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Ten Years and Counting

Posted 06:00 (GMT) 23rd July 2015 by David J. Bishop

I have a habit of downplaying or accidentally forgetting the arbitrary webcomic milestones I reach, but this one was too big to ignore.

Words can't describe, or at least they can't describe well, the joy, the pride and the tremendous gratitude I feel today. That's because it is ten years today since I started this comic strip, meaning I've been doing this essentially my entire adult life so far plus about three years.

To celebrate, I'm launching a brand new website http://fourthfloorcomics.com!

Thanks, and thanks for ten years of the most fun I've ever had!

 

Taking Care of Business

Posted 06:00 (GMT) 15th July 2014 by David J. Bishop

Hello, everyone. I haven't written anything in this space for a while, so I thought I'd check in.

Comics have continued to materialise here every month, so by now you know I'm not dead. Why haven't I written a blog post recently?

Well, to answer that (and in the interest of accommodating new readers), let me give you a potted history of my blogging adventures.

When the strip first started, I used the blog posts as little diary entries, sharing little things that have happened to me and petty day-to-day annoyances.

Sometimes I would take time to comment on the latest strip (lit. explain the joke).

Then, as time went by, the posts became longer and more opinionated. I started writing reviews of this thing and that -- everything from webcomics to films to TV advertisements to games -- anything that I came across.

Some of these rants were full-blown essays. Together they must make up a novel's-worth of words. Some of them are a novel's-worth of words by themselves.

I'm very proud of some of these. Others are a bit wordy, not because I thought that was good writing at the time but simply because I didn't have time to write them and edit them, because they were so bloody long.

Recently, and especially in the last two years, I've tried to focus my energies on improving the comic -- the quality of the art, the quality of the writing and the frequency of updates.

When these things have all significantly improved, it may be that I will have time for other projects -- and, believe me, a series of essays is a project in its own right -- at which point you might see something else here in this space.

When we get to that point, of course, the first thing you will see here on the blog page is some kind of announcement about a major change to how we do things here on the Fourth Floor. Let's wait and see when that is. I'd love to tell you when that will be but, as Jeff Goldblum will tell you, life finds a way to futz with your plans. So we'll wait and see.

In the meantime, picture me getting up at 4:30am, drawing until it's time to go to work, coming home and drawing until bedtime while 'Taking Care of Business' plays in the background.

If you miss me too much and can't wait to hear from me, you can always start following me on Twitter. I'm on there as my handle-that-never-really-caught-on Ovenready. It seems I can either write 140 characters or 140 million words but nothing in between.

P.S. Do you know it's been a little over a year now since I got married to my best friend and the coolest person I know (same person). That might not directly affect you, but if you're a fan of the comic then you owe my wife a debt of thanks -- without her there would be no comic. If you think I'm exaggerating, I'm not.

Romantic Comedies vs. Chick Flicks

Posted 20:00 (GMT) 15th October 2013 by David J. Bishop

Urgh, 'chick flick'. If there was one phrase I could erase from the English language, it would be 'chick flick'. Is there any pair of words so condescending, dismissive and overly-simplistic all at once? It doesn't feel like language that has arisen organically from how people really think and behave, it seems like a category that has been foisted on an unwilling public by heartless monsters.

Imagine a big room full of studio executives and business people. They're deciding what movies to make and they want to make sure they're ticking all the right demographic boxes. The market research is in: males aged 15-35 are being catered to by Fast & Furious 9: Fastest and Most Furious.

"But what are we doing to snare females aged 14-44? What do women want?" asks a guy with shades on top of his frosted hair and a Lacoste polo shirt.

"I don't know... feelings and stuff?" someone in a bowtie timidly suggests at the far end of the room.

"Fuck it, let's just make some romantic comedies," says someone else, who is perhaps smoking a cigar.

"Because... women have feelings and stuff?"

"Whatever."

Hence, due to this reductive, sexist demographic-chasing, romantic comedies today are made with the intention of being sold to women. They're marketed to women, they star women, they're often written and directed by women. An entire genre and someone, somewhere, decided it's for women and only women. I'm not trying to be crude and dismissive myself here, I'm trying to make a wider point. You can tell from the marketing material alone whether a film is being targeted at a male or female audience — and, bafflingly, it is normally just one or the other. I'd love to go into detail about how you can tell the difference between male-targeted and female-targeted marketing, but we haven't got time. That's another blog post for another day, for the time being this will have to do: 27 Dresses was marketed at women in a way that Suckerpunch was not. For the sake of argument, let's take that as a given. Work with me here, people.

Here's what I don't understand. Why are such a huge number of romantic comedies aimed just at women? And why are such a huge number of the films aimed just at women romantic comedies? When did they decide that the entire genre of romantic comedy was an ovary-only zone?

Speaking from my own personal experience, it doesn't actually make sense to me. I'm not just being obtuse, I know that it is widely held that women have, you know, feelings and stuff so it follows that they would like movies about feelings and stuff. I also know first hand that men have feelings and stuff too. We're not a race of lizard creatures, we're human beings the same as women. Human beings form long-term attachments to loved ones. We raise children. We marry. We cry. We care for each other, it's just a thing we all do. These things aren't the sole domain of women anymore than driving fast cars and killing things are the sole domain of men.

As many of you know, I'm a man. As such I don't have ovaries. Some of you may also know that romantic comedy is one of my favourite genres. I mean, I don't love rom-coms regardless of quality, I only love the good ones, but I don't just love them because I love all good movies. All things being equal, I would pick a romantic comedy over almost any other genre any day of the week. They just tend to have things in them that I personally really like to see in a story. I love wit, I love romance, I love sitcom-style farce, I love a single deception that spirals into a crisis, I love great big uncomplicatedly happy endings. Twelfth Night, A Midsummer Night's Dream, Much Ado About Nothing, The Importance of Being Earnest — these are obviously plays, not movies, but they serve as ur-examples of the romantic comedy. Confessions of love, snappy dialogue, great big cases of mistaken identity, everyone gets married at the end. The romantic comedy genre has given us some of the greatest works of English literature. Even something like Pygmalion, with its downbeat ending, has the light-hearted tone and the sitcom-style deception so common to the modern day romantic comedy genre. Why, tack on a happy ending and you've got romantic comedy gold. And that's exactly what they did!

And each one of those plays I just mentioned was written by a dude, so clearly I'm not the only man in the world who goes for this sort of thing. Then again, all those dudes are now dead so maybe I'm the only living man in the world who goes for this sort of thing.

But I'm not the only man in the world who has feelings and stuff.

That's why I find the term 'chick flick' to be so utterly offensive, because if these films really are just 'for teh chicks'  to the exclusion of everyone else then what does that say about me? Am I somehow less of a man because I have feelings and stuff? Am I less of a man because I love love stories? If so, does that mean I'm less of a man because I feel love in my heart? If I was the only man with the capacity for love, the only successful long term relationships would be lesbian ones. And can you expect 50% of the world's population to all like the same film just because of their genitalia? Surely there as many women who prefer Vin Diesel movies about furious cars as there are men who prefer romantic comedies? Surely we're all just people who like different things based upon a whole bunch of reasons?

So let's just scrap the phrase "chick flick" from our collective vocabulary and replace it with the phrase "romantic comedy". But as happy as that would make me, would we be losing out on something? This whole "romantic comedy versus chick flick" thing has made me think. As loathsome as I find the phrase, it's describing something. Something specific. People don't just invent new words and phrases willy-nilly, even heartless monsters, they do it because they want to describe something specific and they don't feel existing words (e.g. "romantic comedy") are cutting it. So ostensibly the phrase "chick flick", while sexist, is supposed to be describing a type of film, and I'm not sure it's describing the same thing as "romantic comedy".

We have something of a category problem; when I talk about romantic comedy some of you might picture a film you consider to be a chick flick. If I talk about a chick flick you might picture something that isn't a romantic comedy at all.

Let's unpack what romantic comedy means for a bit

What does "rom-com" conjure up for you? Hearing those words, your brain might jump immediately to any one of a number of movies ranging from the good (When Harry Met Sally) to the pleasant but bland (While You Were Sleeping) to the mind-numbingly awful (Letters to Juliet) — but they all have certain things in common. They're all films that focus on the twists and turns of an emerging romance to the exclusion of almost everything else, the odd subplot aside. There's one last way to spot a romantic comedy, of course: they're all films that are marketed at women, at least these days. That's not to say they're just for women, it's just how they get packaged. Literally. I keep seeing my favourite films of yesteryear packaged in these massive DVD collections, covered in pink plastic and what's supposed to be a 'girly' font — and they all have intimidating, monolithic titles like "THE ULTIMATE GIRLS' NIGHT IN". Finally, Four Weddings and a Funeral, Twilight and Dirty Dancing, all in the same box set! A must-have for anyone with a vagina and nowhere else to be on a Friday night. Grab the Hδagen-Dazs and put your hair in rollers, ladies, you're going to have the ti-i-i-i-i-ime of your li-i-i-i-i-ife. (Forgive my sardonic tone, because ice cream and a good movie sounds like much more fun to me than a boys' night in, which typically includes high stakes blackjack, naked wrestling and trying to finish your tequila before a scorpion stings your hand.)

But when I see these box sets I find myself thinking, "Four Weddings and a Funeral? Really? That film was a total sausage fest." One of the most famous romantic comedies of the nineties it may be but a chick flick it ain't. Look at the facts: it had a male protagonist. There were only four female characters, all with tiny roles (woman in love with Hugh Grant, other woman in love with Hugh Grant, third woman in love with Hugh Grant, Hugh Grant's sister); everyone else was a dude. What was the plot? Loser guy has his life changed when he meets a beautiful and charming woman. It's basically Knocked Up if Paul Rudd had died two-thirds of the way through.

So, if Four Weddings and Knocked Up have so much in common, does that mean Knocked Up is a romantic comedy too? Again, look at the facts: it does focus heavily on the relationship between the male lead and the female lead, there's a dearth of subplots, it is a comedy, people talk about feelings and stuff all the way through. But can we categorise it as a rom-com?

Arguably, it has as much business being called a romantic comedy as Four Weddings, yet it doesn't find its way into the ULTIMATE GIRLS' NIGHT IN collection. For some reason.

I think, as always, it comes down to tone more than anything else. Both films have casts chock full of men, but the overall package seems to be tailored more towards a more sensitive and romantic audience (e.g. me). In Four Weddings, after the male and female lead make love for the first time, the following morning there are sheep scampering over the grassy hills and sentimental clarinet music. In Knocked Up there is naked Seth Rogen and regret, and no music. In Four Weddings and a Funeral nobody argues about pubic hair.

So, you know, Knocked Up and Four Weddings and a Funeral are heavily dude-centric movies, yet one gets to be mistaken for a chick flick and the other does not. I can sort of see why, but it also tells us something interesting about chick flicks: you don't need a female protagonist for your movie to be labelled as one. Also a movie about relationships and feelings doesn't automatically get to be a chick flick either.

But is Knocked Up even a romantic comedy at all?

We need to go another layer deeper, and find out what a romantic comedy really is.

Now, some people complain you don't see many romantic comedies these days and, depending on how we define romantic comedy, they might be right. But if we define romantic comedy as being any comedy that concerns itself in no small part with matters of the heart, we would have to include films like:

  •    500 Days of Summer
  •    Forgetting Sarah Marshall
  •    Shaun of the Dead
  •    Zombieland
  •    The 40-year-old Virgin
  •    Scott Pilgrim vs The World
  •    I Love You Phillip Morris
  •    And, yes, Knocked Up

These are arguably some of the funniest films in the last 10 years, and you could make the case for any one of them being a romantic comedy. They also happen to be films that have been marketed heavily towards men. I've spoken to friends of mine, male and female, who are fans of these films, and I've made the case for each one of these films being a romantic comedy. They've all argued against their status as romantic comedies. It's probably not because they have a very strict definition of the genre, I'd be more inclined to believe it's because all of my friends think of the term "romantic comedy" as being synonymous with the words "chick flick" and, consequently, "shit".

But why aren't these films romantic comedies? Because the story is told out of chronological order? Because there are zombies or fight scenes? Because the protagonist is a 40-year-old virgin? I can't accept that. These are all stylistic choices and choices of setting, they don't affect the kind of story being told. The presence of zombies or an unplanned pregnancy in an otherwise traditional romantic comedy signifies one thing: that somebody started with an idea — comedic love story — and actually built in an interesting premise. So the story transforms, it's not just a film about two people falling in love, it's two people who are given something to do besides fall in love but who also fall in love.

But 'romantic comedy' doesn't quite apply to every one of these films. I've seen it applied to each one of them here and there but I don't think it always fits. I have seen Knocked Up crop up on lists of romantic comedies (when someone had to list fifty of the damn things and got desperate) but, personally, I would in fact make the case against Knocked Up being a romantic comedy in the truest sense for the following reasons:

1. A romantic comedy has to give equal emphasis to both the man and the woman in the relationship.

That means writing a film with two protagonists, which is not as easy as it sounds. You either have to shove two people together, have them work towards the same goal or endpoint and have them fall in love at some point along the way to achieving that goal or (and this is harder) you have to have two plotlines and have both character's goal or endpoint be the other person. You've got to have each character want to be with the other, or belong with the other without realising it, yet have very different reasons why that's the case.

Crucially, in the latter type of story we need some heavy duty character development on both sides. They both need to be sympathetic characters. They both need to change as the story unfolds, both characters need an arc. Excellent examples would be When Harry Met Sally, Sleepless in Seattle, 10 Things I Hate About You, even animated comedies like Beauty and the Beast or Tangled.

Knocked Up doesn't really do this, it's about Seth Rogen's character Ben learning to stop being an irresponsible slacker and actually make something of his life. Ben has an arc, he has an emotional journey that takes him from being a lazy stoner with no job to being a responsible man who takes care of business. However, his counterpart Alison doesn't really have an arc — she's already normal. Alison's also a much more sympathetic character. Sure, she doesn't get as many laughs as Ben, but then Ben acting like Ben gets fewer laughs as the film unfolds, and that's kind of the point. At first it's funny how horribly unprepared Ben is for fatherhood, as time goes by it becomes less funny and the audience starts to see him as a careless arsehole who's making a pregnant woman cry. It says something about Rogen's schlubby, cuddly charm that he can make a character like Ben seem likeable even when he's acting like a toolbag, but we ultimately want him to change his ways and, you know, stop making the pregnant woman cry. If you're a woman watching this film, putting yourself in Alison's shoes, you may well get to the end of the film and think "Hey, where's my arc?" Well, sorry, you don't really have one. But that doesn't make it a bad film, it's just a good film that only has one protagonist: it isn't really about two people growing and learning a lesson, it's about one person doing that. It's also not a true romantic comedy as a result... more of a coming-of-age tale for a generation of manchildren, really.

2. In a romantic comedy, the moment one person realises they love the other has to be dramatic, sudden and change the trajectory of the rest of the story (or of their lives).

Of course the two characters grow to love each other as the story unfolds, but at least one of them can't be entirely aware of this until a certain point in the story, that moment towards the end when the penny drops and they have to race to get to the person they love and make a big dramatic confession of love. Any ticking clock the narrative applies is purely artificial: the real reason they have to race to get to the other person is… well, when you realise you want to spend the rest of your life with someone, you want the rest of your life to start as soon as possible. If they realise this towards the start the rest of the film has to be about them trying to get that other person, if they realise it right at the end then the story is over when the couple unite, but we get a sense for the shape the rest of their lives will take (e.g. love, marriage, babies, more on that below).

Ben really likes Alison from the start. It's not a life-changing moment for him, not really, and then at some point in the story he quietly, unassumingly falls in love with her. I don't really know at what point in the story this happens because we don't see him realise this. Ben and Alison just grow on each other and after a while they're just in a relationship. It's gradual, it's not this big thing that changes everything and it's not the climactic moment in the story. The dramatic turning point is when motherfucker decides to get himself a damn job, the climactic moment is when he takes some ownership of the situation. No race, no sense of urgency — in fact, he never calls her. She calls him and asks him to come round; the fact that he does so, isn't high and knows what he's doing is the triumph. And as for love, marriage and babies? Well, there's a baby right from the start, and a complete absence of love or marriage. The end-point and starting point for Ben have been switched, so his life can't follow a traditional rom-com trajectory.

3. They couple need to end up together at the end.

The word 'comedy', in the classical sense, means 'this story has a happy ending'. We expect jokes along the way, but there are jokes in all sorts of stories. Sometimes you get jokes and then everyone dies at the end. There's a joke or two in Watchmen, for Pete's sake. In a true romantic comedy, though, everybody who can get married does get married. Everybody. Modern attitudes towards marriage have led to a softening of this trope, so these days we just get a sense that both people are going to be together a super long time. And if you want to imagine they get married, that's fine.

I won't spoil what happens at the end of Knocked Up, because I don't have to. If it ends happily for Ben that only proves that it's a comedy, it doesn't have to be a romantic one. If it ends unhappily it's a tragicomedy. If you've seen the film you know how right I am either in describing Knocked Up as a romantic comedy or in choosing not to.

4. In a romantic comedy, the dialogue, the characters and themes need to relate to some aspect of love or romance.

What do people spend the whole movie talking about? Do they talk about love and relationships? What are the side characters like, what's their deal? Are they couples in varying states of contentment ranging from happy to at each other's throats? Does anyone pull their mother to one side and say "Mom, how did you know Dad was the one you'd spend the rest of your life with?" If so, you're probably watching a romantic comedy. What do people talk about all the way through Sleepless in Seattle? Love and relationships. What's the first shot of When Harry Met Sally? Old couple sitting on a sofa, telling the story of how they met. Are you in any doubt about what this film's going to be about?

Knocked Up doesn't have this either. Ben's friends mostly have easy-going conversations about pop culture (and, you know, pubic hair). Most of them are single; one of them seems to be in a relationship with someone we see only once or twice. Eventually the topic of conversation turns to children and responsibilities because that's what this film is about. On Alison's side of things we have a married couple with two children who are floating somewhere around "at each other's throats" territory but, again, the conversation turns to children and responsibilities a lot of the time.

You've got to think of side characters in films like this as being reflections of the main characters' internal questions and thought processes. Like the subconscious projection people in Inception, except instead of shooting guns they voice your worst fears. There's a reason why Han Solo thinks The Force is a load of crap but Ben Kenobi trusts it completely. It's to throw Luke's feelings about becoming a Jedi into stark relief. In a romantic comedy the side characters represent different points of view about love; some will be cynical, some naive, some will be pragmatic, some will believe in magic, some will have never fallen in love, some will have had their heart broken before.

Knocked Up's characters don't have any opinions about love or romance, but they all have opinions about pregnancy, contraception, abortion, birth, parenthood and children. Because that's what the movie is about.

So, surprise ending, Knocked Up is not a romantic comedy but it is built a little like a romantic comedy, only those tools and techniques are being used to tell a different story. And it sure as hell isn't a chick flick.

Well, who the hell cares? My sister for one. She had Knocked Up recommended to her because she likes romantic comedies. She watched it, was disappointed that the female lead didn't have a character arc, found it disappointing. Her impression was that Knocked Up is a bad romantic comedy, when really it's just bad at being a romantic comedy. It's very good at being a coming-of-age narrative for manchildren. It's as much a disappointing romantic comedy as it is a disappointing action movie — no guns, no violence and not so much as a single car chase.

The words and categories we use when we talk about stories colour our expectations and our idea of what a certain type of story should be, and the more accurate and precise we can get with our definitions the happier we'll all be. It's much easier to talk about horror movies when you differentiate between supernatural horror, slasher films, haunted house stories, psychological horror, zombie apocalypse films and paranormal romance, and it makes it easier to recommend things and build expectations, too. You don't want someone to say "I heard you liked horror movies so I got you Twilight on DVD." Likewise we don't want people to say "I heard you like chick flicks so I got you Four Weddings and a Funeral," and we certainly don't want people to say "I heard there was an audience for romantic comedy so I made Letters to Juliet." That's like hearing someone likes animals and giving them a box of dead mice. Yes, they're animals but I don't think you really understand what I like about them. We need to draw a line between comedies and romantic comedies, and another between romantic comedies and chick flicks. We need to settle this once and for all.

Is Four Weddings and a Funeral a Romantic Comedy?

Let's look at the criteria.

1. Equal Weight Given to Two Protagonists

Absolutely not. Hugh Grant gets way more screentime than Andie MacDowell and his character is the one and only protagonist. Her character is important to the story, a lot of the — I don't know — emotional focus of the story is on her. She shows up at the start of the film to kick the plot off and reappears sporadically throughout the film to move the plot forwards. So I'm not going to say she got a raw deal or that her character is underwritten or anything. But in a very real way she's not here to learn any lessons, she's here to teach Hugh Grant's character a lesson; this is his story and as such every character is here for that purpose.

If you're a woman watching this film, putting yourself in Andie MacDowell's shoes, you may well get to the end and realise there was no arc for you.

2. Moment of Realisation/Confession of Love

Yes, in spades. Moments like this come thick and fast and they drive the story forwards.

3. Everyone Gets Married at the End

Let's just say there's an epilogue at the end of the film that tells you what happened to all of the characters, focusing heavily on their relationships. Which brings us to...

4. Dialogue, Characters and Themes Relate to Love or Romance

Totally, especially conversations interrogating the central question of why people get married and fall in love and what happens when one occurs without the other. I think that's what causes this film to crest the hill separating comedy and romantic comedy territory.

Overall, then, Four Weddings and a Funeral is a romantic comedy, but because there's only one viewpoint character and he's male, a female viewer needs to be able to put herself in his shoes in order to really get emotionally invested in the film.

By the way, it's perfectly possible for audiences to identify with a main character of the opposite sex, but you'd be surprised how often film-makers decide that male audiences can only relate to men and female audiences to women. And this leads, in turn, to them creating fictional worlds that look like a glimpse into a parallel dimension in which one sex has risen up to dominate the other. There have been a lot of action movies where all the characters are men, apart from one woman who materialises out of nowhere to have sex with Jason Statham and then disappears again, even though it has nothing to do with the plot. Or consider Man of Steel, where Lois Lane exists only to be attracted to Superman and get rescued, has precious little to do with the plot, apart from those times when "find things out about the big strong man" temporarily becomes the plot, and is just along for the ride for the majority of the film's runtime. There are also films where the reverse is true, and women rule the roost while men fill the same role. In The Devil Wears Prada the men only exist to serve the women in some way: a couple of them are just there to be an attractive temptation — the human equivalent of strawberry cheesecake — and only one is given something more substantial to do. Stanley Tucci's gay art director Nigel is the only male character with any kind of depth, and yet he's only there to give out sage advice and boost the female main character's self-confidence and aid her emotional growth, like Yoda if Yoda made catty comments about Luke's weight. Compare him with the boyfriend character, who has no personality whatsoever (unless being a chef counts as having a personality), is just there to be neglected and feels only two emotions: mild annoyance and mild forgiveness. I don't' think he's even a one-dimensional character, more like a zero-dimensional character (I think he's where Venom comes from in the Spider-man comics). What does this tell us? People decide in advance that the film they're making is either for men or women, and sometimes they decide that this means they need to make characters of the opposite sex underdeveloped and marginalised. I don't agree with that reasoning, but if it did hold true then Four Wedding and a Funeral would categorically be a film for men by that logic.

Is Scott Pilgrim vs The World a Romantic Comedy?

Let's contrast with another example: Scott Pilgrim vs The World, Edgar Wright's adaptation of the beloved graphic novel series.

1. Equal Weight Given to Two Protagonists

To be honest, Scott Pilgrim is probably the only protagonist in this story, but Ramona Flowers gets a tremendous amount of emphasis too: she gets a character arc of her own, she's far more sympathetic and likeable than Scott, she's the only character with a detailed backstory, she's the catalyst for the entire plot and the plot focuses on her — not even in a sort of "prize to be won" sense, but in a much more emotionally mature way: Scott's goal is to find out more about Ramona and then cope with what he finds out, like the beginnings of a real relationship.

She gets more screentime that Andie MacDowell in Four Weddings and a Funeral, she gets more of a character arc than Alison in Knocked Up, she gets more to do than Lois Lane in Man of Steel and more everything than chef guy in The Devil Wears Prada. She can also travel through subspace, so that's pretty neat.

Even though she doesn't quite achieve protagonist status, Ramona Flowers arguably receives more dramatic weight than Scott himself, to the extent that I'm willing to call Scott Pilgrim a true romantic comedy in this sense.

2. Moment of Realisation/Confession of Love

This does happen. We see the exact moment that Scott falls in love — in fact, every beat of the love-falling process is given its own little fantasy-realism sequence — and the whole climax centres around racing to get to a place in order to do stuff to be with the person. It doesn't look at all like the ending of Sleepless in Seattle but it's every bit as much a 'race to the Empire State building' kind of sequence. More importantly, whenever a character — any character — falls in love it changes the trajectory of the entire story.

3. Everyone Gets Married at the End

Not really, not in the same way that they do in The Importance of Being Earnest. That's as much as I'm going to discuss about the ending of the film. If you've seen this film you know how things pan out for Scott.

4. Dialogue, Characters and Themes Relate to Love or Romance

Absolutely. The dialogue isn't 100% focused on love and relationships, but the percentage is large. Ex-boyfriends, ex-girlfriends, new relationships, past relationships, emotional maturity, dating — they all come under discussion throughout the runtime.

Conclusion: At the very least, this film is every bit as much of a romantic comedy as Four Weddings and a Funeral. Personally, if you measure each film against the aforementioned criteria, I think it's more of a romantic comedy than that film was. And if this film is a chick flick then the word has no meaning.

So Scott Pilgrim is a non-chick-flick rom-com, Knocked Up is a non-chick-flick non-rom-com, Four Weddings and a Funeral is a rom-com that sinister forces have arbitrarily decided is a chick flick despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary. But then we have another kind of film altogether, the chick flick that's actively trying to be a chick flick.

You see, there's two ways that chick flick is used:

1. As a Category for Things Already Made

Which is to say, as a way of packaging and repackaging existing non-gender-biased movies to female audiences. For example:

This is the poster for the new Richard Curtis film, the same guy who did Four Weddings and a Funeral. About Time stars Domhnall Gleeson as a man who can travel through time. He's that guy shunted over to the right, occupying a third of his own movie poster. Rachel McAdams is also in it, as if I needed to tell you — there she is occupying two-thirds of the poster, even though she's ostensibly not the protagonist and can't travel through time. Looking at this poster, you could be forgiven for thinking that Rachel McAdams's character is the protagonist, or that you were looking at an ad for a new fragrance.

2. As a Mission Statement

This is when people start with a poster and work backwards. They decide: we want to make a romantic comedy aimed mostly at women. They decide, like Devil Wears Prada, that the film should be populated with underdeveloped men and most of the screentime and character development should go to a woman, who is the protagonist. In other words, they decide to make a chick flick — that's their starting point. Basically, they decide to make Leap Year. So is the result a romantic comedy? Let's take a look, as one final examination.

I've been able to avoid spoilers up to this point, but from here on out I'm going to have to talk about the plot and ending of Leap Year in some detail. If you haven't seen the film and you care about what happens, please walk away from your computer now. Thank you for reading this far!

Is Leap Year a Romantic Comedy?

In Leap Year, Amy Adams plays Anna Brady, a woman who's desperate to get married. Her boyfriend Jeremy just hasn't popped the question yet. Anna keeps thinking Jeremy is going to propose, only to be met with disappointment. Finally, Anna's father Jack (played by John Lithgow, who honestly deserves better) tells her about a tradition that says on a leap day women can propose to their boyfriends and, given that he's currently in Dublin on a business trip, and given that she couldn't possibly conceive of proposing to him on any other day, she jumps on a plane to Ireland to ask for Jeremy's hand in marriage. She can't just, you know, wait until he comes back.

However, bad weather causes her flight to Dublin to be redirected to Cardiff in Wales for some mad reason, and not one of the other airports in Ireland. She then tries to get a ferry from Cardiff to Cork but bad weather strikes again and diverts her to the Dingle Peninsula.

Do something for me please. Look up Wales on Google Maps. Now look up Dingle, Ireland. You have now done more geographical research than the film-makers did. The ferry sets off from Wales and heads west, towards the east coast of the Emerald Isle. Then weather causes it to divert from its course. Instead of heading to one of half a dozen other major coastal towns closer by, it sails all the way around Ireland to dock on the west coast, the side facing away from where it just came. That's like walking towards someone's front door, getting blown off course, and having to climb through a rear-facing bedroom window. I just don't know what would make people do that. Apparently air travel from America to Ireland is like throwing a dart at a pizza from the opposite side of the room, whilst blindfolded, and trying to hit the pepperoni. And the pizza is atop an ever-swivelling lazy Susan.

Anyway, for dumb inexplicable reasons our heroine ends up in Dingle and coerces a hunky Irishman into driving her across a lowest-common-denominator stereotype of Ireland so she can get to Dublin and propose. Along the way they are beset by more bad weather, sheep and — I shit you not — highway brigands. And, I guess, emerging romance with the hunky Irishman, as if the words "hunky Irishman" in that first sentence didn't immediately give the game away.

1. Equal Weight Given to Two Protagonists

Not at all. Anna is a shallow, irritating main character, but she's the best we've got. Lithgow does what he can with his 10 minutes of screentime, but he doesn't get a chance to sprinkle his classic Lithgow magic on the film in the same way that he does in, say, Cliffhanger. Actually, if he had been Cliffhanger-Lithgow throughout his time onscreen the film would be a million times better: he'd have delivered every line with smug faux English condescension, then ended his scene by ruthlessly shooting Anna in cold blood. That would have been a much shorter, much funnier film.

Jeremy is an utter milquetoast, but I suppose he's supposed to be. We can't have the choice between two men be in any way difficult, after all. That the hunky Irishman Declan is almost just as bland is much more baffling and less forgivable in a film where he is supposed to make up 50% of a love story. Declan doesn't really have an arc in the story — or much of a personality, either. He doesn't have any lessons to learn but he doesn't have any lessons to teach Anna either.  He's just there to be hunky and non-threatening. He's basically the chef boyfriend from The Devil Wear Prada, except he gets a lot more screentime and the story requires him to be much more substantial. He gets something of an arc, in that he starts the film finding Anna intensely irritating (and I must concede this makes him a very relatable character, and at least it gives him some measure of a personality) and as time goes by he grows to hate her less (and consequently he becomes more boring). On the 'love-interest-ometer' he's no Ramona Flowers, he's not even an Andie MacDowell, and yet he has enough screentime that he could be a Harry Burns in the right hands.

Anna herself doesn't even have much of an arc, her growth as a character consists of very slowly realising that Jeremy might not be all that great and slightly less slowly realising that Declan might not be that bad. I'm not even using ironic understatement, Declan is a pretty decent guy even when he's at his most belligerent and grumpy. So watching this film you're basically watching two pretty people be mildly cross at each other, then stopping. Yeah, it's a modern day Beauty and the Beast.

Leap Year

fails in this respect. Whatever kind of story they're trying to tell, it's not working.

2. Moment of Realisation/Confession of Love

Yes and no. Err...

It should come as absolutely no surprise that it is Anna and not Declan who has the moment of realisation. Suddenly she must hurry back to her true love to confess her feelings... except she gets as far as suggesting they might make a go of it, then when he walks out of the room to fetch something she takes that as her cue to leave. See, this is bad storytelling. Stories should be about characters going after what they want at all costs, not giving up at the first sign of resistance. The rules of demographic-driven filmmaking dictate that Anna must be our film's protagonist, but the rules of sexist screenwriting dictate that it must be the man who ultimately goes after the woman, so we have this little dance where she goes after him and gives up, then he goes after her. Honestly, given that she's just travelled all the way to Ireland to find out if someone loves her, you'd think Anna would stick around for an extra five minutes to make sure she hadn't misinterpreted anything. She's remarkably willing to believe the hunky Irishman doesn’t love her, without any compelling evidence to support that belief. Oh well, low self esteem strikes again. Anyway, as forced and unearned as it may be, I guess we do get our big romantic confession scene right at the end.

Or do we?

I said in my examination of Knocked Up that the moment of realisation in a romantic comedy has to change the trajectory of the rest of the story — create new goals, create new problems, ensure a happy ending, something. What if two people realised they loved each other before that and it did nothing to change the course of events? That wouldn't be romantic at all.

And yet that's exactly what happens in Leap Year. Anna and Declan have so many contrived scenes of cuteness and attraction between when they set off and when they arrive in Dublin that it's pretty obvious to both of them that they're infatuated with each other. I think that's because the filmmakers wanted to make it obvious to the audience, too. Yet, despite their feelings, neither of them consider not going to Dublin at any point — they continue to go through the motions of their journey, even when it no longer makes any sense for them to do so. That would be fine in a road trip movie, where the story is about the journey itself, but in a romantic comedy the story is about falling in love that has to be the end-point that the protagonist works towards. When Anna falls in love there should be as much impact on the story as when Hans Gruber takes over Nakatomi Plaza. As it stands, Anna falls in love with Declan but does nothing about it and stays with Jeremy anyway. Why? Because the plot says so. Because choosing the wrong man creates a false moment of defeat and going back on that choice creates a false moment of victory. I say 'false' because it's so easy to avoid — all Anna needs to do is not give herself over to mindless acts of self-sabotage.

Anna's big moment of realisation, then, is not her realising she loves Declan, it's her realising that Jeremy, the one she picked over the man she loves, doesn't love her as much as she thought — her awareness of her feelings for Declan don't change. She doesn't learn a lesson about figuring out what's really important and fighting for it, she learns that if you love a rich guy and a hunky Irishman and you greatly prefer the hunky Irishman, you should stay with the rich guy anyway to see how things pan out — perhaps out of a sense of loyalty, perhaps for sensible financial reasons — and only when it becomes obvious that he doesn't care for you at all should you leave him and seek out the hunky Irishman. How romantic!

For Declan's part, when Anna leaves Ireland to go with Jeremy back to America, Declan doesn't lift a finger to stop her. He just lets her go. Be still my beating heart.

By failing to deliver on these big romantic moments, Leap Year fails at being a romantic comedy in that regard. Unless we can stretch the definition of romance to include 'going through the motions despite your feelings' and 'reptilian financial calculations'.

3. Everyone Gets Married at the End

Everyone doesn't get married at the end. Anna and Declan get married at the end, which becomes obvious as soon as you've seen the poster or the trailer or the first twenty minutes of the film — by the time it happens it feels perfunctory. Jeremy doesn't get married, though, and John Lithgow doesn't get married, but you wouldn't expect them to because they're only bit parts. Who else is even in this film? There are no side characters in this film, no best friends or sidekicks accompanying the pair on their journey. So there is no 'everyone' to get married, as there would be in a Much Ado About Nothing or an Importance of Being Earnest.

The film gets a pass here but I maintain that it misses the point.

4. Dialogue, Characters and Themes Relate to Love or Romance

What do people spend the whole movie talking about? Do they talk about love and relationships? Not really. There's a lot of borderline flirtatious banter focusing on how much of a pain in the arse each of them is, but most of the character-based or plot-based dialogue discusses how much of a control freak Anna is and how she should just let go and see where life takes her. That she subsequently follows her plan through to the letter, gets engaged and flies back to America exactly as planned shows just how closely she took that particular lesson to heart. Finally, she flies back to Ireland and makes a big stagey gesture and delivers a lengthy speech that she totally didn't practise in her head all the way there. Here's to spontaneity! I think we've all learned something, here.

Now I come to think about it, a woman pursuing her man to ask for his hand in marriage could be the start of a heart-warming story about self-confidence and taking control of your destiny. However, this film sees it as evidence that Anna is too pushy. Perhaps her giving up and walking away at the end is a kind of triumph, then, of being passive and letting the man take control, allowing herself to submit? I really hope not, because that would make this film sexist in a narrow-minded, hateful kind of way and not just in a "let's slap this together so girls will like it" kind of way.

Despite a lack of side characters, the film does try to pull that "here are some other characters in the film that reflect the character's thoughts" Inception thing. Only we don't get couples in varying states of contentment ranging from happy to at each other's throats, we just get two married couples — an old couple and a pair of newly-weds — and their dialogue doesn't shed any light on the subject of being less of a control freak or choosing hunky Irishmen over rich guys; instead, the bride gets to toast her groom with the kind of trite sentiments normally found on novelty fridge magnets. I can pick out one line of dialogue about rescuing something important from a fire, but that's said by Declan. We don't get a mixture of naive and cynical characters, either, with different attitudes towards love and marriage; both couples think love and marriage are great, they just can't explain why. But their opinions don't reflect or contradict Anna's in any way. If these couples represent anything, it's being happily married — but since the couples themselves don't offer any insight into how one becomes happily married, marriage is just dangled at the end of Anna's journey like a carrot. A carrot she can only get, apparently, by stopping trying to take control of the situation and letting someone else propose.

Okay, I'm calling it. Leap Year is not a romantic comedy. Because it's not romantic and it offers no insight into love, relationships or even heroic self-actualisation. It's even less of a romantic comedy than Knocked Up, which does actually explore love and becoming a better person in the name of love, and I already decided that wasn't a rom-com, so Leap Year definitely doesn't qualify.

It's strange, because it has all of the superficial trappings of a romantic comedy in the way that, say, Scott Pilgrim vs. The World does not, yet it fails to deliver any of the substance that is supposed to underpin the style.

I think Leap Year has helped me arrive at my own working definition of a chick flick. It has to be made with the obvious intention of being a chick flick, it has to focus on long-term relationships and marriage as nebulous abstracts that are innately valuable but have nothing meaningful to say about the deeper emotions behind them and, finally, it has to have bland one-note male characters and a female protagonist who initially goes after what she wants, then chickens out just in time for the man to do the last bit of legwork, even though he blatantly doesn't have protagonist status.

I think we've just rescued the romantic comedy genre, by plucking it out of the cold steely grip of films like Leap Year and putting it back where it belongs, in the hands of people who care about what kind of story they're telling.

What if Zack Snyder Directed Ratatouille?

Posted 19:25 (GMT) 15th September 2013 by David J. Bishop

I will let no dead horse go unflogged, so I'm going to talk about Man of Steel some more, because I can't stop thinking about it.

So, everyone's wondering what Zack Snyder's next project is going to be after he's finished making movies about Superman. Well, I happen to know he's working on the long-awaited prequel/reboot of Brad Bird's popular animated movie Ratatouille. That film is a family comedy, but my man Zack's going to take things in a much more serious and grown-up direction. In other words, the film that Ratatouille fans have been waiting for. Finally.

There' s no script at this stage, but I did manage to get my hands on a plot outline. Don't ask how, I just know a guy. Point is, it's a fascinating read.

Now, before I spill the beans, I have to divulge that Ratatouille just so happens to be one of my favourite films and one of its best features is its tight storytelling. Every scene is doing something, almost every line of dialogue is contributing to tone, character, theme and narrative progression all at once. But there is of course room for improvement and I know Zack Snyder is just the man to step in and improve this masterpiece. And just glancing over the outline I can see that he's drawn some inspiration from Man of Steel in a few places too.

Of course, the remainder of this blog post will contain massive, catastrophic spoilers and psuedo-spoilers for both the 2007 and the 2016 versions of Ratatouille and, as I've already hinted, for Man of Steel. I warned you.

Let's take a look, shall we?

  • The first section of the film will be a 20 minute prologue to the main story revolving around the fat, loveable chef Gusteau and the thin, severe Anton Ego. Over the course of three or four scenes Gusteau spiritedly advocates the belief that "anyone can cook" while preparing a delicious meal. Ego storms into Gusteau's restaurant and insists that he is wrong. When Ego bombastically demands to be served a meal, Gusteau serves him some delicious food but it's no use: the harsh critic Ego finds it to be lacking. Ego storms into the kitchen and challenges Gusteau to a fight. An exciting fight sequence follows, during which food burns and spoils all around the two duellers. Finally, Ego stabs Gusteau in the chest with a paring knife.
    [Note: this scene is probably the biggest departure from the original story of Ratatouille, but I think it's a bold move! In the original film the two characters share a similar passion for food but different attitudes about what it takes to be a cook. That's fine, but it makes it really hard to tell who's the good guy and who's the bad guy. You could tease out their personalities and ideological differences through dialogue but that's way too talky. If you just have the bad guy stab a dude in the first section of the film it tells the audience straight away who they should be rooting for: problem solved.]
  • We see Remy the rat in the middle of a field, looking for food. He is more dishevelled than we have ever seen him before. His fur is matted, his whiskers are crooked. He finds a mushroom and devises a crude way to cook it, then serves it to some hungry humans on a picnic. It doesn't make him any happier.
  • After feeding the people Remy collapses onto his back in the middle of the field and flashes back to the time his rat mother told him how to control his amazing sense of smell. The scene is presented in a way that makes it seem like it will be important later. It won't be.
  • Remy travels from place to place, cobbling together meals from whatever he finds and serving the food to people he meets. He makes no attempt to hide the fact that he is a rat that can prepare food and soon word spreads in the local area that a rat chef is living nearby. Remy knows that the best food is made in Paris but shows no interest in going there, opting instead to wander aimlessly through the French countryside, finding himself.
  • We flashback to Remy's first experiences with food and to a scene of his father telling him to stay away from humans because they're dangerous. The young Remy listens obediently and makes a concerted effort to take less of an interest in food.
  • We meet Linguini. In terms of his characterisation and appearance Linguini is very similar to how he is in the original Ratatouille, but with one important difference: in that film he was almost a second protagonist with his own goals and his own agenda, in this film his only purpose is to persuade and support Remy in becoming a chef. It's a much more focused narrative in that respect.
  • Remy finds a cook book and begins to imagine a spectral version of the late Gusteau, who tells him he is important but doesn't go into any specifics. During the scene, Remy accidentally attracts the attention of Ego.
  • Flashback to a scene of Remy’s father telling him not to cook, Remy listens attentively and does not cook.
  • Linguini hears about a rat that can cook and is soon able to locate Remy because of the trail of witnesses the rat has left behind him. Linguini tries to persuade Remy to become a chef but Remy refuses because his father told him to stay away from humans and he respects and trusts his father.
  • Flashback to the death of Remy's father. He dies of starvation, whilst Remy stands several feet away with a big platter of food and does nothing to help because his father has decided to deliberately opt for death.
    [Note: from reading the plot outline it's not really clear why Remy can't just feed his father or why it's at all necessary for his father to die in the first place. I'm sure they'll add in some extra flashbacks to fully explain why this all makes sense.]
  • Remy succeeds in convincing Linguini that he shouldn't become a chef and Linguini decides not to tell Remy’s secret to anyone.
  • Remy talks to the spirit of the late Gusteau again. Gusteau convinces Remy to become a chef. Remy puts on a tiny togue to signify that he is now a chef but then does not cook anything.
  • Anton Ego appears on TV and tells everyone Remy's secret. At this point Remy's father essentially died for nothing.
  • Ego reveals that he has written scathing reviews for every restaurant in France and that he will publish them all simultaneously unless the people of France hand Remy over.
  • Remy spends some time feeling conflicted about his decision to turn himself in. He receives vague advice from someone who we have never seen before and will never see again.
  • Remy turns himself in, appearing in front of everyone wearing a tiny togue, just like on the cover of the Ratatouille DVD. This is supposed to be significant in the context of the story itself, but I wasn't able to gather why. Linguini is there also for some reason.
  • Ego catches Remy in a cage and also kidnaps Linguini for some reason.
  • Ego reveals to the heroes that he will publish his reviews anyway. Having received this useful information our heroes both promptly escape.
  • At this point the film reaches its halfway point and the remainder is devoted to scenes of Remy cooking. Remy cooks and cooks and cooks. He cooks and cooks and cooks but nobody eats the food and it still doesn't make him any happier. Most of this action centres on the cottage in the French countryside where Remy grew up and where everyone in the local area knows he is a rat chef. It is never made clear why all of the attention focused on this one area wouldn't lead everyone in France to follow the trail of obvious clues and discover Remy's secret, the same way Linguini did.
  • We meet Chef Skinner, who has one line of dialogue in this film. He poses a threat to Remy for a while, then stops.
  • Remy finally travels to Paris for the first time, where he helps Linguini for 30 seconds. They instantly become best friends as a result.
  • Finally, Remy realises he can defeat Ego by serving him ratatouille. With Linguini's help he prepares the dish and serves it. Whereas in the original film this was enough, in this version it is not. Ego tries to kill Remy and Remy is forced to bite into Ego's jugular with his little rat teeth, murdering him. Linguini is there also for some reason.
  • All of their efforts have come too late: Ego is defeated, but not before every restaurant in Paris has been closed.
  • Despite having made no attempt to hide his talent from anyone throughout the film, the movie still closes out with the promise that Remy will spend time hiding underneath Linguini's togue and that they will prepare food together, since they're now best friends.

Underneath the plot outline there are some notes about how the finished film will look:

  1. At no point in the film will the words 'rat', 'cook' or 'chef' be spoken. The word 'ratatouille' should be spoken no more than twice.
  2. There will be no jokes in the film, no moments of comedy, irony or sarcastic nuance, nor any surprising turns of events. Lightness, optimism and fun are all out of the question. The notes describe a convenient rule of thumb: if at any point anybody in the film or in the audience feels happy or laughs, something has gone horribly wrong. In short, no kids' stuff.
  3. Michael Giacchino's Oscar-winning score for the original film will be replaced by what the notes describe as "blaring Inception chords".
  4. The characters of Colette, Emille and Horst will appear but they will never be mentioned by name and they will not have any dialogue.
  5. There are already plans for a sequel in which Remy teams up with Batman.

Steel Yourselves

Posted 21:00 (GMT) 15th August 2013 by David J. Bishop

  • Man of Steel hit cinemas months ago at this point. I want to share with you my thoughts on the film, just because it offers a good framework on which to hang my various thoughts about writing and storytelling. I'm not writing a review here in the sense that I'm offering a consumer guide to help you answer the question of "Should I pay money to see this?" because if you were going to see the film at the cinema you probably would have by now and chances are you already have. I just want to explore some of Man of Steel's unique… qualities, shall we say.

    Two warnings before we start: first of all, this rant is long. I only post one of these a month because they take a month to write. I could just write more often and go into less detail, but I find going into way too much detail is a really useful tool — for me at least.

    Second warning: like all in-depth analyses of works of fiction, this rant assumes its audience has already seen the thing being discussed. I've kept things spoiler-free, simply because I didn't need to mention specific plot points to get my point across, but you must know going in that you'll be able to get the most out of this rant if you've seen Man of Steel. And even though I've avoided spoiling the plot, if you really want to avoid spoilers you probably shouldn't read something like this. Just knowing my opinion in advance could colour the whole thing for you.

    Okay, let's go!

    Disappointing Movies versus Bad Movies

    It's not that I thought Man of Steel was a terrible film. Terrible films make me laugh, they don't frustrate me. Films that have the potential to be good but fall into easily-avoidable traps, these frustrate me.

    I don't get frustrated when I watch The Happening because, as bad as it is, I can't imagine a world in which it could have been that much better. When all's said and done it's about a mysterious phenomenon that causes people to throw themselves off buildings, lie down in front of lawn mowers and slowly, methodically feed themselves to lions. There's only so much story meat on them bones.

    But the premise of Man of the Steel is "Superman!" It is a Superman movie, and we've already had good ones of those.

    The Bible and Sandwiches, I Guess

    We've had a lot of good superhero stories full stop at this point. If you're a filmmaker with not a lot to say I've got some good news for you and some bad news. The bad news is that the audience now expects a certain level of quality from its superhero fare: no Fantastic-Four-ing it up. The good news is that if you're at the level of 'competent hack' you can still make a good film anyway just by following the formula. Superhero movies don't just have a structure that a lot of them follow, they have a really simple structure that a lot of them follow. You know what I'm talking about. Young hero gains powers, explores the possibilities of his powers, learns a lesson about responsibility, interacts with his love interest, a creeping threat looms, love interest is threatened, hero saves the day but there are consequences. Spider-man, Batman Begins, Iron Man — a lot of first instalments in trilogies takes this shape. Even if you take something that isn't part of a franchise and isn't a comic book adaptation — Chronicle, for example — and test it against that structure, you can see how they've hit those notes. If I was rebooting the Superman movie franchise, I might be tempted to hit those same notes myself, write something formulaic. I'm not even saying that like it's a bad thing. Writing within a predefined structure can yield some amazing results. Sonnets, for example, have a very rigid structure — down to which stress you can put on which syllables — yet some beautiful poetry has been written that way. So it can be with formulaic writing. It can free you up to focus on a lot of other cool things. People always say 'formulaic' like it's a bad thing, but I would much rather watch a formulaic film that does something interesting within than familiar structure than watch a film with no recognisable structure at all but which has nothing interesting to say besides the fact that it eschews structure. Brick is a formulaic film and it is excellent. The Happening boldly chooses not to follow any plot structure and consequently is a film (true to its title) about stuff happening until it inexplicably stops happening.

    I'm not advocating all films being exactly the same. The shape a film's plot takes is a small part of the overall experience of a film. If I was making the case to Zack Snyder, I would start by telling him that if he makes a film with a similar plot to Iron Man, most people won't notice and nobody will care. Nobody cares. Nobody cares if your film has a plot structure that resembles another film. Try this experiment: find someone at a house party who likes Moulin Rouge, then explain to them exactly why the plot structure is identical to Shakespeare in Love, now observe their expression of intense disinterest. Now repeat that experiment twenty times with twenty people at twenty parties. Now you know what it's like being me at a — I mean, now you know how few people care about similarity between plot structures.

    Then I would tell Zack Snyder that he can still make a unique, interesting film with a familiar plot structure. Those examples I gave before — Spider-man, Batman Begins, Iron Man, Chronicle — they are all very different films, they just have similar beats. They've got unique characters, good screenplays and (with the exception of Chronicle) they've had successful sequels. So it could have been with Man of Steel. I'm just saying, they had the structure right there. That structure has stood the test of time, you can trace forms of it back thousands of years. Who knows? Maybe these stories are similar because of a fundamental truth about why we tell stories. The problem is, they don't just try to tell the story of Superman, they try to tell it whilst simultaneously doing the opposite of every other superhero film that's come before it. They're not doing what feels right for them creatively, they're just deliberately being different.

    It's not what I would have done had I been in Zack Snyder's position, but then I'm not a genius film-maker. The problem is, I'm not sure Zack Snyder is a genius film-maker either.

    Let's put it this way: I'm not a gourmet chef. I can cook delicious food but I don't improvise in the kitchen. I follow the frigging recipe. Gourmet chefs experiment and improvise, then they write the recipes for the rest of us to follow. Or maybe they've just been in the kitchen so long they know what every ingredient is supposed to do instinctively.

    So if you're Zack Snyder and you're whipping up a batch of Superman, you've just got to ask yourself one question: "Am I the gourmet chef or am I the guy who follows the recipe?" Bare in mind that Zack Snyder's best successes have been slavish shot-for-shot adaptations of successful graphic novels. His previous hits (i.e. his non-Sucker-Punch body of work) were all plotted out and storyboarded twenty years before he touched them.

    And let's not forget, if movie plots are recipes the 'superhero origin + first bad guy encounter' movie is the sandwich of recipes; it's such a straightforward process that people don't consider it a recipe at all, they just expect you to do the thing and get it right, to the point where they will be baffled and disappointed if you don't. There is a point where deviating from the shape most stories take starts to look less like auteurism and more like making conscious, deliberate mistakes. I can barely imagine what it must have been like watching them make Man of Steel — it must have been like watching someone failing at making a sandwich. It's easy: two pieces of bread, sandwich filling, optional condiments and garnishes. If you can improve on the classic by all means serve me an open sandwich or a toasted sandwich, but if you suspect for a moment that you might be just be a competent hack, I would recommend you stick to the recipe. Don't — DON'T — just flail around in the kitchen for three hours and bring me a car tyre sprinkled in breadcrumbs.

