What’s in a name?

Here’s a little something I posted on Facebook this morning after seeing Star Wars 7:

Ok, Star Wars 7 was awesome. I want to go live in that world again, and that’s quite an accomplishment after the failures of the prequels. But let us just acknowledge that “Snoke” is kind of a lame name given what the character is. It’s not puerile like “Dooku”, nor does it try too hard like “Sidious”, but it feels lackluster, wanting both mystique and menace.

The Bard, of course, asked the title question, and argued that the name doesn’t change the nature of the thing. But in the Star Wars universe, names are often onomatopoetic, giving a strong indication of how viewers are meant to take characters—or at least matching in sound what they are in personality and role. Chewbacca, for instance, may sound a bit like a loyal canine companion (or maybe that’s my retrospective interpretation). Ewok is appropriately cute with maybe a hint of bite. Han Solo, of course, is an independent, buck-authority, make-your-own-rules type. Yoda is appropriately bizarre and perhaps guru-like.

And others. Darth Vader echoes “invader” and thus threat. Darth Maul’s name mirrors how he is used. And for the most part, this seems to work well—Lucas and other writers have to balance this wear-your-heart-on-your-sleeve aesthetic with appropriate restraint and taste so as not to go overboard and end up with something that undermines the audience’s ability to take the character seriously. Jar Jar Binks may be one example of such failure, or you might argue that his name fits almost perfectly his role in the story. (But don’t go bringing up that “Jar Jar Binks is a Sith Lord” bullshit. That’s fan retconning at its worst, an attempt to transmute flaws and gaffes into something more subtle and refined, a deliberate, secret crafting.)

Dooku is probably the strongest slip-up—rather than sounding sinister, the name resonates with “poopy”, “caca”, and “doodoo”, so that rather than some evil Force master, I think of a pile of crap (like those prequels) and imagine small children snickering and whispering “He said ‘dooku’!” Sidious isn’t as bad in that sense, but it and Snoke both lack imagination. He’s Sidious because he’s an insidious threat? Really? Why not just leave him as “Palpatine”, a name that sounds snakelike and sinister without directly pointing to a particular quality? And though Snoke echoes smoke, what does that give us? Smoke doesn’t carry any real danger in itself. And swapping “n” for “m” sounds faintly ridiculous, a character bearing a slightly silly pompousness, something out of Dickens or Rowling or maybe Susannah Clarke. Not what the towering alien figure onscreen evokes at all.

There is precedent for onomatopoetic and thematic naming all throughout literature, so that ain’t a problem at all. Shakespeare gives us Dogberry, Snug the Joiner, Bottom (the Ass), Touchstone, and more. Dickens does it, too, and so do many others, to great effect. It’s just that you have to hit that fine, sweet spot. Lucas messed up a number of times in the prequels, which added to their ridiculousness. Abrams and Kasdan, in 7, generally do an excellent job with interesting names that at the least fit well in the Star Wars universe (Rey, Maz Kanata), and at best resonate with interesting meaning (Poe). They just missed with this one character, who, unfortunately, needed to sound more significant and imposing that it ends up doing.



A short poem or snippet or thingy by Brian Andreas (source: Story People), which I like a lot, but which also needs a tiny bit of improvement. See that last little phrase there? Yeah, “& there are no words for that”, that’s the one. It’s nice because it calls up once more the opening lines talking about specialized cultural vocabularies. So it gives a sort of circularity to the poem. But what it expresses? That’s already included (and very strongly so) in the phrase immediately prior. 95% of what these last words do is already done and far better; they simply serve as a way to wrap up the piece—elegant, sure, but also unneeded, extra.

Here, try this: cover up that last, extraneous phrase with your hand, and then read the poem. See how the evocation of two lovers snuggling against each other in bed hits you, right in the solar plexus, knocks the wind out of you? That’s where the poem needs to end.

(The depiction also implies that that very snuggling is a language in itself, its own vocabulary—a suggestion that is not borne within the statement “& there are no words for that”.)

(Also, I am aware that I do not know the context for this snippet. Maybe it all makes sense in its original place. Maybe my critique is not valid. Maybe not.)


