Subject to Interpretation

Several years ago, I was working on a play. I had written the script, and was attending the rehearsals periodically at the director’s request to consult on the production. Seeing something that you’ve written go through the rehearsal process is always…odd. Hearing an actor give voice to the words that you’ve written, to the character that formed in your head, can be simultaneously exciting and disconcerting. You really have to try to separate yourself from how the character was saying those lines in your head, because there’s a completely different aspect to a performed piece than to a piece that’s only read by your audience.

I remember walking into the auditorium one night late in the rehearsal process, looking up on the stage, and seeing my character. I’ve always called that moment the “spark.” It’s the moment in which I stop believing that the person on stage is the actor and begin believing that it’s the character that I’m seeing. For the actor,  it’s the moment when the character takes over…also simultaneously exciting and disconcerting. When it’s your character that you’re seeing and in which you’re believing…well, there’s something holy about it at that point, as well.

I’ve never had cover art drawn for anything that I’ve written. My work has always been published in magazines, journals, or the like, or on the web. I recently arranged with a colleague to have some cover art drawn for two short stories that I’ll be self-publishing in the near future. I confess that I briefly considered attempting it myself, but, some shaky Photoshop skills aside, I’m no graphic designer. I decided to leave it to the professionals, and I’m excited to see the result.

I’m excited because I was laying in bed a couple of nights ago re-reading a book from my childhood, when I realized that the way I was viewing the protagonist…the way that she sounded in my head, even…was directly connected to how she appeared on the cover of the book. There’s an interesting connection there, the way in which one art form informs your interpretation of another. I wonder how I would have “seen” that character if the cover art had been different? I wonder how much differently I see characters in books that do not feature a character on the cover?

More to the point, I wonder how I will react when I see one of my characters on a cover? Will they look the way that I envisioned them? Likely not, and neither did the character in my play years ago when I watched her come to life…as I have many others through the years…in the skillful hands of that actor.

Writing fiction involves, by nature, more description than playwriting. I generally spend a couple of paragraphs describing a character’s appearance, what they’re wearing, their body language, etc., the first time that they appear, and re-visit at least general appearance at key scenes later in the work. When writing a script, I may make mention of a clothing item critical to the scene, but I intentionally leave a lot of things blank, because they’re up for the director and actor to fill in. It will be interesting to see how a designer fills in the fewer blanks left by fiction, but I think that it will be very similar to releasing that character to be interpreted by an actor and director. Because, as with all art, there’s a subjective element to it. The designer will see my characters differently than I do.

I can’t wait to see how it turns out.                                      

You Say Tomato…

Earlier in the week, I saw a literary agent proclaiming on Twitter the importance of knowing one’s genre. After all, she insisted, if all of the characters in your manuscript were of a certain age, could you really label your submission as Young Adult?

I understand her point in a way. After all, agents specialize in certain types of books. They have their niches, so to speak. If an agent represents literary authors and I send him or her a high fantasy novel claiming that it’s literary fiction, then I’ve wasted both of our time. Except, the line between those ideas…and, by that, I mean, what exactly do we call literary?…becomes blurred.

In my perspective, genre labels are used for two basic reasons. The first is to give the (potential) reader some idea of what to expect when they open the book. I’m immediately open to certain conventions when reading science fiction, for example, that might give me pause when reading a mystery. I know that an espionage thriller will contain certain plot formulae that would be resisted in other settings. In that way, I think that they’re useful.

The second is to allow booksellers to categorize them. When you’re in the mood for a certain type of book, you can find that shelf in your local bookstore, or browse to that category on your Nook or Kindle. In that way, brick-and-mortar bookstores aren’t all that different from digital storefronts…they have large amounts of products that require a hierarchical structure in order to organize them that they may better get them before potential readers.

And, I’m all for getting books in front of potential readers, because I want people to read my words, just as I want any writers’ hard work to be read and appreciated. And, earning money from that hard work, while it’s not really why we do it, is always an amazing feeling.

