Sandman Issue 10: Portrait of Desire

Since I’m focusing on portraits for my Sandman re-read, we’re skipping past the rest of volume 1 (which I started here) and heading straight to issue 10. Volume 2 The Doll’s House is where the motif of portraits become interesting, especially in just the first few pages. We’ll talk about the first one today: a full page portrait of Desire on the first page of the issue:

Sandman Issue 10 page 1, portrait of Desire

How do you read a graphic novel? With full page spreads like these I take more time to examine the illustration before reading the text, let it sink into me like I’m in an art gallery. (With panels I need to read the text first for direction before I fully appreciate the image.) This image puts us into the realm of the Endless right away: the background grid of emptiness stretching into the horizon; white teeth gleaming, an uncomfortable oddity to the rest of the face and torso which is in shadows; gleaming red eyes; and a nebula of red not-stars around a planet-like heart.

The narration tells us that there is only one thing in the realm of Desire: this fortress, shaped in a giant “statue of Desire him-, her-, it-self”. An immense statue towering alone on a blanket of emptiness. The narration also identies the statue as a portrait “complete in all the details, built from the fancy of Desire out of blood, and flesh, and bone, and skin.” There is something cold about the statue, the dark blue tones echoing of cold marble or slate. The notion that it’s made of blood and flesh and bones and skins is slightly alarming. … did Desire dream it up? Is that what the text means with “fancy”? Or did Desire somehow acquire these materials to craft their self-portrait? … given the events of the last volume, perhaps it’s best not to ask.

The fortress/ self-portrait is called The Threshold. “Desire has always lived on the edge.” The text pairs nicely with the image as again we’re drawn to examine it; the background gives us a sense of that edge, an empty vastness marked off neatly with borders. The next page continues this theme as the fortress has “empty, echoing veins, like tunnels. You will walk them until you grow old and die without once retracing your steps.” Finally we’re drawn to the centre of the image, the heart itself, which seems almost to pulse. “There was only one place in the cathedral of its body to make its home. Desire lives in the heart.” While in most cases, the phrase “Desire lives in the heart” might be written off as sentimental muck appropriate for a greeting card, here the image is sublime again: something grand and terrifying. This affect is supported with the reference to a Cathedral, another large, echoing cavern which makes its audience feel humbled and awed in the face of something part divine, part alien. The first installation of volume 2 (following the prologue) thus begins with a firm reminder that the Endless are not human nor gods, but something else inexplicable. Something frightening.

Click here to see the second part of the Issue 10 read-along.

Is there any news, Reshi? – (A Contrast of The Name of the Wind and The Wise Man’s Fear – Chapter 1)

I’m taking a break today from the University 411/811 blog to read some fantasy fiction. I’m not sure how long I’ll keep up a running commentary of a comparison between Book 1 and 2 of Patrick Rothfuss’s Kingkiller Chronicles (which I began here), but for now it’s amusing me to see the similarities and contrasts.

“A Place for Demons”, Chapter One of The Name of the Wind, begins simply

It was Felling night, and the usual crowd had gathered at the Waystone Inn. Five wasn’t much of a crowd, but five was as many as the Waystone ever saw these days, times being what they were.

Old Cob was filling his role as storyteller and advice dispensary. The men at the bar sipped their drinks and listened. In the back room a young innkeeper stood out of sight behind the door, smiling as he listened to the details of a familiar story.

The Name of the Wind, p. 3

It’s an interesting way to introduce the hero of the story. “A young innkeeper,” no other identifying markers except age and job title. He’s not even in the scene, but standing just out of sight, listening to the events on stage – the gossip and folktales relayed by his 5 customers – and not contributing anything himself until two pages later. When he does speak, his customers evidence surprise: “The men at the bar seemed surprised to see Kote standing there. They’d been coming to the Waystone every Felling night for months and Kote have never interjected anything of his own before” (p 5). It’s almost comical, that the minor characters in this story are shocked to see the protagonist and to hear him speak. It’s also noteworthy that it takes 5 pages before the readers are even introduced to our hero’s name. Of course, as the narrative continues, Rothfuss fully puts his reader through their paces in interrogating the protagonist’s actions as heroic. Kote’s uncertain status is established just a few sentences later, as the passage continues: “Not that you could expect anything else, really. He’d only been in town for a year or so. He was still a stranger” (5). We still have no details of Kote, except his name, that he’s a stranger, and he evidently has detailed knowledge of half-completed idioms, but brushes off this knowledge as “Just something I heard once” (p. 5).