Master Stroke

Ok, The Trenches annoys me. Frequently. I don’t know why I keep reading it, really. I mean, it is well written, and the characters have depth. If the events are mundane, it’s because that’s the focus of the comic—it’s about the mundane lives of a bunch of mundane people working a mundane job. (What’s that adage about how the only normal people are the ones you don’t know yet?). It’s all slightly exaggerated, because that’s what caricatures do. But something about it, some sort of background buzz perhaps, ticks me off. The tone, maybe, or the setting. Or the fact that I don’t really like (or identify with) most of the characters. In fact, almost none of them are likeable; they are mostly petty and self-interested, with a smattering of other not-so-hot traits thrown in for seasoning. Isaac, ostensibly the main character, is a scheming dick (but happily, an incompetent schemer). Gwen is selfish and somewhat lazy. Marley is admittedly not selfish or petty, but his brain is so fried that he’s lost touch with reality, and I just don’t want to be near him. Q is an arrogant corporate climber, and also a bit of a dick. And the others are pure caricatures, and caricatures that depict only the banal, the weird and the pathetic, at that. (One person thinks he is a bat. One is batshit looney.)

Let us be clear. I think the comic is masterfully dislikeable. (I want to use words like “repugnant” and “repulsive”, but they are too strong.) It is not awful. The characters are not detestable, not horrifying or disgusting. They are unsavory. Shady. Everyone (except Cora) is trying to have an angle, some sort of advantage for him or herself, or is so far gone on some trip or another (weed, dementia, whatever) that he or she can no longer really see reality.

But this particular strip is spot on. It “exposes” (scare quotes because this is not news to readers) and makes fun of Isaac. He is a villain, or he wants to be one, unconsciously. He is exclusively self-interested, and actively tries to harm others for his own benefit—not out of sadism or a desire to hurt, just out of greed, selfishness, power-hunger. But he is an incompetent villain; his plans fail, backfire. And as this strip makes clear, he is incompetent enough not to realize that he is not a hero. He is the opposite.


To be or…?

Just reread the first two chapters in LoTR in which we encounter Tom Bombadil, and read a little bit about him afterwards, and was struck by the similarities between Bombadil and a character of my own creation from a book I have not yet finished.

When Frodo asks Goldberry who Bombadil is, she replies simply “He is”. Other sources suggest that Bombadil doesn’t really fit well into any of the categories of beings that Tolkien explains in his discussions of Middle Earth’s creation, and in fact Tolkien deliberately avoided elucidating the mysteries of Tom Bombadil during his lifetime.

Moreover, hints and suggestions drive at Bombadil’s connection to earthly power, and his freedom from control as well. (There is an interesting and, it would seem, well thought-out but sometimes poorly crafted article on this over at Charisma News.) He seems to be, at least originally, a sort of nature spirit, older than anything else in Middle Earth, and wise, powerful within his own domain, but also unconcerned with most mortal goings on, and with the struggle between good and evil, light and dark that plays out across the stage of Middle Earth in the famous trilogy.

Put simply, though we see his strong connection to nature, we don’t know what Bombadil is, and can’t classify him according to what we do know of the universe in which he exists.

My own character, Taciturne, has been giving me problems for years. I can describe him, I can play out his behavior, but I cannot fit him into any definition. I cannot say what he is. As soon as I put down bounding words, they feel wrong, and Taciturne breaks them. “He” (I say this because he appears male, perhaps, in what I am writing, but even that may not be certain) has deep (and often symbolic) connections to certain places or types of places (a ruined tower, storm, perhaps the wild and overgrown area known as the Old realm), but I cannot even say that he is a nature spirit, or a faerie, or an avatar or god or semi-divine being. He is skilled, violent when he turns himself to violence, wicked in his way, perhaps volatile and yet unchanging, or mostly so. Stable in a sense. And yet despite his violence, his sometime cruelty or uncaring nature, his occasional pleasure in wickedness, I cannot name him devil or demon or being of evil. And even to say he is violent is wrong. I like wicked, up to a point, but then wicked turns ill and I like it no more for Taciturne. I like angel because I like the dissonance created when we combine the divine and pure with the alien, the painful, the dark, the mortal, the impure. But I like neither the Islamojudeochristian connections in the word, nor the near-divinity of such beings, nor the link to what is good and true and pure, after all.

