Sunday, July 26, 2009

Catch ya later Space Cowboy – Cowboy Bebop

Wow, these anime blogs are playing rough with me. I’ve had to rewrite the first two I started and I couldn’t find a way to make the third one click (still working on it at this time). For some reason, I keep getting off track with these. Probably because I reviewed anime for so long, that most of these blogs start out about storytelling and turn into mini reviews. So, if this comes off a little rough, then it’s because I had to rework it on the day I published it (something I don’t like to do).

Looking at story structure “Cowboy Bebop” is set up like a situational comedy. This is odd because when you look up Bebop, most people list it as a sci-fi action show with some funny moments. In truth, that’s how I’d categorize it. But examining the structure reveals something interesting.

“Outlaw Star” and “Trigun” both are linear stories with a definite chronology to them. If you start either of them part way through, you’ll end up confused (especially the case with “Outlaw Star”). Cowboy Bebop is pretty much nothing but stand alone episodes. This means you can just catch any episode of “Cowboy Bebop” and enjoy it.

One of the keys to this are the characters. Much like the crew of “Outlaw Star”, Bebop features a set of stock characters. By looking at them and listening to a few lines you know right away who you’re dealing with. Spike is the super cool, devil may care protagonist. He never breaks a sweat, always has a retort ready and is naturally able to get out of any situation with a well-placed shot or karate chop. Jett is the older, world-weary partner. He’s more responsible and less rash than his friend and will be there to bail him out if things get too sticky. Faye Valentine is the smoking hot gambling babe, who smokes cigars, has no problem using heavy weapons and seems to attract her share of trouble. Ed is the kid computer genius who acts several years younger than she is (yes Ed is a girl) and whose eccentricities usually say more than they first appear. Instead of a cat girl, we’ve got a data dog named Ein. This little Corgi is super intelligent but still a dog at heart. He doesn’t talk, but he doesn’t have to. The animation is so good you know just what Ein is thinking at any given time. And yes Ed and Ein are best friends.

Basically the writers toss our crew into various situations and let the action roll. Most of the time the story has something to do with a specific character – Spike’s past with gangsters, Jett’s past as a cop, Faye’s lack of a past, Ed’s hacking skills, or story behind Ein’s super intelligence. What is interesting is that no matter what happens to the characters in any given episode, they are no different in the next episode.

One of my favorite episodes deals with Jett. He ends up saving the daughter of his old cop partner. The girl is attractive and very appreciative of his deed. Jett is obviously attracted to her, but she see’s him as a father figure. You can tell it frustrates him, and he make some comment to Spike that’s he just too old to play the hero – because he can’t get the girls any more. Spike has a wry comment, but you can see that Jett is actually feeling his age in this episode. You’d expect this to have some kind of pay off in the later episodes… but it doesn’t. Jett just defaults back to his old self in the next episode.

This actually annoyed the hell out of me when I first saw the series. But watching it again, I realized that this was more akin to sit-coms. To keep the comedy interesting, the characters can’t change. The situations change all they want, but the audience expects the characters to act a certain way, that’s what makes it funny.

That’s what Bebop is going for. It’s not a dramatic series, even though it has a definite film noir look to it and the amazing animation does a great job of mixing sci-fi, the old west and 60’s spy movies together. Bebop is just a good time, with some super cool characters and some entertaining adventures. Sure Spike does have a bit of a change in the last few episodes (and the center entirely on him), but that’s as deep as the story gets.

Why construct the series this way? Bebop has some serious creative talent in it. The animation is probably the best of the 90’s generation of anime. The music is amazing (a mix of jazz, blues, and 60’s John Barry inspired scoring). The voice talents are top notch. The production design is creative and visually interesting. Add to it that fact that is just captures “cool” in a way I’ve never really seen in animation since. That is a lot of good stuff in it – but it seems all surface. The writing, the place where depth could be added, is really straightforward. The best thing about the writing are the wry comments from Spike and Ed’s funny twisty dialogue.

