best. In fact, while it’s surprising to consider, a film with a flame-throwing guitar is among the best the medium has ever produced.

Even if there is no such thing as a perfect film, Mad Max: Fury Road is close enough that we can say that it’s perfect in every way.

What’s in a name?

So, last week Denali had its name restored, after more than a century of being inexplicably called Mount McKinley. And except for a few Ohioans, nobody really found this change objectionable. McKinley had nothing to do with Denali, nor Alaska. Additionally, he was decidedly middle-tier as far as presidents, mostly notable for being assassinated leading to Theodore Roosevelt’s presidency.

Still, because renaming a natural landmark is somewhat rare, we’ve been besieged by dozens of thinkpieces about Denali. Many of these are easily discarded and forgotten. (Some exist only to criticize Obama, regardless of his actions, so such opinions aren’t worth consideration, even if they aren’t spouting out-and-out falsehoods like Denali being the “Kenyan” word for black power.)

But amid all these are a number of articles positing that maybe we should be restoring names of other landmarks to original, Native American names.

It’s a worth conversation to have, in my opinion, because the relationship between the largely white American populace and the Native Americans who were displaced and outright killed during American expansion is brimming with friction. While name restoration isn’t going to solve everything, it would be a positive gesture.

Granted, most names aren’t nearly as egregious as naming Denali after McKinley. Indeed, the people most familiar with the mountain, Alaskans and mountaineers, invariably called it Denali regardless of the official name. So this is less a name switch but more an official acknowledgement of what the accepted name actually is.

In many other cases, it’s not quite as clear. Also, Native American names are very often used for states, cities, rivers, lakes, and, yes, mountains. But in other cases, the Native American names have been pushed to the side. And the now official names are often a bit head-scratching.

So, one common suggestion is that Mount Rainier should have its name restored to reflect Native American heritage.

The name Rainier was given by George Vancouver, who named many things in the Pacific Northwest during his expedition in the 1790s. Vancouver’s process seemed to be upon seeing something neat that needed a name, to pick out one of his friends. So we got Hood and St. Helens and Baker and Rainier for mountains, all of which were members of the Royal Navy.

All fine and dandy. Much like McKinley, Rainier is named after a man who had literally nothing to do with it. He was a naval officer who never explored the Pacific Northwest, never saw the mountain that bears his name, and never even came to what is now Washington State. A restoration of the Native American name wouldn’t be a problem, except for a little awkwardness of beers and baseball teams that bear its name.

The weird thing about these thinkpieces that posit that Rainier should have its name restored is that they almost always just mention “efforts to restore the Native American name” and then do not mention what that name is at all. Any mainstream news outlet, be it CNN or Buzzfeed, just glosses over that part.

Even a petition that was sent to me about whether I’d be in favor of the name restoration never mentions what that name is.

And that boggles my mind. Because it’s not like finding the original name is difficult. The name is used with abandon in the local area. Numerous roads, a school district, and even an entire city bear the name. Hell, it’s even mentioned on Wikipedia as literally the first thing after it says “Mount Rainier”.

It’s Tahoma. Or Tacoma.

While efforts to restore the name are probably doomed, it’s agonizing that journalists couldn’t even do some basic, easy research to mention what name is attempting to be restored.

“Restore the original name!”

“Okay, what is it?”

“Eh…” *shrug*

DC’s Movie Future

The big news for comic book geeks right now are the DC changes. The company is dissolving Wildstorm and presumably every other imprint besides Vertigo. All non-publishing operations are moving from New York to SoCal. There are a number of questions up in the air, but for the most part, that’s just a bunch of businessy things to think about.

The reasons for these changes make a lot of sense. DC’s had a problem for a while, lagging behind Marvel for a number of years and often playing copycat to try and catch up. The company has had a broader scope of comics printed, under a number of different imprints, but nothing’s seemed to catch on.

Step one, it seems, is to remove a lot of dead weight. I imagine that in the next few months, they’ll announce how they’ll handle the various creator-owned properties, whether it’s by moving them under the Vertigo banner or something else will remain to be seen.

