Thursday, September 26, 2019

That Serious Business

A day in the life

How precisely can believability be stretched in fiction? When I was young I thought there was no limit, and yet as I get older I find myself brushing up against borders I didn't have before. Why that is I'm not sure, but I would still like to explore it.

As an example, I've been watching anime for a very long time, but it is only in the last few years where I've noticed a similar split has divided watchers. This has changed much over the decades when there wasn't much divide at all.

This isn't just about those who detest it. There's always been a reason to hate anime. In the 80s it was called degenerate tentacle porn, in the 90s it was hated over violence, in the 00s it was moe blobs, and now it's some weird combination of the above.

Suffice to say there are people who just see animation and instantly file it away as kid stuff or as degenerate cartoons for freaks without any in between. You aren't going to convince them that there is a middle ground, but that's just the way it is.

I'm not discussing that group. I'm referring to the split that has occurred to those who actually watch anime.

I don't rightly know if I consider myself an anime fan because I don't like everything the medium does, and I wasn't much of a fan during the late '00s to early '10s, but I have been watching since I was a kid, and different types of anime at that. According to certain moe fans I am a normie and they're the true connoisseurs watching the truly hardcore stuff. At the same time there are those who won't watch anime beyond 2000 due to the switch to computer coloring. On top of it there are those who think anime peaked in the 80s, and yet other who believe the '70s hit the mark right. I've also met those who believe the '00s were anime at its purest.

Nonetheless I don't really agree with any of these positions, but I've been trying to figure out what it is that pushed these strong opinions that didn't used to exist mere years ago. Now there are factions. Weebs have changed, but their bullheaded way of expressing opinions have not.

It's taken me a while to nail down what it is that makes the difference between modern watchers, and I think it has to do with the weeb factor. This is something that has changed over the years and many react differently to it.

What is the weeb factor? This is more difficult to sum up. Some people consider things a "weeb" artstyle, but there is no uniform anime artstyle. This isn't about aesthetics. If you wretch looking at Armored Trooper VOTOMs' artstyle, for instance, then there is nothing that will get you to watch anime even impartially. And VOTOMs' art is very close to realistic. The weeb factor isn't about artstyle.

I think it has to do with what Matt Groening called "rubberband reality" in that the band of believability stretches out for a joke and then snaps back afterwards when the story kicks in. This is not just about humor, but the stretch has to be used carefully to avoid messing with tone. I'm speaking beyond comedy now. So when I use the rubberband, I'm referring to the weeb factor. Does the band bend, or break?

The weeb factor is essentially not in regards to humor, but with general tone and consistency. Think of something you're supposed to take seriously but it instead makes you roll your eyes. That, I think, might be one dividing issue.

Does this help?
The problem a lot of people have with anime is the rubberband of weebishness is stretched in contorted ways and needlessly used. From convoluted character designs to ridiculous action, there are a few things that can pull one out of the world they're engaging in.

Some people like this sort of thing, as seen by the popularity of Shadow the Hedgehog, the Fate series, or Deadman Wonderland. Characters that do or say ridiculous things meant to be taken deadly serious without any levity. Some of the costumes or art serve no practical purpose aside from being cool, the action breaks basic physics randomly and without purpose. But I think what rubs some the wrong way is that it messes with the supposed serious tone and takes them out of it.

I think this is how something like JoJo's Bizarre Adventure or Mob Psycho 100 avoid falling into these traps by allowing some sun into the room and the insane feats on display are explained in-canon in a way that doesn't snap the viewer out of it. It isn't meant to be taken overly serious 100% of the time. Dragon Ball, the originator of most of this sort of super serious tone, is saved for the fact that it is also (or was) primarily a comedy and adventure series before it got that way later on.

But then you have to wonder why this weeb factor is so divisive? It didn't use to be. I believe it's mainly because it didn't exist to this level before.

If you watch a '70s mecha you will see some impossible feats, but nothing that momentarily breaks immersion to do something cool at the expense of logic. It all stays at the same level throughout the entire episode. So this sort of thing became more prominent later on, being really pushed into the mainstream with the Dragon Ball Z anime, until the point where it was fairly tough to get an action series without the edge by the '00s and into the early '10s.

