Friday, October 24, 2014

Marvel, DC, and the Diversity Arms Race

Yesterday a friend and I were joking around about DC and Marvel when she pointed out that while Marvel did just announce a whole bunch of new comics titles featuring women, DC just greenlit a bunch of solo movies featuring women and men of color. To which I added that DC has just announced a Static Shock live action television show, and then we both remembered that we're getting not only Agent Carter from Marvel, but also shows centered around Jessica Jones and the Heroes for Hire.

In other words, Marvel and DC appear to be in some kind of giant diversity arms race, and it's pretty much the best thing ever.

I've been noticing this for a while, but it took until yesterday for me to really realize what was going on. And that's because for a long time, Marvel's been sort of playing this game on its own while the executives over at DC decided whether or not they were going to engage. But they did engage, and with the announcement of the Wonder Woman movie, as well as casting men of color for Aquaman and Green Lantern, they shot back in a big way. The diversity war is on!

What's funny, though, is that I feel like most people aren't understanding why this is so awesome. If you go on tumblr you'll find a lot of posts taking sides. Yelling at Marvel for not greenlighting a single solo movie for a non-white male superhero. Arguing that all DC is going to do is screw up these characters that we love. We've gotten so used to diversity being used against us that it's hard to look up and see that the tide is changing. But it is. Celebrate!

No, seriously, celebrate with me! Because the tide really has changed. Both Marvel and DC are acknowledging that they need diverse characters and diverse storylines in order to sell their products. Not only that, but the social capital they can gain by announcing these projects has officially become more important than the social capital they could possibly gain by appealing to "mainstream comics fans". Because, as it turns out, mainstream comics fans like diversity too.

The thing to remember about the diversity arms race is that no matter who wins, we all benefit. There is no lose here. Marvel and DC are going to go after each other see who can greenlight more diverse projects first? Well that is officially my best day ever. 

In the game of diversity, everyone wins. It's not like the fact that DC is making a Wonder Woman movie is going to mean they stop making Batman movies. It's not like making Aquaman a Pacific Islander is going to mean Arrow gets cancelled. It's not like giving Peggy her own show means people will no longer care about Steve Rogers. It's actually the opposite. The more of this stuff we get, the more of it we can appreciate. The more we can find stuff to love, and the less we will all fall on one particular property and tear it to shreds for not accurately representing all of us all the time.

The more diverse media we get, the more we all benefit. I'll be honest, I don't give two craps about Aquaman normally. But am I going to watch Jason Momoa tear it up in that standalone movie? Heck yes I am!

It's easy to see this in a bad light, though. Because if we assume that there are limited resources, that there are only so many projects that Hollywood can greenlight, that there are only so many comics stores will sell, that there are only so many shows the networks can film, it can be easy to think that we can't actually have it all. That we can only have Batman or Wonder Woman, not both.

As it turns out, though, that is complete crap.

Take Sherlock Holmes adaptations, for example. Not only are there two currently running shows based on the crime novel series (BBC's Sherlock and CBS' Elementary), we've also got the Robert Downey Jr. films, the mockbuster films that go along with that (starring Gareth David Lloyd, as it happens), and a whole host of other properties using the Sherlock Holmes characters, ideas, and stories. And you know what? That's freaking great. Seriously. None of these shows or movies has suffered from the competition. Arguably they've all succeeded because of it. Because someone who watches Sherlock heard about Elementary and decided to give it a try. In the game of diversity, everybody wins.

This fall has been really awesome for me as a television lover. I mean, other years have had more female lead shows by the numbers, but this year has had an overwhelming number of shows coming on the air that are racially diverse, feature compelling female characters, and have the full support of their networks and studios. Shows like Selfie, which features an Asian-American man as the romantic lead, and Jane the Virgin, which features a predominantly Hispanic cast and a story centered around a young woman's sexual history, and even Forever, which centers on a white male lead, sure, but also includes a Hispanic leading woman as well as a diverse, compelling cast of secondary characters.

In other words, this year is a good year to be a person who likes diverse media. It's hard to remember that sometimes, if I'm honest. I spend so long staring at all the worst stuff that pop culture has to offer, that it's difficult to take a step back and realize, hey, you know what happened this year? Lucy, a female lead action movie, dominated the summer box office. Maleficent? Made a ton of money. Frozen is freaking universally beloved (much as I take issue with some of it), and Disney just announced that their next princess movie? It's gonna be Moana, about a Pacific Islander explorer princess.

I don't think the fight is over, but I do think the tide has turned. Look around, guys. We did it. There is so much good stuff happening. There are op-eds on major websites talking about the need for more diverse media. We're gonna get another Disney princess of color. Marvel and DC are in a diversity arms race.

So let's egg this thing on! Let's get Marvel and DC at each other's throats to prove once and for all who can make the most inclusive, diverse, compelling stories! Let's goad Marvel into finally giving us Black Widow and Black Panther and Captain Marvel movies. Let's taunt DC into making a Harley Quinn TV show, a Power Girl show, a Zatanna movie. Heck, let's get Sony and 20th Century Fox involved and make them give us Miles Morales on the big screen and a Storm solo picture. We finally have the social power to make a difference.

Everybody wins.

Wednesday, October 22, 2014

Pilot Season: The Flash (A Superhero Movie Every Week)

It’s pretty rare for any show to come out of the gate swinging, to be fully formed and ready to go in the first three episodes. It’s even rarer for a show that is essentially one big corporate synergy advertisement to do this. Generally speaking what we saw with Agents of SHIELD is the norm. A show struggles to find its footing in the first half of the first season or so, and then somewhere along in there it clicks and suddenly the show works and is great and we’re all on board for the ride.

