I don’t think political correctness is killing comedy, but Mel Brooks does

So a friend of mine on FB recently linked to a 2017 article in which Mel Brooks declares PC is killing comedy: “Comedy has to walk a thin line, take risks…Comedy is the lecherous little elf whispering in the king’s ear, always telling the truth about human behaviour.” Brooks said his Blazing Saddles could never be made today because PC would kill it.

As someone who thinks too many people equate “politically incorrect” with “I have the right to be a sexist, homophobic jerk and not get criticized by the PC police for it” (similar to the discussion here), I am automatically skeptical about arguments like this. As witness the article at the link (which linked to Brooks’ original interview) argued that “We reflect various religious backgrounds and political ideologies. Naturally, we also reflect the traits and tendencies of those cultures, beliefs, and groups. If we have eyes to see these “stereotypes,” they really are quite amusing.” Umm, depends which stereotypes: black people being shiftless and lazy? Women being stupid? All Italians being mobbed up? I agree they’re amusing to some people, but not usually the target, and not because they’re true (contrary to Avenue Q, we don’t laugh at ethnic jokes because they’re based on truth). Which may not be what they meant, but I’m a cynic.

Now, as to Brooks, a few thoughts:

•Political correctness is an awfully vague term. Applied to comedy it could mean anything from “I referred to my dog as a pet instead of a companion and PETA organized a boycott of my show” to “I told a superfunny rape joke about the pretty blonde in the front joke and the little snowflake walked out!” Brooks acknowledges limits to what’s acceptable (“I personally would never touch gas chambers or the death of children or Jews at the hands of the Nazis,”) so where exactly does he want us to draw the line? What, specifically, is PC supposedly blocking comedians from saying?

Blazing Saddles, as far as I know, is still a popular movie. It hasn’t been “cancelled” or forgotten, though I imagine younger generations aren’t as fond of it as my era (for someone born in 2000, it’s the equivalent of something from the early 1930s for me, and not everyone my age liked 1930s films). So what makes Brooks think it couldn’t get made? I hear a lot that “X couldn’t be made today” but I’d be more impressed with examples of films that literally were not being made — e.g., someone pitched a Blazing Saddles remake and the studio lost its shit in fear of PC outrage.

•Comedy doesn’t always tell the truth about human behavior. Comedy about women being incompetent drivers (a staple on sitcoms in my youth and for years before), or rape being a fun experience doesn’t speak the truth.

•A lot of comedy gets made that isn’t massively offensive. The Marx Brothers were hysterically funny mocking the rich, the powerful and the pompous but they didn’t need to punch down to get laughs. Comedy doesn’t have to punch down.

•Someone on FB said that comedy should be equally offensive to everyone, but that’s just bonkers. Rapists and rape victims do not deserve equal mockery, nor do Nazis and their victims, or white bigots and their victims. The oppressed deserve better treatment than the oppressors (hence the whole “punch up, not down” thing).

•While I agree there was lots of stuff that pushed the envelope in the 1970s, that doesn’t mean the envelope went away. Would Brooks have been able to make Blazing Saddles back then if he’d made Sheriff Bart and the Waco Kid a nonswishy gay couple?

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So that’s what the fuss was about: Blood Heir by Amelie Wen Zhao

So last year Amelie Wen Zhao announced she was pulling her debut novel, Blood Heir because of criticism that it was racist and presented a distorted version of American slavery. After reading about the controversy, I had a feeling the critiques might have been unfair and resolved to read it.

The book is set in the Cyrilian Empire (alt.Russia), where mutants — oh, sorry, Affinites, but it’s an easy mistake to make — are demonized for their supernatural powers. Each Affinite has an affinity they’re able to control: flesh, marble, water, wind, fear, though the ordinary humans have ways to neutralize their powers. Demonized or not, Affinites are useful: the Empire has a massive human trafficking problem, mostly desperate people coerced or tricked into signing labor contracts that reduce them to slaves. Affinites, including those from other nations, are popular victims since their powers make them so useful.

