Archive for August 4, 2019

From Rope, everything after is known…

© 2019 G.N. Jacobs

The King will return. Azor Ahai will appear to lead Westeros against the Others. A prediction uttered by a crazy professor of Augury leads to an ill-fated black bag job at the Ministry of Magic. Writers, especially fantasy writers just love using a prophecy as a narrative tool, but handled correctly I suppose any writer has this particular iron in their golf bag.

Prophecy comes to us from a similar Greek word that originally meant “the gift of interpreting the will of God.” Spell it with a C, it’s a noun. Spell it with an S and it’s the verb. Stories of gods, monsters and magic all trade on someone more divinely powerful than the protagonist imparting hints, riddles and sometimes outright directions to guide the results.

Sometimes this is to get through maybe three chapters ahead in the story. Other times, yep, the writer gave away cryptic hints about the ending because what happens is less important than how we get there. Prophecy as a tool should be thought of as a part of the larger field of providing foreshadowing to guide the reader/listener’s interest in the story.

Foreshadowing in its many forms services the toe dance all writers play with their audience. We want to know what’s coming next but not really. We try to predict the course of the story, but still want surprises.

The best theories on storytelling assume that we told the same stories around the same campfires. The same fella sitting under the cave bear painting heckled the story in the same way to gain more of an endorphin hit from hearing this new version of the tale. The writer/teller gets over his exasperation and feeds more excitement by giving them what they want.

One element so added to narrative was foreshadowing. Give clues to what happens next. Engage those ears for a few minutes longer. The practice takes many forms.

Anton Chekhov famously asserted – “a gun on the wall in the First Act will come down off the wall and be fired in the Third Act.” This kind of subtle foreshadowing trades on set dressing and a basic knowledge of human behavior. We’re douchebags; we shoot and stab each other at dinner.

One feature of drama is that editing happens to turn real life into digestible bits of narrative where something always happens. So gun on the wall must be fired means that because you’re seeing the play/movie or God forbid reading the actual book, the writer has edited out all the times Grandpa’s Winchester 70 just sat on the wall. It waits for the passions of the family to reach that fevered pitch dredging up every fight over Barbies or Matchbox cars. It waits for the truth about Uncle Steve or worse. It waits for this family to get robbed.

The writer assumes that the consumer fully understands the powerful symbol the gun on the wall represents and will insist on seeing it on the wall in the First Act as foreshadowing. Not seeing the weapon might leave the consumer confused – “What? They build up to this big old yelling match about Uncle Steve and, okay, the scumbag got shot, but where the hell did the gun that killed him come from?”

Of course, Gun on the Wall could mean anything established in the background. Grandpa’s ashes on the mantle and the almost union-mandated Use the Urn to Bash Somebody Over the Head scene (I’ll have to check, but I really hope Roger Ebert covered this in his list of clichés). You get the idea that for this type of foreshadowing everything relevant to the end of the story must be established in the space of the story at the beginning.

Alfred Hitchcock found another usage of foreshadowing in nearly all of his movies. Because he was after suspense instead of shock, he always wanted the audience to be well ahead of the characters. The two killers in Rope start by killing someone and then hiding the body in a box on the verge of a dinner party discussing what they did, why and that they’ll dispose of the body after the party. The audience knows from jump what’s what and each time Jimmy Stewart playing a detective clearly inspired by Crime and Punishment gets too close to the body or something the killers want hidden, we cringe.

Horror movies trade on both shock and suspense in the same fashion. We see Michael Myers in the house. We shout – “No, don’t go in there!” Is he in the kitchen? No. Is he in the master closet watching the dead teens walking have sex? Maybe. Is he waiting in the closet under the stairs for the teens to think it’s all over and put on their clothes? Eventually – BOO! The build up is suspense. The payoff is shock. Both are driven by the basic foreshadowing of letting us see Michael enter the house…or not.

Shakespeare driven largely by the needs of his medium typically just had the main character tell the audience in a soliloquy – “Now is the winter of our discontent…” – what would happen next. Iago told the back row about taking down Othello. A form of foreshadowing because everything pays off and we still went for the ride.

Another bit of foreshadowing that I really like…the equipping scene between James Bond and Q. In every movie, Major Boothroyd gives Bond exactly what he needs to survive the movie. A briefcase loaded with throwing knife, 50 gold sovereigns, 50 .25 caliber bullets (the chambering for the AR-7 survival rifle packed in the case) and a teargas canister, what happens? Everything needed to kill off a Bulgarian killer and, more importantly, Donald Grant.

