Friday, June 29, 2012

EL James: Hero, or Superstar?

The creator of the phenomenally successful Fifty Shades of Grey trilogy, EL James, is apparently making tons and tons of money for her work. Brian, at a website called Celebrity Net Worth, estimates that she's making about one million dollars a week.
It’s safe to assume that E.L. James has long ago sold enough copies to repay her seven figure book advance, which means at this point she is earning the standard 7% royalty on every $14 paperback and 25% royalty on every $10 ebook. In the last month, James has sold 4 million paperbacks and 1 million ebooks which equates to $2.94 million in paperback royalties and $2.497 million in ebook royalties. In other words $5.4 million in four weeks, $1.35 million per week!
There is much to love about the story of the writing and publishing of Fifty Shades: It started out as Twilight fan fiction, with Christian Grey as Edward Cullen, and Anastasia Steele as Bella Swan. It was originally published for free on a Twilight fan website, but after fans complained about all the sexual sexuality, EL pulled it and posted it on her own website. She them published it as an ebook and print on demand in three volumes. The print on demand publisher had so little money that they couldn't promote it, instead relying on recommendations of fans of the work to sell it. And boy, did they. So much so that a big publisher, Vintage, picked it up and published a "revised" version in April of this year.

Moreover, its popularity has disturbed the despicable scumbag reality TV star Dr. Drew Pinsky:
"Maybe I have no business commenting on how women massage their fantasy life. Indeed I don't. But as I look at this as a clinician, the idea that women look at this relationship as anything other than absolute, categorical, profound pathology is more than I can imagine."
I didn't realize just how much I enjoyed reading Fifty Shades before that self-aggradizing psychopath offered his unasked-for two cents.

Stephanie Meyer, the creator of Twilight, has made herself and EL James into publishing superstars, thanks to her series of novels aimed directly at women. This catapults Ms. Meyer into the ranks of the truly great authors, whose works have inspired pastiche that have themselves become publishing forces (I'm talking Jane Austen, Mark Twain, Hans Christian Andersen, etc).

To say nothing of the Fifty Shades parodies that have popped up. (I believe that the first such parody was this one, and it is hilarious. The others that have since been released I cannot vouch for.)

Clearly, there is a market that's not being served by the mainstream publishers. That's why one of them had to step outside of their bubble to find what has turned out to be a massive, record-shattering bestseller.

There are lessons here: For authors, write what you love. Pastiche, parody, fanfiction, slash fiction, blogging, whatever. Get your stuff out there. Ebook it. Don't worry about impressing the old gatekeepers; and, if there ever was a stigma attached to self-publishing (for crying out loud, Arthur Rimbaud self-published) it's gone now. There is an audience looking for material that's not always being presented to them by the mainstream publishers.

For publishers: Look at what's being published outside your bubble. You might be shocked to find that there is actually stuff out there that can find an audience. There are dozens if not hundreds of other EL Jameses out there -- see if you can find them before they hit it big. Publishing could use more big hits.

My choice to play Anastasia Steele in a film adaptation of Fifty Shades is the lovely and talented Jo Anne Worley.

Monday, June 25, 2012

A short story in ten words or less

I just missed International Short Story Day, which was June 20th. Oh, well. (Technically I didn't miss it, since I was conscious for most of that day; I just didn't do anything to "celebrate" it.)

So, here, a bit late, is my own short story in ten words or fewer:

"On what?" he asked, bitterly.
"Your wedding."

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Sadly Noted with Poodle Bitch: The sad story of Lola

Poodle Bitch read with sadness and horror the story of a "former screenwriter" who allegedly punched a four-pound poodle bitch in the face, killing the poor dear.
Police say a former television screenwriter was arrested after punching his poodle in the face so hard that it died of a brain injury.
His wife tells the newspaper that the dog's death was a "horrible accident."

Poodle Bitch wonders how one can "accidentally" punch a poodle in the face, let alone punch the poodle so hard that the creature dies as a result.

The New York Post has more:
Sources said Shuttleworth, who has worked for Steven Spielberg and now reads scripts for $300 a pop, allegedly decked little Lola on May 29 because he was angry at the pup.