Much of this was buoyed by the power creep problem series like Bleach or Naruto specialized in. This is where spectacle had to be piled onto spectacle at the expense of the greater world or the majority of characters. It got out of hand.

More modern shonen like My Hero Academia, World Trigger, and Demon Slayer: Kimetsu no Yaiba, have figured out a way to avoid these issues. They instead weigh the characters and the rules down which makes the action requiring to stay at a certain level. This has the effect of making the action more dynamic and nail-biting because you know the writer won't bend the universe to get something cool at the expense of the story's internal logic. They avoid the traps of the earlier works.

What it comes down to is what the audience's tolerance for cartoon logic in a supposedly serious narrative is. Even in modern live action movies this has changed from what it once was. Think of a movie such as Cobra where every over the top action taken is still framed in within the tight pacing and storytelling weighed down by the threat dogging the main character, then think of a modern Fast and the Furious film that repeatedly defies physics at every opportunity to make the action look cool above everything else. These are fairly different takes. The latter approach also tends to wink at the audience to let them in on the gag, thereby breaking investment for those who want to take what they're seeing seriously. One is meant to be serious but framed in its internal logic, and the other flaunts that seriousness as a choice it can waive at any moment.

Again, this isn't necessarily bad, but it does explain why some that prefer one approach cannot get into the other. They have split apart.

An example of action without breaking the rules
As for my opinion, it is clear which I prefer.

I realize the "rule of cool" has been a favorite of people for a long time, but to me it is the story that has to come first. The story sets the tone and the limitations of the characters and what can occur. You are promising the customer a specific sort of tale and then must deliver on it within the frame you present. I want the characters to preform feats in tone with the universe established. That is what makes it cool.

Those that strive to be serious and dark fall into the edgelord trap and those who want their cake of calamity and cheese without any weight are both opposite ends of the same spectrum, but are both more or less enjoyed by their own cult of fans. If that is what they like, then good for them.

But those of us in the center have been hungry for balance for a long time. It is one of the reasons the Ushio & Tora anime worked so well for me when it came out. It originated from that era when the balance of seriousness and levity was common and expected. Seeing that again and animated in what was 2015 was more than welcome and exactly what I'd been waiting for. Years later seeing this approach show up more and more is refreshing.

Nonetheless, it does help to explain why there is a divide among those who watch anime (and action movies, for that matter) today where there didn't appear to be one before. I know where my tastes lie, and you probably do too. But at one point we were more united than we are now. I can't say just when the shift happened, unless it really was slow and gradual, but it happened and this is where we are now.

Is there a solution to bring them together again? Short of each side swallowing their pride and taste to enjoy the other, probably not. For now the best bet is for creators to cater to the largest group they can, and hope for the best. Perhaps then it will become clearer in the future. Hopefully clearer than this post has been.

For now, lets go beat up some weebs. It will bring us all together.

As for me, I wrote my own story that stays with the lines. Gemini Warrior is an action story where the adventure never stops! Check it out today!

Find it Here!

Thursday, September 19, 2019

Questionable Directions

I have simple standards when it comes to the entertainment I enjoy. By that I mean my bar for general enjoyment isn't very high. I'm an easy person to please. Something that is merely entertaining is enough for me to give the thumbs up and a recommendation to doesn't require much. However, I do have a few pet peeves that prevent me from ever even giving the attempt at indulging certain stories anymore.

What I dislike the most is anything that makes the universe smaller. Any story device that clips the wings of potential from the outset is one I cannot get behind. And, unfortunately, this has happened more and more over the last decade.

There are two examples that are functionally the same thing, but both are very good at making me lose interest in your story.

The first is the usage of alternate dimensions: a story that revolves around different versions of the same world and characters from multiple different angles.

This became a very popular storytelling trope in the '00s, and I have hated it from the outset as a lazy way of putting a ceiling on your universe and relying on already established settings to tell tiny stories that can never have wider impact beyond them. They are, by design intended to be small but fool others into thinking they are not.