How does Q know what Bond needs? Okay, the equipping scene usually takes place after the Bond Gets his Orders scene with M. We do have such things as intercoms and inter-office email where M has Moneypenny call down and tell Q where Bond might be going. So sending Bond to go meet an oil heiress in the Baku/Azerbaijan/Caspian Sea/Black Sea region, we can say that Q looked at the map and saw mountains with snow in them within driving distance. So the avalanche jacket could make a little sense.

Later in the series, they stopped using this scene to do anything with the watch. Bond just pulls out his timepiece and it has exactly what’s needed to get out. A wad of C-4 for the grating in the Moonraker launch base. A laser for the floor of the armored train in Goldeneye. A magnet and rope cutter in Live and Let Die. Presumably, the Q-Branch takes after action surveys as part of the job to refine what operatives need next.

Speaking from the writing/meta view of this scene, much of the trope of getting exactly what the story requires has much to do with that, again, writers edit out all gadgets that aren’t relevant. So he’s going to the mountains and needs the avalanche jacket, but what about the space in his luggage for the parachute jacket? Bond did get mugged on an airplane once. So even with the semi-plausible in-narrative reasons for Bond having exactly the gear he needs, it still feels like Q is a laser focused prophet.

A good segue back to the prophecy section of this treatise on the various forms of foreshadowing. The reader wants to know a few hints as to how it all going to come out, but not to have the full blueprints. Isildur’s heir has been promised to come back one day. Gondor will be alright…eventually.

I suspect that in addition to the usual reasons for prophecy as foreshadowing that in a literary sense the promise from the gods of this story (the writer in the meta sense) has a way of keeping the reader in the game. The black moments in some of these stories are really black and we might put the book down.

“Close the book, Da, I don’t want to read any more…” – so says Sam to Frodo during the single most suspenseful part of the story, two hobbits dressed as orcs marching around Mordor trying not to look like hobbits asking directions to Mt. Doom. It all looks lost. We don’t believe the Dress Like the Enemy to Infiltrate the Base trope whether delivered in the spy novel or The Lord of the Rings.

But, Tolkien is as tricksy-tricksy as Gollum. Throughout the preceding narrative he peppers in poetic references to the Sword Reforged coming from ancient sources that might have a phone line to the in-narrative higher powers of Middle Earth. The folks that sent the Wizards to do the dirty work of cleaning up Sauron, just the latest Great Evil to afflict the world of men. So if the reader puts down the book, he/she never gets to see how the foreshadowing pays off.

Because prophecy has the specific purpose of interpreting the will of God all prophecies, whether literary or theological, must payoff. We can think of Gun on the Wall as something that nearly always pays off because of a combination of writerly concision – “if we don’t need it, we don’t establish it” – and giving the reader the hooks to play our guessing games with the story. Prophecy is something that either comes true because gods/universe are never wrong or gets relegated to the realm of instructive metaphor.

Tolkien and his contemporary, C.S. Lewis, instinctively drew from many sources for prophecy. Most were stories once deemed theological in nature. The big one, the Christian Bible, still is. And the Greeks couldn’t tell a story without some form of divine prophecy.

Cassandra had the gift, no one believed her because the gods hated her. Instant tragedy. Agamemnon sacrifices his daughter for fair winds to Troy, a different part of the same instant tragedy. Odysseus travels all the way to Hades to ask blind Tiresias for the checklist needed to make nice with Poseidon (you can’t live on an island and have the Sea God as an enemy) and make it home. And if I had a dollar for every time Athena borrowed various Olympians’ toys to help a hero get through the movie (maybe she should have a job in Q-Branch?)…well we always want more money.

And now inevitably…the Bible. Depending on how atheist or pagan you feel, either God or the many writers of the book had 1,300 years to work out the story. The whole point is Jesus and the crappiness of how we treat each other that is why God made Flesh has to come back. We need Hope…the one thing Pandora held onto.

The Bible uses short term prophecy in the form of a prophet walking into a throne room and promising dire consequences unless certain demands are met. After the first deal between Moses and Ramses about setting the Hebrews free, this was mostly about God getting pissed at how far the Hebrews and later Jews strayed from the covenant and sending in his latest version of Gandalf. Typically, God makes everything promised happen within two weeks. Gods are never wrong.