He took the 5-year-old dog to a veterinarian, where her death raised suspicions. The hospital called the ASPCA, which took Lola’s remains for a necropsy.

“Lola sustained a traumatic brain injury secondary to the application of blunt force to the right side of her head at the hands of the suspect, her owner,” said ASPCA spokesman Joseph Pentangelo.

Poodle Bitch believes quite strongly in the proposition that all creatures, human or canine, are "innocent until proven guilty." Nonetheless, she admits to having some difficulty in not holding this "human" in abject contempt. She hopes against hope that in fact the entire incident was a "horrible accident;" that the poor little five year-old poodle bitch Lola was not brutalized by her human companion, the companion for whom she had nothing but unconditional love, whose smile made her feel alive, whose voice calling her name made her heart race, whose very presence was a comfort during thunderstorms, whose lap was a safe place for sharing time and space together.

The alternative is just too sad. Poodle Bitch's heart aches.

"Variant": No variation

"Variant" is actually a decent title for an internet comic book review show. It plays on the tired and cynically exploitive merchandizing ploy of publishing comics with "variant covers," while at the same time suggesting that the show's point of view will be a little bit different than you expect. Perhaps not so mainstream.

One of Merriam-Webster's definitions of the word is "manifesting variety, deviation, or disagreement." Another is "one that exhibits variation from a type or norm." This is what I had in mind when I decided to give the show a try.

The show does not live up to the possibilities suggested by its title.

The host, Arris Quinones, is likable enough. He talks way too fast and is too apt to poke fun at his own jokes, but one suspects his quirks are very often the result of a desire to please his employers and whatever potential audience he's going for. He's an enthusiastic supporter of mainstream comics, which is fine -- everyone is entitled to his opinion -- but his opinions are so mainstream and the show is so superficial that sitting through each segment feels like 5 to 8 minutes of fanboy parody. Take for instance his "Top Indie Comics Pics" episode. I'm not suggesting you actually watch the episode, but here it is:

Very early in the episode, Mr. Quinones anticipates the criticism this episode would deserve, and so he tries to defuse it with some PoMo rationalization:  

"I know some of you guys might not consider a few of these actual 'indie comics,' but we're calling it that because if you're not a die-hard comic book fan, you probably never would have heard of these graphic novels or comics before, so basically we're bunching actual indie comics and lesser-known comics into this little ball of love. Got it?"

 Yes, I "got it." You're an insecure mainstream fan who reads Marvel and DC and maybe a few Dark Horse comics, and that's about it, but you also kinda want to seem cool.

Three of his selections of "top indie comics" are published by DC Comics, under their "Vertigo" imprint. DC is of course the publisher of Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, etc. It is one of the top two comics publishers in America. His other choice is published by Image Comics, and was co-created by Robert Kirkman, author of "The Walking Dead," and frequent contributor to Marvel comics, which is the publisher of Spider-Man, X-Men, The Avengers, etc, and is the other of the top two comics publishers in America, and Todd MacFarlane, creator of Spawn and former Spider-Man wunderkind.

These are not "indie" comics. You know what's an "indie" comic? Mockey Mouse Vs Superiorman is an "indie" comic! Daisy California is an "indie" comic! RottenTomatoBot is an "indie" comic!

Sorry. Got a little off-track there.

The episode also features an in-show ad for Converse DC Comics themed shoes. Perhaps it's not an official ad-- Mr. Quinones presents the information as if he just came across these shoes while browsing the internet and wanted to share. It's very difficult to tell these days. The entertainment corporations have done an outstanding job of using fans to promote their products; the film "Toy Story 3" is all about the importance of exploiting fan product loyalty in spreading traditional corporate entertainment. Why should Converse pay Mr. Quinones to spread the word about their shoes? Why should Marvel or DC pay Mr. Quinones to spread the word about their books?

This show is a metaphor for what's happening in modern mainstream comics fandom. Vertigo titles are "indie," and, hey, Converse has these really wicked canvas shoes with drawings of The Flash on them!

