Planetary Romance

I love planetary romance.

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No, not like that.

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Yeah. That’s more like it.

So why then?

Planetary romance is about daring high adventure set amongst exotism both interstellar and alien. What it is not, however, is anything remotely scientific. It gives it a noble dreaminess that hard-nosed sci-fi tends to not. There’s crossover with pulp action and Heroic Fantasy and Sword and Sorcery. But the little dash of foreign planets and mythical technology and genre blending gives it a unique kind of appeal. For straight fantasy fans, you have Tolkien-eque-High-Fantasy-D&D-Warcraft-Elves-and-Dwarves influences. But that seems so well traveled. But for the pulpier stuff, I always liked John Carter more than Conan. Some impossible Mars built from dreamy wonderment was just too charming to pass up.

So what to do with it. “Swords and Planets” has been described as a static genre with consciously borrows from itself. This seems to be true with so many sorts of fiction. How do you give the audience what they want in a way they don’t expect? Noir suffers from this as well, unfortunately. What it gets by on is just how dang cool it is.

Everybody always looks so awesome in it:

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But then how do you keep it fresh? “Chinatown” is just better written than anything like it. “Dark City” plunges straight into convention with a bit of genre-blending. “Insomnia,” I would argue, does the best at playing with expectations of the genre as a whole– by setting a neonoir north of the Arctic Circle, it goes against the tradition of noir always being set at night (again, see: “Dark City”) to match the bleak moral tone of the genre, but the disorientation and fatigue it provides the protagonist is both moral and physical.

Can I do something something similar with Planetary Romance?

Or pulp for that matter? Or do I just embrace the genre for what it is and assume that if it’s written by me, it’ll naturally start to mutate according to my own personal tastes.

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Playing Pretend

I’ve been telling stories a long time.

When I was little, I imagined worlds to exist in. “Pretend.” Didn’t everyone?

I was captured by adventure. By heroics. By victory. By power and death and evil and life. I’d flip over my bed and land crouched on the floor, poised for action. I was a creature of battle and bliss, merely existing as a spirit of freedom.

Messy room

My room was constantly a mess. Not because I was particularly grungy, but because it was my canvass for storytelling. They were wastelands, junkyards, metropolises, battlegrounds, asteroid fields, even baseball diamonds.

My superhero toys liked to play baseball. The Thing batted cleanup.

Quite simply, I just loved playing with sticks. Mostly they were swords. Very occasionally guns. But swords were always more satisfying. More romantic.

Where’d I get these ideas from? Robin Hood? Peter Pan? Lego? I struggle to remember where I first got the idea to grab a fallen branch straight enough to capture my imagination and transform me utterly.

That is the nature of “Pretend.” Transformation. It wasn’t a stick. I wasn’t Graham, a human boy. I had utterly become something else.

As a tiny child– or as I like to say, “In The Time Before I Could Read,” I’d watch movies endlessly. I’d memorize all the lines, I’d rewind parts over and over. I’d delve into these worlds, breath in the characters and colors of it all.

But what I wanted was adventure. My own adventure.

I have to assume it was a movie the first time I saw a sword fight. The Disney “Robin Hood” seems the most conspicuous culprit. I don’t think I ever saw the famous 1938 Errol Flynn and Basil Rathbone duel from “The Adventures of Robin Hood.” But it was paid homage to in “The Rocketeer,” which I watched endlessly.

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It was “Hook.” Oh, it had to have been. That Hero Shot of Robin Williams appearing to Hook fully for the first time. And the swordfight that followed. Robin flying around almost haphazardly fencing incidental pirates while occasionally actually getting face-to-face with Hook.

And his sword.

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Holy god, I loved Peter Pan’s sword in this movie. Was this the first time I ever truly fetishized a sword? How cool they looked. How cool it was to strike a blade against another. The crashing, clanking back-and-forth of two swords clashing.

What could be better?

I remember for my 4th Christmas, after my 4th birthday party which had been Peter Pan themed, my family traveled from Corvallis, Oregon to my grandmother’s house in faraway Albuquerque, New Mexico. It was the one-and-only time I’d spend on an airplane until I was 20, when I decided to fly off to have an adventure of my own.

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It was easily one of my most memorable Christmases. Christmas was one of my favorite holidays, and not just because you got free stuff. It was just fun. I liked the spirit of it. Music and lights and laughter and fires while it was dark and cold. My family had books we would read every year, breaking them out of boxes packed away til December. Books like “Polar Express.” I loved what it was about: imagination, wonderment, magic.

Though this Christmas, I received this:

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Kinda looks like shit now, doesn’t it? I remember most being excited about his sword. The sword! He had his sword! I have no memory of playing with the toy other than that Christmas, bouncing him up and down the big stairwell in my grandmother’s house. Did he get left behind? Did I lose him back home? He certainly didn’t survive move after move my family took over the years of my childhood.