The best example of this is in comic books. Both Marvel and DC have made it known that they revel in alternate universes for material and have for years despite declining sales. There are endless versions of every character and setting and there have been whole plotlines and events revolving around these versions and their subtle differences with the main world. This leads to endless reboots and relaunches in new or combined universes where the writer can and will make any change he wants because its any easy way to not have to expand the universe or create new characters and situations. This is a lazy way to create "new" content.

This device keeps everything insular and yet meaningless by the end of the story. If anything changes it just doesn't matter because they can just find another version of the character to use or get a new timeline and do the same thing again. It's shadowboxing with a thin veneer of world-shaking stakes.

When you dabble in alternate timelines you are essentially saying you like the idea of the universe more than the actual universe. You want to pick and nit at it until there is nothing left on the plate but peas lined up carefully. You have no interest in exploring what you've made, but would rather turn inward and admire yourself and your creations in the mirror. You are taking a universe and shrinking it down to one set of characters and settings copypasted into eternity.

There is nothing interesting about that.

Note: I am not talking about alternate history stories. Those have value as what if stories and original takes on historical events. They are not reliant on multiple realities to make their narratives work. They have more elbow room and possibilities to them than what I am referring to above.

Alternate dimensions as a story device has a limited shelf life, yet it's been used incessantly for the last two decades to weaker and weaker results.

This story was insulting in at least three different ways.
In fact, this leads to the second related issue I have with modern storytelling, and that is time travel. Time travel of a certain type, specifically.

Yes, yes, Back to the Future is a great movie (and series) and does time travel right. It also works because it is light fare and a comedy which allows more with the concept than it would if it was 100% serious and rigid. Outside of comedy time travel rarely ever works, and that is because most time travel stories are inward looking and hyper-focused on small things and limited events.

There are also stories that begin with the character thrown into the distant past or future then must stay there for the length of the story until the problem is solved.

I'm not referring to the above, as the time travel is merely the set up and not the entire plot. These stories also don't require that you take them incredibly serious, either.

My main issue with time travel, besides the logic breaking apart if you think about it too hard, is that it has the same effect as alternate dimensions does. It has a chance of undercutting any tension or stakes in the story with an infinite supply of outs or lack of excuses for even using them.

Stories that are more interested in navel-gazing instead of exploring the world before them tells me that the writer has a limited interest in what they have created and no intention of exploring it beyond a small area or time frame. Stories that focus on the past or future of a tiny cast of characters, or endless versions of them, are not interested in the wider world of your universe, only a small section of it. This tells me that the story you want to tell is going to be insular with no wider connection outside of it.

You can tell a tale in a single location with a limited cast and still have it be part of a bigger whole, because that's life. Every action has an effect on everyone else, no matter how small or simple. Eventually it goes around.

But purposefully insular stories essentially locked to their own time and space away from the bigger universe . . . don't. By design, they can't. They are trapped and segregated to their own tiny spaces that either roll out in the wider world in a limited way or a cartoonish over-correction on reality itself (which works much better when it's a comedy so you don't have to think too hard on it) essentially saying that no one outside your minuscule cast has any effect on your wider world.

Time hopping and destroying the past recklessly has consequences on a wider world that can't do anything about it, but the cast the writer focuses on is all you see otherwise. Relegating the fate of the rest of the world to an epilogue has never quite sat right with me.

These stories don't go anywhere, and that might be the point, but it doesn't make them any less tired or overdone. It doesn't involve looking outside yourself.

There was absolutely no point to this.
Perhaps I am biased being that action adventure is my favorite genre, but the whole purpose of adventure is to explore. These stories have a very limited definition that. Being insular is not an option in an adventure story, though it can make a good starting point. But that might help to describe why I don't enjoy this modern obsession with the self so much. It is very far from where my tastes go and doesn't offer what I engage in stories for.

I'm not sure exactly why this trend became so hot. In the '80s space travel and alien worlds were big as were cyberpunk and more fantastical lands, and the '90s continued much the same if with a bit more snark and edge. All that pretty much ceased in the '00s where inward looking mopefests with no point took control of the wondrous and fantastical. Now there is no hope for better or more exciting worlds, but endless squabbles over physical traits and pining for an alternate world than the one we already live in.

