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.

Returning Shows: Agents of SHIELD (Leveling Up in Awesome)

Agents of SHIELD had a very (publicly) rocky first season. It was rough. There were some episodes that you sort of dragged through, praying that your faith in the Whedonverse and Marvel would finally be rewarded, but with your hope dwindling day by day... Okay, I'm making it sound a lot more interesting than it was. The real problem was just that for the first 16 episodes of season one or so, the show was dull. It didn't know what it was doing, and most people lost interest.

After the release of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, though, the show took a level in awesome and suddenly got way better. Mostly because, for the first time, there was a unified bad guy for the SHIELD agents to be fighting (HYDRA) and there were betrayals and intrigues and just generally interesting things going on. The first two thirds of the season suffered from a lack of tension, and the last few episodes had it in spades.

Well, I am here to tell you that, thank goodness, the awesomeness levels of Agents of SHIELD have not returned to their pre-CATWS levels, but have in fact increased. That's right. The show is even better than it was before, and I am so happy about that.

We start this new season with SHIELD operating as a sort of vigilante-shadow organization, still doing what they do, but without governmental support or really any money. They're running a skeleton crew, barely making their meets, and everyone is still shattered from the events of last season. 

Coulson is the new Director of SHIELD, but that means he no longer has time to meet with his baby agents and be their papa duck like he used to. May is still awesome, but she's flailing at having had her team cut down so much, and so she hovers adorably over Skye and Coulson and Fitz.

Who, speaking of, has recovered partially from his coma at the end of season one (turns out, getting hypoxia and then nearly drowning isn't very good for you), but there are distinct lingering effects. He has a form of aphasia, where every word he needs is constantly on the tip of his tongue, and he has trouble controlling his fine motor functions. For a man who prided himself on his intellect, his sharp wit, and his ability to create complex machines with delicate workmanship, all of this is a huge blow. Fitz is a shadow of his former self. Also Simmons is gone, and for the first two episodes, we don't know why or where.

At least Trip is still around, bringing with him a pleasant relief of cool laid-backness and general competence. It's so nice having a character who isn't just a bundle of issues on the show. Plus, he and Skye get along like gangbusters, complete with little conspiracies against their bosses and general BFF-ery. Skye, meanwhile, has learned all of the skills she was supposed to learn as a SHIELD agent. And, it turns out, she's even more badass than she would have been if she went to the academy, because having Agent May as your personal trainer is apparently very effective. So she's a regular field agent now, and that's a very good thing.

Heck, it's like everyone got a personality upgrade to make them more interesting. Ward is still around, but now he's SHIELD's prisoner, kept in a cell in the basement where they can interrogate him for information on HYDRA. He's gone full Hannibal Lecter too, and refuses to speak to anyone other than Skye, presumably so that he can manipulate her. 

And Simmons? (SPOILERS) She's not just off the show. Actually, she's a lot more interesting than before. Simmons has taken an assignment working undercover for SHIELD, embedded in HYDRA's science division. She's slowly working her way up the ranks, trying to make friends, and generally being a really compelling character. Because she's not a great liar, and she's not ruthless, but she's got a real axe to grind against HYDRA. They're responsible for crippling her best friend. She has feelings.

Even the new character additions, Lance and Mac, are reasonably interesting. To be honest, I find Mac a lot more interesting than Lance, but whatever. Lance is your standard pretty boy lothario agent, always hitting on Skye and trying to be smooth. Mac, meanwhile, is a tech guy, like Fitz, and he takes it upon himself to be the one helping get Fitz out of his shell. He acts as Fitz's hands (and sometimes his mouthpiece) to get across what Fitz needs to explain. It's freaking adorable.

Oh, and Patton Oswalt is still around as Agent Billy Koenig who may or may not be a clone. Ruth Negga's Raina has thankfully not been written out (yay!), and it seems she's teamed up with a mysterious and menacing Kyle MacLachlin as Skye's father. So, you know, interesting stuff is happening.

Most of all, though, it feels like the show finally figured out what we wanted from it. We didn't want movie tie-ins or case of the week stories. We wanted deep and meaningful character development that could get up close and personal with what it's like to live in the MCU. Right? We wanted to know what life was like for the average SHIELD agent when all of a sudden there's alien tech everywhere and superheroes are raining from the skies.

Agents of SHIELD is the kind of show that doesn't really work if the characters are on top of it all. When they had limited resources and all the time in the world, the show was super boring. We weren't watching people actually grapple with the issues of living in the MCU, we were just seeing the cases too little and boring to be made into movies. But when the show decided to focus on the disastrous effects of HYDRA being unveiled, it all worked.