    There have been so many superhero movies at this point that most of us were sort of writing our own screenplay for Man of Steel as we walked into the cinema. And, unlike Iron Man where they just need to find a way to get some shrapnel into his heart and it doesn't matter how it gets there, the audience of a Superman movie knows the characters' personalities, it even knows what emotional cues to expect. Lives being saved at the last minute, daring rescues, feats of strength, Ma and Pa Kent finding a baby in a spaceship, plucky Lois Lane's journalistic instincts drowning out her basic survival instincts. You need to cover this ground. These are the turkey, bacon, lettuce, tomato, and mayonnaise of your club sandwich. These moments are carved into the very edifice of our shared culture as much as scenes from the Bible. If Superman is on the poster, I know what to expect, just as I know what I expect when I see 'club sandwich' on the menu. Man of Steel could have been the best film in the world but it's not what I ordered. If you screw around with the mythology of Superman it's just as jarring as seeing the wise men from the nativity helping Jesus to build Noah's Ark. I mean, yes he's a carpenter so he could probably fill that role, but dicking about with the timeline just raises too many questions… and it's kind of offensive to anyone sufficiently invested in the mythos.

    That said, I wouldn't have minded if Man of Steel had just been disappointing as a Superman story if it had been a good story, but it's also just disappointing as a film in its own right. It happens to be the case that most, but not all, of those problems in the latter category seem to rise out of how they decided to adapt the material. Watching the film it's so easy to spot simple ways that the film could have been improved — an excellent film was just within arm's reach — and they failed. I'm not a film-maker or someone who knows about the craft of movies; I don't know what aspect ratio they used or whether the problems can be attributed to the Director of Photography or the Editor or the Best Boy. I'm just a guy who's fascinated by the mechanics of storytelling, and despite my ignorance, even I can see where they could have made it better.

    Because Superman deserves better. I say this as someone who isn't even a fan of Superman (a Superfan?).

    My History with Superman

    I don't really have one.

    I've always been interested in superheroes in general and I love superhero movies unabashedly, everything from The Avengers to Chronicle to V for Vendetta (if that counts) but I don't have any long-standing affection for the character of Superman left over from childhood: I never saw any of the Christopher Reeve films until later in life, my only contact with Superman beyond his status as a much-referenced cultural touchstone was the crappy 90s TV show with Dean Cain, which I still remember with fondness. However, the 90s TV show was not about Superman per se, it was about the work lives of two wise-cracking reporters, one of whom occasionally shoots lasers out of his eyes.

    I actually really liked Superman Returns. Again, the things I liked about it didn't have a great deal to do with Superman himself. I liked the action sequences, I liked the script, I liked Kevin Spacey. I liked the fact that the film-makers were saddled with a superhero so overpowered that he can do almost anything and they were still able to spend the entire film throwing problems at him that even he could barely solve (and a few that he couldn't solve at all).

    It's like that age-old philosophical quandary. You invent the concept of an all-powerful creating God so some smart-arse says "Okay, could God create a rock that he couldn't move?" That always struck me as the kind of question a nerd would ask. Well, Bryan Singer is a huge nerd and he turned his nerdly gaze onto Superman. He created a rock that Superman can't move then Superman FUCKING MOVES IT ANYWAY OH MY GOD HE'S SO STRONG!

    So, I got a little carried away there. Bryan Singer's affection for the character is infectious. Seriously, though. I rewatched that film recently and it really is beautiful. It's got some lovely imagery and a gorgeous soundtrack that makes good use of the classic John Williams Superman theme. Some might call it slowly-paced and I suppose it is by the standards of an action movie but what it's really doing is taking the time to explore characters' psychology. It's telling a sensitive and thoughtful story. Because matters of the heart, feeling like you belong, relationships — these are areas where super strength won't help at all and it's good to have a mixture of invulnerability and vulnerability in your superhero story. Plus that scene with the aeroplane rescue is heart-stopping. Props to Superman Returns. It's a warm-hearted, ponderous beast of a movie with some dazzling plumage.

    My Expectations Before the Film

    I saw trailers for what looked like they could be for a gritty and realistic take on Superman. I'm not sure how gritty Man of Steel really is, but we could all tell from that trailer that with this film Warner Brothers are going for older audiences because they think older people are the kind of people that made Christopher Nolan's beloved Batman movies such a financial success. In fact, people who like good movies made Nolan's Batman movies a financial success. Slapping a similar aesthetic on Superman and cranking the seriousness up to 11 wasn't the surefire recipe for success they thought it was. This overt decision does help us to understand why the film looks and sounds the way it looks. We knew going in that they were trying for a grown up and realistic tone, and it goes some way towards explaining the film's complete lack of a sense of humour and its cinιma vιritι camera shakes. From my summary you might be able to guess I wasn't terribly impressed by these choices but, credit where credit's due, I'm sure they impressed that certain kind of 15-year-old who thinks that never cracking a smile and talking out loud about how conflicted you're feeling equates to realism and maturity.

    On the drive to the cinema, this is what I thought about: did we really need a serious-minded and realistic Superman movie? For a time it seemed like superhero movies were going in the direction, because people like a bit of moral choice and dramatic decision-making with their popcorn cinema and it seemed that pushing comic adaptations towards seriousness and realism was the only way to get that. But then Iron Man flew in wearing his shiny gold and hot rod red power armour and gave us a film packed with big decisions and moral choice nestled in an intelligent screenplay drizzled in humour. Since then a lot of films have delivered action, drama and laughs in equal measure. And actually I should point out at this point, as I have in the past, that for all its perceived seriousness The Dark Knight is one of those films (the Joker is unprecedentedly, genuinely funny, that's what makes him so scary in that film — five words: "I kill the bus driver"). And, of course, the massive success of The Avengers has shown us once and for all that light-hearted, colourful and funny is not the enemy of mature, dramatic and weighty: you can have both in the same film. We've settled that one. Hell, even the darkest and most serious-minded of action films must allow its characters to at least indulge in some ironic detachment and gallows humour, that's just realistic, that's just what people do in those situations.

    Does Superman need a new costume that's all scaly and dark-coloured? Does he need to mope around with a beard being cynical and disaffected? Captain America managed to wear a pretty dorky costume in both of the films he's appeared in and he was a boy-scout, yet he was still able to kick all kinds of ass. The lesson from this is: keep the character the same and just hire a good writer. I'm getting ahead of myself. Gritty and realistic Superman. I was not impressed at that point, but I relish the opportunity to be proven wrong.

    Failure as a Superman Story

    We don't see the scene of Clark Kent's parents finding him as a baby. It's a weirdly specific thing to miss, I know, but if your story is going to focus at all on the relationship between Clark and his parents (as this one does) then that moment really helps establish that relationship. You see the childless couple beforehand, you see their joy at finding a baby, you see their understanding of how this child is special. It would have made an elegant transition between the stuff on Krypton and the stuff on Earth. There are other classic Superman beats missing: Clark Kent doesn't wear glasses, he doesn't work at the Daily Planet, he isn't friends with Lois Lane, he spends almost no time rescuing people. We can feel where those moments should go in the story and we can feel the movie chopping them out. Why did they chop? Just because they know we know what to expect and they're deliberately trying to not give it to us? Just because they didn't want to tell another superhero origin story? Just because we know what's supposed to happen so we can fill in the gaps in the story ourselves? Well if that's your attitude why tell a Superman story at all? It reminds me of the Harry Potter films, where they spend a disproportionate amount of screentime on big set pieces that aren't in the book and skimp the plot details, relying on the audience's familiarity with the source material to fill in the gaps. You can't do that. A film needs to make sense in the absence of previous works. Not only is the finished product, taken by itself, stupid and confusing but it also looks like you're just going through the motions, trying to make something that scrapes by with the bare minimum number of elements from the original story.

    Goblet of Fire: a bit with a dragon! Something with water! Hedge maze! Quidditch World Cup! A ball! Hold on to your butts! Wait, this film has a plot? Goblet of Fire! Dumbledoooooooooooooore!

    Man of Steel: Cape! Parents! Lois Lane! Good, that's out of the way, let's fill the rest of the film with big action set pieces. Oh, and Zod!

    Yes, Zod is in this movie. Remember that guy, played by Terence Stamp in Superman II? Well, we're treated to a kind of warped retelling of his plotline from that film but, as I hinted before, they jumbled up the order of events. When the plot of Man of Steel starts to unfold and the evil General Zod appears Clark hasn't even assumed the identity of Superman yet. That raises more than a few problems, but we'll get to that in a second. What's with the jumbling, though? Again, it feels like they're just changing things for the sake of changing them. What are they trying to achieve this time?

    It's because they needed a different take to the one that was adopted for Batman and the Joker. The Batman movies didn't mess with the order of events, but they did add some causality to the story that doesn't really appear in the comics. In the comics the Joker just appears fully-formed and Batman has to stop him because that's what a Batman does. The hero versus villain status quo is established immediately, it's an innate assumption. In the world of the comics there is Batman and his allies and, existing separately to that group, there are also crazy clowns and spacemen and dudes with shrinking rays; and sometimes the two groups clash. In Batman Begins it's just Batman at first — most of the criminals Batman fights are just regular guys with guns. He doesn't start off punching Mr Freeze on a rooftop. But then it's suggested that because he's taken this leap — putting on a costume, employing theatricality and deception, scaring the living shit out of people — that criminals will follow suit. So then the Joker shows up and we watch as he uses Batman-like techniques that we've seen in the first film against people. In other words, the Joker isn't just there because he's there, in a very real way Batman has created him, at the very least provoked him, and Bruce Wayne feels guilty for having brought about this state of affairs.

    And, personally, I quite like this structure where the villain is a kind of dark parody of the hero, similar in lots of ways and different in others. Bonus points if the hero has to resort to dirtier tricks than usual to defeat the villain, as Batman does in The Dark Knight because then they've become even more similar. But it only works if either the hero's or the villain's identity is established right from the very start and then their opposite is introduced in response, like the answer to a question. How will Batman change the face of crime in Gotham? Oop, here's the Joker. What if there was a villain with all the same powers as the thoroughly-established hero Superman? Here's General Zod. How will Hrothgar rid himself of Grendel? Oh, here's Beowulf. You're just in time.

    But in this version of the story Zod and his mates show up way too early. Humanity's (and the audience's) first impression of Kryptonians is these jerks. Zod's there when Kal-El is launched out of Krypton, to no real purpose, then he's deeply intertwined in the whole process of Clark Kent becoming an official superhero in manifold ways, with some really troubling side-effects. I've seen a lot of reviews point out that Earth would be better off if Superman had never landed there, for instance. I've been able to forgive films with worse plot holes that monkey around with the source material and I'd be able to do the same with Man of Steel if, having created this whole new very messy scenario, they did anything with it. But they waste it! They have Zod there when Kal-El is sent into space just so Zod can try to stop it. Then when he fails, just before he's imprisoned, he swears to the baby's parents that he will find their son and get his revenge. Two things:

    1. Swearing you'll do anything just before you're banished to the torture dimension implies you've skipped ahead in the script and you know you're going to escape later in the movie.

    2. This revenge motive is never brought up ever again.

    I will avoid spoilers but I will say, dipping a toe into the mildest of spoiler waters, that when Zod does appear on Earth he has utterly different reasons for being there. And when things between he and Superman do turn ugly he has a much better reason to want Superman dead. So that whole thing with swearing revenge on the baby Superman? Completely pointless.

    (It also raises the issue of why people on Krypton have the time and wherewithal to send one baby and then a small army of criminals into space, thus rescuing both parties, but they never try the same thing with the government leaders or scientists or innocent people. They should be banishing themselves and making the criminals stay behind. That would be a much better punishment. "Oh, you want to rule Krypton? Fine, have it. We're off to the Phantom Zone. Enjoy!" Okay, fair enough — they establish that not everyone believes the planet is going to blow up. Fine. Then surely anyone who does believe, Zod for example, would try to commit as many treasonous acts as possible, given that the punishment is potentially life-saving and the lack of punishment is a death sentence? At the very least Zod should be rubbing his hands with glee at the prospect of being banished, not annoyed to the point that he swears revenge on a baby. See, it makes sense in the original iteration of the story because Zod is banished before the planet starts crumbling like vanilla wafer, in that iteration saving Zod from Krypton's destruction is an unfortunate byproduct rather than a direct result of everyone's incompetence.)

    And I said Zod and Superman are intertwined in a messy way. Make no mistake, I mean that purely in plot terms (certainly not in sexual terms), I'm just referring to how the sequence of events plays out as the story unfolds. The hero and villain share precious little screentime and they don't really have a relationship with each other, or draw on their shared history, not in the same way that, for example, Syndrome and Mr Incredible do.

    In this film, when Superman puts on his costume and starts flying around saving people it's because he's been drawn into a very messy, ugly war filled with messy, ugly decisions — hard decisions that no hero can make and keep his heroism intact. Superman is constantly being made to choose between letting a million people die and letting a billion people die, which would be great, I guess, if you saw Sophie's Choice and thought it needed more genocide and, crucially, if this wasn't supposed to be a Superman movie.

    So now in the question-answer model of protagonist-antagonist relationships, Superman is the answer to the question posed by Zod. There are two problems with that:

    1. If the question is "Zod has appeared, what's the best way to deal with him?" the answer is not "Put on some tights and fly about." Let's go with the film's reasoning and say that these are special tights that symbolise hope and the betterment of humankind. That's not what people need right now. Aliens are invading, we don't want self-improvement tips, we want them gone. The only hope people have is that they will live through this ordeal.
    2. It's really hard to inspire people and symbolise something when you're constantly being forced by events to let people die and cause massive collateral damage. He's putting on a special blue and red costume to wear while he's not saving people. It would be a much better idea for Clark to welcome the Kryptonians as brothers, pretend to join their side, get aboard their space ship and fuck things up from the inside. Or rally a resistance movement. The scenario he's presented with is essentially Independence Day and he's neither Will Smith nor Phil Pullman. He's not even Jeff Goldblum. He's Brent Spiner.

    So in the world of the film it just doesn't make sense for Clark Kent to pick this moment to don his tights, and in the real world it doesn't make sense to write Superman into Independence Day and not even give him an inspiring Phil Pullman speech. I mean, come on. If he's meant to inspire all this hope, let him inspire it.

    Sorry I forgot to mention, his reason for being on Earth is stated at the start as being to inspire hope and optimism. That's a pretty big promise to make to your audience, especially since it never gets fulfilled.

    There's another problem, one of characterisation. These kinds of detached, utilitarian, lesser-of-two-body-counts calculations would fit with a Superman that was thoughtful, intelligent and cool-headed to the point of being divorced from the human condition — like Dr Manhattan — but a lot of the time this Superman just seems like he's pissed off more than anything else, seeking out and beating up just one guy instead of prioritising thousands of innocent people. He spends large chunks of the film looking thoughtful and contemplating his purpose, but when the chips are down all of that pondering goes out the window. They clearly want to deliver a Superman for a more mature audience, but Superman's solution to all of his problems is always just 'I will smash it with my fists', even when that doesn't make sense. That's an angry toddler's solution.

    Again, mild spoilers, I will leave out details. His solution to the big problem at the end is "I will take this one thing and smash it into this other thing and that will probably make a third thing to solve all our problems." The slimmest of reasons for why this might work is given. That Superman suggests it at all means he is stupid. The fact that it works means the universe he inhabits is stupid. Similarly, there is something elsewhere doing something that even someone with a modest amount of scientific knowledge like myself can tell would have disastrous affects if allowed to do what it does for even a few seconds. Even if the, uh, the process it's doing could be reversed it might still be too late, but Superman doesn't reverse the process, he smashes the thing with his fists. That would be like Rick Moranis finding the machine that shrunk his kids and smashing it with a crowbar. Wouldn't it make more sense to reprogram the machine? What is the point of having an intelligent, thoughtful Superman if he never does anything intelligent?

    Pacing Problems

    It's not like I went in wanting to hate the film or anything. I'm a reasonable man. In fact, the extended opening sequences on Krypton intrigued me. I liked the way a lot of things on Krypton were designed, from the wildlife to the technology to the way Kryptonian society seemed to operate. It was nice to see so many ideas on display, even if some of them were better-realised than others (the 'living metal' computer interfaces were interesting but then when they were used as video phones they became downright unsettling). There was an impressive sense of scale, in this part and throughout the film.

    Then I began to wonder to myself, "Wow, they're spending a lot of time here on Krypton. It will be interesting to see how all of this pays off later." For the most part, though… it doesn't. Not even in the way Zod swearing vengeance on a baby doesn't pay off, because at least Zod shows up again, and at least when he does he's by and large trying to kill the adult version of said baby. I mean we see stuff in this prologue that has no impact on the story at all and is completely irrelevant. And the worst part is you can more or less tell when your time is being wasted.

    Let's keep a tight focus on just the Krypton sequence for now. They spend all this time and creative energy establishing a setting and introducing characters that we all know are both extraneous to the plot and about to die when Krypton blows up. It's all creatively designed and it's good cinema in its own right, but that's the disappointing thing about Man of Steel: if that sequence on Krypton had been 10 minutes shorter and it had paid off I would have described it as great cinema. In other words, that part of the film would have been amazing if it had been part of a different film to the one that follows. As it is, it's just crappy in retrospect, because it doesn't add to the story they're supposed to be telling. It's like a sphinx— they stuck the head and breasts of a woman on the body of a winged lion. You might admire those individual elements — and in significantly different ways — but eventually you have to look at the whole, and the whole is monstrous and vile and full of malicious riddles.

    The problem, as I said before, is that we all know the story of Superman. We know what the salient details are in his origin story and mythos. His parents shoot him into space. The whole sequence serves one purpose: to get that baby into space. Anything not directly related to baby-space-shooting is a waste of time. You need one scene: parents standing by a rocket pressing a "shoot baby into space" button. Let's gild the lily and add some dialogue. In most iterations they say something significant to him, something that will come to shape his character later in life (coincidentally, unless the baby was able to understand and memorise their words). Megamind's parents do the same thing, and it sets the tone for the rest of the film to follow — and, actually, how it's played out in that film is funny and tragic all at once and probably the best version of that trope I've ever seen.

    That sequence is about a minute long in that film and 20 minutes long in Man of Steel, yet they largely get across the same story points, give or take a Zod.

    What kind of unnecessary embellishment could Man of Steel possibly pack in? Well, we see who Superman's father Jor-El talked to before he went home to shoot his son into space. We see how Kryptonians reproduce. We see how he got home. I don't mean we see him getting into a car, getting on a bike etc. We see him get on his Kryptonian flying beast and then we watch him flying it around like it's How to Train Your Dragon. The flying beast has a name for crying out loud. We even see what he picked up on the way home, how he got to his front door, what happened when he got home, what their home computer looks like, why the planet is blowing up. We see why the planet is blowing up! I can't believe I'm listing this as an unnecessary detail, but in the context of this story about Superman's adventures on Earth it absolutely is. I am a nerdy guy, I am always fascinated to learn why things in science fiction settings are blowing up, but now is not the time to indulge me and most film-makers know better. In the timeless mythos of Superman we know it's really not important. They don't make it important here. They emphasise it, but that doesn't lend it importance.

    Let's say the planet is deteriorating due to environmental damage and reckless mismanagement of resources. Kal-El's parents tell him to make Earth a better place than Krypton ever was. Unless Kal-El spends all of his time as Superman fighting climate change and corporate greed it's irrelevant. Let's say the planet is being torn apart by war. Kal-El's parents tell him to make Earth a better place than Krypton ever was. Unless Superman tries to bring about world peace and multilateral disarmament it's irrelevant (P.S. they made that film and it sucked). Krypton is being destroyed by dogs? Fine, Superman spends the rest of the film's run-time kicking puppies in the face.

    Geeking out is fine but it's not an end in its own right. Do something with that detail. You've established how Jor-El's computer looks. Okay, now in the action sequence that follows have Jor-El use that detail to his advantage. Do we need to see Jor-El confront the Kryptonian government, pick up a McGuffin and then head home? If it's never going to be useful, it's the easiest thing in the world to leave out. Observe:

        JOR-EL: Shit, the planet's about to explode, I'd better head home.

        CUT TO: INT. JOR-EL'S HOUSE

        WIFE: Honey, did you remember the McGuffin?

        JOR-EL: (reaches into pocket) I've got it right here.

    Or! Let's say you absolutely have to have Jor-El confront the government. Let's say people will tear their hair out if they don't find out how he got his hands on the McGuffin. I've got that covered too:

        INT. THE HALL OF MCGUFFIN. JOR-EL SEIZES THE MCGUFFIN FROM ITS MAGICAL PLINTH. HIS BACK IS TURNED, SO HE DOESN'T SEE THE COUNCIL MEMBERS APPROACHING BEHIND HIM.

        COUNCILLOR: We thought we'd find you here, Jor-El.

        JOR-EL: You don't understand! The planet is about to blow up.

        COUNCILLOR: Entering the Hall of McGuffin is the worst act of treason a man can commit in our Kryptonian society. Do you know what the punishment for this transgression is?

        JOR-EL: Yes and it actually sounds like a pretty sweet deal right now but I have to head home and shoot my son into space.

        COUNCILLOR: We can't let that happen, Jor-El.

        JOR-EL PULLS OFF A KICK-ASS — AND, MOST IMPORTANTLY, QUICK — ESCAPE.

        CUT TO: INT. JOR-EL'S HOUSE

        JOR-EL: Honey, I'm home! I got the thing!

    Identical to what we had in the actual film in terms of story function, yet twenty times shorter. Why? No flying creature, no name for said creature, no detail for the sake of detail.

    Then, after spending a frankly perverse amount of time on Krypton they suddenly cut to Clark Kent as an adult, on a boat of all places. They skip over his entire childhood, his relationship with his adoptive parents — basically all of the stuff that will be important later — and only refer back to it in a handful of short flashbacks. Flashbacks! Short ones! Oh great, now the film acquires an editor. Now we're zooming around time with efficient little snippets of scenes and trimming the fat. Thanks, movie.

    The effect of all this is that we miss out on the classic beats of Superman's formative years, this I've already touched on, but we also miss out on finding out why this character is the way he is. Characters' childhoods are a great opportunity for character development. They don't take a lot of time but, by laying out a few key moments from a character's early years a storyteller can show us, in chronological order, the exact points at which a character made some key decisions that define who they are, decisions that become hugely relevant later. To pick on Megamind again, that film deftly does a lot of character-building by showing the protagonist's childhood. Man of Steel doesn't. They do it in Megamind because they recognise the importance of having a sympathetic main character, and they were probably worried that the audience might stop liking the guy when he's committing crimes. As it turns out, the titular character of Megamind at his most villainous is twice as likeable as the titular character of Man of Steel at his most heroic. Why? Because we understand why Megamind's doing what he's doing. We've watched him grow up, make relationships and make choices. Of Clark Kent we know this much: he has parents. Sorry, there's more to it than that. We know the name of his space Dad's flying creature.

    And let's not forget why they spent so much time on Krypton and so little time in Kansas. It's because they didn't want to tell Superman's origin story. Even if doing so would've meant telling a good story. You can see them straining to be different — different to other Superman stories, different to other superhero stories. You can see them groping for new things to focus on. "Well, nobody's ever shown how the Kryptonian computers work before. We could do that." And the whole film is like this! Nothing we've seen before, lots of stuff we haven't seen, without any thought for why those that came before did things the way they did them. It feels like a Superman movie designed to fill in the gaps in previous Superman movies… which means they're relying on your prior knowledge of other films or the comics to enjoy it fully, which means they've fallen right into Harry Potter Movie Syndrome and out the other side into Weird Accompaniment Movie Designed to Fill in the Conceptual Holes in Other Movies.

    So in straining to differ from the film's historical precursors they've accidentally gone too far and made familiarity with the precursors a requirement. They're desperately hoping you know how Kal-El got from being a baby on Krypton to being an adult called Clark Kent in Kansas. Then they desperately hope you'll forget about those other films when Superman is on screen minus his red underwear and minus his familiar personality.

    The finished product ends up feeling like an alien invasion film that just happens to have Superman in it. A really boring alien invasion movie, too. So boring I began to pass the time by thinking of different genres you could shoe-horn Superman into. Medical drama with Superman: he uses his super strength and heat vision to remove Lois Lane's appendix in the nick of time. Historical biopic: Superman helps Abe Lincoln pass the Thirteenth Amendment. Romantic comedy: I guess the 90s TV show already did that.

    Why was I so bored? Because the same Goddamn scene repeats itself over and over. All those flashbacks? They all cover the same ground. We get it, the Kent family know Clark has super powers and they've got high hopes for him, but ones that involve him never revealing his secret (more on that in a second). Okay, every scene plays out the same way: something dramatic happens to Clark. He sits on a fence or in the back of pick-up truck and talks about how conflicted he's feeling. His dad gives him some sage advice that in a better screenplay would be better advice. End scene. This scene repeats itself about three or four times. It's hard to say because we keep getting new scenes that cover the exact same ground. There's a scene, for example, in which Clark goes to a minister to talk about how conflicted he's feeling, right after something dramatic happens, and the minister gives him bland advice. These scenes have one purpose: to establish how thoughtful and conflicted Clark Kent is. You only need to do that once, not over and over and playing out the same way, with Clark sitting down and a wiser person standing their lecturing him. You can do that shit once per movie — only once — and for God's sake make it good. Do you remember that scene in The Fellowship of the Ring where Frodo's feeling conflicted, he wishes the ring had never come to him. Then Gandalf says "So do all who live to see such times, but that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us." That's a beautiful moment. It helps Frodo go on when he's at his lowest ebb, it encapsulates the character of Gandalf perfectly and it's good advice that we can apply to our own lives. In Man of Steel people just tell Clark to listen to his heart and try to change the world for the better, without saying how or why. They probably weren't imagining him punching another person so hard a gas station explodes, killing everyone inside.

    At one point one of the bad guys throws something at Superman and he dodges out the way, letting it destroy the building behind him. He could catch it, but he doesn't. Thanks, hero. All of the fight sequences play out this way, and it's upsetting. But even if you try to ignore the fact that thousands of unseen people must be dying all the time during these action sequences, there's no ignoring how boring the action is. Watching superpowered people punching each other is interesting for five minutes before you realise that everyone doing the punching is equally strong and completely invulnerable. Aaand then the fight sequence goes on for another 20 minutes with nobody gaining the upper hand. I've never seen a film with such a self-indulgent lack of restraint. And I've seen Nicolas Cage shooting people in slow motion whilst banging a naked woman. As ridiculous as that moment was, at least it only went on for a few minutes (insert sexual innuendo here). I mean it didn't outstay its welcome. Man of Steel's fight sequences aren't that polite; they just stick around and exhaust you.

    This is the kind of decision-making we traditionally associate with small children. A child will tell you that pizza is their favourite food and they might tell you they would have pizza for every meal if they could. But in reality you could probably only have pizza three or four times in a row before you wearied of it, even if it was the best pizza in the world… which these fight sequences aren't.

    Because, like I said, the sheer length of the fights is coupled with their complete lack of drama and stakes: the people attacking each other are invincible and super strong. Watching them punch and wrestle each other is like watching a dramatic shoot-out in which all the guns are empty. Speaking of which, I'd be interested to know what early years head trauma causes a soldier to think to himself "Okay, I've unloaded three rounds at this unstoppable alien demigod and it's had no effect. I'd better reload and try again whilst standing perfectly still, I've got a good feeling about this fourth round."

    This is what I find so frustrating about the film, there were some parts where they didn't want to cut anything and there were other parts where they cut too much. Character relationships, character psychology and backstory all get truncated into little snippets, but prologues and action sequences — anything involving special effects, in other words — get as much screen time anyone could possibly want, then another half hour.

    And if I think something's too long and in need of editing you know something's up.

    The Script

    It's bad. Nobody ever has anything funny, joyful or intelligent to say. My least-favourite line of dialogue is this:

    "The fact that you possess a sense of morality and we do not gives us an evolutionary advantage. And if history has proven anything, it is that evolution always wins."

    It's not a patch on the 'apex predator' line from Chronicle, which is the kind of statement it's clearly trying to be.

    Here's why this is a bad line of dialogue:

    1. Human history has largely focused on, well, humans. Anything before that is archaeology and biological anthropology.
    2. Evolution is the process by which living things adapt to their environment. The process itself can't be said to 'win' at all, it's the species that avoid extinction that win.
    3. Even if we give the screenwriter a break and allow that evolution itself can be said to win, it's not a process that seeks to elevate the strongest or most ruthless or whatever. I mean, our mammalian ancestors evolved from amphibians, who in turn evolved from fish. It doesn't mean that amphibians represent a 'better' form of life than fish and it's not like all fish and amphibians are now extinct because they had to make way for the humans.
    4. Even if we accept that the process of evolution has elevated humanity to a position above other species, the obvious distinction between humans and other animals is our culture and society, which includes a social code of conduct i.e. morality.
    5. In plot terms, the evil Kryptonians never use Superman's morality against him e.g. jeopardising innocent people so he will have to fly off and save them instead of stopping them and thus buying themselves time. Nobody in this film is smart enough to be that manipulative. And I'm pretty sure this version of Superman would let them die.

    Eight Years

    Posted 06:59 (GMT) 23rd July 2013 by David J. Bishop

    I'm feeling very grateful today, grateful for the things life has given me. I realised this morning while I was pouring my cornflakes that I was just a kid when I started this comic. I've always been a person who makes things, but such people are nothing without an audience, and I was 16 years old when I first started making things for an audience.

    I didn't deserve an audience, I did nothing to earn an audience, yet I got an audience anyway - I was handed one - and I've spent my years since trying to make myself worthy of that gift.

    I know I haven't always been the best cartoonist. I've been slow when I wasn't updating as often as I could have and now I am updating as often as I can I'm even slower. I've made some mistakes, I've made weird artistic choices and maybe I haven't told you I love you as often as I should have.

    But know that I am truly grateful for the honour you've bestowed on me by reading the silly things I post on the internet. I know the next eight years are going to be even better.

    On Getting Married

    Posted 07:08 (GMT) 15th May 2013 by David J. Bishop

    Hello, everyone! I haven’t used this space for any blogging recently. Okay, maybe I’m not entirely sure what blogging is. I used to use the blog posts to detail in excruciating detail things that had happened to me. Every time I moved house, started a new job, fell ill, tinkered with a project — it all went here. Every time I had a weird dream, here it was. Every time a crazy person harassed me in the street, I wrote about it. That’s happened a surprisingly large number of times.

    Instead I’ve posted essays, movie and game reviews but I haven’t written a great deal about what’s going on in my life, what I’ve been up to. Let’s remedy that.

    Okay, so I’ve been working on making some changes to the website. A tweak here, an adjustment there. It starts off as an idle fancy: “You know, I really should fix that.” At first you ignore it, then it boomerangs back and hits you in the jugular. Then you tinker, then you rebuild, then you overhaul. Before you know it your website is strewn over the living room carpet in tiny pieces and you need put it back together but with a Twitter feed in it, somehow. And each one of these widgets and divs and doodads has to have its own little picture, which individually don’t take long to draw but multiplied by twenty take longer than you’d think.

    Part of this website overhaul process has involved going back and re-reading past blog posts. Not an entirely comfortable experience, I’ll admit. I don’t remember them being quite that bad, which sort of makes me relieved that nobody read them. In places pretentious, in others absurd, occasionally petty, often apologetic for shortcomings. I was struck by how achingly insincere they all are. I can’t read them without seeing a young man desperate to project an image of someone different to who he really is. Sometimes I would puff myself up and pretend to be bigger than I am, sometimes I would make sarcastic (and quite impolite) comments about my pitifully small readership. Sometimes I would pretend to be meaner than I really was, proudly wearing the mantle of ‘belligerent asshole single-handedly setting the world to rights’ even when it didn’t quite fit. I’m not a warrior. I have been, and will always remain, a lover and not a fighter.

    Just as I pulled apart and overhauled my website, I have also pulled apart and overhauled myself. As embarrassing as those old blog posts were to re-read I derived a great deal of comfort from knowing that the young man who wrote them is not me. I know him well, we have a lot in common but he and I are not the same person. I’m the man he would have wanted to be if he’d even had the good sense to know what kind of man he wanted to be.

    Nevertheless, no matter how crappy his blog posts were, that young man made some damn fine comic strips and I’m still immeasurably proud of the body of work we’ve collaborated on.

    Out with the old and in with the new, as they say! What’s new? May is the last full month I will spend as an unmarried man. That’s new! Early next month I’m tying the knot. I’m not scared, but I do find the idea daunting. This whole getting married deal is a big deal and nobody seems to acknowledge that. Have you ever played a game, read a book or watched something where magic was commonplace? People can open portals to other place, drink magic potions, turn each other into animals, fly, become invisible and summon creatures but nobody cares. Nobody loses their shit when they see somebody teleport — a thousand miracles happen every day and nobody cares, they take it for granted just as we take for granted portable GPS devices and wireless internet connections. That’s kind of how I see marriage. The words ‘husband’, ‘wife’, ‘family’: these are ancient, powerful words. They have a poetry to them, a magic even. It’s one thing to move in with someone and never move out, it’s another thing altogether to be someone’s husband.

    Sure is going to be fun, though.

    28 Different Jumps

    Posted 22:30 (GMT) 16th April 2013 by David J. Bishop

    Oh, Tomb Raider, Tomb Raider, Tomb Raider. You and I go way back.

    It was my sister who actually played Tomb Raider while my brother and I watched, but we all got into it in a big way. With the help of an exhaustive walkthrough she was able to chew her way through Tomb Raider II, aiding Lara Croft in her quest for the Dagger of Xian. When I say she chewed her way through the game I don't mean it was like eating a sandwich or a pancake. Watching her play was like watching someone crunch their way through a block of synthetic industrial polymer. Not just one block, a pile of blocks. Imagine watching someone you love do that. And then, when they can't swallow another mouthful, they give up in frustration, put down the polymer and determinedly return to the pile the next day. Eventually they can chew threw the whole pile but they will not be nourished by it.

    The Cubes

    Playstation One graphics and rendering were good enough to manage cubes and, if you were lucky, triangular half-cubes. Some game developers were able to do something amazing with the technology in spite of its limitations; the first-generation Crash Bandicoot games still look gorgeous today, Metal Gear Solid was able to do a lot with atmosphere and an animation style with the kind of minimal emphasis on movement borrowed that we expect from anime. Some game developers did that, but those game developers were not the Tomb Raider team. Core Design stuck mostly to cubes. Their levels consisted of cubes. These cubes were suspended over perilous falls that you had to traverse like the world's largest, most dangerous and squarest stepping stones.

    These cubes looked like someone had spent a lot of time in MS Paint trying to make their mathematically exact flat surfaces look like craggy rock or old wood grain. Lara had to negotiate these cubes with a series of painstakingly precise runs and jumps.

    The Jumps

    Lara had 28 different jumps she could do: jump from standing, jumping whilst strafing left or right, running jump, President Leap, jump and grab, grab and jump, the doozy, jumptown shuffle and hop, to name only a few. Learning all the jumps wasn't the hardest part, the hardest part was inputting the precise button sequence required to make her do the exact jump you needed her to perform in order to not die, which was the exact same button sequence as all the other jumps but with slightly different timing or a subtly different context. Mistime that triangle press by as little as half a second and Lara will either fall to her death IF THE GAME IS BEING KIND or simply fall to the bottom of whatever Godforsaken cave she finds herself in, forcing you to find a way back up to where you were with severely reduced health. Many of the jumps required some kind of run-up but the upper surface of most of the blocks was only just big enough to allow for the run-up you needed, so you had to shuffle and hop backwards around the block you were on just to get enough space to run up to reach the next block. It was very counter-intuitive and fussy; you really were taking a step back after every two steps forward. It gets worse! All of the gaps between cubes were precisely spaced so that if a running jump was required only a running jump would get you across. If you didn't quite manage to get Lara up to running speed you were shit out of luck, son. Oh, you messed up? Well, she's just going to do an infuriating little jump that someone might perform to clear a large puddle and make no attempt to reach out and grab the ledge as she sails past it towards death. That was the frustrating part. If you reached the ledge so that your entire body was right in front of the ledge but your feet were not on the ledge Lara would plummet to her death. In real life, you would throw yourself forward and scramble up, you would reach out with your arms. Lara just held her arms out at her side and stubbornly fell to her death. But that was just for a running jump. Some jumps required you to grab the next one, but you had to know that in advance and perform a run-jump-grab. You couldn't just play it safe and hold ‘grab' for every jump just in case it was required because holding the ‘grab' button in mid-air shortened your jump. How do you learn which jump is the right one for the job? Trial and error, my friend. Tedious trial and error.

    Some people lament that since games went mainstream they have become too easy. I would point them towards Tomb Raider II. It's not a fun challenge, it's just pointlessly convoluted. It punishes you for playing. When you have died and failed over and over enough times to learn the exact sequence you need to succeed you get to not be punished, which I suppose is a kind of reward -- but it's not a reward for intelligence or bravery or creativity, simply psychotic levels of perseverance and the ability to memorise 28 kinds of jump.

    To play Tomb Raider II you absolutely needed a walkthrough, not to find the hidden secrets of the past but just to help you with the horrible counter-intuitive platforming. The walkthrough read like this: “Stand on the first block and face the second. Take two steps back then run three steps forward, pressing jump just as Lara's foot hits the ground for the second time. Now rotate 90 degrees to the left. You will see a rectangular cliff face with some green plants growing over it. You can't see from this angle but the line above where these plants are growing is actually a ledge that you can only barely reach. Hold down the walk button and sidestep once to the left, then hop backwards exactly once. Run-jump-climb to the ledge. If you fall, Lara won't quite die and you will have to walk back to the start of the area where you killed the tiger.”

    Sorry, I forgot to mention the tiger.

    The Tiger

    The local fauna around the Great Wall of China were frigging scary to us when we were children, the most fearsome of them being the tiger. It still being 1997 the tigers were pretty much just angry orange clusters of polygons, so to sell you on how frightening they are I'm going to have to take a second to discuss the game's atmosphere and pacing.

    This is how Tomb Raider II starts: you slide down a slope into a cavern. Already that's unsettling. Most games start you off 'at rest', standing still at the start of the level, ready to start your adventure. Not so this game. In this game you slide. They want the first feeling you experience to be that of being sucked downwards with no way to stop yourself and no clue as to how you got there. The opening cut scene doesn't set it up, it shows Lara shimmying down a rope from her private helicopter onto some flat, non-slippery grass. Jarring cut to in-game graphics. Lara is sliding. First thing you think is “Oh shit, why am I sliding?!” The second thing you notice is the sound design. The sound of you sliding down rocks makes the softest and most unobtrusive of hissing-murmuring noises, like tires on smooth tarmac at 75 mph heard at 2am when everyone else in the car is asleep. Then you hear a distant whir, an electric toothbrush on the opposite end of a football field perhaps, before you take two steps forward. Suddenly you are bombarded by the ear-shattering din of the loudest helicopter in the world -- am I being attacked? Is it landing on me? -- and you realise oh that's what that teeny whirring noise was. The part of the cave you were standing in before had amazing sound insulation. That was the chillout area, this new area is a graveyard for eardrums. At this point the camera does a clever trick for the period and focuses not on Lara but on the helicopter, as if she's looking up, wishing it would take her with it. As you realise your helicopter has abandoned you here, you begin to explore the cave, finding it completely empty. It is in this lonely grey cave that you will first notice the music: there is no music. There's no sound at all save that of weirdly quiet rocks underfoot. Then as soon as you step in a particular pool of water a tiger literally appears out of nowhere and attacks you. Horror fans will talk your ear off about the importance of music in horror, they will tell you that if you hit mute whilst watching a scary movie then it will become less scary. That's fine as far as it goes, but I will insist that nothing is as scary as the ringing silence of Tomb Raider II right before the tiger gets you.

    And this tiger, this bloody tiger. You hear it before you see it. You want to talk about horror sounds? What could be scarier than the same five seconds of growling and roaring on an unending loop? Frightening? It's a robotic bestial chant that speaks of a malevolent intent divorced from hunger or need. Yes, it's quite frightening.

    When you hear that otherworldly roar you will turn just in time to see a poorly-rendered stripy orange mass of angry pixels already upon you. You can run away, you can fight, you can die: those are your options. Whatever you do this tiger will run after you at full speed, lunging at you over and over and over until one of you dies. It popped into existence exactly one second ago and it only ever has existed or will exist in a single unending state: murdering Lara Croft.

    A real tiger would keep its distance, at least at first -- it would slowly lope over, carefully, watchfully. If it decided to attack it would slow down, lower itself, staying quiet. Just by watching it become still you would be able to feel its muscles bunch up in preparation for the unstoppable pounce. I'm not a tiger, as shocking as that sounds. I don't even know any tigers. I just know that tigers are hunters; that's what a hunter would do. A hunter doesn't sprint right at its prey in a demented rage screaming as loudly as possible. Of course, a hunter doesn't materialise out of thin air either, not unless it's the Predator. Tomb Raider II's tiger is not a hunter, it's an unfriendly windup toy.

    The eerie silence punctuated by disjointed sound effects and nonsense tiger attacks lend the whole sequence a dreamlike quality. And everything, from the sliding to the cacophonous helicopter to the insane robot tiger programmed to kill, takes place within the first 10 seconds alone.

    Think about that for a second.

    Modern games take time to give you a chance to explore, they subtly weave in a tutorial and tease you with plot threads. In the time it takes the protagonist of Bioshock to swim to a lighthouse Lara has already slid into a cave, been mauled by a tiger that inexplicably hates her and died three times trying to jump to the same ledge.

    Nothing about this opening is right. You're supposed to build up to these big moments. You can't just dump someone in a cave and throw a tiger at them like it's a Roman coliseum.

    It only gets more nightmarish and weird from there. After the game has casually introduced a second tiger from nowhere, then you meet the spiders. Again, you hear them before you see them, only this time it's because you never see them. They are dark brown shapes running at you across a dark brown floor in the dark, they make a scratching sound like scribbling pencil in a way that real spiders don't. I'm only describing these things as spiders because that's what the internet thinks they are, I think the floor itself is coming to life and attacking you.

    After the floor spiders come flocks of murderous crows. Last of all: a t-rex! Why the fuck not. Not even going extinct can stop this prehistoric monster from trying to kill Lara.

    When you finally encounter human enemies the game reaches its nadir. These guys have cuboids for bodies, thin cuboid limbs and cubes for heads. They half-run half-march right at you, knees high like they're playing keepy-uppy with an invisible football, pointing a cuboid gun straight ahead at arm's length wherever they go. They take about three blasts from the shotgun to the chest at point blank range to go down. Two shotgun blasts won't slow them down -- or speed them up for that matter. They will just run at you with the same grim mechanical unstoppability as the tiger, or as a train about to run you over. To be honest, all three are about as talkative as each other: without help from the flimsy storyline that is only reintroduced between levels you would have zero context for who they are or why they need you to die. Where did he come from? How does he know where to find you? Was he waiting behind that door this whole time just in case Lara Croft walked into the room? How does he even know who you are? They never explain, so we should just assume that he wants to kill you because he exists and this is a Tomb Raider game -- time and space want you dead, everything in your environment, from the floors to the birds to laws of reality, is conspiring to kill you.

    Did I mention the traps? The tombs you raid are trying to kill you too! As if the platforming wasn't bad enough already, there are times when walking down an ordinary corridor will result in spiky doom erupting from the floor, walls or ceiling. Sometimes a pit will just open up and Ms. Croft will be impaled like a cocktail sausage on a massive spike. "There," the game says, "she's dead. Now do that platforming sequence again." Death in this game is random, arbitrary and costly; making progress is like building a tower of wooden blocks for a toddler to knock down with gleeful abandon.

    It's no wonder that gamers in the 90s felt such affection for Lara Croft: she's the only thing in that twisted landscape of repetition, misery and surreal imagery that's real, relatable and recognisably human.

    How Lara Changed the World

    Let's face it, the cultural impact of Lara Croft has always been far greater than the games she inhabit deserve.

    Let's just take a minute to unpack the true cultural significance of Lara Croft. For a start, her very existence happened completely by accident. Some guys in Derby were making a game about an adventure-archeologist but their main character dude looked just like Indiana Jones, so in order to avoid getting sued they decided to replace him with a woman. That's it.

    Okay, so that's not quite it. They decided to make the hero of their game an attractive woman in shorts and a tank top. At least, that was the idea.

    In reality, there's no clear reason why Lara's attractiveness became such a big deal. I never saw the first game but I know for a fact that in Tomb Raider II Lara Croft's face looked like a frowny face drawn in felt tip on the side of an egg. She doesn't even do anything sexy, if you ignore her strangely alluring walk animation (as I tried to at the time). Here's how sexy things get: when you finish the game she runs a shower and prepares to take off her bathrobe but then stops herself, turns to the camera, says “Don't you think you've seen enough?” and then she shoots you, the player, dead. This is the only concession the game makes to the fact that the player might want to see Lara naked; in all other respects the things that she does and the adventures she has play out exactly the same way as they would if her character was male. Teasing the audience with the possibility of a nipple rendered with in-game graphics was enough to light the fire of ardour in a generation of male gamers, apparently.

    So Lara Croft inexplicably became a sex symbol. She even became a spokesmodel for products that had nothing to do with games. In doing so she helped usher video games out of the nerdy introverted shadows and into the mainstream. All of this was due to the phenomenal popularity of the character of Lara Croft, not the popularity of Tomb Raider. For reasons I can't entirely explain, people really related to this character. It can't just be because she's a beautiful woman.

    I can explain to a certain extent why she was popular here in the UK. Not only was she created in Derby, she's also British herself. The people of Britain tend to feel a certain kinship with British fictional characters like Sherlock Holmes, James Bond and The Doctor. Even if those characters are placed in the hands of non-British storytellers, that affinity -- a protectiveness almost -- remains.

    But, cultural phenomenon aside, Lara Croft is actually a terrible fictional character. Based on the early Tomb Raider games alone, what do we know about her? Tigers fucking hate her. She likes jumping (even if jumping doesn't like her). She has a helicopter. She kills a lot of animals. She would rather murder someone in cold blood than let them see her naked. So I guess she's uncompromising? That's it, that's all the games give us to work with. She's not exactly Captain John Yossarian.

    She's not even dynamic by the standards of adventure-archeologists. Nicolas Cage in National Treasure is a better-developed character. Lara is just England's answer to Indiana Jones, which is ironic because Indiana Jones is of course America's answer to James Bond.

    A Jolie Good Time

    And I'm glad I mentioned Bond because like James Bond -- and Batman and Holmes -- Lara Croft is far too iconic and recognisable a figure for people not to make things about her. The problem is that all of her games are pointless and horrible, so they gave up and made a movie. This you must understand: they couldn't not make anything. Something with Lara Croft in it has to be made every five years until the heat death of the universe. The problem with the Tomb Raider film was that it was also pointless and horrible.

    They made the mistake of transposing the Lara Croft character directly from the games into celluloid. What that left them with was a big-lipped ponytail-wearing action girl with a penchant for murdering people. All they knew about her was that she has action-adventures, so that's all she does. From the running, jumping and spiky death of the games the filmmakers extrapolated a boring daily routine made out of vaguely x-treme set pieces. Lara trains by fighting a giant robot, Lara unwinds by performing a bungee-ballet, Lara brushes her teeth by launching a motorcycle through a window into some Nazis. They don't show it but I imagine Lara makes a sandwich by dragon-kicking a grizzly bear off its surfboard.

    Everything she does has to be super-competent and super-accomplished. I'm not sure where they got that idea from; the Lara Croft I know can't cross a room without getting devoured by a tiger and falling to her death a dozen times. Maybe they thought that to write a strong female protagonist they had to write someone who never makes mistakes and never struggles to achieve anything because to do otherwise would be sexist. No matter how good their intentions were, what they ended up with was a boring character.

    Then Prince of Persia: The Sands of Time comes along and shows everyone how to make a game filled with platforming, puzzles and death traps that doesn't actively punish the player for picking up the controller. And interest in Lara Croft gradually waned, we all grew up a little bit, and started getting interested in female game protagonists like Commander Shepard, who manages to kick ass and save the world without the aid of gigantic breasts. In fact, the role gender plays in Mass Effect is the same as the role it plays in Tomb Raider but even more so: it plays out the same way whether you're a woman or a man, it literally makes no difference. What use do we have for Lara Croft in a world like this?

    But Lara Croft is far too iconic and recognisable a figure for people not to make things about her. So, it's time for a reboot. The Batman franchise got one, Doctor Who got one, the James Bond movies got one -- a new film that may or may not fit into the existing continuity, but which tonally takes the series in a new direction, normally marked by improved writing and acting from previous instalments. Tomb Raider -- and I don't know what other title I expected it to have -- is that game. This is Lara Croft's Batman Begins.

    The Adventures of James Bond the Selfish Murderer

    Actually, Casino Royale is a much better example and I'll explain why. I didn't give a shit about James Bond until that film. Oh, I loved his movies; in childhood and adolescence I watched every single one. To me they were jetski-flying-off-cliff-sending-bad-guy-to-his-death delivery systems. But James Bond himself, James Bond the character? I never gave a shit about him. He's suave, charismatic, he drinks Martinis, he kisses ladies on the mouth and he kills a lot of people without caring. He's just a cipher for the audience to project themselves onto. Wouldn't it be great if we were that cool? If we got to drink Martinis and kiss ladies on the mouth? Wouldn't it be cool if we could do what is necessary for our survival or in service of a greater cause without being crippled emotionally? If I was to shoot someone, even if I was 100% certain they were a bad guy and the world was going to end if I didn't, I would be overwhelmed by shock, nausea, guilt, self-hatred, doubt and then ultimately fear that I would have to do it again. James Bond kills a guy in cold blood and makes a witty little joke about it, even though most of the time the only person to address these comments to is the corpse (for maximum craziness). And the Bond girls? Half of whom end up dead? That would never happen. I'd get as far as one Bond girl, then I would want to stay and cuddle, we'd probably stay up all night talking about our childhoods and then the rest of the film would be me trying to get this woman to safety. James Bond just sneaks out while they're sleeping, hits the casino and then comes back to find them in pieces in the hotel mini fridge. As a hook for the male audience-members to hang their wish-fulfilment fantasies on James Bond is fine. But if you take the things he says and does and analyse his character it becomes obvious the man is a sociopath.

    And that's why the James Bond lifestyle is just a fantasy. Men, as a sex, are innately sensitive creatures. If we wanted to be ice-cold professionals at work, bed a load of women and spend all our money on fancy suits and awesome cars we could. I've seen people who live their life that way and they're not particularly rich, handsome or intelligent, The rest of us have mothers, girlfriends, wives and children, we have responsibilities, we have people we care about who care about us. There is a financial advert on television right now about a guy saving up for a cool Mustang but never quite having enough money because he has to spend his savings on putting his daughter through university, so he never gets that car. This man is the anti-Bond. The fact is that the Bondian fantasy life is within all our grasps, the only entry requirement is a complete lack of caring about other people.

    People what to be James Bond in an abstract sense, but if they were to meet him I don't think many people would like him as a person. But Casino Royale changed all that. They took the character of James Bond and made it their end point. The character we meet at the start of the film is not James Bond as we know him, not yet. He's a much more caring, sensitive person and during the course of the film he has to learn to completely detach himself from human emotion until finally he becomes a catch-phrase-spouting professional murderer. Now you have my attention.

    Tomb Raider does the same thing. I have absolutely no interest in Lara Croft. None. But if you take a normal teenage girl, put her in an extraordinary situation and show me how she has to become Lara Croft just to survive? Now I'm invested. Because now, like with James Bond, I'm imagining myself in that same situation. And, believe me, the scenarios presented are no wish-fulfilment fantasies. Lara is one of only a handful of survivors of a shipwreck. She's stranded on an island and it turns out the island is by no means uninhabited. Lara's reaction to the situation is fear, panic and desperation: all responses I would share if the same thing was happening to me. For the first time I'm really identifying with Lara Croft. That's what makes this Tomb Raider reboot different to all the others.

    Re-Rebooting the Franchise (Again)

    Yes, this is not the first time the Tomb Raider franchise has been treated to a reboot. It's not even the first time we've seen Lara Croft as a teenager. Pretty much every instalment from Tomb Raider III onwards has represented some kind of reimagining. Angel of Darkness reinvented the series as a noir-theme mystery set in and around Europe. Tomb Raider: Legend gave Lara Croft a more realistic character design and made similar attempts to make the gun-toting hard arse we knew and (inexplicably) loved in the 90s into a more well-rounded character with a sympathetic personality and likeable friends. However, there's a difference between those reboots and this new one.

    I played Legend. When you play Tomb Raider: Legend it's not a good game, it's just a Tomb Raider game flavoured with some things that make it more tolerable. They trim the number of jumps down to just six, they give her a little swinging hook thing to help her get to those hard-to-reach areas, they let you come back to the same spot you were on before you died instead of making you replay the last fifteen minutes of gameplay. Tigers don't appear from nowhere as if the stork just dropped them in your lap. But men with guns still blindly run at you, just in a slightly more realistic way, you still jump backwards while you shoot them and you still get ample opportunity to tumble into stupid death traps.