The mystery of Kote only continues in chapter 1 as a missing companion joins them, hurt and bloodied, and carrying the body of the beast that attacked him, “a spider as large as a wagon wheel, black as slate” (p. 7). Kote immediately identifies the creature as as a “scrael,” cleans and sews up Carter with fourty-eight stitches, and takes the leads in identifying the scrawl as a “demon” by pressing a piece of iron on the body. In each case, Kote attempts to hide his authority as knowledge-keeper by dismissing them: as sources of gossip (a traveller told him about the scrael); or a common saying (that demons react to iron); or by telling his student-companion Bast to spread a rumour about (in this case, that his grandfather was a caravan guard, as explanation for his stitching skills). He also confirms in his conversation with Bast that he made sure they properly disposed of the scrawl (burning it in a fire made of rowan wood and then burying in a pit that was at a suitable depth): “They took it to the priest. He did all the right things for all the wrong reasons” (p. 12). That Kote knows more than a priest, a person who holds secret, divine knowledge, suggests that Kote is at once more learnéd than a person who puts their stock in faith, while also functioning as a figure who had knowledge of deep mysteries itself. The question on hand, after all, is the presence and explanation of a *demon* and while the reader – like the minor characters – might be considering explanations for this mysterious beast, the fact that it reacted to iron in a physical way (smoke arising from burnt flesh where the iron touch), gives the reader a sense of a supernatural mystery that the novel in their hands will hopefully give some answers to. Taken together, the reader is also quick to pick up on the clues that Rothfuss lays out: that our hero is a skilled and knowledgeable person that is in hiding. Rothfuss makes this plain when he finally introduces Kote properly on page 10:

He called himself Kote. He has chosen the name carefully when he came to this place. He has taken a new name for most of the usual reasons, and for a few unusual ones as well, not the least of which was the fact that names were important to him.

The Name of the Wind, p. 10

Who then is Kote? What is his real name, and why did he take a new name? One presumes that the “usual reasons” are because he’s hiding, but hiding from what? And why are names important to him? Clearly there is something significant here, given the title of the book: The Name of the Wind.

In contrast to The Name of the Wind, Chapter One of The Wise Man’s Fear (“Apple and Elderberry”) sets a slightly different mood. As I discussed when examining both prologues, while the beginning notes in The Name of the Wind worked together as a “complement” (NotW p.1), The Wise Man’s Fear adds a “counterpoint” (WMF p.1 ), another layer to the melody. Instead of a scene set at night with a nearly-empty room (5 customers with Kote off-stage), we begin in the morning, in early dawn, with Bast standing in that same room alone and bored. The set piece stays the same, but the scene has changed. Instead of fanciful gossip of demons – “The word ‘demon’ was being spoken, but it was with smiles half-hidden behind raise hands” (NotW p. 16) – we move now to the very real and serious aftermath of a man’s death – “Bad business last night. Chances are, that would be all Graham would had to say about the death of a man he had known his whole life” (WMF p. 7-8). There are echoes between both chapters in the form of gossip of serious topics, demons and death, but while the first is treated with half-amusement and small caution as both townspeople and the reader are unable to confirm fact from fiction, the latter is treated with proper gravitas as both the townspeople and the reader are contemplating the death of a man at the end of the previous novel. The note of this somber counterpoint is reinforced in the final paragraph of chapter 1 in WMF:

The only sounds were the rhythmic creak of the wood and the slow patter of the cider as it ran into the bucket below. There was a rhythm to it, but no music, and the innkeeper’s eyes were distant and joyless, so pale a green they almost could have passed for gray.