The Bible also uses a much deeper highly integrated form of prophecy. Everything leads to Jesus coming the first time to set our redemption in motion. And then he comes back at the end to reward the righteous. Hope on a half shell.

Various books in the Old Testament promise a messiah. Books the Jews of the historical Jesus’ time knew all of this predictive Scripture. Jesus as written in the book certainly acted and spoke in such a way to make it clear that – “here I am.” Then as now, either you accept that God knows how to tell a story and keeps his promises or you go looking for the wires that made things happen. It’s not the purpose of this post to pick a side; I’m neither your pastor nor your secular logic counselor.

This is the tradition of prophecy in our literature that Tolkien, Lewis and everyone coming after, including G.R.R. Martin, tap into. Middle Earth, Narnia and Westeros exist as seemingly whole reflections of our own world. These imaginary places have the kind of history that includes cranks, lunatics and dreamers spouting off about all the things God said. When they finally come true the story ends…

© 2019 G.N. Jacobs

The Hoop, a habitat ring more or less near modern Manhattan apparently placed between the high and low tide marks in New York Harbor. An enclosed society, much like a space station, struggling to provide basic services. Riots and other types of sturm und drang are daily occurrences likely to make shopping for groceries an adventure. Into this maelstrom we hurl 18-year-old Halo Jones depicted going to the store with friends depicting her last 36 hours in the Hoop.

A lot of bold emphatics…

Writer Alan Moore and artist Ian Gibson thus propel the reader into a dystopian far future adventure driven by an everywoman, just getting by luck to still have skin on her fingers. Created in the middle-80s with The Watchmen and V For Vendetta still ahead for Mr. Moore, we see in this day-in-the-life story the beginnings of why the average comic book fan gets a weird look when the nerd fight at the register turns to Alan Moore. Though I do try to keep my scorn, derision and slight regard at how the lack of an independent editor allowed the even more recent Promethea to go so completely off the rails out of the discussion.

The management of this blog apologizes for this unwarranted attack upon the review of The Ballad of Halo Jones Volume One – SPLAT! – by the currently imaginary review of Promethea. Steps were taken behind my back and retroactively approved.

Moore and Gibson cleverly use Halo’s last day and a half in the Hoop, divided between catching a friend’s concert and an epic shopping expedition, to give us a tour of dystopia rendered on the half shell. Riots are common. High tides that force closure of ring sections to prevent flex damage happen twice a day. And don’t get Halo started on the spotty and inconsistent public transport. All of the above must be taken into account just going to the store, an expedition that might have given Leif Erickson cause to hand over the horned Viking helmet.

In the hands of any other creative team the narrative in this volume would be truncated into five minutes of backstory highlights while telling us the story of the next volume. Quickly show us the tragic murder of Brinna, Halo’s nebulously defined maternal figure. Quickly show us Halo parting at the ramp to the antique space liner, Clara Pansy, promising to meet her friend, Rodice, on the nearest off-world port before boarding with Toby, the Robo-Dog. Can you say Casablanca?

Moore and Gibson bend considerable skill towards turning backstory into story. Simply by making shopping seem like the reader’s choice of setting sail for the New World or sacking Lindesflarne, the first time. And making sure that Rodice, born and bred in the Hoop, is as agoraphobic as they come.

It’s Halo’s nature as the everywoman who spends more time getting beat up in riots between panels and running away from all other trouble that makes this story. A Class Five astronavigatrix like Barbarella pretty much vaporizes whole swaths of Hoop society and then gets laid. Ooh! The crossover fan fiction, oh never mind…these ladies don’t belong in the same quadrant let alone a shared story.

Initially created for British publisher 2000AD’s model of weekly anthologies that only needed five pages at a time from each story presented, the story builds like a TV season or newspaper strip. As part of the build it takes a few installments for Halo to come out from Rodice’s fairly large shadow as the protagonist with her name on the marquee. It’s purely a matter of taste to argue if this process happens soon enough for the reader, I thought “move it up a couple sections.” But, this is just a feeling based on theory that doesn’t really affect the read.

Certainly, Halo cements her status when she makes use of Rodice’s dropping a zenade (zen grenade) trying to avoid going outside. After that it’s the Halo show. Will she survive long enough to sign aboard the Clara Pandy?

