The Art of the Embrace

My brain’s been looping back around to the screen-shown production of Merrily We Roll Along again. Which I suppose could just be interpreted as my own obsessiveness, but which I prefer to think is a good sign about the meat for chewing in the show.

In any case, I spent a fair chunk of the show noticing how physically close Frank (Mark Umbers) and Charley (Damian Humbley) are. The forceful hugs, one man holding the face of the other, heads on shoulders. And because my brain goes there, I added in Charley’s nearly-invisible wife and Frank’s clear inability to stay with a wife, and part of me started finding subtext and wondering about it.

Of course, a lot of Frank’s physical intimacy / comfort with Charley happens with Mary (Jenna Russell) just as often. There’s specifically this bit Mark Umbers does with both Humbley and Russell, where he hugs the other from behind and rests his chin on his / her shoulder. We see it in the context of Frank / Mary first, but later with Frank / Charley. And while my memory may be fuzzy, I don’t believe we ever see it with Frank and his first or second wife. It’s this very close, intimate physicality. It speaks of comfort and connection and I totally understand where Mary could turn that into romantic feelings for Frank.

And I accept that. I feel heartbreak for Mary during Frank’s first wedding, when it’s clear Frank isn’t on the same romantic track. What they have is … something else. So, I think it’s fair to turn that around and–much as I might have slash tendencies in my reading–acknowledge that Frank’s physical intimacy and comfort with Charley may be much the same.

It does, however, point up something I find really interesting about the ways that physical and emotional human interaction interconnect.

Look, I’m the last person to say anyone should put away the gay (or bi, or any of the other letters in the ever-expanding acronym of “alternate lifestyles”1), whether in text or subtext. This isn’t about that specifically, but about the kind of shorthand we use to express them.

Intimacy is often expressed by physical proximity. The more intimate, the more physically close. And using that specific spectrum, sexual intimacy is the pinnacle of emotional intimacy.

Only, of course, we know that’s not true. Sometimes sex is sex, and it doesn’t matter how often you have it; in the end you’re no closer to your partner(s) than before bodily fluids got involved.

So of course, it seems reasonable to assume the opposite. That there are people who are emotionally intimate on a level of which romantic partners might be forever jealous, but who nonetheless aren’t romantically or sexually linked. Their intimacy isn’t about that.

In the case of Frank and Charley, I think that ultimately boils down to their writing partnership. Their intimacy is deep and abiding, and is expressed in a physical proximity which might suggest romance out of context, but which in context is about the fact that their writing partnership2 leaves them wrapped up in each other, emotionally intimate in that way which is so often associated with romance, but which is something else altogether.

It’s why, too, Mary-the-writer is a part of this intimate threesome, I think, and how she gets wrapped up in it. It’s art-as-romance, I suppose. Or maybe the other way around. Or possibly just tangled up every which way. In any case, if I’m cheer-leading for relationship diversity, then, I’m not sure that I can really complain about the results.

1. Just wanted to clarify: the scare quotes are meant to cast aspersions on the way that phrase other-izes people by classifying them as both not-normal and suggesting that sexual preference or gender identity are styles at all. It’s not meant to suggest anything about the folks who fall into what is a questionably-named category.
2. It seems unlikely “Musical Husbands” was chosen by accident as the title of the Frank / Charley musical-within-a-musical. That observation in and of itself is probably obvious, but since when has that stopped me?

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Uncomfortable Synchronicity and Awkward Metaphors

Maybe there aren’t coincidences, but it certainly seemed an odd bit of synchronicity that two non-linked (in the way of the internet link, that is) things happened nearly on top of each other during my online time wasting t’other day.

First, via Gail Simone’s twitter, came Lily Tsui’s excellent list titled “Signs You’re a Shitty White Ally.” It starts with “reverse racism” and only gets better from there. It’ll take you maybe two minutes to read it, so do yourself a favor and take that time.