We’d move state to state from Oregon to Kansas to upstate New York all within three years. We also took trips, camping and hiking and exploring the country. We never had a lot of money. But we spent a lot of time time together riding in the car.

On long trips my mother apparently would tell my older brother and I stories about two mice, named Fred and Oscar, who would go on adventures together. Although I have no memory of these stories. What I do remember, however, is my grandfather purchasing my family’s first ever computer from the Best Buy in Topeka, Kansas, some 50-odd miles away from where we lived. My mother took two weeks of classes from the local community center and was suddenly armed mightily with knowledge of the Windows 3.1 operating system.

It seemed to be called “Windows” for a good reason. There were always so many of them open at once, like piles of fallen gunmetal leaves. My brother and I would play DOS games through some overly complicated framing program called KidDesk:

I remember it being ugly and bold, with plenty of primary colors and fat icons. Mostly I think we played “The Castle of–“, or alternatively “The Island of”, “–Dr. Brain.”

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That’s the stuff.

But what most shocked and overjoyed me about the presence of the new computer and my mother’s expertise was her promise that she could print and make my own books.

So I suppose I went with a subject I was familiar with:

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I was 5. I’d pace back and forth and dictate aloud to my mother, then would produce for each page in MS Paint choppy illustrations composed of black straight lines, ovals, and rectangles sometimes filled in with color in places.

Telling the story seemed easy. I was just playing Pretend.

Make it Happen: Part II

  • Characters

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  • Black Lash

The Black Lash. I came up with him back when I discovered the “Urban ranger” was a thing. Everyone likes Aragorn, son of Arathorn, right? All sexy and strong and cool and bowy and swordy. Rangers are supposed to be sneaky and foresty, too, so the idea of an “urban ranger” totally gave me that all-powerful creative spark. Isn’t that what we all pine for?

The core of the idea is the dual identity. He’s pulpy as hell, so much of that should be familiar territory. He has a whip and domino mask, cloak and cowl and lashing along rooftops, swashbuckling enemies. Definitely someone I could develop into a serial hero.

But I think it might be cool if he wasn’t the protagonist. Or maybe I could focus on him in a single one shot. Kinda like that Abnett & Lanning issue of Guardians where they just focus on Drax. Get inside his head.

But Batman comics are about Batman, right? Everyone likes Batman. And he’s the coolest thing in Gotham.

But is he though? I’ve always said that a good superhero has the best villains. Batman easily has one of the greatest rogue galleries in comics history. That’s one of the exciting parts of mysterious rogue galleries. The reader guessing “Whodunit this time?” Sort of the  Carmen Sandiago style of storytelling.

Like the opposite, for example, in Iron Man. Until RDJ made him funny, Tony Stark was boring as hell. And Iron Man villains? Even worse. “The Unicorn.” “The Melter”, who’s got a gun. That melts. Mostly he just fought communists. Even his so-called arch-nemesis is basically the Fu Manchu. I shouldn’t be so hard on Iron Man.

Everyone gets a second chance. I mean Daredevil was basically a low rent Spider-man. And DD fought Stilt-Man for God’s sake. But then Frank Miller got a hold of him, and basically turned him into a red ninja Batman.

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Losing my train of thought here.

The idea is what other characters could I have. Especially female ones that A. aren’t sexualized B. don’t necessarily use violence as their main method of problem solving.

First to (A). Particularly in fantasy fiction, there really seem to be two kinds of female characters: those that are hyper-sexed and those that have zero sex about them. The zero characters are either mommy Madonnas, ingenue innocents or sexless crones. The hyper-sexed are anything from seductive demons, enchantresses, or the painful Strong Female Character, whose thirst for masculine violence is usually only matched by their the size of their wobbling tits and g-stringed buttchecks.

The Strong Female Character is basically just a Male Power Fantasy combined with a sexual image intended for the male gaze. Violence is typically the main problem solving method of men, so the goal would been then to create a female character with power and agency that exists independently of the patriarchy.

So, I’m currently thinking about a conning, vaguely-feral little thief girl.

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  • Conning, Vaguely-Feral Little Thief Girl

Not “cunning” might you. Though that too. But I really mean like “taking part in con artistry.” I want a smart, morally-grey young girl who doesn’t specifically use violence to solve her problems. Not specifically because she’s a pacifist. But I’m looking for someone who’s more creative in deliberating obstacles.

You have no idea how long it took to try and find a picture that didn’t just made me sad. TnA is as big a part of pulp as Swords meeting Sandals. It’s been its legacy since the very beginning:

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Ah, yes. The Leg Cling. Don’t take my word for it. (WARNING: CONTAINS TVTROPES LINK. IT COULD POSSIBLY TAKE HOURS FROM YOU IN FASCINATING READING.) It worries me that some of my favorite styles of media (noir, superhero, pulp etc) employ some of the regressive social depictions around, particularly those of women. But like poor DD being reinvented, I just need to remind myself that these forms of media aren’t inherently misogynist, even in vastly more dangerous implicit ways. I’ll be aware and just do it the right way.