In the rare case when this doesn’t happen, I always feel a little suspicious. Like with shows that immediately wow their audience, I’m always kind of worried that this means that they spent all their best material in the first few episodes and there’s nothing left to keep them going. Take for example the first seasons of Heroes and Prison Break and even Glee. These are all shows that by and large were consistently great in their first seasons, that never really needed a minute to figure out what they were doing, and that collectively pooped the bed in the second season.

So when I tell you that The Flash is hilarious and wonderful and fully realized right out of the gate, I hope you understand the level of trepidation that gives me. It makes me nervous when a show knows what it’s doing so early on. And I’ve got stats to back me up.

But only time will tell if Flash is going to have staying power or not. The real question I’m here to answer is a lot simpler. Should you watch it? Hell yes you should.

The Flash is the kind of show that really arguably shouldn’t work but absolutely totally does. It’s based on one of the better known but not really as popular figures from the DC canon, features a rogue’s gallery that virtually no one remembers, and stars an actor whose previous major role was as a bit character on Glee. In all logic, this show really shouldn’t work. But it does.

It works because, as it turns out, all of those things are assets, not hindrances. Sure, The Flash is pretty much no one’s favorite superhero (I mean, logically he’s probably someone’s, but you get what I mean), and this iteration of the Flash is even less popular than the better known Wally West version, but that’s why the story works. Just like how no one watches Arrow and gets all upset at the way the show mangles Green Arrow’s lore, no one really cares enough about The Flash to get upset if the show changes something. Which is great.

See, this show has the exact opposite situation from Gotham. There the show kind of fails because the source material is so well known, and so popular, and the characters are so memorable, that the writers feel like they’re tied to the source material. They can’t deviate more than an inch without fearing legions of angry fans and angry studio executives.

The Flash, meanwhile, benefits from a sort of laissez-faire approach, the CW’s specialty, where it can do pretty much whatever it wants with the original material, as long as it makes a show that feels like the original property. And so, they did. And it’s freaking great.

The basic premise of the show adheres pretty well with the comics (though I have to admit that I really know very little about the Flash comics because I just never got into them). Barry Allen (Grant Gustin) is a chronically late, messy, adorable CSI tech in love with his best friend Iris (Candice Patton). On the night that the Star Labs particle accelerator goes online, though, his life changes dramatically. A massive storm interrupts the particle accelerator, sending a wave of energy stuff through the city. Barry himself is hit by a lightening bolt. He nearly dies.

But he doesn’t die, because that would be a terrible beginning for the show! Instead, he wakes up months later in a hospital bed at Star Labs to find that while he was sleeping the world changed around him. The particle accelerator explosion killed a fair number of people in the city, and created a number of metahumans, including him. Barry now has the ability to go really, really, really fast, and he has absolutely no idea what to do with this new power.

Fortunately for him, the good folk of Star Labs are happy to help him test his powers. From Harrison Wells (Tom Cavanaugh), the CEO of Star Labs who was crippled in the explosion, to Caitlin Snow (Danielle Panabaker), whose fiance died that night, to Cisco Ramon (Carlos Valdes) who was right there when Caitlin’s fiance died, they’ve all got explosion-related baggage. They’re eager to find that something good came out of the blast.

And that good thing turns out to be Barry, who quickly decides that he wants to use his superspeed and advanced healing to help the good people of Central City deal not only with crazed metahumans like himself, but also with run of the mill muggers and bank robberies and carjackings. 

Contrary to most superhero shows, Barry doesn’t really do much to keep his superhero identity secret. Not only does the whole Star Labs crew know about him, his foster father, Detective Joe West (Jesse L. Martin) does too, and he finds out in the very first episode. True, Barry’s best friend and longtime crush Iris doesn’t know, but she is always pretty much on the verge of finding out.

So yeah. Mostly Barry fights crime and is a nerd and saves people with the power of compassion and being really really fast. There’s also a plotline about Barry’s mother, who was killed when he was a kid. The cops (including Detective West) arrested his father for the crime, but Barry and his father both maintain that she was killed by “a man in a streak of light”. Which is a pretty accurate description of the Flash, so probably we’ve got a bad guy with the same powers thing going on here.

Also we’ve got the obligatory romantic story going in the background. Barry is hopelessly in love with Iris, who is totally oblivious and (secretly) dating her father’s partner, Eddie (Rick Cosnett). Ah the traditional love triangle. Of course, it’s made a little more complicated by the fact that Iris and Eddie are genuinely super cute together, and Iris and Barry don’t really ping that way, and Barry has amazing chemistry with Caitlin, actually. Kind of hoping the show pulls an Arrow and changes the romantic plotline accordingly.

Oh, and there is some weirdness going on with Harrison Wells, the CEO of Star Labs. Great weirdness, I should add. It’s unclear now whether or not he’s a bad guy, but he’s certainly an amoral guy with a mysterious agenda, and that is a fantastic little Easter egg to have in the background of all of his scenes. Also he might have superpowers. I don’t know what’s going on with him, but I love it.

This is what all is happening in The Flash, but the real heart of the show is with Barry and his desire to help people. It’s funny, because this is a DC property, but it really feels like one of the Marvel movies. It’s a world where there are people with superpowers but the heroes focus on saving everyone, the little people too, instead of just fighting supervillains. It’s a show about the little guys. And that’s what makes it so darn watchable and so much fun to tune in to every week. 