But we still live in this world. We can imagine better worlds, and even hope for escape, however we don't have to do that by rejecting the reality we already have. It's not perfect but it is still all we have, and we need it as a starting position. It's hard to imagine greater heights when you've never seen the sky and your feet have never touched the ground.

Here's hoping as we enter a new decade that we finally shake off the bad trends that have been glued in since the late 90s. The paste has rotten away by now. We're more than due for something else.

As I've said, I am not the hardest person to please. I want adventure. A simple pulp tale can do it in a couple thousand words. What excuse do the rest of us have?

I don't think we have any, not anymore.

And I don't!

That's why I recently wrote Gemini Warrior, my entry in the tradition of heroes fighting impossible odds and confronting evil where they see it! If you're looking for a modern adventure story without more needless misery then you've come to the right place. I've got you covered.

Find it Here!

Thursday, September 12, 2019

The Prince Returns

I'd never been much a reader of westerns growing up. Just like with pulps I was sold an incomplete versions of what they were and what they represented about those who read and wrote them. Apparently I wasn't alone in that. Most folk I met simply never read them.

In fact, outside of Louis L'Amour and perhaps a random mention of Lonesome Dove, you will rarely hear anyone speak of them these days. You might get a gritty modern Hollywood film reboot of an old movie or a C-tier spaghetti western comic romp awash with late-90s cynicism, but not often do you get much more than that.

However, since learning about how the pulps were buried and hidden from those who might want to read them I have gone the gamut with adventure fiction. From the fantastic such as Doc Smith and Robert E. Howard to detective fiction such as Carroll John Daly and Mickey Spillane to now westerns with ol' Louis and a firebrand known as Frederick Faust, also known as Max Brand, I have tried whatever I could get my hands on. And they have more in common than you think! 

What they all had in common is their love of adventure and thrilling the reader in as tight a manner as possible. Pure entertainment with a touch of edification along the way!

But of all the names I mentioned above, Max Brand is the one least known today. This shouldn't be the case with most pulp era authors getting constant re-releases even in digital form, but Max Brand's material is mostly gotten from online archive services or torn up reprinted paperbacks from the 1960s. He is hardly the household name he probably should be, and I would say it is probably due to his genre of choice. Westerns don't get much focus these days outside of enthusiast circles.

But his obscurity is also due to his early death.

Frederick Faust died in 1944 at the age of 51. He was a war correspondent in WWII and died from shrapnel. Even at his age he had written somewhere around 500 works for the pulps, 300 of which were westerns, under different names. However, his most well known was Max Brand. Most of his work was reprinted in the 60s, but not so much after that. Despite this, his quality is well known among genre fans.

Even today he is known as one of the Big 3 in westerns with Ol' Louis and a bloke known as Zane Grey. Should you find a western section in your used bookstore you will most likely see those three names. And it is not without merit. All three are quite different from each other, but Max Brand is the one I wanted to discuss.

And from what I've read of the man, he definitely had a unique touch that others I have read in the genre do not. To emphasize this I will talk about one of his books that I have recently read entitled Valley Vultures. It's a short 200 page pulp story that ran in six parts in Western Story Magazine in 1931. Most of his work ran in magazines from time from Argosy, All-Story Weekly, or the western magazines. But this one struck me as particularly interesting.

Valley Vultures is about a place called Dexter Valley where some years ago the Dexter family owned the land and ran things quite well. They had farms, different families living all over, and a prosperous town to boot. Things were looking up!

Then one day a hand named Scorpio turned on them and with help of other individuals in the valley slaughtered the Dexter family one fateful night. Scorpio disappeared, but those responsible for the murders were never caught. Years later a mysterious man returns to town calling himself Charles Dexter (known as Prince Charlie to those in the valley) the lone surviving son from the attack, and he wants what is his. But is he who he says he is? That is but one of many mysteries surrounding what happened that terrible night.