I always feel like Bebop is a missed opportunity. It could have been something seriously special, but it ends up being fun and entertaining. For “Outlaw Star” I accept it, because that’s all the series seemed to be shooting for. “Bebop” with is huge talent behind it seemed to want to be something more and never quite reached it. Or maybe I’m the stick in the mud expecting more from something that just wanted to show the audience a good time.

With that said, I think the series could have really knocked it out of the park with a story line that developed over the 28 episodes. It didn’t have to be depressing or deep, but it could have given us characters that changed in a way that pulled us into their world more. I think that’s what I miss in this series. It’s fun to watch the characters, but I never get pulled in, because they are always reset at the start of the next episode.

In a way it even gives the characters immunity because you know they all have to be around for the next adventure. This is contrary to “Outlaw Star” which killed off a character who I was certain would be a main character about four episodes in (and thus made the space pirates a real threat), but also kept the thrill level higher, because you were never sure what dangers they would encounter.

Bebop never has those thrilling moments, except for the ending three episode arc, where you know something can go down, because the series has to end. It’s amazing how good those episodes play because the noir look has a real threat behind it. Spikes gangster past really seems to be dangerous for once and those episodes turn out t be some of the best.

But let me state for the record that I’m in the minority on this one. Lots of people love this show and think it’s one of the high points of all Japanese animation (or at the least the best series of the 90’s). I see lots of raves of the storytelling and even the characterization (which always seems to be reading more into the series than there is on the surface). The series clicked for just about everyone. But I find it to be very pretty, and nice to spend some time with, but not something I return to or even think about too often afterward.

Have you seen “Cowboy Bebop”? What did you think of it? Can you make a story with serious impact and not have the characters change or develop over time (28 episodes in this case)? Do you have a good story about style over substance writing or movies?

Sunday, July 19, 2009

You better get ready - Outlaw Star

Trends are weird things. In the late 90’s Japanese animation jumped on a trend that seems a bit odd. Three different shows were made that combined traditional American Westerns and sci-fi trappings. One of these shows, “Cowboy Bebop” is still considered one of the best animated televisions series out of Japan. The other two, “Outlaw Star” and “Trigun” enjoyed success, especially in the US when they were released and still have a pretty solid fan base now.

I decided to take a look at all three series, and see what made them work, or didn’t work. The first one is one is probably the least known, “Outlaw Star.

In most ways Outlaw Star is the most traditional of the three series. It is a straight forward space opera, with bizarre aliens, strange worlds and adventures around every corner. The basic plot is a treasure hunt, with our heroes racing against a group of pirates to seize the Galactic Leyline.

For me the focus of “Outlaw Star” was the adventure. You get pulled into the plot and tune in to see what happens next. Most of the time, the show’s writers did a good job coming up with engaging clues to the next stage of the hunt, or throwing in a particularly dangerous obstacle. The fun was in seeing what the crew would do next.

When it comes to the crew, “Outlaw Star” plays it safe. You get a solid set of character tropes that you’ve seen in just about any adventure story (animated or not). The lead is Gene Starwind (I guessing it sound a lot like Luke Skywalker on purpose). He’s the hotheaded, cocky leader. He acts tough but he’s got a heart of gold. Then you’ve got the kid brother character, Jim, who’s young but has a real mind for strategy and mechanics. There’s the resident robot-girl character, named Melfina. This type of character turns up a lot in any sci-fi anime series. Typically she’s soft spoken, wonders why she was made and has a mysterious past. There’s the deadly assassin, Suzuka, who was sent to kill Gene early in the series but ends up being part of the crew. She doesn’t talk much, but her sword is nearly unstoppable. Finally there is the cat-girl (another anime favorite), Aisha. She’s spazzy, super strong and is often guided by her instincts. While this can lead to problems, more often it ends up saving one of the crew members.