Second, a friend posted a link to a Tumblr reblog of a great post calling out blackface Halloweening in 2013, Trayvon Martin gags, and the disparaging a young, African-American girl:

There’s no question that the three of them are racists, but Caitlin disgusted me by taking an unconsented picture of somebody else’s little girl, somebody else’s child, and using them as the target of racism for a facebook status. I’m including that too because how nasty do you have to be? As if the Halloween photos don’t answer that question.

Let me add that this stuff right here, EVERYBODY, is the reason you can’t darken your skin to portray a Black person. Because this is used to dehumanize us. Whether you intend to or not, you are perpetrating Blackface.

IT. IS. RACIST.

I was saddened by the fact that some of the comments on my own friend’s Facebook share turned to the title of the Tumblr which reblogged it: “White People Said What?”1 Namely, assertions that said title was in and of itself racist. This, as you may expect, reminded me of that first list about allies. I thought about trying to comment on Facebook, but I really like using way too many words for anything that could be considered a comment. On the other hand: that’s what blogs are for.

Fair-ish warning: I’m going to get things wrong here for whatever value wrong has in this kind of discussion. I’m going to make someone(s) uncomfortable, or just pissed off. I kind of feel like it’s objectively impossible for that not to happen. First: I kind of think that makes some of the point. Because second: if it were easy to make a happy-fun post and the world would instantly transform, someone already would have done it.

So, then. I can understand some of the defensiveness about that blog title. It’s uncomfortable to be lumped in with individuals who are participating in behavior you find loathsome, which makes your skin crawl and which you would never condone. I imagine it’s a bit like having people assume you’re a criminal based on the color of your skin, though only insofar as having a case of poison ivy is like contracting a flesh-eating virus.

Seriously, if the price of pointing out the kind of offensive mindset which continues to crop up, which is most virulently symptomatic of unrestrained privilege, is that I get lumped in with a few assholes, I think that’s maybe worth having the chance to call out the assholes. I’d rather get a bit of splash back in the pursuit of educating away this kind of thinking than just let it fester in order to keep my own face clean.

To put it another way: we can discuss the efficacy of argument, and putting one’s audience at ease and all, but while we’re doing that we seem to be not spending time talking about the fact there’s still blackface in 2013. Cart and horse; order matters. But that’s kind of how white privilege works, which is why we have to keep talking about it.

The American / Western default is still built from the straight, white male, and moves undeniably downward from there. When I say someone is “a normal person,” most people who are being honest, who aren’t actively attempting to subvert instincts2, picture a white man. Not because white men are more “normal” than other people, or because they’re superior, but because that’s how society is built right now. From there, you can swap out genitalia by adding a gendered pronoun to the phrase, or attach a different ethnic heritage via extra adjectives, but our current boilerplate for modifications is still White Guy.

Intervention analogies aren’t out of place here: admitting the problem has to be the first step. In this case, the problem is white privilege. And it is a long, painful slog to trying to even things out so that it isn’t, especially when otherwise open-minded thinkers and compassionate individuals are still struggling with that first step. I think part of that has to do with the splash back I mentioned before. No one, especially folks who consider themselves open-minded thinkers, wants to feel like a racist, and admitting to white privilege can totally feel like that.

But I believe admitting white privilege exists, and that you (or I, or anyone who does) benefit from it in however small an amount doesn’t instantly make you evil. You didn’t build the society you were born into any more than the people who don’t benefit from innate privilege. Also important: It doesn’t instantly-evil your parents or teachers or any other loved ones, because society is bigger than them. Bigger, by and large, than even everyone you know personally. It’s definitely older than anyone you know personally. It’s a colossal, intimidating mass of time and people with which you can’t possibly have interacted directly, but all of which feeds into our now and the atmosphere we navigate.