What’s considerably more fascinating, to me, is a quote by DC head honcho Diane Nelson where she says that they aren’t Marvel. Obvious, of course, but upon consideration, it’s a very smart move.

Marvel’s approach to movies is well understood to be building a universe that will culminate, of sorts, with the Joss Whedon Avengers film in a couple years. I imagine that, if it’s a successful experiment, it won’t stop there, but I don’t get the sense that they’ve got a plan that extends much further until they see how it goes. This eggs in a basket strategy is probably driven by necessity. Due to a number of financial issues Marvel had over a decade ago, the company sold off the rights to a number of characters. They can’t do anything, film-wise, with the two biggest characters under the company’s publishing banner: Spider-Man and Wolverine. (Held by Sony and Fox, respectively.)

In fact, given the attempts under Avi Arad to license out the over 6000 characters in the Marvel universe, many of the more well-known characters are effectively gone for good. (It’s entirely possible that the rights could lapse, but I believe that’s only happened with Hulk. All other major properties have some sort of film in production.) This is a big issue because the money is made on the big screen (and subsequent DVD sales) rather than in the monthly issues. Marvel does the latter very well, and the former was elsewhere. (This last point is what makes the Disney purchase seem so odd.)

Enter the Avengers. Take the remaining characters, most of them second-tier, and hand them off to good directors and such to create a movie universe unlike anything that’s been done before. It’s great branding and gets the word out that this is the Next Big Thing. So long as the films are good, then everything will be hunky-dory. Luckily for Marvel, Iron Man was very good, so things are getting rolling. The Avengers seems like a dream come true: a real superhero team-up film on the big screen. Awesome, right? And not a little bit lucky that they still had Cap, Thor, and ol’ Shellhead in-house.

DC doesn’t have that problem. For the most part, any character under the DC banner has the film rights in-house under Warner Bros. While Marvel’s been all over the place, the dream of a JLA movie has been kicking around at least since the late ’90s. Nothing came of any of those, partially because DC never seemed to be able to do anything besides Batman or Superman, and partially because getting a large cast of superheroes together gets unwieldy. Seriously, when you have too many characters, it’s not good cinema. Just one of the many problems that plagued X-Men 3.

So Marvel may have found the magic formula, however: individual films for a series of characters, then bring them together for the team-up. You don’t need to worry about backstory. And DC’s got a couple of Bat-films in the current series, a Green Lantern film out next year. Just need something new for Supes, work out The Flash and Wonder Woman, and you’re there, right? Easy enough to copy Marvel’s playbook… again.

However, Nelson’s quote indicates that (as of right now) they have no plans to do that. For a couple of reasons, this is probably the best decision. First, there’s the creative side. DC doesn’t have the same necessity. The movie studio isn’t force to use the second tier characters because their big guns are right there, and (at least in Batman’s case), extremely profitable and visible. When the third Batman film comes out, it’s going to do just fine. And Christopher Nolan’s also at work on a Superman film, which has a lot of justifiably high expectations.

However, Nolan’s indicated that he doesn’t really want to push Batman into a bigger group. The stories he’s filming work well on a closed level and I’m going to guess that Superman is going to get a similar treatment. Given that those two are likely tied up and unavailable because of that, it would leave any potential JLA movie in one of two problematic situations: either you film it without Superman and Batman, which doesn’t really scream JLA anymore. Ever since Grant Morrison started on the title back in the mid-90s, it’s been a team that’s the biggest heroes in the DCU, as it was when the team started. Ironically, Marvel’s gone with a similar strategy of late, by pulling Spiderman and Wolverine into the Avengers. However, they can’t match the lineup in the films.