What’s great about using characters that are familiar, is that you don’t have to flesh them out too much. In the first few minutes, just from their appearance and dialogue, you know what kind of character you’re dealing with. This allows “Outlaw Star” to throw much of it’s early episodes into getting the story started with a bang. For me, those first few episodes are some of the best, with space pirates after Gene, Jim and Melfina, and a new twist at the end of each episode. It all leads to the trio stealing the experimental ship, the Outlaw Star and getting their first solid clue to the Galactic Leyline.

Of course the unfortunate side effect of shallow characters is that the only way to keep things interesting is based more on the plot. The writers have to keep throwing in twists and turns, because you can’t really spend time developing the characters. In fact Gene and Melfina are the only ones that change in the story. By the end Gene is basically the same guy, but now he’s more experienced and little less rash. Melfina knows why she was made and has come to grips with being synthetic (not really a robot per se, but “not of woman born” either).

This leads to some hiccups along the way. There are a few episodes in the middle of the show that just don’t work. Most of these have nothing to do with the search for the treasure, or dodging the pirates. To keep the ship going, Gene needs money, so he ends up taking on some jobs along the way. These are usually the types of jobs that no one else will do, like hunting a sewer monster. Or maybe it’s a contest where the prize is a bunch of cash, like the intergalactic race episode.

These feel added on or slow because there is no danger. We know that Gene and the crew won’t get killed by some sewer monster before the end of the story. If someone does get killed it will be during the quest and by one of the major villains. That’s just the way it is in adventure stories. So these detours don’t work too well. There are a few exceptions. The space race is a solid episode, which keeps things fast and fun. Again you know that Gene can’t get killed on the way, but it doesn’t mean he’ll win either. The other one is played for laughs where Gene enters a woman’s wrestling match to win easy money. Of course it goes horribly wrong.

The other issue is build up. As the story goes along for 28 episodes: each clue is picked up, pirates are encountered and defeated, some characters are injured, captured or worse, and it all comes down to the final treasure. The longer this goes on, the more people talk up the treasure and the more people that end up after it (and doing vicious things to get it), you start to have expectations of what the Leyline is. This build up can end up killing your ending, because if the treasure doesn’t measure up with what you’ve been selling, well the audience is going to feel let down. This is the case with the Galactic Leyline. When you get to the end you just look at the screen and say, “That’s it?” It was a bit better with the second viewing, because I found myself just enjoying the ride. However I ended up disappointed with the ending.

“Outlaw Star” is a good example of how to do an adventure story right. The use of stock characters gets the plot moving right off the bat. All the good episodes threw in a curve or obstacle that kept you guessing if the heroes would make it to the end. The show never took itself deadly serious, and injected plenty of humor and fun. It’s not my favorite of the three shows I’m going to look at, but it was the most fun.

Have you seen “Outlaw Star”? What did you think of it? What is your favorite adventure story? Did it use stock characters, or did it manage to use well rounded characters? Is momentum key in making a good adventure story?

Sunday, July 12, 2009

The days of high adventure – The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian

My first exposure to anything relating to Robert E. Howard’s creation, Conan the Cimmerian, came with the 1981 film staring Arnold Schwarzenegger. When I first saw it, oh about six or seven years after it had been released, I really enjoyed it. I didn’t know much about Conan other than the movie. Later on, I found out that there was a comic book series of his exploits, but again, nothing really seemed overly interesting about it.

It wasn’t until recently that I ran into Robert E. Howard’s name. I was reading a couple essays on H.P. Lovecraft and they both mentioned that Howard corresponded with Lovecraft frequently. The essays said that he wrote the original Conan stories and was a famous pulp writer in his day. When he is brought up with Lovecraft, it’s because he wrote some horror stories that occur in the same world as many of Lovecraft’s work.

Stephen King mentions Howard in “Dance Macabre”. King praised his writing style and his stories, saying that they were great examples of well-crafted adventure writing in the pulp style.