    Even the attempted improvements to Lara's personality, whilst welcome, don't really work. They give her two mansion-bound minions, Alister and Zip, who throughout her adventures chime in through her bluetooth headset with their two pennies' worth on how the game is unfolding. They're there for Lara to bounce off of and her rapport with these two dudes humanises her to an extent, allowing her to exhibits a greater sense of humour than in previous games (see ‘shooting player in the head' for contrast). However, all of these personality traits are still bolted onto the same ultra-competent badass from before, who can fire two pistols in mid-air while leaping off the back of a speeding motorcycle which itself is jumping across the gap between two skyscrapers. What I'm saying is she's too cool and too capable, always has been. Dress it up all you want but Indiana Jones is still a better character because he messes up sometimes, mistimes a jump, gets the crap beaten out of him. We believe he might just get shot or be buried alive or have his face melted. Even if we know James Bond won't die we still know the world is in danger. In every cutscene Lara takes death-defying gymnastics and world-ending super relics in her stride, so there's absolutely no dramatic tension. The only time you fear for this woman's safety is when she has to jump across a two meter gap between rectangular platforms.

    All of these previous takes on the character, from the reboots to the movie, were happy to add things in but they couldn't bear to take anything out. Perhaps it was out of fear that they would disappoint the fans of the old games. But, as I hope I've made abundantly clear, those games were awful. So instead they deliver the exact same Tomb Raider game as last time but with a slight make-over each time, but when you scrape away at the superficial improvements you can still see cubes underneath.

    Why the New One Kicks Ass

    Tomb Raider, the new reboot game, does something no Tomb Raider reboot has ever done before. It takes things out. It doesn't just scrap the elements of the gameplay that were outdated and frustrating, it also does what the Tomb Raider movie could not and scraps outdated elements of Lara Croft's character. And, let's be honest, the hard-boiled, uncompromising action girl stereotype really is outdated at this point. I think it comes from a onfusion between sexist tropes and girly things: writers used to think that if they allow a female character a moment of sensitivity or tenderness they would put her on a slippery slopes towards making pies for all the men, so instead they made their characters 100% confident and 100% tough in a way that no human being ever is. Modern writers don't seem to feel that impulse anymore. So the new Lara Croft is not perfectly at ease in a dangerous situation. All the way through she's scared out of her mind, she's freezing cold, she's hungry, she's desperate and she has no hope of escape. She has a series of increasingly difficult goals to accomplish and she has absolutely no idea whether she can accomplish them and it's not just her life at stake this time, but the lives of a host of well-written and three-dimensional fellow survivors. She experiences pain -- we've never seen Lara Croft in pain before -- she gets injured, she bleeds. They've not just made her human and relatable, they've made her so human and relatable I wouldn't have been surprised if they had shown her pooping in the bushes. That would have been a memorable mini-game.

    In fact even at their most well-written and detailed games rarely place this much emphasis on the raw physicality of the main character. Commander Shephard never feels pain or the need to eat. The main characters in every Bioshock feel an abundance of both (they grunt with pain when they're attacked or when they alter their own body's DNA, they're forever rummaging inside bins for discarded candy bars) but they never get tired or need a sit down.

    This Lara Croft feels more like the protagonist of a novel. In fact, she reminds me specifically of Sam Vimes in The Fifth Elephant, fighting for survival in the snow, chased by wolves, desperate, constantly exhausted.

    I always like that moment in a novel when the hero realises it's been 48 hours since he had any sleep. You don't get that in movies or games, yet it serves to humanise the main character more than an army of wisecracking sidekicks ever could. Yet, here it is in Tomb Raider: there are several points in the game where it's obvious that Lara would like nothing more than to just close her eyes and sleep, even if it was just for a few minutes.

    This doesn't make Lara Croft less tough, it serves to make her more tough. It might take a while to explain why.

    The story forces her to do the kind of extraordinary things we're used to seeing Lara Croft do -- climb up things, explore caves and ruins, kill people. Not forced in a contrived way -- the game explains very clearly why Lara has to do everything she does, everything is set up well in advance so you're never in any doubt as to why Lara has to do precisely what she's doing. But the situation Lara finds herself in presents her with very concrete goals which must be achieved at all costs.

    A Coming of Age Tragedy

    She starts off alone on the island. One of the first goals is just to find some shelter. Then she has to try and start a fire and warm herself up. Then the next goal is simply to find some food. She finds a bow and she finds a wooded area populated entirely by gentle deer and cute bunny rabbits. There's this real cool end-of-innocence thing going on when this teenage girl is forced to kill another living creature for the first time in her life. It helps that the hunting mechanic is really good. You have to be quiet and keep your distance, you have to wait for the deer to stop moving for a minute, you feel the tension as the bowstring tightens, then the sad little animation of Bambi flopping over dead. And Lara says “Sorry,” under her breath. There's so many things going on at once -- not only is Lara learning to hunt and kill, you the player are also learning these things at the same time. Then when you take what you've learnt and transfer those skills into a different context, like shooting a group of very scary men... wow. It's incredibly gratifying, yet sad at the same time because another part of the girl from the start of the game has just died.

    Needless to say we've come a long way from the stupid tiger running at you out of nowhere.

    Likewise, there are no scratchy spiders. And the men don't just run at you either, and I was delighted to find they were not cubes.

    At first when Lara encounters these men she has no means of defending herself and they are an incredibly threatening presence. The goal is simply to escape. Then when you see them again after having acquired your bow, something's different. You can finally level the playing field. It's kind of a metaphor for a girl finding her place in the world and becoming a woman. Lara gains more weapons and skills as the player progresses and while this is going on her character becomes stronger and more confident as the story develops, she becomes less apologetic shall we say, until finally those same men become scared of her. My metaphor remains intact.

    Watching Lara learn how to shoot things is like watching a young Mario learn how to jump, only this time he needs to jump so he can save someone's life. But killing people is just one of the things we associate with Lara Croft, each of these Croftian behaviours is given a coherent narrative reason. It's immensely gratifying to see Lara doing her thing, learning how to do her thing and having a good reason to do it, instead of just doing stuff because that's what she does c.f. the bungee ballet and the giant robot from the stupid movie.

    In short, this is the very best kind of origin story; it takes familiar traits and archetypes and breathes new life into them by showing them being built from the ground up.

    The only problem is, where do they go from here? Like I said before, I really don't care about Lara Croft any more than I care about James Bond. Now that the girl from the start of the game has become Lara Croft, where can she go? How can she develop beyond what we expect? I'm a little bit worried that, having gone to all the trouble of rebooting Lara, the Tomb Raider games will just go back to doing the same inane bullshit they did in the old games and in the movie. I hope I'm wrong. I really hope we don't have another Quantum of Solace in the pipeline. Maybe we'll have a Dark Knight instead.

    Final Thoughts on the Game You Guys

    A couple of things: I'm pleased to see Lara Croft's sex symbol cache not being exploited this time. The last few games were little more than excuses to hire a new model to pose in the costume, always good for a slow news day. And for Tomb Raider: Underworld the only change they made from the previous game was to add a system by which cosmetic dirt was added to Lara's skin the more she tumbled around in the dirt and, of course, a system by which you got to pick which outfit she dressed up in. Move over Portal 2, we have a new candidate for best game of all time.

    So, no more cheesecake. Even better: there is only one kind of jump. It's that awesome jump that heroes in movies do these days -- where they launch their bodies forwards and reach out with their arms in order to reach a distance you wouldn't even think it was possible for them to reach. Kirk does it in the trailer for the Star Trek reboot. That's Lara's new jump and you feel like you're in a well-made action movie every time you do it. She reaches out to grab the ledge every damn time and if she doesn't quite make it you still get a chance to tap the grab button to stop her from falling to her death.

    And there's no t-rex. It's barely a Tomb Raider game at all, really.

    The Four Most Annoying Personality Types You Will Ever Argue With

    Posted 23:15 (GMT) 19th March 2013 by David J. Bishop

    A few parish notices before we begin.

    Parish Notices

    There is a new strip up, which is the next part in a storyline that began here. Just bear with me here, it is.

    Behind the scenes I'm making great progress with the comic, but the progress with the blog posts wasn't so great this month. The process by which they are created is much more slipshod because there really isn't any room in my schedule to write them, so they just get picked at during odd hours. Sometimes this unfocused picking accidentally excavates something hideous.

    I was originally going to elaborate on why I hate Good Will Hunting, but my 'full disclosure' pre-amble about how the film affects me personally somehow morphed into a frank and uncomfortably confessional account of my experiences during high school. I spent most of this month looking at what I'd written and thinking "I can post this, right? This isn't so bad," which later became "I shouldn't post this, but it needs to go live in three days, I'll have to post it anyway," which in turn became "I can't post this," two days before the deadline. So I decided to scrap it and work on something else. It means the blog is going up late again but believe me, this is for the best. You do not want to read about my teenage years. Teenage David had the right idea: he spent his time writing about people in their mid-twenties, mid-twenties David is not going to spoil that now by writing about adolescence.

    The Rant

    This isn't going to be a rant complaining about the level of discourse on the internet. Whether it's a comments section, a forum, e-mail or Twitter – if you open up any section of the internet to intellectual input from the general public you're inevitably going to get some bafflingly stupid, hateful or misinformed comments. The comments underneath Youtube videos for some reason have the worst quality. I grabbed these comments from a Katy Perry video. These are real things that actual human beings said on the internet:

    i love <3 beautifull music

    ---------------

    CAN EVERYBODY PLEASE GO CHECK OUT MY NEW KATY PERRY COVER !!! SHARE it like and subscribe please! Go go go thank youuuuuu ! :

    ---------------

    i like her boob

    ---------------

    a love music

    ---------------

    Fhrshjudjyy

    Not slipping in joke entries for comedic effect, folks. People are really just mashing the keyboard with their fist and hitting 'post'. Or maybe those are the key impressions made by a wild animal defecating on a laptop, we'll never know.

    There are many levels of discourse, each with their own unique qualities. I would compare trawling forum threads or comments sections for thoughts on any topic is like trawling the ocean for fish: you're going to get large schools of fish swimming in unison, you'll get weird eyeless creatures covered in spines and teeth and you'll get some hyper-intelligent dolphins that you just look at and think "Oh, what are you doing here? You don't belong here."

    But everyone knows that, so everyone has learnt to filter out the weird fish. I'm here today to talk about the subtler stuff that makes it through the filter because we can't just learn to tune it out, we actually need to think hard about what people are saying. Someone sharing their opinion with me can do so with correct spelling and a complete lack of racist epithets and still manage to piss me off. And this can be anywhere: in writing, in person, on TV, in films and anywhere else where one person is trying communicate an idea more complex than "i like her boob". Let's do this.

    4. Person Who Assumes all Intelligent People Agree with Them

    "I know everyone in this room will agree that it's just a load of nonsense."

    Is this a way to get people on your side through flattery or a backhanded way to precision-insult just the people who don't share your point of view?

    Richard Dawkins makes this mistake in his 2002 TED lecture on militant atheism. I don't want to go into how I feel about the talk or about Dawkins, but all that aside he continuously implies that everyone he's addressing is a fellow atheist simply by virtue of the fact that they're attending TED. Oh, didn't you know? Everyone with a university education knows there is no God. I remember the day I graduated, when they led me into a little room and showed me the categorical proof that God doesn't exist. It's obvious now I think about it.

    Why They Do It:

    It must be nice living in a world where everyone who doesn't agree with you is a moron. I suppose all the women who ever rejected you just happened to be lesbians as well, right?

    The Danger:

    This argument is just a form of snobbery. We don't need to look down our noses at people who disagree with us and we don't need to equate their not agreeing with ignorance or lack of education. And we don't need to hate on the genuinely ignorant or stupid by lumping them all in with our enemies.

    And if you take any group of people with a personally-held belief – let's say it's diehard Thundercats fans – and set intellectuals in opposition to that group with some bullshit us-vs-them handwaving, all you'll do is make Thundercats fans panic and hate intellectuals. It's just the sort of rhetoric that provokes anti-intellectual, anti-science lunatics by making them think the knowing of facts is a threat to their way of life.

    The Hole in the Argument:

    If everyone who doesn't agree with you is an idiot, all it takes is for Stephen Hawking to say that he disagrees with you and the whole thing falls apart.

    The Inevitable Counter-argument:

    Oh, I wasn't talking about you, Mr Hawking.

    Here's how I've seen it go down countless times. Someone will say "I hate people who like x because they all think y." I will say "I like x and I don't think y." They will respond "Okay, you're not a real x-liker, in that case. I have no problem with you." This is the reverse-no-true-Scotsman which means "I'm going to carry on believing whatever the hell I want about whoever the hell I want, even if I have to change the meanings of words to sustain that belief."

    3. Person Who is Already Ten Steps Ahead of You, and Thinks You're Evil

    "I didn't really care for the Beethoven movies."

    "Oh, so you think we should just round up all dogs and murder them?"

    No. Wait, what? This person isn't just prepared for the worst, they know you're the worst and all you had to do was express a dislike for soft boiled eggs. In an argument this person will always be the first to invoke the name of Hitler. People sometimes wonder why every argument on the internet spirals into a debate about Middle Eastern politics. This person is the reason why.

    Logic means nothing to the Ten Steps Ahead people. Unwilling as they are to lower themselves to the point where they debate what you actually said, they're far happier reading between the lines and extrapolating an entire fictional backstory in which you live with your parents, have never been kissed and have been left a bitter, cynical husk by years of poor bladder control. Your hobbies include oppressing women, neglecting the homeless and fighting for the wrong side in every 20th century military conflict.Yeah, that's right I'm talking to you, Hitler-Stalin. Plus you voted for the wrong party in the last election, didn't you? See, this is the problem with this country... whichever country Ten Steps Ahead person imagines you to be in, that is.

    Why They Do It:

    Listen, I get it. Sometimes people use even-handed proposals as a cloak for their more radical goals. The older you get the easier it becomes to spot when people are doing this. Often when people argue against legislation to help a single vulnerable group it's because they're a bigot who secretly hates that group. But whereas in the 1950s you could just openly admit you hate people without censure, these days you have to bite your tongue and frame your argument differently. We still have bigots, they're just stealth bigots now. So someone will argue that gay people shouldn't be able to get married because it would lead to a change in the definition of the word 'marriage', which they have sworn to protect. Maybe they don't give a shit about semantics, maybe they just don't like gay people. I mean, it has to be true of at least some of them; it's not as if all the gay-haters were simultaneously eaten by snow leopards in the 90s. They live among us now, keeping that hateful shit largely on the down-low and we have no way of knowing which people in the anti-gay-marriage camp are bigots and which ones are linguistic sticklers. If they've chosen to argue against it on linguistic grounds, that's where the battle lines are drawn and that's where their opponents have to meet them. I know it sucks but that's what they have to do.

    The Hole in the Argument:

    You can't just accuse everyone who opposes the things you support of being a bigot, even if in 90% of cases you'd be right. Because there's always that 10% of people who have no freaking clue what you're talking about.

    Not that anyone ever told the Ten Steps Ahead person. Oh, you don't like the way this one doctor came across in an interview? So, what, you're anti-medicine now? I suppose you're one of those homeopathic types. Well, put down your hacky sack and listen for a second, hippie. Not every problem can be solved by tiny traces of garlic and monkshood in large amounts of water, you jerk. And those healing crystals aren't doing you any favours, unless 'not having a terrible moustache' is a disease, in which case it looks like you've been cured. I don't care if I promised, I won't clean out the gutters until you pay me for mowing the lawn. Why don't you ever just listen, Dad? Sorry, what was I saying?

    Yes, Ten Steps Ahead is going to determinedly using you as a punching bag to carry out an imaginary conversation with their father or their hateful uncle or someone else who's a much more stubborn and sadistic person than you who you've never met but who once voiced an opinion about the Beethoven movies and then went on to propose killing all domesticated canines.

    I had this happen to me. Knowing nothing about me other than that I didn't like a webcomic they liked, someone visited my website and reported back on the comic's forum that, based on my writing, they had got the distinct impression that I was a British imperialist. Must have been my rant about Crash Bandicoot that tipped him off.

    Yeah, just to clear this up in case anyone else is in doubt: the British Empire collapsed before even my parents were born – I wasn't even alive for the Falklands conflict. For the record, I like living in a country that doesn't invade and ruin other countries (Iraq notwithstanding) and am very much anti-Empire and anti-war. Not that I've ever mentioned the British Empire, Empires, wars or my fondness for oppressing Indian people anywhere on this website at any point in the last eight years, and I make only passing mentioning of the fact that I live in England. Clearly this dude had an axe to grind against the antagonists from a Mel Gibson movie and decided to superimpose his (racist? nationist?) archetype onto me.

    The Danger:

    You mean besides the risk of talking to someone who bases their opinions of you on how your countrymen are depicted in a Mel Gibson movie? Or the implicit insult to anyone who doesn't like Beethoven but also doesn't want to kill dogs? There's a greater problem.

    The real trick to pull with people you suspect of secretly harbouring bigoted or otherwise distasteful beliefs is to keep them talking, to question them about what they think, to get them to unpack whatever semantic or linguistic point they were originally making. And then, in the process, you back them into a corner until they accidentally let slip some stone-cold offensive shit. Give people enough rope and they will eventually hang themselves. You can't just hand someone a noose, immediately after being introduced to them, and say "Is this your rope?" Because you know what? They'll just say it isn't. Furthermore, now you look like an idiot, damaging your side's argument. And, worst of all, the bigot gets away with it!

    That said, far and away the biggest danger is that Ten Steps Ahead will strike it lucky and the person they're accusing of advocating puppy genocide will respond by confirming it. Then the exchange becomes this:

    "I didn't really care for the Beethoven movies."

    "Oh, so you think we should just round up all dogs and murder them?"

    "Not murder, euthanise. Think of what we could do with all that leftover fur!"

    And anyone who just wanted to talk about nostalgic cinema is left behind while Holmes and Moriarty here battle it out.

    The Inevitable Counter-argument: "I don't care what you say, Gaddafi was a monster!"

    Yes, argue all you like but by this point Ol' Ten Steps has moved onto the political situation in the Middle East and how they imagine you probably feel about it. You can make one attempt, just one, to request that they respond to what you actually said. Thereafter, however you feel about dead dogs or dead Gaddafi, do not get sucked into a debate with this person. Eventually someone will, and that's how the thread spirals into a debate about Middle Eastern politics.

    2. Person who Grossly Miscalculates the Extent to which Other People Agree

    "Okay I'm just going to come out and say it: Stripped is only my third favourite Christina Aguilera album. Yes, I went there."

    Nobody gives a crap. Moving on.

    "So I'm a sexist, and when I was watching Friends last night my friend Mark said–"

    Hold up. Don't just brush past that. You're what?

    Why They Do It:

    Last month I wrote about how a lot of people imagine they have opinions in common when they might not really and how that affects the way we talk about pop culture. This is the dark alternative side to that principle, taken to ridiculous extremes. Sometimes if people spend a lot of time in one community – either in real life or online – they become used to talking to people who agree with them on everything. They have shared knowledge, shared vocabulary, shared values. So when they go out into the world they might fail to adjust their who-cares-o-meter.

    The person who thinks they're sitting on a powder keg of controversy when really their opinions are quite bland is just irritating. Either they're going too far out of their way to avoid offending people or they assume that everyone cares about Christina Aguilera's discography as much as they do. They don't, stop being so dramatic.

    The person who has no idea how controversial the things they're saying are is much worse. They will blunder into any situation and share their mind-control conspiracy theories as if they're widely-known facts, they will gloss over things that don't make sense and they will mention in passing the most hateful and bigoted opinions as if they're passing around cake recipes. In other words, these people are to stealth bigotry what stumbling drunkenly into a ballroom and blowing off the ambassador's ear with a blunderbuss is to stealth assassination.

    You might think my example is ridiculous, but it's actually taken from real life. The one about the sexist watching Friends with Mark, not the one about trying to kill the ambassador with a blunderbuss.

    Okay, true story: I'm on Youtube (not reading the comments) and a video by someone I don't know is recommended. Sometimes I get in the mood to try new things, so I give it a click. Turns out it's a series of pop song reviews of questionable quality. Suddenly, whilst complaining about a Beyonce video the reviewer says "Yep, I'm a misogynist but at least I'm not a misinformed misogynist..." and just as I'm thinking to myself Maybe he's working under a different definition of misogynist to the rest of us, he flashes a definition of the word up on the screen: "mi-sog-y-nist [mih-soj-uh-nist] NOUN A person who hates, dislikes, mistrusts, or mistreats women." So we can see from this that not only does he like mistreating women, he also likes mistreating the Oxford comma, and really is there anything worse than that? Wink.

    He goes on to explain– Okay, wait. He doesn't go on to explain why he's a misogynist. He goes onto describe in punishing detail how few female world leaders there are, proving in his mind that "girls" do not in fact "run the world". Dude, two things. First of all, that's a little pedantic. And second of all it doesn't make you a misogynist by the very definition you just expressed. Why are you a misogynist?

    Okay, so let's think about this. Two possibilities arise:

    1. If we're being charitable to the man we could suppose that he isn't really a misogynist, he just doesn't think that girls run the world despite what Beyonce claims in her song 'Run the World (Girls)'. But he's decided that people will accuse him of being a misogynist anyway so he's sarcastically admitting to it, just not doing it very well. He's basically trying to pre-empt Ten Steps Ahead by extrapolating the worst opinions out of every bland thing he says and openly admitting to having them.

    2. He really is a misogynist and refusing to believe that girls run the world is just a small part of that. So he's just flatly declaring how much he hates women as if he's telling you his preference for Pepsi over Coke.

    The Hole in the Argument:

    Whether 1. or 2. is correct, someone who is a misogynist could watch the video, think he's being sincere and say "Yeah, fuck those bitches."

    OR

    Let's say the person watching your badly-written Youtube video really is the kind of person who jumps to ridiculous conclusions. What are you doing to stop them from doing that in future, exactly? You're basically allowing them to believe the worst of you by not giving any information to the contrary, further cementing their behaviour pattern.

    Let's work on the principle of not attributing to malice what we can attribute to stupidity and say that 1. is true (and I don't have anything to say to the guy if 2. is true). Catastrophic sarcasm misfire. Let's try this instead:

    "I'm not a misogynist, I believe that men and women should be equal. However, based on the number of female world leaders alone I know that women do not run the world, which makes this Beyonce song factually inaccurate."

    There, was that so hard? The point is still ridiculously pedantic, when there are so many legitimate criticisms of that song. How about the fact as a sentiment "Who run the world? Girls!" is more than a little patronising. I mean, if women really did run the world they wouldn't need to write songs about it. You know men don't do that shit. And, unlike the self-admitted misogynist, I don't think Beyonce is saying that women literally comprise the majority of world leaders. I think she's going for that whole power-behind-the-throne "behind every great man is a great woman" bullshit. Girl, don't stand for the consolation prize nonsense, go out there and actually take over the world. As grateful as I am for all the support my fiancee gives me with my writing and drawing, I don't think of her as the great woman behind the great man. I'm without a doubt the man behind the great woman and I have absolutely no problem with that. That's as it should be: she's much smarter than I am.

    But Youtube Video Guy is oblivious to all of the song's actual flaws (apart from its factual flaws ho ho). Seriously, though. This dude is taking umbrage with the factual inaccuracies inherent in a literal reading of the lyrics. That is the blandest opinion I can imagine. Oh my God, I just realised this guy is just another form of the "Christina Aguilera discography" person who thinks that their boring opinion is much more controversial and incendiary than it really is! Wow, we've come full circle.

    The Danger:

    Youtube Video Guy is working on a completely different definition of misogyny to the rest of the world. He does this despite showing the genuine definition of misogyny as used by the rest of the world on-screen. Someone needs to explain to this moron that there's a difference between thinking women and men should be equal and acknowledging that they are not yet equal. If we expand the definition of misogynist to include "anyone who thinks women don't rule the world" then who does that leave, besides Beyonce?

    Pretty soon impressionable people are going to watch this video and think that if they agree with the creator's opinion they must be a misogynist too. Before long everyone with a bland opinion is going to start self-identifying as a misogynist. Then other people will start expanding the definitions of homophobia, racism and xenophobia to include people who don't like grapefruit, people who didn't like series three of Scrubs as much as series two and people who think yellow makes them look fat.

    Soon people will starting coming into forums and saying "I think Johnny Depp is a little overexposed; yep, I'm a Nazi, but at least I'm not a misinformed Nazi. Here's why I think Johnny Depp is overexposed."

    And where will the Ten Steps Ahead People have to go from there? And how will we be able to spot the stealth bigots?

    1. Opinion Qua Opinion Qua Opinion

    "Well, that's your opinion."

    OR

    "Well, that's just my opinion."

    Yes. Yes it is. YOU'VE REFUTED NOTHING!

    I've talked about this before on the site. You can check out my [Transformers: Revenge o' the Fallen] review for a detailed explanation of Plato's image of the divided line from The Republic (did that sound weird to anyone else?) it's somewhere further down this page. I'll try not to cover the same ground here.

    Two people are having a disagreement. A third person steps in and declares that both opinions are equally valid, that the real lesson here is that everyone should just learn to respect each other's opinions and agree to disagree. I'm not a violent man but I really want to punch that third person in the face.

    People need to learn the distinction between respecting people's right to have opinions and respecting the opinions themselves. In my book you have the right to whatever opinion you want, but other people have the right to question your opinion if they think your opinion is wrong.

    Yes, it's possible for an opinion to be right or wrong. Opinion is just knowledge minus sufficient evidence to be called knowledge. An opinion isn't the end point, it's the starting line. You begin with your stupid-ass opinion then you find shit out. You look for facts, you talk to people, you interrogate your thought process by rigorously applying logic. Then you change your God damn opinion. Form some better opinions. I used to think 'Walkie Talkie Man' by Stereogram was the greatest punk rock song of all time. I have since decided to change my mind.

    The Hole in the Argument:

    Okay, a quick thought experiment. I flip a coin. I ask an internet forum if it's heads or tails. People form their opinions and argue back and forth. Let's say opinion is divided between heads and tails 50/50. Then someone steps in to say "Let's all agree to disagree. It could be heads, it could be tails. Everyone's opinion is equally valid." Here's the thing, though: the coin is tails. I know the coin is tails. Not only am I of the opinion that it's tails, I even have enough evidence to justify my opinion and furthermore my opinion is true – I have knowledge. Nobody else in the debate had access to any of this information, they were just going with unfounded conjecture and yet despite that half of them are right and the other half are wrong anyway. If more people believed it was heads than tails that wouldn't flip my coin over. If someone was able to eloquently explain several reasons why the coin had to be heads it wouldn't become true. If everyone in the tails camp did nothing but hurl insults at the heads camp it wouldn't make them wrong. You're not right because more people agree with you, you're not right if you put forward the best argument or behave the most politely: you're right if you happen to be right. Somewhere the objective unequivocal truth exists and it doesn't give a shit if you already agreed to disagree, it just exists. That person who stepped in to say that everyone's opinion is equally valid is wrong: there's no way the coin can simultaneously be heads and tails. Only the people who picked tails are correct. Ultimately, only their opinion is valid.

    And every debate that divides neatly into two sides works the same way: one side is right and the other is wrong, we just might not know who. If your attitude is that everyone should leave each other alone and try to get on, you're failing to acknowledge that anybody is in the right, when it stands to reason that somebody has to be. Once you realise that in every debate someone must be right and someone must be wrong, the next question you need to ask yourself is this: "What do the people in the right know that I don't?"

    In my coin-flipping example there was absolutely no evidence either way, but in the vast majority of cases one side knows the truth – they've seen which way the coin came down – and the other side just has an opinion – they did not see the coin land at all. Here's an example: the phrase "a man after my own heart" means "someone whose feelings on this matter match up with mine". Some people think it means "someone who is trying to make me fall in love with them (by telling me how their feelings match up with mine)." Those people are wrong. Eventually they will find out the truth – it's not like they already have the evidence and they're just misinterpreting the phrase out of stubbornness now. They don't have the evidence yet. One day when they do they will change sides in the debate. Until that day they will think that it's a case of opinion versus opinion rather than opinion versus fact. To someone who doesn't know the facts, someone who doesn't yet know why the phrase can't mean what some people think it means, it must seem like either 'opinion' could be correct. Do you hear what I'm saying? To the side in the wrong, every debate seems to be weighted 50/50 for and against – and it will continue to seem that way until they are finally proven wrong. On a long enough timeline, everyone who thinks that "a man after my own heart" is about falling in love will stop thinking it. It just takes time, information and carefully-reasoned debate.

    Opinion Qua Opinion people are deliberately standing in the way of that process.

    The Danger:

    If everyone debating anything just gave up and decided that both sides had a point, nobody would learn. The people who suggest agreeing to disagree are advocating wilful ignorance and the unquestioning acceptance of every stupid-ass thing that falls out of another person's mouth. Someone might be of the opinion that drinking out of the toilet is more hygienic than drinking from the tap. They're wrong, but that's why it's just an opinion. If they had evidence and it was true it wouldn't be an opinion, it would be knowledge.

    And when do these self-appointed peacekeepers step into the fray? It's never at the point that an argument starts to degenerate into ad hominem attacks and threats of violence, it's always over the mildest and most bland disagreements.

    "I think I read somewhere that Kegel exercises were invented by Katherine Heigl."

    "I don't think that's true."

    "Woah, woah, settle down you two, let's just all agree that everyone's correct."

    Why They Do It:

    Some people like to fancy themselves as even-handed peacekeepers. They believe that the only way to settle a debate is for everyone invested in the debate to pull out and retire, because they don't understand how thesis, antithesis, synthesis works.

    Most annoyingly of all, they will often wait until you're halfway through a two-fold debate strategy and interject with "Well, that's just my opinion..."

    Next time you feel like you're losing an argument, why not try the "that's just my opinion" move. Then you can carry on believing whatever stupid crap you want to believe, unchallenged by reason. Remember: you can't lose a debate if your point of view is that it's impossible for a debate to be won or lost.

    The Inevitable Counter-Argument:

    I'm sure a lot of people would disagree with me about there being an objective right or wrong answer to all questions. This is fine for matters of science, they might say, but what about matters of taste? What if we're talking about movies, games or pop culture? Aren't these things innately subjective and open to interpretation? Surely debating these things is a waste of time?

    I would say no. Somewhere the truth of these matters exists. Maybe we can't perceive it right now, maybe we will one day, but it's out there and we need to try to get as close to it as possible. Maybe when we die God will sit us down and reveal the answer to all of these questions:

    "Okay," the Almighty will say, "let's take a look at the list of times you were wrong in arguments. Hailee Steinfeld was not a supporting actress in True Grit, she was the lead, and the film's Academy Award nominations should have reflected that. Objectively, the best video game was Portal 2, you really should have played it before you died. Taylor Swift's 'You Belong with Me' is the greatest music video of all time. And finally, bacon was not invented by Francis Bacon. No, that was just page one. Moving on to page two..."

    Maybe we'll find out before then. But just because we don't definitively know the answer, that doesn't mean there is no answer, and pretending that all opinions on the subject might as well be equally true is a damaging oversimplification. Art and culture and taste are abstract. Abstract doesn't mean the same as 'not real'. No, we can't judge a comic book the same way we judge a table. Tables are solid and tangible, they exist in the physical world and we can immediately see how useful they are. Comic books differ from tables in the following ways: they can exist in a number of different places at once, they are sometimes given away for free, they require thought and imagination to 'work' in a way that furniture absolutely does not. But both comics and tables are the work of at least one tireless craftsman, our society acknowledges that they both have value and we still have logical, repeatable ways to test them to see if they're wobbly. Works of art like comics are innately abstract things but you can't just say "This is a bad comic" and automatically be correct because your opinion concerns something abstract. The same thing goes for poems, songs, novels, plays and philosophical concepts. You can't just make stuff up about those things and have it be true, any more than you can declare a table to be made out of chocolate pudding when it's actually mahogany.

    Maybe you really think the table is made out of pudding. Maybe someone told you that and you believed them one hundred percent. That's just your opinion. Well, your opinion is wrong. You need to form a better opinion, a process which begins with finding out what the table really is made out of. Sometimes having an opinion is nothing to be proud of, sometimes it is only an indicator of ignorance. Perfect example: "i like her boob".

    Which Internet Have You Been Reading?

    Posted 06:53 (GMT) 15th February 2013 by David J. Bishop

    There is a new comic up. I hope everyone is enjoying this little storyline. If your response to that was "What storyline? What’s going on?" then you need to start here.

    There wasn’t a blog post in January. Why was that? Well, they take ages to write and I’ve been incredibly busy trying to get ahead and stay ahead with the comic. I normally wait until a subject comes to mind that takes up so much room that I have to talk about it just to make room, but none have really hit me recently. What has hit me is norovirus, then the Christmas holidays. The comic was fine, though – I didn’t get behind, I just wasn’t able to get ahead.

    Here’s what I’ve been mulling over this month.

    You know what there’s a lot of? Internet. There’s so much that you can’t read all of it. Yet we’re all supposed to add it to it, aren’t we? I’m doing it right now.

    Not only is everybody being encouraged to document their lives in detail via social networking services and blogs, but everybody with a passion, an obsession or a hobby is clustering together and forming a community around that topic. And these communities are close-knit and active, and they reach across the boundaries of countries and across continents. It's like they're countries and the internet is a vast empire, but one driven by ideas and thoughts.

    Yet, despite its unimaginable size, every person who uses the internet – either as a repository for their stuff, a place to enjoy other people's stuff, a place to hang out or all three – prides themselves on being able to take the internet's temperature. On any given topic they can come back to you with how the internet feels about it, an opinion they will then share with you without hesitation and without acknowledging in any way that this is not a universally accepted fact. And they'll do it with anything, too. This film? Too long. That song? Annoying. That actor? Hot. That singer? Hot but annoying.

    It makes sense. The sheer number of people and things being made, the vast amounts of stuff, it can be overwhelming. Imagine an ocean in which every molecule of water represents a distinct opinion or a unique point of view. You can't experience it all at once, even if you fully immerse yourself in it, the most you can do is observe the progress and size of one wave. But this mad need people have to summarise everything and arrive at a consensus remains. So what can you do? You've got to make sense of everything, even if you there's too much everything to experience in one lifetime. So people dip one toe in and make an assumption about the whole. To a certain extent, that's all our experience amounts to, any of it – a glimpse of a flash of a sliver of a slice of a universe too massive to perceive. But now I'm getting myself into dangerously philosophical territory – I'm not advocating that we all start taking the ineffability of existence into account in everyday conversation, saying things like "I believe with a reasonable degree of certainty that such things as eggs exist, in which case I feel I would like to eat some, assuming that there exists an 'I' to do both the feeling and the eating and that my own sense of self is not an illusion. Should both my perception of self and eggs be accurate, and should the assumption inherent in my request that we have a fridge in which eggs might be kept proves to be correct as much as we are able to determine through sensory perception and that upon opening said fridge a sufficient number of eggs should appear to exist, I would like to eat some of them. Fried or scrambled, whichever is easiest." I'm not saying we should do that, we would end up killing each other and then where would we be? Still, it would be nice if more people recognised that they haven't read – and can never read – all of the internet and maybe took that into account before they opened their mouths.

    I'll be reading a blog post, listening to a podcast or watching a video. Let's say the author is talking about a movie. They'll say "Do people not like this movie? Is that a thing?" or "Now, a lot of you won't agree with me about this, but I loved that movie," or just "A lot of people hate this." They've arrived at a consensus. They're not sure, but they've got the impression somehow that this movie is not popular. So they automatically use that as their starting point. If they agree with the perceived consensus they assume they're preaching to the converted. If they disagree they're on the defensive. But it goes deeper, and it's often subtler.

    An internet reviewer might use a quick reference to a film or game or comic as a shorthand for "something that is bad" in the middle of a review about a completely different thing. I've seen this done so many times, sometimes justifiably and sometimes not. I think we can all agree that Phantom Menace was at the very least quite disappointing and The Dark Knight was at the very least quite entertaining, some people might go further but I think only a weird minority would not go that far or fervently hold with the opposite opinion, so on this at least there appears to be some kind of consensus. But people often assume the same kind of consensus about everything just because they saw the same opinion voiced more than once. Was Avatar a good film or not? What page are we on with that one? Was everyone happy with how the Harry Potter series ended? Is Good Will Hunting a heart-warming drama or a groaning heap of inane bullshit? I know where I stand on these issues (loved it, loved it, hated it) but in my travels through cyberspace I've encountered strong opinions that both disagree and agree with my own. If I was taking the internet's temperature on these topics I would be forced to conclude that opinions are divided. Does this fall in line with what all of humanity thinks? Damned if I know.

    Why should we care? What are the consequences of this? Well, I don't know but I think it might have an effect on the way people think and feel about a work of art overall. Imagine someone – let's call her Caroline – doesn't know where they stand on the Good Will Hunting issue. Caroline liked some bits, she disliked others, she's overall ambiguous. Then she watches a video on YouTube in which I completely tear the film apart and expose every flaw to the light of day, even flaws Caroline hadn't noticed before. Caroline might find herself being persuaded by argument, she might decide to change her opinion on Good Will Hunting , she's now leaning more towards the opinion that it's a load of crap. Which it is, but that's beside the point.

    Caroline loves hanging out in my forums and chatting with my hundreds of other fans (cut to David's real-life forum, strewn with dust and dead moths). Caroline gets into a discussion about the movie and everyone shares jokes amongst themselves about what a bad movie Good Will Hunting is. Now not only has Caroline's opinion of the movie itself changed but her opinion of how the rest of humanity feels about the movie has also changed. She now thinks that the movie sucks and that everyone else thinks it sucks too. Then Caroline and the others will all go out into the world and voice their opinions, to friends, on Facebook, on Twitter, on Tumbleblog etc. They might even reuse some of my jokes. If they encounter someone who really liked Good Will Hunting they might direct them to my video. My video that unfairly and cruelly slams the whole film without recognising that whilst the screenplay sucks duck penis some of the performances were pretty good. Why wasn't I more fair and balanced in the presentation of my argument? Because I was under the impression that everyone but me loves Good Will Hunting and I assumed they knew about all the good points already – my job, I thought, was to topple the king from his throne, not... whatever the opposite of king-toppling is. Bowing, I suppose?

    So I hate Good Will Hunting but think everyone loves it, Caroline hates it but thinks everyone else hates it too. The trouble is, according to our personal perception, we're both right. But only one of us is. Or maybe just me, since Caroline, my massive fanbase and the video review are all things I made up just now. The point is not that the imaginary Caroline and I both agree, the point is that our assumptions about who agrees with us will affect how we discuss our opinions. Sometimes we just get things very wrong.

    One of my favourite films is Inception, but that's why I hate the discourse online that surrounds that film. A lot people who haven't even seen the film 'know' that it's supposed to be confusing. A lot of people spend their time debating details of the film based on a horrible misreading of the story. It's like they were watching a completely different film! Perfect example: soon after the film came out a friend of mine showed me a comedy sketch on collegehumor.com making fun of how convoluted the film is. Except for times when it just points out plot holes or complains that things the film deliberately leaves unexplained are unexplained. Fine, whatever. But then they throw in a line about how Ariadne might be Cobb's therapist and she's helping him get over his past trauma. No no no no no no no no no no no. In an otherwise straightforward sketch poking fun at a film's perceived shortcomings you can't suddenly complain that the film is stupid because Ariadne might be Cobb's therapist. That is such a fundamentally stupid thing to think or say that I nearly fell out of my chair. I guarantee the writers of that sketch read that online. I Googled it to check. Some morons actually think that, and the writers of the sketch actually read that theory enough times they felt they had to repeat it in their spoof of the film.

    So let me get this straight, some people think that there is a level of reality completely outside of the reality of the film in which Ariadne is literally Cobb's therapist and the rest of the film – e.g. the plot, the characters, the storytelling, the stakes, all of it – is imaginary? To those people I say this: go to Hell. No it isn't, no she isn't, that literally can't be the case. It's not a legitimate interpretation of the film and it doesn't make any sense. You might as well say that the story of Star Wars is the fever dream that runs through the head of a little boy called Luke as he lies trapped under a car waiting for an ambulance to arrive, The Bourne Trilogy all takes place in the imagination of a homeless man furiously masturbating in an alleyway who imagines three gripping spy dramas as a means to cope with being homeless or that everyone in Mamma Mia is an android. You can invent from whole cloth any level of reality you think might lie hidden beneath the story in a film but for which there is absolutely no evidence on-screen. It doesn’t mean it’s true, or helpful or relevant. "The film takes on a whole new meaning when you imagine this is the case," is not sufficient justification. "This is a film in which some things happen which aren’t real," is not sufficient justification either. Star Wars has that cave that Yoda says is strong with the dark side of the Force where Skywalker sees a crazy vision; I still don’t think any Star Wars fans are going to like my Boy Trapped Under Car theory any more because of it. I can do this all day. Black Swan . Natalie Portman is a highly-strung ballerina who begins to doubt that everything she’s seeing is real. Okay, so what if the whole film takes place in the imagination of an actual swan that just thinks it’s a highly-strung ballerina. THE FILM TAKES ON A WHOLE NEW MEANING YOU GUYS.

    Ariadne is not Cobb's therapist. She is a graduate student in architecture that Cobb recruits in what for all intents and purposes can be called "real life". There is no evidence to the contrary throughout the entire runtime of the film. End of story. I can’t believe I’m actually having to say this.

    So, good going writers at collegehumor.com, for just throwing that in the stupidest idea anyone has had about Inception amongst legitimate criticisms of the film as if it somehow bolsters the point you’re making. The best part is the number of people who will watch that film and for the first time consider the possibility that Ariadne is Cobb’s therapist. Just imagine how much more they’ll be able to contribute next time the film is discussed.

    And I truly don’t know how many people have got the idea that Inception is a complex puzzle of a movie that takes at least three viewings to fully understand. I have heard that opinion in a lot of different places both online and off, enough to make me worry that the majority of people have that impression.

    I got it on the first viewing. It’s a straightforward heist film – that’s all it is. The details of that straightforward heist might involve technology that allows for dreams within dreams to occur but the film is so well-made that you’re never in any doubt about which "layer" you’re looking at because each dream is given its own distinct aesthetic and colour scheme. It’s a film that rewards attentive viewing. Just pay attention.

    So here’s the direct result of that. I saw an old friend for the first time in about a year. Someone mentions Inception.
    "I hate that film," he says.
    "What? Why?"
    "Everyone made out it was this convoluted mindscrew but when I watched it was just a straightforward heist film. I was so disappointed."
    I then had to explain that "everyone" was obviously wrong but that this wasn’t Inception’s fault.

    That’s the trouble with arriving at a consensus on what everyone thinks: it ends up influencing what you think, and in some not altogether positive ways.

    Here’s my solution: we all need to think about these things a little more. Swill some of those ideas around in your mouth for a bit longer before opening it. When we hear an opinion we need to think critically about where that opinion might have come from, then we need to judge for ourselves if it’s based in reality or based on some incorrect assumption about reality (e.g. "I can decide Ariadne is a therapist because it’s a film with dreams in"). We need to resist the urge to sum everything up. We need to cite our sources. I mentioned my friend and collegehumor.com. I invented a woman named Caroline, for God’s sake. I could have just said "Some people think this and some people think this but then SOME people think THIS." I have to stop myself from doing that a lot of the time, because I sound like a badly-written Wikipedia article and I become about as helpful and informative as a result.

    Okay, one last example from my life. I’m chatting on Facebook with a friend; we’re going back and forth discussing whether The Big Bang Theory is a force for good or a force for evil in the world. The topic shifts to the recent furore over supposed 'fake geek girls'. Then my friend comes out with this little gem: "Geek culture is on the rise but it's extremely misogynistic, because men are bastards." There it is: the consensus opinion, voiced as if the audience already knows it to be true. All I could think was "Really? Is that a thing? Are geeks all misogynists? Which internet have you been reading?"

    Like Champagne Corks

    Posted 08:47 (GMT) 15th December 2012 by David J. Bishop

    I'm pleased to report that a new strip is up. Although it does stand alone, this is instalment is actually the first part of a story arc that I'm very proud of. I know you're going to enjoy it.

    Speaking of enjoyment, I wish each and every one of you the Merriest of Christmases and the Happiest of New Years. Here's my review of a film that came out recently. It's not The Hobbit:

    I.
    "Come on, it's time to go see Twihard!"
    I try correcting her, just once. I explain that Twihards are the fans of Twilight, not the films themselves. It makes no difference. Calling it Twihard is more fun, and she never sacrifices fun in the name of correctness. In fact, she's probably saying it wrong deliberately. After a while I start to join in, we giggle together. I'm going to see Twihard!
    Variants include 'Twiharder' and 'Live Free or Twihard'.
    We're getting into the spirit.

    II.
    The only reason they split the last film into two parts is because the Harry Potter films did it. But those books are dense with story, character and sumptuous detail: each one should have been two films. I haven't read Breaking Dawn but I would be surprised if it had enough plot to sustain a single film. So whilst driving to the cinema I'm already expecting three things: shirtless Taylor Lautner, scenes of Bella and Edward staring into each other's eyes with unmitigated adoration and filler. Lots and lots of filler. The film doesn't disappoint in that respect, just in all others.

    III.
    "You're not allowed to make comments all the way through. You can make some, but not the whole time."
    She's referring to my habit of chuntering — half to myself, half to her — about whatever annoys me when we watch TV together. But, if I'm honest, she didn't have to worry. I just don't feel that way about the Twilight series. I see it for what it is, I get it, I acknowledge its right to exist.

    When I get bent out of shape watching TV it's because of some attempt to mislead or deceive — it's the news story that presents an opinion as fact, an advert that makes a spurious claim or cynically tries to flatter a particular demographic in a patronising or otherwise dehumanising way, it's the underbaked entertainment trying to pass itself off as legitimate art. Just touching on these things, I find it hard to keep my passion at bay. I'm a passionate man, which is the nice way of saying I obsess about things other people have zero interest in. The Twilight series is not one of those things. I had a go at being annoyed about the representation of gender and sexuality in the series, I even tried reading Twilight just so I could make myself angry about it, maybe write an article of twelve about how the popularity of the series is indicative of something or other. I can't bring myself to do it.

    It has some scary things to say about gender and sexuality, but where's the deception? Nobody but the most catastrophically idiotic ninny could mistake Twilight for anything other than inconsequential, frothy teen romance with some silly supernatural elements thrown in for fun. People who are angry that so many seemingly-sane and rational women they know have read these books or seen these films and enjoyed them, do you think that they don't have things that they like and don't like about the series? Do you think they won't take the elements they don't like and mentally throw them in the trash? So it's a badly-written fantasy story that borrows from better works and plays fast and loose with their mythos. It wouldn't be the first and it certainly won't be the last. This is starting to sound like a defense of Twilight.

    IV.
    Okay so the gender and sexuality stuff is (and I'm going to borrow a word my English tutors would use a lot) problematic. "Problematic" covers a multitude of sins. Here's how I came to understand "problematic" based on how people smarter than me used the word. Something is problematised if you can't just switch off your brain and enjoy it uncritically anymore because of something you know. If a successful businesswoman wrote a play about how money is the root of all evil, knowing about her success would make the play problematic. It doesn't make it better, it doesn't make it worse, it doesn't render the whole play null and void — it's a fly in the ointment. "Problematic" was often used to describe any part of a story that is seen as sexist or racist I'm retrospect. By modern standards, for example, Charles Dickens would be considered anti-Semitic. Maybe it's unfair to judge a brilliant writer by the standards of a different age, an age of hitherto unheard of tolerance and sensitivity, but it's there and it needs to be dealt with. The extent to which this kind of crap is forgiven depends on the extent of the racism or sexism and the brilliance of the writer. You can to some extent justify it, you can condemn it, you can examine it in detail but what you can't do is ignore it. That's problematic. Undisputed master of gothic horror though he may be, H. P. Lovecraft is racist even by the standards of his own time. And given that his time is America in the early 1900s, that's pretty racist. So Lovecraft is even more problematic.

    Twilight is problematic too. I could list all the ways it is problematic, but for once I'm going to exercise restraint and give you the short version. This is for the benefit of anyone who's been living under a rock long enough not to have heard any internet pseudointellectual's potted deconstruction of the Twilight novels:

    So, people over the years have used vampires as a warning to women about sex. At some point in our collective unconscious vampires stopped being hideous monsters and became sexy monsters. The vampire is charming, he sneaks into the bedchambers of naïve young women and has his way with them. But then they learn to their shock and dismay that this charming man is actually a monster and that their interaction with him has left them infected — not just by bloodborne pathogens but, worse still, by slatternly ways. The moral of the story is 'don't trust handsome men you barely know and don't leave your bedroom window unlocked for just anyone'. You might have noticed that this cautionary tale actually says a lot more about Victorian anxieties about women's sexuality than it does about the monster misleading and seducing them.

    Variations of this story have been told ever since. In the 80s the bloodborne pathogen represented AIDS. In the 90s Anne Rice's vampires were all gorgeous gay men doomed to eternal damnation by their appetites. It's not the only reading of vampire stories, it's certainly not one that works in 100% of cases but it can't be denied that the theme of sexy vampires refuses to die.

    Which of course brings us to Twilight. Edward Cullen is a vampire unlike any other. He yearns to taste Bella's delicious blood but he nobly stops himself. If biting necks = having sex then Edward is keeping it in his pants till marriage. He wants to keep Bella pure and unspoiled, you see. So we can read Edward's attempts at fighting his vampiric hunger as a teenage boy's attempts to ignore his overactive libido. She begs him to bite her on prom night but he refuses. Only after marriage does biting occur. You get the idea. This whole scenario is kind of, well, problematic.

    Young men are so horny they're all potential rapists are they? They have to constantly struggle to fight the darkness — the evil, even — inside? If you're a teenage girl and you let a boy have sex with you before marriage you're ruined for the rest of your life? But then as soon as he puts a ring on it, the whole thing magically becomes okay? Americans, are you guys really that neurotic about sex? The age of consent over here in the UK is 16 — we actively encourage our teenagers to have sex, as long as they know about contraception. We figure that making it illegal will do nothing to stop them. Not teaching them how to use a condom won't stop them. Telling them that all the condoms have holes in them won't stop them either — then they'll just stop using condoms. Giving everyone a special ring and organizing fun bike rides won't stop them either. Begging, cajoling, threatening and punishing them will only make them want to do it more. Manned mission to Mars? No worries. Cold fusion? Piece of cake. Stopping teenagers from shagging? Scientific impossibility. If being sexually active really does equate to vampirism, and Edward and Bella were real teenagers, he would have bitten her in the first film. Heck, he'd probably have done it before the opening credits finished.

    Well, when you put it that way the whole story sounds weird and old-fashioned. A romance story, between teenagers no less, without the premarital shagging? What does that even leave? My guess would be a lot of chaste hand-holding in meadows and a super-early marriage.

    There's also the issue of Edward obsessively stalking Bella before they start going out and his being pushy and controlling thereafter. Bella seems to adopt an unusually submissive stance for a 21st century girl. In the first film, despite being the story's de facto protagonist, she has a shockingly small degree of agency. A protagonist's job is to make key decisions that drive the story forward. Bella Swan makes precisely four:

    1. She decides to Google vampires
    2. She decides to confront Edward with her suspicion that he is a vampire
    3. She decides (?) to fall unconditionally and irrevocably in love with Edward
    4. She decides to do whatever Edward tells her to do for the rest of the film

    I don't believe that all women in fiction have to be 100% competent and 100% in charge at all times any more than I think the men in fiction should be. However, when the God damn protagonist of your story, male or female, is just sort of along for the ride or waiting around to get rescued then you have a broken story. The same can be said for the protagonist of the love story who waits around for the love of her life to make the grand romantic gesture at the end instead of going after what she wants. Don't want to seem too forward, ladies!