First off the bat is to mention that we are guided through this story by Oliver Dean, a middle-aged city-dweller who is ill and out of it. He comes to the country to get some fresh air and adventure to clear his head and get the cobwebs out, and that's what he gets. Dean is a bit of a practical thinker and he ends up entangled in Charlie's plot from the get go. First we are first dragged into a mystery as to if this stranger is who he really is and question what exactly happened on that night the Dexters were killed. Then we are given hints that there might be more to this town than we first thought. 

The two mains are perfect. Charlie is a man's man: quick to action and a bit reckless, but paired with the quick-witted Dean the two manage to temper each other into forces to be reckoned with. They soon become known all over the valley. We as readers feel that is owed from what we see of them. The pair help make the story work.

As I said, it starts as a mystery of identity, before the revelation that the missing killer from back then might be alive, then it moves into a back and forth between the usurpers and Prince Charlie (If that is who he really is!) before spilling out into assassination attempts, chases, and fistfights. But what makes it all work is how defined every character is and how they interact with the other, even those who are only in a handful of scenes. You can feel the pressure turn up with every decision someone takes or quip someone makes.

Someone once said Brand's work has a touch of Shakespeare, and I personally agree. This story could be performed on a stage and minimal effort would be needed to change anything outside of the action. It is very dramatic and dynamic work. Every character has layers, every action has major consequences, and every mystery makes the world larger.

I spent the entire length of this work on the edge of my seat and turning the pages frantically to see just if our heroes would make it out and if the killers would get their due: and to see what the answers to the mysteries meant! Sure enough the end says a lot about those who soak themselves in evil and what they will do to keep their heads above water. But it was very much worth the wait, and satisfying at that.

Suffice to say this was one of the best books I've read this year.

The most fascinating part of the book to me is that it is more or less completely unknown despite its obvious quality. I have found no reviews online for this. There has never been an adaption that I've been able to track down. I can't even find blog posts mentioning it: for all I know this is the first one ever! Which is a bit ridiculous, to be honest.

For all intents and purposes Valley Vultures has been entirely forgotten, and that is a true shame. This is a book that deserves more. Much like the rest of Max Brand's output it has fallen by the wayside just as the western as a whole has and not been archived as it should outside of random archive sites. But that says little about how good his work truly is.

Perhaps the western is on the verge of making a comeback, just as the rest of adventure pulp is, and I hope it does. There are plenty of exciting adventures to tell in this land of uncertainty and chaos between law and disorder, and many still we have missed along the way. With the pulp revolution in swing anything can happen!

Just like the prince returns to reclaim his rightful place, as in the case of many stories, so must we help him to do so. Justice prevails. Everything must be put right eventually, and soon enough it will. I await that day.

Until then I'm going to go read more Max Brand books. I've got a bunch waiting for me. Thank goodness for used book stores.

If you haven't read Valley Vultures then it comes highly recommended by me. You won't find an adventure quite like this just anywhere!

If you want another sort of adventure, you can always check out Gemini Warrior! Reviews are great and feedback has been much the same. Excitement, wonder, and heroism are just a ahead!

Find it Here!

Thursday, September 5, 2019

Summer's End

Find it Here!

It's been quite the summer, and now we'rd nearing the end. Personally speaking it was a mixed bag of highs and lows with most of the highs settling in on writing and my podcast. So let me tell you exactly what I've been up to in regards to the former.

Just like most writers I have a bunch of ideas waiting in the wings, stories half-formed, and others in need of tempering with a heavy edit or two. I'm not going to share those just yet because there's nothing I dislike more than offering a promise to someone and being unable to fulfill it due to outside factors. Whatever gets done first is usually what I think has the best chance of being sold or pleasing the most people and that can change in a heartbeat. That said, there are things I will share because they will be done in the near future or might be near completion.

First, of course, is the fact that my new book, Gemini Warrior, has just come out. For those unaware, this is a superhero/adventure/fantasy mashup and has been getting great reviews and the sales have been my best so far. It's about a mismatched pair of guys who end up entangled in a scheme that gives them powers and sends them to a whole new planet! Then things get weird. This is going to be part of a series of which the second book, Gemini Drifter, has already been written and is currently in the heavy editing process. Planning on book 3, Gemini Outsider, has already begun. I've got more beyond those thought out so if you want more Gemini Man you're set!