Finally, I was doing some research on the genre of fantasy. I found that Tolkien and his many disciples are often referred to as “High Fantasy”. While Howard and his disciples are considered part of the “Low Fantasy” crowd. This lead me to discover that Howard and his Conan stories are often considered the genesis of the Sword and Sorcery genre. I decided to pick up some Howard and see what all the fuss is about.

I got my hands on “The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian” a Del Rey collection of Howard’s short stories restored to their original form (seems that a lot of Howards stories were reworked after his death and many of these stories have not been seen in their original form for decades). In addition to the stories the book contains a ton of useful information for writers, and I’ll get to that in a minute.

First thing first, I don’t know what my problem is, but whenever I pick up something from the pulp era, I expect it to be interesting, but archaic. I expect it to be a bit trashy and overall lacking in anything but basic escapism. To put it bluntly, I’m not expecting good writing. I don’t know why I get this way; maybe penguins tampered with my mind. Who knows?

The Conan stories blew me away. Howard does two things very well. First off, he keeps the story moving at a quick pace. He does it in such a way that you get a solid taste of the world you are in. At the same time you are never bored. There is always some kind of adventure right around the corner, and even if it seems like the set up is taking too long, he will throw in a moment of horror, blood or naked flesh to grab your attention. This is writing that is alive and bold. It’s going for jugular and it isn’t shy about catching your attention. Sure it does get a bit trashy, but it’s well written.

The second thing that Howard does in each story (and especially when you read a bunch of them together) is flesh out the world of Conan. This is especially impressive within the short story itself. His use of words, his balance of action and setting, and his characterization all add up to a vivid experience in Hyborian Age (the fictional time period Howard created for the Conan stories). Sure other writers have used Howard’s template since then, and that makes some of what you read a bit stale, but when you put into perspective that this was written in the 1930s and that it was brand new, it’s not surprising that a whole brand of fantasy was created based on these stories.

Of course there are some downsides to the stories. Since all of these are short stories, there isn’t a lot of character depth. Conan is pretty much the same guy in all the stories, but the fun in reading them comes from seeing what kind of crazy adventure he’ll end up in next. On top of that, the Conan of the films is not the man in the stories. Howard’s Conan is a barbarian, not a simpleton. He is grounded in the present and does things that will benefit him now. He doesn’t fear death because it comes to all men, but he doesn’t lie down and take what life throws at him. He fights with everything he has. The very first story establishes this character as one who is true to himself and doesn’t care what others think. He can be clever, but also deceived by others. He believes in his abilities but fears magic. He is honest and does what he says he will do. He has a temper and even a cruel streak in him, and seems to prefer to be a loner, even when he is a king.

Another fact that will bother some people is that these are stories about a very masculine world and written from a very masculine world view. Women are pretty much sex objects to be saved or that will try to destroy the good guys. There are exceptions, especially Belit, the Queen of the Black Coast, who is very much like Conan, but eventually becomes his willing consort. On the whole the women are presented as beautiful, kinda dumb and usually in need of rescue.

In addition Howard obviously has an issue with snakes, especially ones of the giant variety. Giant serpents appear in several of the stories, and there is usually an action scene where Conan faces them down. There is also a frequent appearance by apes that are closer to men than primates. Also present is some of the racism that was still very rampant in the 30’s. Most readers should be able to put this in context and not let it bother them.

For writers, Howard’s skills with storytelling are real reason to read the book. These short stories are great examples of how to make fast paced adventure stories work. The stories are simple, but there is always something going on or something looming just around the corner. Descriptions are short but potent (word selection is key here and it didn’t surprise me to learn that Howard had started out writing poetry before turning to prose). Above all there is a spark to the writing, something driving it that may be harder to capture, but should be alive in any storyteller who is serious about keeping an audience.