To remove Batman & Superman leaves the league feeling a bit… Justice League International in feel, which is dating back 20+ years.  And unlike the Avengers, there’s a very important tone that needs to be set here. I really doubt any casual viewer is going to know that Wolverine and Spiderman are Avengers. In fact, I’d guess that seeing them in the line-up on the screen would be very jarring. But JLA has had a few seasons of cartoons in the past decade that were very well received and built naturally from the Batman and Superman animated series. Casual audiences, even if they weren’t regular viewers, are likely to assume any similar line-up.

The other option would be to make a JLA film without any connection to the series for the single characters. WB did try this, actually, even getting to the point where they had a cast including Common as Green Lantern and they had George Miller signed onto direct. For a number of reasons, that fell through. If nothing else, it would have been confusing to any audiences. Why wasn’t Christian Bale Batman there?

Well, that brings up the business reasons for avoiding a build-up to the JLA. Ultimately, any film is all about the money. The studio wants to get the best return for the smallest outlay. When you’ve got a multi-franchise series, those costs can build up. Marvel is famous for playing hardball with actors to keep those costs down. Terrence Howard was ousted for Don Cheadle apparently over a contract dispute between the two Iron Man films. The vast majority of the other actors have signed onto multiple picture deals at a relatively low cost, in order to make sure the later films in the Avengers franchise won’t see things spike. Samuel L. Jackson signed a nine film deal after Iron Man.

However, in order to do these things, there needs to be a clear plan ahead of time. WB had no such plan for Batman when they brought Christopher Nolan on board to revamp the character. While trying to do the team thing would have caused some creative issues, it would have also meant needing to negotiate with Bale and the other actors involved after they’d already been in one or two very successful films. This raises the costs considerably. Moreso if you consider that they’d likely have to placate Nolan in some way. (Note that WB seems very strongly inclined to placate him. Even his odd, experimental fare like Inception does very well for them.)

The flipside of the business is even more important. While JLA would be a fan dream film (my friends and I had a game of dream casting it over a decade ago), much as the Avengers film is, what’s the payoff overall. Batman by himself can do half a billion in the US. Superman in a good film can probably clear the triple century mark easily. Other DC heroes are likely at a lower tier. Sure, Green Lantern might have about the same public appeal as pre-Robert Downey Jr. Iron Man, but that doesn’t mean he’s guaranteed for $300m US.

DC is already able to look at Marvel for a template on what may happen. As I noted in my last post, the prognosis for the Avengers is… mixed. If it looked like the Marvel properties were building interest, then I think Diane Nelson would be less inclined to defiantly say they aren’t Marvel. But that hasn’t happened with Iron Man, and while we’re a Thor and a Captain America away from getting the Avengers trifecta, what’s the real expectation for those films, regardless of quality? $200m? $250m if they take off? Superheroes aren’t a guaranteed sale anymore. Iron Man was a right-place, right-time, lighting-in-a-bottle moment of everything coming together and hitting perfectly.

Maybe Green Lantern can do that, too. Martin Campbell is a very accomplished director, and has set the tone for the James Bond series twice, now. Ryan Reynolds has a ton of talent and charisma. And even so, that can’t guarantee it’s going to be huge. Big, sure, but not huge.

If the payoff isn’t a guarantee, why would DC even want to try and pull off a JLA film? It’s going to be more difficult, more expensive, and probably more uncertain than Marvel’s current effort. More than that, it’s going to feel like a bit of a copycat. Given that the DC publishing has been playing that game for most of the past decade and losing, why would they want to do the same for the films, when the stakes are so much higher.

No, carving out their own path is much smarter. While at the moment, there doesn’t seem to be anything really innovative at play than a typical franchise, that could change.

Consider the Green Lanterns. They’re already a super team of sorts built into the mythology. More than that, there’s a chance that they could go for something really unique and have a space-faring superhero adventure. Imagine some world building on the level of Avatar as a backdrop of warring Lanterns? Not saying it will happen, but it’s something that Marvel couldn’t easily replicate unless they decide to try and film the Annihilation saga.

And there’s no way they’re going to try and introduce the characters to do that. In that area, at least, DC’s got a head start. Go cosmic. But don’t go superteam. It’s not the smart play.