Plus the writing is top notch, really doing a great job of blending the necessary drama with some wry and slapstick humor that keeps it all humming. The cast is pleasantly diverse, though white dudes still abound, and the world of the show is neither so dark it’s kind of confusing why anyone still lives in this city, nor so complex and unknowable that it’s hard to follow the plot. Central City feels like a real place with real problems, that just happens to have a surprisingly large metahuman population. No big deal.

As for how this show will tie in with the other DC properties, from TV to movies to comics, remains to be seen. The show already has a strong link to the other CW show Arrow, and will be crossing over (officially) next week. But they’ve already crossed over in the pilot, and last year when there was an episode of Arrow that served as a backdoor pilot for The Flash. So clearly that relationship is solid.

It doesn’t seem overly likely that The Flash will cross over with Gotham any time soon. Not only are they on completely different networks with completely different tones, they also happen in very different time frames. Gotham is a prequel, so it’s not likely to crossover with The Flash, that happens in the present day, give or take. 

Of course, the powers that be have yet to confirm or deny whether or not the upcoming Justice League movies will exist in the same universe as these television shows. I kind of doubt it, to be honest, but there’s always time to change my mind. See, I don’t think they’ll crossover with the movies because The Flash is so completely tonally different from the “no jokes” ethos of the official Warner Brothers DC movies. I just don’t see it happening.

But maybe that’s for the best. After all, comics have been maintaining separate universes and storylines for the same characters and worlds for like half a century now, and that’s worked out pretty well for the fans. I won’t complain if they do decide to make it all one universe like Marvel has, but I’m not holding my breath.

The real upshot here is pretty much just if you like superhero movies, and fun, and warm fuzzy feelings, then you should watch The Flash. Yes, it might burn and crash in a season or two. But for now, it’s one of the funnest shows on television, and well worth your time.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Think of the Children! Tuesday: Book of Life and Cultural Sharing

There is no word I can think of that more aptly describes Book of Life than “charming”. As in, “It was so freaking charming. I am so freaking charmed.” I say this because these are actual quotes of my roommate and I leaving the theater, still stuck in a world of magic and wonder and all you can eat churros, thinking about how happy we were to see that movie, even if it was in an empty theater late on a rainy Monday night.

I’ve been excited for this project for a while, actually, ever since I heard that Guillermo del Toro was producing an animated film set in his home country of Mexico and devoted to telling a story from traditional Mexican folklore. Those are words that I enjoy hearing, so I was pretty pumped. Then when I heard who was in the cast (Zoe Saldana, Diego Luna, Ron Perlman, Danny Trejo, Cheech Marin, Anjelah Johnson-Reyes, Channing Tatum), I got even more excited and confused. 

What the crack could this movie be? Was it possible that this was the holy grail of children’s animated flicks? Were we really going to get a movie about a non-white culture, with entirely non-white characters, that was produced faithfully and lovingly by a cast and crew of predominantly non-white people?

As it turns out, yes. Yes that is exactly what happened. I am so so happy right now.

Now I’ll be up front and say that I know next to nothing about traditional Mexican culture or folklore. Seriously, I know extremely little. But that neither hindered my enjoyment of this film, nor did it make it seem like this movie wasn’t for me. Rather the opposite, actually. In a very real sense, this movie feels like an attempt to explain and celebrate Mexican folklore in a way that non-Mexicans can understand.

The story is a complex but delightful one. On the Day of the Dead, the two rulers of the Realms of the Dead come to earth and watch over the mortals as they celebrate their ancestors. One of the rulers, La Muerte (Kate del Castillo), rules over the Realm of the Remembered. She’s warm and kind and loves people because she believes they are inherently good. In her realm live all of the dead who are still remembered by their families and loved ones.

The other ruler, Xibalba (Ron Perlman), rules over the Realm of the Forgotten, a cold wasteland of souls who have been completely forgotten by those in the Realm of the Living. He hates it there. It’s cold and miserable and he hates it just like he hates humanity. But since he was banished there for cheating during his last bet with La Muerte, there’s nothing he can do. Unless…

Xibalba challenges La Muerte to another wager. If he wins, they’ll switch places. And if she wins, he’ll forever stop interfering with the living. Which, since it’s the only fun he ever gets, is something he’s not prepared to do.

The wager is this: Maria, the town sweetheart in San Angel, has two friends. Her friends, Manolo and Joaquin, are both clearly in love with her. So each of the rulers picks a side and chooses their champion. The bet will be completed when Maria chooses which of the boys she will marry. Xibalba chooses Joaquin, son of the town’s last hero and a strapping young lad who loves fighting and bravery. He gives him a special medal (the medal of everlasting life) to give him a heads up. After all, every girl falls in love with a big strong man, right?

La Muerte, though, chooses Manolo, the sweet, sensitive guitar-playing boy whose family wants him to grow up to be a bullfighter. She bestows a blessing too, but her blessing is simply that Manolo will always stay true to his heart.

It’s funny because from this point on you really do know exactly who’s going to win the bet. There’s no question that Maria and Manolo are totally right for each other. And, to a large extent, that’s the point. The fun of the story isn’t whether or not Maria will choose Manolo, it’s how all of this will go down.

So we fast forward ten years or so, until Maria (Zoe Saldana) has returned from being educated in Spain, and Manolo (Diego Luna) and Joaquin (Channing Tatum) are all grown up. Joaquin has become renowned throughout Mexico as a great hero who fights the bandits and is the only one who can protect them from the evil bandit Chakal, while Manolo is mostly known as a potentially good, but shamefully laid back, bullfighter.

