Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Why Brickleberry is Bad (And You Should Feel Good!)

            While waiting for The Daily Show to come on last night, I had the misfortune of watching Daniel Tosh’s new animated “comedy” Brickleberry. If that sentence and it’s strategically placed quotation marks don’t sum up exactly what I thought about the show, then let me make it even more obvious: it is not good.

            I’ve never found Daniel Tosh to be particularly funny, though I tolerate his show when nothing else is on TV. He makes for good background noise, but if you actually pay attention it’s just a grown man laughing at youtube videos. This is his job. His actual stand up is decent at best, but his schtick is simple.

            Step 1: Make Offensive joke
            Step 2: Say you’re just kidding
            Step 3: Transition into more offensive comment
            Step 4: Smirk

            Now, I’m not really someone who is easily offended. I’ve been on 4chan. I’ve played online games. There isn’t a lot out there at this point that will shock me. I’m not going to turn the channel because of offensive humor. However, that can’t be a shows only gag.

            Brickleberry follows (or more mimics) Family Guy’s style of humor. It’s actually a pretty spot on copy of the McFarlane School of Comedy, but whereas sometimes Family Guy has some actual jokes, Brickleberry is more of a “point and laugh”. By this I mean there is not a single joke in the pilot of Brickleberry. It’s just a selection of offensive statements and cutaways to irreverent, bottom-tier sight gags where the joke is simply AIDS or racism.

            A joke has a setup and a payoff. There is none of this in Brickleberry. It intends to offend, but does nothing with it. South Park operates in a similar way, but intentionally pushes boundaries to make a point. There is no point to Brickleberry, it simply says “Here is a bear cub being raped, now laugh at it!” Anyone who will defend Brickleberry and comedians like Daniel Tosh will make the inevitable argument that critics are simply oversensitive and too easily offended. These people are thirteen and their opinions do not matter.

            The fact that Brickleberry is so miserably bad is probably a good thing. I have doubts it will last a season. That’s a very, very good thing. Brickleberry represents a low point of comedy, a last futile gasp of the Family Guy imitators that have been plaguing mainstream animation for a long time.  That is the benefit of Brickleberry. It offers something perfect to hate on the simple principle of quality.

Monday, September 24, 2012

Not Just For Kids Anymore: How and Why Comics Are Trying to Grow Up (And how they're doing it wrong)

            I’ve noticed I’ve been writing a lot about the concept of maturity a lot, and I thought it might be good to expound on that idea a bit. It’s something that comics and games have always been accused of lacking. They’re “kid stuff” or what have you, and I think a lot of the time in that effort to dodge that label they end up doing something worse.

            There are a few authors I can think of that can go off the rails a bit. These guys are all pretty incredible when restrained and can do amazing work. Alan Moore wrote For the Man Who Has Everything and Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow, both of which made me shed a single manly tear before I went back to lifting weights and eating steaks. Mark Millar, who I rag on consistently for his more recent work did Civil War, which is a pretty phenomenal and astoundingly astute political commentary. And, Frank Miller, who in later years has proved himself to be slightly insane and more than slightly racist, produced 300 and The Dark Knight Returns, both of which are solid pieces in their own right.

            I like Watchmen okay, and Kick-Ass was good, but the problem is the imitators. People try to copy the “grit” and market it as something with mature themes or whatever. The idea of “mature themes” is one that is plaguing comics right now. The Watchmen and Dark Knight Returns imitators brought in the blood and the murder and the sex but it was all meaningless. Kick-Ass wasn’t good because it had a lot of swearing or gore but because the main character spoke to everyone who over wanted to be a superhero because his or her normal life sucked. When these things are copied that you get into some really stupid stuff, i.e. the late ‘80s early ‘90s in comics.

            The comic book really grew up in the ‘70s, ten years before Watchmen, when Will Eisner first wrote A Contract With God, which is considered to be the first graphic novel. It’s through this that we get incredible works like Maus, American Born Chinese, and Persepolis. Eisner showed to the world that graphic storytelling was not only possible but could be beautifully effective. It’s difficult to point out how many people owe him on this, but those who follow in the Eisner tradition usually pen incredibly meaningful and personal works.