Which leads me to geek-metaphor as a closer:

We land the embryonic shuttle craft on a world with a toxic atmosphere. We’ve actually been lucky enough to have been genetically modified to thrive in it, however. But the technology was too expensive to use on everyone. We didn’t get it from merit but from lottery. Remember: there’s an artificial colony behind us, where a whole bunch of people who didn’t win the genetic lottery3 have to try to make due with limited survival suits and costly food processing.

Unless, that is, we get our asses in gear and sweat and toil and do the necessary cultural terraforming that will make this place just as much for them as it is for us. It might not be done in our lifetimes. And the process itself will make our adaptations less and less effective. But others are walking out in their suits and chipping away at the problem. It’s better. They can take their helmets off periodically, and there are strains of flora and fauna which don’t actively attack their intestines. But at the end of the day, they still have to go back to that city in a bottle, so there’s still plenty of work to be done, because the stars at night are completely awesome without that murky dome between us and them, and I want everyone to see them.

1. My link is to the original post, because sources, but I can’t seem to find that particular Tumblr any more. The Google cache has the latest post saying “My blogs have been fixed. I’m not deleting any of them,” but Tumblr won’t let me see it. I don’t know if that means the author subsequently removed it, or if Tumblr did, or if it’s something else of the far more benign variety.
2. Which we should be. Absolutely. Again: that’s part of the point. But we can’t subvert it if we keep trying to pretend it doesn’t exist in the first place.
3. And in case it’s not clear: this doesn’t make the winners objectively better, just better suited for living in a single, less-than-benign environment.

Coloring Masks (Not That Kind of Mask)

Amy Reeder’s posted a great look at her personal coloring process:

I’m not an uber-experienced colorist and I have no idea what the standard technique for coloring is—so maybe this is common knowledge—but there’s something new I’ve been trying occasionally when I really want to play with opposing hues as light sources. And I thought I’d share.

The short of it: I create three hue versions of the base color and give each a layer. Then I use layer masks to choose which layer comes through.

I’ve watched a fair number of tutorials, and definitely binge-watched a lot of the videos over at Ctrl+Paint, which is an excellent resource. I vaguely recall mention of the Channel Mixer over there as a tool for helping pull together color schemes. And I knew layer masks were a good way to edit less destructively. But most of the stuff I’ve seen previous to this is about adding colors to a base layer.

This is the first I’m seeing of this very cool, full-colored multi-layers technique, though. I remember reading something about stone carving being about revealing the shape already in stone. This feels a bit like a similar philosophy, as all the potential palettes are there, and the colorist sort of brushes away the layers to find the right mix of them all. Well worth a look and a read for anyone interested in coloring techniques. Or just a kick ass Red Sonja picture.

(via Gail Simone)

New Ways to Fly: On the Hook

Something of a sequel to the original Pan Wanted Promo. Seems only fair:

Wanted: Captain Hook

The base layers are recycled from the other image, obviously. Hook himself is a newer experiment. I got Manga Studio during a crazy-cheap online sale. I’d been reading / hearing in several places that it was great for digital inking, so it seemed worth the low price to give it a try.

Hook here is my first time trying to ink with vector graphics, using MS. It’s not amazeballs, by any means, but I do feel like once I get used to things and figure out what settings work best, it will be nice for line art. I definitely liked being able to tweak lines after I drew them. And the “erase intersection” tool is sweet. I was able to concentrate on trying to draw through / past lines for a bit more smoothness, then I just had to tap the extra line, and poof: gone.

I had some trouble bringing it into Photoshop. At first, every time I tried to re-size, the lines turned into a crazy-jagged mess. Turns out I just didn’t notice the exported image file was in bitmap mode, and I just had to change it to grayscale / color for things to even out.

It’s still a little jagged, but I think that’s probably a mistake I made ‘inking’ at too low a resolution. I’m used to 300 dpi being plenty good for color work, but I think the nature of vector graphics means I may need to use a higher resolution for those.

Or that might be another red herring, but we’ll see. In the meantime, Hook was a fun first go.