In the end, Taciturne simply is.

And now that I’ve gotten to it, I believe the story is about how he loves, how he changes in a very unfamiliar way, how he cannot abide that, and what it drives him to do.

Nonfiction, Uncategorized

On the Difficult: Water for Elephants and Animal Cruelty

(There Will Be Spoilers)

There’s a sequence of scenes in Water for Elephants (Reese Witherspoon, Robert Pattinson, Christoph Waltz, dir. Francis Lawrence) which set up a serious tension for the characters with no clear happy resolution. In them, the three main characters interact variously with a newly acquired, unresponsive and possibly untrained circus elephant. These scenes show us the violence and rage roiling in August’s soul; the gentleness, care, and willingness to do what is good and right of Edward Cullen—er, Jacob—the pain and love in Marlena, among other things. The tension hinges upon these elements as well as the silence of the elephant, and seems to point toward a collision not far ahead.

What this sort of quadrangle of a relationship does—really a triangle, for our purposes, since Marlena doesn’t figure in it at this point—is present a problem that the viewer wishes to see resolved happily. The elephant, being a gentle and generally well-behaved but possibly untrained animal, is perceived as innocent. Jacob, the veterinarian-cum-elephant trainer, as sympathetic hero, cares for the elephant but can’t get it to perform (he doesn’t know how to train elephants, or how to deal with trained elephants). August, the circus owner and ringmaster, needs the animal to perform to recoup his investment and save his circus (and his own and Marlena’s lives, financially speaking). Yet he doesn’t know animals or gentleness—his method is to beat the animal to make it afraid and submissive. When the elephant misbehaves, he takes an elephant hook to it, opening large wounds, and then menaces Jacob: if the elephant won’t perform, Jacob gets fired, and the elephant gets killed and fed to the other animals.

After the beating of the elephant, we are faced squarely with this problem. Jacob clearly won’t stand for such treatment of an animal, and will likely stand up to August, but we know that this will probably end badly for both him and the elephant; and even if Jacob doesn’t do so, the elephant will lose, and so will Jacob and August and the whole circus. August, who is a complex character full of love, passion, anger, and business, clearly won’t stop (or can’t control) his violence even though he equally clearly regrets it. And it is equally clear that such violence may soon be brought to bear on his wife, Marlena, given what we have seen of the edge of it during one of August’s drunken moments. And again, Jacob has the hots for her, and she may feel the same though she guards her feelings and for the moment seems to know better than to let them out. Which all still means that both she and Jacob may come under August’s scrutiny and rage at some point.

The moment after the beating, when Jacob is standing by the wounded elephant, trying to comfort and assuage it and figure out what to do, is strung taut with anxiety. We, as an audience, have no idea how things will develop or resolve. The situation seems untenable, and the characters probably doomed, though through animal sympathy and the likability of both Marlena and Jacob, we hope nonetheless for some happier resolution.

Yet the film will give us neither of these things, not fully. Here, the filmmakers are too cowardly to let things play out amongst the characters and see what happens, whether tragic, triumphant, or bittersweet. Instead, deus ex machina: a drunken Polish roustabout to whom Jacob is talking while caring for the elephant is too inebriated to understand English, so Jacob gives him a command (“Move your leg”) in Polish, and the elephant, surprisingly, responds. Jacob notices, tests again, confirms, and then races to show August: the elephant miraculously understands Polish! Problem resolved, tension alleviated.

This is, however, a cop-out. While it is indeed conceivable that a circus elephant was trained by a Polish trainer before being sold, etc., the discovery of this fact at such an opportune moment in the story smacks of the writer(s) feeling written into a corner, unwilling to write what might organically come out of the characters’ situation and so seeking a way to happily (if temporarily) resolve the problem they’ve created.