The saddest episode -- I mean, literally sad, I cried while watching it -- was the very next one, in which Mr. Quinones attends a comic book convention in Dallas (he's hoping to one day get to San Diego!), and asks cosplayers...

...If they've ever been to the San Diego Comic Con.

First off, I have nothing against cosplayers. I actually kind of admire their dedication to their favorite characters, and their walking celebration of creativity.  But, this is allegedly an internet show about comic books. Was there no Artist's Alley at the Dallas Comic Con? Mr. Quinones might have discovered some actual "indie" comics worth buying if he'd shown any kind of intellectual curiosity. How much time did he spend talking to the "Catwoman"? Well, she was cute.

The whole "talking to cosplayers" thing is tired. It's what local news shows do when they bother to cover conventions at all. "Look at these people, all dressed up like comic book characters! Ain't that quaint??? These are the kind of people you see at conventions!" One expects more from a show that dares to call itself "Variant."

But if you are going to talk to the cosplayers, and only the cosplayers, why not ask them some insightful questions? "What motivates you to dedicate so much time and energy in creating this elaborate costume?" "Do you ever wear the costume outside of a convention setting?" "Do you identify closely with this particular character? If so, what iteration -- the original Silver Age version? The TV version?" "What do you think of the more negative, hardcore fandom elements-- do you think they're actively driving away more casual comics fans?"

Mr. Quinones asks them if they've ever been to San Diego Comic Con. You know, the really cool comic book convention. Not like the lame one they're stuck at now, which apparently doesn't even have an Artist's Alley.

In the second episode, Mr. Quinones brought in another internet tv host to discuss their (non-varying) opinions of the new "Marvel's The Avengers" film, and both loved it in part because it reminded them of a live action cartoon, sort of like the television series "Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes!".

Seriously, the "Avengers" film was so good it actually reminded them of a cartoon television series (full disclosure: after viewing this episode of "Variant," I subjected myself to the first two episodes of the show -- actually, I didn't make it more than a few minutes into the second episode, although its current IMDb rating is 8.6 out of 10, so what do I know?). They also declare, less than a week after seeing it for the first time, that it might be their favorite comic book movie of all time, because "The Dark Knight" is more of a "gangster movie," or more of a "Joker movie."

So there you go. More modern fandom metaphor.

One positive is Mr. Quinones. He seems motivated more by enthusiasm for the characters he grew up with than the bitterness and outright hostility that seems to animate so much of modern comics fandom. Which means, in a way, Mr. Quinones is providing something of a service; I just wish he'd broaden his horizons a bit more as his show continues. Assuming it does.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

The Hands of Orlac, "Orlacs Hände", and "Mad Love"

Back when I was in 7th or 8th grade, I discovered the film "Mad Love," with the great Peter Lorre as the insane and pathetic Dr. Gogol, a surgeon so obsessed with the wife of a great pianist that he attempted to convince said pianist that the killer's hands he'd surgically grafted onto his arms had a mind of their own, and were responsible for some grisly murders in Paris.

It's a hilarious, strange, horrifying, wonderful film, full of creativity and greatness. It remains an all-time favorite of mine. A few years back, I created a parody/homage called "Zany Dick!," that is probably one of my better pieces of animation.

But back to "Mad Love": It was directed by Karl Freund, who worked as a cinematographer on Fritz Lang's classic film "Metropolis," and who also directed "The Mummy," and worked as a cinematographer/co-director on "Dracula," with Bela Lugosi. He's also largely responsible for the look of every situation comedy ever produced, thanks to his work on "I Love Lucy."

The man was a genius.

The screenplay was written by Guy Endore. Mr. Endore had a distinguished, Academy Award-nominated screenwriting career, but he is perhaps best known for writing one of my all-time favorite novels, Werewolf of Paris, which happens to be available for amazon kindle for a mere $2.99 -- buy it now and read it if you haven't, it's a wonderful, strange, witty, clever novel of mental illness and revolution.

The man was a genius.