The Wise Man’s Fear, p. 11

These final sentences of chapter one closes with a careful evocation of rhythm without music, a feeling of a joylessness, distant, grey, setting a mood similar to the one from NotW, but with a deeper resonance that conveys a forced and false normality.

An Unexpected Journey – Re-Reading The Hobbit Chapter 1

Gif from Hobbit film, with Bilbo Baggins running, captioned with "I'm going on an adventure!"

After a 2020-apocalypse-driven hiatus, I’m diving back into reading with a Tolkien re-read. I hope you’ll join me on my adventure!

I haven’t read The Hobbit in nearly a decade. I’m sure the events of chapter one amused me when I was younger. But as my 34th birthday has passed me by a couple weeks ago, this time I was struck with feelings of ire on behalf of Mr. Bilbo Baggins. Here’s this polite, friendly guy, greeting a stranger with a hearty “good morning” and from that small interaction Bilbo gets stuck with a houseful of uninvited guests demanding seedcakes and telling him how they like their breakfast done in the morning.

At least most of the dwarves are a friendly, affable sort. But Thorin Oakenshield … well I wouldn’t him as my employer. Someone who’s too good to help clear the dishes? No thanks. Tolkien does an amazing job of painting a picture of someone who is puffed up with his own importance, while also indicating that the pride isn’t deserved. (Reminds me of the Tory party…..) Just look at his lineage. Grandfather Thrór is ran out of the North for reasons unknown. Luckily he stumbles across a huge pile of gold in his new mountain and declares himself King under the Mountain. In the South. (Nevermind the dwarves in the North.)

All that gold attracts a dragon, of course. Damn those greedy dragons. Which means Thorin is forced to flee with Grandpop and Dad and a handful of unnamed dwarves. (He doesn’t mention his dear mum. Guess dwarves are born from the ground or something.) The mighty king and heirs are forced to (make their people) work for a living. The horror! Instead of doing fancy smithing work for kings, the dwarves have to resort to the lowly job of blacksmithing and working mines. Thorin’s pride obviously takes a huge hit that his people have to do something so base. (Can you all see me rolling my eyes?)

I’m not sure how I would react if this guy showed up on my doorstep, judging my character while ordering his breakfast. To Bilbo’s credit he handles it with – not exactly grace – but with extremely good manners, going so far as to sacrifice his share of the cakes in order to be a good host.

Of course, it must have been the Baggins part of his nature that has instilled all that politeness and respectability as Tolkien goes on for a lengthy paragraph to state that the adventure-spirit comes from his mother’s side. And not just from his mother, the (im)famous Belladonna Took, but potentially there’s a fairy wife in the Took ancestry too. So the mother’s line damns him twice over. (Un)Luckily for Belladonna, she loses both identity and character when she becomes Mrs. Bungo Baggins. She stops going on adventures, gains respectability through her new name, and her husband builds her a beautiful and luxurious home – with her money. And really, what more could a woman ask for?

The Sartorial Nightmare of Kick-Ass Female Characters

A couple years ago I finally got around to picking up a collection of Robert Lynn Asprin short stories as a taster (long overdue for a fantasy scholar, I know). Unfortunately, by page 2 I was wondering what the hype was about. Or, more accurately, whether the hype wasn’t fueled by the nostalgia factor. You know, a time where we didn’t (overly) concern ourselves with sexist racism (or sexism and racism).

“Myth-Adventurers” (2007), the first story in Myth-Interpretations (2010), starts off normally enough: two female characters chatting; one human (“a Klahd, actually”, p. 7; whatever that means), the other reptilian (something called “a Pervert… or Pervect if they knew what was good for them”, p. 7). A nod to interspecies racism, but still within the realms of the standard Fantastika set-up.

The first descriptive paragraph alludes to the idea that the two are killers with the “lithe, athletic, graceful look that put one in mind of a pair of lionesses discussing a kill” (7). Lovely metaphor. Paints a pretty picture of two kick-ass ladies and I’m settling in to enjoy their adventure. (Although I’m wondering whether lions are treated as animals or people in this narrative, but that’s just a stray thought.)