    It's all deeply problematic. Just as the first sexy vampires said more about attitudes towards women than they did about vampires, so Twilight has more to say about teenage girls than it does about the dreamy vampires they fall for. Barely-contained monstrous hunger and controlling tendencies aside, the dreamy vampire is a non-entity, little more than a dreaminess delivery system. But actually, it's the fact that the monster is not a threat this time round — that his charming and inviting nature can be taken at face value and his dark, violent side should be forgiven — that makes this such a troubling take on the story. It's still a lesson for girls, but now it's not a warning, it's a relationship guide. Whether intentionally or not, Stephanie Meyer has created a role model for female readers in the character of Bella, from which we can learn some rather scary lessons:

    Love tips for girls (courtesy of Twilight):

    1. If a boy breaks into your bedroom and watches you sleep, that means you're the prettiest girl in school.
    2. If you fall in love, forsake all bonds of family and friendship — they will only get in the way.
    3. Watch out in case your boyfriend tries to kill you, but if he only does it a couple of times go on easy on him.
    4. The man you love is physically more powerful than you and his family are rich. Blindly obey them all at every opportunity and everything will work out for the best.
    5. If your loving boyfriend expresses a willingness to have safe, consensual sex with you it means he's given in to the twisted evil urges that lurks in the heart of all men. If he really loved you he would physically throw himself across the room if it meant he could avoid touching you.

    Deeply problematic. Then again, so is the portrayal of women in the stories ostensibly aimed at men. They're always needlessly getting themselves kidnapped or chopped up and stuffed into fridges to provide the male hero with sufficient motivation to kill someone. Half the time they will sleep with the protagonist for no reason at all — at least Edward gives Bella an explanation for why he likes her. Maybe if male writers hadn't spent quite so much time dehumanising and alienating women it wouldn't have come to this. People complain about Robert Pattinson. They say he can't act, that (attractive though he may be) he bears no resemblance to the average man, that the film he stars in is just an inexplicably popular adaptation of a bizarrely successful franchise that seems like it was designed to be a cynical marketing tool first and entertainment second but one that women and girls can't seem to get enough of anyway, that the film doesn't provide enough evidence for why his character finds the protagonist attractive to satisfy male audiences so they feel excluded. I have heard all of these criticisms, each more than once, both in person and online. And yet if you took everything I just said and flipped the gender, all of it applies to Megan Fox and her role in Transformers. Young men will spring to Megan Fox's defense more readily and, I believe, in greater numbers than young women will for Robert Pattinson. When I worked in restaurant the entire kitchen staff were men aged between 17 and 35 and they talked endlessly about Megan Fox and the body parts they would be willing to lop off as payment for a night in her boudoir — and they didn't just talk about it occassionally, this was every day. A year or so later when I worked with a few women who were fans of Twilight they mentioned their admiration for Robert Pattinson (and his perpetually shirtless cohort) a couple of times. Both actors have done as much as each other to deserve their status as sex symbols, yet Megan Fox doesn't seem to invite the same level of vitriol. Maybe society is more comfortable putting a woman in the role of pin-up than they are a man, maybe people get angry about Edward Cullen because he's just there to look pretty and facilitate adolescent fantasy, and they expect a man to do something useful, damn it. And, while we're back on the topic of gender, it has to be said that Transformers is problematic in as many ways as Twilight is. How many of these action movies are about ordinary men or young boys being dropped into violent and potentially deadly situations and discovering previously unknown reservoirs of courage and endurance in order to defend something they value? Freedom, family, home country, Megan Fox — it's all just to prepare boys for military service. Here, let's fill your head with a romanticised conceptualisation of heroism, see if we can get you to join the army. Just as Twilight is trying to create a generation of obedient wives, so are action movies trying to create a generation of brave soldiers. If girls aren't allowed Twilight, then men aren't allowed Transformers. And that would be a pity.

    We have to trust people to be smart enough to take away what they like from the experience without absorbing the troubling message — and those that aren't smart enough would have just fallen prey to something else: a cult, a fad, a gang, a pyramid scheme, drugs, alcohol, cigarettes, cheeseburgers, Megan Fox — something will get them.

    I don't want to imply that I think all action movies are just for men (or military service for that matter) or that romance movies are just for women, just that society, culture, upbringing and demographic-driven marketing stuffs us into these roles and assigns binary male/female gendering to each. I've said before on this blog that my favourite movies are romantic comedies and my fiancée loves watching Die Hard, but will only see it at Christmas time because it's a Christmas film. She enjoys Twilight because of how ridiculous it is, although I suspect she's getting something else out of it as well. Just as I will simultaneously enjoy laughing at a badly-done sci fi movie whilst also being intrigued on some level by the ideas it presents, she might enjoy the romance plot on some level and laugh derisively at the special effects on another level. When I put this to her she adamantly denied it.

    I've never dared ask her to what extent she enjoys Die Hard as a story in its own right and to what extent she enjoys laughing at it. I think any answer other than "Die Hard is a masterpiece written indelibly across history" would only upset me.

    V.
    Breaking Dawn - Part One had its share of moments that completely cracked us up. We sat in the dark of the theatre, trying to keep quiet because some people were trying to take this film more seriously than we were able to.

    Funniest moments include:

    1. A council of giant, fake-looking, very fluffy wolves. They meet at night and argue telepathically — it's played completely straight and imbued with incredible gravitas. Apply that kind of seriousness to anything that fluffy and you will end up with comedy gold. I call this scene the teddybears' picnic.
    2. The following line, lifted straight out of a Leslie Nielsen film and inserted into an earnest discussion about baby names:

        "I was playing around with our mom's names, Renee and Esme. And I was thinking... Renesmee."

    Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha! Ooh hoo hoo.

    1. A scene of Taylor Lautner falling in love with a baby.

    Again, played 100% straight. Dude falls in love with a newborn infant.

    1. Michael Sheen's scene at the very end.

    I don't know what movie Michael Sheen thinks he's in but I want to see it. It would be an extravagantly camp gothic comedy masterpiece.

    In fact, Part One offered so many funny moments that we were left in no doubt about whether we wanted to see Part Two at the cinema the day after it came out. I went I expecting moments of unintentional comedy, I just didn't expect it to be funny pretty much all the way through.

    VI.
    When Bella starts running at super speed and leaping around like she's on the moon and scurrying along vertical surfaces like a spider the film makes no attempt to shield the audience from the silliness of what's happening, no disguise or artistic sleight of hand. The special effects are poorly done and the impossible feats of leaping, falling and running look cartoony. I'm a cartoonist, I love cartoony, but like everything it has a place and I suspect that place is not a serious live action drama about love and immorality.

    I look across to see my fiancée convulsing with silent giggles. At that moment Bella pounces on a big cat and tackles it in mid air. The giggles escalate to quiet laughter.

    After about half an hour she took to burying her mouth in her jumper so as to muffle the laughter. She stayed in there for the rest of the film's running time.

    VII.
    As funny as the start of the film is and as surreal and gratifying as the ending is, the middle part of the film is nothing but filler. Imagine a pie made from real pastry which, when cut, reveals solid industrial polymer.

    A busload of characters are dumped into the film in the space of a single short montage. I've said this before and I'll say it again: I was never given a reason to give a damn about any of them. I used to say that of all the characters in Twilight, but my indifference towards the Cullen coven feels like fondness and affection when compared to the colossal lack of caring I have for these new vampires. They all dress the same, most of them are blond, they all just sort of show up and stand around, each one has very little or no backstory, none of them are played by actors recognisable from other films. It's like all the extras in a film rose up and overthrew the main characters. Even the fact that some of them have elemental superpowers does little to make them stand out.

    VIII.
    The plot concerns bad guys showing up for reasons too dumb to go into, then there is a climactic final battle. Of course there is. Harry Potter had one, The Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy has one
    , _The Return of the King_ was one. In fact, the last film in any mainstream film series has to have a massive fight and I knew that Twilight would be no different, even though it's ostensibly a story about love, marriage and babies. We get a big fight anyway! It's right there in the poster: the main characters breaking rank and sprinting towards the enemy. The trailer shows Edward picking Bella up and using her as a blunt weapon. And Part One got every single other plot point out of the way, so there's nothing left for anyone to do apart from rally an army and fight another army. That's what all the new characters are doing here. If you ever wanted to know what The Return of the King would look like with the cast of The O.C., then look no further.

    I say "army". The promotional material does its best to hide it, but we're actually talking about twenty-odd people fighting another twenty. Weirdly, the film doesn't try to hide it at all. Most of the time the 'armies' are shot in a way that makes their overall size difficult to judge, but then the director will keep throwing in a shot of the battlefield from above that makes it instantly clear that each force is too small to even overcrowd a restaurant. I swear these overhead shots are deliberately positioned just too high so as to make the vampire squads look underwhelming. It felt like these shots were timed for comedic effect, but they probably weren't. Probably.

    IX.
    Some of the vampires the Cullen coven recruit are red-eyed vampires. Sidebar: 'coven' is always a stupid collective noun for vampires, even when some of those vampires are also witches.

    The red eyes mark these vampires out as drinkers of human blood, because apparently their own metabolism can recognise moral choice and will colour-code their bodies accordingly.

    There is a scene in which Emmett and Rosalie, two non-human-killing good guys, travel to recruit the nomadic human-killing vampire Garrett (I had to use the awful Twilight wiki to look up all these characters, I blame the film). Garrett has a man cornered in dark alleyway and is just about to feed when Emmett and Rosalie interrupt. It's the "I was going to eat him" scene! You know, that classic trick that films use when they want to establish a character as normally doing evil things without actually showing them do it, either because it's too scary for kids or because they don't want the audience to lose sympathy with the character. In The Lion King Scar catches a mouse and is about to eat it when Zazu interrupts and the mouse escapes: we establish that Scar would have eaten the mouse if nobody had intervened and we don't have to see a cute mouse getting eaten. Works every time.

    Except in this scene, after Emmett and Rosalie finish their recruitment speech Garrett says something along the lines of "Okay I will join your cause but first it's time for a little snack" and then he reapplies himself to the task of eating this person. And the weird thing? Emmett and Rosalie, good guys both, they let him. They may have sworn off human blood, but apparently that decision not to kill does not extend to preventing others from killing right before their eyes. They just smile and look on like they're watching Garrett egg somebody's car, it's the indulgent smile of a parent, the smile that says "I'm going to allow this". Only "this" specifically refers to the brutal murder of an innocent human being.

    Ladies and gentlemen, give it up for the good guys! Whoo! Yay!

    X.
    There was very little in the way of uncomfortable sexism this time around. However, I did spot one thing: Bella doesn't get to choose her house. She's given a house by the Cullens – they build it for her, they furnish and decorate it, they fill it with possessions and even clothes for Bella to wear. This is treated as a kind gesture, but if you think about it that means Bella doesn't get to choose how her home looks or where it is, how it's decorated or even what clothes she wears. There is a scene in which Bella lies in bed next to her daughter and reads a book to her. That bed, that book: all chosen by someone else. There's no emotional connection that comes from going into a book shop, seeing a book, imagining reading it your daughter and choosing to buy it or not buy it based on how much you want that imagined scene to come true – instead, every aspect of her life has been prescribed by the community she finds herself in. Is that what Mormonism is like? Or is that just what Stephanie Meyer's community is like?

    I'm not saying the house isn't nice, but Bella will be spending eternity in this place, surely it can't all be exactly what she would have picked? Most of the women I know can walk into a room and instantly arrive at a decision about a change they would make to the décor if they were living with that space. It's an instinct that only becomes sharper as the urge to nest becomes stronger, it's definitely linked in some way to motherhood. My mother is constantly redecorating and refurbishing and she won't stop until she's completely happy with every inch of her home. It's genuinely endearing. Bella is a mother now: she should have walked into her new house and said "This is nice, I like it. Of course, those curtains will have to go."

    XI.
    The final climactic battle. Oh, the final climactic battle.

    Edward using Bella as a club didn't make the final cut of the film, but there's still plenty of ridiculous leaping about and insane violence. I'm telling you, somebody is brutally decapitated or dismembered roughly every ten seconds.

    Much is made of the vampires' immortality, but it turns out the only thing keeping these people's heads attached to their bodies is tissue paper and chocolate flake. If you opened a door into Edward Cullen's face his head would roll backwards off his shoulders and bounce onto the floor, that's how little force it takes to ruin a vampire's day.

    I saw this film in a packed theatre and there was a six-year-old boy sitting next to me throughout. Yes, it's a 12A. People on the row behind us brought babies with them. Babies! I think the six-year-old's mother was responsible enough to cover his eyes when Edward and Bella slowly ripped somebody's head in half at the mouth. She didn't feel the need to do this during the sex scene, oh no, but during the brutal violence – something a small boy might actually want to see – she turns squeamish? Tough break, kid, but you'll get no sympathy from me: when I was a child the only violent movies were rated 15 or 18 and they came on TV about four hours after everybody's bedtime. Nobody got to see anything good. These days kids' mothers are taking them to see horrific violence on a Sunday afternoon!

    Of course, this boy's mother was just bringing him along so she could see Taylor Lautner's glistening torso. But it turns out that the torso was simply the bait in a trap. They lure you in with the promise of beefcake and then before you know it? Heads popping off like champagne corks.

    The battle at the end is an elaborate trick played on the audience, a joke, and it's a very funny one. The big fluffy fake wolves, Michael Sheen giggling and shrieking and grinning like a possessed ventriloquist's dummy, the laughably bad special effects, the stupidly small armies, the characters leaping and bounding around like cartoons, the fact that every time there's a close-up shot you can see somebody's coloured contact lenses: everything comes together to create bizarre and baffling and hilarious sequence. All of the slow-paced staring and sighing from the previous films is forgotten, all of the ridiculousness of Part One is back in full force and then you add to that people having their heads bloodlessly popped off like Ken dolls at the hands of toddlers. The surprised look in the face of a severed head in mid-roll is an image that will stay with you after the film is over, and it's one that repeats over and over. Now I know the film-makers are deliberately making this whole thing funny. Twilight: Breaking Dawn - Part Two is the most subversive avant-garde comedy film in decades.

    But then, just as you're thinking to yourself "Wow, this is weirdly awesome. Nothing that happens next can possibly ruin this," something happens to ruin it utterly. Never before has such a high-profile mainstream release had such an anticlimactic ending. I'm not going to spoil it here. God knows there are enough places on the internet you can go if you want to find out how the film ends. All I'll say is that this is the worst ending to a film since Next with Nicholas Cage film. There's a very specific technique being employed here that screenwriters in Hollywood seem to think is at once effective, cool and a legitimate narrative device. It's none of these things and they really have to stop doing it now and forever. They're actually breaking all of the rules of storytelling. If you've seen either Next or Breaking Dawn you know exactly what I'm talking about, and anyone who knows how the book ends can have a good guess.

    Let me tell you how it went down in my theatre. Bear in mind that British people don't talk during the film. I know there are some parts of America where people will yell things at the screen, cheer or applaud. Not so in the UK. Here we just sit quietly for the duration of the film in complete silence. Nobody shouts "Bitch, don't go in there!" They don't even frame it as a polite suggestion. We'll laugh at the funny bits or gasp when somebody's head gets kicked off but we draw the line at talking to the film as if it can hear us.

    However, even in England (in a theatre packed with Twilight fans seeing it on opening weekend no less) when the offensive ending was revealed there was a massive chorus of dismayed groans. A number of people, myself among them, involuntarily spluttered "What?!" or "Come ON!" We were outraged: the whole film had just slapped us in the face with its dick.

    My fiancée turned to me and whispered "There was plot, then there was not."

    XII.
    One last thing. My favourite line of dialogue in the whole film. It comes in a scene where the newly-vampiricised Bella is being given tips on how to appear more human. She is told to blink her unblinking eyes, to not sit up so straight and to not move too fast. Then Bella actually says this:

         "Okay. I got it. Move around, blink, slouch."

    Honey, that's all you've been doing for the last four movies.

    revenge

    Posted 18:18 (GMT) 15th November 2012 by David J. Bishop

    I'm not really in the habit of watching television these days. I don't mean to sound like a prick, it's just the truth. I have a lot of respect for the art form of television, what I don't have a lot of is time. Any time not spent at work or travelling to work gets divided between the basic things I need to live: love, family, exercise, food, sleep and the comic. On any given day I will go without two of those for the sake of more of the others. That doesn't leave a lot of time to simply sit in front of the television, so I don't do that thing of just watching whatever comes on next and maknig the best of it. If I do watch TV I will make an appointment with a specific programme, I will write the activity into my timetable. And a show only gets timetabled if I plan to commit long term — if I've seen one episode I will go to insane lengths to make sure I watch all of them, every week. These means that, basically, no television progammes get timetables. Recently, there have been two exceptions: the first is Doctor Who, of which I am an ardent fan, and the second is revenge. My darling fiancée and I took the time, every Monday night, to watch every episode that aired in the UK. Don't judge us, we did. It became a cute little tradition in our flat.

    revenge, you see, is a funny-bad show. There are worse programmes on British television — that most wretched and miserable of creatures the British game show springs to mind, or the latest vacuous 'structured reality' show (cue violent nausea) — but what elevates revenge above such dross is that it doesn't know it's bad at all. An awful, worthless show will just point a camera at a roomful of cretins and call it a day. revenge has much loftier ambitions; it wants to be a multifaceted tale of power and deceit in which every character has their own agenda and desires that put them at odds with every other character. Essentially it wants to be Game of Thrones, which is so adorable it's genuinely endearing. Because it's so bad. It's not bad in every way — on a technical level it is competent, so you can always tell what's happening, the editing isn't confusing or annoying and the direction is anonymous and functional — but it is bad in some very fascinating ways.

    Let's tuck in.

    The Title
    The first thing you might have noticed is the juvenile lower-case 'r' in the title, which I am resolutely refusing to correct, even when it appears at the start of sentences. Well, they didn't want a capital letter there; I'm just politely adhering to their wishes. Damned if I know what's wrong with capitla letters, though. We can't really blame revenge for this, it's more of a problem with typography everywhere. People are scared to capitalise things these days. You see it in advertisements, you see it in blogs everywhere, in Facebook posts, on the covers of books, even in the names of companies. It always strikes me as an attempt to soften text, to strike a more conversational tone, as if capital letters make sentences innately more... Serious. But revenge has taken this too far. I mean, they called their show revenge for god's sake. Isn't revenge a serious business? The title shouldn't just be written revenge, it should be REVENGE! It should be a bold font, with italics and flashing bulbs. Instead we get the rather boneless (apologetic cough) revenge.

    A second thing you might notice is that they named their show after the entire concept of revenge. That's like calling a sitcom Laughter or a game show Contest for Prizes. Actually, that's not quite fair. There was that Meryl Streep movie Doubt, wasn't there? Whilst I haven't seen it, I imagine people doubt things in that film. However, I also imagine — and this would only be true if Doubt was a good film — that people do more than just doubt, that the protagonist experiences other emotions. So it's not accurate to say that a monolithic title speaks of overly-ambitious scope or a single-minded narrative. I think it is fair to say that if I heard Doubt was really good I would also expect, with a title like Doubt, that during its runtime the film would offer a thorough exploration of many different aspects, interpretations and consequences of doubt. Self-doubt, mistrust, suspicion, philosophical doubt — if I see a title that simple I would expect an intellectual roller-coaster ride… if it was good. I mean, I haven't seen it. I probably should have picked an example that I'd actually seen, although that we all know that would have lead to a 10,000 word review.

    revenge, unsurprisingly perhaps, does not offer an intellectual teacup ride or even an intellectual merry-go-round. Intellectually revenge is the monorail ride into the theme park. Single-track, pedestrian, nobody's going to be throwing their arms up while they ride it or talking about it when they get off. Despite a title which promises an exploration of revenge itself, it features a main character who talks of nothing else (literally in some episodes) and yet it fails to even touch upon the most simplistic ideas surrounding the concept. Justice, retribution, violence, deception — none of these things are what revenge is about, they are as far outside of its scope as the sun is to a star-nosed mole. The title, then, is an audacious lie. Imagine, if you will, if Yo Gabba Gabba! was called Science. Imagine if Marley and Me was called Despair. Only with a lower-case first letter. despair.

    The Plot or How to Write a Revenge Narrative
    I'm going to cheat and take the synopsis from Wikipedia:

    Emily Thorne comes to the Hamptons for the summer, renting a home next to the Grayson family to enjoy a bright summer. However, it is revealed that Emily has been to the Hamptons before as a little girl. In reality, Emily is Amanda Clarke, whose father was framed for a crime he didn't commit and sent to prison for life. She was permanently separated from him and never saw him again. Now, she's returned to the Hamptons, intent on getting revenge against those who wronged her and her father, the top of that list being Victoria Grayson, matriarch of the Grayson family and the woman whom her father loved and who, in the end, betrayed him.

    As she sets her plan in motion, Emily tries to navigate the upper society to destroy those who betrayed her father. But the further she goes, the more her emotions get involved and the more she questions her motives and the moves she makes.

    Before we continue, can I just point out that the Wikipedia synopsis for this programme was clearly written by a 12-year-old? Have you ever heard somebody say that they plan to "enjoy a bright summer"? And that's shortly followed by "She was permanently separated from him and never saw him again." Let us shake our heads and sigh wistfully. Oh, Wikipedia. When will you ever learn? We can put this down to a principle I call Bishop's Law of Proportionally Dumb Wikipedia Entries. It states that the stupider the subject of a Wikipedia article is, the more badly-written its entry will become. This is because no intelligent person would take an interest in or write a Wikipedia article about revenge, which means that no intelligent person has had an opportunity to edit it either.

    So the Grayson family screwed over Amanda and her dad, she wants some payback. It's a standard revenge narrative, in other words. Kill Bill, Hamlet, The Revenger's Tragedy, bits of Sin City, V for Vendetta, The Prestige, the Hit Girl subplot in Kick Ass, The Count of Monte Cristo (the last of which revenge is an adaptation?!) We all know how a revenge narrative goes, but I want to summarise it anyway:

    Step 1: The Crime
    Our protagonist, the revenger, is wronged, either at the start of the story or before the story begins, revealed very early as backstory.

    Step 2: The Exile
    The revenger spends time away from those who wronged them, but not by choice. Maybe they're in prison, maybe it's a coma, maybe they've been banished or it's just not safe to hang about anymore.

    Step 3: Montage Time!
    The revenger prepares. They train to become a better fighter, they form a devious plan or they acquire the special weapon, ally or piece of evidence they need to bring the bad guys to justice. Maybe they just procrastinate for a bit, whatever.

    Step 4: The Return
    The revenger assumes some sort of cunning disguise which they use to infiltrate the ranks of the bad guys.

    Step 5: Thinning Out Their Numbers
    The revenger starts taking the bad guys out one by one, starting with the little guys and working their way up the food chain. Maybe they're killing their way to the truth, maybe a lot of people were jointly responsible for The Crime and the revenger has decided to start with those least culpable until only the dude giving the orders remains, maybe they're just going to keep killing bad guys until they find the castle their princess is in. This is a good way to build up the drama because each bad guy defeated is an elaborate dress rehearsal for the final showdown. This step normally entails the revenger killing a lot of villains one at a time, as well as whatever deranged Japanese schoolgirls wielding bladed meteor hammers those villains employ as bodyguards — the micro-bosses that precede the mini-boss, as it were.

    Step 6: "You've Changed, Man, it Used to be About the Justice."
    Either the revenger or one of their allies starts to notice a change in the revenger's character. Either they've spent so much time cozying up to those they would destroy that they're developing traits in common with them or they've killed so many people they're starting to get a taste for violence for its own sake — either way the revenger will start to become corrupt or lose their mind. Maybe they've lost sight of their original goal, or maybe they're so single-minded in the pursuit of that goal that they're willing to commit worse and worse acts to get what they want. Expect allies to try to bring the revenger back from the dark side or, if the revenger works alone, there will be a scene of them staring from the basket of freshly-murdered puppies to the bloody kitchen knife in their hand, wondering aloud what they've beco-o-o-o-o-o-ome.

    Step 7: Bloody Satisfaction
    The revenger finally kills the big bad guy, possibly getting themselves killed in the process. Maybe they live long enough to get arrested by the authorities, maybe they get a happy ending complicated by the terrible shit they had to do to earn it or the terrible shit they had to go through to want revenge in the first place. Sometimes, just sometimes, the storyteller pulls off an uncomplicatedly happy ending. Nine times out of ten (unless your name is Inigo Montoya) you either die a hero or live long enough to see yourself become the villain. Roll credits.

    Not all revenge narratives will cover all seven of these steps but you really need at least four of these beats to qualify as a revenge narrative at all. Also note that you could tick all of these boxes and still not end up with a revenge narrative — all of these steps can be seen in the first Iron Man movie, at least they can if you squint, yet we can't call Tony Stark a revenger. An Avenger maybe, but not a revenger. Why? It's not because Tony doesn't murder anyone, because he kind of does. Well, let's go to Step 1. What's The Crime that set this story in motion? That would be Tony's capture at the very start. If Tony's response had been "These people are going to pay, I'm going to kill everyone here to get them back for what they did to me," then he would be a revenger. Instead, his response is "I'm a horrible person, this is my fault; I need to get out of here so I can start making this right before it's too late." Then if he happens to kill everyone in the process of escaping we don't really mind because it's in the service of a higher goal: personal redemption. It's all about how the protagonist responds to that initial situation. Tony does change, and his allies call him on it, but his character change makes him a better person instead of a worse one. So it's also about whether the storyteller thinks you can murder a bunch of people and become a better person as a result, or if they think that walking the path of violence invariably leads to damnation. Finally, it's about obsession. The revenger is always single-minded in the pursuit of their goal; nothing can stop them, nothing can even slow them down. If they want to punish the bad guys, those bad guys won't have long to wait before they do. This unwavering pursuit of personal goals makes for compelling drama — as audience members we like seeing people going after the things they want and getting them — and the revenger's demented obsessive nature makes them an interesting character.

    A really classic revenge narrative will feature a large cast of disgustingly corrupt villains perched precariously at the top of the social strata, villains so bloated and vile that if anyone can be said to deserve to die it's them, but whose obscene wealth and influence keeps them well out of arm's reach. Into this cast wades, like Jason Voorhees approaching a summer camp, the one person who can destroy them: our revenger. The revenger doesn't have their power or their money, all the revenger has is a kick-ass disguise, a great deal of cunning and a dagger.

    What could be more cathartic than that?

    So I must admit that I was intrigued by the idea of a revenge narrative played out in a long-running TV series. I mean, how is that even supposed to work? Revenge narratives are really quite simple, as we've seen. All these bastards must die, oop I killed them all, yay me, close curtain. This simplicity makes them ideal for movies, don't you think? The length and pacing of a two-hour motion picture is just right for telling a satisfyingly violent little revenge story. I didn't really understand how they were going to tell such a simple story in a TV show, especially an American TV show. Here in England it's common for a television series to run for just two seasons, each six episodes long. It leads to economical storytelling and, you know, an actual ending. In the U.S.A. if a series was to end after just twelve episodes it would be considered a failure. TV shows in America don't just end because they've run out of story, they keep going until they've driven their concept into the frigging ground, half the original cast have left, the show is in series 11 and two films have been made. So if you're making an American TV series you need to tell a story without a definite endpoint, in other words. That's not a revenge narrative. Revenge narratives by their very definition have an unequivocal endpoint: when the bad people we met at the start of the story are all dead, the show ends. How do you spin that into an as yet unknown number of episodes?

    Do you break each step of the revenge narrative up into little chunks? Episodes 1-10 The Crime, episodes 11-15 The Exile et cetera? They didn't do that. Or do you emulate Buffy the Vampire Slayer's 'monster of the week' format and trot out a new villain every episode that Amanda must defeat before she can get her revenge on the Graysons? Nope.

    You know what they do instead? NOTHING.

    Nothing happens throughout the whole fucking show, at least nothing that advances the plot.

    Okay, so we've got the first few steps of the revenge narrative. Let's take a look:

    Step 1: Amanda's father is imprisoned for a crime he didn't commit — funding the terrorists who blew up a plane — and thus becomes the most hated man in America. A short while later he dies in prison, stabbed in a convenient riot (more on that later).

    Step 2: Amanda spends time in a juvenile detention facility.

    Step 3: Amanda learns martial arts, is given millions of dollars by a close friend and acquires a big Box o' Revenge which is full of evidence of the Graysons' wrongdoing. So no need to find out the truth, no need to do some digging and investigate how much of this stacks up, neither the audience nor Amanda are given any reason to doubt that the Graysons are 100% guilty. The only question is how best to make them pay for their crimes? Amanda has two choices: either turn all the evidence over to the police or… well, you'll see. She does the second one.

    Step 4: Amanda assumes the persona of Emily Thorne which she uses to infiltrate the ranks of the Graysons. She succeeds at this almost instantly.

    That's it. There is no Step 5, in which Numbers are Thinned Out. She doesn't actually kill anyone. I mean, the entire first series has aired in the UK now and Amanda has got exactly no revenge. Oh, bad things happen. The Grayson's empire is undermined, their reputation damaged, their family torn apart, a family friend is thrown from a rooftop, one of the Graysons is incarcerated and a loyal henchman is even killed and left by the roadside. But Amanda did absolutely nothing to bring any of that about. She's not even sowing the seeds of destruction through careful manipulation, she's not even the accidental catalyst for these events. It turns out the Graysons are perfectly capable of destroying each other without Amanda's help, thank you very much. The nearest Amanda comes to settling the score is burning down some jerk's house, but he isn't inside and he is probably the least guilty party available. Revenge!

    I can't really complain, though. I mean, Amanda never actually said she was going to kill anyone; it's entirely possible she wants to get revenge some other way. But we're never actually told how she plans to get her revenge. That's it — that's how they're planning to stretch the story out over an indefinite number of seasons — they're just not going to tell us what the protagonist's goal is. What's wrong with a protagonist without a goal? Imagine a version of Raiders of the Lost Ark in which we don't know that Indie wants to find the Ark. Suddenly you're not watching an exciting adventure unfold, you're just watching a guy in a hat dicking about in Cairo.

    And, to make matters worse, Amanda is no Indiana Jones. The vast majority of her 'revenging' consists of planting bugs and hidden cameras in other characters' homes (or I should say the same hidden camera in the shape of a tacky plastic whale figurine, over and over again) then sitting at her laptop at the kitchen table with a mug of cocoa to watch the footage. Every episode has a scene of two characters discussing how irredeemably criminal they both are, the need for secrecy, their latest plans to wriggle out of this or that crime and how they hope none of this information falls into the wrong hands. Cut to Amanda sitting at her kitchen table in a hoodie, slurping hot chocolate and watching all of this with about as much interest as the audience at home (mild to none). The sad part is that every single tape on her laptop is a glaringly obvious smoking gun; any one of these conversations would be more than enough to put every member of cast behind bars for the rest of their lives, which means that by the end of the first series Amanda has more evidence than was used to impeach Nixon. She could impeach a hundred Nixons with this shit. So far she hasn't used any of it to bring down the Graysons, nor does Amanda change her behaviour based on what has recently been brought to light — that would involve doing something, anything, with the information she's acquired. It's like she's not really spying on the Graysons at all. I think they director is just using these laptop scenes to segue from her living room to someone's study. Or maybe Amanda is just a creepy voyeur with a short attention span.

    What does Amanda do in her capacity as Emily Thorne? When she's among the Graysons she just sort of hangs out with them. Whatever Amanda's plan is we can only assume it involves getting Victoria and her husband Conrad to like and trust her, so she soon starts dating their son Daniel… which instantly earns her their unconditional dislike and mistrust. So far so good! To be fair, this ploy does get her invited along to the Grayson family's elegant parties and sumptuous dinners, which is good for the producers of the programme because it means they can work in a load of lifestyle porn. People eat that shit up. This is the setting in which all of the Step 4 "I'm in disguise trying to get my worst enemy to like me" beats drop, although it remains to be seen what any of this will achieve. Every week Amanda-as-Emily pops round for coffee and helps the Graysons with whatever crisis they've created for themselves this time, then she goes home to watch them on her laptop, like she's catching up with the latest episode of the very show she's in. Why are you helping them, Amanda? Whatever your plans are for revenge, surely they don't involve getting the Graysons out of scrapes? I can understand, as disappointing as it may be, why you might be opposed to outright murdering the lot of them but perhaps — just as a starting point — you might consider not saying anything next time they're relying on your advice. They framed your father and had him imprisoned for terrorism, then he died, the least you can do is play dumb when they need your help. Just a thought.

    In all seriousness, with no trace of exaggeration, I don't think I've ever seen a TV show or any story with such an inert protagonist. She's not even inert in a soul-searching, fact-finding Hamletesque type of way. The show reminds us every episode that she has hardened herself against any feelings of regret or remorse and of her unshakeable resolve to avenge her father. We just never see her do anything to achieve that goal. Oh, she talks about it but only in the vaguest terms. "I'm going to get revenge," she says, "I'm going to get so much revenge it's not even funny. And if anyone stands in my way I'm going to revenge them, too. I'll revenge everybody!" I don't think she actually knows what revenge entails and I don't think the writers do either. And that's really sad when you consider how conceptually straightforward revenge is. Someone does something bad to you, you do something bad back. How simple and impossible to fuck up can an idea get? And by 'idea' I mean the premise of the entire bloody programme.

    Remember what I said before? "The revenger is always single-minded in the pursuit of their goal; nothing can stop them, nothing can even slow them down. If they want to punish the bad guys, those bad guys won't have long to wait before they do." Amanda is a new type of revenger. She is always single-minded in the pursuit of her goal but everything can stop her and slow her down. The smallest distraction is enough. She starts to wonder if she has feelings for Daniel, she needs to look after a dog, someone she knows pays her a visit, one of her victims is planning a party and needs her help, there's something really good on television — you name it. She dithers and faffs about so much that she comes dangerously close to compromising her secret identity, so then the revenge is on hold while she takes elaborate steps to maintain her charade. In these episodes Amanda is at her most active and devious, but what is she achieving in the long run? At this point we're just watching a chronic procrastinator deal with the problems her needless delays have caused so that she can continue to procrastinate.

    Then come the suspicion episodes. Victoria Grayson will remark to her husband "I don't trust that Emily Thorne," or "There's something suspicious about that girl." As far as I'm concerned, as soon as that happens the façade is over. The whole point of infiltrating the ranks of the villains is that they don't suspect you even for a minute. What Amanda should be doing from episode to episode is going to great lengths to ensure that Victoria never has a reason to doubt her — such thoughts should be furthest from the woman's mind. She's living amongst them with a fake identity. We have facial recognition now, we have DNA evidence and we have private investigators. Any deception will fall apart under such scrutiny. It's like a confidence trick, it's like Superman's cover as Clark Kent, it can only be maintained as long as nobody begins to suspect they're being deceived. As soon as people start squinting at Clark and wondering what he'd look like without his glasses on the jig is up.

    Let's imagine you're Victoria Grayson. There's someone in your life you don't entirely like or trust. That's it — that's the end of it. You cut them out of your life. What reason would you have for keeping them around? Victoria Grayson strikes me a as the kind of high-maintenance woman who would send back her food at the restaurant if the salad had too much vinaigrette dressing, she certainly wouldn't hesitate about ridding herself of people she thinks might be lying to her. Farewell, narrative believability! I'm not surprised to see you go; you didn't look like you were stopping long.

    And honestly, if she didn't want to be scrutinised by Victoria Grayson maybe Amanda shouldn't have started dating Victoria's son.

    The Characters

    We now move on from the things that make revenge genuinely frustrating to me and onto the things that make revenge an absolute pleasure to watch. See, I'm not just a glutton for punishment. It turns out I'm a glutton for a lot of other things, too.

    revenge is one of those truly tacky dramas featuring pretty rich people saying horrible things to each other. It's also a melodrama in the truest sense — every character is a stock character you've seen in a hundred other things, and each of them has exactly one emotion each that they trot out regardless of what's happening. Sometimes we can thank bad acting for this, most of the time it's bad writing. To illustrate my point, I'm going to give the name of a character and their one emotion.

    Name: Victoria Grayson
    Emtional state: Frosty condescension
    Victoria Grayson's single emotion makes her the true star of the show, but I'll get to that in a second. First of all, you might have already noticed that she's an intricate puzzle for anyone trying to guess how old she's supposed to be. She has two children, one in his early twenties and another in her late teens. Let's say she was as young as twenty or so when she had her first child, that would make her 40 or something now, except that we see flashbacks of her before she her second child was even conceived in which she looks about the same then as she does now, which is about 40. I mean, they try to use flattering lighting and make-up effects and fuzzy camera focus to shave about five years off but that still invites us to question which demon of the underworld she made a pact with in order to age at a third of the normal rate. So let's say that in the world of revenge Victoria Grayson is a woman in her late forties who has had work done to make herself look ten years younger. I say 'in the world of revenge' because I assumed the same was true in real life. When I first saw Vicoria Grayson I could tell the actress had had work done by the not-quite-right way her face behaves and I assumed she was aiming for thirty and missed. I mean, despite her attempts to look younger through surgery she still looks like she's in her early forties, just in a different way. But it turns out I was dead wrong. Madeleine Stowe, I discovered, is 54 years old. Yet she actually looks younger than she looked in Last of the Mohicans back in 1992. Twenty fucking years ago. At this point I want to say hats off to her plastic surgeon, although her youthful visage may owe more to supernatural forces or cutting-edge scientific experimentation, in which case I will say hats off to her experimental geneticist/demonic familiar. Something has got to be going on here, because Keanu Reeves ages faster than this lady.

    I wish I had known this at the start of the series instead of just finding this out now, because it certainly explains a lot, like why her voice sounds so deep and husky, why every single one of her expressions seems calculated to use as few facial muscles as possible and why one of Victoria Grayson's eyes seems to stay half-open every time she blinks.

    Anyway, let's get to the frosty condescension, shall we? Every episode will have a scene which starts with two characters talking to each other in Victoria's house — normally Amanda-as-Emily and Daniel — and Victoria will glide into the room as if she's being pulled along on wheels by invisible stagehands. Then, when she comes to a stop, she will look at Amanda with a delicious blend of obviously-forced friendliness and barely-concealed contempt, the combination of which makes her look like she's trying to fight back overwhelming nausea. Then she will say something overtly rude like "What are you doing here," or "Such a pleasure to see you, even if nobody invited you." I know enough about American culture to know that in U.S. day-time soap operas women being bitchy to each other is par for the course. I also know that revenge is just one budget cut away from being a day-time soap opera, albeit one without any mermaids, amnesiacs or magic wishing crystals. However, Victoria Grayson takes being bitchy to a place that isn't even human. When Victoria's best friend says "I had no idea you were having a luncheon today," Victoria replies, "Why would you? It was invite-only." That kind of thing. Here are some more actual quotations from the programme:

    "It's just an engagement. Anything can happen."
    "I am going to destroy you."
    "What part of get out are you having trouble with?"
    "I am going to ruin you."
    "I see a pretty girl with cheap shoes and limited social graces."
    "I am not only going to sue you, I will make you suffer every day for the rest of your miserable life!"
    "Why would Conrad hold onto something that he knows has no value whatsoever? Other than you, of course."
    "I'll see you in hell."
    "Every time I smile at you across the room or we run into each other at a luncheon or I welcome you into my home? Let that smile be a reminder of just how much I despise you. And every time I hug you? The warmth you feel is my hatred burning through."
    "Sometimes I wonder if having a second child was a mistake."

    I think it's safe to say they've managed the 'unsympathetic villain' angle. God, I keep wondering when she's going to unhinge her jaw and swallow someone whole. The trouble is, the writers of the series seem to spend a large amount of their time trying to make Victoria a sympathetic character, although I'm damned if I can tell you why. We've bee over this: in a revenge narrative you want the future victims to be as unlikeable as possible. It's therefore beyond me why the writers are going so far out of their way to undo one of their only triumphs. They clearly have as much idea of what they're doing and where they're supposed to be going as I would have single-handedly manning a Russian submarine. I would say that Victoria becoming more likeable is supposed to represent Amanda having second thoughts about revenging all over her and her family, but these 'Victoria is a sympathetic character, honest' scenes all happen when Amanda can in no way witness them, even through her secret spy cameras, so it can't be that. All Amanda sees is a frosty, selfish, needlessly unpleasant, horribly insincere witch. To be honest, I'm with Amanda on this one; the show's attempts to make the audience feel sorry for Victoria all fall flat. I don't care how many lost loves, secret pasts and failed relationships this woman has, she deserves to die — or, at the very least, go to prison for the rest of her life. The fact that Amanda has yet to make either of those things happen just serves to illustrate how useless she is as a revenger. They go to great lengths to show us that Victoria wishes David Clarke wasn't dead, but Victoria doesn't feel remorse for betraying the man she loves, she just feels sad that he's not around anymore. Listen, writers: you can still feel regret and have no conscience.

    Name: Conrad Grayson
    Emotional state: Spiteful cattiness
    Then we have Conrad, Victoria's husband. The man's steely eyebrows are permanently set into a serious frown of malevolent determination while he barks plot points the audience already knows. He's not as hypnotically gaudy as Victoria's character but he still delivers his fair share of withering put-downs. Unfortunately the internet has not documented them as extensively as they have Victoria's, and I didn't write them down, so you'll just have to take my word for it this time. One that I have committed to memory is "Don't flatter yourself", said with heart-felt loathing to his wife. (Conrad and Victoria hate each other so much it becomes a little creepy. If you read The Twits as a child and want to see a live action version with even more hostility, you've come to the right place.) All of Conrad Grayson's lines sound like the kind of things you'd expect a socially insecure teenage girl to say, or the things a badly written gay best friend would say before snapping his fingers. You could tack the word "honey" onto the end of anything he says, basically. I'm almost certain he said "Don't go there!" at one point. Why he feels the need to say bitchy things to his family is never made clear: it doesn't seem like he's trying to motivate them to becoming better ambassadors for the Grayson name, it seems more like he's trying to cover his own arse and make himself feel better. He's the widely-respected CEO of Grayson Global, a multi-million dollar company. What does he have to prove? Instead of hissing "Envy can be a powerful motivator, honey ," at his wife or berating his son for failing to live up to the Grayson legacy, he should just throw on a pair of gold sunglasses and exclaim "Let's continue this conversation in my billion dollar private jet, bitches!" before disappearing in a shower of bank notes.

    But really it's not what Conrad says, it's the mesmerisingly weird way he says them. The actor playing Conrad (Henry Czerny) has an inability to talk like a normal human being that puts one in mind of Shatner, Christopher Walken and Nic Cage. He dramatically alters his performance, completely at random. Mid-sentence he will drop his voice from a bark to a gruff whisper. One moment his facial expressions and body language will be utterly stiff and robotic, the next he will change and slowly, like a cat stretching out on a hearth rug, his face will crease into the most cartoonishly over-the-top look — no facial muscle goes unused. Without warning a grin will become a devilish sneer complete with bulging eyes and flared nostrils, when he's surpised or intrigued he'll raise his eyebrows as far as they can go until he looks like a surprised owl. Every motion is so stiff an unnatural, so dreamlike and unreal, and these contortions play across his face with the same speed and hidden menace as an iceberg drifting through the fog. I'd call Henry Czerny a bad actor if that didn't suggest he's a boring one. I can't tear my eyes away — he's like a caricature of himself, he's like a face carved into a haunted oak tree come to life, he's like the awkward before guy in a laxative advert but the cure never comes. God bless him.

    Name: Nolan
    Emotional state: Mild amusement
    A young dotcom millionaire who has the opposite of whatever condition Victoria Grayson has — he's meant to be in his twenties but he looks like an older, bonier version of Bill Nighy. He's Amanda's friend and confidant, but most of the time he serves only to demonstrate how Amanda needs neither — and to shoe-horn in the kind of pop culture references your dad makes. He calls Amanda "Lizzie Borden" and asks questions like "What's on the revengenda this evening?" I think this is what passes for snarky and Whedonesque dialogue. At one point he says, I shit you not, "I haven't been this disappointed since The Phantom Menace!" Yes, that's a timely reference. Normally people say that line about a recent bad movie, not one that came out in 1999. Nolan's character is 28, he would have only been 15 back then, and I can only imagine that nothing disappointing has happened to him since. I say "his character" because the actor playing Nolan is actually 40 and if he'd wanted to he could have queued up outside the cinema on the day A New Hope hit theatres.

    Actually, I was lying before. Nolan does have another purpose: plot-convenient computer skills. Dude can circumvent any password, breach the fieriest firewall, seamless doctor a photograph and even trace the funds entering and leaving a bank account. Essentially, everything your parents are scared people can do with computers Nolan can actually do.

    Name: The PA
    Emotional state: Perky
    I never bothered to learn this character's name because she doesn't matter. No storylines focus on her, she has no reason for being in the story at all except to have someone with an English accent in the cast. It seems like every American TV show has to have a single English person, although what this adds beyond an opportunity to annoy English people I don't know. Maybe that's the plan: maybe America is getting back at England for its old imperialistic ways by writing in posh-sounding cockneys who routinely misuse the word "bloody".

    The Graysons do eventually come up with a use for her, for all of two episodes, when they promote her to Chief Public Relations Spokesperson for the family. Not only does she start speaking to the press on their behalf, she also manages their public image behind the scenes. This is despite the fact that she looks like she's about 19 years old. I know nobody in revenge actually looks like their actual age, but if she isn't really 19, if she's actually 37, what's she doing working overseas as someone's personal assistant? Actually, what's she doing working overseas as someone's personal assistant full stop? Why would you leave your home and all your family just so you can be Victoria Grayson's dogsbody? Isn't that like moving to China just so you can work in a toy factory? It's not like we don't have rich people over here. Bloody twit.

    Name: Charlotte Grayson
    Emotional state: Unthinking entitlement
    Charlotte is a singularly unremarkable character, at least until she develops a drug habit. Now, in real life when somebody gets addicted to anything, drug or otherwise, it's bad news and not funny in the least. In fiction when somebody gets addicted to drugs it's potentially really funny. Writers, especially bad ones, have a habit of conflating the characteristics of different drugs and writing all drugs exactly the same way — extensive hallucinatory experiences set to sitar music, antisocial behaviour and increasingly irrational decisions in roughly that order — which means that if a character is smoking pot they might as well be doing shrooms or snorting coke or shooting up for all the difference it makes. They are On Drugs and that's all that needs to be said, it doesn't really matter which drug they pick. For Charlotte Grayson the writers picked codeine. Just… regular old codeine. Dudes I've had codeine. It's not even illegal, it's just prescription only. If you take it you'll feel a bit numb and vague and that's about it. You will not start tripping balls. However, if you have a migraine that shit'll clear right up. Charlotte starts taking codeine she finds in someone's bathroom cabinet, pops one pill and instantly becomes addicted to them. From then on she stops caring about everything apart from the proximity of the next high, develops a lot of quite unpleasant character traits and starts buying her pills from an honest-to-God drug dealer. This happens in the space of about three episodes. This pointless and distracting subplot hits its baffling nadir when, during a high-profile legal battle, Charlotte's pivotal testimony is dismissed on the grounds that she was on these mild pain killers at the time. Who will believe her? She could have seen anything, she was off her tits on co-codamol. They don't even let her take the stand. Of course, joking aside, a codeine addiction may sound laughably tame the average viewer but I know first-hand that codeine can be a gateway drug for children's cough syrup and multivitamins. Once you hit rock bottom you'll sell your body for just another taste of a chewable heartburn tablet.

    Name: Daniel Grayson
    Emotional state: Bemused
    Poor Daniel. It's hard not to feel sorry for the Graysons' son, although I don't know if it's the character I feel sorry for or the actor portraying him. Either way, whenever Daniel appears on screen I get an unmistakable vibe of dull-wittedness. Daniel is just stoopid. As you may have gathered by this point, none of our characters are geniuses but Daniel takes the biscuit, then he tries to push the biscuit up his nose. Whenever someone is talking he gets this bemused, pouty look on his face reminiscent of Kay in The Sword in the Stone. Sometimes it's optimistic and devoid of guile, sometimes it's sullen but it never leaves the viewer in any doubt: Daniel has no freaking clue what's going on. And this is how deep and complex the plots get: at a party Amanda publicly displays a bunch of embarrassing videos of the guests' secret confessions recorded during therapy (this is when Victoria reveals she regrets having had a daughter) but in order to throw people off the scent Amanda throws in (mildly) embarrassing footage of herself. In a pattern that will come to repeat itself throughout the series, the Graysons initially suspect Amanda but Victoria rejects the idea almost instantly because Amanda was in the video and she can see no reason why someone would intentionally embarrass herself. She never once thinks that the guilty party might want to make it seem like they are victim to rule themselves out as the perpetrator, even though it would be obvious to anyone with a room temperature IQ. See, the characters in revenge are all stupid because the world they inhabit is stupid as well, it just doesn't know it is. Victoria is presented as shrewd and capable, Amanda is presented as calculating and cunning but they're just idiots. The plots and ploys in revenge are all straightforward and obvious — like someone holding a gun but not realising it has no bullets in it, or arranging to meet a kidnapper alone and then getting kidnapped — but they are all presented as fiendishly convoluted and Machiavellian schemes. Into this world of dumb steps poor, gormless Daniel. In the land of the thick, he is known as "The Thick One". The Graysons discuss their devious machinations and Daniel looks perplexed. The Graysons give Daniel simple instructions and he looks perplexed. Daniel and his girlfriend discuss party plans and he looks perplexed. It's the simple vocabulary, the furrowed brow, the big pretty face that looks like the brain behind it is capable of calculations no more advanced than those performed by a drinking bird.

    He's never given any diabolical schemes of his own, or even any intelligent dialogue. It doesn't help either that he's laughably easy to manipulate. His parents hate each other so fiercely that they lie to him to get him on their side. One week Victoria will lie to him and he will hate Conrad, then Conrad will "explain the truth" and Daniel's allegiance will shift. They're basically taking it in turns to fuck with him from episode to episode. It never seems to cross his mind that neither of his parents are remotely trustworthy. Because he's thick.

    And of course let's not forget that Daniel's girlfriend is actively plotting revenge against Daniel and his family right under his nose. It's not just that she's only pretending to be in love with him, she also keeps creeping out of their bed in the middle of the night and sneaking off to find clues (that she doesn't need because she already knows the Graysons did it). He wakes to find her gone, which in itself wouldn't be suspicious if they weren't sleeping in her apartment — I mean there's being emotionally distant and then there's leaving your own home at 3am just to get some space. Then after he's started his breakfast she creeps back in, wearing all black clothing and a black hood, hurriedly stuffing misappropriated evidence into her pockets as she spots Daniel, and tells a flagrantly invented story about walking a friend's pet cat or taking her laptop to the drycleaner's. Daniel doesn't even question it. I mean, it takes him an entire series to suspect she might be having an affair and even then he's wrong. At one point she comes home after burning down a house. She should be dripping with sweat and blackened by soot, but she isn't. Fine, let's say she made an effort to clean herself up a little on the way home — even then she'd still smell strongly of smoke, yet thicky thicky Daniel just gives her a welcoming hug back. They say where there's smoke there's fire. Well, where there's smoke there's also the unmistakable smell of smoke. This is what happens when you stick too many wax crayons up your nostril: eventually you're going to do some damage.

    Keeping with the theme of chemical dependency, Daniel used to be an alcoholic. Another leap in believability is required of course: surely sedating the brain of Daniel Grayson is like watering down water? The couple of times we see Daniel drunk it becomes apparent that the actor playing him can't act drunk; he just acts the same way before getting a little sleepy. In fact, he can't do any other emotions either. He's really just there to look pretty. I don't know how else to describe him. If you can imagine Taylor Lautner with the brain of Ralph Wiggum you're 90% of the way there.

    Name: Amanda Clarke
    Emotional state: Unemotional
    If the actress playing Amanda could act the whole show might be salvageable as legitimate entertainment, instead of an exercise in hysteria and camp. If she could fire up a couple of neurons, get her face to twitch or spasm into some semblance of a human expression instead of a blank-eyed expressionless mask then that would be a start. She's an even worse at acting than Daniel — at least he has the decency to look confused when people talk to him, Amanda just sleepwalks through life like a talking shop mannequin.