Mr. Endore's screenplay was based loosely -- very loosely -- on a novel by the great Fantastique Littéraire author Maurice Renard. I do not have the vocabulary necessary to express how much I love Mr. Renard's work. He is one of the greatest, most creative authors of strange horror and fantasy who has ever lived. Pick up any of his work you can find-- in particular Dr. Lerne, about a series of increasingly bizarre and outlandish organ transplants (available for $5.99 for kindle, in a translation that I have not read), Blind Circle, the plot of which begins with a man being killed in two different places at the same time, and gets stranger from there, and of course the basis for the film "Mad Love," his masterpiece, The Hands of Orlac (French edition available for free from amazon kindle).

The Hands of Orlac is about a great pianist Stephen Orlac, whose hands are ruined in a train derailment. He's taken to a clinic where a doctor called Serral repairs the hands, apparently replacing them with those from a recently executed knife murderer. A series of sinister occurrences follow, beginning with threatening notes and seances and spiritualism and culminating with a series of grisly knife murders for which Orlac is convinced he bears responsibility.

The story is a classic one, a reflection of general human anxiety of the unreliability of our own bodies -- whether because of disease, or the decay of old age -- amplified by the more modern anxiety over rejection of organs we've received through transplants. These ideas only gain relevance as we approach the singularity. As I've written before, I'm a sucker for the Transplant Terror subgenre. I don't think anyone ever did them better than Mr. Renard.

The man was a genius. (I paid a small tribute to him in this work.)

During the summer of my 7th or 8th grade year, Cinemax screened "Mad Love" several times-- I seem to recall them airing it around 11 AM, almost daily. And I watched it every time it was on. I was fascinated by it, for all the reasons I've outlined above.

I tried to get my hands on a copy of Renard's book, but it had gone out of print. Around 1990, another translation was produced, but I missed it. Then, around 1994, I discovered a knock-off called The Hand of Cain, by a British author called Martin Thomas. That novel is strange, tawdry and Victorian, as if the author himself found the whole story distasteful. But that strangeness only added to the sense of fun of the book, and my interest in Transplant Terrors was renewed.

I sought out Renard's novel, but the only copies I could find were hundreds of dollars. Even the Los Angeles Public Library only had a copy of the novel in French. And my French is quite mal. So I had to content myself with re-watching "Mad Love," on those rare occasions when it appeared on television. It wasn't available on DVD until October, 2006, as part of a collection of strange horror films from the 1930s and 1940s (including "Mark of the Vampire," which also features a Guy Endore screenplay).

Somewhere along the way, I learned of the existence of two other adaptations of the novel. The 1960 version with Mel Ferrer I caught on television late one night in 1996 or 7. It lacked the energy and fun of "Mad Love." The original adaptation from 1924 was much more difficult to come by.

"Orlacs Hände" was directed by Robert Wiene, and starred Conrad Veidt as the tormented pianist Paul Orlac.

If Wiene's and Veidt's names look familiar to you, then you probably remember them as the director and star of one of the most famous films of all time, "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari." Dr. Caligari is justifiably considered a classic film, and it is well worth your time. It's a strange, creative, unsettling work. But it's also artificial and distancing. Here's something from wikipedia's description that indirectly explains the problem:
The film used stylized sets, with abstract, jagged buildings painted on canvas backdrops and flats.
Watching TCODC is like watching a nightmare unfold before your eyes. Which means there is no tension -- no matter how terrible and horrific a nightmare is, we can always wake up from it. Everything in TCODC, including the very backdrops themselves, is strange and unsettling. If everything's unsettling, then what am I supposed to be scared about?

(Can you imagine having an artistic career in which "The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari" was your second greatest work? The men were geniuses.)

"Orlacs Hände" takes care of that problem. It very much takes place in a world that is recognizable as our own, and the nightmare is imposed upon reality. It helps that Veidt is given a chance to really act in this film. Where he literally sleepwalked through TCODC, here he is tormented and abused, terrified by every shadow that crosses his path, in a performance that could have been just "sawing the air," as Hamlet put it, but in fact is subtle and affecting. Like Lon Chaney, Conrad Veidt is one of the few silent film actors whose work translates well for modern audiences.