Princess Anastacya never thought much about this, even though she’s an Affinite with the power over blood: she can make you bleed, move your body, torture you or simply TK your blood (and your body with it) across the room. Prior to the start of the book, she was framed for the murder of her father and imprisoned. Now she’s out, hunting the real killer. In the opening scenes, she has to penetrate one prison (reinforced with anti-Affinite shielding) to get information from Ramson Quicktongue, a mid-level crime boss. Ramson’s a tricky bastard and uses her to escape, but circumstances keep bringing them together. When Ramson realizes how powerful Ana is, he figures he can turn her over to Kerlan, the boss of bosses in the Empire underworld, and thereby get back into his good graces.

Zhao has said the novel drew on modern-day Asian human trafficking rather than antebellum slavery, and that’s how it comes across. I think she got a bum rap (YMMV obviously). Ditto the charges of plagiarism: even if she did lift one line “Don’t go where I can’t follow” from Tolkien (as note in the link above, it dates back to the Bible) that’s so minor it’s impossible to care.

I also think it avoids the “repentant racist” trope that got another Y/A fantasy, The Black Witch so much criticism (I haven’t read that book, so I don’t know if it was deserved or not). Neither Ana nor Ramson has any bigotry toward Affinites, but Ana is blind to how badly they’re treated and Ramson’s initially ruthless enough he doesn’t care. By the end of the book, they’re both committed to changing things, and even the possibility that systemic change has to go beyond replacing the Emperor with someone better (a lot of fantasies don’t push rebellion to that conclusion).

So aside from controversy, is the book actually good? I think so. It’s well-written, fast-paced, tense where it needs to be, and I like the characters. While I generally hate this kind of X-Men mages-as-persecuted-mutants set-up, I didn’t hate it here, which says a lot. Though given the big bad for the trilogy is a Magneto-style villain dedicated to Affinite supremacy, I’m less enthused about getting book two than I might have been. But I’ll at least check it out of the library and see.

#SFWApro. Cover art by Ruben Ireland, all rights to image remain with current holder.

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And yet more covers

I think this one by John Schoenherr is eerie. How about you? I particularly like the little rover.Another Schoenherr, more macabre (as the cover notes) in tone.Otto Storch contributes a mystery cover.And so does Gerald GreggAnd inevitably, I’m throwing in a Powers cover.And one by Milton Luros. Why exactly does the Earthman want to stab the woman? I’ll probably never find out.#SFWApro. All rights to images remain to current holders.

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Post-vacation political links

I’ll blog about my trip later, but for now —

Senior intelligence officials warn Congress about Russia’s views on the 2020 elections. Trump has a meltdown that this was made public.

Trump has also convinced himself the CDC is exaggerating the coronavirus threat as a political attack. Which may be why he’s trying to silence actual experts and putting medically ignorant Mike Pence (who claimed two decades ago there was no proof smoking was harmful) and Larry Kudlow in charge of the White House effort. Of course, staffing government with incompetent loyalists is nothing new for Republicans. And yes, Trump did shut down the U.S. Pandemic Response team.

Yet another push by law enforcement (and the Trump administration) to make encrypted Internet communications easy to spy on.

The growing power of monopoly in industry, and why it’s a bad thing.

A federal appeals court says Florida refusing to allow felons to regain their voting rights until they pay all fines and fees amounts to an illegal poll tax. I suspect if it gets to the Supreme Court, they’ll sign off on suppressing the vote.

A neo-Nazi terror group uploaded propaganda to Google Maps.

George Zimmerman shot and killed Trayvon Martin. Elizabeth Warren and Pete Buttigieg Tweeted lamentations for Martin’s birthday, not mentioning Zimmerman, but he sued them anyway.

Racism in the anti-abortion movement.

Columnist E. Jean Carroll says Elle magazine fired her after she accused Trump of raping her.

An “ex-gay” advocate for conversion therapy claims Vimeo not showing his pro-conversion videos violates his freedom of religion. A court disagrees.