Then we flow into the next paragraph: “If their builds and manner weren’t enough of a giveaway, their outfits completed the picture. The Pervect, Pookie, was wearing one of her favourite” (7) -> here is where I turned the page and immediately regretted it:

action leather jumpsuits with multiple zippers which both issued a skin tight fit and held the tools of her trade. The Klahd, Spyder, was still working on her look, but today had settled for calf-high boots with fishnet stockings, a dark plaid mini-skirt, and a sleeve-less black leather halter top which left considerable portions of her midriff bare.

Asprin, p. 8

Here, I paused. Now I’m all for female empowerment and a woman’s right to choose what she wants to wear. If you want to wear calf-high boots with fishnets and a miniskirt, by all means, go ahead. I have nothing against a “sleeveless black leather halter top” except for the redundancy of the description (halter tops are, by definition, sleeveless). But I’m questioning how any real “killer” is going to be fighting in these outfits. Have you ever tried moving in a skintight leather outfit? Let alone one that “both insured a skin tight fit and held the tools of her trade”? How? How does it do both? Does her skin have any circulation?? But maybe as a reptilian species, she moves differently….

The description continues:

All in all, she looked like a parochial schoolgirl gone Goth gone biker slut.

Asprin, p. 8

Yeah. No.

No woman looks in a mirror and describes herself like that. Maybe a school-girl gone bad. maybe a goth girl. Maybe a biker-chick. But not a combination of the three, and definitely no woman aims for a “slut” look. The idea just seems to scream the whole “she was asking for it” mentality. You know. “What was she wearing when she got raped?” “Maybe she wanted to get raped.”

And then the description continues with this bit of ridiculousness:

Throwing stars and knife hilts jutted from their sleeves and belts, along with various mysterious instrument….

Asprin, p. 8

At this point, I was completely unable to continue reading. As Eddie Robson pointed out when I posted the excerpt on twitter, it’s nearly impossible to tuck knives into the sleeves of a sleeveless halter top.

Here’s my own artistic rendition of this outfit:

A very, VERY badly sketched rendition of the outfit. I really can't draw.

But now that I’ve made the sketch, I’ve realized it’s not tooooo far out from other kick-ass Fantastika females. I’m sure one of the first kick-ass female killers that pops into people’s minds is Buffy the Vampire Slayer (1997-2001), who regularly fights in leather and heels. And when I think kick-ass females, I will always think of Lucy Lawless as Xena: Warrior Princess (1995-2001). I mean, it’s in the title. If you haven’t seen Xena’s iconic, um.. armouring, then please do google it now.

Of course, it’s not just females that are made to be ridiculously overly-sexualized in books or in film/tv. Who can forget the show that launched the Xena spin-off, Hercules (1995-1999) with Kevin Sorbo’s deep-v sleeveless tunic? And really, any action adventure sword and sorcery-type film from the ’80s have plenty of bare-chested muscly men (I’m looking at you Schwarzenegger/Conan the Barbarian, 1982).

Given the context and history, Asprin’s description of his characters isn’t surprising. But I suppose my disgruntlement with Asprin’s work is two-fold. One, the posthumous collection published in 2010 would benefit from an introduction that glorifies the works a bit less. (I’d like to say that about ALL of the “classic SF” writers, actually. I’d like to see an introduction in classical-reprints that gives a small nod to the racism and sexism that many of these writers actively peddled). Perhaps I shouldn’t except the 2007 Myth-Adventures to be “woke” or sensitive, but, there is always a part of me that argues that, regardless of “the times”, writers and artists should do better.

But the second reason the passage aroused my pique only became obvious when I attempted to re-read the collection again, this time alongside Kurtis J. Wiebe’s Rat Queens (2013-). Rat Queens, if you haven’t read it, is…. how to describe it…? like a car-accident that you can’t look away from, but one involving a clown car crashing into a trailer full of dragons. At times violent, humorous, incredibly gory, and extremely touching. Now, I can easily see one of the characters (Betty, in particular) describe themselves as a “schoolgirl gone Goth gone biker slut”. BUT, and here’s the distinction for me, there is one thing to have a character describe themselves as such, and another thing entirely for an omniscient narrator to make the comment. And, right from the first two pages, it’s clear that the narrator has a voice, has thoughts and ideas about the look and carriage of these characters. It may be due to the difference in medium (narrative voice versus graphic art), but Wiebe’s graphic medium doesn’t have the same level of authorial commentary as Asprin’s narrative descriptions.