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  • Scary Invincible Knight Hunter Guy

Another archetype I’ve always enjoyed is the righteous villain. He sure as shit does what he believes to be right. And that’s scary. You can make them heroes, even as their actions become more and more evil. Where can you draw a moral line? What can and cannot be justified? An effective villain simply opposes the goals of the protagonist. But the story could just as easily be theirs.

I’ve already discussed a big spooky theocracy that runs Baslika. I came up with some cool names for things too, I thought. “The Glorious Hierarchy of Martyrs” sounds lofty and titanic enough. I’m looking for naming conventions that invoke the age, authority, and stuffiness of a cathedral. Theocracies also fascinate me since it is seemingly so easy for nationalism to resemble religion. Citizens and propaganda so often cement the righteousness of their existence through mythologizing its founding and the historical figures that did so. Legitimizing the authority of the state is done through a hierarchy of divine logic: laws of humanity are, in fact, the laws of God. Theocracies just cut right to the chase and say they’re doing the Word of the divine.

Then you gotta have a BIg Bad Boss, or at least the figure of one, so I have “the enigmatic Hierarch”, and then just as much as I like bad guys, I like elite groups of bad guys. “The Godhead” seems like an excellent name for some creepy league of powerful cardinals. I want to be flexible for what these guys will want/mean.

  • The Black Sect

Who doesn’t like leagues of assassins! Seriously though. What is sexier than that. Not sure what part they’d have. Largely, you’d think they’d be mercenary in nature. Hired to do the bidding of dark plots. But what I don’t want is for them to be too visible, too expendable, or too cool and sympathetic.

Make it Happen

Well here I am again.

Am I scared? I think I’m scared of failure. Self-sabotaging any way I can. Ignoring how fucking good I am at this.

Comics. Writing comics. What should I/could I do?

Could I? Anything. That’s the bottom line. I’ve tried to do genre breakdowns again and again. Countless times over the years. Hoping to get inspired.

Seem impossible to “get inspired” just by staring at a computer screen. Sitting with a notebook and pen in hand.

What ideas do I have so far.

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  • Basilika

Dark, gothic city. Kinda medieval. I could be happy there, telling stories. Lots of alchemy, cause that opens up the world building. Kinda steampunk, not really, but gears are cool. Cooler than Victorian fashion, anyway. Just the inhumanity or soulessness of machinery. Potentially lovely metaphor.

I got a secret society of thieves and assassins. “The Black Sect”. Seems like generic, but that’s the sort of thing that’s fun. Sneaking, killing, stealing. Being smart and being quiet. All very enticing.

Then the official government has some manner of religious organization to it. I’m thinking the church just runs things, plain and simple. Monolithic theocracy and fascist bureaucracy certainly seem like peas and carrots to me.

It is too much like The City? Hammerites and all. It’ll probably be fine.

“Focus on making the media you wish existed, but doesn’t.” I can do that.

Make Theatre with Something to Prove

 

Theatre has a bit of a PR problem.

People have a lot of preconceived notions about what it is and what it can do. I would even go so far as to generalize that most people have zero interest in watching plays. Often they imagine something stiff, lifeless and boring. They’d rather spend their $15 on a new Hollywood movie, full of all the lights, sounds and stimulation you could possibly want.

And to be honest, it’s really hard to blame them.

I come from a different background, but I am still frustrated by what I see. It’s sad to see the same faces in every crowd, at every play. This goes for the actors, yes, but mainly for the audiences. And it’s sad to see so much theatre that just isn’t any good.

The problem for the general public is exposure. Why don’t people want to see plays? Well, probably because they’ve never seen a play, or whatever idea they have of a play does not appeal to them.

It’s easy to consume television or movies causally. Their omnipresence makes it possible. Not so with theatre.

Any popular art that can equally be consumed as entertainment — that is, novels, comic books, television, movies, even video games — has a percentage breakdown of terrible, passable, okay, good or great works. Currently, that can extend to anything aesthetic, but it’s easiest to see in anything produced in an industry largely based around making money.

It’s cynical, but it’s the nature of the beast: most of these products will be bad or average. Few will be good. Fewer still will be truly inspired.

So where does it start? You begin dealing with the uncertain, unadventurous mind of the average person.

“It’s not my style,” you might hear. The appeal isn’t there because people don’t know there is something there to be appealing.

Perhaps more children should be taken to plays to learn it can be exhilarating or engrossing.