As I mentioned, this collection is especially interesting to writers because it includes a first draft of one of the stories, as well as synopses of a few others. There is an outline for a story and then a long fragment of a first draft for it. Also included is an essay of the Hyborian Age that Howard compiled to help ground the world of Conan. You also get notes on names used in the stories, maps drawn by Howard and a final essay that goes into the creation of the stories (taken from interviews, correspondence and gleaned from drafts) and how they were received. All told it’s a solid investment for anyone looking to find out more about the beginnings of Sword and Sorcery tales, as well as just learning more about a writer who is considered one of the best pulp writers of the 30’s. You also get some great stories to read, can’t say no to that.

Have you ever read any of Howard’s work? What did you think of the Conan stories? Ever find your conceptions of a certain genre or era of work challenged? What writer have you learned a great deal from just reading their work?

Monday, July 6, 2009

Journey to the Navel of the Story – The Writer’s Journey

As I’ve mentioned I’ve been a big fan of mythology since my early years. Maybe “Clash of the Titans” had something to do with it, but I suspect it was because of my love of “Star Wars”, which is more of a fantasy story with mythic elements than a true science fiction story. Either way, at some point in elementary school I became fascinated with mythology.

Of course this eventually lead me to the work of Joseph Campbell and is book, “Hero with a Thousand Faces”. His exploration of myths and storytelling is fascinating. Most of the points in his book are also covered in “The Power of Myth” a conversational examination of how myths and storytelling play a large part in our lives – by uncovering truths and presenting them in ways that resonate with just about anyone who encounters them.

Well this is all well and good, but how does it help a writer? Well obviously Campbell’s study of myth presents a writer with the basic building blocks of creating a story that will resonate with an audience – or at least that is the theory. Christopher Vogler steps up with his book “The Writer’s Journey – Mythic Structure For Writers” and uses Campbells ideas to illustrate how a writer can use mythic elements to create a better story.

Now, I know several writers who dislike Campbell’s work. They feel that stories should not be tied to any set pattern or have elements dissected and examined. A story is a living breathing thing, not a corpse in a morgue. In a way, I understand this. For me writing is a combination of the logical mind and the creative mind. The creative part is the force that flows and runs free. The logical part is the one that examines the story with an arched eyebrow and a red pen. Both need to work together.

You see, you can break the rules of Campbell’s pattern. I’ve seen it done and it can work. However, I’m a firm believer in knowing the rules before you break them, and that is where this book comes in.

Vogler provides the writer with a basic breakdown of the key parts of mythic storytelling. These include covering the archetypes of the story like the hero, the mentor, the ally, the trickster. He then goes into each stage of the hero’s journey from the humble beginnings in the normal world all the way to the hero’s return to his home with the secret of the ages (or magic elixir).

The final sections of the book deal with using fairly popular films and showing how the hero’s journey fits into these. Films range from “Titanic” to “The Lion King” to “Pulp Fiction” and “The Full Monty”. He even delves into all six films of the “Star Wars” saga.

What makes this book valuable is that Vogler is focused on writing and relating Campbell’s ideas to creating stories. Much of this is actually very intuitive, but it’s nice to have it articulated and even presented in a way that makes sense to a writer. And as I said, he offers points on why a story may work better because it follows the pattern or because it breaks it in a creative way. His examination of “Titanic” was actually pretty enlightening. I’m not a huge fan of the film, but Vogler shows how the script structure works exceedingly well to appeal to a large audience and really strike chords.

I definitely recommend the book to anyone who isn’t too familiar with Campbell or The Hero’s Journey. Vogler really presents the ideas in some of the most writer friendly ways I’ve seen. If you are already familiar with Campbell’s idea, you wont’ find too much new here, but there is enough to at least warrant a check out from the Library and see if it works better than some other books out there.

Oh and one minor note, skip the introductions. Unfortunately Vogler comes off a bit conceited in the intro and I was dreading reading any more. Once you get into the book proper, he drops the holier than thou attitude.

Are you familiar with the concept of The Hero’s Journey? Do you think it’s a valid story telling aid, or is it something that causes all stories to become cookie cutter? Have you read Vogler’s book? If so, what did you think of it? What did you think of “Titanic”? Did the storytelling affect how you felt about it, or did you just like watching the boat sink?