Maria’s father, who happens to be the mayor, shoves Maria towards Joaquin, but she prefers Manolo. As Xibalba watches, he realizes that he’s going to lose the bet, and so he decides to cheat. When Manolo and Maria meet at dawn to talk about getting married, Xibalba enchants a snake to bite Maria, seemingly killing her. Manolo is devastated as is the whole town. He falls down and sobs that it should have been him.

Of course, Xibalba immediately appears and agrees that it should have been him. So, is Manolo willing to sacrifice himself to be with Maria again? Manolo is, and then two snakes appear and bite him. He dies.

And then immediately wakes up in the land of the Dead, the Realm of the Remembered! He figures that Maria must be there too, and he searches all over for her. But before he finds her, he runs into his whole extended (dead) family, including his mother and grandfather and all the Sanchez bullfighters who came before him. They all agree to take him to La Muerte’s castle so she can help him find Maria.

Upon reaching the castle, though, they discover Xibalba has already taken residence. See, Maria isn’t dead. That one snake bite only put her in a trance. Joaquin was able to wake her up pretty quickly. But two snake bites? That’s lethal. And now Maria will marry Joaquin, and Xibalba will win the bet.

But Manolo isn’t going to take this lying down. He knows that if La Muerte found out Xibalba cheated, she would annul the bet. So all he has to do is make his way down to the Realm of the Forgotten and tell her.

Much, much easier said than done.

Okay, I’m going to stop recapping here, because you should all just go see the movie for yourselves. But trust me that this is only the beginning, and the whole story takes you on this rollercoaster through all the realms, through true love and sacrifice, and in the end you just can’t stop smiling because it’s so wonderful.

Even if this were a generic story, and I weren’t so invested in cultural representation in children’s media, I would still be pretty pumped. Because it’s a freaking well made movie. It’s beautifully written, funny, gorgeous to look at, and all of the characters are interesting and fleshed out. For all that Maria is “the girl” and basically a prize the guys are fighting over, she’s actually a really well realized character. She’s irritated by their rivalry, gets pissed when all anyone talks about is who she will marry, and is effortlessly badass in a way that doesn’t feel like a joke.

Joaquin, who would be easy to write off as “the bad guy” simply because he’s the one who doesn’t get the girl in the end, is actually a pretty fun character. He and Manolo genuinely are good friends, and they don’t let their rivalry over Maria get in the way of that. Sure, he’s a braggart and he thinks every battle can be won with fists and he doesn’t have very enlightened views on marriage, but none of that is presented as being bad guy material. He’s just not the right guy for Maria, and to a large extent he knows it. We even get the impression that when all is said and done, he doesn’t want to marry her anyway, because he knows she loves Manolo.

And Manolo? Yes, he is the sweet, sensitive romantic archetype, but he’s a very well thought out iteration of that trope. He’s an accomplished musician as well as an accomplished bullfighter, and his great fear is not that he will get hurt or even that Maria will not love him back. It’s that he will disappoint his family (who are famously all bullfighters) by following his heart. Also he’s a bullfighter who refuses to kill the bull and at one point literally sings his way to victory. How can you not love this guy?

Granted, there are things about this movie that aren’t perfect. As great as all of the female characters are, it still only barely edges its way over the Bechdel Test. And while Maria is a really compelling and fully realized character, she’s still basically the ball in a game of soccer between Manolo and Joaquin. The third act is okay, but parts of it felt a little perfunctory. Like, of course the MacGuffin is coming into play here. And of course they can only defeat the bad guy together. Not bad tropes by any means, but there were moments when I wished for a touch of the originality that flows through this whole film to hit the third act.

Still. Those are incredibly minor complaints, and the overall effect of this movie is one of wonder. The story is charming, the characters are lovely, the art is gorgeous, and the whole message is just so freaking wholesome and heartwarming and true. Guh. I mean, it’s a kids’ movie about how the truest form of love is self-sacrifice. How is this not your favorite thing ever?

Purely from a technical standpoint as well, the film is just masterfully done. In order to get around the people like me who know absolutely jack about Mexican folklore, the film built into itself a framing device: this is all a traditional story being told to a group of school kids on a museum field trip. But the framing device actually manages to transcend its origins as a simple excuse for voiceover narration and becomes a compelling storyline of its own when we grow to really care about the kids hearing the story. Because it’s not an accident that they’re hearing it. They’re hearing it because they need to learn how to live a good life. And that’s pretty awesome in and of itself.

There’s just so much to love in this film. For me, though, it really feels like the anti-Disney film. In the best possible way, I mean. Because where Frozen used parts of native cultures appropriatively, with no reference to the origin and meaning of those cultural symbols, Book of Life is completely steeped in its culture. It’s not a movie with some Mexican stuff thrown in for the sake of “political correctness” nor is it a film shamelessly ripping off indigenous culture. It’s a film by Mexicans for everyone about Mexican culture.

Heck, in the beginning few minutes of the movie the narrator actually says, “Now, as we all know, Mexico is the center of the world.” And she is neither kidding, nor being intentionally ironic. She’s just stating a fact. Mexico is the center of the world. And, yeah. This is a Mexican folktale, so Mexico in this story is the center of the world. That’s a given.

It pretty much highlights the difference between cultural appropriation and cultural sharing. Because this is a movie made for a predominantly non-Hispanic audience (hence why they’re always explaining everything), but it’s made with love. As a sort of, “Here’s what we love about our culture. You are free and welcome to love it too.” And I want more of that in the world. That’s a great thing. It’s not about us coming in and taking anyone’s culture, it’s about them deciding to share it. Who doesn’t want more of that?