    She reminds me of Keanu Reeves in the Matrix sequels, who I think was going for relentless determination and accidentally hit detached boredom. I think the idea was that since he knows the eponymous virtual reality isn't real he should act like he in no way gives a damn what's going on… which is a good way to make the audience not give a damn either. Well, when Amanda is in private discussing her desire for revenge she wears the blank look of an emotionless psychopath. Is this the actress's Keanuesque attempt at 'relentlessly determined'? When Amanda is pretending to be warm and friendly to Victoria and it's blatantly obvious that she's just pretending to be nice, is this just because she's played by a bad actress or is there more to it? This is a horrible thought, but what if the actress playing Amanda is deliberately trying to inject hollow insincerity into her performance because her character is aware that her life in the Hamptons isn't real? Are we seeing a bad actress trying to play a bad actress?

    revenge is a dumb enough programme that we can't rule it out as a possibility, but it doesn't explain why she and Daniel have so little on-screen chemistry. In the world of revenge she's supposed to be falling for the big lug, yet whenever we see them together they share all the easy-going warmth and intimacy that I share with passing aircraft. Yet it transpires that the actors playing these characters are lovers in real life! I was genuinely shocked when I learned that. How can you mess that up, actors? Just show up to the set, stand in the right spot, speak English and do what comes naturally. Your job that day is to make out with your real-life boyfriend or girlfriend as if they're not a stranger you met at the bus stop. How can you fail at that? I think the actors playing Amanda and Daniel might just be two of the worst in the world: they're not even convincing as themselves.

    The Script
    I could go on. I'd love to talk about the girl who pronounces all of her 's' sounds as a Sean Connery 'sh' and tell you in advance who turns out to be secretly gay (spoiler: everyone) but it's time to wrap this up. I would be remiss if I wrote about revenge and didn't mention the awful script. The mean put-downs only form about 10% of the dialogue; most scenes just feature people running over old plot points. There's always one scene in every episode during which Nolan visits the local bar and recounts the previous episode's events. Then there's the scene in which Amanda and Nolan talk on the phone so she can state her goal for that episode (invariably something trivial distracting from her actual revenge). revenge is also master of the completely redundant flashback. Look, the plot isn't that complicated. It's simple enough that a 12-year-old can summarise it on Wikipedia and still have room left over to noodle around with phrases like "enjoy a bright summer". You do not need to keep flashing back to Amanda's childhood years just to establish again that the Graysons are responsible for her father's downfall. Every episode flashes back to something and not a single one has revealed so much as a scrap of information that the audience hadn't already been told or couldn't have worked out by that point.

    Mild Spoilers
    A final note, if you'll indulge me. Whilst I was writing this the first series of revenge ended on UK television. The tradition in my house of curling up on the sofa with a glass of red wine every Monday night and laughing at Victoria Grayson's eyelids came to an end, at least for the time being. I'm not going to spoil the events of the very end of the series but if you have any intention of catching up with this show (and if you love to laugh you really owe it to yourself to give it a try) you might want to avoid reading the remaining paragraphs. I don't want to annoy anyone. For you the article ends here.

    Okay, I'm classing this as a mild spoiler because even though this is a huge dramatic reveal that comes late in the series' run, it was blatantly obvious from the beginning. So obvious that it's actually a little confusing when they 'reveal' something I thought he were already supposed to know. Anyway, turn back now if you don't want to hear about it all the same. I'm writing this for the benefit of people who've seen the show already or who don't care.

    It's established from the start of the series that the Graysons betrayed Amanda's father, that he went to prison for a crime that he didn't commit and then he was stabbed to death in a prison riot. Now personally, I hear the words "stabbed to death in a prison riot" and I suspect foul play. Everyone knows you use riots as a smokescreen to murder someone on the inside. Are we to believe that David Clarke getting shivved wasn't murder? Was it an accident — did he just fall and a shiv happened to be there? Was he killed as part of the violence you'd expect in a riot? He's not a violent man, why would he not just stay in his cell until the riot was over? It's fairly obvious to me that his death was orchestrated by the Graysons, so obvious in fact that I assumed this was the story from the start and that the show was displaying never-before-seen subtly. So I was Daniel levels of baffled when, about three episodes from the end of the series, Amanda discovered that her father had been murdered. "What?" I said. "You didn't already know that? So why have you been trying to avenge his death this whole time?" Apparently Amanda was trying to get revenge for the general misfortune that befell her family, not her dad's actual death. Would things have gone down differently? Would she not have wasted so many opportunities to settle the score?

    I thought to myself, "You know what? Who the hell cares! Things are going to be different from now on. Amanda's finally going to start thinning out the numbers and killing her way to the top, starting with her father's murderer. I mean, she's been frustratingly inert for the whole series but at least for the final three episodes of series one Amanda is actually trying to kill someone! It's about frigging time." TV shows with no direction and meandering plots will often do this — show-horn in a last minute goal, the fulfilment of which retroactively imbues the series with a sense of purpose. Suddenly this murderer guy that we've never seen before starts showing up all over the place and being as scary as possible. Clearly something big is right around the corner.

    Major Spoilers
    Highlight the following text if you don't give a damn about having the finale spoiled for you: We get a classic 'running out of options' that all lead inexorably to this bad guy's death. First he suspects Nolan — he should probably die. Then he kidnaps Nolan — he's more dangerous than we though, he should die. Then he learns Amanda's secret identity — okay now he absolutely has to die. Then he kidnaps Amanda — he had better die soon before something bad happens. Then he starts trying to kill Amanda — okay, now if she doesn't ice this dude he's going to kill her. Furthermore, he literally killed Amanda's father. "You killed my father, prepare to die" is practically the mantra for revengers everywhere. Amanda is actually going to kill somebody. I mean, sure, they just wrote him in as cannon-fodder at the last minute but who cares? It's a show called revenge and, after a series of killing absolutely no-one, Amanda's going to finally get a taste of revenge.

    She defeats the bad guy. He's subdued, he's taunting her, he's daring her to kill him. Cut to a redundant flashback! Wait, what? A young Amanda finds an injured bird. She and her father nurse it back to health, then release it back into the wild. Her dad turns to her and says "Gee, you're such a great kid. You know what I like best about you? The fact you think all life is sacred and how you couldn't bare to hurt or kill anything — or anyone. Even my murderer!" End of flashback. Amanda stays her hand and walks out of the room.

    She let him live! She literally can't do this! Not only is it a kick to storytelling's crotch — and pulling out that last-second flashback was utter bullshit — but they've already established that she is completely out of options. He knows who she is. He knows where her gay best friend lives. He has already kidnapped them both once already. He is a murderer. He knows you can defeat him in a fair fight. He's not going to play fair next time. Your friend? Killed in his sleep, stabbed right through the Star Wars quilt cover. The next car you start? Car bomb. That creak in your apartment? That's the last thing you hear before that guy you spared strangles you with piano wire. Or he might even just go to Conrad Grayson and tell him who you are. Let me put it this way: what possible incentive could he have for not doing all of these things? He has to die right now or the show is over. And she lets him go. Sometimes movies play the mercy card and have the protagonist spare the villain, but then the villain almost always attacks the moment the protagonist's back is turned, then the protagonist is forced to kill them. What they don't do is leave each other alone out of mutual respect for the sanctity of life.

    It's moments like this that take revenge beyond the realms of bad to into the magical kingdom of funny-bad. I don't want to love it as much as I do.

    The Adventures of the Massive Hypocrites

    Posted 10:58 (GMT) 15th September 2012 by David J. Bishop

    In my last rant I railed against people who find traits that a film, TV show etc. has in common with other stories and thus condemn them as cliché. I called those people douche-nozzles. Just because a thing and another thing have things that make them superficially similar does not mean that one is a copy of the other. The example I used was the comparisons people make between Avatar and Pocahontas and I pointed out how they're bullshit, the kind of bullshit that prevents us from having a meaningful discussion about art (so the worst kind of bullshit, then).

    Here's an example: I saw a video review of The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen with Sean Connery. The film critic spent the entire video pointing out the differences between the film and the original graphic novel. I'm sure the film does fail miserably as an adaptation of the book but I came to the film cold having never read the book and I still had a miserable time, so there must be more to it than that. In fact, some of my favourite films are hideously unfaithful adaptations of other works but good films in their own right, so let's not spend all our time comparing Men in Black with the comic book, hmm? (I looked it up. Apparently in the comic the MIB doesn't just police aliens, they also fight werewolves and demons and then they kill the witnesses. Yeah, no.)

    But I don't want to give people the wrong idea. There are times when it is justified to discuss a film or comic or TV show in reference to another. That's what we call intertextuality and it's awesome. How does this other thing handle the same subject? Where have we seen comedy like this before, and how did it have a different effect in that context? Have we seen a character like this one before and if so what was their role in that thing? What do these differences tell you about the different cultures and/or time periods the two works of art came out of? What happens when we compare this thing to another thing by the same author?

    The important difference: these comparisons have nothing to do with the surface details. You could use intertextuality to compare the character relationships in Transformers: Dark o' the Moon with those in Pretty Woman and it would still work.

    It's a tool. A useful tool, at that. There are also times when we might use that tool to compare a work to others like it, but in an unfavourable light. This normally isn't because the thing we're talking about plagiarised another work, normally it's because the thing we're talking about doesn't have a lot to say in its own right.

    Which brings me to Monsters, which I mentioned briefly last time but I want to properly critique now. It's a good example of the kind of thing I mean, because as a film it has nothing to say at all.

    N.B. Mild spoiler warning. Not mild because I don't give away significant plot details in the paragraphs that follow, but mild because there are so few plot details to give away that I accidentally gave them all away just by discussing one scene. Plot is that thin on the ground. If that sentence has done nothing to deter you from watching Monsters, please rent the DVD before reading any further. I'll wait.

    Okay, I warned you.

    Plot synopsis: two tourists are trying to make their way up from Mexico to the U.S., only the border between the two nations and a large chunk of the surrounding area has been colonized in recent years by gigantic tentacle aliens, aliens locked in a struggle with the U.S. military. And our plucky heroes, just trying to get from A to B, are caught in the cross-fire. So who are monsters of the title, the aliens or the soldiers? Turns out it's the film-makers.

    Now, if you've seen Cloverfield you may have noticed some superficial similarities between that film and the one I just described. So naturally this is the part where a bad movie critic on the internet would point out as many of those similarities as possible, no matter how sweeping ("Look, they both have humans! Who breathe oxygen to repsire!") and conclude that Monsters is quite similar to Cloverfield. Roll credits. Thanks, internet critic. Hey, while you're at it, maybe you could come up with some kind of too-cool-for-school douchey one-sentence evaluation, such as "This is just Mexican Cloverfield." Maybe 'Mexican Cloverfield' will take off and become an internet meme. Maybe people will start making pictures of the monster from Cloverfield wearing a sombrero and post them to Reddit. Maybe I will call you a jackass on my blog. You jackass.

    I've seen this happen. The fact that I've seen this happen enough times to become angry about it is a symptom of my spending far too much time on the internet, but it also indicates that a sufficient number of people who spend their time talking about art think that their task begins and ends with a straightforward matching up of surface similarities. They never explain why one film works and the other doesn't. Oh, they'll tell you which one sucks and how hard (heck, they might even be right) but they won't be able to tell you why. They lack the mental tools.

    Forget the things that make the two stories similar, that exercise is worthless. Look at what makes them different. Then you'll see right away where one story falls short. Peer under the surface.

    Just for the sake of argument, I'm going to write a quick review of Cloverfield and then rework it point-by-point into a review of Monsters to highlight how different they are under the surface. Strap in.

    So Cloverfield uses an unexpected monster attack as the backdrop for a tightly-plotted, fast-paced story of personal redemption, determination and love punctuated by moments of tragedy which are terrifying in how seemingly ordinary and random they are, but also in their scale and alien nature. Sometimes things will happen that are never explained, not because the writers are making up the rules as they go along but because at that time the characters have no means of understanding what is happening to them — they're dealing with something utterly unknown — but the consequences of these tragic moments are largely ignored or downplayed by other people on the periphery, who are either too busy either trying to escape (i.e. the citizenry) or trying to manage the situation (i.e. the military). Most surprisingly of all, given the genre, the soldiers are not represented monolithically. Of the military personell we see, some are trying to fight the creature, some are trying to help people escape, some are tending to the wounded, some are confrontational and others are helpful. They're all just people struggling to cope in a horrid situation. In fact, that's true of all the characters we encounter — everyone has a different role in the story, everyone has a different perspective on what's going on, and whilst we're not given a character motivation for everyone accompanying the protagonist as he tries to achieve his goal, the group as a whole has sufficient reason for being there for the story to work. When the trailers for Cloverfield came out we didn't see what the creature looked like at all and in my opinion what we eventually do see doesn't disappoint. The design for the monster is amazing, the perfect blend of weirdness and realistic anatomy. For the majority of the film we don't get a good look at the thing, instead our impression of what it looks like and what it does is built up through brief glimpses of parts of it, snatches of dialogue, sounds and television footage. Piece by piece we learn more and more about the creature but never enough for it to become predictable and never enough to get the whole story.

    Monsters uses a monster invasion that already happened some while ago as the backdrop for a meandering, plotless, plodding story of two assholes bumming around in the middle of nowhere. Andrew and Samantha slooooooowly make their way from one part of Mexico to a petrol station miles away from where they were trying to get to, taking as much time as possible along the way to either sight-see or roundly patronise the locals by trying to be on first-name terms with every hired hand and peasant farmer they meet, all the while floating through life in a little bubble of rich, white entitlement. "Yes, I will shake your hand and pretend like I'm a man of the people," they seem to say, "but I also expect you to risk your life ferrying my privileged white ass into the jaws of Hell for a measly fifty bucks, which I haggled down from seventy." "You know, your memorial to your dead loved ones is sad just in its own right, but I think its greatest value lies in how it's really opened my eyes to stuff and made me think about things." "Wow, this is a scene of harrowing post-apocalyptic decay, and it's the perfect opportunity for me to furrow my brow and try to look deep/mildly upset, like the dumb cock who comes along to a book club without having read the book but still tries to join in the discussion."

    This epic journey of self-discovery is broken up by one instance of something bad happening to some other people. In fact, our heroes' only purpose — if you can even call it that — is to observe the misfortunes of others. Poverty, squalor, loss or violent death; these don't become truly significant, says Monsters, until they've been witnessed by a couple of crackers.

    There is precious little in the way of incident (I've witnessed staring contests that were more action-packed) but if anything can be said to be happening at any given time, two things will always be abundantly clear:

    1. Our heroes have no idea what they're doing.
    2. They're willing to pretend anyway.

    The military is represented monolithically throughout. They are faceless, anonymous and unstoppable. They attack the monsters with demented zeal, as evidenced by the brief glimpses we get of human soldiers and the evidence of the massive collateral damage caused by their blanket bombing tactics. None of them come across as real human beings. Mostly we just see harrier jets and tanks zooming around firing their guns; the small number of actual soldiers we see are all overnthusiastic and dullwitted, just super excited to be there as if they're at the front of the queue for the world's best rollercoaster, in a way that the soldiers in Cloverfield pointedly were not. Hoo-rah! People with guns as a general group get a raw deal in Monsters — everyone we see die is armed, as if these creatures only kill people carrying weapons. Too few people actually die for a genuine pattern to emerge, but if this was a deliberate story detail on the part of the film-makers, it means the giant, completely alien, non-tool-using creatures not only know what a weapon is but understand the concept well enough to be able to distinguish with 100% accuracy between the tiny ant-people waving lunch boxes and fishing rods and the tiny ant-people wielding AK-47s and grenade launchers. One the one hand, that would be stupid. On the other, this film is stupid enough everywhere else that we can't rule it out.

    The cast of characters is short. I checked IMDB and only two characters have names, the loveable Andrew and Samantha. Two other characters have relatively meaty roles — 'Ticket Seller', who has two whole scenes where he gets lines of dialogue and everything, and 'Homeless Woman', who appears briefly to say something crazy and homeless-womanly. The rest of the cast list reads "Marine, Marine, Marine, Marine, Marine, Marine, Marine, Guerilla, Guerilla, Guerilla, Guerilla, Taxi Driver, Boat Skipper etc." This is telling, isn't it? Aside from the people with guns, who exist solely to be People with Guns, everyone else is defined by the extent to which they can assist Andrew and Samantha. Andrew might take the time to learn the name of the Boat Skipper but he's still on the cast list as Boat Skipper, he still doesn't have an identity beyond transporting Andrew to where Andrew wants to be. And let's talk about that 'learning people's names' thing. Why does he do that? Well, for the same reason he and Samantha are shown relishing the local cuisine, drinking in the culture, being chummy with the locals and admiring the sites of historical interest — it shows that they're not your typical ignorant tourists, doesn't it? They've read the Rough Guide to Post-Apocalyptic Mexico from cover to cover. They're not constantly looking for somewhere to charge their iphones, complaining loudly about the lack of french fries or clean drinking water or demanding that people they meet tell them the way to the nearest Starbucks. No, sir. Samantha and Andrew are different. They get it. They take time out of their day to be awesome at people, they're sympathetic to their plight. Problem is, when scene after scene serves no other purpose than to illustrate this fact, it makes both characters look like they're trying way too hard and — worse still — it makes for a boring movie. If they were both trudging through the jungle whinging that they'd been unable to wash their hair or get a 3G signal in a week... well, if they did that they would degenerate into a horror movie cliché, but at least then there would be some dramatic tension, at least Samantha and Andrew would have something to argue about. As it is, the film goes out of its way to show how perfect they are, at least as tourists. This ultimately rings false, however, because as people they're still both insufferable douchebags. Neither ever has anything smart or helpful to say and every decision they make is a bad one. Also we learn nothing about Mexico or its people — we don't even learn any specific details about the monster invasion, supposedly the film's raison d'etre. Our protagonists make such a show of getting to know people but none of the people they meet have names or speaking parts, apart from Señor Ticket Seller. His friends call him Ticket. So, yeah, the film doesn't care about these nameless people, so it's hard to escape the feeling that the main characters don't care either, since we're supposed to be seeing everything from their point-of-view. So it ends up becoming The Adventures of the Massive Hypocrites.

    I said they never have anything smart to say. Every line of dialogue that isn't functional chit-chat about the particulars of their trip is a faux-philosophical bon mot. The worst line, the one that made me cry out "Oh no, did they really just say that?!" is one which I can't find anywhere online. They're looking at this gigantic wall that has been erected along the US/Mexico border and they say something like "Ooh, is that to keep the monsters out or to keep the people in?" Please e-mail me if you know the line I mean. It's the kind of thing people of below-average intelligence say to sound profound at 2am when they're high. Another gem is "I'm going to be a meteorologist, because it's the only job where I can be wrong every day, and not get fired." You can just picture the writer smugly patting himself on the back for thinking that one up. At 2am.

    This next one needs a little explaining. See, the reason Andrew was originally in Mexico is he's a photojournalist and he's looking for a juicy photo that will score him the big bucks i.e. either a snap of one of the creatures or one of an orphan with no arms or legs. This knowledge is fresh in our minds when we get this lovely exchange:

    Samantha: Doesn't that kind of bother you, that you need something bad to happen to profit from it?
    Andrew: You mean, like a doctor?

    What a cock. Not only is he willing to risk his own life and the life of everyone working to get him home, not only is he taking that insane risk just so he can snatch up a fat paycheque when a nearby peasant village gets eaten, he's also willing to call out doctors on their greed and selfishness. Man, Andrew just sees stuff that others don't. Those wicked money-grabbing 'medical professionals' who have 'devoted their entire lives' to 'helping the sick and wounded', with their 'sworn oath to help people at all cost', man they're just waiting for people to get sick or wounded! That's how they get paid. Wake up, sheeple! They want people's lives to be in jeopardy just so they can save them and make fat stacks of cash. Because conveniently for doctors 'saving lives' is their job or something? And society rewards the people who work tirelessly to save the lives of others? Or some bullshit like that? Man, whatever. It all strikes me as a little too convenient, in my humble opinion. I'm with Andrew on this one, those people are no better than, well, Andrew.

    No, wait. Andrew is just a cock. I remember now. A stupid cock.

    Why is Samantha in Mexico, by the way? Oh, she's getting married soon and she decided she had better take a vacation in a developing nation infested with unstoppable behemoths. Y'know, to get those last-minute jitters out of her system. And, in fact, it's because they have to get her home in time for her wedding that they end up taking their stupid short-cut through the massive chunk of map which is infested with alien monsters. Because they just can't wait three weeks for a ferry, no sir. Do you see what I mean about the entitlement?

    Actually, there's more to the story than I'm letting on. You see, they had tickets to the ferry. They paid for them through the nose, but they had them. Gracias, Señor Ticket Seller. But the night before they were supposed to board, they both got drunk on tequila and Andrew made an awkward pass at the woman he knew was engaged. What a prick. Then, the next morning Samantha wakes to find that Andrew has consoled himself by having anonymous sex with one of anonymous side-characters. Samantha, embarrassed, hastens away and Andrew hurries after her to explain(?), leaving his holiday hook-up alone in his hotel room with his and Samantha's passports. The stranger steals them, ostensibly because she's jealous that they actually have faces and identities.

    Do you see how Samantha and Andrew aren't just selfish and stupid, they're actually selfish and stupid in a very specific way that makes them bad people? But unlike the characterization of the military, none of the stupid things they do seem to be presented as such by the film. This is just how people are meant to behave, apparently.

    This is a pivotal moment in the film. Andrew has just, through a series of douchey and unwise decisions, lost both of their passports. He's been very irresponsible and it's resulted in a huge mistake. They can no longer take the ferry back to America, they will have to stay in Mexico for a while (which neither is willing to do because they're douchey and unwise). The only alternative, they are told, is to risk travelling through The Infected Zone. Señor T. Seller gestures at a map, at the large red area helpfully labelled with the words INFECTED ZONE and in a larger font DANGER MONSTERS and KEEP OUT YOU WILL DIE as well as a black symbol of a brooding skull and crossbones. Of course, our heroes immediately leap out of their seats and declare that they'd like to travel through this zone. What's the worst that could happen?

    Suicidal stupidity aside, it was Andrew's mistake that forced them both to make this difficult and dangerous journey, it came about as a direct consequence of his actions. If the film could be said to have a villain, it would be Andrew. So, at this point you might expect Samantha to have some strong words to say to Andrew, along the lines of asking what the fuck is wrong with him, what the fuck he was thinking, what the fuck are they going to do now and finally reminding the stupid asshole that he had one job to do — keep their passports safe — and he fucked it up. That being the case, what fucking use is he? The scene practically writes itself. And when Andrew messed up royal in this spectacular manner I rubbed my hands together with glee, because finally they were going to disagree on something, there was going to be conflict, tension, something was going to happen. You know what? She never so much as mentions it, not even to say it's okay and she forgives him. She just lets the whole thing slide. In this world passports are things that just come and go, like butterflies. By not having her remonstrate Andrew, the film is saying that these things happen to the best of us and, hey, hasn't everyone lost their passport under similar circumstances? Personally I can't go two weeks without having a valuable document stolen by one of the strangers I have sex with.

    It doesn't help that the guy playing Andrew, Scoot "That's Really My Name" McNeary, has the face of a paedophile ferret. He looks like the kind of guy who would sell ketamine to schoolchildren. He looks like he should be wearing a white vest which shows off his many arm tattoos. He looks like he would show up to your house party uninvited and steal something while you weren't looking. He looks, weirdly, a lot like the skeevy main character from Skyline — another dumb alien film with unloveable characters and a bad script which seems to be doing Cloverfield worse than Cloverfield.

    By the way, it was at this point in the review that I realised I had, in the course of talking about the film, given away the entire plot of Monsters. There isn't any plot left. If you've heard of three-act structures or five-act structures, you probably already know that people try to define where one act ends and another act begins, in which case you might also have heard this definition before: an act break comes at the point in the story where one or more of the characters makes a decision from which there is no going back, one which changes the story significantly. By that definition, Monsters has a total of two acts and the act break occurs when they decide to enter the Infected Zone rather than wait patiently for safe transport. After they do that there really is no going back, but at every point up to then they have ample opportunity to not enter the Infected Zone. In fact, until Dipshit T. Numbnuts loses their passports, they have absolutely no reason to enter the Infected Zone nor any intention of doing so. I realised, when I wrote about them entering the infected zone (the point that the story truly gets going) that I needed to go back and put a spoiler warning up at the top because they enter the Infected Zone at the two thirds mark. So that whole pre-ambled in which they bum around on holiday? That's the majority of the film's run-time and therefore the only part that politeness dictates I can discuss spoiler-free.

    Do you remember when Wikipedia used to say "Spoiler warning: plot or ending details follow"? Well, Monsters has no plot and, as it happens, no ending. So where spoilers begin and just discussing what's going on in the film ends is tricky to establish.

    So, quick recap. Monsters has no plot. It has only two characters, both of them are inept and idiotic and dull and they get on all the time, disagreeing never. Neither one has a particularly compelling reason to be in Mexico or the Infected Zone in the first place and no stated goal once they're there. Finally I come to the monsters. When the trailers for Monsters came out they pulled a Cloverfield and didn't show us what the creatures looked like at all. As soon as the film starts they show us. They can't wait to show us. For the first ten minutes these things are splashed all over the screen so frequently they might as well don straw boaters and do a tapdance. So we get a good long look at the design for the monsters, and (since the spoiler warning has already been dished out I'll just tell you) they are octopi. Just giant, land-dwelling octopi. That's literally all there is to it. Then, once the main story kicks off and focuses on Skeevy McFuckwit and Samantha Boring, we don't see the creatures at all. They don't encounter them, they don't hear them, they don't go near them. Towards the end there are two brief instances of monsters doing something we don't really care about, largely off-screen. But at that point we've already seen them anyway, we already know everything there is to know: they are big octopi. End of film. It's not a twist, it's not a reveal, and the film's title was a lie anyway, it was never about the monsters, most of the film is the two idiots farting around monster-free, they're the focus — the film should actually have been called Despicable Asshats Take a Boring Holiday: The Movie.

    My chief complaint, you see, is not that they copied Cloverfield, it's that they didn't. If they had it would have been a much better film. Let's take a little step back and make the right kind of comparison, the helpful comparison. They wanted to make a thrilling, character-driven monster movie. It just so happens that J. J.Abrams recently made one and, oop, it succeeds in all the places their film fails the hardest. What are those? Character, pacing, tone and plotting. In the end, it's not what makes them the same that matters, it's what makes them different. The biggest difference? Cloverfield is actually fun to watch.

    Ultimately, we've got a film that handles the monster movie genre really deftly and cleverly, then we've got a film that handles similar (but not identical) subject matter clumsily and cluelessly. So the superficial similarities serve only to throw the weaker film's biggest weaknesses into stark relief, but even if Cloverfield didn't already exist, Monsters would still be the exact same movie, all the things I mentioned that are wrong with it would still be wrong, only now we can point to Cloverfield and say "That. You did the opposite of that."

    That is when we make an unfavourable comparison between two stories. We don't just call one Mexican Cloverfield and have done with it. Mexican Cloverfield would have been watchable.

    When to Start Your Comic: Part 2

    Posted 22:42 (GMT) 22nd August 2012 by David J. Bishop

    I'm making a list of things you need to learn before you can start a webcomic. Just looking around, it seems a lot of new cartoonists don't know this stuff. So if you're 16 years old and think it's about time you published your stuff on the net, it's time you opened your ears. This is very important.

    You Need an Audience

    I don't mean a literal audience, I mean an imagined one. At first nobody will be reading your comic, and you need to be okay with that. No, this is the other kind of audience: you need to decide in advance who your comic is for, or who it's not for. Make a political joke and 50% of your audience will be disgusted. Make a joke that only women will appreciate and you'll alienate the men; that's 50% of your remaining audience. You feel like making a joke about Red Skull going on a date with Skeletor? Kiss goodbye to the people who don't get either of those references; people who don't know comic books and people under the age of 20. Now, if you want to write a comic aimed just at left-wing female nostalgic geeks in their twenties and thirties who had an Amiga as children, played Ultima 4 and enjoy 19th century Russian literature then that's fine. This is the internet. No audience is too niche for the internet, you will find a home somewhere. Here's the thing, comedy is like a puzzle you have to solve with your brain. This solving process that leads to understanding is called "getting it" whether it's understanding a joke or solving a riddle, you're using the same part of your brain. The harder you make the riddle to solve, the more rewarding it becomes once they solve it. And if your audience needs to draw upon niche knowledge in order to get your comedy, they will find it even more rewarding when they do. After all, you're using a special language that only they and people as smart as them can understand; they're in the secret club now.

    But you should always draw the line at telling jokes that only your friends will understand. I'm sure they'll find it hilarious. After all, they're already members of the secret club. Everyone else in the world will tire of being turned away at the clubhouse door. And, in case you needed reminding, you are now writing a comic just for left-wing female nostalgic geeks who are your age and who had an Amiga as children, played Ultima 4 and enjoy 19th century Russian literature who are also best friends with you... in which case you should just tell Michelle you like her now because if she doesn't already know how you feel she's going to figure it out as soon as she sees you made a whole comic just for her.

    You Need to Start Improving your Draughtsmanship

    Good draughtsmanship is separate to good art in the same way that good prose and good storytelling are different things. This is how well put together your comic is and how easy it is to follow. When you show people your art, can they tell what's going on? Can they follow the sequence of events from panel to panel? Do you find yourself drawing little arrows all over the page so that people know where to go next? Do people struggle to figure out where one panel ends and the next begins? Is it clear from your speech bubbles who is talking and in what order?

    This can actually be a tricky one to improve on. The best thing to do is read a lot of other comic strips, comics and graphic novels to see what they're doing right that you aren't. Don't just passively drink it all in, stop and study how they've put things together and how it effects the way you read it. Then try some of these techniques out yourself. You might think you're improving, but how can you tell? You need to show your stuff to someone you know. So let's say you sit your friend down in front of your comic and they can follow what's going on from panel to panel. This means one of two things:

    1. Your friend has read enough bad comics that they can figure things out despite your messing up the page layout.
    2. You've actually made a page that's easy to read.

    You have no idea which, nor can your friend tell you. Try this: sit your mother down in front of your comic. Stand behind her right shoulder and listen as she reads each speech bubble aloud. If she can't figure out what's going on, it means one of two things:

    1. You messed up and your draughtsmanship stinks.
    2. Your mother isn't very good at following comics.

    Of course, you need to decide for yourself, but it's certainly an interesting experiment nontheless. How much of what you do is clear enough that your mother can understand it? It's a painful experience — like watching the woman play video games — but trials by fire are supposed to be painful.

    Oh, and don't be tempted to cheat to make life easier for yourself. I saw one webcomic where the cartoonist kept doing huge splash-pages of the stuff he evidently found easy to draw and then he dotted the page with text boxes to keep the story going, even though the text in no way described what was happening on the page. Then when it was time to focus on people, which he clearly didn't like drawing, he kept resorting to wide shots of a large crowd so that he could just draw little stick-figure-like impressions of everyone. This cartoonist introduces about twenty characters in the first dozen pages of the strip, yet you only get a good look at two of them. Not only is this the worst kind of lazy draughtsmanship, it's also the kind that hurts your story. If you can't draw without cutting corners on every page, you have no business publishing your comic strip. Spend some time working on your art, then unleash it to the world when it's at the very least good enough that you don't have to cheat.

    You Don't Need an Original Premise

    You really don't.

    I don't mean this as about excuse to start copying people more successful than you. The world needs another Penny Arcade clone like it needs another novel about a relatable everygirl hooking up with a hunky supernatural creature. Which is to say it absolutely doesn't but that won't stop people from making them. No, what I mean is that of all the aspects of your comic — the characters, the storytelling, the tone, the script etc. — the premise is the least important. Also, originality is not a goal to which you can aspire, it is something which arises out of being very competent at all the other aspects.

    To help me explain what I mean, please allow me to share a little anecdote about how this issue was first articulated to me, about seven years ago when I had just started the strip. Please excuse the epic length, I really need to get this off my chest once and for all.

    When I first started Life on the Fourth Floor I spent a short amount of time talking to other creators in the Comic Genesis forums. A very short amount of time.

    For me one of the most persuasive reasons for signing up for a free webhosting scheme like Comic Genesis was the possibility of becoming part of a community of like-minded cartoonists. Maybe I would make some new friends. Maybe we'd start a meaningful discussion about the artform of cartoons. Maybe, just maybe, I could get a couple more eyeballs on my site besides the two already on there. I'm going to freely admit that whilst it wasn't foremost in my mind I wasn't opposed to using the Comic Genesis forums to build a little bit of an audience. The whole point of putting my stuff online was to reach a larger audience after all and I was eager to get started.

    In fact, let's say that pageviews and validation were all I was looking for. Let's say the forum regulars correctly guessed that I was just nipping in to build my readership and maybe fish for a few kind words about how hard I'd worked on this and a quick pat on the head, how hard would it have been for them to just give me that?

    Here's what happened instead.

    I introduced my comic to the forum. Straight away somebody asked me what my comic was about. I said it was about a bunch of people living together. Then someone began picking my comic part. Others followed. I was treated to an extensive picking-apart session, a feeding frenzy, one that I had apparently catalysed by introducing myself to these people. No single commenter was brutal, there were just a lot of them and all of their comics had the same tone. I remember some of the comments were fair in a "well, that outfit really does make you look fat" kind of way, others were off the mark but were focused enough that they pointed me in the direction of things I can improve. Either way, no matter how much my feelings were hurt I can't bring myself to dismiss those comments, no matter how unwelcome they may have been at the time. Because criticism is good.

    However, one comment said something so stupid that to this day I'm a little bit puzzled by it. It's like a Rubik's cube: clunky and jumbled but I can't stop turning it this way and that to try and make sense of it.

    He said "the room-mates genre is kind of played out".

    Drink it in for a moment. Room-mates, as a genre, is played out. That is to say, people living together who are not romantically involved or blood relatives, as a genre in which to write fiction of any kind, is cliché. To quote Philip Larkin, "Well, useful to get that learnt."

    Okay, for the sake of fairness let's say he's right. It's still an incredibly unhelpful thing to say to someone who has just launched a comic about people living together. What am I supposed to do with this information? Thank him for the heads up and promptly quit? Maybe start a comic about some five-dimensional shapes endlessly rotating and unfolding in an incandescent dreamscape?

    However, aside from being rude it also happens to be false in every single way I can think. So that only serves to make it doubly unhelpful, and since it was incredibly unhelpful we need to double our incredulity. In fact, I find it so hard to believe that someone would say something this rock-headedly dumb to another human that they were trying to help that I'm tempted to say he was just being a jerk. He was, as the kids say, ‘trolling', methinks. Yet, as likely as that may seem, I have to stop myself from thinking this way: you should never attribute to malice what you can attribute to stupidity. Only thing is, if we can attribute this to stupidity, then we must by necessity hypothesise a man so idiotic that he struggles to function on a day-to-day basis. He can't carry out a conversation without pulling down his trousers, he can't feed himself without poking himself in the eye, he can't go outside at night without becoming convinced that he's gone blind. When he meets new people the first thing he does it stroke their hair because it is soft. This one time? He saw a bee.

    Anyway, this is the part where I take these comments to heart, go away, learn more that I ever knew before about stories over a period of years (including, might I add, a three-year academic career focused on nothing else) then realise this man is talking crap and then try to save face by swearing to you now that I knew it all along. Except I really did know it all along. I never believed what this man told me and I never acted on it. I actually objected at the time, and I say this knowing full well that I am normally the man who simply wishes he had said something at the time but says nothing. I'm so proud of myself, that I actually stood up for myself in the face of such a stupid and discourteous comment. I was told in no uncertain terms that I was being defensive and that I need to learn to take criticism better.

    No, no I don't. I don't need to learn how to better internalise the single stupidest thing I have ever heard in the context of advice.
    So, that's how it's going to be, eh? Take your medicine and shut up? Listen to your elders and betters? So much for a meaningful discussion about the art.

    Now, you may be wondering why, something like seven years later, I still haven't let this go. Well, I really have, it's just that I remember it clearly. But you mustn't worry about me; talking back and forth with a handful of mean-minded people for a couple of days is not the kind of thing to leave lasting emotional scars. So, maybe someone tried to shoot me down when I was first starting out, if they did it was either out of ignorance or perhaps because they lacked self-esteem or because they were going through a rough patch and tearing a chunk out of me was the thing they needed to feel better. Happy to oblige. Honestly, I don't think that's why this episode has stuck with me all these years. I think it's because their suggestion was just categorically false in every way, even in a way that I could recognise despite the fact that I was just starting out. I can remember feeling what was true, an almost visceral reaction, and you never forget the times when you feel the truth — the honest-to-God truth — right in your gut and then you later experience a bunch of stuff and become much older and wiser and you find out IT'S STILL TRUE. I hardly ever get to say this but here it is: I was right all along. I just didn't know the extent to which I was right, but everything I've learnt about writing, storytelling, comics and art since that day has confirmed that first opinion, nurtured it, allowed it to blossom into a full-grown fact, and from time to time when I learn something else new it brings me back to that first conversation seven years ago. That time I argued with some guy on the internet and he was totally wrong about this one thing. It's a life-changing milestone is what it is.

    So now we need to unpack why he was wrong. How do I know that piece of what I'm generously choosing to call 'advice' is bad advice? I think it's important that we do this because that statement — "room-mates as a genre is played out" — speaks to a wider problem with webcomic creators. It's going to take a while to sort this stuff out because we're dealing with a lot of abstract concepts here and a lot of big issues that strike at the very heart of the creative process, and we're going to tackle a lot of the problems that writers and artists — be they newbies or veterans — have to deal with. I think that taking these ideas and holding them up to the light and carefully examining them from different angles has a tremendous value, and if someone had taken the time to explain this stuff to me when I was a kid then it would have saved me a lot of sleepless nights.

    Where shall I start?

    1. "Roommates" is Not a Genre
    It is a setting. I hear a lot of people misuse the word ‘genre'. I hear people talk about ‘the webcomics genre', too. The comic and its sexy younger brother the webcomic are not genres, they're forms. For the record, I consider my genre of choice to be sitcom.

    It may sound like I'm being pedantic but this is actually very important because confusing these terms with one another can lead to new creators making a lot of mistakes: not the kind of mistakes that lead to someone being killed, just the kind that lead to mediocre art being made.

    So here's what I mean by genre, setting and form. The form is the way in which your story is presented. The setting is where that story happens to take place. The genre is how you go about telling that story.

    Let's do form first. The form you write in could be novel, short story, comic strip, graphic novel, TV soap opera, screenplay, animated film or rap opera — the form does not dictate the kind of story you're telling. Nobody ever said your novel had to be a murder mystery. Nobody said your graphic novel has to be about superheroes. Nobody told you your animated film had to be a fairytale or that it had to be for kids. You get to decide what story you tell and who it's for. The form just dictates what you actually have to physically write down. Are we talking prose? Stage directions? Storyboards? Song lyrics? Furthermore, each form carries with it its own scope of expression and its own limitations. These are all considerations associated with form.

    Now let's move onto genre. Genres are not set in stone, the lines between them are very blurry and artists and fans alike can have a lot of fun sitting around and arguing about whether Star Wars is science fiction, fantasy or space opera or whether Fargo is a murder mystery. I'll get into some of that stuff later. Whatever rule of thumb you use to do so, you need to determine what genre you're writing. Then you need to look at other works you consider to be in the same genre and decide what you're going to do the same and what you're going to do differently. And I'm not talking about superficial things. If you're familiar with TV Tropes you'll know what I mean when I say you need to draw a circle around the tropes you'll be using, then you need to decide which tropes you're going to play straight, subvert, invert and lampshade. You're drawing on everything that's come before and then using it to play with the reader's expectations. All of this comes under genre considerations.

    And then the setting is just that: the setting. The setting doesn't dictate the kind of story you're telling either, a fact people routinely forget, even very intelligent people, and far more often than they should. You can set a story in a fictional approximation of a real-life city, you can set it in a fictional city or a fictional country, you can set it in the past, the present, the future or an alternate past or a hypothetical future. The West Wing is set in a world in an alternate time-line in which the September 11th attacks never happened, for example. That's okay - you can do that. You can change the setting around as much as you like without changing the genre you're writing in. Just because your setting is a house in the suburbs, it doesn't mean you have to write a domestic sitcom. And, conversely, just because you're writing a fantasy story it doesn't mean you have to populate your universe with Tolkienesque elves and orcs.

    Strictly speaking, fantasy and sci-fi are categories of setting, not genre. You can take that setting and tell whatever story you like — daring heist, comedy of manners, epic romance, murder mystery, whatever. Writers keep experimenting with story settings and every time they pull it off their critics praise them for being breathtakingly original. I'll get to that in a second. For now, let's just deal with the consequences of not doing that, of thinking that you're writing in 'the fantasy genre'. Most people who do that imagine that they have to write an epic quest to destroy or recover a magic artefact and destroy a powerful dark lord. I'm not saying there's no way to do that well, I'm just saying that writers have other options too. I for one would like to see more light-hearted romantic comedies set in fantasy settings. After all, Tangled was a big hit. Did I just blow your mind?

    How does this stuff feed into webcomics, then? Well, let's say you mistakenly thought webcomics was a genre. That means when you sit down to write a webcomic you're selecting tropes from every webcomic you've ever read. I'm not even sure what the result of that would even be. Probably a 2:1 ratio of men to women, no backgrounds, a comic relief robot and a lot of humour derived from cats and graphs. People on the internet… really love graphs. Let's go even broader. Let's say you thought comics were a genre. Let's face it, you'd probably make something involving superheroes. There are people out there who actually make these mistakes, this is why people describe works of art as generic.

    That brings us back to "room-mates as a genre is played out". If you consider the genre you're writing in to be "room-mates" what you're saying is that the most helpful way to consider your story is in reference to other stories involving room-mates, that you should see what kind of tropes they're drawing on and decide the extent to which I to adopt those tropes. But that's far too broad a range of stories. What kind of room-mate story is being told here? Is this the story of a man refusing to mature by letting his slacker best friend share a living space, to the chagrin of his girlfriend? Is this a compulsively tidy person having to share a living space with a slob? Is one roommate plotting to kill the other? Are they soldiers living in the same barracks? Is one character the other's butler? Is one of them the other's parent? Is one of the roommates a goddess from the Norse pantheon living in the mortal world? Is one a robot? I'm not just being facetious — every single one of these examples has a real-life counterpart. The one thing they have in common, perhaps the only thing, is that they concern adults sharing a domestic space. They're all just people living together being people.

    That's why...

    2. No Genre Can Ever be Played Out

    Nobody is ever going to say "I'm sick of action adventure," or "I'm tired of seeing plucky heroes overcome impossible odds," or "I think comedy has had its day."

    The situations characters find themselves in sometimes have a lot to do with the genre of the story, sometimes very little. Even if those individual scenarios become played out, there's still a way to use that to play with the audience's expectations.

    3. No Setting Can Become Played Out Either.

    Certain settings will cast long shadows based on the public's familiarity with works that have come before. If you make a sitcom about a man running a hotel, a lot of people are going to compare you to Fawlty Towers. They just will. But only if you're making a sitcom. If you're making a drama you'll be compared with Hotel Rwanda. Or The Best Exotic Marigold Hotel. Or Hotel for Dogs. Look, I don't know what they'll compare your setting to.

    The point is, your setting is not your story. If the plethora of reboots and remakes has shown us anything, it's that different artists can approach the same setting with radically different worldviews and tell wholly different stories. Tim Burton's Batman, Batman Forever, the awful Catwoman with Halle Berry and The Dark Knight Rises are all set in Gotham City. Okay, that's not strictly true because it's never made clear what city Catwoman is set in, but that in itself says something about how important a setting can be to a story, doesn't it? Perhaps you think I cheated by picking a fictional city. Okay, do you think the New York of Annie Hall is the same New York as that of Men in Black, Friends or Sex and the City?

    These are vague examples, let's try something specific. How about 19th-century stage magicians as a setting? Well, we've got The Prestige and The Illusionist. Both very different films, with different plots, different themes and different characters. They're both good films but they're both good for different reasons. Why are the films so different? I'll tell you one thing: it has nothing to do with one being set in Vienna and the other set in London. Even if both films had been set in London, or if they had been set in Victorian-era Gotham, they would still be just as different.

    In a way it's a shame that both films came out at roughly the same time because, despite their differences, the film that comes out first casts its shadow on the other, which leads to superficial comparisons between the two. It leads to people looking at the way similar elements are presented and deciding which they prefer. It leads to people judging which film is the best Victorian stage magician movie, as if there was some arbitrary measure of worth we could apply, as if we could mathematically calculate how many Christian Bales are worth one Paul Giamatti. What make something good is not how different it is to other things, or how much better it is than other things. What makes these films so good is that they did come out at the same time: one is not a slavish copy of the other, nor is it slavishly trying to avoid copying the other. What makes these films good is that they approach their settings and their stories thoughtfully. The artists involved in crafting these stories focused on the elements they found most interesting; the stories and themes are influenced by their concerns, their anxieties, the things they found resonant. What's more, the characters in both films are all different to each other, different to any characters we might have seen before in other works — and not different by virtue of gimmicks or superficial quirks but different in terms of their motivations and psychology.

    What I'm saying is that it doesn't matter how much your story or your setting or the two combined are, on the surface, similar to things that other people have written. What's important is that they are written well. If the story is written by a good writer, if the characters are well-written and the story presents a unique worldview, the result will be unique.

    That's all it comes down to in the end. Sometimes people write good stories with well-developed characters, sometimes they fuck up and write bad stories full of plot holes and jarring tonal shifts. That is all — those choices have nothing to do with genre, form or setting.

    4. Originality is Not a Goal in its Own Right
    There's another problem, here. Our man with the terrible advice, whose criticism I was told I should have taken better — what was he critiquing, exactly? I may be talking to you now with 200+ comic strips under my belt but at the time I had something like five posted. Let's say he had read those — how did he know whether or not I was going to bring anything new to the table? Originality — true originality — arises from good writing and strong characters, neither of which you can exhibit in just five pages. At least, I couldn't. So I think it would be fair to say that his ‘critique', such as it was, was more of my pitch than my comic itself. And let's not forget that the first thing I was asked to do upon posting in the forum was pitch my strip.

    Here's the problem: learning to perform a good pitch and learning to be a good writer are two unrelated skills. At the time I hadn't learnt to do either. So when someone asked me what my comic was about, I just said "I don't know. People hanging out with each other, I guess."

    And, semantics aside, what did his advice really mean? He was saying that my comic strip's pitch was not sufficiently original to interest him. "People living together?" he was saying. "Is that all you've got?"

    But that's a problem with the pitch, not with the comic itself. Look, I'm just not good at reducing complex stories with interesting characters into punchy buzzwords, alright? Do you want to hear my pitch for When Harry Met Sally? Two people meet each other but don't sleep together and then a couple of years later they become friends. Batman Begins? A ninja in an animal costume beats people up to feel better about his parents being dead. A Dangerous Method? A man has a series of conversations with a crazy woman until she is less crazy, only sometimes he spanks her instead to make himself feel better about his relationship with Sigmund Freud. Reservoir Dogs: men in suits hang out in a warehouse, wave guns at each other.

    I can do it with literature, too. Hamlet: a man sees a ghost and then procrastinates. Waiting For Godot: two guys wait for another guy to arrive but he doesn't. Oliver Twist: the world categorically hates a small boy named Oliver Twist.

    A bad pitch can make even the best story sound underwhelming, and I sure as hell didn't have the best story. So here's my advice to new creators: if you want to direct people to your comic and they ask you what it's about, tell them to fuck off and just read it. You shouldn't have to answer that question yet. You need time to figure out what themes are going to be explored, you need to nail some story arcs, you need to get a good feel for who your characters are. That takes time — in my case years, or maybe I'm just now starting out on that journey, who knows? When you know what you're doing, then you will be able to concoct a dynamite pitch. Maybe, just maybe, if you don't know what you're doing you shouldn't be publishing your material at all.

    Maybe that's what the bad advice man was saying. Maybe he was saying that if I didn't know enough about my comic to be able to deliver a smart pitch, I had no right to be here at all. I personally think that's giving him far too much credit, but still. That's not a bad idea as far as it goes. I suppose it's a fairly useful measure of creative maturity, it's the ‘you must be this tall to ride' sign outside the rollercoaster. If you can pitch your webcomic then you deserve to have people read your webcomic. Because a pitch describes the premise, right? So if the pitch is good, then the premise must be good as well. And if the premise is good, the story must be good. Right?

    Answer: not always.

    If the first thing we ask all new webcomic creators to do is deliver a pitch, it's going to lead to a lot of new comics cropping up that are telling the kind of stories that lend themselves well to a strong pitch.

    I'm going to be overly simplistic for a second and split premises into two kinds: character-driven and setting-driven. If your character-driven story was a film, the voice-over for the trailer would say "This is Dave. Dave hates his job. Dave hate his family. But then one day…" They don't really do those cheesy voice-overs anymore, but a good example of a modern-day character-driven trailer is the one for Crazy, Stupid, Love. Then we have setting-driven pitches. This is where the voice-over starts by saying "In a world…" The Lord of the Rings. Star Wars. Zombieland. High-concept premise, fantasy setting, very little emphasis on the overall story or the characters, just a trailer that tries to show you as many different locations and as much cool stuff as possible. Setting, setting, setting. Two out of those three films had the setting in the title. Now, here's the rub. Those kinds of films also have character-driven plots and strong characterization, all the best stories do, they just don't show any of that stuff in the trailer. But sometimes certain groups of people — let's call it what is, geeks and nerds — will get excited about a film based on the world shown in the trailer, knowing nothing about how well it's going to handle its characters. I for one was intrigued by the trailer for Suckerpunch. I saw a dragon, I saw a giant robot samurai and an airship, there was a train and I think some machine guns — that was all I needed. What does this tell us? When you make an ‘in a world' story you will still need well-written characters and good writing, but your setting itself will be enough to draw some people in just because they're excited about seeing stories set in new worlds.

    Is that why ‘in a world' webcomics make up maybe 90% of the content on Comic Genesis? Maybe it is. If the Comic Genesis community requires all new creators to pitch their comics, the new creators are going to write the kinds of stories that lend themselves well to a strong pitch. That means a lot of long-form science fiction and fantasy settings. Is that why, about a week after I signed up with what was then Keenspace, they changed their name to something unpronounceable and created a logo that looked like a planet with rings, accompanied by the tag-line "New Worlds, New Dreams"? Aside from sounding like the mantra of a mind-controlling cult — the kind of thing they chant as they're handing out the Kool-Aid — doesn't it also sound like all of the comics are supposed to have science fiction and fantasy settings?

    I love fantasy and science fiction like crazy, I write science fiction and fantasy, so I know that it's hard to pull off. If you're a new creator making a webcomic, you've given yourself an ambitious project. If it's a long-form comic, that's an even more ambitious project. If you add to that a science-fiction or fantasy setting, you've given yourself another thing you have to get right — world-building. Are all these new artists setting themselves such a hard task because they're attracted to the 'newness' of new worlds?

    And, of course, a premise that you can pitch easily doesn't always make for a good story. The worst film I've seen this year was Monsters. What's the premise? Monsters! There are monsters. It's the hook, it's the story, it's the title. Monsters. There is absolutely — and I mean literally — no plot, the film's only two characters are stupid douchebags of the worst order and most of the film is just us watching them look at stuff as part of a lengthy South American vacation. And you know what? I still rented the damn thing because they had me at monsters.

    The monsters are part of the setting of the story. We only see them three times and each time they're not really doing anything interesting. The film-makers thought the setting was the story, the thought that all they need to do was stick some weird alien creatures in South America and have two dumb crackers wander around in that milieu for 90 punishing minutes. But you know what? It made for a killer pitch.

    I can't shake the feeling that young webcomic creators are making a similar mistake. They're choosing a fantasty setting for the most superficial reasons so that they have that 'in a world' pitch, one which even I couldn't get wrong, but then when I read these comics they're falling short on every one of these challenging and difficult aspects. I read one comic which just had a whole page, four panels long, which was just two people driving in a dune buggy across an alien planet listening to the radio as it blurted out a massive exposition dump. Dude, sci-fi stopped doing that in the 1950s.

    Those people who think of webcomics as a genre, is this the kind of thing they imagine? Is this how we're going to be categorized? New Worlds, New Dreams? Really. Dream all you want, people, but the sad reality is that this spate of fantasy comics is going to mean (because the sheer number of people trying to put themselves out there and because of Sturgeon's law) a lot less less Star Wars and a lot more Suckerpunch.

    I think part of the problem is that people prize originality without really understanding what it means. This word gets thrown around a lot, by fans and critics alike. So new writers learn very early that originality is the most important thing they can strive for. But they confuse what I call true originality — i.e. being good at writing — with just making something that literally no-one has ever seen before. So it's not just that they're leaning heavily on fantasy and sci-fi settings (because then you can present an entire universe of never-before-seen shit) but the stories they're making are weird.