(For more information on the show itself, you can check out Manatee Players’ website here.)

Archive: Powerblog: Gift Exchange

(Images from Power Pack #1 and #50.
Art by June Brigman / Bob Wiacek and Jon Bodganove / Hilary Barta, respectively).

Probably one of the better twists in Simonson’s run on Power Pack was the infamous Power Switch. Sure, super-heroes had swapped bodies before, and people with external powers like armors or rings had passed those on, but this was, I think, the first time an entire team swapped abilities, and not just for a single storyline, but for an extended stretch. It was something of a coup by super-hero standards. I mean, could you see DC swapping the entire JLA’s powers for over three years? How about Marvel doing that with the Fantastic Four? When the end of Power Pack #24 announced that things were about to change forever, then, it wasn’t just overblown hype.

One of the most important factors of children’s literature is that children grow. Probably moreso than their adult counterparts, we expect children to change. They grow up, and in doing so both their bodies and their personalities evolve. Simonson understood that, and the power switch was one of the ways in which she explored those changes in a super-hero context.

Consider the original powers with their owners. Alex was a straight-laced analytical thinker; he got the straightforward on-or-off gravity power. Julie was the dreamer; as I’ve said before, flying is the purview of the dreamer. Jack was a stubborn blowhard of a child; shifting between a physically ineffective cloud and a super-dense miniature seems perfectly matched. And Katie? Well, she was a little spoiled and prone to throwing tantrums; a power as volatile as the energy power was tailor-made for her.

In the course of two years and a tick, however, Simonson had done her work in character development. Of course, while the new powers helped point to changes in the children, the changes in the children similarly influenced their use of their new gifts: Alex’s volatile pubescence made the energy power all the more explosive, Julie’s malleable sense of self lead to even more permutations for the density power, Jack’s natural showmanship made gravity dynamic instead of binary, and the kinetic child that was a growing Katie made for an even more frenetic application of flight.

The great thing about the power switch, then, was that it was both a surprising, unexpected hook and the most natural thing in the world. It’s just the sort of thing you’d expect to arise from the unique mesh of super-hero and children’s lit that was Power Pack at its best.

Original version published at Trickle of Consciousness

Finally, Merrily

I’ve listened to songs from Merrily We Roll Along quite a bit. And, like a lot of Sondheim, I love it to pieces. But since no one ever seems to do it (because, as they always point out, it’s never before been much of a commercial success), I’ve only ever had a Wikipedia-style notion about how the show actually works.

T’other night changed that, as my other half and I made it to the local “Merrily On Screen” event, where our local movie theatre showed a performance recorded during the critically-acclaimed West End production which ran last year. I was chomping at the bit to see how Sondheim’s “told backwards” musical actually worked.

Talking about Sondheim shows is usually tricky for me. They are often … rough is probably the best word I have for it. Yes. They aren’t polished and gleaming and smooth. Which is not to say they are not compelling, because they are. In fact, the rough edges may be precisely why they tend to stick in my head and force me to turn them over and examine them. Shiny is pretty, but I don’t need to look at it too long. Rough is full of all those jagged little details that you only really see when you’re right up on a thing.

Merrily We Roll Along falls into that vein. It works backwards through the life of Franklin Shepard and his lifelong friends, Charley Kringas and Mary Flynn. Back from an endpoint which is uncomfortable at best, moving backward through key bits of lives which became very messy, to that moment when the trio first met.

It’s hard to properly organize my own thoughts on the piece. Which I suppose is appropriate, given the premise. Performances that wore on me in the beginning developed into something much different as the actors dialed backward through about two decades. Despite starting “at the end,” the show still has a lot to reveal as it moves backwards, though I’d be lying if I didn’t admit I felt like there were still chucks missing by the time I got all the way to the beginning.