Moore and Gibson working together created this world. Complete with a slang and speech patterns that feel like the best possible guess as to what English may sound like in the far future of about five thousand years. Taken with a caveat, this dialogue feels natural to the character and story.

The caveat leads me to the single most glaring peeve reading this volume, the lettering. As in I joked to the friend that suggested the Halo Jones series to me, that I wanted to borrow his real cardboard tube (a mighty weapon of renown) and his imaginary time machine (a long-standing in-joke) to go back to make my displeasure felt through the decades.

Possibly, it’s the pad size in the reprinted collection I read. Perhaps the size of the lettering relative to the image size was always a trick by the publisher to weed out reviewers with middle aged eyes in desperate need of a magnifying lens. Luckily my similar complaints about Barbarella, started before and completed after, have already caused me to bite the bullet and buy a lens. NYAH-NYAH!

Anyway, there are three classes of text all of which annoyed me to one degree or another. The regular non-bold prose lettering came in slightly small but still readable to my naked eye. There are a few passages of Halo starting a journal while trapped in the Hoop’s subway on the way home, rendered in a really tiny font in pink caption boxes. Less eye friendly, but still barely acceptable. And lastly, we have the profusion of bold emphatic words…ironically the real reason to use a lens.

I mentioned liking the slang and dialogue in this book…with a caveat. Most of the new words in this story are rendered as a bold emphatic (italics in Roman and similar fonts, underlined in typewritten fonts like Courier and bold in hand lettered comic books). But, the letterer earns most of my condemnation for how bold words were handled: blobby, mushy and next to impossible to read without a lens (see representative picture above).

I do get to land much of my hating the lettering back in Mr. Moore’s lap as the writer. Bold text in a comic book functions like the many other ways in other media to represent emphasis for irony, sarcasm, and any strong emotion where an All Caps shout isn’t appropriate. Fortunately comics books have other ways to depict thought and telepathy. Emphatics have a way of tricking the reader into applying mental stress sounds to the words on the page, so with this many bolds on the page I’m sure I’m imagining Halo’s speech patterns all wrong.

What is on the page in the average speech balloon, tricked me into reading these words with way too much emphasis and a crap not well thought out singsong that doesn’t even sound to me like English, even future English. I likened the read to experiencing an alley rumble between iambic pentameter and trochaic tetrameter without the benefit of a skilled fight coordinator to make things blend well. Speaking of alley rumbles, cue the angry tomcats.

And I get to level this criticism at Mr. Moore over this because, I can tell you that every italic or underline in any of my own scripts and manuscripts I did as an intentional act. This means that while the letterer might have been horrible, he/she/they went from Mr. Moore’s script. So my caveat for enjoying Halo’s slang and other dialogue is the reader might want to do the internal mental gymnastics to remove the bold letters and let her say the words with a normal tone of voice.

Moving on, Mr. Gibson as the artist and co-creator really helps the story. It’s a true art form to tell stories in sequential art and wow! I may have bought my magnifying lens for that other space heroine’s comic book and used it here. The difference between the reads is that here I didn’t need the lens for anything related to the art and Barbarella has both tiny lettering and small harder to see panels.

At no time with Mr. Gibson’s work did I ever lose track of Halo, Toby or Rodice. At no time did I go back to look at a previous panel to make sure I grokked. I remained fully within the dark clammy and terrifying world of the Hoop, where Halo seems the seconds away from the next mugging. And I suppose I lack the vocabulary to keep going on.

As awesome as I think Mr. Gibson’s pencils and inks were in the original black and white comics, we must acknowledge the coloring done long after the fact by Barbara Nosenzo. And now we’re cooking with gas. She imbues the already dark world of the Hoop with variations of dark greens, blues, murky grays highlighted by highly intentional uses of brighter colors in better lighting. Yeah, I’ll be checking out her other work.

To recap about The Ballad of Halo Jones Volume One, I see why people like and/or love the book. A great character to act as counterpoint to Barbarella at one end and Sarah Connor at the other. A well-plotted narrative that raises shopping to the level of a Viking raid on Sussex or even Newfoundland. I love the art and the later coloring. Ah, if we just could’ve fit an anti-bark shock collar to Alan Moore during the writing and hired anyone else to letter, the differences between a merely great comic book and the kind of book that…