Outside of the Gemini Man books, I've also planned out a sequel to Grey Cat Blues that I have in my back pocket. I have a soft spot for that book, and those that have read it really appear to like it, plus the fact that these are short make them fun to put together. The sequel will not star Two Tone or Aurora from the original, but will take place in the same world and might have some new wrinkles in what goes on under the surface in that alien world. However, you can expect more of the same in regards to tone, atmosphere, and the world.

That said, since my main focus will be on Gemini Man, other books of mine will be written between releases of those. I say this because I am already hip deep in another idea that I haven't been able to sit down and focus on due to too many other factors. Since it's nailed down, I can share it with you.

The other book is called Brutal Dreams and it is an old Weird Tales-style horror, and it is also at a shorter length. This is about a man who finds himself trapped in a dream where he can't escape, or shed blood, but eventually learns that not only is he not alone in there, but those that are have hatched a plot to seize a new form of immortality. They plan to do this through a legendary weapon from ages past. No, it's not Excalibur. Think different weapon and more Celtic. This is a story I really like and will definitely put out there sooner or later.

The reason I mention this is because I would like input from you, my trusted readers. Either in the comments or in the twitter poll I will put out, I want you to tell me which idea I should focus on next of the two. Do you want a sequel to Grey Cat Blues or do you want Brutal Dreams? Whichever one sounds better to you is the one I will focus on next. Give me input!

Either way both will get done, but this will help clarify things for me.

EDIT: Vote here, or comment below!

On the other hand is my short fiction. I'm not stopping those since they are a breath of fresh air in between longer works. I still have some stories I'm waiting to hear back on, including two that are still awaiting release, but as of now I can say that my story Black Dog Bend will be part of StoryHack #5. This one is about a bass player lost in the woods who stumbles into a time loop. Then things get strange. 

Let me just say StoryHack is the best magazine out there that focuses on action adventure stories regardless of aesthetic or political correctness. Every story they put out is a stick of dynamite in the dusty mine that is modern publishing. Aside from Cirsova it is the only other magazine I own every issue of physically, and share eagerly with everyone I can. It's that good.

At the same time I have, as usual, a bunch of stories waiting in the wings to be edited and a few more I want to write to fill out potential short story collections in the future. One story in particular I have written that is a bit long and a bit weird that I'm hoping isn't too long and weird for the magazines to take a serious look at. It's one I am very proud of, but I still need one more hard editing pass on it. Fingers crossed for that one.

Speaking of short story collections, I'm working on one as we speak! My Superhero Vs. Magic stories have been around the block a bit, including one that was supposed to be published several times but plans fell through, and I've decided to bind them all together for a collection. There are seven total out of the four that have seen the light of day and the one in limbo, all of which take place in the same world of superpowers, magic, and possible Armageddon, as good guys, criminals, and cultists, do battle in Summerside: the worst city in the world.

I've been in touch with my editor about it and I'm hoping to finish my hard edit on it this month before handing it off. If it wasn't for real life it would already be done, but that's just the way it is. Either way, it's going to happen, so be ready!

I've also had a false start more than once on another series I want to start, this one with heavy sword and planet and sword and sorcery influence, but as of now I've been instead honing myself on those with short stories in the style. You should hopefully see those coming next year. Some of them are even already awaiting release! If you want to see how I handle the style, my story, Inside the Demon's Eye, in StoryHack #3 should give you a hint.

So that's what is happening here between the wasteland and sky. I'm not planning on stopping anytime soon, mostly because I can't and because I like writing too much, but that I'm letting you know just how much you have to look forward to in the future.

This train isn't stopping anytime soon.

Until then, keep your eyes peeled. You never know what might happen next. Summer might be over, but there are always more seasons ahead!

If you haven't checked out Gemini Warrior then what's stopping you? Two young men find themselves trapped in another world with brand new powers and no way out. Adventure, wonder, and heroism are just a click away!

Find it Here!