I foresee this near-future scenario, however,  in which our still somewhat basic genre categories become overbearing in their volume and weight. Those of us with a taste for these things can become a bit obsessive over the categories of what we read. To draw a musical parallel, you may be one of those people that disagrees with the genre labels for your iTunes purchases. When I buy music, I almost always go about editing the meta-data to reflect what I feel the true genre of the piece is, not what Apple’s marketing department felt that it is. We may enjoy listening to the same artist, but call the music different things. Alternative to me could very well differ from what you would consider alternative music, because there’s a perceptual lens that comes into play there. Think I’m wrong?  Let’s have a discussion about where the line between country and southern rock lies. You see my point.

Along those same lines, knowing that different readers will often gravitate to a writing style or a story moreso than a type of story, I think that genre descriptions are not foremost in many writers’ minds when we are crafting a story. Because of this, our stories can often cross the lines between those genres. I don’t think that’s a bad thing. I think that, as new ideas for stories and characters are woven in an author’s mind, the equivalent to a new type of music can be created. How would iTunes have categorized hip-hop in a world where only jazz and R&B existed? How would we have classified science fiction in a world before Shelley gave us her Frankenstein monster? I don’t think that most readers are quite as fixated on genres as we might believe.

It’s in our nature to categorize things so that we may understand them. That’s what genres do. I don’t think that they’re a bad thing. I do think that making them laser-specific and rigid is a bad thing, because bending categories and creating things that prove elusive to labels is a beautiful experience in any art. It’s how an art form grows. And, when an art form grows, so do those who engage with it.

A Review of “Batwoman: Elegy”

Batwoman: ElegyBatwoman: Elegy by Greg Rucka
My rating: 3 of 5 stars

The New 52 brought me to DC Comics in a way that I’d never been involved before. I didn’t think that would be the case. I knew these classic characters in ways that the casual reader likely doesn’t, because I grew up with comic books. That said, I grew up with the Marvel universe on my shelf much more than the DC Universe, but still…I was suspect. Until I read a handful of the inaugural issues, after which I was hooked. As you might suspect, the Batman titles have held special interest for me, likely because I had been a Batgirl reader prior to the New 52’s launch.

Batwoman, however, is the character of which I knew the least. While friends have spoken very highly of what DC is doing with the character, I found myself turning to wikis to read about her origin, because I knew very little about Katie Kane or how she fits into the Batman mythology.

As it turns out, she operates parallell to Batman’s mythology more than she operates within it, but, in any case, I wanted to be introduced to this character, and, “Elegy” being a highly acclaimed story arc, seemed a good place to start. This graphic novel collects all of the issues within the story arc, which takes place before the New 52 re-boot.

Here we find Batwoman facing off against a new villain called Alice, who dresses as one of Carroll’s characters and quotes lines from the book while proving herself quite adept in the realm of criminal insanity. She is targeting Batwoman, and Katie does not know why. Katie proactively begins hunting down Alice, against her father’s advice. Her father points out that this is more about revenge, while Katie insists that this is about survival. The reader is drawn on a rollercoaster of a storyline as we watch Katie waver back and forth between the two.

Batwoman is a very different character for the Batman mythology. She has a military background, and has received much notice as being one of DC’s few gay characters. After being dishonorably discharged from military service for her sexuality, she is in search of a new way to “serve.” She is inspired when she fights off a mugger, easily defeating the attacker just as Batman shows up. She watches the Dark Knight vanish into Gotham’s dark skyline, and realizes that this is how she will serve the public around her. Using her wealthy father’s resources and her background along with new training, she dons a costume as Batwoman. Her adventures bring her into occasional contact with Batman, although she is not really part of his “family,” at least not at this point.

Batwoman’s origin is woven into this story through flashbacks, as it brings to light who Alice is and why she is targeting Batwoman (I’ll say no more in the interest of spoilers). The story weaves in a good dose of the supernatural, which fits well with Gotham’s eerie past. As with any self-contained collection of stories from a larger serial, there is some backstory of which the reader may not be aware, but I was able to deduce at least the generalities of this quickly. So, someone who does not read comics regularly would not be lost here.

The art is a very different style than I’m used to reading in comics, at times striking with Batwoman’s imposing figure and red and black costume, at times cartoonish in background panels and it’s portrayal of Alice. Our heroine is consistently daunting yet disturbing in appearance, her skin a bit too white, her smile threatening. This is critical in understanding the character, however, and developing the character is perhaps what the writers do best here. I felt that I knew Katie Kane as well as I know most other characters in the Batman mythology when I turned the final page.