Meanwhile, Florida Republicans push anti-gay bills in the state legislature

Court evangelical E.W. Jackson explains we liberals hate Trump because unlike the effete Obama, Trump’s a real man. And unsurprisingly, Trump’s Congressional toadies are just fine with him demanding courts deliver verdicts he likes and Bill Barr acting like a mob mouthpiece.

A judge in one court case replaced a juror who said he was voting not guilty because God told him to. William Pryor, one of Trump’s potential Supreme Court candidates, thinks replacing him is the same as discriminating against Christian jurors (as explained at the link, it isn’t).

Now for some good news:

California will use almost 300 state buildings as housing for the homeless.

Virginia has abolished Lee-Jackson Day and given local communities the authority to tear down Confederate monuments.

In Tennessee, the Sons of Confederate Veterans protest a plan to remove a bust of General Nathan Bedford Forrest from the state Capitol. Rep. Jason Hodges points out  to an SCV member that in addition to being in the post-Civil War Klan and selling slaves, he participated in the massacre of black Union soldiers at Ft Pillow: “How many people can I butcher and still be honored by the state of Tennessee?”

The FBI just arrested a bunch of neo-Nazis.

And a roundup post of more good news.

A lot of people like to pretend that the discrimination their immigrant ancestors (Irish, Jewish, Catholic, Polish, etc.) faced is totally different from them discriminating against new immigrants today. I’m impressed some Japanese-Americans who were interned in WW II are protesting Trump’s immigrant detention policies.


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Avengers and Cops: Graphic novels read

AVENGERS: Once An Avenger collects Avengers 21-40, which show the problems with the “Marvel method” (the artist does a lot of the plotting) that Stuf’ Said talked about. Don Heck wasn’t comfortable flying without a detailed plot from the writer and Stan Lee’s outlines were probably pretty thin (he was working on a lot of Marvel books at this point) which put even more weight on Heck’s shoulders (Roy Thomas takes over the book near the end of this volume and seems to be a stronger plotter). As a result, we have a lot of padding in some stories, and frequent whipsaw plot changes. At one point Quicksilver and the Scarlet Witch head back to their home nation of Transia because their powers are fading and they hope the motherland will recharge them. Several issues later, with no set up, we see a kindly Einstein-lookalike (who apparently lives with a fully equipped lab in a Transian mountain village) miraculously figuring a way to recharge their abilities. Apparently Lee or Heck decided it was time to bring them back so presto, miracle cure!

That said, I do enjoy Lee’s style of mixing melodrama and heartache (the latter probably came naturally to Heck, who did a lot of romance comics work) in with the superheroics. Hawkeye has a genuine character arc, going from hot-head to a fairly sensible guy (though the team continues to take up space with constant bickering). And there are some great stories: the Avengers second battle with Kang, their encounter with the white-supremacist Sons of the Serpent, and the debut of the Collector. While he would appear many more times, later stories made him more SF and lacked the quirkiness of his collection here: a flying carpet for transportation, beans that grow giants, a medieval catapult (I can swallow this, as a lot of real collectors are equally arbitrary in their selections). So a thumbs up, but YMMV.

I picked up GOTHAM CENTRAL: The Quick and the Dead by Greg Rucka, Michael Lark and Stefano Gaudiano for cheap at the library’s display table, and while I like the premise of the series — life as a cop in Gotham City — this is not one of the stronger volumes. One story ties in to some then-current Bat-event and with no context or explanation why Batman is suddenly persona non grata, it lacks punch. Another takes a couple of cops to Keystone City to confront Flash’s foe Dr. Alchemy. While they play off the contrasting attitudes of Flash-series cops to Gotham cops, this turns Alchemy into a blatant Hannibal Lector ripoff, a guy who can figure out everything you’re thinking and use it against you. There’s no basis for this in the character, and more importantly it just doesn’t work. So this one went back to the library.

#SFWApro. Cover by Jack Kirby, all rights remain with current holder.