And, credit to the writers, all that boring stuff in season one really helped establish the characters of the main group, so that when we got to the twist and when we revamped them in season two, the changes hit hard. We know who they're supposed to be, and so who they are now is incredibly devastating.

Honestly, I have high hopes for this season. Coulson's apparently on the verge of going space crazy because they injected him with that alien juice to keep him alive, and that's always compelling. If he goes nuts, then that means that Skye might go nuts too, unless her status as a probable 084 (object of unknown origin) saves her. And I am curious about what's up with her parentage. Plus, May and Coulson's relationship has gotten full on amazing since this revelation.

For me, though, Fitz's struggles to regain normalcy have become the most interesting part of the show. I already loved Fitz, because he's very lovable, but this season he's got that perfect mix of understandable angst and mild-woobie that just, ugh, hits me where it hurts. He misses Simmons like a limb, he's hurt and frustrated, and he doesn't know how to function anymore. Ward was one of his best friends, and Ward tried to kill him. 

If there's one scene that sold me on watching the new season, it's the one in episode three where Fitz accidentally stumbles his way into the room where they've been keeping Ward. He didn't know Ward was there, and suddenly he's face to face with the man who ruined his life. Fitz's actions are terrifying and devastating and I just... It's the kind of scene that reminds me why I watch television at all. So much character development paying off in one little scene.

Which is essentially what this season really is. Character development paying off. Yes, there are cases of the week, but they really don't matter. I mean, yeah, we're vaguely interested in what will happen, but the point of the show isn't that our heroes get the macguffin every week, it's that the cases reveal aspects of their personalities, and push them and needle them and create wonderful opportunities for growth.

Long story short, Agents of SHIELD has taken a level of awesome, and I am so okay with this.


Tuesday, October 14, 2014

Con Report: Interviews in Artist's Alley (Part 1)

Last weekend was Geek Girl Con (whoo!) and I decided that among going to all the panels I could humanly stand, mingling in the main hall, and hovering near Susan Eisenberg just because, I wanted to interview the artists in Artist's Alley downstairs. Why? Because these are the people actually doing what I keep complaining not enough people do: making diverse, compelling, and interesting art/stories.

And trust me, there was some interesting stuff down there. Among the more standard portraits of Benedict Cumberbatch and Adventure Time prints (both of which are great), there was some gorgeous pixel art done in paint, a ton of original webcomics that look fantastic, and an artist selling oil paintings of Futurama's Hypnotoad. I went around and asked all of them a series of vague and openended questions about art, why they do what they do, and what they would like to tell people. It was pretty fun.

Unfortunately, I couldn't physically get to everyone at once, so these are split up according to the day I spoke the them. Here's who I talked to on Saturday:

Kristin Cheney - Sleep of Reason

Kristin Cheney was very honest about this being her first convention, but she seemed to be having a good time. She was there to sell copies of the Sleep of Reason anthology, in which she has published her first short comic. It's a horror anthology that steers away from easy answers and expected mythologies, and it looks pretty sweet. Cheney admitted that she doesn't get to work on comics full time just yet, but she would absolutely love to. She's planning to launch a street magic webcomic in early 2015. The one thing she wants to tell people? "Drink plenty of water."

Margaret Organ-Kean

Margaret Organ-Kean, it turns out, was a freelance artist for Wizards of the Coast in the 1990s, and she created the art on about 25 Magic cards. When she started out, she told me, the company was really small and it felt like a little family. She made original, beautiful cards (seriously, they're gorgeous), and the best part of the gig was getting free color copies of the cards that she could hand out as color reproductions of her work, back when that cost a hell of a lot to get done professionally. A single card could take anywhere from three months to a day to figure out, but the actual art process probably took from 15-20 hours. She stopped working for Magic and decided to go freelance when the company began to embrace a stricter "house style" in the late 90s, early 00s. Her favorite cards that she made? Probably Mana Prism or Hyperion.

Her current projects include gearing up to a book of nursery rhymes and possibly designing an alphabet book. You can check out her art at She does commissions!

Tara Fernon

Tara Fernon had up these beautiful prints of painting that crossover Adventure Time and the Studio Ghibli films and guh, they were just so gorgeous. She said that while she absolutely loves doing fanart, she wishes more people would be aware of how fine arts, especially the work of Alphonse Mucha, has influenced a lot of contemporary pop art. She likes to use this classical interpretation in her fanart, and I've got to say it looks good. You can view her full portfolio here.