The world is not often so clean and neat, though. Sometimes, sure. All sorts of different outcomes for all sorts of relationships and situations do exist. Some are happy, others less so. But the artist’s foremost duty is to truth of feeling and expression, and such a magical, happy, make-everything-better coincidence—which may occur only rarely, and in any case circumvents the “natural” development of plot and character interaction—rings flat. It is, in the end, avoidance of what is difficult to face, via means unavailable to any real human being. That is, the artist (writer, director, whole ensemble) has access to the magical, reality altering tools of his or her craft, and can thus dictate what happens in a story in ways that we real people cannot in our own lives. Yet to do so in such a way as to seem magical, amazing, and completely outside of the already-established logic of character interaction and in-world causality is crass and wrong.

Instead, it is the artist’s duty to face what is difficult in story, poem, song, and to present it, unflinchingly. That is how truth gets told and art is expressed, performed, created.


Nonfiction, Uncategorized

Conflict Resolutions

A couple of recent conflicts have gotten me thinking. No, not thinking. Understanding? Perhaps. Realizing maybe. I realize, for instance, that it is hard to find a good word for the sort of processing-plus-coming-to-understanding/awareness/aptitude-plus-knowledge-and-maybe-skill I’m trying to describe.

What is so difficult about naming the functions and processes of mind? Is it the language? For English, one of my teachers said, concerns itself with nouns, objects. Well, and transforming nouns into actions. “Elbow your way through a crowd.” A sensei of mine was fond of a particular fact (true? dunno), that Sanskrit has a word for, as he said, “when your mantra begins to repeat itself”. I don’t know what that phrase means. But I think his point was that some cultures have become quite knowledgeable about internal states and movements, and this is of course reflected in their languages. Anglophone culture, he was partially suggesting, is not one.

But the conflicts that have come up and been resolved got me to gain a level or two in understanding certain things; namely that I don’t need to (and now don’t really/now can easily recognize when I) fear other people’s emotions, reactions, responses, opinions, etc. Which is spurred by understanding that for the longest time (Whoa-oh-oh-oh) I did just that.

Meaning basically that honesty and upfront-ness is much easier in tense situations, and I can ignore that oft-present need to paint my feelings and thoughts to hide my feelings or needs or wants like I’m guilty of something. Also meaning that I can state my own opinions and hold them with confidence, and that in general I can let go of the habit of worrying whether I’ve hurt or offended someone. I haven’t. Or if I have, I can tell, or ask, and I can deal with the situation calmly and without drama.

God, that’s so much easier.


(A) Higher Power

Looking at Scott Kurtz’s PVP Online comic from a few days back.

The joke here turns on wordplay, obviously, and also on font choice. (The joke would be given away if Kurtz used a font that allowed for lowercase letter.) But there’s an interesting discrepancy. The lineman specifically uses the phrase “A HIGHER POWER”, which allows us to think for the briefest moment, before we see the lineman, that Cole is having an encounter with the divine. But the company name written on the basket of the cherry-picker is simply “HIGHER POWER ELECTRIC”. If the lineman were introducing himself and his company, wouldn’t he just say “I’m with Higher Power”? So shouldn’t the company name really be presented as “A HIGHER POWER ELECTRIC”?

On the other hand, there is the possibility that the lineman gets a kick out of saying things in such a way. Imagine such a situation in real life. The lineman probably wouldn’t bother to mention the company at all. He’d likely merely say “Look up, son”, or some variation thereof, and leave it at that, trusting Cole’s hearing and sight to locate him. And of course all the visual cues of the work outfit, location, and cherry-picker would immediately tell Cole that he was talking to a lineman. And it probably wouldn’t matter much either.

The joke is repeated in today’s comic, this time by Cole, who has climbed into the cherry-picker basket with the lineman. If the repetition came from the lineman himself, I would take it as a small indication that he enjoys uttering the joke, and so deliberately throws it in wherever he can, even if it’s a little forced. But since it’s Cole who says it, and since both Cole and the lineman react disdainfully when the receptionist takes the words literally, i.e., falls for the trick, it would seem like the discrepancy is not meant to be indicative of the lineman’s character, but is instead maybe a small miscalculation in setup/delivery.