            Unfortunately for the industry and for those of us who truly enjoy mainstream superhero comics, there aren’t a lot of people writing like that. Of course there are the Dan Slotts who do wonderful work for Marvel, and Mike Mignola has never let anyone down like, ever, but unfortunately the big 2 seemed obsessed with sensationalism over substance. It’s the difference between The Death of Superman, which was a commercial success and a national news story, and Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow, which was actually a good read.  It’s authenticity versus spectacle, or telling a story to tell a story versus telling a story because they’ll talk about it on the Today Show.

            I get that comics are a business, but making headlines and making a quality product are a completely different. We readers are fiercely loyal to good writers and artists. If I see something done by Marcos Martin, chances are that I’ll buy it simply because his art is nothing short of incredible. Grant Morrison is someone else I hold in that same regard. Show us something good and we will reward you for it.  There’s often the argument made for stupid and mindless entertainment, and I understand that, but it seems like DC’s whole lineup is written by Michael Bay or something. Superhero comics have so much unused potential in them for truth and heart that gets tossed to the side in favor of fan service and meaningless action. This is, of course, an issue that plagues every genre. For every Breaking Bad you have Here Comes Honey Boo-Boo. For every Death With Interruptions (My current favorite book by José Saramango) there is a 50 Shades of Grey. For every Crash there is an Epic Movie.
            Maybe I’m just getting older or have taken off the rose-colored glasses, but I’m not finding the same quality of content anymore. I mean I still enjoy rereading Geoff John’s Green Lantern run up until the new 52, but I feel like once Flashpoint hit and they relaunched everything something crucial has been missing. I don’t know if its talent or heart or what, but whatever they are doing now is sadly not working for me. I worry about the comics industry often because it’s always sort of hanging on by a thread, and every time they struggle to climb back up with a gimmick they fall a little bit more.
            This display of mindless spectacle is a serious concern to me, simply because I see the value in comics, be they superhero or otherwise. I know how comics can connect in ways traditional literature simply cannot, but this wonderful potential is being jeopardized. We tend to only remember the good stuff from ages past, and so I can’t help but wonder what people will use as the example of this era in comics. I don’t think I’d like the answer.
            The argument I’ve been meaning to get to is a lot of these “mature themes” are part of the big twos attempt to seem edgy and relevant in the face of cinema and video games. There are really good adult comics out there like DMZ and Ex Machina that deal with actual issues, but in attempts to mimic them its easy to copy the sex and violence and not the actual reason they were written. People talk about how “comics aren’t just for kids anymore” and point out all the “mature” grit, but here’s the secret: comics never were “just for” anyone. Comics are for everyone.

Thursday, September 20, 2012

Rape, Women, and the Problem of Psuedomaturity in Comics

            I haven’t read any new comics in a long time.

            The last thing I picked up was Cow Boy, at an English-speaking bookstore in Amsterdam and that was in June. I haven’t read any new mainstream books since I left for Denmark, and honestly I just can’t find the energy to head over to Sailfish and pick up anything new.

            Part of the reason is I’m so behind already and probably have around 40+ issues of Spider-man to get into, but also and more importantly everything I’ve heard about DC’s New 52 paints a pretty bleak picture.  I keep reading articles on Comicsalliance, and I just keep getting more and more reasons to avoid it.

            Consider this one. I don’t understand it.  Can we not do this? Please?

            I don’t know who made the decision that rape is the best way to make things mature or whatever the industry term is. It’s a problem that is getting worse, and honestly I’m not sure who or what to blame.

            There are the publishers and writers, who see rape as a way to come across as adult or serious. I think Mark Millar is one of the worst offenders.  Nemesis and Kick-Ass two are both rape-y as all get out but it’s in sort of this weird sardonic tone, which honestly is the worst possible way to do it.  It’s frankly insulting. Honestly we can trace this crap all the way back to Alan Moore, who’s extended works are filled with all sorts of rape. Alan Moore started it all in Watchmen, its in V for Vendetta, and it gets worse in Lost Girls (don’t Google that one).

            It kinds of sucks but I have to blame Spider-man for this one. The death of Gwen Stacy is one nail in the coffin of the Bronze Age and the start of the movement to where we are now. There were no real Spider-man one shots. Every issue had parts of Peter’s ongoing life as he moved towards adulthood. Spider-man created this vibrant, alive universe. So, when Gwen Stacy died, it was pretty important. It is something that has echoed throughout the entire Marvel Universe, and has made for some incredible storylines. Others tried to imitate this by doing similar things but the fact of the matter is without if you write something like that without sincerity and just for attention it rings hollow and downright stupid.