I like to be an idealist. It’s like being an optimist, but with more specifics in mind. I have seen and produced theatre I believe can do unique things for the performer and the audience, adding effects and questions that other storytelling mediums cannot.

I know I am not the only person frustrated by lack of interest or low ticket sales in the grand scheme of things. If you want more people to see your plays, make better plays. It starts there.

Theatres need to keep in mind that the vast majority of people aren’t going to give a dainty discharge if a play is a rough-and-racy David Mamet, a classic Eugene O’Neil or even the Reefer Madness Musical. It’s all going to sound like stuffy Shakespeare or bland, safe Neil Simon to them.

The fault is not in our stars, but in ourselves. The real audience to attract is not the fraction of the populous who are pleased by whatever they see, regardless of the play or its quality, but to the masses to whom sitting down for something alive and made in light before them would never occur to them.

If you’re not making theatre like you have something to prove, well, there’s something wrong. Theater definitely has something to prove — to the masses, to itself and to you. It may, sadly, come to begging.

Sorry for that in advance.

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The Single Greatest Thing in the World

Dungeons and Dragons.

You’ve probably heard that name before. But what is it? Could you describe it?

More than likely, you summon the stock image of fat, sweaty neckbeards sitting in a basement together.

But what are they actually doing down there?

There are a few names for it. “Pen-and-paper role playing game.” Maybe “Tabletop role playing game,” or “The Single Greatest Thing in the World.”

That’s right. You read that right. The best thing ever. Sex and heroin can blow.

Imagine your absolute favorite movie, book, play, TV show, comic book — anything.

Often it’s easy to get wrapped up in the emotion, in the characters, the drama and interactions. The emotional involvement and pure satisfaction of playing in a story that you create for yourself, and inhabit plus explore, is beyond astounding.

It’s pure, literal magic. And it’s all imagined in your goddamn head.

PnP works like this:

The people in the game play as one character each; Lord of the Rings is always a good metaphor, since Tolkien Mania is where this whole thing began.

One person would play Gimli, another person plays Legolas, another would play Aragorn, etc. Player characters (PCs), out loud, either, A) describe what they’re doing, or B) speak as their characters.

More on that in a bit.

One person manages the game. This is usually called “the Dungeon Master” (DM) or “Game Master” (GM). In other systems, however, it’s called more essentially as it is: the Storyteller.

The DM plays everyone else in the world the players inhabit. She verbally describes the world the PCs see and interact with; it goes something like this:

DM: “You’re all standing in a room of made of dark stone, 20 foot by 20 foot. It’s only illuminated by candles, and you can hear faint chanting coming from the other side of a large oak door. What do you do?”

Then the PCs say, individually, what their characters do. One person might say, “I listen at the door to the chanting. What do I hear?”

Another might say, “I’m going to examine the candles a little more closely.” Another might say something as their character to another: “Please, my friends. Let us search for a secret way in. I do not like the smell of this place … ”

I could write about the phrase “What do you do?” for pages and pages — about its utter power and importance to narrative and agency. For now, I’ll let it stew there, fallow and foreboding.

That’s basically all there is to it.

It’s a structured imagination game. It’s playing “pretend,” like when you were a kid.

Only now, there is an ultimate arbiter of reality in the form of the orating DM, and you have dice with a silly number of sides to prevent that inevitable snotnose from saying, “Nuh uh! You didn’t shoot me! I had my force field on!”

There are many more role playing games than just D&D. Every game system is different, and that comes from how the numbers actualize a person’s skills in one way or another (you might roll one die if you’re strong, two dice if you’re buff, or perhaps three dice if you’re superhuman), but it also effects the setting.

Some games might be Tolkien-riding high fantasy, with gold and glory; another might be a dystopian cyberpunk future like “Bladerunner,” or planet-hopping in a “Dune”-like space opera.

Another game you might enjoy an ancient scheme of plotting vampires, or a Hong Kong kung fu detective, with slick noir and pistols akimbo. Maybe the game is so much like our world, you’d think it was, if not for the sleeping horrors lying in wait to strike and feed at last.

So why is it so amazing?

In your favorite movie, you probably have a favorite character. Someone who’s just the coolest, or the most fascinating or real. In PnP, you get to create someone, anyone. The game helps you along with structure and suggestions, but this person’s history, identity, strengths, weaknesses and name are all created by you.

Every other person sitting around the table has done the exact same thing. You’re personally invested in the character you have made, just as much as everyone else. Together, these characters get to inhabit a story and an entire world created, in turn, by the DM.

So when you think about your favorite movie, and the way each character acts and changes the story and interacts with the other characters to create those exciting, dramatic, hilarious, amazing moments you watch and love, it’s all the more powerful when you’re right there in the moment, caring about your character in a story you can discover and change with your own agency and passion.

Dungeons and Dragons: It’s better than sex.

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