(Also check out his film "The Man Who Laughs"-- his character was shamelessly ripped off by the creators of Batman's villain The Joker-- and, oh yeah by the way, he was also in "Casablanca," which you might as well check out, too.)

Anyway, I searched for a VHS and then DVD copy of "Orlacs Hände", but I wasn't able to find one for years. Then, last December, while scrolling through the available options of the Fandor channel on the Roku, I stumbled across the film. Watched it. Watched it twice.

It is a work of genius. It's one of the greatest films of all time. One of my favorite novels of all time has been the inspiration behind two of my favorite films of all time. And these two films are totally different in focus and tone. "Orlacs Hände" is unremittingly bleak, focusing on the torment of the victim. "Mad Love" is almost sadistically gleeful as the viewer revels in the charm and humor of the mad scientist villain who was extrapolated into the work by a screenwriter who was nearly the equal to the author of the original work.

We are blessed to have both of these films so easily available for viewing; one on DVD, the other online, for free, at the Internet Archive.

Yes, "Orlacs Hände" is available for free viewing online. Here it is:

Hands of Orlac at Internet Archive:

Movies and books that I spent years trying to locate are now found almost anywhere, and in some cases for free.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Passive aggression in the comics: Spectre Vs. Batman

Here, from the recently published Showcase Presents: The Spectre collection, is a wonderful panel (originally published in The Brave and the Bold #75, cover dated January 1968) in which the ghostly superhero The Spectre really lets Batman have it for mucking up his wonderful astralplan:

It's disconcerting to see Spectre talking like my mother.

Tuesday, June 5, 2012

"Burning Love": I miss VH1's Celebreality

Yahoo is apparently doing "original" comedy videos now, or something. This morning on their main page they linked to a new series -- with new episodes Mondays and Thursdays! -- called "Burning Love." Here is the screenshot:

Even yahoo's description ("the hot one, the psycho, the cougar...") feels like the resigned mumblings of someone who's seen it all before, many times. And we have. "Burning Love," as it turns out, is a parody of... wait for it... reality shows. And not just reality shows, but dating reality shows. This is pretty cutting edge stuff, if you ignore the hundreds if not thousands of reality show parodies that have come before.

Did you know that sometimes the "relationships" that result from those shows don't always work out? Did you know that in some cases, they're fake? Did you know that some of the participants are there for the exposure and the chance at fame, and not for love? Did you know that some of the women on these shows are "sluts"? Did you know that some of them are insane? If you didn't, "Burning Love" will come as a revelation.

"The Bachelor" premiered in 2002. Ten years ago.

Ten years! Hasn't that been plenty of time to parody this format? Yes, it has. It's been done and done much better. Is there anything in "Burning Love" that will top the "Poop on the Stairs" incident from the second season of the brilliant "Flavor of Love" series?

Flavor of Love Somethin stinkin by sweetgapeach

How about The Blondetourage from "Rock of Love Bus"?

Or when Real and Chance had the ladies vying for their affection prove their worthiness by participating in a wrestling match?

More: The entire season of "Daisy of Love," in which Daisy de la Hoya was both a parody of the earnest rocker girl and her worst possible ambassador (really, was there ever any doubt that she would choose loser jerk London?). The vicious capriciousness and the not-so-subtle racism of Ricki Lake's season of "Charm School." The casual cruelty and boneheadedness of "Tool Academy."

I could go on, but you get the idea. The late, lamented Celebreality covered all of this ground years ago. And did it with more humor and insight than this "Burning Love" noise.

I happen to think that the star of "Burning Love," Ken Marino, is pretty funny. And I did laugh when he was running around in his firefighter pants and no shirt. That's a brilliant sight gag that works so well because Marino has the body of an average guy who might have at some point played some football but doesn't exactly hit the gym every day, and has an inflated view of his own physique. He might have the best pecs on your block, in Anytown USA, but he's no Chris Evans. There's actually a touch of poignancy to that humor. The female contestants are afforded no such sympathy, at least not in this first episode.

And the normally refined Poodle Bitch enjoyed the bit in which a dalmatian appears to be eating food from Mr. Marino's ass.

As for the rest of it... Well, I miss VH1's Celebreality.