Oh, and the one thing she really wanted people to know about? Well, aside from Alphonse Mucha (she pulled up a bunch of his art on her phone when I admitted I didn't know who he was, and it is awesome), Fernon would like people to be more aware of the declining salmon populations in the Northwest. "We used to see thousands of salmon in the stream, now we see maybe one or two a day."

Keri Grassl and Brian Gardes - Kilted Comics

Grassl and Gardes were primarily at GGC to promote their comic, Paris in the 20th Century, a steampunk-ish adventure comic that follows what happened to Jules Verne's lost novel. Apparently Jules Verne lost a novel, and it only resurfaced and was published in the late 1990s. Their comic is a fictionalized imagining of what happened to that novel, and it uses primarily historical figures and reality based technology to tell a light steampunk adventure story. It's pretty freaking cool.

The project was originally just supposed to be a few short vignettes, but it ballooned to be over fifty pages, and has now spawned a prequel, Ana DuPre and the Eye of the Kraken. The prequel will answer the question that apparently everyone was asking about the first piece. Where did that corgi come from in that one panel that one time? Overall, their mission is to make good media that really is appropriate for all ages, but still fun and cool.

And the one thing they want everyone to know? Grassl was very clear. "Everyone should have their ICE (in case of emergency) contacts readily available on their phones in case something happens." You should be able to press a single button and pull them up without having to unlock the phone, that way people can be with their loved ones quickly should anything happen.

Hana Urban

Hana Urban is an illustrator and writer of autobiographical comics. She works as an illustrator right now, but she really wants to get into doing memoir comics full time. She'd love to put out her own graphic novel or graphic memoir. Right now though? Lots of zines! She tries to use her work to bring awareness of mental health issues and activism. And the thing she wants everyone to know about? "Comics are for everybody. Because they're awesome." True story.

Sara Lee and Lara Kim - PanOptic

Okay, so admittedly I only got to talk to Sara Lee, as her sister, Lara Kim, wasn't at the booth when I stopped by. But Lee was there, and eager to talk about their webcomic: PanOptic. It's an indie dystopian story, centered around a vision of Orwellian surveillance in the future. Which seems exactly up my alley, and I'm pretty excited. The comic will be live in early 2015, but you can check out their site here. Lee said they wanted to work in science fiction because it has the potential to show where we're going as a society. It's a way to deal with issues of diversity and oppression narratives.

The thing she really wants to tell people? "We're here, and we're doing what we love. This is a safe space, and I think that's so important."

Harrison Webb - Fiendish Thingy Art

The first thing I noticed at Webb's booth? The amazing caricature of David Tennant as the 10th Doctor. Turns out, there's a story behind that. Webb works as a caricature artist at Disneyland, and created that caricature as a joke during a slow stretch one night. He put it up on his display for kicks, but quickly found that apparently there are a lot of Doctor Who fans at Disneyland. People came by and requested other characters, and pretty soon Webb found himself doing a lot of fanart. He says it's been validating to find other fans through his work, and, yes, he still sells copies of the original 10th Doctor print.

Webb also does commissions and creature design, and says he'd love to keep doing art as long as he can. When I asked what he wanted to tell people, he laughed and said, "That I'm a man, dammit!" Going on he added that he wishes people were more aware of gender diversity, and pointed out that being misgendered sucks. Which, yeah. It really does. Also? "Stop the shipping wars! Think of the children!"

Chibi Yeti

This was another booth where I didn't get a chance to talk to the actual artist - she'd stepped away to go get food or something necessary like that - but I did talk to her business partner, Wakey. Their business model? Get their cute and weird designs out into the world! Chibi Yeti is exactly what it sounds like, a company that sells t-shirts and patches and other materials with pictures of an adorable little yeti on them. Also tentacles. Their new line of shirts is covered with a gorgeous tentacle design, and all of their work is hand screen-printed. They also sell patches with gorgeous embroidery and hand stitchwork. Their goal? Just to "make people smile."


That's the first part of Saturday's interviews! More to come. I mean, we haven't even gotten to Sunday yet...

Monday, October 13, 2014

Con Report: Geek Girl Con 2014 (Panel Overview!)

I am now back from Geek Girl Con 2014 and I am completely and utterly exhausted. But, like, in a good way that signifies how fun it was and how interesting all of the panels were. The general kind of tiredness that comes from doing something very engaging for a long period of time. It's a good tired.