Major props are due to the writer/director, Jorge R. Gutierrez, who reportedly worked for fourteen years to get this to screen. Apparently studio executives were convinced that no one would want to see a “Hispanic story”. Which is total crap. But if this movie doesn’t blow them away at the box office, I’m a little afraid it’ll become an excuse for them to not bankroll the next amazing culturally sensitive film that comes along.

Which brings us to my plea for everyone to freaking watch this film. It’s appropriate for all ages, inherently wonderful and full of joy, and just the sort of thing that you want to see on a dreary October day leading up to Halloween. So please go see this movie. Please. You won’t regret it.

Monday, October 20, 2014

Prison Break's Riots, Drills, and the Devil - How to Write Tension

Yesterday as I was laid up in bed with a nasty cold, I decided to finally get around to rewatching one of my old favorite shows: Prison Break. I was introduced to it just as the first season was airing, way back in 2006, and I was instantly hooked. It's a tense, thrilling, devastating show about the American prison and legal system, governmental conspiracies, brotherly love, and the consequences of our actions. It is almost entirely made up of things I love. (And a few things I hate, but we'll get to that later.)

Admittedly the first season of the show ended up being the only one worth watching, a fact that still disappoints me, but I am happy to go back and watch through twenty-two episodes of freaking phenomenal television. There's not a single episode in there that isn't tense, engaging, and absolutely brilliant. But within those episodes there are a couple that rise above even that high standard and have become the standard against which I judge all dramatic writing.

Yup. My standard for good dramatic writing - writing that keeps the reader hooked, continuously raises the stakes without falling into melodrama, and that manages to develop the characters simply by showing how they react to certain situations - is a two-part episode from season one titled, "Riots, Drills, and the Devil." It's so good.

But before I can drag you all through exactly how and why this episode is amazing (which it is), I should probably give you some background. The show Prison Break, which aired from 2005-2009 and was only good from 2005-2006, is about, you guessed it, a guy breaking out of prison. 

Our hero is Michael Scofield (Wentworth Miller), a seemingly well-off, cultured, intelligent man who we see in the first few minutes of the pilot hold up a bank with a gun and get himself arrested. He then proceeds to get himself the maximum sentencing at a local prison: Fox River. As the pilot unfolds, we start to understand why he's decided to get himself put in jail. He's going to break out, and he's going to bring his brother, Lincoln Burrows (Dominic Purcell) who is on death row, with him.

That's the show in a nutshell, but there are a lot of nuances to it. For startes, Lincoln's in prison for killing the vice president's brother - a crime the he strenuously claims he did not admit. He insists, and Michael agrees, that the evidence against him was manufactured by some opposing force or conspiracy. And, it turns out, he's right. But by this point in the season (just six episodes in or so) we don't know why.

Michael, meanwhile, is more than just a smart man who loves his brother. He's a freaking genius who is obsessively and a little weirdly close to his brother. Michael, who grew up with Lincoln as his primary parental figure after age eight, has strong abandonment issues, a keen analytical mind, and a blueprint of the prison tattooed on the upper half of his body. He's got this.

And, in a weird way, that's why the show works. Because the premise of the show isn't that Michael has to figure out how to break him and Lincoln out of prison before Lincoln is executed. Before the season even started, we're told, Michael figured out the plan to the most minute, ridiculous detail. He found out what other people were imprisoned at Fox River and who he could ask for favors or who he could blackmail into helping him. He planned the entire escape route and set an ambitious time schedule. Hell, he even figured out a way to make sure that his cellmate wouldn't rat on him for the escape attempt.

So the tension in the show isn't about wondering if Michael can break them out of prison, it's wondering what's going to happen that Michael hasn't planned for. In other words, the actual breaking out stuff is mostly handled. What's left is the human element. And that's where this episode comes in as one of the best I've ever seen on television.

Okay, so that's the setup for the show. Here's the setup for the episode. Michael and his cellmate Sucre (Amaury Nolasco) have already dug through the wall behind their toilet. If the toilet is in place you can't see anything, but there is in fact a giant hole there. 

The next step is that they need to drill through a giant wall of six inch concrete that's between them and an access tunnel that will lead to the next part of the escape. Unfortunately, Michael's plan requires them to do this at times when no one will notice that he's out of his cell, and since this is prison, that time is extremely limited. He has to drill through the wall in the next 24 hours or else they won't escape on time (as in, before Lincoln is executed).

That's the basic premise of the episode. In order to know where to drill, because there are other pipes back behind that concrete wall that lead to less friendly pipes that might be full of explosive gas, Michael has set up a sketch of the devil, taken from his tattoo, that will show them the exact points to drill through in order to upset the tensile strength of the wall. Because Michael is a crazy brilliant engineer and also a little crazy.

But, again, it's hard to drill seven precise holes in a wall with an eggbeater if you're constantly having to come back to your cell for headcount. What's a con to do? Well, the only way to stop the count is to get the whole prison block put on lockdown, where the guards lock their cell doors and leave them all to stew for a few days. Sucre and Michael figure that if they can do this, they can finish the wall and continue as scheduled. Only that means they have to figure out a way to agitate the prisoners into getting put on lockdown.

The key? Break the air conditioning and everyone will be so hot and grumpy that they'll get riled up. Problem solved.

And, to a large extent, it works. That's what's so great about this episode. Michael breaks the air conditioning and the prisoners get riled up (because it's freaking hot and they live in a place with no windows), so the guards put them on lockdown. His plan works. But because he's Michael and because this show is brilliant, he forgets about the human element. Yes, the guards put the block on lockdown. But then the prisoners turn it into a full fledged riot, storming the guards, taking the guard booth, and unleashing anarchy in the prison for two full episodes. In other words, Michael gets exactly what he wants, and the consequences are ones he is not prepared to deal with.