            But really we can blame ourselves for this. I mean, we wanted comics to be more mature and that’s what they did. We bought millions of copies of Kick-Ass and Watchmen and so they made more. We didn’t demand more. It’s no wonder that people think mainstream comics are juvenile. If you look at the women in comics, DC far more so than Marvel, its kind of impossible to take them seriously because they’re not written as women but written for an audience. It’s easy to laugh at the ridiculousness of one of the many overly revealing or downright fetishistic costumes and treat them as a joke, but the fact of the matter is that out there someone is very seriously whackin’ it to Power Girl.

            We said wanted grit and they gave it to us. They showed us superheroes killing and Batman and Catwoman banging on a rooftop. They gave us all the sex and violence and pseudo-maturity we could ask for and we ate it up. We keep talking this big game about how comics aren’t for kids anymore, but honestly? This kind of thing isn’t really for anyone. It’s a thirteen year old swearing on Xbox Live.

            I don’t really think this is a question of feminism or progressivity or what-have-you, but one more of maturity. I’m sick of Strong Female Characters, and women who are clearly written for men (or more accurately man-children).  I’m just tired of reading article after article on how Starfire is now absolute cheesecake, or seeing violent rapes in Mark Millar’s work. It’s childish. It’s stupid. Rape isn’t a plotline, or some trope to toss out to raise the stakes or make things “adult audiences”.  DC needs to get their act together and put their heart back into what they do instead of just trying to make everything matter.

           Maturity isn't something that can be forced with adult things like rape, and frankly the idea of using rape as a plot device is pretty offensive. Cow Boy was more "mature" than anything DC has come out with in a year and it's about a ten-year old with a custom gun that looks like a horse but it's serious with a heart and actually made me feel something. What I see from DC now is just kind of insulting to their audience as a whole.

          What I'd like, honestly, is for comics with heart. I think DC will see this soon as their market share continues to dwindle. They don't have the writers, and they especially don't have the blockbuster power of the Avengers franchise behinds them. Hopefully, this time instead of just rebooting everything again, they'll actually decide to rise to the challenge and produce good content. I say this with optimism, but I know I should just get ready to buy Batman #1 again.

Sunday, September 2, 2012

Gravity Falls, Adventure Time, Regular Show, and the power of heart

Adventure time, c’mon grab your friends. We’ll go to very distant lands. With Jake the dog and Finn the human the fun will never end, it’s Adventure Time!

My current favorite shows on television are all cartoons.

Maturity is never something I’ve been accused of, but it does strike me as odd that for 21-year old me and a large portion of my friends in the same demographic we are increasingly finding ourselves caught up in what is essentially children’s programming.  And, while I and many others could argue for days on end about the subtle adult humor and references in shows like Regular Show, Adventure Time, and my new favorite Gravity Falls, at the end of the day I’m dvr-ing the Disney Channel and Cartoon Network. 

So what is it about these cartoons that have people in my age-range so enraptured? I would assume that we are not the target audience. All of these shows are quite funny in their own right, but I think each one of them independently appeals to something in me that goes beyond the comedic.

Adventure Time, is at heart, about a boy and his dog. This is simply the start of any good adventure. Boy + Dog= great fun. But this is a talking magic dog. And they live in a literal candy kingdom. There’s sorcery and swords and liches (Despite my extreme nerd cred I’m not quite sure how to pluralize that word).  There are princesses and evil wizards. On paper seems extremely cliché but when put into practice it’s just kind of whimsical. It’s a show that encourages you just to let go and accept what’s happening. There’s a sense of fun and excitement to it that stops all cynicism in its tracks.

And I think that is what makes Adventure Time such a phenomenal show. Consider the extreme cynicism in our world today. There’s such an incredible negativity for people of my generation. There aren’t jobs. The planet is objectively fucked. Politics is a joke. Idealism is something that is a punchline and not a desirable character trait. And yet, in Adventure Time there’s this one boy that pretty much embodies everything good about the human spirit. He’s courageous, kind, selfless, loyal, and every other positive quality a person can possess. He is undeniable, unabashedly good and sees the world in a way that makes everyone who watches feel the same.