Over and over, we watch the friends (usually instigated by Mary) pulling together in an assertion of their unique and lasting friendship, but most of the points we actually see of said friendship are when it’s threatened in one way or another: by egos, divorces, pregnancies, marriages, career pressures, broken promises. Even as we’re edging to the beginning, in “Opening Doors,” there’s a sense in that number that the friends are falling away from each other.

It feels, then, like seeing what these people were, when they were really that trio, gets sort of skipped over. But then I start looking at it again, and I remember: there, near the beginning of the show, as Mary Flynn sings about how she wants their friendship “Like It Was,” comes a line that might be there to warn me of exactly what I think fell through the cracks, as she sings “That’s what everyone does / Blames the way it is / On the way it was / On the way it never ever was.”

Is that what’s happening here? As we hop backwards, are we finding out that this friendship, these unique three folks bound together, are something else entirely? Are they just a construct they willed into their memories, until no amount of will could overcome the reality of their lives?

Then again, can there really be a moment that “makes” a friendship? That shows us these three people turning into a trio? Or can that only happen when you piece together the parts and see the fight to maintain it, see the regret when it’s lost?

You see? Rough and troubling, and damned if I don’t want to go see it again, or see one of the other versions of the show (it’s been re-tooled on multiple occasions), want to try to get ahold of all the pieces again and natter about them and make it all work.

All that, and I haven’t even talked about the specifics of this production, which are excellent. This is definitely a show that depends on its performers. The central trio of Mark Umbers (Frank), Jenna Russell (Mary), and Damian Humbley (Charley) do an amazing job of filling in all those gaps, intentional or un-. They manage to embody all that in-between which we can’t see in those moments that we can.

If I only get to see this one production, I’ll be quite happy with the quality of this one. But for all those rough edges that cry out for re-examining, I hope it’s not the last.

Deliberate Diversity for the Win

I just finished listening to Kieron Gillen’s recording of the “Comics Are for Everyone” Panel from the Dublin International Comics Expo. As Gillen points out in his intro, it’s a panel on diversity. Appropriately enough, the discussion ranges in a lot of different directions, all of which are worth hearing. Go. Listen.

Me, I’m going to try to focus for now. There were a couple of specific points made which dug into my brain and seemed to fit really nicely. I’m not entirely sure I can differentiate all the voices adequately, especially since it’s the first time I’ve heard most of them speak, so I’ll apologize profusely if I’ve got it wrong.

In any case, I think it’s Paul Cornell who comes out with the notion that being deliberate in one’s diversity choices isn’t something to hide. That, in fact, it’s a necessary component at present to working against one’s innate instincts against same.

And when one of the female creators on the panel (I believe it’s Emma Vieceli, but above-mentioned caveat in place) mentions that, for example, a lot of her fantasy writing when she was young had male protagonists–largely because that’s what the fantasy stories available looked like–I find it hard not to give a hale and hearty hell yes to the notion.

There’s another telling anecdote in the panel pointing out that those folks saying “character X just happens to be gay” in interviews are, in a sense, shutting down discussions of the very diversity they’re putting in their work. It’s there. Not being able to talk about it threatens to make it just as invisible as not having it in the first place.

We aren’t at a point where I can say “The doctor walked into the room” and just as many people reading that picture a black, gay woman (for example) as picture a white, straight man. And we won’t be until there are so many different kinds of folks in stories and images that our brains are as likely to select one of the former as one of the latter.

Let’s be clear: I don’t think your story has to scream and shout “Over here! Diversity!” Honestly, I’d rather it were more subtle than that, because it’s that kind of nuance that helps dig its way under the skin of our preconceived notions. Also: craft. But in order to do that, we have to think about diversity earlier rather than later. We have to consider it actively in order to implement it skillfully. And it was really exciting to hear from creators who are doing just that.

Okay, that’s only the barest scratching at the surface of the full panel, and not nearly as focused as I probably wish it were. I may come back and natter about more, depending on my ambition, but for now, do yourself a favor and listen to the whole thing. It’s absolutely worth it.