That said, the character isn’t one of my favorites. While an interesting and dynamic addition to Batman’s world, this is a peripheral individual, operating in Batman’s likeness but not with his style, and often not with his blessing. She serves the people of Gotham as a hero would, yet her sense of duty seems misplaced at times. Her actions are motivated by anger more than justice, and I concluded at the end of the book that she was, in fact, quite motivated by revenge. Her closing words to an underground coven of lucanthropic criminals is to leave her family alone, or “I will kill every last one of you.” These are violent sentiments of which no other hero in the Batman “family” that I can identify would ever espouse. This is part of what sets Batwoman apart, however, and, as we see her walk away from her father in the final panels of the story, she does so different from Katie Kane. Any version of Batman’s mantel comes with a price, and Batwoman’s dedication to protecting those around her has caused her to be drawn into a darker version of herself as the story concludes.

Overall, it is this radical departure from Batman’s heroism that causes me to rate this book with only three stars. That said, the writing is excellent, the story exciting if predictable, and the art refreshingly different. If you’re interested in the Batman titles and, like me, have no idea where Batwoman fits in, this is a good read. I’m glad that I got to know this character. I’m just disappointed with her based on what I know.

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We’re Known by our Toys

THIS JUST IN: our society defines itself by its technology.

I know, I know. That’s a shocking statement, but let’s move quickly to acceptance, shall we? Humanity is beginning to truly realize its essence when we are creating, and so we create and build things, and use those things to make our lives easier, and thus we are very proud of those things. It’s the beginning of a theology of technology, and it’s a very natural…and, at it’s core, I’d say it’s a very good…inclination.

At first blush, though, those of us who don’t like to succumb to trendy things might see it as a mindless, materialistic “keeping up with the Jonses.” We might push back a bit (I remember when using a Mac or an iPhone was different, instead of trendy), perhaps by refusing to use what we prefer if it becomes too popular with everyone else (well, I still use my iPhone, but a lot of my colleagues are Android users…).

It’s just that sort of thing, though, that leads to some interesting statements about ourselves. When e-readers were becoming all the rage, I read an article (somewhere…the location escapes me at the moment) that humorously discussed how the Kindle would remove the status of literary snob. After all, no one could tell that it was A Tale of Two Cities that you were reading on the subway, only that you were carrying a spiffy little device.

Two jobs or so ago, I had a desk between two of my colleagues. The guy on my left used a PC laptop and carried an Android phone. I was in the middle with my all-Apple gear. The girl on my right was the most diversified…she used a PC laptop, an Android phone, and an iPad. Maybe I’m just geeky enough to notice something like that, but I think that it says something about us, something about the new way that we assess each others’ personalities.

Because we’re now not just reading A Tale of Two Cities on the subway with an e-reader. We could be using a Nook instead of a Kindle, or any number of tablets. Instead of noticing the book cover, we notice someone’s device preferences (which is a sad commentary on an increasingly illiterate society, but I digress).

Sometimes, especially among the geekier circles in which I make a living, I’ll hear people argue over things that I thought weren’t really things that we debate any longer. Mac or PC, iOS or Android. I’ve actually heard people argue over what’s better, as though there were some personality flaw involved with someone choosing to still carry a Blackberry.

I think, though, that the reason is because we’re looking for a way to stand out, to identify ourselves to others in a society (and especially in a workforce) that prizes homogeny and doing what’s popular. The thing with the diversity in the types of innovations that we create in our striving to fully realize our humanity is that they are created by different personality types, with different personality types in mind. Someone who uses an Android phone wants a completely different experience than I want. I want a totally different experience by reading on a Nook than someone else would expect with a Kindle. The issue is both the device and what the device accesses, as well as how it accesses it. Visual aesthetics are different. Different individuals are more concrete or abstract than others, and need a different sort of information structure to navigate the web that connects us to the world (a web that increasingly becomes a necessity).

So, as much as I want to tell you how much my Mac is better than your PC, there is no right or wrong answer here. What is present is an opportunity to learn about the person sitting next to you, to begin to understand how they think. That leads to understanding how they see the world. And that leads to understanding how we are more alike than different.

Which is just possibly how a theology of technology may begin.

Who said collecting expensive toys was a bad thing?