Gravity Falls features a somewhat similar character. Dipper is roughly the same age as Finn. He’s in that same point in his life, existing as he comes into the his own without a standard parent figure (Finn was adopted by Jake’s family, and Jake serves as a sort of older brother, whereas Dipper and his sister are spending the summer at their great uncle’s).  However, whereas Finn is sure of himself and confident, Dipper is more unsure and contemplative. Gravity Falls is styled like Twin Peaks for kids, and the supernatural events simply serve as a framing device for Dipper and his sister Mabel to learn and grow.

The subject matter is presented rather straightforward. It’s direct, sincere, and sweet without being saccharine. Dipper learns to stop being so analytical and just let things happen thanks to a copy machine that serves as a cloner in a surprisingly self-aware and heartfelt episode. In another, Mabel has to learn to deal with people directly, specifically in the romantic sense, when the guy she has Dipper reject for her goes berserk with his psychic amulet.

One of the things to me that in Adventure Time and Gravity Falls that is the most interesting is the fact that both boys’ primary love interest is much older than they are. Gravity Falls has Wendy, a fifteen-year-old, and Adventure Time’s Princess Bubblegum is eighteen. Both of these are in this continual state of pining, with their beloveds either unaware or uninterested, and eventually the boys have to accept that it doesn’t always work out. I don’t know, for me and probably everyone else, growing up there was always that older person that you just pined for knowing in the back of your mind that it was incredibly stupid, and yet you couldn’t help yourself. Watching Dipper go through the same thing that I had gone through with god-knows-how-many girls really struck a chord with me that reminded me of what it was like to be his age trying to get that girl you like to notice you despite the fact that you’re twelve and half her height.

Part of the heart of both those shows is the reminder of growing up, but Regular Show breaks the mold a bit by the fact that all of it’s main characters are well into adulthood. Mordecai and Rigby are both 23 and objectively aimless, working at a park. They’re roommates and old friends, and spend all their free time playing retro video games or watching VHS tapes. Whereas Adventure Time and Gravity Falls remind us of being kids, Regular Show is surprisingly on the money for being in your early twenties without a clue what to do with your life.

It’s almost surprising that this is a cartoon and not a real show. Aside from the absolutely ridiculous events that happen in almost every episode (arcade game comes to life and destroys the park, evil society of blondes, bowling versus death) it’s rather subdued in it’s humor.  They mock hipsters and nightclubs, despite the fact that the average 12 year old probably has no concept of either of those. If anything, Regular show seems aimed at the kind of people its protagonists represent: young adults who don’t know what to do.

Regular Show, despite its absurdist plots, deals with heavy subject matter beyond the standard “very special episode”. In one episode, a side character known as Muscle Man, loses his father, and learns about his fathers real job (he was a forklift driver, not a trucker as he claimed), and grows closer with Mordecai and Rigby, all while they prank the trucker hall of fame by spreading his dad’s ashes there. It’s a lot to think about, all in the guys of kids show. But, for twenty-somethings with parents in their fifties it’s something creeping into our heads that our parents won’t always be there or that they aren’t exactly all we thought they were and that’s okay. It’s honest. It’s sincere.

And then compare this to other shows on TV. I mean, the most popular comedies on TV have a cynicism to their humor and protagonists that are fairly hateable. I mean, look at 2.5 Men or It’s Always Sunny in Philadelphia. There are shows like The Big Bang Theory that try and fake sincerity, but the I’d argue that the vast majority of live-action, prime-time television lacks heart, and that’s an issue. In an interview, show creator Alex Hirsch says:

I think there's sort of a fear in some places, particularly at networks that have an over-emphasis on being cool or trying to follow what they think the zeitgeist is this minute. There's a fear of sincerity, and a fear of characters being emotionally invested. There's kind of a "can't the characters all just be kind of sassy jerks who don't learn anything?"

And don’t get me wrong those shows are funny. I do love Seinfeld and I can laugh at Workaholics. I’ve watched my share of How I Met Your Mother and Girls. However, the thing is that once I watch an episode I really stop caring about it. I am honest-to-god obsessed with Gravity Falls. I mean, I take enough away from these shows to the point that I have written over a thousand words about why they’re so incredible.

It's that heart and sincerity that makes all of these shows so great. These cartoons allow for adventure and fun but also confront serious issues like death and love. All at once I’m reminded of growing up but also dealing with being a grown up. It’s more than cartoons kids can watch with little jokes for their parents to laugh at, but cartoons that anyone can watch and relate to their characters, whether it’s a boy and his dog, a twin brother and sister, or an anthropomorphic bluebird and his best raccoon friend.