    I'll give you an example. I'm not trying to single anyone out and I'm not going to name names. This is just to demonstrate the kind of weirdness I'm talking about.

    So this is a long-form comic about superheroes. It starts off in another dimension, where a demon is fighting a knight. Then the knight loses and is swallowed up, and his magical sword captured by the demon. Then we learn that the sword was created by a goddess and given to the knight to help him secure justice for all. You know, right before the knight and the sword were both eaten. Then a council of wizards (one of whom looks exactly like Santa Claus for reasons unknown) banish the demon to our dimension. Personally, I think that's rather dickish behaviour, the equivalent of letting your dog shit in someone else's front garden. In our world the demon is fought by a host of superheroes, imprisoned and sent into space, where it breaks out, comes back to Earth and kills a load of superheroes. So the remaining superheroes fight it again. Just when all seems lost, the demon is destroyed by the magic sword from before, only now the sword has taken the form of a superhero. This superhero turns out to be a young boy who looks a lot like Fogell from Superbad, except he has glowing red eyes.

    Now, I bet you're thinking to yourself "I've never seen anything like that before. A hero with glowing red eyes? Nobody's ever done that. A hero who is a sword? That's original." It's also profoundly weird. There's a reason why nobody's done that before, okay? I'm not trying to pour cold piss on somebody else's idea. I'm a firm believer that there is no such thing as a bad idea; what matters is how that idea is executed, that's what makes something good or bad. But the author of Fogell-sword-hero has certainly made a rod for their own back. This is a very challenging project, the kind so complex and bizarre that it would take a Joss-Whedon-style genius to pull it off.

    So this is where things come unglued. The actual execution. All that story I just told you about, that whole paragraph? The one that feels like it could be the plot to an entire novel? Backstory. It's not the story of the comic at all, it's just the origin story for the red-eyed hero. And it's all delivered as a prologue narrated to us by someone who, we discover, exists in a prelude to the main story. About two pages after he finishes telling his tale, the story jumps ahead in time again. So that's an exposition dump in a prologue in a monologue in a flashback. It's like our cartoonist spilled white-out over the 'n't' at the top of his 'Dos & Don'ts' list. Well, how's the pacing? Sorry, didn't I mention? All of this incident — this epic struggle of good versus evil — is described over the course of nine pages. That's an average of two plot points per page. Yes, I counted. Needless to say, it's a little rushed.

    So we've got a completely new take on the superhero genre, we've got ambitious scope, cosmic forces clashing, heroes being cut down like blades of grass, a never-before-seen world of sword-Fogells and orbital prison chambers. But unfortunately the basics of pacing, exposition and characterisation are fudged in a way we've seen only too often. We never find out why they were trying to kill the demon in the first place. I mean, I can assume that he was doing something evil at the time because he's a demon but I'm racist like that. If we saw the evil entity trying to take over the world, or eating people or destroying some homes as the former inhabitants flee screaming out of the way, then we'd understand why the demon has to die. But we never see him do anything, so there's no human cost and thus no emotional stakes. So when this knight comes along to stop the demon we don't care. We don't care about the knight either. We find out nothing about him except his name and that he's a knight. No character moment, no stated goal, no brief scene of him rubbing noses with his wife and kissing his children goodbye, just a name. You know why? Because the knight gets introduced and eaten on the same page — the first page. It's not enough for things to happen, they have to mean something.

    Now, I'm not saying the whole webcomic is worthless. What follows this extended prologue could be great. The point is that what I've read so far hasn't given me any evidence that it is. I know this much: I was never given a reason to care about any of these characters or anything that was going on.

    Still, at least the author didn't write something in the hackneyed, tried, clichéd world of roommates, right? At least he didn't lower himself into the intellectually moribund wastes of the roommates genre, eh? No, this fellow took the time to create an original premise. He wrote the most original premise anyone's ever seen, so at least he has a strong pitch. Unfortunately, that's all he has.

    And this comic is by no means the only one: webcomic creators are falling over themselves to show how distinctive and unique they can be but neglecting the basics of storytelling and character motivation that make our favourite stories great.

    The great stories aren't so much original as they are combinations of already familiar things. Here are some of my favourites:

    Alien — science fiction setting and horror genre
    The Big Lebowski — comedy genre and detective genre
    Kiss Kiss Bang Bang — detective genre and comedy genre
    Inception — heist genre and science fiction elements
    Dune — fantasy genre and science fiction setting
    Shaun of the Dead — comedy genre and zombie apocalypse setting
    Watchmen — detective genre and superhero setting
    Firefly — science fiction genre and setting mixed with Western genre and setting
    Cloverfield — monster movie setting and character-driven drama, made memorable by the ‘found footage' form
    Dr Horrible's Sing-along Blog — superhero setting and musical comedy genre
    The Incredibles — a drama about midlife crisis mixed with the action comedy genre and a superhero setting
    Scott Pilgrim — indie comedy genre and kung fu movie genre
    Ghostbusters — comedy genre and science fiction / horror setting
    Men in Black — comedy genre and science fiction / horror setting
    Buffy the Vampire Slayer — action / horror genre with strong comedic elements in a high school setting
    Signs — horror genre and comedy genre.
    The Matrix — Kung fu genre and science fiction setting.

    I'm sorry that all of these are from film and television, I've deliberately selected examples that people will be able to recognise and film and TV happen to be forms in which genres are more rigid. If we looked at a form like the novel, for example, we'd find that genres are blended and swirled together all the time, to the point where you'd need a diagram to work it all out. Okay, that's the first part.

    The second part is that just scanning your eye down the list you'll be able to see that a large number of classic films produced during my lifetime — the ones that critics lose their minds over and hail as breathtakingly original — are just stories we've seen a thousand times before transplanted to a science fiction genre. That's literally all you need to do. Take a familiar and well-worn story and set it somewhere it's never been set before. That's it.

    This precisely what I mean when I say that no genre or setting can ever be played out, because you can take any genre you like and transplant it to any setting and get a combination that people have never seen before. Where your story is set and how you tell your story don't have to have anything to do with each other if you don't want them to.

    That's all it takes for people to call you original. This is the kind of originality that people can grasp. The true originality, as I've said before, comes from kick-ass writing, memorable characters and deft storytelling. Those three elements are what all of those films I listed have in common.

    Now, if you don't make an action/science fiction/kung fu hybrid story you can still be great — if you're good at writing your unique voice and your singular worldview — they just won't call you original. But you and me, we'll know better, won't we? I would much rather see a clear-cut example of the romantic comedy genre done extremely well than see another horror/science-fiction/character drama/travelouge mash-up done badly..

    Here's the dark, shitty side to the whole originality issue. For every cartoonist struggling to make the first entry into the demon-slaying-trans-dimensional-sword-come-super-McLovin genre, for every writer toiling away to make a story about crime-solving squirrels who live on the moon, there is an absolute douche-nozzle who is ready to take the thing they made, break it up into its component genre elements, point at them and say "I can recognise these component genre elements!"

    They wouldn't look at Inception and see a clever blend of heist genre and sci-fi setting, they would say "Why, this is just The Italian Job but with dream computers! HOW CLICHÉ!" These are the people you catch saying "WALL-E is just a silent movie set in a post-apocalyptic future. HOW TERRIBLY CLICHÉ!" "Cloverfield is just a Godzilla movie with shaky-cam. It's SUCH A CLICHÉ!"

    These are the people who sneer and say that Avatar is just Pocahontas in space and therefore it MUST BE CLICHÉ. Yeah, and Jaws is just 'Beowulf' in boats. Shut the fuck up. These people don't realise that simply identifying characteristic features of a work does not constitute a critique. The internet is rife with amateur critics — of games, of films, novels, comics and TV — and huge swathes of that bloated population seem to think it's their job to point at something in the work of art they're reviewing and then point at something it's similar to. It's incredibly easy to do if you've seen enough films and you can make it work with just about anything. But it proves nothing and it's incredibly shallow. Dig in deeper, people. Is the story driven by what the characters want? Do characters actively strive to achieve their goals? Do those goals conflict with other characters' goals in an interesting way? You can't just identify the components of something and say you're done. That would be like if a food critic said they hated a cake because they could tell it was made up of sugar, flour and eggs. How were those things put together?

    Incidentally, Avatar is not Pocahontas in space. I don't remember John Smith being in a wheelchair at the start of the film. I don't remember him being sent to infiltrate the Native Americans' community to learn where the best gold can be found. John Smith isn't even the protagonist of Pocahontas. It's Pocahontas!

    I'm not saying the rough plot structure of Avatar is one we haven't before. But they transplanted it into a science fiction setting! That's enough!

    I actually think that the plot Avatar more closely resembles that of Mean Girls. So an outsider arrives in a community and doesn't fit in at first but then they learn to be accepted by that community and use the information they glean to eventually betray that community. There's some violence, some reconciliation… I guess in this interpretation the Plastics are the Na'vi? Look, it's my theory.

    My point is, you can make it work with just about anything.

    And this atmosphere of perpetual sneering and similarity-finding has a negative impact on the culture at large. Young artists see people do this and they become reluctant to publish their ideas because now they can see a thousand small ways they're slightly similar to something else.

    So what do they do? They make a comic about Santa Claus banishing a demon and a hero with red eyes who used to be a sword. Or a comic about a purple forensic pathologist centaur that poops bowler hats living in an underwater city made of chorizo.

    You don't have to play that game, because you can never win. Someone, somewhere, will have seen another story about a city on the surface of the sun made of salami, or it will turn out that the same thing happens in an Ancient Egyptian myth you've never heard of before. I think a better tactic would be to pick a story, a genre and setting that you love, that you wish there was more of except executed in a way that appeals to your interests and senisibilities, then try to make it as good as you can make it. Don't lose sleep over perceived originiality, let the thing that makes you stand out from the crowd be that your comics is actually good. Don't worry whether or not this thing or that is a cliché or whether it's been done somewhere else. Just be as good as you can possibly be and everything else will fall into place.

    And that's why "the room-mates genre is kind of played out" is the worst advice I've ever been given.

    And finally...

    If people on the internet give you advice, you don't have to take it. Apart from my advice. You have to follow my advice to the letter.

    When to Start Your Comic

    Posted 11:52 (GMT) 14th July 2012 by David J. Bishop

    I've been thinking about the day I made the jump from being a cartoonist who drew simply because he enjoyed it to a cartoonist who publishes his work for all to see. I remember what prompted me to publish my first internet comic strip. It was fear. I'd written and drawn all these pages and I was scared that if I didn't start putting them in the public sphere then some other cartoonist was going to have the same idea and then everyone would think I copied that person. No, that wasn't a good reason and whilst there's something to be said for jumping out of the plane before you think you're ready, I can't help but think that things might have gone more smoothly if I'd waited until the timing was better and I was better.

    The trouble is, once you start you've started. You only get one chance at a first impression.

    Maybe if I had my time again I'd make the first 50 comics look like the last 50, maybe there would be no holes in the archives from where my computer died or I had to go to the hospital or deal with something more important. Maybe I would take the time to build a buffer.

    I wish that, even with my limited knowledge and experience in the sphere of cartooning, that my 25-year-old self could be there to give my 16-year-old self some advice.

    So let's make amends now. If you're 16 years old and want to start a comic, here's my advice after 8 or so years of doing just that. I may only have 200 strips to show for it but I spend a lot of time thinking about this kind of thing. If you're looking for a source of professional wisdom you could probably do better but on the other hand you could probably do worse.

    Perhaps some of you believe I have no business dishing out advice given my relative inexperience compared to other cartoonists, perhaps you think I haven't learnt enough yet. Well, there is no point where you've "learnt enough"; it's a continuous process. I mean, the hypothetical starting point is knowing nothing, where your job is simply to learn as much as possible from people who know more than you. Then the more you learn the more your job becomes passing on as much of what you've learnt as possible, but there is no point at which you know everything. I'm not trying to set myself up as some kind of authority on the subject or cartoons, I just want to share my observations for the benefit of those less experienced than myself. Anyone more experienced and skilled than myself — and you will find yourselves in the majority — should feel free to point out the way in which I'm wrong. I will be happy to update this blog with your comments. When that happens we will have started to talk in detail about art. That is one of my favourite things to do, I can only consider that a best case scenario.

    Mary Shmich said, "Advice is a form of nostalgia. Dispensing it is a way of fishing the past from the disposal, wiping it off, painting over the ugly parts and recycling it for more than it's worth." What can I say? I'm feeling a little nostalgic right now.

    So! Young cartoonists who think they're ready to take the plunge into self-publishing, I ask you this: are you really ready? Here's a checklist of things you will need before you start your webcomic. I'm going to approach this list roughly in order of the biggest and most common pitfalls I see new cartoonists encounter. And, by the way, these pitfalls, these are all pits that I either fell into or avoided completely by mistake. I was there, I walked right over the twigs and leaves concealing the mouth of the pit, and by some bizarre fluke the twigs didn't snap.

    You Will Need Good Artwork

    The most common piece of advice given to young creators is "Go for it!" People give this advice because creative people come in two flavours, and one of those is people who put hours of thought and time into their work but never put that work somewhere it can be seen. These people are better than they think they are, and I just want to grab them by the shoulders and shake them whilst screaming at the top of my voice: "GO FOR IT!" Here's why this isn't always a good piece of advice to post on the internet, it's because of the second flavour of creative person: the jackass who looks at his crummy scribble picture and says "Yep, this is pretty damn good!" The people who do this are worse than they think they are, and telling them to go for it and publish online is just going to convince people that 90% of everything is crap and that 90% of that crap is webcomics drawn by people who have no business drawing anything.

    Here's where things get really thorny: when you talk about good artists who need to fight their fear and go for it, the jackasses think you're talking about them. Then, when you talk about bad artists who need to spend more time practising, the good but insecure artists think you're talking about them. So the more you say "Go for it," the more you'll wish you hadn't and the more you say "Don't go for it yet," the more you'll rob the world of worthwhile art made by shy people.

    As a quick aside, I was talking to my friend about this very problem and, even though he is an accomplished writer and actor, he immediately lumped himself in with the jackasses. Then again, this is the same friend who described thoughtful song lyrics as "depressing", so maybe he's just emo.

    So there's a new rule, starting today: go for it, provided you're good enough.

    How good is good enough? Well, in all honesty, would you expect to see something of the same level of quality in a published book or on TV? A more useful rule of thumb might be: could you charge money for this and expect people to pay it? If so, how much? How much could you charge for this art without feeling like you were giving people a raw deal? Would people pay the money because they don't know any better or because they know good art when they see it? Would you feel comfortable taking advantage of the ignorant? Would you feel confident selling to the discerning?

    I have seen far too many would-be cartoonists launch comics with the words "My art sucks so I thought I'd start a webcomic so I could improve." It's not that you won't improve in the course of spending every day making a comic, you will, but that doesn't mean I want to see it. Nobody becomes a stage magician by grabbing a pack of playing cards and booking a theatre. Because that would suck and the audience would literally hate every minute of the show. Nobody wants to see somebody almost make the ace of clubs disappear. There are literally years of practice and hard work that go into polishing that act that nobody ever sees — and they never should see it. They don't want to see it. Why do you deserve to shove something in their faces that you think sucks?

    Please note, a lot of this can be applied to writing as well as artwork but "good writing" is a lot harder to gauge. If writing is bad everyone has to sit down and debate it, if artwork is bad everyone can tell at a glance, including the artist. We can all feel it in our guts.

    Some people, including good friends of mine, will be quick to point out that by requiring all comics to have good art I am excluding a fair few successful comics. To that I will say two things:
    1. Success is not a measure of quality.
    2. If a comic has bad art I will not read it, I will never read it, regardless of its other merits. A lot of this has to do with the work the art is required to do. For example, I have no problem reading xkcd. I'm sorry, but I can't read The Order of the Stick. I just can't.

    You Will Need a Big Ego

    The world of cartooning attracts a lot of introverted nebbishes and those kinds of people are often very humble and self-effacing. Some take it too far and are cursed with feelings of self-doubt that are so powerful they're paralysing. Others are convinced that they have the golden touch. I would say that most cartoonists probably have good days and bad days in varying ratios depending on their self-esteem.

    Wherever you fall on the introverted/extroverted spectrum, you have to have a certain amount smugness to think that anyone would want to read your comic in the first place.

    To think that it deserves to be on the internet where potentially everyone in the entire world can see it takes arrogance. This is a good thing, you'll need this.

    You need the confidence to put yourself and your work out there and say "I made this, I'm happy with it." You need the inflated sense of self-worth required to promote that work so that as many people as possible are seeing it. It's no use being the shrinking violet in the corner. You can't be the wallflower. You cannot be a flower of any kind, basically. You simply won't succeed that way. You need to get up on that dance floor and shake your money-maker. And if nobody wants to dance with you, you have to dance by yourself. That is the kind of insane confidence you need. Alcohol can help with this.

    I've seen some cartoonists refer to the process of self-promotion as 'pimping', as if there's something tawdry and underhanded about making people aware that you exist. To those people I say this: imagine you're a medieval minstrel. You can walk into town and say to the townsfolk "Gather round, friends for I have a story to tell!" or you can shuffle into town, stand in the town square not making eye contact with anyone, mumbling your story under your breath the whole time. If you have a big story to tell, you need to have — or pretend to have — a big personality to go with it. Take refuge in audacity.

    I'm not saying you have to be an ass about it. Bravery is the golden mean between fearless idiocy and cringing cowardice. You need to feel afraid before you can be brave. But then you need to be brave.

    You Need a Firm Grasp of Comedy, Drama and the Balance Between Them

    I'm not talking about grasping comedy if you're writing a humour strip and grasping drama if you're writing a dramatic story. Whichever you're setting out to do, you'll need to learn how to do the other.

    Drama writers: when was the last time you read or watched a dramatic story that had absolutely zero comedic elements? Whether it's a single witty character who lightens the tone from time to time or a single funny scene that gives people breathing space between dramatic reveals, any good work of fiction — be it a book, a film, a TV show or a comic — needs to make the audience believe that it's real in order for it to work. And real life is sometimes funny. Sometimes I'll watch a television drama that mistakes 'drama' for 'unremittingly humourless series of grim misfortunes'. Actually, I think the UK specialises in these. Even decidedly grim and realistic stories that don't allow a trace of camp or farce to enter into the proceedings, like the Dark Knight, still have comedy elements. And I'm not just talking about the Joker, who is genuinely funny throughout even when (lit. especially when) he's being scary. For the first half of the film almost every line Alfred says to Bruce is a comedy line. What's interesting is that each time Michael Caine says something funny it is 100 times funnier than an entire Adam Sandler film.

    Some serious dramas even achieve their dramatic effect by alternating between serious and comedic tones. M. Night Shyamalan's Signs isn't everyone's cup of tea but I think it's a great movie, precisely because of the way it juxtaposes horror and outright comedy. In fact, if you extracted all the comedy scenes and watched them all together out of context, you'd think you were watching a decent comedy film. It's not like Shaun of the Dead, where the comedy and horror blend. It's more of a jarring vacillation between two separate moods. But if you find the comedy funny and the horror scary — if you follow along with what the film is trying to do — it's a great ride. The one doesn't undermine the other, instead the comedy softens you up before the horror strikes, then something scary happens just when your guard is down, then the comedy gives you some very welcome relief after the scary moments. Even the dramatic climax — no spoilers here, I promise — involves the surprising recontextualisation of elements previously introduced in the film, in a structure identical to set-up and punchline. It's one big Brick Joke.

    I'm sure I've said it elsewhere on this site but it bears repeating: good comedy by its nature ticks all the same boxes as good art. In much the same was there are four elements of hip-hop, comedy has fundamental elements too. They're not DJing, MCing or b-boying, they're things like tension, expectation, surprise, word play, subversion: these are as fundamental to joke construction as they are to writing a really good work or art like a song or a screenplay.

    Too many comic creators keep comedy and drama in separate rooms. If they decide to treat a subject with anything resembling seriousness or to lend it any kind of emotional weight, comedy is banished. Sorry, no punchline today, we're dealing with the heartbreaking consequences of childhood obesity.

    Other times a cartoonist will abandon every aspect of storytelling for the sake of a joke. One of the cardinal rules of improv is "don't go for the joke". "Going for the joke" is when someone trying to be funny is tempted by that low-hanging fruit, the obvious joke, and grasps at it. It's a cheap gag, its cheapness measured by the extent to which it detracts from the characters, the world they inhabit and the plotline unfolding. Imagine you have a scene between two characters, Neville and Clive. Clive is upset because someone keeps graffitiing the Wikipedia page for Clive's comic, Neville doesn't want Clive to know that it was him the whole time. We have everything we need for a funny scene: characters with conflicting agendas and perspectives, the same as with drama.

    The scene plays out thus:
    Clive: Somebody has been writing lies on my comic's Wikipedia page.
    Neville: Wikipedia? I hardly knew 'er!

    That's going for the joke. Notice how the scene grinds to a halt? And what Neville says has nothing to do with his character or Clive's problem? What about the joke itself? Well, it's got wordplay. That was one of the fundamental elements of comedy, right? But where's the tension? Where's the surprise? How can you expect the audience to be surprised by this kind of writing? We've all seen this joke, or some variation of it, before. It's not specific enough to the situation the characters find themselves in to build on all that stuff we established before the start of the scene. You know who has a collection of well-worn jokes that he keeps in his top pocket for any situation? Your dad. You don't emulate your dad's dancing or his taste in clothing, don't start emulating his comedy writing. When people expect a conversation to flow one way and it organically flows in a different direction, it surprises them. That kind of surprise tickles that part of the brain that generates laughter. No surprise, no comedy. As for tension, well Clive is no longer talking about the thing that Neville has done to upset him, so if anything the tension has been dispelled. Genuinely funny writing builds off the characters, it doesn't contradict what we already know about who these people are. The more you build, the more developed these characters become, and that in turn increases the wealth of background information you can draw on to generate humour. Genuinely funny writing builds on the world those characters inhabit and the situation they find themselves in now. A funny line rises from that specific situation, from those exact characters. What if the scene played out like this?

    Clive: Somebody has been writing lies on my comic's Wikipedia page.
    Neville: Did they say it has readers?
    Clive: They said my art was hideous, that my writing was unfunny and that I am a creepy misfit who personal hygiene is an alein concept to.
    Neville: What? Oh no! Damn it!
    Clive: Neville, I had no idea you cared.
    Neville: I could have sworn I wrote "to whom".

    Okay, so it might not be comedy gold. These examples will always be damn hard to write because these characters don't have a rich backstory to refer to or contradict. The point is that if this scene had any laughs, they all arose out of this unique situation. That's the difference between "going for the joke" and genuine wit.

    "But I'm just a person thinking up funny things for my characters to say," I hear you cry, "how am I supposed to know the difference between wit and jokes?" First: don't interrupt. Second: let me provide you with this simple rule of thumb. If the line could work just as well in a different scene with different characters (especially egregious if you've already seen it done in a different scene with different characters), then you've gone for the joke. If the scene would still work as a dramatic scene if it wasn't funny then you're doing your job.

    Family Guy is the worst for this kind of writing. A lot of people view that show as being synonymous with constantly going for the joke at the expense of storytelling. The thing is, it didn't used to be. In the earlier seasons, each episode had an A plot and a B plot, interspersed with quick cutaways that had no bearing on either plot thread. Peter would say "this is like the time I—" then it would cut to that one joke, then after a few seconds it was back to the plot. This structure meant that they could go for the joke without damaging the integrity of their characters — the joke was partitioned off, it was conpartmentalised as something that was happening outside of the everyday time and space of the Family Guy universe. And if you didn't like that joke it didn't matter because there were another ten on their way in as many seconds; the pacing was fleet and the delivery as rapid as machine gun fire. The fact that these moments were framed as false memories of past events served a purpose: it felt like a send-up of the tendency for television shows to refer back to their own backstory and cut back to clips of past episodes, the difference being that these clips referred to things that had never happened and, indeed, could never happen. Arrested Development did a similar thing with their "on the next Arrested Development" bits, which were all clips of things that never happened in the following episode.

    Yeah, I didn't have a problem with the cut-aways. Cut-aways are by their nature removed from the story because they're away— over there where they can't break anything. Each one was like a self-contained little comedy moment, not dissimilar to a comic strip. I like those. No, Family Guy didn't truly go off the rails until they started adopting the cheap 'go for the joke' approach for the entire show. This lead to characters acting contrary to their established personalities for the purposes of a single joke or a single episode.
    "How about a 10 minute sequence during which Stewie mercilessly beats Brian to a bloody pulp?" a writer says.
    "But isn't the whole point of Stewie that he's an evil genius baby? He wants to take over the world but he can't because he's just a little kid? His schemes always involve ridiculous things like mind control devices or time machines and he's always undone by his childish nature and the fact that no-one takes him seriously? So he's essentially harmless? Isn't that what makes him funny?" said absolutely nobody.

    The funny thing about Stewie beating Brian to near-death is that it goes on far too long. That's the only funny thing about it. You could replace the characters in that scene with any other two people and the effect would be the same. In fact, you could replace the thing going on too long with any other event and the effect would still be the same. That's the worst kind of going for the joke. And it leads to problems afterwards: why doesn't Brian leave the house after that? He's left before, over less serious issues. Why does he stay and continue to be friends with the person who brutally attacked him? It's because it's not real – that whole episode was like one big cut-away where nothing mattered and there was zero continuity. And for what? One joke?

    Here's the problem with breaking character. It's surprising the first time it happens, therefore it has the potential to be funny. But if you keep breaking character time and time again, after a while it ceases to surprise and what's worse you've now got a character who can at any time be expected to do literally anything. So now whenever that character finds himself in a pickle, the audience won't be able anticipate how he'll react. Because expectation is a key element of comedy too. I believe it was Batman who said "It's what I do that defines me". If you keep making characters do anything, you'll end up with a cast of interchangeable ciphers, superficially different but with identical tendencies.

    "But my webcomic is a single-panel gag-a-day comic; none of these rules of drama and continuity apply to me." Fine, then make sure none of them apply to you. If you find yourself coming back to the same themes and you keep making comics about scientists or people called Todd then you're accidentally creating continuity.

    So there are two kinds of comic writer: the one who is a humourless slave to the drama and sadness of what he or she is writing and the other who disregards character and continuity in favour of wacky joke time. The problem is, sometimes those two writers are the same person.

    How many times have you seen this? A cartoonist starts a comic strip with a simple premise and a diverse cast of characters, devoting their attention to short story arcs about fairly inconsequential things and single-page gags that the characters never discuss again. Later, as characters develop the cartoonist writes in some long-form character studies to really flesh them out. That is fine. If a writer wants to tone down the silliness while a wacky neighbour deals with their parents' death or a cancer diagnosis, that's their business. I would argue vehemently that if they're going to introduce cancer into their humour comic then they had damn well make the cancer funny but that's more of an argument against putting cancer into the strip in the first place. Really, when a writer pulls a stunt like that they're confusing drama with tragedy. The Gilmore Girls is drama. Hamlet is tragedy. The Gilmore Girls would have been a very different show altogether if everyone had died at the end of the series.

    Okay, the cartoonist finishes his character development/cancer sadness story arc. Then after that the cartoonist never quite manages to shake off the drama. Oh, they'll still do silly one-page gag comics, but then the following comic will always be the characters discussing the consequences of what just happened and how they feel about it. In punishing detail.

    Imagine your comic strip is a TV sitcom. During a single episode's 22 minute run, a well-written sitcom will have a laugh every seven seconds. You know that moment when the tone drops from light farce to serious emotion times? Sometimes this takes the form of a character admitting that they're not happy. Other times everyone hugs and learns a lesson. That moment usually lasts between 30 seconds and 2 minutes. Then it is immediately followed by the biggest laugh of the episode. If you have set out to write a comedy, keep the comedy and tragedy in that ratio.

    END OF PART ONE

    A Badly-written Girl Called Louise

    Posted 08:00 (GMT) 4th July 2012 by David J. Bishop

    Y'know, it's probably because I've the 200 comic milestone (arbitrary though it may be) but I've been reflecting on the nature of creativity a great deal. I've also been feeling particularly smug. So, what say we indulge in a little self-satisfied back-patting thinly disguised as a rant about characterisation? Oh, do let's.

    You guys never saw my first webcomic, that I drew as an anxiety-ridden 15-year-old. That's because I never published it on the web. You might argue that it was never a webcomic in that case but I'd tell you to shut up, I'm making a point. The comic's writing was heavily influenced by the webcomics I was reading at the time, especially the first four years of the phenomenal PVP, and you could say its characters were typical of what some consider to be a generic webcomic. Actually, those people would be wrong – there's no such thing as a generic webcomic since a webcomic is just a comic published online, which at this point is all comics forever – but for whatever reason fans of online comics have a tendency to become inspired to make their own comics. Sometimes those people had already been life-long cartoonists beforehand, as was the case with me, sometimes they were people who had never picked up a pen or pencil before in their life but who thought it didn't look all that hard. As it happens, whether a creator falls into the former or the latter category is no indicator of whether or not they will be successful. That being the case, a number of comics rose to prominence that were drawn and written by people who couldn't draw or write. This led to the belief amongst snarky media commentators that anything calling itself a webcomic is 99% certain to be bad. It also led to a kind of homogenised psuedo-genre being formed. Since even the most capable of artisits were often inexperienced writers (and why wouldn't they be at age fifteen?) they often imitated what they had read in other webcomics as if that was the only way to go about things. Then if they amassed an audience, that audience would imitate the imitators. And so on.

    Imagine someone watched The Shawshank Redemption and was inspired to write Prison Break. Then someone watched Prison Break and was inspired to write a knock-off of Prison Break. Then some kid wrote a fan-fiction in which the protagonists from all three works plus a fourth character based on himself all worked together to break out of one big giant prison. In space. Then imagine everyone submitting TV scripts and screenplays thought they had to be about some form of prison. Maybe this time there a dragons guarding the prison. Maybe this time nobody escapes, they're just trapped there. Maybe in this one all of the prisoners are anthropomorphic fox/wolf hybrids. That was the webcomic ten years ago.

    And I, the anxiety-ridden 15-year-old who spent his summer reading all the way through the archives of PVP when he should have been revising for his exams, decided to throw my hat into this ring. The fact that I never actually published the damn thing online doesn't really help. To put it another way, I hadn't found my voice yet. You may well argue that I still haven't found my voice, I'm sure I wouldn't strongly disagree with you if you did, but if you think me at all derivative or generic now you really should see this other comic, next to which my current output looks like a masterpiece.

    My First Webcomic

    The cast was small: two guys, one irresponsible and eccentric, one an anxiety-ridden everyman, and one girl, who was the girl. Yes, I was that guy, I'm sorry to say, the guy who writes a girl character with no personality beyond being 'the girl'. I'm not proud of it. What can I say? She was just there to be 'the girl'. She was a third straight man to the guys' double act; she never participated in any of the guys' hijinks (including a pretty funny mini arc involving a time machine and a storyline with evil twins from a parallel dimension straight out of the PVP archives that was probably par for the course for all turn-of-the-century comic strips during their first couple of years). She was most prominent as a love interest. She was there for the shy nerd to pine after. There was a running gag in which the self-conscious loser would send his more confident friend to ask her out but things would inevitably go awry. The crazy friend would get things wrong or the girl would refuse; she seemed to genuinely resent the attention.

    She had absolutely no flaws, because I was modelling her on some imaginary archetype of the perfect woman. The problem is, perfect characters are boring. Worse still, I never gave her anything to do. If the comic had been an action movie she would have cowered in the corner during the shoot-outs before being kidnapped at the end of the second act. Which is not to say she couldn't kick ass if the need arose. On the contrary, she could hold her own against a squad of evil twins. But this wasn't action, this was comedy; it's not about how much ass a character can kick, it's about how funny they are, in which case her ability to defend herself when the boys were glass-jawed incompetents only served to make them funnier and her more idealised and boring. As far my teenage self was concerned, she was the epitome of womanhood: pure, true, unbending, unknowable, a prize impossible to win but that's okay because you wouldn't know what to do with it if you won it anyway. Her name was Louise Aphrodite, for God's sake. She was... as beautiful as my character design and style would allow. Which is to say I would have made her prettier if I could, that I didn't self-consciously design her to look like a boy with long hair and girly lips. You have to understand that my style of cartooning at that time was much more simplified than Life on the Fourth Floor ever was, even when it first started out. Think Garfield level of anatomy. And I'd literally never bothered to draw a girl before, at first because I took no interest in them and later because I didn't want to be seen to be taking too much interest.

    See, I was anxious about the female anatomy. Well, of course I was – I was a teenage boy. But more than that I was uncomfortable with the idea of taking the time to study female anatomy, simply because then when my art improved people would know that I had spent hours alone in my room studying female anatomy. Doesn't that sound bad? The reality is little better, if you think about it. I have since learnt that to seriously draw an anatomically correct woman you have to first sketch her out as if she's naked, carefully imagining how gravity will affect her boobs, then draw clothing on her, picturing how the fabric will interact with said boobs. And whilst now as a grown man I can approach that task with a businesslike attitude and bored straightforwardness, ten years ago simply having the task before me described ahead of time would have been enough to induce sweating, blushing and irrational panic and more than enough to necessitate a cold shower.

    It was this squeamishness about the female form and my interaction with it, coupled with the subconscious assumption that drawing women as they look in real life somehow made me a pornographer, that led to my solution, which I thought at the time was a neat compromise. I drew everything from the top of Louise's head to her shoulders, everything from her waist to her feet and both of her arms with the expected level of detail. Then for the torso or 'chesticular' region I just drew a big 'S' shape. It was like a silhouette, a giant undefined shape within which no extra line, no trace of detail, dwelt. Just a big formless suggestion of a perfectly two-dimensional bosom curving inwards to an impossibly narrow waist. And this thing, this mystery lump, was like Mickey Mouse's ears; it didn't matter what angle Louise was viewed from, this 'S' was always drawn the exact same way. This single line – combined with long hair, pouting lips and badly-drawn cartoon eyelashes – were all I used to denote womanhood, because that's all I had. So, unsure that this would be enough to read as 'this is a girl', I made the hair really long and the weird pseudo-boob area really big. Note that whilst I couldn't bear to spend more than a single second drawing a female chest, I was more than happy to make that chest large enough to bring tears of jealousy and rage to the eyes of Carmen Electra.

    If you'd called me on it at the time I would have justified my design choice thus:

    1. I didn't put any detail into the boobs so you know it wasn't intended to titillate.
    2. They're only big because the proportions are exaggerated.

    I stand by that second one to some extent. The first one doesn't hold water, since boobs – and even crude drawings of boobs – will always interest people who like that sort of thing, because boobs. But I drew all my characters with massive eyes and huge hands and feet but thin arms and legs and small noses and ears and nobody batted an eyelid. As I have said before, a cartoonist's job is to simplify, to caricature, to emphasise. A cartoonist doesn't draw a thing as it is, he draws something to symbolize that thing. And if you want to draw human beings with jagged, spiky hair and yellow skin then that's not just acceptable, it's encouraged. So you've got your human characters with giant heads and huge eyes. Where do breasts fit into this equation? Do you draw them tiny so they're in proportion with the small bits or do you draw them in proportion with the big bits, like the head and the eyes? If you choose the former you run the risk of making everyone look like Keira Knightley or an 11-year-old boy, all giant skulls and tiny stick-thin bodies; lollipop people. The latter makes you look like an asshole who wants all women to have massive jugs and tiny waists. But you didn’t deliberately make the waists tiny, you're just de-emphasising the waistline, because you never paid any attention to a woman's waistline anyway. And, since we're on the subject, men don't care what size a woman's chest is either. We're just grateful that boobs exist.

    I didn't realise it until I sat down to write this, but the main reason Louise ended up looking and acting how she looked was because of a secret third excuse.

    3. Everyone else is doing it.

    I said this strip was heavily influenced by webcomics. All of the webcomics I was reading at the time were all drawn and written by men and they all had a large cast made up almost exclusively of men and a single token female. The different men in the cast represent all the different men in the cartoonist's life and the woman represents... all the different women in the cartoonist's life. As a result the token woman often becomes all things to all men: mother, sister, wife, lover, confidant and ball-breaker to name just most common hats she wears.

    Single Token Female
    I'm sure you've all seen something where the women were written this way. The generic 2000s webcomic was just another flavour. When you spot the Single Token Female in her natural environment:

    •  Expect her to fold her arms and roll her eyes at the zany adventures the men get up to and become the strip's designated "voice of reason".
    •  Depending on whatever questionable activities the male characters engage in, she can also serve as the voice of responsibility, common sense and just plain goodness, too.
    •  Expect at least half the cast to want to pork her.
    •  Expect half the cast to feel protective of her (it can be the same half, depending on how the cartoonist feels about porking).
    •  Expect sex-based fanservice or jokes about sex-based fanservice (i.e. the cartoonist has his cake and eats it).
    •  Expect her to be able to punch above her weight when angered or attacked by evil clones (i.e. the author's concession to feminism, a way of apologising for all the fanservice).
    •  Expect her to be so competent she excels at practically anything she puts her mind to, only failing when thwarted by the inept men around her.
    •  Expect her to be the least funny character in the cast.

    Without even thinking about it my first female comic strip character was ticking all of these boxes. Except for the sex-based fanservice. And that's nothing to do with my aforementioned squeamishness, either. Nor my lack of fans. I hated sex-based fanservice then every bit as much as I do now. Aside from that, though, I had created a homogenous mess, a stereotpye, not even a stereotype drawn from my own observations but one drawn from aping other artists' observations, a girl whose list of character traits read like a 'what not to do when designing female characters' list. Even worse, she wasn't funny.

    The moment I overcame my denial and acknowledged the truth about what I had done, the comic strip died. I didn't hang up my pen in disgust then and there, I probably would have kept going and made some attempt to salvage a good comic from the mess I'd made if the school newspaper to which I had been submitting the strips hadn't imploded.

    My Attempt to Avoid Sexism

    When it was time to start a genuine online comic I decided to cut loose and start a new project, one that allowed me to side-step my previous mistakes.

    My first decision: make the number of men equal the number of women. I wouldn't keep the men in one sphere (hijinks) and the women in another (talking about the men). I'd have them all talk to each other as equals, not panic and sweat at the thought of having a conversation with a girl. So it was time to take another step away from autobiography so that I could ditch the high school setting in favour of something less constrictive. The setting became young adults living together; I felt that of all the excuses for characters to be stuck together in the same space – domestic setting, workplace, intergalactic shuttle to name the three most common (and of course, we can't forget prison) – this one would dictate what the strip would be about the least.

    My second decision was to split Louise into two people. Cue cackling and lightning. Instead of being an unapproachable beauty who was really just an approachable 'girl next-door' type underneath, I would have an unapproachable beauty and an approachable girl next door. One would be girly and flirtatious, the other would be someone I thought men and women would both be able to relate to, the kind of girl who grew up as a tomboy and only got into girly things later in life. The other girl would have Louise's physical characteristics: the long hair, the massive chest – in short, the kind of look and proportions you find in a dozen webcomics or comic books, only exaggerated (as much as my style would allow) to a ridiculous extent. Now I had identified this trope in the comics I read I knew I could either avert it or parody it – I decided to do both. When designing Amy's character I remembered something Matt Groening said in an interview about Futurama, that they had designed Leela to look sexy but Matt didn't want to make it "too easy" for the guys in the audience, so he made Leela a cyclops. That always stuck with me. I liked the idea of not making things too easy for the guys. I couldn't make Amy a one-eyed purple-haired alien but I decided there were other ways to make things less easy. What if I made her evil? Just a horrible person to know, with reprehensible opinions and a vacuous, superficial outlook? In short, the complete opposite of the nagging/maternal/nurturing 'moral centre' from other webcomics and a twisted parody of the attractive-girl-next-door-turned-love-interest. Instead of being an idealised and perfect love interest figure for one of the male characters to fall in love with, who would inevitably become his girlfriend at some point down the line, Amy would have all the outward traits of one of those characters but inside she would be twisted and evil and the male character who wanted her to be his girlfriend would simply imagine her to be kind and good-natured. And she would never give in and become his girlfriend, and you wouldn't want her to anyway.

    And then my thoughts turned back to my other female character, the one I imagined as the normal one. Imagine how you would feel if you were simply a normal-looking woman living alongside some Liefieldian/Jessica Rabbit-looking grotesque with a tiny waist and boobs the size of small planets? You'd feel annoyed, that's how you'd feel. Now, I'd seen female double acts made up of a sensible brunette paired with a vaccuous bimbo who annoys her constantly. That gets trotted out all the time. But what if the bimo was doing it on purpose? What if she's not an airhead at all, she just wants people to think she is, for the same reason a wolf covered in wool wants people to think it's a sheep?

    So now we have Amy deliberately pushing Charlotte's buttons and relishing the attention of the men. Villainous traits aside, the main difference between Louise and Amy is agency. Louise was always a passive figure, always reacting to the boys, always being perceived and defined and categorised by them and resenting it. Amy enjoys the attention. She is always in command of the situation. She affects and categorises others, she controls how people perceive her and sometimes controls how they perceive themselves. She is a great manipulator. She remains a pastiche of sorts, as if every bitchy queen bee and rival female love interest character from every film or TV series ever were distilled into one body and turned up to 11. But that act of turning up to 11, I think, has led to something original. More importantly, she's funny – or at the very least, the people who e-mail me think she is.

    Charlotte, meanwhile, has developed over the years into a solid character with (I think, anyway) an interesting mixture of flaws and strengths. She's honest, unsure of herself, kind, anxious, put-upon, occassionally petty, sometimes cynical. She even has a more confident friend of the same sex who helps her ask men out – in other words things have come full circle and I'm now recycling beats from my first comic with the genders reversed. She's not just a long-suffering mother hen, rolling her eyes and tutting at the funny male characters. If the strip has a 'voice of reason' I suppose it's Michael, but really I think the characters take it in turn to tell the truth to, give their opinions to or psychologically undermine each other.

    By taking a tired, clichéd character and splitting her down the middle I managed to accidentally stumble on something good; good enough to fuel two hundred or so comic strips, plus the countless hundreds I've written but not drawn yet. Given that I was 16 years old when these seeds were planted, I think I made a pretty good call, even if I say so myself.

    Told you I was feeling smug.

    Seriously, though, I'm not trying to paint myself as a terrifically original cartoonist. I'm sure you could point to dozens of examples of similar character dynamics in other things. But it was never about originality. I didn't want to make a comic about a disembodied elbow and a grey triangle coming to terms with loss in a way that perfectly satirizes the economic policies set in place by the Weimar Republic in the early 1920s that led to hyperinflation. There are already so many of those. I just wanted to make a cute sitcom, but one in which the women had something to do.

    A Professional Amateur

    Posted 07:27 (GMT) 15th June 2012 by David J. Bishop

    YES! 200 strips! I did it! I knew I would get here eventually, I just didn't realise it would take this long. Allow me to cast my mind back and reflect on the first comic strip I posted.

    I drew it in pencil on A4 printer paper, I inked it with an art pen that refused to stop wibbling and wobbling as I dragged it over my pencil drawing, then after I rubbed out the pencils (the rubber taking bits of the inks away with them) I scanned the strip into the computer my Dad used for work, then copy-pasted the bmp image into Microsoft Paint. Then, using a mouse, I zoomed into my image and tidied up the line art ONE PIXEL AT A TIME. WITH A MOUSE. It wasn't even a very good mouse. Bear in mind that if the line of a character's jaw didn't connect to the lines of their neck, if there was a gap as little as one pixel wide in the ink lines, the colour would spill out when I used the paint bucket tool to colour the comic in.

    After the comic had been coloured in Paint I opened it up in Photoshop and added speech bubbles. I didn't know how to make speech bubbles in Photoshop, so I just used some example speech bubbles I had downloaded from a website about cartoons. The drawback to this plan was that I couldn't resize them: when I added the text (back in Paint if you can believe it) I had to work hard to make sure it all fitted in the speech bubble. If the text was too long I simply cut out words or, if I had to, I made the font size smaller. I also couldn't move the tails of the speech bubbles, which put some quite severe limitations on where characters could stand in a scene. See, I'm not just saying I was bad at making comics. I was so bad I didn't even know how to start learning to use the tools I needed to learn in order to begin learning to be better at making comics.

    Let's flash forwards to the present day, shall we? The entire strip is drawn straight into Photoshop, coloured and played with using one of these things:

    Yeah, that's considerably easier.

    What else has changed? I think my art is better, so is my writing. Most of all, and most importantly, my work ethic has changed. I can't imagine my 17-year-old self getting up at 4:30 every weekday morning and 6:30 on Saturdays just to draw. It probably would have been a good idea to do so, actually, since I had to share the computer with my brother and sister. Yes, I had only just finished school, I had not yet started my first job, I was still living with my parents and I knew as much about starting my own business as a strawberry poptart knows about the human digestive system.

    Given how bad I was at the time, both at cartooning and at being a cartoonist (they sound the same but the latter has more to do with getting up at 4:30 than how clean your inks are), why did I think it was a good time to launch a comic strip? I think I was spurred on by some of the cartoonists on Comic Genesis. Not the good ones, no, the terrible ones. There was the comic with no drawings – it was just a series of photos some guy had taken and added speech bubbles to. There was a comic that looked like the artist had drawn it by sticking a pencil up his nostril and flailing his neck around near a piece of paper. Another comic was a long-form affair, about a boy with green hair and pointy ears who was startled by a harmless-looking goldfish. I think he was the heir to a lost undersea kingdom or something but also attending a Japanese high school. I'll never be entirely sure because the whole archive was three pages long and those three pages didn't make sense from panel to panel, nor did the words in those panels make sense on a sentence level. It must have been very easy for me to look at those comic strips and decide that my own work was good enough to be published.

    It wasn't though. I'm fine with admitting that. There's something to be said for diving into a project head first without pausing to think if you're really good enough to start, but at the same time I feel… (what's the right word?)… it's more than embarrassment… shame? I think feel ashamed that I presented my strip to the world before it was good enough for the world to see. In an episode of Webcomics Weekly Dave Kellett said, "The world doesn't owe you an audience; you owe the world a good quality comic strip." The thing is, that episode of the podcast was recorded years ago, so I must have heard him say it years ago. And about once every year I go back and re-listen to those old episodes of the podcast – it's a good show to have on in the background while you draw, very inspiring – so I must have heard Dave Kellett say those words every year for the past three or four years. But it was only about six months ago that this phrase jumped out at me. I mean, I thought it was such an important thing for somebody to say that I wrote it down. Why didn't I remember him having said that during my previous listen-throughs? What does this mean?

    I think it means that I heard him say that I owe the world a good quality comic strip and, perhaps only subconsciously, I said to myself "Pffft! Nope." But I believe that now. I would even go so far as to say it's the core of my work ethic. I think that's the source of the shame I feel when I look at the earlier stuff, because I owe the world a good strip and the world doesn't owe me an audience, so since I have had an audience for the past seven years and I haven't been making good comics for seven years I'm not keeping my end of the bargain.

    Sure, it's easy to point to the green-haired fish boy and say "Hey! I'm not doing that, right? It could be worse!" but that's a crappy standard to hold yourself to. This is the internet; you will always be able to find someone who isn't as good as you. For the longest time I've made it my mission to find someone who is better than me. That's the standard I hold myself to. I watch them closely to find out what they're doing that I'm not, then I learn to do it however I can.

    In this way I have spent the last seven years since the comic's launch, whether I've been able to actually update the website or not, in a continual process of improving myself. I've been writing, I've been learning about writing, I've been drawing, I've been learning about drawing. I have tried at every opportunity to push myself out of whatever comfort zone I happen to find myself in. I've learned skills and techniques I didn't even know the names for, the un-Google-able secrets of the universe, just to become worthy of my audience. Just to earn the thing I felt I didn't deserve.

    I would be tempted to call this ‘professionalism' if it weren't for the fact that I am not a professional cartoonist, as much as I'd like to be. I'm an amateur cartoonist. I have been an amateur cartoonist now for 200 pages of comic strips between 4 and 16 panels in length and nearly seven years. But, actually, I think amateur is a better word. People use the word ‘amateur' to mean someone who is unqualified and insufficiently skilful (thanks Wiktionary). That meaning would pretty adequately sum up my starting point, to say the least. But Wiktionary also tells me that the word amateur is French, and that it comes from the Latin amatorem ("lover"), from amare ("to love"). Okay, I already knew that, I just didn't want to admit that I went to the kind of school where they teach you these things. The point is, a professional does something because it's their job, an amateur does something for the love. And when I look back on the insane amount of work I've put into making this comic what it is today, the late nights, the early mornings, the research and the sacrifice, it doesn't feel like a job. I've never worked so hard at improving my performance in a job. No, my relationship with Life on the Fourth Floor... this feels more like a loving relationship. At first I was just getting to know the strip, feeling that initial rush of excitement, then I found myself thinking about the strip all the time and planning our future during my idle hours, then came the fears of commitment and the guilty periods of neglect, then the renewed vows of love – a love bordering on unhealthy obsession. Okay, so it might be a slightly dysfunctional relationship but it works for us. And, let's face it, a Cintiq doesn't cost as much as an engagement ring but it's still a pretty big gesture of commitment.

    That being the case, can we talk about where this relationship is heading? What have I got planned for the next 200 comics and beyond? Well, I'm going to continue to improve my art work. I've been working on changes to the casts' designs and tweaks to my art style which I'm very excited about and you'll see those changes being rolled out in the coming months. The update schedule will change from being monthly to being fortnightly, but only after I have built up a sufficient buffer to maintain that schedule at all costs. An update schedule is a sacred bond that you break at your own peril.

    I'm not one to beg and pester existing readers to become pushers but, given how nice the homepage looks this month, if you were thinking about posting a link to my comic strip on Facebook or Google+ or on Twitter or simply tying a friend to a chair and making them read through the archives while you play Beethoven and put eye drops in their eyes, now would be an excellent time to do so. In fact, why don't you just go ahead and do that anyway? Do it. Do it now.

    If you're a long-time reader, I just want to take this opportunity to thank you for supporting me and encouraging me with your kind words and page-views. There's no way I could have made it this far without you. If you're a first-time reader, I hope you enjoy reading through the archives. Apologies for the quality of the earlier stuff. It gets better.

    Cake and Werewolves

    Posted 05:30 (GMT) 15th May 2012 by David J. Bishop

    There's another strip up! I hope you enjoy it. When I haven't been drawing or in the office I've been having a great time playing Mass Effect 3. Because I've spent the vast majority of my time working, I haven't got very far. In fact, people started complaining about the ending before I had even started playing. It is undoubtedly one of the best games I've ever played. I'm finding it difficult to believe that the ending will be as disappointing as the vocal protesters imply it will.

    What's interests me is the response; Bioware are bringing out some free DLC that changes how the ending of the game plays out. From what I can tell, those who called for this kind of thing are calling it a victory. Other people – mostly creators – are troubled by the artistic vision of the game's creative team being compromised in direct response to fan feedback. Is this something people who make things should concern themselves with? Absolutely. Is this anything new? Uhhhh no.

    Did you know Arwen was going to be at the battle of Helm's deep in The Two Towers? But the filmmakers changed it after fans caught on to this online and complained bitterly. And quite right too, because I can't imagine how that wouldn't have sucked. This a big deal – The Lord of the Rings is my generation's Star Wars and it scares me to think how narrowly it avoided being downgraded to 'almost perfect'. Okay, for the sake of fairness I need to acknowledge a couple of things: as far as I can tell, these complaints weren't addressed directly to Peter Jackson, he just read them and reconsidered, also The Lord of the Rings is an adaptation of an existing, thoroughly beloved intellectual property, so it's not the same as people directly petitioning Bioware for a new ending to their game. But people adapting a story to film always come to the table with their own creative vision and at one point that vision included having Arwen at Helm's Deep. They compromised it. Thank God.

    Let's look at another example, the Matrix movies. How many fans of the first film wish they had been consulted before the sequels were made? We can talk about an artist's vision for a story until the squid robots come home but sometimes other people besides the artist know better than the artist. People will like things for different reasons and they will dislike things for different reasons too so your mileage may vary. Personally, I liked The Matrix for very specific traits that film possessed. Every single one of those traits was absent from the two sequels, to the point where they are almost unwatchable for me. My fiancée won't even acknowledge that sequels were made. She's managed to double-think her way out of being aware they exist at all and she's much happier for it. How I envy her sometimes.