What makes this episode really amazing, though, is that the hits just keep on coming. Because of setup we saw in previous episodes, Lincoln was, at the time the riot broke out, meeting with his lawyers and discussing the conspiracy against him. The lawyers leave and go to check out an other lead, but that means Lincoln is being escorted back to his cell when the prisoners come through. His guard (Michael Cuditz) is a rookie who's just trying to do a good job, and Lincoln likes him. But as the only guard not locked away from them, the prisoners decide he's the perfect target and swarm Linc to get him.

The guard ends up prisoner of T-Bag (Robert Knepper, in the role that made him a critical darling), and dragged through the prison as a token of the prisoner's power. T-Bag shoves the guard into an unused cell so that he can have his way with him (T-Bag is a convicted rapist and murderer, so this is not at all surprising), only to find a giant hole in the wall. Because it's Michael's cell. So now T-Bag and a guard have seen the hole and know about the escape. Crap.

John Abruzzi (Peter Stormare), the mob boss that Michael is blackmailing into helping him, discovers T-Bag and the guard in there and is enraged to find that T-Bag immediately wants in on the escape. More than that, he's prepared to scream their plans to the whole prison if Abruzzi doesn't count him in, and he'll kill the guard to sweeten the pot. Michael, of course, is horrified to find that T-Bag knows, and even more horrified by the idea of him killing a cop, so he just insists that the cop stay alive. They'll figure something out. Besides, as long as they have a hostage, prison SWAT and the national guard aren't going to come in after them.

On top of all of this, Michael finds out that Dr. Sara Tancredi (Sarah Wayne Callies) is trapped in a room of the infirmary during the riot. She's in danger of being pulled out and abused as a symbol of the prisoner's power (as well as because she's pretty much the only young woman in the whole prison). Michael, who knows that all of this is his fault, decides to go rescue her. He'll go, Sucre will keep drilling through the wall, and Abruzzi will watch T-Bag and the guard.

Obviously that is not what ends up happening.

So now we've got like four different, vitally compelling and tense storylines. Add onto that the fact that Lincoln is now being targeted by a contract killer from within the prison (as setup in previous episodes). The guy plans to use the prison riot as a distraction so he can kill Linc and have it look like an accident. And outside the prison walls there's tension too. Lincoln's lawyers, Veronica (Robin Tunney) and Nick (Frank Grillo) fly to Washington DC to follow up on a lead and find themselves in the crosshairs of a conspiracy much bigger than they thought.

Oh, and LJ (Marshall Allman), Lincoln's son, is watching the news about the riot on television, freaking out about his father and uncle being in there, when he comes to blows with his stepfather over issues that have been building all season. Also the Warden (Stacy Keach) and Governor Tancredi (John Heard) nearly come to blows over how the Warden is handling this, and the fact that Dr. Sara Tancredi, the Governor's daughter, is trapped inside. Meanwhile conniving prison guard Bellick (Wade Williams) tries to use this as the perfect opportunity to overthrow the Warden as head of the prison.

There's kind of some stuff going on. And all of it is crucial and tense and compelling and, this is the key bit, completely related to everything else that's going on. No single storyline is unrelated, and everything that happens in the episode happens because Michael needed some more time to drill. That? That is good writing.

Screw it, that's actually amazing writing. Because while this would be fantastic writing on its own, it's made even better by the fact that all of this serves pretty much as backdrop for some stunning character development in every single storyline. By this point we know who all of the major players are (so far) and these two episodes serve show us more about who these characters will become by placing them in stressful and unusual situations and letting them go.

Because the stakes are so high for everyone, and because these episodes afford the opportunity for characters who've never worked together to interact, we come out of it knowing a hell of a lot more about everyone, and not in a way that feels trite or manipulated or involved a single flashback. We didn't need flashbacks or exposition. We just needed to see how the characters interact.

I'm not going to go through all of the characters and explain their development, because that would take forever, but just let me point it out with T-Bag. These two episodes are really where he became one of the main characters and a force to be reckoned with. Up until this point we knew next to nothing about him. 

In these episodes alone we come to find out that, yes, T-Bag is racist and perverted, but he's also a gifted public speaker who can rally an entire prison block around him - dude would have made an amazing politician. We find out that his character is the product of incest, and that his parents are screwed up on a level that no other character can touch.

More than that, though, we spend time with T-Bag, and we really get to know him. We sit in that jail cell with just him and a guard for chunks of the episode. And all he does is talk. That's all he has to do. He sits in that jail cell and has a nice friendly conversation about the man's children and his wife and what it must have been like to see his baby girl go off to prom. It's one of the most unnerving scenes I know of. Then, when the riot is done and they no longer need a prisoner, T-Bag holds back until the others go by, then shanks the guard in front of everyone. By the end of these two episodes, T-Bag has established himself as the single most dangerous person in the whole prison, and also essential to the escape. It's just plain brilliant writing.

Now, caveat time, I don't think everyone should just troop off and watch Prison Break. It's really really really not for everyone. It takes a strong stomach and a soft squishy stuffed animal to get through most of the episodes. So, no, you probably shouldn't watch it unless you already know that you like this kind of thing.

But I do think it's worthwhile to examine shows that know what they're doing and do it very well, like this one. "Riots, Drills, and the Devil" may not be an episode with universal appeal, but it does demonstrate perfectly how to write complex drama that never lags or stops or fails to deliver. The kew to that, in a nutshell is this: consequences and character development.