It was kind of a bummer that GGC happened to fall on the same weekend this year as New York Comicon and IndieCade. There were a lot fewer "big names" there than last year, more of people just wanting to hang out with other fellow-minded nerds. But that's not a bad thing. It was kind of nice being at a convention where the real purpose, the stated goal of the con, was inclusivity. Yeah, the name is Geek Girl Con, but it's really all about making a place for marginalized voices in the geek world and having a community that can come together to celebrate good art.

And I'm not just saying that because I had a good time. Other people seemed to enjoy it to. Someone even called it the "Canada of conventions." Which seems apt.

It would be almost impossible for me to write a comprehensive report of everything I said or did at the convention, and to be honest, most of that would be super boring for all of you. But I did attend some really cool panels, and I did get to interview some absolutely amazing up and coming artists. The artist interviews will be up over the next couple of days, and you can find some panel summaries below the jump.

Friday, October 10, 2014

Geek Girl Con All Weekend Pass, Baby!

Image shamelessly stolen from
Yeah, that's right. This weekend, as in Saturday and Sunday, I will be at Geek Girl Con in Seattle. I will be wearing a series of striped dresses, a press pass, and my best nerd enthusiasm, so feel free to come over and say hi. But in a nice and not creepy way, please.

Super pumped about all of the panels, the amazing cosplay, the fantastic art, and the just generally wonderful feeling of being surrounded by talented, happy, nerdy women and rad dudes who support women. 

Hope to see you there!

Returning Shows: Supernatural (Wheezing Towards Bethlehem)

So this is a thing that happened.
Oh man. So, as some of you may remember, Supernatural really used to be my favorite show. It feels weird to type that now, but it's the truth. Way back in 2008 I watched the first three seasons in about two weeks while I pretended I was working on my summer research project (my advisor probably wasn't very convinced), and I fell in love. Sure, it was terrible at retaining female characters and characters of color. And sure, the first two seasons were pretty rough. But it had potential! The arc plot kept compounding on itself and revealing new depths to the mythos and amazing new character development for the boys every season.

It was a train that could only go up.

I watched season four in real time, along with all of my housemates. By season five I'd moved to California along with my best friend, and we watched the apocalypse arc on my couch in Sherman Oaks, biting our nails and shushing each other as Sam and Dean and Cas all sacrificed and bled and saved the world. At the end of season five, I cried like a little baby.

And then the show just kept going. Which was fine. I liked it well enough. Season six was okay, not great, but I figured I could give them a little leeway. It wasn't actively bad, and there were a lot of interesting one off episodes. Season seven was fun, if you like jokes about male genitalia and seeing your favorite characters die for realsies this time. Season eight was interesting. Season nine...well, by then watching Supernatural had stopped being something I did on purpose and become something I did because I might as well do it.

Like having dinner with a racist grandparent or eating a potato chip because it's the only one left in the bag and it might feel lonely otherwise, but it's kind of stale and you're not hungry, watching Supernatural last season didn't really do anything for me. Occasionally it annoyed me, sometimes it made me giggle, but on the whole it was just kind of there. Which is awful.

Still, we're going into the tenth season now, and we've been promised, yet again, that this is absolutely totally definitely the final season. We'll see how that goes. At this point, though, it's been over half a decade since I started really seriously watching, and I figure that giving up now would be like letting the bad guys win (even if the bad guys in this case are the show's writers). I refuse to do that. Supernatural and I will limp along together, all the way to the end.

When I say limping, I really do mean limping. The season opener, while better than what I was expecting based on last season, was still pretty crappy. Last season we left off with the angels back in Heaven, Castiel near death because of a depleted grace, and Dean officially now a demon, thanks to the Mark of Cain. Sam was disconsolate over Dean's death, all major female characters were either dead or in another realm, and the only interesting person left was Crowley. Oh Crowley.

So, this season starts six months later, with Crowley and Dean the Demon on a bender, hitting up karaoke bars, trying to win at foosball, screwing waitresses, and generally being demons at and around stuff. It's a real vacation of bros. Meanwhile, Sam is still freaking the crap out and trying to track them down. Cas would like to help, but he's got some bigger problems, what with being almost dead.

In the first episode, Sam tries to track down Dean and Crowley and gets a lead when he finds security footage of Dean viciously killing someone with the First Blade in a convenience store. Cas offers to help, but then gets his own quest: Joining Hannah to track down some renegade angels and drag them back to Heaven because we absolutely can't let angels live happily on Earth. Nope.

Dean and Crowley continue their carousing, but Crowley begins to imply that he actually helped Dean become a demon for a real purpose. So that they could return to Hell and rule over it in the way that Crowley has always wanted. After all, with Abbadon dead, and most of her supporters being murdered by Dean, there's very little to stand in their way.