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Unsatisfying sequels and a disappointing season: movies and TV

JUSTICE LEAGUE (2017) isn’t as much of a train wreck as I anticipated, and certainly an improvement over Batman vs. Superman but it still falls far short of even an average MCU entry. With Superman dead, the world is falling into despair (which I found a false note — Henry Cavill’s Superman in Zach Snyder’s DC Universe was hardly a shining beacon of hope); when an alien warrior named Steppenwolf steals three ancient Mother Boxes to xenoform Earth into a duplicate of his homeworld, an aging Batman (one of the film’s better ideas is that he’s been at this for 20 years) recruits Wonder Woman, Flash, Cyborg and Aquaman to stop him.

The cast is solid, but Steppenwolf is just a generic alien warlord; if they wanted to use someone from Kirby’s Fourth World mythos) (I presume this is based on the New 52 origin where the JLA comes together against an incursion from Apokalips) there are far more colorful adversaries (the Female Furies, Dr. Bedlam, Granny Goodness …). And I really hate Cyborg’s look, less like he’s part-metal and more like he’s wearing an Iron Man suit with his head exposed. Overall, not awful, but it left me with none of the enthusiasm for the team the first Avengers film did, let alone TV’s Arrowverse. “I can’t even understand the physics of me feeling my toes.”

RALPH BREAKS THE INTERNET (2018) is the Wreck-It Ralph sequel in which Ralph accidentally disables best friend Vanellope’s arcade game which sends them onto the Internet seeking the needed spare part; upon overbidding for it on eBay, they have to then raise money to cover the bill. This has some good bits such as Vanellope testing her racing skills in a Grand Theft Auto-type universe, but the product placement is very heavy (that we also have made-up names like the videosharing site “Buzztube” alongside Google and Amazon presumably tells us who paid to play) and the satire of the Internet’s dark side (vicious comments, lots of cat videos) felt canned; while Vanellope meeting up with Disney’s princesses had its amusing moment, it still felt too much like bonus product placement (I assume Disney mocking princess tropes is as insincere as Kate and Leopold decrying marketing as immoral). While a lot of reviews liked the themes and the emotional arc overall this felt too canned. With Alan Tudyk as a search engine and Gail Godot as a wildcat street racer. “It’s sort of a Pied Piper codependent strategy.”

Although I enjoyed the first season of the CHARMED reboot, the second season has largely killed my enthusiasm. The new showrunners kick things off by relocating them to Seattle (their base is now under a shared-work space), destroying the Book of Elders and taking out their powers, leaving them ill-equipped to cope with the new threats arising. Which could have worked, but the Macy/Harry romance feels very unconvincing, like something the new crew arbitrarily decided was a thing; as it’s a mainstay of the character arcs, that isn’t working for me.

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An angel under the knife

Apparently love, by itself, is not a cure for a busted knee. After three weeks of rest and care, we took Trixie to the vet today and her knee hasn’t healed. So it’s surgery or her knee stays out and eventually becomes prematurely arthritic.

That’s going to be expensive (we can afford it) and it’s going to be a pain in the butt to keep such a lively dog from jumping up and straining her leg. She’s much more patient than plush dog but when we have to put her on cage rest, she’ll probably be miserable. Her whole life is snuggling up next to me and TYG, I hate the thought of her being separated from us, even if we’re right in the room.

But it’s only six to eight weeks from the surgery (yet to be set). We can manage it.  Still, even tbough Park Vets are great, I can’t help but feel a little nervous.

Positive thoughts and prayers welcome.

Oh, between being under the weather and taking a small vacation I didn’t get much work done this week except for Leaf articles, so there’ll be no week in review post this afternoon.


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Forging ahead, regardless of the facts

“When you write a story, you have a predetermined end in mind, and the challenge is to make the facts match the ending. This is what I call “the fictific method.” The challenge of the fictific method is to make all the facts along the way to lead to a believable result based on those facts. Unfortunately, more and more we are seeing storytellers whose goal is to reach a certain result regardless of the facts.” — Brian K. Lowe.