ASL? LSF? Any one of the hundreds of others that exist?

Why doesn’t Black Bolt write notes, or use sign language to communicate?

That one thought keeps popping up as I slowly read through the Marvel Knights Inhumans series (Paul Jenkins/Jae Lee). Imagine: you’re the ruler of a nation, yet you can’t talk. In order to be effective at your job (and you want to do that; you believe in the importance of it), you need to communicate. Wouldn’t you learn some other means of doing just that? Your culture has existed for thousands of years; surely some deaf members have developed a sign language. And if not, can’t you invent your own, or have someone invent it for you? Or, with the advanced level of technology present in the Marvel Universe, and the especially advanced level supposedly at the command of the Inhumans, couldn’t you develop (or have developed) some tech that reads your thoughts and generates a voice for you, or detects gestures and translates them into speech? Or even find some way of circumventing or controlling your power? And even if not, how have you not developed writing, simply to trade and develop the knowledge needed for your amazing technology?

One argument is that the point of the character is the tension between an everyday human need and a “chronic” condition that renders that need dangerous, and the resulting struggle between mind and body, or in Black Bolt’s case, the triumph of will over form that he gets out of that struggle.

That is to say that a well-crafted superhero’s situation, as it were—the nexus of power and power cost, as well, perhaps, as origins and relationships—should allegorize something true. Bruce Banner and his struggle to control anger (and the way in which anger makes him increasingly strong but increasingly childish). Batman and his fight against myriad types of “madness”, impersonated by his enemies. Also the drive and discipline that can come out of loss. The X-Men and their perpetual confrontation with prejudice. And so on.

But the price is often a heavy demand of suspension of disbelief on the part of the reader. And with the increasing number of crossover events in both Marvel and DC comics, it becomes harder and harder not to ask why Batman’s buddy Superman doesn’t just step in and resolve problem X or Y for the Caped Crusader and save a lot of trouble. Why techno-genius Tony Stark doesn’t call Charles Xavier up and say “Hey, I found a cure for your paraplegia”.

Also, the popularity of long-time characters means that even death does not keep them at bay, which is often unfair to storytellers.

On a side note, who names superhero “Black Bolt” and then gives him the secret identity name “Blackagar Boltagon”?

That’s right. The 1960s. You can’t have superhero comics without some level of cheese.

Nonfiction, Uncategorized

Why would I bother?

The USA Today website has a frontpage article today entitled “Can you forgive Lance Armstrong?”. I’m not going to link to it. It doesn’t need more traffic.

My point: who cares?

Lance (can I call you Lance?), you and I have no connection. I don’t care that you “cheated” at sports. That’s the world these days. Most, or many, top-level athletes do that. You did it better than your competitors. So what? Maybe there’s still room for genetics in the midst of all that. I don’t know and I don’t really care. It’s not an earthshattering issue to me.

And you don’t know me or care who I am. So why would my hollow forgiveness matter to either of us?

So, USA Today, I’ll thank you to take your article and stuff it somewhere dark, remote, and tiny, where it won’t intrude on the front page, masquerading as a topic vital to the world.


Stretch goals (PVP Online)

Referring to the PVP Online webcomic for January 10, 2013.

The comic is rather simple in presentation: two figures on a monochrome background, then one figure, then two again. Two dialogue balloons in the first panel, one in the third. Only ten words between the two characters.

But I can’t help but feel that’s too many. There’s some slack that can be taken out.

Let’s try an experiment. What happens when we remove the final dialogue balloon? Scratch Fury gives but a one-word reply to Skull, then rolls over, fulfilling his promise then and there. The sarcastic reply which had seemed extraneous is gone. All that is left is Skull’s bewilderment and Scratch’s silence, which speak more powerfully than the sarcasm ever could have.

Now, what happens when we remove all of Scratch Fury’s dialogue? It looks like we may not even need the cat to talk at all in this comic. Skull poses a question which is answered by a simple movement that conveys the cat’s attitude and the strip’s humor perfectly well. No words are required; in fact, they over-explain.