Sam does not manage to catch up to Dean and Crowley, though he does meet up with a "friend" of Dean's. Said friend knocks him unconscious, ties him up in a barn, and calls Dean to taunt him about the impending death of his brother, you know, the one that Dean will do literally anything to save. Only this time, after Dean has had an entire episode to think about what it means to be a demon and who he really is, man, he decides not to save Sam. Weird. Instead, Dean weighs the option of actually helping Crowley take over Hell. I mean, he is a demon. Isn't this what he's meant for?

Also Cas and Hannah find the renegade angels, make nice with them, fight them, and then have a deep and meaningful conversation about whether or not some angels deserve freedom at the cost of having pure consensus in the host. It's interesting, but after two seasons straight of pure angelic focus, I'm about done with the Heaven storylines. And while Hannah is funny when she's around Cas, she's not a sufficiently compelling character to pull me into the plot, not like Naomi was back in season eight.

It's not that this episode wasn't funny. There were lots of great jokes. From the convenience store clerk referring to Dean as "porn guy" when interviewed by the police to Dean's horrific attempts at karaoke to Hannah getting carsick from Cas' awful driving - there was a lot of comedy going on. The problem with this episode is that it all felt, well, soulless. Like the whole cast and crew and writers were just going through the motions of making a Supernatural episode, and that they all knew it was kind of crap, but at this point, who cares?

And that's a terrible thing to accuse them of, I know, but that's the vibe this episode gives off. While last season I was incensed at the continued sexism and racism and homophobia of the show, this season I'm just pretty much over it. In general. And that really sucks.

But. I refuse to give up all hope. There are still a couple of interesting ways that this season could go, dramatically speaking. While the idea of Dean as a demon is kind of funny when you think of him just basically being his regular self but without a filter, the dramatic meat of the show would come if they decided to really delve into Dean's past. This isn't the first time he's been a demon, after all, and he was a master torturer in Hell for a decade. I want to see real demon First Knight of Hell Dean. I want to see Dean being the monster that monsters fear. And I love the idea of him being horrible and evil and gross and the most effective hunter you can imagine.

I would also love it if the show were to really explore Sam's disconnect with Dean. If his brother was the only thing keeping Sam hunting and Dean is now something that needs to be hunted, then what is Sam still doing there? Is his mission to take Dean out and then that's it for him? Or is this going to be the push Sam needs to go back and finish the ritual to seal the gates of Hell once and for all?

Furthermore, what about the gates of Heaven? It seems a bit like the show is setting up a world where all of the angels are actually back up in Heaven, and if that happens, it would make most sense for the gates to close. Thematically it also works really well, because if we remember the intense "profound bond" that Dean and Cas share, it's almost poetically depressing if they end up eternally shut away from each other.

Actually that's my ideal ending. I want the show to end with Cas shut up in Heaven, the gates forever sealed, and Dean as King of Hell, permanently sealed in as well. Then there's Sam, left alone on Earth, the world finally saved but at the cost of the only family he had left. Sam then goes on to live a normal life, and it's super freaking sad and amazing.

I'm really not kidding. That is my ideal ending at this point.

Look, I loved Supernatural a lot. I still do, at least the early seasons. I still think that those first five seasons, especially three through five, are genuinely amazing television. I just also think that there's a point at which you have to stop. Sam and Dean aren't really making any character progress anymore. They're stale, stagnant, dead in the water. 

At this point the only narrative direction to go in is, well, sad. How could these characters possibly have a happy ending? Heck, even the show they tried to backdoor pilot as a spinoff was sad and full of sad things.

I will say though that I would be down for seeing more television set in this universe. Just not like Supernatural was. What I want is a show full of diverse characters, interesting backstories that aren't just tragedy and gloom, and a really compelling world. My ideal spinoff involves Charlie and Dorothy, who are canonically adventuring together in Oz if you recall, going on a series of adventures through the realms, hunting demons and monsters and horrible things. Heck, maybe they take along some of the baby hunters we've met throughout the show, like Ben or Claire Novak or Lucas.

Or there could be a show just about the baby hunters. What if all of those special kids or boring kids or hunter kids that the boys have run into over the years found each other and started hunting. Dean's in Hell, Cas is in Heaven, and Sam is completely done, but there are still monsters to fight and people to save. What if these kids took over?

What I'm saying is that I don't think Supernatural is all bad or all done. I just really think that there's nothing left to say about the Winchester Brothers. It's been nine seasons, and we've said it all. What's left now is to wheeze our ways to the finish line, and pray that the resolution we get there was worth the trek.

This is also a thing that happened.