Lowe cites two ways this happens: 1)The writer ignores the facts they’ve’ established so that they can make the ending come out the way they want it to. 2)The storyteller establishes false facts: changes history, ignores the way things normally work, or has people behave in ways nobody normally would.

Raymond Chandler’s classic essay The Simple Art of Murder really hammers the classic British mysteries of his day over #2. Cops who don’t follow any of the established rules or use the tools at their disposal to crack the case. Or consider the murder scheme in Dorothy Sayers’ Have His Carcase: it’s an absurdly elaborate plot it’s unlikely any killer would use. But it has to be used to set up a seemingly impossible crime, a man murdered on a beach at low tide with nobody leaving footprints in the sand.

Or consider Avengers #38 (cover by Gil Kane). The Asgardian Enchantress places a love spell on Hercules to get him to attack the Avengers for her. At the end, the good guys snap Herc out of the spell, but the Enchantress still has the magical power to annihilate them. Instead, when Hercules tells her to get lost, she just walks out because … she’s in love with him and can’t bear to kill him along with the others. This comes out of nowhere; she’s shown absolutely no interest in Hercules up to that point, unlike Thor, whom she was constantly hot for. But it was the simplest way to end the story, given her Asgardian magic way outclasses the team.

Or take a scene I wrote into Southern Discomfort. After some nasty magic starts paralyzing people, I had the Pharisee County Hospital treating it as if there were a strange outbreak of stroke cases. My friend doctor and author Heather J. Frederick pointed out that strokes don’t work the way the magic did, so that wouldn’t be the diagnosis. I went back and reworked it and settled on the doctors deciding it was some kind of fast-spreading disease — which was scarier because 1973 wasn’t as prepared for epidemics as we are now.

Which is the key to making the fictific method work. If you can’t get the ending you want, given the facts of your story, either change the facts or change the ending so everything flows logically. Hopefully once it’s finally published, everyone will agree that I did.

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It’s hump day, keep fighting!

See the work week fall before your sword!And never give up, never surrender!#SFWApro. Covers by Ken Kelly top and Jerry Grandenetti, all rights remain with current holders.

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Putting the pieces together

Like (I imagine) a lot of writers, I’m tossing around ideas in my head even when I’m not writing. Maybe more when I’m not writing, as I’m not required to focus on anything.

A lot of it is less plots or characters than just bits of things. Opening lines. Names. Ideas. Scenes unattached to a story (particularly climaxes. I love imagining dramatic climactic confrontations). I sometimes think they’ll just float around in limbo unattached because I’m very linear in my writing: I can’t start with a scene and then write the story that leads up to it. My mind just doesn’t work that way. Lately, though, I’ve noticed I’ve been able to use several them.

Death is Like a Box of Chocolates incorporates bits of several ideas floating around in my head. A story about a small-town reporter. A female lead with the first name Pershing. The idea of a thief stealing something off a baggage carousel that turns out to be supernatural — I’ve had that floating around in my head since before security cameras were everywhere, one reason I wound up setting the story in the 1980s.

Impossible Takes a Little Longer will, if it ends up the way I anticipate, use up a scene I’ve had floating in my head for a couple of decades, which I won’t spoil here. I didn’t start from that scene and work back, it just suddenly struck me how well it would work in the book.

I’ve done this occasionally with earlier stories. Not In Our Stars But In Ourselves, one of the stories in Atoms for Peace, used a name I’d had in my head, “Elegy” Walker, though very differently from my original concept. Maria, my protagonist from Southern Discomfort, drew on an earlier character in earlier drafts, an Italian-American living in a small Southern town. The difference is so marked, I may go back and reuse that earlier version somewhere else some day (ditto a supporting character, Megan O’Donnell, who got dropped entirely).

It feels really good when I get to use up one of these ideas. Really, really good, like an itch that’s been lying there, waiting for the scratching. I’ve got maybe two more climaxes I’d really, really like to put to use — let’s hope the trend continues and I can do it before too long.

#SFWApro. Cover art by Zakaria Nada, all rights remain with current holders.

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