The whole theme of this episode is consequences. Because Michael broke the AC, all of these things happened. But it's also deeper than all of that. Because Michael decided to save Lincoln, a lot of things happen that would not have otherwise ever happened. In fact, when you look at the show, it's arguable that Michael should have just let Lincoln die, and everyone's lives would have been better.

So clearly consequences make for a compelling story. Also necessary, though, is that through the development of these consequences our characters find more of their true personalities being revealed. For example, this is the episode that we discover that Michael does not, in fact, think of the plan before all else. He's willing to scrap the plan for a little while in order to save a woman who's just in the wrong place at the wrong time. We also learn that even though Lincoln is generally resigned to dying in his execution, he's really not okay with dying anytime before then. Character development. It's important.

Like I said above, I don't think Prison Break is a perfect show. There are some things in here that bother me, like the utter lack of interesting, non-damseled or fridged female cahracters, and the fact that the show is bizarrely white for being set in a prison. But these are minor quibbles when compared with how awesome a job the show does at, well, pretty much everything else.

Basically, if you want to write a drama, figure out how to give it stakes and figure out how those stakes and the actions your characters will take to overcome them will affect every other character in the story. We do not exist in a bubble - all of our actions are interconnected. If you want to write and write well, you need to remember that.

Also, any nightmares you have about being chased are probably good fodder for scenes like this.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Con Report: Interviews in Artist's Alley (Part 2)

Continuing from Wednesday, here are some more interviews with the artists displaying their stuff at Geek Girl Con 2014. The third part should be up soon - there were a lot of super talented artists there! I think for me the most heartening part of this was seeing all of these people making art that really mattered to them, that was kind of off the beaten path, but that made them happy. I can get behind that.

Fuerst got started with drawing fanart for Sailor Moon and Final Fantasy IX when she was a kid - seeing the gorgeous art used in the game made her realize that “this is someone’s job!” Not only could she do art for a living, she could make art for videogames for a living. Which is, it turns out, exactly what she does. She’s most proud of the game Skyborn, which you can buy on STEAM, but she’s also worked on Marvel Superhero Squad Online, and a whole host of games that never saw the light of day. Right now she’s working on a top secret project with Amazon gaming, and she’s pretty excited about what’s coming next.

I asked if there was anything she wanted to tell people, and she laughed, saying, “Tell them to buy my game [Skyborn] on STEAM!” But getting serious she added, “More women should get into the gaming industry. We need more voices.”

Bernard also found art inspiration in videogames, but she prefers the classic Legend of Zelda games, especially Ocarina of Time. She started out doing fanart, but has since transitioned into working on webcomics, and is currently running two simultaneously (which is impressive): Willem and Split Screen. What she wants you to know? “Read my webcomics!”

[Artist's Alley, copyright Laura F.]

Popplewell was originally classically trained for painting and printmaking, and now she really really wants to do full time nerd art. She draws inspiration from everything she watches, but she’s recently realized that she wants to go back and rewatch some old favorites so that she can use them for inspiration. Like, say, Princess Bride. She’d also like to do some more Doctor Who and Guardians of the Galaxy, but get past the standard poses and shots that everyone uses to really explore the characters.

When I asked what she’s planning for the future, she sort of laughed and said, “Going to New Zealand?” It’s the ultimate nerd dream after all. On the art side of things, she’s working on designing the art for a tarot set, working on an art book based on classic Norwegian fairy tales, and she would love to get into sci-fi novel covers and kids books. 

Her advice? “It’s important to be yourself. No matter how bad things get, it will get better. Whatever you love, it’s okay to geek out.”

“I draw it because I want it. I want to have it, so I make it.” In other words, Lapisi’s reasons for doing fanart are pretty simple: she wants stuff that no one else is making, so she figures she’d better make it herself! Right now she’s doing fanart, and also working on a webcomic, but there are understandable time limitations involved. It’s hard to write and draw a webcomic while working full time. Her big thing is that she loves drawing things because no one else is, drawing the art that no one else has thought of yet. She’d love to do webcomics full time, because as she puts it, “If you’re not making things for people, what’s the point?”

[Artist's Alley, copyright Laura F.]
Rebecca Flaum - Studio Catawampus

Obviously the first question I asked was where the name of her company came from. I mean, catawampus? What’s that from? Well, apparently it’s named after her super awkward cat. Which is great.

She started out doing a portrait project for school, making a portrait every week, but halfway through the year she ran out of family members and friends, and started doing portraits of fictional characters. Since she was posting them online to track her progress, fans kept finding her art and absolutely loved it. Plus, they were a lot of fun to do. She still sells prints of those portraits in her online shop, along with a series of fantasy inspired prints, and a series she calls “Incongruities”. Just generally she says she likes to make “anything that makes me smile.”

Right now, though, her big goal for the future is to have a goal for the future. She’d like to find a way to do art full time, preferably digital art, but she’s not sure what her path will be. Regardless, her big message to the world is, “Buy my art! And please smile.”

Katie Clark - Katie Clark Art!

I’ll be honest, the first thing I saw in Clark’s booth was a gorgeous paint portrait of Futurama’s Hypnotoad, and I came very close to buying it. Clark’s art is a mishmash of classical painting techniques, gorgeous frames, and portraits of unconventional videogame and television characters. Like, say, Hypnotoad. Or Yoshi. 