So I end this post with a plea. If you’re a writer, please, PLEASE think about how your narrative voice might unintentionally be peddling the male (or female) gaze. And if you can’t do that, at the very least think about if the outfit you described would be functional in an actual fight. Thank you.

A New Year. The Same Cycle. (Reflecting on the Epic and the Star Wars Franchise)

The year was 2015. Obama was President. Same sex marriage was – finally – legalized in U.S. And Star Wars: A Force Awakens released in theaters.

Although the film was generally positively received, there was a thread of criticism that underscored the new production; the repeated mantra that A Force Awakens was basically a rip-off of A New Hope. It was repetitive. Derivative. The same story told again and again.

Despite it’s long history (going all the way back to the great sagas of the Illiad/Odyssey, The New and Old Testaments, Ramayana/Mahabharata, etc, etc, etc), the Epic today is often derided for being unimaginative. It’s too repetitive; derivative; or – gasp – formulaic! However, as I argue in The Shape of Fantasy being repetitive isn’t a bad thing. As Patricia Waugh discusses for metafiction:

There has be some level of familiarity. In metafiction it is precisely the fulfilment as well as the non-fulfilment of generic expectations that provides both familiarity and the starting point for innovation.

Patricia Waugh, Metafiction, 64, original emphasis

Roland Barthes likewise stipulates that the pleasures of the text come from expectations, which, for the Epic tradition, means a familiar narrative:

The pleasure of the text is not the pleasure of the corporeal striptease or of narrative suspense. […] the entire excitation takes refuge in the hope of seeing. (Barthes 10, original emphasis).

Roland Barthes, The Pleasures of the Text, 10, original emphasis

Thus, I argue that the latest Star Wars trilogy does an incredible job of delivering a familiar story in a new way. Is the plot line similar to the original? Of course it is. But it is also recognizably different, with a distinct ending, perhaps one that may alter the course of the universe enough that evil won’t rise up again (or at least, not too soon).

More importantly, these criticisms that Star Wars is repetitive misses the point. Brian Merchant (Motherboard) argues that “science fiction is supposed to be about exploring the unexplored, not rehasing the well-trod.” I disagree wholeheartedly. Science Fiction, like any literature, is about exploring the human condition.

There was another important event in 2015 in America that eventually had global significance. Donald Trump, on the campaign trail, trademarked his “Make American Great Again” slogan.

And, whether coincidental or not, A Force Awakens reinforces the idea that even when you overthrow a tyrannical fascist government, another one will rise up to take its place. We are doomed to repeat the cycle – and have narratives that repeat themselves – until we are able to break away from this cycle of oppression.

As the latest Star Wars trilogy draws to a close, the same criticism has been launched at the final installment: it’s repetitive. Redundant. Flat.

To which I would like to loudly reply, “Don’t you all understand the point of the Epic?? That’s how it works!”

Any attempt to break the formula is only going to result in audience dissatisfaction. As we’ve seen with the end of A Game of Thrones, the televised adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s unfinished novels, it is impossible to solve a good versus evil story-line without some hint of a messianic figure. A sacrifice is necessary to restore the balance. That’s the Epic. That’s how it works. You can play around with the formula, and toss red herrings to distract the audience from identifying the final messianic Hero, but, at the end of the day, the restoration of balance requires a Messianic character. And, more importantly, the bigger the unbalance, the more special the hero has to be. Not just any sacrifice will do (as evidenced by the number of soldiers that meet an unhappy fate at the front lines of the final battle). No, balance to the universe can only be restored by someone special. Maybe someone who has special powers or abilities, or perhaps are special due to bloodline (parentage is especially important in this patriarchal narrative structure).