    I think, on reflection, we could have done without the Star Wars prequels too. The Star Wars prequels are my generation's Watergate. The majority of fans feel they know better than the artistic visionary. I think they're right.

    So an artistic vision is sometimes compromised. Sometimes this has the affect of improving the work has a whole. Sometimes an artistic vision is not compromised one jot and the result is something that utterly blows. As an avid fan of these kinds of things and as a creator of other things I'm totally cool with this. What makes the Mass Effect 3 example so interesting is that they're altering the ending of the game after its release. This is not how works of art normally operate. Imagine if you were reading a novel and as you reached the half-way mark the author submitted a brand new final chapter. We're used to things being made, coming out and remaining static. A film, once finished and released to the world, traditionally remains the same. Even when a director's cut comes out it's treated as a separate entity to the original movie; it doesn't supercede it. Downloadable content works differently – it's an optional add-on that instantly becomes integrated into the work as a whole, until you can't tell where one ends and the other begins. And now an increasing number of people are reading their fiction on Kindles and phones, my hypothetical scenario in which the ending of a novel is updated as you read it could easily become a reality within my lifetime.

    The internet is changing the way storytellers connect with their audience. I've heard it said many times before and up until now I thought it just meant that all the storytellers have Twitter accounts and Facebook pages, but I just realised there's another aspect to it. The internet means that a storyteller can present a story to the audience and then go back and change something after the fact. Now I think about it, I realise I've done the same thing. I've gone back and fixed comic strips that had problems, as one might patch buggy software after release. I didn't care about which strip, the new or the old, represented the 'real' version. People pointed out things that were wrong so I jumped in and fixed them, because I could. That's what the internet lets us do.

    But only a couple of weeks ago I was on this very blog denouncing fanservice or any alteration made at the suggestion from a fan that might steer a story off the course set for it by the artist at the helm. I was all about artistic visions there and insisting that they shouldn't be compromised at any cost. So I guess that makes me a massive hypocrite, right?

    Well, not exactly. When I wrote my fanservice rant I was railing against the tendency for internet cartoonists to whole-heartedly incorporate reader suggestions into their work – or to jump the gun and incorporate things they think readers will like – to the detriment of the work as a whole. I'm not saying that these strips are dictated entirely by reader suggestions; but I've seen comics with well-balanced casts become overshadowed by a single character who stood out as the fan-favourite. I've seen it happen with films. I love Jack Sparrow. Everyone loves Jack Sparrow. More Jack Sparrow please! Let's have more movies, this time ones in which Jack is the protagonist. In fact, let's ditch those other guys and just have Jack by himself. Can we do that? Can it be called The Captain Jack Show: On Stranger Captain Jacks? Yes? Really? I didn't think you'd actually do it, to be perfectly honest. You realise I know nothing about making movies, right? I'm really not sure this isn't going to suck. Hey, what do you know? It sucked. It turns out Jack Sparrow is only funny when he's completely extraneous to the main plot. He wasn't our hero. Will Turner was the hero, Elizabeth Swann the love interest, Barbosa and the skeleton ghosts were our villains. Jack was not a key character. In fact, he was just the sort of character a writer like Joss Whedon would kill off at the end of Act Two to show everyone he means business. As it was, Jack was just along for the ride; in fact the fun and the charm of his character arose from Jack looking and sounding like he had just stumbled in drunk from a modern-day party. You could have written Jack out and the story would have still held together. He's rather like Hannibal Lecter in that respect. And, like Hannibal Lecter, the more we learn about his origins and backstory and the more sequels, prequels and spin-offs you write in which he is required to do heavy lifting in the plot, the less fun he becomes. Jack Sparrow: better off dead.

    That was an excellent example of what I'm talking about, but it didn't contain any self-congratulatory references to me and my own comic. Amy has received a wealth of reader feedback. I've had people e-mail me to tell me she's their favourite character. And, I'll be honest, she's incredibly easy to write for and lots of fun to write, too. Oh, Life on the Fourth Floor could so easily become the Amy show. But then it wouldn't be Life on the Fourth Floor anymore.

    Yes, that's it. What I'm really against is comics, movies and shows stopping being themselves and turning into something else. That's what happened with Star Wars, with The Matrix and it's kind of what happened to the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise. If it happens as a result of executive meddling, suggestions from fans, adaptation decay, sequilitis or just the original creator going completely off the rails the results are always the same.

    Thing is, the examples with characters taking over the show are just the easiest to use – that phenomenon is actually quite rare. What's far more common is that a whole bunch of subtle changes are made that compromise the tone of the piece. Tone is exactly as important as characters but it's very difficult to give examples of when a film or comic strip's tone is wrong. It's difficult to poinpoint when tone causes something to jump the shark. But it's tone that suffers when a cartoonist deploys fanservice.

    Self-congratulatory reference to me number two: I sometimes do comic strips about video games. I enjoy video games, they're a part of my life and therefore since the title of the comic is Life on the Fourth Floor and not Life (Apart from the Bits Involving an Xbox) on the Fourth Floor I don't have any qualms about throwing in a strip in which everyone is holding a controller once in a while. If people started asking me to do more than I otherwise would I'd simply ignore them, because the tone of strip is different to the tone of a video game strip and I don't want my comic to turn into something it's not.

    I see no reason why other cartoonists shouldn't do the same thing. All the greats – your Penny Arcades, your PVPs – keep their tone consistent. The thing I like about art forms like books and comics, the thing that makes them different from films and games, is that the story you're telling, whether good or bad, is the result of a single artistic vision. It's one person, sometimes two, making exactly the thing they want to make. The great thing about that is the tone, the themes, the ideas – these things will all reflect the sensibilities of the creator. As a reader, I never have to worry about the thing I love one day sucking due to executive meddling because there is no executive meddling.

    That’s why I get so frustrated when meddling sneaks in anyway, just because certain fans demand certain things and the artist gives in, because I'm sitting there saying "Wait, I didn't want this." What do I want? I want the comic which feels like an extension of the cartoonist's personality, to the point that if you meet him or her in person it instantly makes sense that this person would make that particular strip. I don't want to see the version of that cartoonist's personality that they trot out at parties; the diluted version, the trying-to-please-as-many-people-as-possible version.

    You know, now I come to think of it, maybe the problems with both the Star Wars prequels and the Matrix sequels come from their respective creators trying to please the fans instead of doing what they would have done in a vacuum. Wait, bear with me.

    Star Wars is about people flying around the galaxy having adventures in a space ship. It comes out, it changes the face of cinema, it makes a crazy amount of money, it inspires a truckload of imitators and knock-offs for decades to follow. The fans love Darth Vader, they love lightsabres, they love the Jedi and The Force and they praise it as a science fiction epic, which it is not. Star Wars is a fantasy story dressed up in science fiction clothing: The Force is essentially magic, and they never give anything resembling a scientific explanation for how it works. The core of the story is magic knights with swords, and it would work exactly as well if you transplanted it into a Medieval setting. It's just a big fight between good and evil. It's not epic, it's just the same three or four people running around and being chased by a dude in a scary helmet. Lucas decides to make more, but this time around he has a fanbase to please. What do the fans want? They love Darth Vader. Right, I'll make Vader the hero of the story. I'll make him a Messianic figure whose coming is foretold in prophecy. They love the lightsabres? Okay, everyone gets a lightsabre. I'll make a character with four arms and each arm can hold a lightsabre. We'll have the biggest, most elaborate lightsabre duels anyone's ever seen. Even Yoda can have a lightsabre fight. I'll have a lightsabre duel that lasts half an hour. They love the Jedi; fine, everyone is a Jedi. They love the Force. Great! I'll show them Force powers they've never seen before! All the villains will shoot Force lightning out of their fingers. Jedi will be deflecting the lightning with their swords! And deflecting gunfire too! And since I'm writing science fiction here, how about a cool science-fiction-y explanation for how The Force works, like atoms or microbes or something? I'll call them mini-forcicans or something. And since this is epic science fiction, I'll write a sweeping political thriller with complex motives and fragile allegiances spanning decades and hundreds of planets! Like Dune. I can write something like Dune, right? I mean I spearheaded a trilogy about a small group of friends flying through space having adventures, complex political intrigue is the next logical step in my development as a storyteller.

    Jar-Jar Binks is annoying, don't get me wrong, but sometimes I get the feeling the worst mistake George Lucas ever made was listening to his fans and buying into his own hype.

    The Matrix is about people doing wire-fu and shooting guns in a virtual reality world run by robots. It comes out, it changes the face of cinema, it makes a crazy amount of money, it inspires a truckload of imitators and knock-offs for decades to follow. The fans love Agent Smith, they love the special effects, they love the kung fu and bullet time – they also love the philosophical aspects, and this is something which comes as a genuine surprise to the Wachowski brothers. Because it is set in a virtual reality world and because it has a very polished script, The Matrix accidentally touches on some fascinating epistemological issues regarding the nature of knowledge and perception; if our senses can all be fooled, how do we know that everything we think we're perceiving isn't just an illusion? We could just be brains in jars. Again, it does this accidentally. I honestly believe the Wachowskis just wanted to make a kung fu movie which involved a virtual reality world. Virtual reality has been knocking about in film and television the whole time I've been alive, all they did was approach it from the other direction, instead of starting off in the real world and travelling into never-before-seen fantastic world via virtual reality a la Tron, the protagonist starts off in the virtual reality world and the never-before-seen fantastic world is the real world. They just flipped it. It was a cool idea and they ran with it. It doesn't make them Plato and Socrates. It gets worse: the story also supports a religious reading, again completely by mistake. Consider a Buddhist take on The Matrix. A man realises that there is a deeper, truer reality which transcends tangible reality – the reality which everyday people accept at face value as they go about their lives. He becomes 'enlightened' to things as they really are, he 'wakes up', loses his fear of death, gains a new sense of calm. Sinister creatures throw obstacles into his path, but he ultimately defeats them by achieving a state of 'non-attachment'. Then he makes it his mission to awaken every other human and thus save them. The final message is a promise that nothing will remain the same; everything will change. I just described Siddhartha Gautama, the Buddha. How about a Christian reading? Well, if we pretend the agents represent demons then it works quite well. After all, they can jump into people's bodies, essentially possessing them, they have a great deal of contempt for the humans and Smith seems to actively despise humanity, deriving sadistic joy from making the good guys suffer and making them feel powerless. Then the chosen one comes along, the saviour, the fulfilment of a prophecy, who has the power to drive out the demons and come back from the dead. It totally works on that level... and there is no way in hell that the Wachowskis did all that deliberately. Seriously, not a chance.

    So, fans of cyberpunk kung fu adventure and philosophy nerds alike praise The Matrix as a philosophical masterpiece, which it is but it's mostly the same hero's journey narrative as Star Wars in cyberpunk clothing. The Wachowskis decide to make more, but this time around they have a fanbase to please. What do the fans want? They love Agent Smith. No problem, let's give him a bigger part. Yes, I know he was destroyed. We'll bring him back anyway. No, I don't think we need to explain it. What else? Special effects? No problem, we'll make everything a special effect. Bullet time was an impressive camera trick but we need to take it to through next step: a completely CGI Neo fighting a whole army of CGI Smiths and we'll just keep the camera spinning around the whole time. This is great! What else did they like from the first one? Kung fu? Awesome. We'll cram this thing full of Kung Fu. You know how in the first one Neo went to see the Oracle? Well, this time instead of just seeing her Neo can meet this dude and he'll be all "I can take you to see her but first we must fight!" and they can do Kung Fu at each other for a bit until they stop and the takes him to see the Oracle. What's next? The philosophy? The what? Christ and Buddha parallels? Huh, you know I didn't realise we even had that in the last movie. No, it's cool. We've got this. We'll make Neo into Jesus. Listen, Jesus was a pacifist, right? Well, we'll have a large-scale war between the machines and the humans, and Neo will just be trying to stop the war. Look, I know we ended the last film with him telling the machines that he was going to fight the power and bring down the system. Don't worry, we'll portray all the machines sympathetically and the humans as douchebags, then nobody will want either side to win. As for the philosophy, I've already thought of a way we can work it in. What do you think of when you think of philosophy? French people! So we'll have the main characters go to a French restaurant and talk to a French guy for twenty minutes about causality or some shit. And if you think about it, our film is all about causality, because stuff happens and then it causes other stuff to happen. Deep, right? And while we’re at it, I figure people love sex, right? So we'll cast Monica Belucci's cleavage as the Frenchman’s girlfriend and we’ll work in an orgy/rave scene. Ooh, and a cake that when you eat it, it makes you orgasm. Brilliant!

    There you have it: everything that was wrong with the Matrix sequels can be attributed to the creators running down a checklist of what fans responded to in the first film and then trying to do it bigger. How much do they lose their way? Well there’s that twenty minute scene I mentioned with a character named The Merovingian which adds nothing to the plot and plays out like this: "Blah blah blah causality causality, now cake and werewolves." Then we have the third instalment which, despite being called The Matrix Revolutions, has almost none of the action takes place in the Matrix. Our protagonist only pays a visit to the Matrix at the very end. This is a Matrix movie with no Matrix.

    I wonder how these people – George Lucas and the Wachowskis – must feel. Their follow-up films are all panned by critics, the fans of the original stuff despise what the franchise has become and they say, "What the hell? You asked for Star Wars/The Matrix and I gave it to you!" But those things that fans talk about are not the things that make Star Wars Star Wars or The Matrix The Matrix. They talk about one cool villain, they talk about the special effects or the fights scenes or the setting or one iconic image, because on the internet, on TV, in newspapers and magazines – in any form of mass communication, really – the stuff that spreads quickly and gets remembered as being synonymous with a film is the superficial stuff. That's the stuff that gets repeated and passed around, that's what gets referenced in the parodies and tributes. Everyone remembers the laser swords and the guy with the breathing mask and the helmet, that one shot of the space station blowing up and that one line of dialogue about someone being someone else's father. The core of the story isn't forgotten exactly but it doesn't rise to the surface as easily because it's so abstract. What makes Star Wars Star Wars is the plot, the characters, the themes and, most important of all, the tone. Same thing with The Matrix. If you compromise any one of those, the thing you end up with is not the thing you started with. That's what fanservice does to a story. It often comes from a place of love but if unquestioningly obeyed at the cost of all else it is tone poison.

    So, let’s look at Mass Effect 3 again. I haven't played the ending, as I said, so I don't quite know yet what the fans want to change. Here's what the makers of Mass Effect should ask themselves: is what they did at the end of the trilogy a violation of the world, the characters and themes of the Mass Effect story and will what they're being asked to do violate it? Let me put it another way: what tone do they establish in the opening sequence, before the title even appears? Is it happy? Tragic? Heroic? Triumphant? Comedic? Bittersweet? Everything about that opening should represent a promise to the audience: this is how it will go down, now deal with it. So, what promise are they making to the audience?

    If it makes a promise at the start, then fulfils that promise by the end, then that's the ending it should have, even if it’s the ending the fans don’t want. Since when did people ever know what they want?

    Why Fanservice Will Ruin Your Webcomic

    Posted 15:15 (GMT) 15th April 2012 by David J. Bishop

    Today being the 15th of the month, I have another comic strip for you.

    Now that's out of the way, I'd like to talk about something that's been bothering me: sex-based fanservice. It bothers me in ways I can't easily describe.

    This is an issue that people who make webcomics and people who read them need to address and it's something we all need to re-evaluate. The trouble is, in order to explain why I have a problem with it I have to talk about art, and it's very hard to talk about art without sounding like an utter douche. I also need to talk about things artists sometimes do to get noticed, which makes me sound like I'm speaking from personal experience. I'm going to preface this rant by saying I am not one of these people. People who create fanservice, I mean. I suppose I am an artist, but by that I just mean I'm a person who makes pictures and put words on them, I'm not trying to give myself airs. I'm going to talk about some very specific problems that all cartoonists on the internet need to deal with sooner or later, but I'm happy to say they're not ones I've encountered yet, except on a couple of rare occasions. As a reader of webcomics, however, fanservice is something I encounter all the damn time and it has to stop.

    Right! Let's kick off with a definition of terms (and already I sound like a douche).

    What do I mean by sex-based fanservice? Bear with me if you already know. Even if you think you follow me, I want to be very specific about the kind of thing I mean, since people often misapply the term. Just to clarify, then, fan-service is when an artist does something primarily to please their readers or, to be more accurate, a section of their readership. It doesn't matter what the artist does or who the readers are. It's about the intention behind the act.

    At its best this kind of behaviour is harmless, although I find fanservice is generally quite hollow. It gets worse the more blatant it becomes. It has the potential to damage the quality of the art and the relationship between artist and audience, which is already complicated by the ease of interaction between the two parties that the internet allows.

    Let's say I'm a skilled cartoonist with hundreds of thousands of readers (I'm a big fan of futuristic science fiction). Ten thousand readers are rabid fans of Bob and their favourite part of the comic is when Bob drinks something. Out of a mug, a can— they don't care, all they know is they want more MORE MORE! They e-mail me every week, clamouring for me to make comics in which Bob drinks something. Yes, I know it's a stupid example. Shut up, I'm making a point. I'm getting these requests. What am I supposed to do? What is a cartoonists to do when they find themselves in this situation? Well, I can respond to my readers in one of two ways:

    1. I can ignore them or tell them no, either publically or individually. I might think to myself "I'm the artist and I'll make what I want, thanks, and you'll like it or find something else to read."
    2. I can respond by deliberately including more comics where Bob drinks — or even by writing comics about Bob drinking.

    If I largely ignored the requests but then once every hundred or two hundred comics I deliberately made a strip or a single-image pin-up of Bob sipping on a soft drink, that would be fan service. It's a concession; it's an acknowledgement that people want to see this, so just this once I'm going to spoil them by giving them exactly what they want. That's the first rule of entertainment, right? Give the people what they want?

    Already you can probably see a number of problems with this, the most obvious among them being that Bob drinking things has nothing to do with the stories and themes of my comic; and even if it did I wouldn't want to overwhelm the other elements by devoting an unusual amount of attention to that one aspect. It's not as if Bob never drinks anything but he only does it occasionally as part of a larger story or scene, i.e. he only does it if it makes sense for him to be doing it or if it's funny. I'm not saying I would deliberately avoid making Bob drink in case people mistook it for fanservice — if I did that I'd still be, for lack of less pretentious-sounding phrase, compromising my artistic vision. If it makes sense in context, if it serves the comic or serves the joke, if it would have been there anyway then that's fine. Everyone's going to like different parts of the comic, I'm not going to chop out the bits people like for what I think are weird reasons. However, if I start deliberately writing storylines about Bob quenching his thirst with glass after glass of delicious lemonade, even if I make them funny, I'm veering off-course. Ostensibly people read my comic strip because they want to see what stories I want to tell, they want to see where I'm going with this, not where I end up if I go via fan-suggestions.

    The second problem is that I'm not giving the people what they want. I'm giving 10% of my readership what they want, everyone else is left wondering why Bob is suddenly the only character in the comic and all he's doing is slurping beverages. Most cartoonists would chafe if an editor told them to write more skateboards into their comic "because that's what the kids are into these days". That isn't — or at least it shouldn't be — just because the kids aren't into skateboards and the artist knows it. Even if the kids are indeed into their skateboards these days, that doesn't mean you should make a comic which is all skateboards all of the time, or modify a comic you've already started so that it caters more to the skateboard-loving demographic. The skaters won't appreciate it because nobody likes being pandered to (okay, only stupid people like being pandered to) and your existing readers won't enjoy the change in direction. Everyone knows this! We've all seen that episode of The Simpsons where they introduce Poochie. So why if you're so unwilling to be told what to do by an editor are you so willing to be told what to do by a vocal minority of readers?

    The third problem goes deeper. People don't always know what they want. They often think they do, but they might be wrong. Fans of Bob drinking might ask me to turn the comic into the drinking Bob show, then become bored when they get what they want. It's far better to give people something they didn't know they wanted. Had I been given the opportunity, I would never have asked Christopher Nolan to make Inception. Now it's one of my favourite films. I didn't realise how much I wanted to see a film like that until I was presented with it. And what if Christopher Nolan had opened up the floor and asked the internet what his next film should be about, then filmed it? We probably would have ended up with 90 minutes of Catwoman making out with Poison Ivy.

    That leads me to sexual fanservice. It can take the form of cartoonists rewarding fans who find a certain character attractive by occassionally drawing that character in the bath or, I don't know, bending over to pick something up. You get the idea. But people also use the phrase "fanservice" to refer to a cartoonist drawing characters in those scenarios in the absence of specific fan feedback, even though that technically isn't fanservice at all. Really, the cartoonist is servicing his fans without them asking him to, or creating comics specifically to tick those boxes. This is the kind of 'fanservice' that most people associate with the word 'fanservice', in which the cartoonist, without being asked, launches a pre-emptive strike, resulting in a picture of one of their characters in the bath, in the shower, trying on outfits, eating a banana et cetera ad captandum vulgus. The cartoonist does this because he or she imagines they already know what the audience wants and they're more than willing to pay that off. It's the equivalent of the movie with the gratuitous shower scene, the actor cast because of his abs rather than his acting ability, the sex scene that does nothing to forward the story and would have been cut from the film if it hadn't been a sex scene. It's cheap titillation. In films it's better known as exploitation, pandering or — if the work exists soley to facillitate these moments — softcore porn.

    I wouldn't say this kind of fanservice is better or worse than actual fanservice (i.e. content generated by actual reader response). On the one hand, when gratuitous titillation exists in the absence of fans it seems to have more to do with author intent than if the cartoonist shoved that kind of thing in simply because he was asked to do so and didn’t care either way. If a film-maker makes a movie with three pointless shower scenes he does so because that really is the film he wanted to make. On the other hand, it's just another form of pandering to an audience's whims, albeit imagined ones. It's the product of a creator desperately trying to 'give the people what they want', only broader and more lowest-common-denominator. Because it hasto be. But a move like this carries with it some assumptions. Let's say a male cartoonist draws a pin-up of one of his female characters in a sexy pose. The cartoonist imagines his audience as male, he is pandering to the male audience as if they asked him to, he assumes that naturally this is what they would be clamouring for because they are red-blooded males.

    There are quite a few problems with moments like these.

    1. The cartoonist's audience might not be as male-dominated as he thought.
    2. The audience might have asked for different fanservice if given the chance.
    3. The audience, whether made up of men or women, might not want to see any of the characters in a sexy pose and now feel like the comic is pushing them away.

    You'll notice I didn't say "4. Because this is pornography and pornography is morally wrong". If I may, I'd like to ignore whatever moral or social issues you may or may not feel are obvious in this situation, (titillation for titillation's sake, what counts as porn and what counts as art etc.) because they're not relevant to the problem. The problem with sexual fanservice is an artisitic one, it's the same as the problems with the ridiculous examples I used involving drinking beverages and riding on skateboards:

    •   That's not what the story is about.
    •   Not everyone wants to see that.
    •   Even if they did, people don't know what they want anyway.

    If I was going to complain about this cartoonist, I wouldn't be complaining because I thought he was making pornographic materials, it would be because he's a bad cartoonist. The trouble is, nine times out of ten, that cartoonist will assume that anyone complaining about his fanservice is only doing so because they think it's porn, and if that same cartoonist has a lot of readers he'll assume that they're all there because he's a good cartoonist and not because they think it's porn.

    So let's look at why our example cartoonist is a bad cartoonist. Firstly, characters' actions should be driven by what they themselves want to do, not by what the reader wants them to do. The cartoonist's actions as a storyteller should be driven in a similar way, by their original artistic intent. When they sat down to make up a story, what did they want to invent and where did they want to take it?

    Now, as before, if it makes sense in the context of the story, if the character motivations behind the scene are believable and (be honest with yourself, cartoonist) if you would have done it anyway then it's not fanservice. And, moreover, you shouldn't deliberately avoid putting characters in sexy or potentially sexy situations just because you're scared it might accidentally constitute fanservice. Fanservice by definition has to be a deliberate attempt to reward readers. I'm not going to call you to the mat because your cast isn't made up of monks and nuns. In fact, a crucial part of creative writing, which some writers forget, is giving viewpoint characters natural human impulses, including sexual ones. That means, if a sexy man walks across the room and your heterosexual female main character doesn't react at all you've failed as a writer. She doesn't have to stare at him, she doesn't have to try to jump his bones then and there like a crazed bonobo but she does have to react in some way.

    I have a well-worn copy of Novelist’s Boot Camp by Todd A. Stone. Seriously, I must have read this book cover-to-cover half a dozen times. It’s a real gem of a guide book that I would recommend to anyone who wants to be a better writer of any kind. Anyway, there’s one section which lists the kind of attributes a leading man or a strong female character should possess. I imagine you can guess what kind of thing a solid main character needs and why. You want your main character, the person driving your story forward, to be goal-orientated and results-driven and you want them to be fairly stoic, if only because audiences get really annoyed by whiny characters. They need to feel and appear competent; you don’t want a character who constantly sabotages his or her plans through sheer bone-headedness. The one that took me by surprise, but which I realised I strongly agree with, is the need for a lead character to have a sex drive. Let me quote the book a teensy bit:

    “He notices physical attractiveness, feels powerful sexual urges, and responds—if only internally—to sexual stimulus, intended or not.”

    This isn't something you might want to include for fun. This is a fundamental character trait, something they need to possess in order to be believable.

    Thinking about it, I can't name a single well-written adult human character in fiction who does not respond to sexual stimulus. Even Aladdin wanted to explore Jasmine's cave of wonders, they just never made it explicit because... you know, kid's film. But when two people fall in love, regardless of whether they're in a U-rated story or an 18-rated one, you and I both know sexual attraction is a part of that.

    Even really classy and sophistimacated shows like Frasier had this. Frasier Crane had a sex drive. It wasn't because he was a horndog or a morally bad person or because Frasier was porn. Okay? Are we all clear on this? It was because Frasier was a man with a pulse and the same needs as literally every adult human being on the planet. Characters aren't automatons and they shouldn't start acting like automatons to reflect the author's views about sex. I'm looking at you, Stephenie Meyer.

    Now, this doesn't mean you need to show your characters rutting in haystacks like barnyard animals. We don't need to see them pooping either. But you need to acknowledge physical attraction. We need to see evidence of why another person would find them attractive or evidence that they find others attractive, at least if they need to fulfil main character duties or if they find themselves in that situation.

    So characters having sex or wanting to have sex when it makes sense and serves the story isn't fansevice. A character being objectively attractive to the opposite sex isn't fanservice either, nor for that matter is a character being subjectively perceived as attractive by readers fanservice. In fact, depending on what kind of story is being told, it can be vital. If your story is about a woman falling for a man, it helps a great deal if the audience identifies with the woman's feelings, which means they need to fall for that man a little bit too — and if she gets him in the end the audience needs to buy that as well, which means she can't look like one of the orcs from The Lord of the Rings. Look, no-one's saying she has to look like Jessica Rabbit either. Her design needs to incorporate a modicum of appeal. Curved lines instead of straight lines or right-angles, that kind of thing. "That kind of thing", just to be clear, means a female character needs to be in possession of a pair of breasts. The size doesn't matter, they just need to be there. That's not fanservice, that's sufficiently realistic anatomy.

    You'll notice that I didn't mention pantyshots: you don't need those to establish a character as female. Camera angles that give inexplicable prominence to somebody's crotch? Not essential to appealing character design; that would be fanservice. What else constitutes sexualised fanservice? I would say any time you can see a woman's nipples you're probably dealing with fanservice. Normally in day-to-day life you can't see people's nipples through their clothing, especially women because they wear these things called bras and dress in a lot of layers. More to the point, a cartoonist's job is to gloss over irrelevant detail that would otherwise distract from the purpose of the writing, whatever that might be. That is the heart of cartooning. You simplify, you symbolise, you smooth over. You boil a picture down to its basic shapes. You fudge the details of anatomy, not out of ignorance or laziness but because you're making a bold statement. You don't draw in every mole, every pore, every nostril and every sinew. And you certainly don't draw in nipples. You never see that in live action film or television… apart from early seasons of Friends, where Jennifer Aniston's nipples are visible roughly 200% of the time, to the point where you think someone must have noticed and they were too embarrassed to ask her to put on a bra. They certainly didn't do it on purpose, because it's weird and distracting and nobody wants to see that. Even people who want to see nipples aren't going to watch a comedy show with PG or 12-rated content specifically to see them. People watch comedy shows to laugh and anything that doesn't add to the comedy subtracts from it. So nipples in live action comedy are a goof, like a boom mic in frame or bad lighting. In a cartoon strip or comic somebody had to deliberately draw that goof in. That's how you know it's not a goof. I've seen comics where the female characters' nipples were drawn in even when they were in the distance. They could be in a wide shot, they could be facing away from the camera, they could be a distant figure on the landscape and you'd still be able to see their nipples. These nipples would follow you around the room. That's sexual fanservice.

    The examples I've used so far are all based around art, but cartooning is made up of art and writing, so we also have fanservice at a script level. A character will accidentally find themselves in a sexy situation through naiveté, stupidity, clumsiness or just bad luck. Their outfit will accidentally rip to reveal cleavage. A character will show up to the Hallowe'en party in a costume she thinks is innocuous but is actually sexy and she doesn't understand why all the men are staring at her. You can tell that's fanservice, because it would otherwise be bad writing. Why can't she tell? Why would that ever happen? And God help you if this woman is someone the readers are supposed to identify with. If a woman locks herself out of her house naked and it's embarrassing and you don't see anything because she isn't taking the time to admire her own body, she's trying to remember if she left the downstairs bathroom window open and we the readers are worried about her being late for her job interview, that's not fanservice, because we're identifying with the character, we're with her on an emotional level, we can relate. If an otherwise intelligent character becomes abruptly allergic to making intelligent decisions and locks herself out of her house derp derp derp and now oh no everyone can see her bum and, if this is a comic strip, three separate panels are devoted to showing the reader her backside, that's fanservice and, worse, it's shitty writing. It comes back to those fundamental character motivations. Characters need to feel and appear competent. Nobody is going to want to root for a character who locks themselves out of their house on the morning of their job interview because they saw a squirrel and then they forgot how door handles work — and they certainly won't be happy if they can tell the writer just had that happen because 7% of her readers have a missed job interview fetish. A strong character needs to be goal-driven and results orientated. So if the woman dressing in the sexy Hallowe'en costume does so because there's a guy there she wants to sleep with and she's deliberately trying to seduce him, that's not fanservice. That's a character with her eye on the prize. That's story. Now you're not undermining a strong character by shoe-horning in an improbable scenario, you're telling the story of two strongly goal-driven characters with a mutual attraction for each other. That isn't exploitation anymore, that's something else. If played right, it might even be sexy.

    If you want to tell a story and you want that story to be sexy, that's fine. If that's really what you set out to do, that's great. More power to your elbow. Fanservice exists separately to that.

    Now, those scenarios I described which I labelled as not being fanservice: there's still a way you could write those moments and have them be cheesy and uncomfortable as a stilton emema. And you might still arouse suspicion amongst your readers about the extent to which you are personally getting off on this. It depends how you handle it, the quality of the work will justify its own existence.

    I suppose I have to concede that you could handle fanservice (sexualised or otherwise) in the same way, make it good. Give all the characters convincing motivations to explain their sudden interest in skateboarding, slowly build up to these moments until you can't tell where the writer's intent ends and the fanservice begins. I suppose you could write fanservice in such a way that it becomes imperceptible. Well, I suppose if — hypothetically — you managed to do that, I wouldn't have a beef with it. I mean, how could I? It's imperceptible. You have to be able to perceive something to have a beef with it in the first place. But it's still problematic for the reasons I've already gone into.

    My real beef is with fanservice where you can tell it's fanservice, where you can practically see on the page the e-mail exchange that led up to that moment. You can practically hear the cartoonist say "Here you go, fellas!" or "You're welcome, ladies!" If the characters are the cartoonist's brain children, then fanservice is a brain-parent pimping out their kids.

    In the best case scenario it doesn't hurt the comic. It never helps. And really something that doesn't help is hurting. Anything that isn't adding is subtracting.

    It all comes down to the question every artist has to ask themselves: why are you making this in the first place? Are you making this because you want to or because you're trying to get as many eyeballs on your comic as possible and you're willing to do anything to make that happen? You might think I'm advocating artisits who make whatever they want and don't give a damn about whether their comics are "popular" or "good" or "readable". Well, I'm not. I hate those people. I may be preaching about what is good for art and what art should be but don't think that for a minute that I want people to start making self-consciously arty art. I understand both the commercial and the arty impulses. If you have a large enough audience you can make yourself a lot of money. Who doesn't want to make enough money to go pro? If you make something that becomes recognised for its artistic value you can get yourself a lot of acclaim. Who doesn't want to be an auteur?

    So, it boils down to this, the age-old dichotomy. Art vs commerce. Which do you do? Do you make art for the sake of art or art for the sake of profit? There is a third choice: art for the sake of love. Just make the stuff you love, draw the things you love and write the stories that bring you joy. Pick a genre you love, love your characters, work hard because you love the work, and if you're good you'll find people who share your love.

    Internet cartoonists should stop being so needy and so eager to please. They should remember that if they really want to make their audience happy, they shouldn't simply do what they're told. Hear this, cartoonists: even if your readers ask you for a skateboard, don't give it to them. Give them something they didn't know they wanted. Give them a hoverboard.

    Hoverboards are sweet.

    Loverdoes?

    Posted 22:25 (GMT) 3rd April 2012 by David J. Bishop

    Sometimes new words need to be invented by advertisers and marketing dudes, I get that. Most of that is naming products. A good example is prozac. Commonly used word, completely invented in the 80s. I read something about the people whose job it was to name the antidepressant, people whose only job is just to name new things. These people are like Adam walking through an Eden of bewildering new products, declaratively pointing and signifying. There was an entire creative process behind coming up with a marketable brand name for the drug fluoxetine. 'Pro-' denotes positivity, as if the name itself is sticking both thumbs up and smiling encouragingly. The 'z', they said, made the name seem dynamic and futuristic. Now our name is wearing ray-bans and a silvery jacket. I swear I'm not making this up. The 'ac' is just an 'ac'. Ack!

    The point is if scientists and engineers give us a new product, linguistic inventors sometimes need to produce a new word. I understand that, I really do. All I'm asking is that they invent words the human mouth can actually sound out.

    Look at the Ford Ka. It's a car. How are we supposed to pronounce that? I've heard some people go with "K. A." but it's not written that way and it doesn't stand for anything. So is it "Kay"? No 'y'. The one I hear the most is the pronuciation that makes it sound just like "car". If that was their intention then they're intolerably smug and not as clever as they think they're being. Because 'Ka' does not make a "car" sound. It needs an 'h' on the end, just like 'ah' rhymes with 'are'. You wouldn't spell "ah" by writing 'a'. That's 'a'. We all know how to pronounce 'a' and whether you go with the 'ay' or the flat 'a' as in 'bank' you're certainly not going to end up making an "arr" sound. No, an 'a' by itself on the end there is just a flat 'a', there's no two ways about it. The Ford Ka should be read aloud as a flat "ca", like someone saying "cat" but stopping short half-way through. I might be the only person who sees 'Ka' and thinks 'ca' but I've known for a long time that I'm the only sane person on Earth. I'm cool with it.

    Example number two, and the reason why I'm banging on about this. Loverdose. Someone made a new perfume. Someone decided it should be called Loverdose. That name didn't spring up out of nowhere, someone sat down and named it that. They wrote it, as one might write a short poem. Loverdose. Unlike 'Ka' or 'prozac' it's a word made by smushing two exisiting words together or, to use the proper linguistic term, a word-made-by-smushing-two-existing-words-together. Trouble is the two words are 'love' and 'overdose', and they both have different 'o' sounds. So how are we supposed to know which one to use? Is it 'l-overdose' or 'lover-dose'? The first one sounds plain dumb, like a junkie speaking Franglais (another word-made-by-smushing-two-existing-words-together). The second one sounds like, well, lover dose. A dose of lover. Are you being dosed with your lover? Are you dosing your lover? How big a dose of what and to whom it is being given is all left up to the listener's imagination.

    I'm picking nits. Of course they just mean an overdose of love. Fine, then call your perfume 'love overdose'. You can't meld those two words together. It might work on paper but words don't just exist on paper. Words-made-by-smushing-two-existing-words-together only work if the result sounds right. It doesn't matter how it looks on paper, when someone reads that paper they're going to sound it out in their head and they're going to get a headache. L'overdose? Love-ver-doss? Loverdover? Lovely bones? Lambada? Love-her-toes? Doverlose? Fuzzy duck?

    I think I'm overdosing on stupid. Overdostupid.

    Lady + Definite Article + a Thing

    Posted 6:00 (GMT) 15th March 2012 by David J. Bishop

    There is a brand new comic up today, which is itself the conclusion to a little story arc that began here, if you'd like to read it from the start now that it's done. Thank you for following it along with me. I'm very happy with how this one turned out. Right now I'm managing my time as best I can and working ahead of the update schedule so that if something new goes wrong in my life the comic can still update on time, but my goal is to work ahead to the point that we can make the update schedule more frequent.

    As you can see, I've taken the extra time to redesign the website. The way I see it, there's no point in me putting all this work in to make comic strips if no-body can see them because the page heights are broken. Farewell, website I made when I was 16. You will not be missed. Hello, website I made last month. You'll do for now.

    By the way, "I'm sorry, m'lady... I've failed you, Senator," may sound like a perfectly normal line of dialogue, but it made the list because of its context. For those of you who might not be as familiar with Star Wars, the line is spoken in Attack of the Clones by the Senator's decoy, just after she is hit by an explosion intended for the aforementioned senator. As such it takes the prize for worst line of dialogue spoken in a Star Wars prequel. Forget the courseness of sand, forget anything that comes out of the fetid mouth of Jar Jar — this line is the worst. Because she categorically hasn't failed. She's done the complete opposite of fail. She's done exactly what a decoy is meant to do. She should have said "I did it! I saved you, Senator." That may sound like I'm being facetious, but if the woman said that just as she was about to die, that would actually have lent her death scene some pathos. Instead it just becomes an opportunity for every intelligent member of the audience to pause and say "Wait, what?" This one line of dialogue betrays a startling lack of understanding about how the world works. Not just the world of Star Wars — the actual world we live in.

    Her Majesty and the Wolves

    I don't listen to pop music and I certainly don't watch the music video channels. An entire decade of the Black-Eyed Peas has seen to that. But, half-way through moving house, I found myself at half past ten on a Friday night in the unenviable position of being trapped in a room containing nothing but an armchair, a television and stacks of cardboard boxes… and no remote. What I'm saying is that these were exceptional circumstances — and, might I add, the only circumstances in which it is remotely acceptable to watch Viva for three hours without getting up. And that's exactly what I did.

    Viva, for those who don't know, is the TV channel run by chimps. Think of it as a thick soup of teenage id in which the following three ingredients perpetually float: TV designed to destroy the very memory of hope, cheeky wink-nudge show announcements that doggedly pretend that "viva" is a euphemism for a vagina and a bottomless trough of shitty music videos. Here's what I learned about music videos:

    1. At some point since I stopped paying attention to them they have become a bewildering maelstrom of glistening midriffs set to the sound of Kanye West arguing with a burglar alarm in a spaceship factory.
    2. I am 245 years old.

    The only time I could get a handle on what was going on was during the celebrity-hosted lists. I can't think of anything more exciting than someone vaguely famous listlessly reeling off a list of things, can you? How about if I told you the one I ended up watching during my three-hour Viva spree had something special about it?

    Firstly, it was presented by a man and a woman who had apparently never met before. They shared the kind of chemistry and easy camaraderie normally only exhibited by a radiator handcuffed to another radiator. Secondly, given that all they had to do was to read aloud from cue-cards, they were astoundingly inept — I mean remarkably awful, to the point where it just had to be the result of conscious effort. They were reading these lines out as if they had never seen English written down before.

    "And NOW we have. A song from one, of my favourite record-ing artists?" — a weighty pause — she has no clue what she's about to say next — "Keesha!"

    Thirdly, they were called Her Majesty and the Wolves, which sounds like a five-piece Dutch gothic rock band and, given that there were just two of them and neither one Dutch, it struck me as ill-fitting a name as if they'd called themselves 'Three Men and a Baby'.

    After fifteen minutes of their terrible presenting I was given a rare treat, because the next single on their list of favourites was their own. Understandable, since self-promotion is literally the only point of Viva's lists, and yet baffling since Her Majesty and the Wolves ended up placing 23rd among their own top 30 favourite artists. If you don't think you're that great, why are you wasting our time?
    Anyway, I digress. They played the song, 'Goodbye Goodnight', and I began to realise how overgenerous they were being.

    It starts quietly. The blonde woman is waking up in bed; she sees a ghost or something, then—

    Aaaaaaaargh!

    The most ear-splittingly shrill singing you will ever hear starts pouring out of this woman's mouth like a stinging cloud of insects. Throughout the short first verse her mewling, reedy voice cuts through a reasonably funky beat like a hot stream of urine into a bowl of chocolate ice-cream, and all the while she's wearing the biggest, goofiest smile you've ever seen on someone who isn't a cartoon character – then like a surprise attack the tempo instantly changes, the beat evaporates, and the man and the woman suddenly start trying to yell lyrics to what sounds like a different song over the top of one another, failing to find a harmony or even a tune, then on one line — "dancing with meeeeeeeeee!!!" — the blonde lady's voice goes from shrill to an out-and-out glass-shattering hammer blow of sensory agony. I struggle to find words. Squeakier than the bad guy at the end of Who Framed Roger Rabbit, deafeningly loud — this is the otherworldly shriek a banshee makes when somebody dies and it's tearing through your skull a scant 33 seconds into the track.

    Then we launch abruptly into the chorus and the blonde woman, whose body is now approximately 50% tutu, rapidly charges at the camera and starts waving her arms around like time-lapse footage of an over-enthusiastic robot conducting traffic. It's aggressive and frantic and more than a little threatening. At this point I physically flinched away from the screen. I didn't know what was going on, all I knew was that I was dying and Her Majesty and the Wolves were trying to kill me.

    Some facts: the woman is Kimberly Wyatt, a former member of the Pussycat Dolls. You know, that so-called girl group that was just Nicole Sherzinger and a load of back-up dancers in short-shorts? She was blonde backing dancer no. 2! Well, no longer will her tremendous singing talent go underutilized because she's teamed up with her friend Spencer Nezey, although you'll know him better from… nothing! Wikipedia has the following elucidating quotation:

    "When recording her debut album, Kimberly soon became frustrated when most of the producer's [sic] that she worked with were focusing on 'making something that people will listen to now'. Whereas Nezey wanted to make something that 'people will listen to in the future', which Kimberly agreed with."

    Little did they know, the pair were so talented and revolutionary they accidentally went a step futher and made something that people will never listen to.

    But, actually, for all their talk of Future Music 'Goodbye Goodnight' actually feels more like a throwback to the super-cheesy bubblegum dance of the late 90s, only with an erratic tempo and a flagrant disregard for singing in tune. In fact, if you played 'For Sure' by Scooch (remember Scooch? Of course you don't) through a wall and got someone with no prior grasp of musical theory to write out the music and lyrics, then you chopped it into five pieces and randomly assigned each segment a different time signature, then you grabbed that CD of musical effects and weird noises that producers use to jazz up boring songs and used all of them at once, over and over, it would probably sound a lot like 'Goodbye Goodnight'.

    The lyrics are dire. In a bid to sound futuristic they have lines like "beautiful in HD" (referring to a memory) and "pixels inside my head" (referring to tiny squares of digital colour Kimberly Wyatt has in the place of neurons). Pixels make it futuristic, you see, because pixels have only been around for, I don't know, the entire time this woman has been alive. The first verse begins, "I woke up a little cloudy in my mind." As a sentence, it feels short on verbs. If you recall, though, I mentioned the music video starts with her waking up in bed. I thought this meant that she was going to act out all of the song lyrics in the music video. You rarely get an act that insanely cheesy but I thought Her Majesty and the Wolves had what it takes. That soon falls apart when they hit lines like "Callat dersit re-e-e-e-e-e", which is… difficult to decipher, she we say? I checked and the line is supposed to be "colour the city red", that isn't a thing. I can't blame them for not wanting to act that one out, it would have taken ages, even if they'd picked a small city.

    Most of the lyrics are about Kimberly trying to remember the night before, then the bridge deals with what she can remember of the night before. Here's where it gets confusing. Her waking up in the song's nominal present is written in the past tense e.g. "I woke up etc.", then when she starts singing about the night before she switches to the present tense "we see fireworks", "pull me little closer" (again, it feels like they missed a word out of that lyric). That last line is more than a little confusing, though. "Pull me little closer when you're dancing with meeeeeeeee!!!" That's when she starts wailing and shrieking like a teakettle on the verge of exploding. But what about what she's saying? She's remembering the night before, then she says "pull me a little closer". So, wait, is she remembering asking someone to dance closer, or does she just remember dancing close in the past? Is she asking someone from the past to dance closer in the present? And is this rendered more confusing by the fact that the present is in the past tense and the past is in the present tense? At what point, pray, were we going to explore the future? The cognitive dissonance is equalled only by the actual dissonance of Wyatt trying to sing.

    Nezey's rap is considerably better since it reaches the dizzy heights of 'mediocre' which the squeaky siren with poodle hair can never hope to attain. The words largely make sense, HD memories aside, whilst requiring that I look up every line in the Urban Dictionary. That's really the hallmark for adequate rap. I do have to raise an eyebrow over the line "lost all of her clothes / she was the life of the party". What we have here are two separate concepts juxtaposed: a naked woman and a woman 'getting the party started', as it were. But this means she managed to lose her clothes before the party got started. Under what non-party-related circumstances did she manage to get naked? And how did she subsequently become the party catalyst? I mean, naked women are all well don't get me wrong. But I don't think anyone really wants to party with a naked person. If a party was starting to get warmed up and then a naked woman walked in it wouldn't be cool, it would just be a really awkward moment. It's that kind of moment that abrupt record scratches were made for. There is no way that woman is the life of the party. Everyone is shocked, then someone kindly puts their coat around her shoulders and leads her away.

    Really though the worst thing about the Nezey rap is what happens in the background during the video: two stripper ghosts drop it as if it is hot (thanks Urban Dictionary). They couldn't possibly look more bored — they've obviously been trapped in this music video for hundreds of years. Or maybe they're two other Pussycat Dolls.

    Help ussssssssssssssssssssssssss...

    Then Wyatt returns with the second verse. Nope. That was a lie: there is no second verse. It's a recession, people. We could only afford one verse, a terrible hook, a catchy chorus and a lacklustre rap. The catchy chorus — and therefore 90% of the song — mostly consists of repeating the words "goodbye" and "goodnight" ad nauseam, the main exception being the bit at the start of the chorus where Ms. Wyatt attacks the song with the thoughtless abandon of a dead-eyed shark in a feeding frenzy, and really this part encapsulates the central premise of the song:

    "Memories we make throughout our lives,
    No matter what it's not goodbye it's goodnight,"

    Allow me to give you a critical breakdown of what they're saying here. Firstly, we are always making memories during our lives — this is true! Secondly, no matter what, at all costs, "it" (whatever "it" is) is not goodbye. Those two ideas are not connected in any way. I could say that because we always make memories you really never say goodbye to people because they stay with you yadda yadda ya but that would be giving Her Majesty and the Wolves far too much credit. For a start, they're called Her Majesty and the Wolves when they're only two people.

    Even the director realised their name didn't make sense.

    No two lines in the song cohere. Kimberly Wyatt's voice sounds like my skull is being violently stoved in with a shillelagh of broken glass and icing sugar. I'm pretty sure her pink glittery eye shadow clashes with her green eyes. And she keeps anachronistically throwing up the peace sign for no reason.

    She's just going to keep doing this until it becomes her thing.

    Also, the music video has ghosts in it. Of all the futuristic things to represent the sound of tomorrow, ghosts wouldn't have been my first pick. Future-wise all we're given is neon gloves and a malfunctioning android in a tutu, and I'm pretty sure that last one was unintentional. For the longest time I couldn't tell if this video was some cool made ineptly or something uncool made well. At, until this happened:

    Yes, she's doing the peace sign again.

    Wyatt twirls around in a circle, off-puttingly refusing to break eye contact with the viewer the whole time, dressed in a floaty beige dress covered with fairy lights and stuffed with at least five petticoats, then she dances awkwardly on the spot like an embarrassed wedding guest as people sit around her in a circle, bowing their heads as if pledging fealty to some demented goddess of candyfloss, all the while waving lights that leave pastel-coloured trails in the air. In short, it's the least cool thing ever to happen in a music video (the most cool thing is Christopher Walken's dance in the video for 'Weapon of Choice').

    This woman is a professional dancer. Did something drop on her head and she lost her memory? It's also interesting to note that in the whole video we see nothing remotely burlesque, with the possible exception of one point where she does that thing that all women are apparently contractually obligated to do in music videos, the thing where they pose with both hands against a wall and sort of arch their backs to emphasise the curves of their body... and for some reason when Wyatt does it it's possibly the un-sexiest thing I've ever seen. Listen, I'm not disappointed or anything, I'm not saying that this or any woman has to constantly slut it up for my entertainment, I'm just saying it proves the Pussycat Dolls were never a real girl group. Before when they said, "We're just five best friends who love expressing our individuality," we all knew that was bullshit but now we actually have proof. This is Kimberly Wyatt finally getting to express her individuality which, to recap, consists of the generous deployment of the following:

    •  Feathery hair
    •  Michael Jackson gloves
    •  Tutus
    •  Fairy lights
    •  Cyber pink eye glitter
    •  Throwing up the peace sign
    •  Twirling
    •  Lots of twirling
    •  Seriously, stop twirling, my eyes feel like they have type two diabetes.
    This is easily the worst song I have ever heard. It's noisy, frenetic, overproduced and cacophonous. It manages to combine every obnoxious trend in popular music today by throwing everything at the wall without even the residue of good sense. In fact, Her Majesty and the Wolves remind me of a condensed Black Eyed Peas. You've got the irritating former stripper, the serious-looking MC/producer/rapper who never dances and never takes off his shades — all they're missing is an Apl.de.ap and a Taboo, but at this point even they must realise they're redundant. Somehow, despite having fewer members, Her Majesty et al. are filled with just as much of a sense of their own self-importance, fit in twice the pretentious posing and sound eight times worse.

    Do you know what the worst part is? The most mind-bendingly galling part? The group's Wikipedia page reads: "The duo have stated that their musical influences include Florence and the Machine". Florence and the Machine? Florence and the Machine? The critically-acclaimed baroque pop/indie rock/soul group characterised by powerful, heartfelt vocals, meaningful and well-written lyrics, choral backing vocals, a harp and epic pounding drums? Your shitty little dance act takes its inspiration from Florence Welch? Could somebody please tell me what these two musical acts have in common, in terms of genre, sound, quality, writing — anything? I suppose their name uses the same convention of Lady + definite article + a thing. I don't think stealing a name counts as a musical influence, honey.

    Their own website contains similarly egregious claptrap as well as the same old lie as the one they trotted out for the PCD about Kimberly and Nezey being best friends, as opposed to two people trying to get enough exposure to allow one of them to claw their way to a solo career.

    "I just think what we've created lends itself to an endless amount of possibilities." And yet as its heart, all of this is based upon a very human musical connection that really is the stuff that fairy tales are made of. "Spencer and I can geek out over music like nobody I've ever met. He's so incredibly intuitive and has a great ear for incredible cool sounds, which never lets me down…"
    — From their website —

    Then again, she looks so dopey-eyed and guileless that maybe Kimberly really believes they're BFFs. But she doesn't realise her producer/MC is a better singer than her, and more importantly a better singer who turns her right down for the chorus so she can barely be heard. And honestly, who can blame him? The woman sounds like a seagull with its foot trapped in the door of a moving car.

    EDIT: I need to make a couple of corrections. I incorrectly referred to Fergie from the Black-eyed Peas as "a former stripper", instead of "a recovering meth addict". I am also informed that Kimberly Wyatt was never a stripper either, the Pussy Cat Dolls having been a burlesque act (read: not strippers) with a large ensemble cast before taking the obvious step and becoming a 6-piece hip-hop girl group. "Burlesque" differs from "stripping" in that "burlesque" is viewed as semi-legitimate and was made into a verb by Christina Aguilera in 2011, whilst "stripping" was made into a movie starring Demi Moore in 1996, which served in no way to legitimise the practice whatsoever.