As a kid, Clark wanted to work for Nintendo, and as an adult, she did. But she quickly found that she actually hates desk work, and decided to leave the field after a couple of years in favor of working at home in her pajamas. As she said, “I tried on the American Dream, and it didn’t fit. I decided I’d rather play.” Now she does the art for herself, and she’s found a fair amount of success with that. In November her art will be on display in Victor’s Coffee in Redmond, WA. 

“Do what makes you happy. That’s what I’m trying to do.”

[The gaming floor, copyright Laura F.]

“Why do I art? Because I can’t help it!” Bonikowski, who specializes in complex pixel art that looks deceptively simple, started out by painting Day of the Dead skulls. She loved how she could use the same basic patterns but customize them to be personally meaningful, and from there she expanded into customizing her own fanart. She specializes in videogame art, particularly pixel art, “because it looks easy, but actually it’s really hard.” 

In her everyday life, Bonikowski counters the structure of pixel art by being a massage therapist, and she made it clear that while she loves art, she also loves doing things with her life that aren’t art. She’s not sure she would want to go full time, since massage therapy is also a big passion of hers. But she likes think this makes her a well-rounded person, and I agree.

When I asked what she wanted to tell people, she laughed and said that Katie Clark (whose booth was right next door) had stolen her answer, but then she elaborated. “Follow your heart. If you’re doing something just for a paycheck, find your way out of it and do what you love.” Then she started laughing and added, “But don’t make pixel art. It’s a terrible decision in life.”

Thursday, October 16, 2014

Con Report: Geek Girl Con '14 Cosplay Roundup!

You know what? Pretty sure you guys don't want any of my commentary clogging up your enjoyment of these truly rad cosplay pieces. So, without any commentary whatsoever, enjoy! [All photos are courtesy of Laura F., who is super rad.]

Wednesday, October 15, 2014

NEWS: Holy Moly, Wonder Woman Movie! (And Marvel News Too)

This week it is very good to be a woman who likes comic books. Or comic book movies. Or novels based on comic books. Basically, it's really good to be a woman this week. Why?

First, the BIG one. DC has officially announced a stand-alone Wonder Woman movie for 2017. For real. Officially. Starring Gal Gadot. 

Excuse me, I am having trouble breathing. What is air?

This comes as big news, of course, because DC's been waffling about whether or not to even bother trying to do a Wonder Woman movie for years now, and this announcement is totally out of the blue and just... Way, way more than I ever expected. There will be a Wonder Woman movie in my lifetime. Hrrrrrgh.

Also they announced a Jason Momoa lead Aquaman movie, and that's pretty cool too. I think he might be the first non-white person to get his own standalone superhero franchise. So that is super rad. Good on you, DC. For once I am happy with you. It feels weird, but it's true.

At New York Comicon this weekend, Marvel announced that it was adding a whole slew of new female-led titles to its comics roster. After the amazing success of Edge of the Spiderverse #2, which featured "Spider-Gwen", an alternate reality where Gwen Stacy was bitten by a radioactive spider and became a superhero who also happened to play the drums in an all girl punk band, Marvel has decided to use that comic as the start of a whole new series. Starting in January, we're going to get a full monthly comic devoted to Spider-Gwen. Even better? She will still be the drummer of The MaryJanes, and still be best friends with MJ. Yessss.

Marvel also announced that alongside their already running solo comics for Peter Quill and Rocket, after the blockbuster success of Guardians of the Galaxy, Gamora is getting her own solo comic. Yay! It's reportedly going to get more in depth with her motivations in getting revenge on her "father" Thanos, will delve into her relationships with the other children of Thanos, and will feature lots of good old space adventuring assassin fun.

Black Widow might not be getting a movie yet, but she is getting her own young adult novel, following in the footsteps of She-Hulk and Rogue. I'll admit that I haven't yet read either of those novels (but I have the She-Hulk one on hold at my local library). Still, the book will be written by Margaret Stohl, who wrote the bestselling Beautiful Creatures series. So I'm pretty excited.

And yeah, the list keeps going. Peggy Carter isn't just getting her own show this winter with Agent Carter, she's also getting a solo comic: Original S.I.N. Well, I suppose it's technically not a solo comic, since she'll be sharing it with Howard Stark (the Dominic Cooper version), but still. Peggy and Howard fighting Nazis and all that cool stuff. It's meant to be a leadup to the actual premiere of Agent Carter, but I bet if we really try we can get it to be an ongoing. I mean, come on. We're ladies with a lot of purchasing power here. It's going to be written by Kathryn Immonen, who might not sound familiar, but should. She's the woman who wrote the spectacular Agent Carter one-shot that got this whole Peggy Carter ball rolling. All hail!

Finally, Marvel is putting out another new female-lead comic: Silk. This one will also be set in the Spiderverse, and will follow Cindy Moon, a woman bitten by the same radioactive spider that transformed Peter Parker. I don't know much more than that, but the art looks rad, and we can always use another WOC in our superhero world.

Basically the gist I'm getting is that Marvel and DC have finally both wised up to how much of their audience really is made up of women. We're here, and we have money. At last they have noticed us! This boon of new Marvel titles comes on the heels of the success of Ms. Marvel, the creation of female Thor and Sam Wilson taking over Captain America, as well as Spiderwoman getting her own title.

For DC, though, it's even more out of the blue. Granted, DC did just revamp its Batgirl comic, but aside from that there really hasn't been much to indicate that it's moving in a more progressive direction. Still waters run deep? I mean, historically DC has been much further behind on the diversity bandwagon, but it's nice to see them at least trying to catch up.

So, the basic gist? Wonder Woman movie. Black Widow novel. So. Many. Lady. Comics.

It's a beautiful day.