Monday, March 14, 2016

Nonsense and Sensibility

One day I asked for suggestions for a specific kind of webcomic I wanted to read. The requirement was that it had to be set in a world lacking any sort of internal logic. Anything could happen. The first and only suggestion that came forth was The Property of Hate, by Sarah Jolley. Right away I noticed the influences from The Wizard of Oz, Alice in Wonderland and perhaps Mary Poppins -- though I suppose the latter is just my American eyes referencing British things through a narrow lens. From what I've heard, Jolley has said she considers the comic Rice Boy an influence too. The world in that story is rather fantastical as well.

I think there's a possible misstep in The Property of Hate though, and it occurs in the early pages. At one point the apparent viewpoint character named Hero wishes to go home; It is implied however that whatever life she had before was not real. From that realization, Hero goes on in her travels with a companion. After reading this segment I assumed there would be a point in the adventure where this revelation would be teased out further and eventually unfurl as something deeper. Hundreds of pages later, nothing seems to have come of it. What I thought was the beginning of a narrative pull may very well have been just the rational part of my brain taking over. Heck, the title phrase "the property of hate" apparently has no context as of this writing.

To reiterate, I was deliberately seeking a nonsensical story. My goal was to take an existing webcomic continuity and fold it into my own, as a form of fan art. As I implied in my drawing in The Stick Prelude, my own interpretation of the world of The Property of Hate is that it is actually part of a virtual zoo of sentient computer programs. The reason why all the characters look unrelated to each other is that they aren't -- they are individual A.I. culled together from various sources and stored inside a vast network of mainframes. The collectors are powerful beings able to reach across time, space and into other dimensions to grab whatever they want. Why do the beings collect A.I. and slap them together into a zoo? Well, why does anyone collect anything?

This all raised an ethical question regarding the remixing of another person's story. Is it right to apply meaning to a work when the whole point of that work is that it has no meaning? While it may have made The Property of Hate more entertaining for me to do so, it may have cheapened the world that Jolley created. One possible parallel to this is the sequels to the film The Matrix. Like Jolley's work, the first film in The Matrix trilogy takes a page or two out of Wonderland: it even goes so far as to directly reference things like the rabbit hole. The movie then ends with the main character Neo literally saying that anything is possible. The sequels on the other hand stumble when they apply specific background information and rules that don't cohere well.

In the first Matrix film, the Oracle is introduced as an enigmatic entity taking the form of an elderly woman -- "someone's grandmother" the audio commentary specifies. The question of who or what the Oracle actually is was untouched. In the sequels, she and Neo have a discussion breaking down how it all supposedly works. The air of mystery from the first film is dispelled, replaced by explanations of sentient digital life forms. Programs like the Oracle were created for specific purposes in "the machine world", but exiled themselves into the virtual world of the Matrix to avoid deletion. This revelation leads to Neo questioning how he can trust her at all. The answer she gives basically amounts to "I don't know, but you can choose to believe me if you want. Whichever." It appears that being vague was the more entertaining option.

In an apparent attempt to offset problems like this in The Matrix sequels, the filmmakers introduced a slew of characters, settings, and unusual instances that raised new, unanswered questions. Yet these newer elements don't seem like they were meant to be answerable, whereas most of the things in the first film did seem that way. This ultimately lends to the conclusion that the first Matrix film was simply a better movie. I wonder if I'm doing the same thing with The Property of Hate. Am I adding a bottom floor to something that is better off not having one? Perhaps the rabbit hole is supposed to go on forever. Or maybe if you think about things too much, things will cease to make sense regardless.

Tuesday, July 21, 2015

A Shared Universe

With all the new comic book-based movies coming out, I've chatted with peers about my own opinions regarding the Marvel Studios effect. Specifically I'm talking about the idea of a series of films that share continuity, while not actually being direct sequels to each other. Some people believe this is just a ploy to set up crossover films down the line and rake in cash. That might be the motivation from the producers' point of view, but I just happen to like mashups in general. I prefer the Marvel Cinematic Universe (MCU) over Marvel Comics because, at the moment, there seems to be a certain level of quality control in the films. The comics have been around much longer, and characters have been stretched thin and rebooted a bunch of times. It makes it difficult for me to invest in the comic stories the same way that I have in the MCU.

Trailers tend to lie, so I may have to withhold my judgement of stuff like Batman v. Superman. I will say that the trailer seems really crunched in: there are a lot characters and setup for a Justice League movie, when the film should really just focus on, y'know, Batman against Superman. Unlike the MCU, the DC films seem keen on plowing ahead without establishing characters in separate films beforehand. The original Thor, Hulk and Captain America films perhaps don't hold up as well on their own, but they at least let the title characters breathe. Inserting the origin of one character into a film about another character isn't as effective as having two separate origin stories that funnel into a third. Peanut butter and chocolate may taste great together, but the novelty comes from the fact that peanut butter and chocolate were already individual things to begin with.

In general, I love the idea of a shared universe in which individual entries have to adhere to or expand on what already exists. It's a bit mind boggling to think that Pixar has to write a whole new world from scratch for each non-sequel movie, for example. Does each Pixar story have to take half a film to explain how the inanimate or non-sentient entities are now talking characters? Or would it be easier to establish an overarching force that set all the films into motion? I'd like to think the latter would allow more screen time to develop the characters and plot of the individual movies. There's even a wacky theory that all Pixar movies are indeed interconnected. While the supposed connections are humorous, they fail to serve a narrative function the way the MCU does.