So while I agree with the criticism that franchise did a great disservice to any hint of non-heteronormative or miscegenetic relationships, I disagree that the plot is a disappointment. The plot follows exactly the pattern of the Heroic Epic that I outline in The Shape of Fantasy, a pattern that includes repetitions and cycles.

Why? Why is the epic repetitive, but incredibly necessary? Because – as historical and current events have shown us – this story will continue to resonant in our society so long as evil exists in the world. Melodramatic? Maybe. But I feel entirely suitable for the state of the world today. So long as there are groups of people that oppress another, there will be stories about rising up and defeating it.

Unedited Chaos (and a Tangent on The *Best* Pokemon)

Ah, the first blog post. It is infinitely worse than the “blank” page (that moment of writer’s block when you can’t seem to get started). Why is it worse? Because it’s public; unedited (or only mildly so); with no opportunity to muse and stew over each word choice. Any awkward sentences or bad ideas laid bare for everyone to witness your shame.

(Wow, so, we’re like a minute in and this has already spiraled into darkness. There’s is an uplifting turn, I swear. But first the promised tangent.)

My brother recently came back from a holiday in Japan and he brought his nephew – my 6-month-old son – two stuffed Pokemon dolls: Pikachu (Pichu?) and Eevee.

photo of my son's picchu and eevee stuffed animals

“Eevee’s the best one of them all,” I confided to my husband (he doesn’t “get” Pokemon, so he didn’t argue this bold statement).

Eevee IS the best Pokemon IMHO because it can become so many different things! The base form has so much unlocked potential, and more and more iterations keep getting added as the franchise continues. Eevee has the possibility of becoming so many aspects of itself, all depending on a single choice made.

… Writing is like that. While the nature of blog-style of writing is unfiltered, sometimes this raw clay is more exciting than the pristine finished product. It’s full of possibilities; different directions to take; a potential for mistakes to become beautiful discoveries; or for different iterations to reveal something new.

There’s an underlying theme in my first book (The Shape of Fantasy, out this week!): an element of chaos theory that permeates the text. I’m not sure at what point I discovered chaos or starting identifying as a chaos theorist. Chaos theory is the idea that there is a recognizable pattern, or a repetition, but this pattern is unpredictable. This is an idea I discuss throughout my book, but what I neglected to state baldly is the idea that the reason the pattern is unpredictable is because, in the real-world, there are too many variable at play. Sure, the principle of science is that an experiment must be replicable; but these experiments are done in lab conditions, an area where every part of the environment can be controlled: temperature, pressure, humidity, etc. If a single factor is uncontrolled, it can impact the entire experiment. Which is why weather is so often used as an example of a chaotic system – because trying to create an experiment to measure weather in lab conditions is nearly impossible. And yet, scientists can still discern some pattern in weather conditions (enough to make a prediction of whether or not it’ll rain tomorrow).

It’s this principle of chaos that I apply throughout my book – and in life in general. Life is chaos. There may be patterns, a repetitive journey people follow (birth, school, work, death.) But there are so many different patterns to this “formula.” Similarly, Epic Fantasy has very well defined patterns (it is this structure that I explore throughout the book). But a great storyteller will manipulate and play with these patterns, mixing the variables to offer something new.

Writing any piece of work has that potential of chaos in it. The number of drafts you go through are all iterations of the same product. In the coming weeks, I will reflect on my own thought and writing processes for The Shape of Fantasy; directions I wish I could’ve taken it. I’ll refrain from reflecting on the smaller editing choices and focus on the big pictures. But it’s important to note that, when writing, minute changes can result in drastically different effects. For example, the simple act of italicisation – of emphasing one single word over the other – can change the meaning and tone. Likewise, every word, sentence structure, paragraph break can change the meaning and tone further. In this regard, every single choice can be important.

No wonder so many people fear the blank page.

But the blank page is not meant for perfection. It’s meant to be moulded, kneaded at, played with for a second, third, tenth draft. So I am here to assure you that there is nothing to fear about the blank page.

It’s the published page you should be agonizing over.