Thursday, October 26, 2006

Can a Comic Book be Good?

Wired's resident "Luddite" is bent out of shape because a graphic novel, American Born Chinese, (which he prefers to call a comic book) has been nominated for a national book award in young people's category. His reasoning?

I have not read this particular "novel" but I'm familiar with the genre so I'm going to go out on a limb here. First, I'll bet for what it is, it's pretty good. Probably damned good. But it's a comic book. And comic books should not be nominated for National Book Awards, in any category. That should be reserved for books that are, well, all words.

"Nothing personal, you understand," he says:

This is not about denigrating the comic book, or graphic novel, or whatever you want to call it. This is not to say that illustrated stories don't constitute an art form or that you can't get tremendous satisfaction from them. This is simply to say that, as literature, the comic book does not deserve equal status with real novels, or short stories. It's apples and oranges.

He might have been on solid ground if he had shut up after the second sentence but he just had to go on and say that comics don't deserve equal status.

I will agree that comic books and novels are different. A book leaves a lot more to the imagination but a comic can be much more subtle. The whole "picture is worth a thousand words" concept comes into play here.

As an example, when Close Encounters of the Third Kind came out Marvel did a comic book adaptation. There is one part in the movie where the two leads are sure that stories about a nerve gas leak are false but they see some animals on the ground and put on their masks. The sequence takes around five minutes. In the graphic novel, you see the two of them, you see some animals on the ground, and you see the leads again but this time they have gas masks on. The humor of the movie is captured and enhanced by the comic. In contrast, it loses its punch when written.

I will admit that reading a comic or graphic novel is a different experience than reading a novel but I would not classify one as superior to the other. Some stories work better as words, some work as illustrations,  and some work best when animated.

Should two different forms be judged against each other? It seems unfair but so does the alternative. After Beauty and the Beast was nominated for best picture, Hollywood created a special category of Oscar for animated movies. While this makes sure that feature-length animated films are represented on Oscar night, it also assures that none of them will be nominated for best picture again.

That is what will happen if graphic novels get their own class of award. So go ahead and judge them against novels. Base it on which moves you the most or leaves the more lasting impression.

Tuesday, October 17, 2006

Lost-blogging Season 3

We are two episodes into the new season. We've learned some things about the "Others". There are still lots of questions.

A big one is what happened to the Dharma Initiative? Someone is still dropping Dharma-branded supplies on the island but the stations have all been abandoned except for the Swan which was long over-due for relief.

The Others are using Dharma supplies and seem to know about most of the stations (why not the Swan?) but they were not using them. They have opened up two stations for special-purpose uses. The Hydra station looks like it was pretty much abandoned before being pressed into service as a jail. The bars are rusty. The Caduceus station was opened for Clair and the baby and closed again after she escaped.

The dock had a sign saying "ferry". At some point, the island must have been a friendlier place. It's been hostile for some time, though. No one gave a warm welcome when Rousseau's ship crashed years before.

Either there is a short-cut between the crash sites or the Others have some means of transportation. It took days of travel to get from one crash site to the other but the Others had people at both sites within hours of the crash.

Forcing Kate to wear Alex's revealing dress and having her wear it while doing heavy labor is a bit creepy.

For a group that calls themselves "the good guys" they are pretty mean. They make a 1930s chain gang seem friendly. Most people would see a plane going down and rush to help the survivors. The Others send people to infiltrate and make lists. Notice that Ben didn't need to explain the lists. Does this mean that they've done this before?

They had Kate and Sawyer working on making a flat, packed section of ground. It could be labor for its own sake but it could also mean that they are building a landing field or starting a building. If it is a building then it is probably something to replace the zoo as a holding facility. Will it be as wired as the zoo with security cameras everywhere?

Sawyer managed a small con. By kissing Kate, he provoked a fight. From that, he found out who is and is not a fighter. This was the first step in an escape plan (second if he can pick locks like Karl (the guy from the monkey cage).

Ben has lived his entire life on the island. The orientation film gave the impression that Dharma started the initiative in the late 60s. Assuming that he is around 40, that fits.

The Others have contact with the real world but it is at a distance. Nearly everything is Dharma-branded. Even the Stephen King novels were on 8 1/2 x 11 instead of bound paperbacks. I wonder if the novels had Dharma watermarks?

Friday, October 06, 2006

A Memorable Mermaid

Disney has released the Little Mermaid on DVD. Looking back at its theatrical release, this movie represented two milestones for Disney.

When Disney first started producing feature-length animated movies, they pulled in a ton of money but costs went up and, by the 1950s, a Disney cartoon was no longer a sure-thing. Sleeping Beauty, for example, was a financial disappointment.

The reaction to the was to cut costs. The animation style became sketchier and the pallet more limited. They started using limited-animation where only parts of a character would be drawn for each frame instead of the entire character. This started a downward spiral where each Disney release was technically inferior to the previous one and the audience kept shrinking. Finally a group of animators quit and started their own studio in order to produce classic animation. The result, "The Secret of Nimh" was a big improvement over anything Disney had done in years.

After owning the animation market for decades, Disney suddenly had competition. In addition, the movie "Who Framed Roger Rabbit" which featured animated figures in a live-action movie proved that Disney was still able to do the old-style animation.

Disney reacted to all of this by ramping up the animation department. While the Rescuers Down Under showed improvement over previous releases, The Little Mermaid was really the first movie released under the revamped Disney. It was a success by every measure. The animation and pallet were as good as anything done at Disney's height. The same was true for the plot and music. The movie was a success in the theaters and a bigger success on VHS. The Disney marketing machine continued to bring out new tie-in products five years after the movie left the theaters. It also inspired a direct-to-VHS sequel and a Saturday morning prequel.

This established the model for nearly every Disney feature-length movie since. Common elements start with adapting a classic plot or character. The lead is an adolescent who finds romance and adventure. There is always friction with a parent-figure although sometimes this happens with the love-interest instead. And there is music.

The formula finally began petering out by The Emperor's New Groove. This started as a musical and part-way into production they cut the musical numbers (it really started as a version of the Prince and the Pauper).

Ironically, The Little Mermaid's other milestone was that it was the last Disney movie that was completely hand-drawn. Starting with Beauty and the Beast, bits of CGI started showing up. Little did they know that in a decade and a half, hand-drawn animation would be completely replaced by CGI.