My webcomic is currently developing an expanding universe. Each progressing story arc is leading to a huge Avengers-style mashup. This started off mainly as a homage to the concept of shared continuity in general. The more I researched outside webcomics to incorporate into my own, the more amused I was at how well the respective mythologies fit together. The whole idea of a backstory is really just to establish the rules of the world in a way that doesn't interfere with the immediate narrative. I personally would love a slew of webcomics that all pulled from one central toolbox, yet spawned their own stories. The next best thing for me is to just write my own narratives that mash together existing webcomic characters unofficially.

I guess this also ties into my love of mashups and remixes in music. I enjoy re-producing, not simply as a way of celebrating the original artist(s), but rather to present a "what-if" scenario. In an alternate universe where all art is blended together, would Taylor Swift mix seamlessly with Jay-Z? Or what if the Funky Drummer was hired in every studio to record his immortal riff, regardless of genre? Questions like this are why I fire up my workstation.

Sunday, February 1, 2015

How I Met Your Song

Why do I remix? Is it just me putting the source material on a pedestal? Or is remixing itself a distinct art in which the original work is arbitrarily selected? Everything is made out of something that came before, so for someone to point at a remix and say "man, that remixer really likes that thing he remixed" is rather presumptuous. In many cases I would hear a song, whip out my phone and make a note of that song for later remixing. Not necessarily because I enjoy the song on its own, but because I had heard potential for me to add something to it. When the original composer catches word that their work has been remixed, the response is usually surprised elation. Then they ask the question: how did you find out about us?
A while back I remixed a song by Afterbirth Monkey. I created a music video for the remix, and shared it via a Twitter post. They watched the video and eventually asked me how I discovered their work. The short answer is that I saw them at one of their stage gigs, but it goes further than that. A few years back, even. I was invited to attend a chiptune show, which was my first Pulsewave NYC experience. It took place at The Tank; the venue shows up later in this story, because of course the past harmonizes with the present. Incidentally the person who suggested I go to Pulsewave ended up not appearing, but I continued to attend shows on my own long after that invitation. A few tracks from those chip artists would later appear on my show The Duosis Radio Hour.

One of the headliners for Pulsewave was Zen Albatross, who I then added on social media. We've since met a few times at other events, but apparently not enough for me to make a lasting impression. Nevertheless he sent me (and his countless other followers) an invitation to a show he headlined with other acts. These included Uncle Monsterface, a band and creative troupe that impressed me so much that I immediately sought to see them again. The next available opportunity turned out to be a gig in which the group had been temporarily reduced into an act simply called MONSTERFACE. Their performance that night made me realize that even without the visual stage work of the full troupe, the tunes are still good.

During that event I also saw Schaffer the Darklord for the first time. In his case the stage presence and the music are inextricable to me. Even if you hear his songs without seeing him perform, the persona comes through. At this point all the artists I mentioned are on my social media, and are people whose shows I attended. The events I go to only extend as far as the New York City area. Generally I don't see the point of traveling a long distance for huge festivals, especially since seeing many artists all at once would dilute my experience. I would rather have it all come to me in dribs and drabs. A benefit to this is that I can go back and recall the story of how I met a particular song.

Schaffer is a host of Epic Piecast, a monthly podcast I found out about through the aforementioned social media. I was invited to be part of the audience for a live recording of an episode set at The Tank (aha!). Among the things they discussed was Schaffer's then-upcoming album Sick Passenger. Some time after that album came out, I remixed his song "Afraid of Everything" for a Halloween-themed Duosis Radio Hour. My initial idea was to use an excerpt from the Piecast itself regarding the subject of Batman, which would then lead to a Batman mashup of my own creation featuring a Schaffer a cappella. I discarded the concept after failing to find any of his vocal tracks via Google. I later stumbled onto a Twitter exchange that led to me email Schaffer directly for his a cappellas. All of that culminated in my remix of "Afraid of Everything" that I put on my Duosis show, and which later appeared on his compilation Remixed Passenger.

Backtracking a bit, the Epic Piecast also featured some performances by Afterbirth Monkey. I suppose that brings the story near its conclusion. I intended to remix the duo's song "Meryl Streep Is from the Future", which turned out to be rather exhausting task. As far as I can tell the song wasn't recorded to a click track, and therefore drifts in tempo. Another issue remixing it was the fact that the chorus partially jumps over beats and measures, which took a while to get my head around. In the end I had to time-stretch the song in numerous divided segments so that I could apply a constant beat. Somewhat like Uncle Monsterface and Schaffer the Darklord, I would say that Afterbirth Monkey's stage presence is an integral part their act. To convey this I used footage of the duo in my Meryl Streep music video. In particular I made a point to include their "shine, shine, shine" hand gestures. 

My remix ends with the chip sounds of the Super Mario Bros. "game over" jingle, which in retrospect kind of brings the story back to the beginning. My Duosis show allows me to dump out my various remixes, mashups and other transformative work. Doing so satisfies the questions that spurred my productions in the first place. What if I messed with this song I just heard? What would happen if I did such-and-such to this particular sound? What if I remix?