    Special Announcement

    Posted 19:00 (GMT) 31st January 2012 by David J. Bishop

    I'm sorry to all my readers who are miserable and/or single, I've been thinking of a way to say this that doesn't sound smug and I've realised there isn't one. The fact is I'm truly happy. It started as something that only happened a couple of times a week when I saw my girlfriend. This is the same girlfriend I've been talking about for the past three years. About six months ago I began being happy every day, the same time my girlfriend moved in with me. Now I experience joy on an everyday basis.

    I remember this feeling, or something akin to it, from when I was a child. Then came my teens when everything felt wrong and I spent weeks at a time contemplating my delicious misery. Then, in my early twenties, an unshakeable confidence in my grasp of the way things worked undermined by a racking anxiety about my future. A cynical person (e.g. myself about four years ago) might have attributed a transition from easy-going happiness to melancholy and self-doubt to a similar transition from innocence to experience, which is to say that babies are so happy because they are so ignorant of the way things truly are and that as we mature into teens and adults we become sadder because we learn what the world holds in store. A lot of people seem to trot out this message, many of them artists— and you should ignore it. That's just something sad people say. I used to be sad myself and I found it very easy to believe that I was sad because I wise. I realise now that was quite narcissistic of me.

    The truth is that I was sad because sad things were happening to me, or things were happening to me and I couldn't deal with them. Things got better. Maybe I got better. Maybe both.

    Because now, as a grown adult, I'm suddenly back to how I was when I was a child. I never thought I would ever feel this way again. I never had a word for it back then, never needed one before. I suppose "joy" will have to do. The kind of joy you feel when it's your birthday or when you win a contest, only every day.

    And Katie is the source of all this. She reinvented the universe, without even thinking about it. I don't know how anything works in this new world, I just know that I like it here and never want to leave. Nobody spends a whole day contemplating their despair here, nobody spends a week in their dressing gown eating nothing but hot dogs. Instead everyone gets hugs and kisses.

    All thanks to one person. What else could I do? I asked her to marry me.

    She said yes.

    Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year

    Posted 07:44 (GMT) 15th December 2011 by David J. Bishop

    I hope you're having an enjoyable Christmas season and that all your shopping is done by now. There is a new comic ready for your enjoyment and I've written a new rant about a television show you probably haven't watched but should watch.

    I'm going to spend my Christmas catching up on my reading and trying to improve my art. Speaking of improvements, when I come back from my holiday I am going to completely overhaul the website. It's the most hideous and broken thing I've seen since I smashed my arm against the ice last winter. I designed it when I was first getting started, aged 16 or 17, and uploading comics to it feels like sticking them in a great big bin.

    Please come back on the 24th for your special Yuletide bonus cartoon and on the 15th of every month for a new comic. The new update schedule will be launched some time in the new year (soon I hope). Have a great time out there and don't drink too much eggnog.

    My NaNoWriMo Adventure or The Power of Suck

    Posted 07:46 (GMT) 5th December 2011 by David J. Bishop

    This is a story about why NaNoWriMo is the most important challenge for a writer to attempt.

    My friend Jason was the first tell me about the thing on-line where people try to write a novel in a month. I remember my response was rude and dismissive, as it always is when anyone tells me about anything they like. I think my objections ran along these lines: what could possibly be the point? Why pick one month in which to write, why not just write as much as you can as often as you can? Isn't it impossible to write a full-length novel in 30 days? Oh, it's 50,000 words? Is that all? I've written 100,000 words of my novel and I'm still not finished.

    Yeah, I was an arse. I thought of the novel as a very important art form, one which was ill-served by rush jobs and have-a-go amateurs dicking about at a keyboard for 30 days. I believe Jason got very annoyed with me back then. He was under the impression I had missed the point entirely.

    I had, but I was too much of an arse to realise it then. I was writing every day and well on my way towards publishing a best-selling novel, I just needed to write the ending. Well, the ending and my award acceptance speech. I spent months privately writing that speech. I worried what to do about the movie rights. I had it all figured out.

    The trouble was, the only reason I had managed to get that far is because I was too dumb to realise just how bad I was at writing. The reason why my novel didn't get its ending, and still doesn't have one, is because I learned enough about storytelling along the way that to realise how much the finale I planned sucked. Then it was just a matter of figuring out why: my whole plot was horrible. Throw-out-this-bathwater-and-don't-worry-about-the-baby horrible. So then the entire project had to go on the back-burner whilst I figured out how to fix it.

    I did, by the way. It was a wonderful moment, a spectacular realisation I had about two years ago. I'd been looking at the whole thing the wrong way. I had thought I was writing a book about three friends on an adventure, during which one of them, my main character, fell in love. Although the woman he fell for was crucial to the plot, most of the narrative's attention was focused on the relationship between the three friends. The story was about their interaction with each other, their jokes, their reactions and actions in response to the story's problems. This was their adventure, the girl was just along for the ride.

    What this says about me as a sixteen-year-old I can't rightly say.

    I realised that the story I had been trying to tell was the wrong one for the characters and plot. I thought it was the story of three friends, but it wasn't, this was the story of two people — my main character and the woman — forced together by circumstance despite mutual animosity and, in the face of a terrible threat, coming to an uneasy alliance. I needed to be writing Ratatouille and I was writing The Road To El Dorado.

    Well, the burst of inspiration I received from figuring this out was equal to the burst of speed you would get if you attached get engines to your car. Suddenly, I needed to restructure my whole book. Almost everything would need to be rewritten; whole chunks would have to be cut out; whole new chunks would have to be written in. My mind was burning with the fire of creative ecstasy once more.

    But, like the car with jet engines, getting moving was just the start of my troubles. Before I had had quite a polished draft of a fundamentally broken book on my hands. Now I had to write the messy first draft of a structurally sound book. Those are remarkably different tasks. The first draft you write is always crap, but then you go back, you fix, you perfect it, you make it sing. In time you forget about that first draft altogether, you just read and re-read the awesome second draft over and over, looking for ways to make it even better, then congratulate yourself for being such a good writer when you don't find any.

    But now I was back at sucking again. After years of tinkering and editing prose that I'd already written years ago (and which by now I was perfectly happy with, if only it belonged in the damn book), now I was confronted with a blank page. I'd forgotten what a blank page even looked like. And I tried to write something just as good as what was there before, something just as polished and singing, only this time paying attention to character motivation and not screwing up the plot… and it was far more than I could fit in my head in one go. And I tried to write anyway and… it just sucked.

    I had forgotten the first rule of writing fiction, passed down to me by the late great Stephen J Cannell, whose amazing lecture [http://www.writerswrite.com/screenwriting/lecture.htm] on writing and the three act structure was what first inspired my to pursue this project and all subsequent projects.

    Here's a good chunk of its awesomeness:

    Stephen J. Cannell's Rule Number One:
    Give Yourself Permission to be Bad

    Every great writer who's ever lived has, on occasion, written garbage (in my case it happens all the time). It's okay to write garbage. You're a good critic, you'll fix it later. Shakespeare wrote garbage, Hemingway wrote garbage, Faulkner wrote garbage. It is okay. Every writer has bad days, or a day when he or she isn't connecting with the material. A day when, unknown to us, the story we are writing or the characters we created have been improperly designed. When this happens, writing becomes a struggle. That doesn't mean you've lost your muse or that you're a creative burnout. It just means that you have a problem in your story structure or with character motivation. Something is dishonest that seemed okay when you set it up. Rewriting is part of the process. Most writers plot with their heads and write with their hearts. Sometimes that causes unintended dishonesty.

    This is exactly what had happened to my book. I had plotted with my head, written with my heart and created unintentional dishonesty by focusing on the main character's friends when the story I was telling wasn't their story. It was the girl's story, she was every bit as much a main character as my hero. But when I went back to fix this mistake I must have subconsciously reasoned that since this was the non-garbage version, everything about it had to be brilliant. I had stopped giving myself permission to be bad.

    I understood then that Give Yourself Permission to be Bad means you should write the best prose you can write then and there and not worry if it's not absolutely perfect (but you should make sure it's as close to perfect as possible).

    In my heart I knew that I was allowed to be bad but I didn't want to be bad anymore, I felt I'd grown enough as a writer by that point in my life that I shouldn't be writing anything truly bad anymore.

    So what did I do? I came to the conclusion that I was simply not connecting with the material on any level and stopped writing the book. I stopped calling myself a writer because now I felt like a liar telling people that. Having hung so much of my identity on that word, a short identity crisis followed. Our hero becomes sad, eats an entire tub of ice-cream in one evening. End of Act Two.

    Cut to today. I'm in a unique position in my life, I'm working a job with regular 9 to 5 hours. No more working from 12 to 9 Wednesdays and Thursdays, then working a half day on Friday, then getting Saturday off, then working on Sunday and getting Monday off. No more working the kind of job where the only thing you want to do after you finish your shift is go home and scream into a pillow for four hours. Getting up at the same time every morning and going to bed at the same time every day means I can create a regular work schedule for my creative projects that I can actually stick to. So every morning I've been getting up at 4:30 am and drawing for two hours before it's time to get ready for work, then drawing for at least four hours each night after work before bed. And I can do this every day because my time before work and my time after work is always of the same duration.

    Finally being able to stick to a schedule has opened up a whole new world of productivity for me. I used to be the kind of artist who would attack a project furiously until I was utterly exhausted, then collapse and not touch it for a month. There is something freeing about a good old creative frenzy but unless you work towards a target and sticking to a schedule, as boring as work-y as those things may seem, you will only experience short-term benefits.

    My schedule allowed me to produce comics on time every month and to even work ahead of my update schedule so that I can build up a buffer so that eventually I can start updating more frequently (because, let's face it, a comic that only updates once a month is no comic at all). And mid-October arrived, and David saw what he had been able to create simply by limiting himself to five hours' sleep a night and he saw that it was good. October's update was ready on time. I also had the comic for November, December and January either finished or nearly finished. Things were looking great.

    I was happy with the comics I was making and I was happy with myself. For some time now I've thought of myself as being someone who is quite good at cartoons but bad at being a cartoonist, bad at working to a schedule and keeping my update promises. Now I felt like I could call myself a cartoonist again.

    So then, naturally, I wanted to be able to call myself a writer again as well. I found my gaze turning back to NaNoWriMo. I checked the website to see how much time you had and how much you needed to do. I pulled out a calculator and worked out it was 1,667 words per day. Well, that wasn't so much different from making four pages of a comic in less than two months, was it? I was already drawing for six hours a day. If I wrote for six hours every day I only needed to write 277 words an hour. That was about a paragraph or two. This actually seemed possible. Six months ago it absolutely wouldn't have been.

    Not only did it seem possible but it also seemed like a good idea. Something in the back of my mind told me that working to such a tight deadline for just one month would be good for me, that it would deliver a much-needed kick to my backside. Ruefully I remembered my initial derision. Not at first, oh no, only when I read a couple of posts on the Forums over at the NaNoWriMo website:

    IVIilitarus writes:

    I know the spirit of NaNoWriMo is writing a novel. A major part of that is never going back and deleting. If you hate it, make the font white or strikethrough. Or make it a dream sequence, but don't go back. I saw the Adopt an Angel section and thought it insane that you would never delete a single sentence (still do).

    This may be because a lot of people are struggling with reaching word counts and any word should be kept, but I don't see the point of disliking editing if you are ahead of schedule.

    This is my first year in NaNoWriMo and I write a comfortable 2000 words per day for an expected novel of just over 60000 words by the end of the month. When I say I write 2000 words per day, I mean I have 2000 words up to my standard, written, re-written and edited and ready to hand out to people and say, "This is actually pretty good." I iron out all spelling, grammar errors and make structure and syntax worth reading. That's my definition of 'write', not just put down lots of sentences.

    So the real question is, what's wrong with editing when you are ahead of schedule and just want to write to a high standard? I wouldn't be proud if I came out with a pile of trash that's very long. If I left all of the mistakes and bad sentences I wrote in, I'd probably be unable to read anything, much less edit it.

    Any thoughts? Arguments? Agreements?

    Someone called originalgradk responds with the following:

    I agree, I think the Nano Model if you can call it that is well overdue for revision. For instance 50k novellas based on the decent novels by Orwell et all, OR proper Novel lengths of 100,000+ (which for the first time I am aiming for!!). I think that the emphasis on using fluff to expand texts is bad methodology. It is almost page filling rather than Novel Writing.
    I am participating, for the years I have not, the reason being is I think Nano encourages bad practice in writing. Hence my theory that the Model should be revised-as a matter of urgency and be replaced by a lot more sane rational yet accommodating model to make room for the would be Literary Talent that lies in all of us.

    This sounds all too familiar. Did you notice the way originalgradk capitalised the word 'novel' (and the words 'literary' and 'talent' for that matter), the way he dismissed writing an unedited first draft as page-filling fluff, the snide little 'if you can call it that'? Notice how he deems a 50,000 word piece to be a 'novella' and a 'proper' novel to be twice that length. This is a man (I assume it's a man based on his picture) who, like my younger self, believes the Novel as a very important Art Form, one which was ill-served by rush jobs and have-a-go amateurs dicking about at a keyboard for 30 days. And all I will say about the first poster is that he or she probably doesn't have a day job, at least not full time. The challenge, really, is not to write 50k in 30 days — anyone can do that. The challenge is doing everything else; getting to work on time, getting that spreadsheet just right, showering on a regular basis, grocery shopping often enough that you never run out of milk, doing the washing up.

    Here's what I did for my NaNoWriMo novel: I decided to write as much as I could every day. If a day came when I missed my word goal I would calculate how many words I needed to write per day to finish on time and adjust my target accordingly. I strove to write at least 1,667 every day, even on the days when I was ahead. I always wrote in full sentences and complete thoughts. Every sentence and every scene had to cohere with the rest of the story – characters in my novel did not run down a corridor and then find themselves at the start of the corridor because the writer changed his mind and didn't want to lose his word count. At no point did I change my font colour to white or leave in deleted words. I found it very difficult to work a full time job and meet my daily word count goals. If I had written twice as many words or skipped back every time I finished a page to edit and tidy up what was already there, I would have found it impossible. In attempting to write something bigger or better I would have ended up writing nothing.

    Boiled down, the NaNoWriMo mantra is "quantity not quality". Yes, you have to write no fewer than 50,000 words. No, they don't have to be good. In fact, they will be absolutely crap.

    But the person who writes a polished and neatly revised 2,000 words is writing crap as well. The man who spells Novel with a capital 'N' is writing 100,000 words of crap.

    The trouble is, whilst it's all very well to think of the novel as a very important and beautiful art form, it isn't a good idea to think of your own novel as such. If you believe it, you're an arse. If you don't believe it you will be paralysed. If you believe your novel is Art, you will be too busy sitting at your computer hugging yourself and making self-satisfied little noises with every sentence you write to actually finish your book, and even if you did finish it would probably be unreadable. I have read many books and the absolute worst ones have been by authors self-consciously aspiring to create Art. You know the kind I mean, the kind full of pointless misery, the kind that use far too many metaphors, the kind with no third act because a cyclical narrative is that much more real. In these novels everyone is trapped in Manchester in the 1960s. Half-way through the main character will turn into a salmon or realise his latent homosexuality. Maybe the author will use constipation as a metaphor for the Russian revolution, which itself represents the relationship between the protagonist and her mother, which in turn represents the drudgery of 1960s Manchester.

    On the other hand, if you expect all novels to be true works of art, if you think they should all stand shoulder to shoulder with the greats, but do not believe that you yourself are creating something worthy of a place on the shelf next to those geniuses and demi-gods, you will work that little bit harder to write something that is worthy of the form and exhaust yourself groping for the best words in the best order, struggling to find a metaphor to describe the flight of the swallow swooping past the protagonist's window when in a first draft you really should be noting that you want a swallow to be outside, forgetting about and moving on to the next part of your story.

    Writing a Novel is a tiresome and stuffy affair. Writing a novel is a daunting task. Writing a NaNoWriMo novel is easy. Anyone can do that without cheating. The tight time constraint means that the only way you can comfortably get through it is by writing crap. But rather than reading back what you've written and saying 'this is crap' you have to press on and write more crap. For someone who found himself unable to write a single word of a book he was truly passionate about finishing, the thought of leaving a single out-of-place word in the manuscript was unthinkable. The idea of knowingly writing something awful filled me with horror.

    But what the hell I thought. If nothing else this will be good practice in writing consistently and in a disciplined way. I won't reach 50,000 words in time (I knew this from the start, it was my first time after all and I knew the going would be too rough for the likes of me) but I would learn a valuable lesson.

    October 31st arrives. It's my birthday. I'm no longer the age when you wonder "Am I an adult now that I'm 20/21/22 etc," I am categorically an adult. We eat Chinese food and watch Tin-tin and it is awesome. I fall asleep on Monday night and on Tuesday morning I awake a novelist. I stumble to my keyboard at 4:30 in the morning and start work on my crap novel. I even picked a page at random from How Not to Write a Novel and used it as my writing prompt for that scene. I did what IVIilitarus could not bring him or herself to do, I set out to write a very long pile of trash. The biggest pile of trash the world has ever seen. I deliberately wrote it bad dialogue and bad speech tags. I avoided using the word 'said' if it meant I could use something more descriptive like "He snorted" or "she whined" and, for good measure, I threw in some extra adverbial description so the sentence became "he snorted, angrily" or "she whined, plaintively". It was delicious. The writer who couldn't bare to let a bad sentence go uncorrected was now deliberately creating the worst sentences he could manage.

    Years and years of mental discipline and strict self-editing were thrown out the window and I felt something I hadn't felt in too many years. The sheer joy that comes with writing bad fiction. Okay, so when I was a teenager I didn't know I was writing bad fiction, but the voice of my less-experienced internal editor was a lot quieter back then as well. And self-editing as you go takes up a surprisingly large amount of mental energy. I don't think I had ever switched off my editor altogether before. What I felt was a sense of lightness and freedom. It was like running naked in the outdoors (I would imagine).

    I finally understood what Stephen J. Cannell really meant by Give Yourself Permission to be Bad, after all those years. It didn't meant that you should write the best prose you can, it means you should just write any old prose and not worry about if it's the best. Trying to write something as close to perfect as you can manage, it turns out, is a good way to write nothing at all.

    Deliberately writing crap had set me free. I reached my word target for the first day, then the second, then the third. More than that, I was creating again. Not a single word of this book had been written in advance. I had only been planning it for a couple of weeks at the end of October. There was no way I was going to get out of this without some big plot holes or some shoddy character motivation. Who cares? I took to obnoxiously describing everything in the room: individual sticks of furniture, condensation on the side of a cola can, the weather outside even thought it never changed. Did it bother me? I was already the man who had written "he snorted, angrily" and left it in for the sheer delight of leaving it in. I didn't go back and colour it white, I left it in clear black text for anyone to see. I would have happily written it in huge black letters across the cliffs of Dover.

    By allowing myself to do this, something magical happened. I began to make decisions. I wrote the start of scenes when I had no earthly idea how they would end. One of two things happened. Either I groped around blindly for something like a plot thread and stumbled out of the scene or in the moment I saw fully-formed pictures of characters and events. They blossomed into view not weeks in advance of the act of writing but then and there on the spot as I charged blindly in. Characters began to take on a life of their own. After a while I realised that I had stopped deliberately writing bad prose, I was just writing regular prose. There were even a few sentences I could have sworn fell into the category of 'not bad'. Plot twists found their way in, things I couldn't have predicted if I had spent ten years planning my book out in advance.

    Was it still bad? It was terrible. If you read this thing it would make your teeth ache. My book begins with the main character playing video games, for no reason at all. Then his girlfriend walks into a room and they argue about the cultural significance of bling-bling, written with the insight that only a middle-class white man living in suburban England can provide. The protagonist's daily routine is described, to the joy of no-one. The main character argues with his girlfriend some more. The main character de-ices his car, a process rendered in loving detail. At the 25,000 word mark you will realise with a kind of sick shock that this book is actually about gangsters.

    So I wasn't just freeing myself up to develop character and plot, I was also freeing myself up to write the worst kind of stodgy filler you can imagine — if anyone read this it would be like biting into a chocolate éclair and finding it to be filled with mashed potato.

    But here's something interesting about the filler. I have a copy of the Creative Writing Coursebook, a series of essays written by the lecturers and boffins at the University of East Anglia, where I understand they run a really cracking creative writing master's course. Each chunk is devoted to a different aspect of writing and the first is given over to people who don't see themselves as creative writers at all or to people who have written as children or young adults but who have yet to 'find their voice'. In order to get into the habit of writing like a writer they prescribe a series of writing exercises. Most of these consist of describing something, a feeling, a person or an everyday object. These always made me roll my eyes and skip ahead to the chapters on characterisation and plotting. In the run-up to November, in a bid to psyche myself up, I came back to the Coursebook, re-read it from the start and came across these exercises again. What I didn't pay any attention to before was the word count. These weren't just suggestions to inspire readers, this was an evening's homework for a student at East Anglia. Describe a shower curtain for a thousand words. Spend 500 words describing your best friend. Make a list of emotions and describe three of them for 300 words.

    If you've ever read a Proper Novel, you will read about two words of description establishing that, yes, the shower curtain does exist. But then sometimes, if the scene requires it, there will be one extra word — just one — that paints a beautiful picture of the way the curtain moves and hints at the way the main character feels. Just one! I used to think that kind of beauty came about by professional writers being able to pluck that one perfect word out of the air but maybe, just maybe, they come about by a writer spraying out 500 or 1000 words about the Goddamn shower curtain and then cutting and cutting until one remains.

    I may have written thousands of words of fluff describing a man making himself toast for breakfast but perhaps when I come back to that page in 2012 and attack with a nice big red pen, when I let my editor back in from the cold, perhaps then the two of us can find one word that perfectly encapsulates the hero's grief at discovering he's run out of marmalade.

    One day I sinned. Instead of writing new words and went back to the start and tinkered with what I'd already written. I only cut out a little bit and I actually added in extra bits, so overall the word count still increased. Seeing how little the count had increased soon put a stop to that. Due to that one mistake I fell behind for a couple of days. But I stuck to my schedule, I plugged away. There were some days when I fell behind, other days when I sprinted ahead and ended up writing 3000 words at 11:30 at night. A couple of days before the end of November I hit 50,000 words, printed out my winner's certificate and performed my happy dance.

    What was my prize for winning? The first 50,000 words of the first draft of a novel. Not yet finished. Not even half-way through. Horribly unpolished. But it exists. It's real. Even at my most productive I never managed 50,000 in a single month. To know that I can pull that off and hold down a day job is tremendously encouraging.

    And that's all my NaNoWriMo novel is, an unfinished first draft. Somewhere on the forums, I can't find it now, someone wrote something that really inspired me: "A first draft is just a really detailed plot outline with dialogue." It is just an outline. It tells you who the characters are and where they need to stand. It might give you that one perfect word to describe dwindling marmalade supplies or what bling signifies for middle class white people. But it's not set in stone, it can, it should, it will change. That's why the guy going back to polish up his 2000 words is wasting his time, every bit as much as if I was when I did the same thing. Because he'll end up with a very well-written 50,000 words which will then have to be thrown away when he gets to 100,000 and realises who is protagonist really is. Then the polished nature of that first draft will make it all the harder for him to chop it up and start over.

    So this is what NaNoWriMo teaches us: setting yourself targets and working to a schedule every day is a good way to surprise yourself with how much you can get done. Making something bad is a good exercise in becoming better. It's better to try to making a lot of something rubbish than to spend the same amount of time and effort trying to make a little bit of something perfect. Even if you're not a writer or a creative person of any kind, everybody is good at something. But days will come when you don't feel like you've very good at the thing you're supposed to be good at. Give yourself permission to be bad. Never quit.

    Never, ever say to yourself "I suck," unless it is immediately followed by the words "Woo-hoo! I suck!"

    Because it is far better to do something that sucks than to not do anything at all.

    Word count of blog post: 5,117

    Number of words cut: Not a single frigging one.

    The Sewer Pipe

    Posted 07:35 (GMT) 15th August 2011 by David J. Bishop

    There is a new comic up! And now it's August. Uh, allow me to expain what happened.

    Nobody likes call centres. No-one. Companies don't like to admit it, but call centres are not the best way to deal with customers. Far better to deal with each enquiry personally, and to train staff members to deal with a much broader range of problems, but that would be too hard to manage and too expensive. But they really suck for all involved.

    Customers hate them. By the time they've spent 10 minutes navigating the subdivisions and arbitrary choices of an automated menu that offers them the choice between sales, renewals and change of address when all they want to do is enquire, cancel or complain and then spent another 25 minutes waiting on hold, they're already annoyed. Then they get to speak to someone in technical faults who tells them there isn't a complaints department because all our customers are valued and we want them to have the best Customer Experience and resolve all Difficulties Helpfully. What they mean is that every department in a call centre is the complaints department.

    Managers hate them. It's the only cost-effective way of dealing with the huge number of customers the company has taken on – too many, really, to handle well – and the last thing the bosses want to do is reinvest some of their profits in giving their customers a better time. Whenever they do, the customers don't notice and whenever they don't the customers don't consistently leave. But it leaves the managers on the floor of the office with the actually impossible task of predicting and planning out how a typical conversation with two humans should go, then scoring, assessing and disciplining their staff based on how it really went, when any conversation with two unique human beings is always going to be unique and innately unpredictable.

    Staff hate them. It's a production line in which each worker is given one tiny screw to attach to the car, except without the linearity. Instead, imagine a production line where the car arrived randomly at any point in its construction. The person whose job it is to attach that one screw HAS to try and screw it on, even if the car doesn't have an engine or wheels, then the whole car has to be passed to the engine department in a process that takes about half an hour, 10 minutes of which is spent navigating the horrible menu and realising there is no engine department. You can either wait patiently to see if you're heading in the right direction or you can just launch the increasingly indignant car across the room and move on, hoping you haven't just crushed another worker. The nice thing to do would be to wait, except that each second you waste subtracts a point from some invisible scoreboard. Okay, my metaphors are falling apart even as they crash into each other.

    The point is that you are being hired to have what is essentially the same conversation over and over and, despite what I said about each one being as unique and special as a little snowflake, 99% are essentially identical. You end up repeating the same phrases again and again until, like the world's most over-rehearsed play. In time the words ring hollow and dull as you deliver them in a lifeless monotone and, worse still, you begin to correctly anticipate what people are going to say just before they say it. That's always going to frustrate people.

    The only moments of respite from the tedium come when somebody breaks off from the normal conversation pattern to call you a cocksucker, at which point – in an open affront to human dignity itself – you are not allowed to hang up. They're not angry at you, they hate call centres and they need someone to take it out on, even when they know in their heart that everybody hates call centres. Nobody wants to be there, nobody wants this conversation to take place. Occasionally you'll get deluded people who think that by going off on a 10-minute rant about this or that policy they'll make a difference, as if the CEO is downloading thousands of hours of calls onto his Galaxy S II and listening to them all in bed. Sometimes, as if acknowledging this, they say "Tell your managers that I think their procedure stinks!" Even if I could, you think, they wouldn't care. Maybe the man calling you a cocksucker can tell that you have no interest in his problem and, let's face it, unless you're the kind of slug-creature that finds terms and conditions jolly fascinating, you don't.

    Meanwhile, managers are assessing your performance based on how closely you stuck to the script and not based on how much you helped someone, which means that every conversation has to be steered down the same track using the same stock phrases even if that's to the detriment of all involved. If that shows a profound lack of imagination on the part of the managers, think on this: these are people who have thrived in a call centre. They weren't the best or the brightest – those people left or were pushed – they just arrived on the scene and thought "Yes, this is where I should spend the next fifteen years of my life." A lack of imagination is really a kind of superpower when someone has just called you a cocksucker.

    I mention this because at the end of January I lost my call centre job. I was unemployed in the middle of a recession, trying to save up enough money to move house and take my first overseas holiday in four years, flat broke, in desperate need of work and bitterly depressed. So, yeah, not the kind of thing you really share with the audience of your comedy website. I couldn't tell this story because at the time, it had no happy ending. So I stayed quiet. The best and worst thing about being unemployed is the free time. Finally I had more time than ever before to draw – and I couldn't. At least, not all the time. It's the hierarchy of needs. I had to make finding a new job my full time job; creativity is something you indulge in when you know where your next paycheque is coming from.

    But, in spite of my desperation, I vowed I was never going to return to the world of call centres a fourth time. At first I got into it because I had no qualifications. Then, after I got my qualification, I got back into it because it was the only work I could get and I had experience. It was soul-destroying. I decided that I would rather go hungry than go back. I said, and tried to believe it, that I was better than that. I was going to find myself a graduate level job in a recession or die trying. And I was still going on my holiday. And I was still going to move house.

    My girlfriend had got a job in the Midlands. I needed to move house by the summer. Our holiday was already booked for the start of July. All I had under my belt were three call centre jobs, six months' waiting tables and a degree in bedtime stories.

    I applied for a hundred jobs. I even went to some interviews. Twice I was told, by the same company, that I had come in second out of all the candidates. They sent me my silver medal in the post. I was able to trade it in for a luxury yacht and a pet unicorn. Thanks, guys.

    One job came along that I was perfect for. The job description was me. They invited me to an assessment day. Four hours on the train, four hours back. We did team-building exercises. I helped build a bridge out of paper and tape. I decided which of the plane crash victims would get to be in the lifeboat. I had a short interview. There were ten of us that day, whittled down from 204 applicants. They gave us a maths test. I knew then that I had absolutely no chance of getting the job.

    They called me back for a second interview. I was terrified the whole time, jittering and stammering my way through the questions. I can't remember what I said. I just remember wanting the job so much, wanting to commit years of my life to staying there despite knowing next-to-nothing about what I would actually be doing. I was the blind date with the engagement ring in his pocket, and I probably came across as being that creepy. They told me I was one of the worst at the maths test. Not THE worst, they hasten to add, just one of them. Bottom three, I imagine. They give me the maths test to take again. I've already taken it before so, they reason, I'm bound to get a better score the second time round. That's all I have to do – get a better score than last time. I take the test again, the Duck Tales theme playing constantly in my head for some reason, then the results come back: I got the exact same score. That's it, then. I've blown it. The spluttering interview was bad enough, this is just the final nail in the coffin.

    A week goes by. I hear nothing. Of course I hear nothing.

    I get a call. There's good news and bad news. Oh God, I think. Here it comes. The good news is, you've got the job. Wait, what? The bad news is, we want you to start next week. And, just like that, one big problem gives way to a million little ones. I need to cancel all my utilities, notify my insurance provider, change my address for countless services, organise a moving date, call the company that manages my property on behalf of my landlord. The best thing to happen to me since I graduated and I'm navigating automated menus and talking to call centres.

    My first week of work is spent in a hotel, the second on the floor of the flat I first looked at last weekend. I return to Leeds each weekend to pack and clean and defrost my freezer. Two men come and pile everything I own into one van. It's a bigger van than last year, which makes me smile proudly to myself. My big green armchair gets stuck in the doorway. It takes half an hour of twisting, heaving and swearing in Polish for them to unstick it. I check the place whilst they wait in the van. There's only time for a cursory glance, not enough to say goodbye to the little flat that has been my home for over a year and, by extension, the city that has been my home for fifteen years. On the cross-country drive to my new place we listen to the same three tracks of Polish rap metal looping on the van's broken CD player.

    Weeks later I finally get an internet connection, just before I go on my holiday to Austria. The day we leave marks the end of my first month at the best job I have ever had. It's a small company, only four in one office. We help hundreds of people, always in different ways. Our job is to make as little work as possible for our customers. Every conversation is completely different, every task is something I've never done before. I have learnt two programming languages in four weeks. My girlfriend and I have the best holiday we've ever had, then return home to the best flat we have ever had – and the first one we have rented together. Practically overnight everything about my life has changed. I've gone from being sad and unemployed in Leeds to being happy and fulfilled in the Midlands. It took a lot of hard work on my part but that doesn't quite make the transition feel real – it still feels like I woke up to find my situation transformed by pixies, that narrative makes more sense at this point. Now, working for a business where they do things right, I see my call centre days in a new light. That really wasn't the best way to do things. I'm so glad I can finally tell this story, because it has the happiest ending. That scene in The Shawshank Redemption where the guy crawls through that pipe full of raw sewage: I understand what that feels like. And I now I understand why he keeps going.

    So, in short, the update was late. Sorry, guys. I've been super busy. Lol!

    Watchmen

    Posted 09:12 (GMT) 24th May 2011 by David J. Bishop

    The new strip is about Watchmen, specifically how the ending of the comic measures up to the book. I've also written a new rant to further elaborate on my objections. It's rare that what I have to say in my essays has any bearing on what I have to say in the comic but I'm making an exception this time. Chances are you've seen the film or read the book or both. I'm probably not spoiling anything. If for whatever reason you're unfamiliar with the story, please experience it in some form or anther before reading what I have to say about it. The film alone was three Goddamn years ago. I'm trading up-to-the-minute relevance here with the ability to discuss all aspects of the plot and the ending of this wonderful work of art. You have been warned.

    If you feel I'm dead wrong about any of this, please feel free to post something in my otherwise quiet forum, send me an e-mail (fourthfloorcomics@yahoo.co.uk), contact me via Twitter or scribble your comments on a sheet of paper, tape it to a brick and hurl it through my living room window. I promise to post on the site all antithetical comments underneath the original rant and I will do my best to answer each and every one.

    Tangled

    Posted 15:17 (GMT) 11th April 2011 by David J. Bishop

    Since my last post my PC has been in the repair shop for a week and it's about to go back in, I don't know how long for. Luckily I've worked far enough ahead with my strips that there should be no interruption to the update schedule, so if you come back on the 15th of each month you can expect a comic.

    In the meantime, please enjoy this uneditted, very rushed rant in which I muse about Tangled. Apologies for the punctuation - I originally wrote this in Word and pasted it over and lost all my italics. No time to alter it now!

    If you spend as much time on the internet as I do you probably heard people complain about the confusing and misleading marketing that preceded the film's release. Yeah, the trailers made it look like a different film – and that film was Treasure Planet, and nobody wants that. A lot of people took this as evidence that Disney, after giving us the critically acclaimed fairytale masterpiece that is The Princess and the Frog, had decided to go back to making bad films that nobody wants to see. But those people should have a little more faith. Remember in 2006 when Disney and Pixar ate each other? Now, we should treat Disney films as Pixar films because many of the same creative people like John Lasseter have had a hand in their development. That means that from now on we get good Disney films agains and, interestingly, ones that in some respects feel like Pixar films.

    The Princess and the Frog, for example, has its music and its soundtrack composed by Randy Newman – you know, the guy that did the Toy Story and Monsters Inc. music. And it had the kind of tight plotting and complex character motivations we've come to expect from Pixar films like Up. So even though it had musical numbers sung by the characters, which no Pixar film up until now has had (except for when that Woody puppet plays the guitar, which doesn't count), these weren't huge show-stopping numbers like 'Be Our Guest', crammed to the brim with spectacle but in no way advancing the story, these songs were plot-relevant. In fact, the songs in The Princess and the Frog actually move the plot along quicker! Have you seen that episode of Futurama where Zoidberg sends Hermes to a health spar that turns out to be forced labour camp and then Hermes reorganizes it so that all the work is being done by one Australian man? That's the kind of heavy-lifting the songs in Princess and the Frog do. That doesn't make them bad songs by any means, it just means the job they're doing is different to the job done by 'Be Our Guest'. All of Prince Naveen's backstory, for example, is sung – in the space of about one verse. By slipping in much-needed exposition or character motivation into the songs, the film-makers establish in the space of few minutes what would otherwise take several scenes and the storytelling is therefore much more efficient. This means they can tell a much more rich and complex story than you would expect to see in a Disney film. There are twists and turns, characters' motivations change as they develop and the movie never feels bogged down.

    So it was with Tangled's marketing! Yes, if you watch the trailer for Tangled and then Tangled itself you could be forgiven for thinking you'd walked into the wrong film. But if you think of this as Pixar-flavoured Disney it all makes sense again. The fact is, Pixar have always made weirdly misleading trailers for their films. Do you remember the teaser trailer for Monster, Inc.? I sure as Hell do. Sometimes I still wake up screaming. They had Mike going through the door with Sulley, even though everyone knows Mike isn't a scarer. And why is the door locked? That's not how they work. Then they get into an argument and Sulley start's being really sarcastic and then Mike plays the race card and, to put it lightly, that exchange does not reflect the kind of dynamic they have in the film proper. What's that all about? Well, those trailers get made donkey's years before the film is finished and they act more as mission statements than as accurate portrayals of a film's content – all they tell you about the films is "We are Pixar! We are making a film about monsters now!" and that's it. That's how we end up with a teaser trailer for Ratatouille in which Remy never once mentions wanting to be a chef. Tangled was the same, it's just that this time somebody took that weird concept animation and spliced it together with actual footage from the finished film.

    So already before I even watched Tangled I didn't know whether to expect a Disney film or a Pixar film and – thanks to the marketing – I didn't even expect a good film. I didn't know what to expect at all, to be honest. Is it good? Yes. Is it a Disney movie? Absolutely. Forget about the technology they used to make this film. The script, the story, the pacing, the songs, the character design – these are all classic Disney like no Disney film has been since… since they stopped making Disney films like you remember from your childhood. This is it; this is the film they should have made instead of that awful Chicken Little thing.

    I'm not saying this is universal – as always, your mileage may vary. For me, everything I love about Disney films is here in spades. That's why it's my favourite. It looks like a Disney film. The character design is purely the Disney house style and of the highest quality for feature animation. Since I became a student of character design, especially as it relates to animation, I've become something of a fan of Glen Keane's work. It would take too long to tell you who this guy is or what he's done. Suffice to say he designed Beast and Ariel and for a long while Tangled was his baby. Even though he didn't end up directing the film, he originally conceived its unique aesthetic and designed its protagonist. Rapunzel is a masterpiece of character design. To most people that may well sound like faint praise, but the art of character design is really more difficult than it appears, as I am learning.

    Good character design is really the difference between a good animated film and a great animated film and to really appreciate it you have to look at examples of its absence, like in most Dreamworks films. Whatever the other merits of their films – and Dreamworks have made some good films – for the most part their human characters look slavishly realistic or just downright ugly. Look at all the human characters in Shrek. Observe a complete absence of character design. You've got Fiona who looks they tried their best to make a human actress in a CG universe, you've got the villain Farquaad who has a big chin and is short but otherwise is made with the same slapdash attention to detail as Fiona and then virtually every other character. All those people in the crowd scenes, Robin Hood and his Merry Men, the guards – they all look like clones of each other. And don't get me started on the waxy corpse-men who populate Monsters vs. Aliens with their super-deformed proportions but their ghoulishly-detailed flesh complete with pores and moles. Blech! No, Tangled is how you do it right. This is what it's supposed to look like when animated characters step into the three-dimensional world.

    What else do I like? It's funny. Damn funny. Tangled is easily the funniest film of 2010. A lot of people will tell you the film is beautiful – and don't get me wrong, it's gorgeous – but I know from experience how hard it is to make something funny (and how easy it is to miss the mark) so I know that Tangled's strength as a comedy is probably its greatest achievement. That brings me neatly back to Rapunzel again. Rapunzel is a wonderful comic character in a way that her princess predecessors were not. In fact, she is unique amongst Disney protagonists. She is a princess, she's full of the kind of hope and cheerful optimism we've come to expect of animated heroines, the kind of attitude parodied in such films as Enchanted, yet she is by no means a boilerplate character. What separates Rapunzel from other Disney princesses is that she's not 100% capable 100% of the time. She has flaws. Sometimes she is goofy, sometimes she is silly, sometimes she is borderline manic depressive. At times she is a bit of ditz, she can even be manipulative. Moreover, she is terribly self-conscious of her shortcomings. To see her react to any given situation is at once funny, sweet and thoroughly charming.

    This is where she differs from other Disney heroines. Disney heroines are not funny. The likes of Snow White and Cinderella hardly have any personality at all and sort of drift through life reacting to things and being rendered unconscious. But they're still very good at coping with what their stories throw at them. Snow White, finding herself alone and afraid in a forest immediately befriends dozens of adorable woodland creatures, cleans a house and then cooks its occupants dinner before having even met them and discovering that – DUN DUN DUN – they're not human! And upon that discovery she just blithely accepts it. I wish I could cope that well when I met strangers. So suffice to say, Snow White is blandly perfect in every circumstance.

    To find anything close to a flawed heroine we have to look to the head-strong rebellious Ariel. But even she is thoroughly capable and doesn't possess any crippling neuroses. Characters like Ariel and Aladdin have impossible dreams and then overcome the odds to achieve them. If that means sword-fighting a dozen guards that's fine, if that means making a pact with the sea-witch then that's fine too. This is all fine for the kind of story they're in – God knows we all love to see capable characters kick some ass in the face of adversity. But I also love unlikely heroes who maybe don't know what they're doing, like in Shaun of the Dead. Tangled feels more like the latter. It's still very much a classic Disney story but it avoids cliché at every turn by casting Rapunzel as the protagonist. Rapunzel doesn't have an impossible dream, she has very modest goals and, really, there is nothing stopping her from achieving those goals but her own psychological hang-ups and her fears. That makes her incredibly compelling. She doesn't want to change species, she doesn't want to prove her worth, she doesn't want to rise out of poverty or embark on an adventure – Rapunzel's goal is simple and much more relatable. She's trapped in a tower and she thinks that one day it might be nice to see some part of the outside world. That's it.

    The first song is a really funny sequence depicting Rapunzel's daily routine as she tries to find ways to pass the time. The message of the song is not "I want so much more", it's "This is my life, I wonder when it will get better". That's subtly different. And the song itself is upbeat and lively and the editing of the sequence is fast-paced. What I love about the musical sequences in Tangled is that they're dense with information. The lyrics are loaded with meaning and subtle jokes and often accompanied by quickly-edited animated sequences which sometimes contradict the lyrics. In this case, Rapunzel's song becomes funnier and funnier as Rapunzel finds increasingly absurd ways to fill the hours – and that in itself becomes increasingly sad as we see how desperate Rapunzel is to escape her boredom. Even though the lyrics remain optimistic, we start to see that Rapunzel is more dissatisfied with her situation than she is willing to admit to herself. The songs in Tangled aren't like the songs in Princess and the Frog, they don't move the plot forward but at the same time they establish character and they underline the characters' problems. That's what we see here, that Rapunzel is an inventive and eccentric character fighting against boredom and restriction, a character whose sheer creativity and buoyancy breed a deep-seated dissatisfaction within her. In some respects she's a tragic figure, because we can see what's missing in her life so clearly and yet her own lack of confidence and self-esteem hold her back at every turn.

    Belle wouldn't stand for that. Belle would just up and leave. Whatever she encounters out in the world, whether she succeeds or fails, she'll be okay. Belle absolutely has her shit together. No matter what happens she is capable, she can deal with it. Tiana's so capable she's come close to getting what she wants before the plot even gets going. Rapunzel is a different breed altogether. Her obstacles are not physical or societal – her obstacles are all internal. She doesn't always have the best handle on every situation, she doesn't always have the upper hand. Yet she has amazing potential and in many respects that makes her a better role model than her ultra-capable predecessors.

    I think her defining characteristic is her inexhaustible optimism and her belief in the honest of others, which we then see paired with the cynical opportunism of Flynn the thief, a man who explicitly tells her that she can't trust him, a man who feels that everyone is essentially out for themselves. As the two come to an uneasy alliance, the meat of the film's tension comes in seeing the extent to which Rapunzel will be disappointed by the real world – and we know from the start that she will be disappointed – and the extent to which Flynn is full of shit. And the exciting part is that, regardless of where you fall on the spectrum of optimism and pessimism, you will be surprised! In that respect, this is a coming of age film the likes of which neither Disney nor Pixar have ever delivered before. Regarding the character of Flynn himself, I'll just say that I thought Beauty and the Beast had had the last word in deconstructing performative masculinity with Gaston but Flynn shows just how wrong I was.

    And all the other characters you encounter in some way reflect that central conversation. Although that said the film shows a distinct lack of dimunuitive wise-cracking comic relief sidekicks. Considering this is a Disney comedy, surprisingly most of the laughs come from the interactions between Rapunzel and Flynn rather than the talking clocks or singing crabs.

    Really, that's what's most impressive about this film. It's a film with three-dimensional, unique characters, a story that arises out of those characters' motivations and a strong theme tying it all together. How many films genuinely deliver that, let alone animated films? I for one am glad that Disney and Pixar ate each other.

    Apologies For Having Mellowed

    Posted 12:11 (GMT) 28th January 2011 by David J. Bishop

    Hello everyone. I know I haven't written as many rants or blog posts as I used to and that I've been terribly lax in that respect. But that's largely because I'm not the angry little pissant I once was. I've mellowed considerably in the last couple of years to the point that I really don't get passionate or worked up about anything apart from racism and Norse mythology, so unless something to do with movies or pop culture comes along that touches on my deep abiding love of Icelandic Literature and my undying hatred of racists, I don't really feel the need to rant.

    So, allow me to present my new rant! It's about Icelandic Literature and racists.

    Because I wrote it, it's over two thousand words long. So, you know, read the first thousand words, get yourself a sandwich, fly a kite, go to the bathroom, then come back and read the next thousand. I could edit it all down and give you exactly half of what I'm trying to say, and end up souding like an idiot, but I'll just give you the full picture instead. Especially when discussing a sensitive topic like racism or a complicated topic like literature, you really need to tread carefully and use the best words in the best order to avoid sounding like a racist or an imbecile. In a rant about both of the former I needed to sound like neither of the latter.

    So read it, enjoy it, apologies for the epic length. While you do that I'm going to actively seek out some of the things that make me angry so I can write about them. Laters, dudes.

    Ice Fail

    Posted 16:13 (GMT) 18th January 2011 by David J. Bishop

    Okay, there's a new strip up. It's quite a dark one, at least by the standards of the comic, as it sees Charlotte sink about as low to Amy's level as we've ever seen her sink. I suppose a pitcher of margarita will bring out one's spiteful side. At any rate, tune in again in a few weeks to see how it pans out.

    The reason why I posted the comic on the 17th of January instead of the 15th is because I've been experiencing a few logistical problems. Well, what else is new? The fact is I have exactly 99 problems, of which I used to be able to say a broken arm was not one. Unfortunately, as of last Sunday I can no longer make that claim.

    Here's what happened - and I must give you the brief version because the act of typing is sending hot shooting pains up my forearm. I was walking to work. Yes, I work on a Sunday. I wouldn't really mind except that the train services only run one per hour on a Sunday morning. Normally, prudent soul that I am, I endeavour to catch the train before the one I really need so that I can still be on time if I miss it. Not so the Sunday train. If I don't get this train, the next one won't arrive until it's already too late and I can't get the one before because there is no one before. This is my first, last and only chance to get to work.

    And it's a little cold out. We'd had some snow earlier that week and that was followed by some rain which sort-of melted the snow. That was followed by the kind of cold that stings your earlobes and eats its way through even the coziest scarf. So the rainwater and the half-melted snow froze into this mini glacier that covered nearly every inch of tarmac lying between my house and my train. So I was not, in fact, walking to work. I lied before. I was skating.

    I had managed to go the entire route without any mishaps until I came to a steep slope leading down to another path that slopes uphill towards my train. On a good day it's a five minute journey. That's fine because my train isn't leaving for another 15 minutes. I'm doing great. Or I would be, if it was a good day.

    But this slope. It's so steep. And the ice is so thick. There aren't any un-slippery gaps in the frosty covering onto which a sure-footed fellow might gracefully hop. And I'm about as sure-footed on ice as Bambi, with about the same level of common sense. I would like to say I hesitated at the top of that slope, I would like to say I didn't just keep fast-walking towards the train station. I'd like to but that would be another lie.

    So, I stride confidently onto the path and instantly I start to slide. I stop walking, I stand still right where I am but by now 'standing still' is just a state of mind. I'm still travelling forwards despite not moving, like a cuddly toy moving on a conveyor belt, with my arms out at my side and what I imagine is an expression of panic tinged with deep, sickening foreboding. I start to imagine that this will be a perfectly acceptable way to traverse the slope until I realise that my feet are travelling faster than my torso, that they are accelerating at a constant rate. As grim as this realisation is, it is matched only by the twin realisation that I can't do a damn thing about the situation. So my feet shoot off down the ice on some private adventure of their own, held back only by their stubborn attachment to my reluctant body. I'm sure if they could they would have slid all the way down to the bottom - as it is they're left nowhere to go but up and it isn't long before my own feet at flying up into the air, leaving no-one to do the job of connecting my physical being with the ground below but my ass. So I fall, hard. The sheer hardness of what is supposed to be water but which feels firmer and more unforgiving than solid rock hits me. Next the coldness, then the wetness. All three hit me, one after the other, without mercy, like ages 13, 14 and 15. As I went down I did that thing where you put your hand out behind you in an attempt to break your fall but it seems more likely that I broke my hand.

    I managed to scramble onto my feet by gripping the fence to the side of the path. Once fully upright I start to shuffle towards the bottom of the slope with a little more caution, but it isn't long before my feet are at it again, sliding out from under me. This time I stop myself by grabbing the fence but that doesn't stop my stupid feet. Again, they fly off and up and now I'm left holding myself up by my arms. Now I'm not the skinniest of men anymore. I was never that strong, either. In fact, my upper body strongly resembles a pear with two cocktail sticks wedged into it. So when the weedy arms are suddenly given the task of keeping the chubby torso off the ground while the feet and legs are on their little holiday - well, they weren't up to the job. So then I'm back on my ass.

    So I'm hurrying to get to work but it seems like I'm making the majority of my progress sliding down this slope on my bottom. Suddenly I've become this guy. Look at the expression of despair mixed with confusion, regret and being really cold. That's me now. Yes, I visit Failblog from time to time. It always cheers me up to know that somewhere there are people stupider than me, mostly 17-year-olds trying to parkour but instead slamming their foreheads against the roof of a shed harder than you could have thought possible. It's essentially one of those clip shows of people falling down in their home videos ("Looks like Dad is really too big for the tire swing!") combined with that section of the newspaper where they make fun of people's unfortunate writing choices. Failblog is one of those guilty pleasures for me, not in the same way that another person might consider Britney Spears a guilty pleasure, more in the way that I feel guilty because I don't know if laughing at people concussing themselves makes me a bad person or not. But now there's a whole new angle - I'm the Failblog guy, I'm the guy who can't negotiate an icy path. I epic fail at walking to work. So now I just feel confused, like if I stumbled onto the set of Frasier. So when I fell down the third time, what choice did I have? I shouted "Dot org!" at the top of my voice and burst out laughing. It's okay, there was no-one around. I didn't see another soul during my mad journey. It's a complete mystery as to why.

    But I made it. I got to the bottom of the slope. I check my watch - 10 minutes until the train comes. Okay, I can do this. Now I just need to make my way up the path to the station. The equally icy path. Leading uphill. Well, no turning back now. Literally, there isn't. The only way back is the way I came - again an uphill struggle - or up another even steeper icy path. And I've got a train to catch. So I start my climbing. I get about 2 metres up the hill before I start to slide down back the way I came. I manage to stay upright as I slide smoothly to the spot I started from. Fine, be that way, gravity and friction. I start again. This time I get a little further before I start to slide backwards, but having learned from my previous mistake I stop my slide by falling forwards onto my face - and that stops me. So I progress in that fashion, walking a few metres, falling forwards, sliding a little way and then starting again.

    I tried walking off to the side of the path but the grass there had been flattened by people doing the same thing the day before and now it had iced over and become perfectly smooth. And to the side of that: thick prickly bushes. So I was stuck on this nightmare path with no way out except forward. I lost count of the number of times I fell down. I think about 8 in total, it's hard to say. Panting and gasping, I got to the top of the slope. I had managed the obviously impossible through only willpower and the stubborn refusal to acknowledge pain. My wrist was starting to feel a little tingly. I remember dimly wondering if I needed to go to a hospital as I approached the station. The train was just about to leave as I ran down to the platform and jumped on, my right arm hanging uselessly by my side. But I made it! I climbed up a sheer icy slope and made it onto my train in time despite - as I would later discover - having broken my Goddamn arm at the elbow.

    By the time I got to work the pain in my wrist had spread further up my arm. It didn't hurt in any serious way, it just felt weird. No, the pain would come later. I asked my boss if it would be okay if I nipped into the hospital really quick to see if they could patch me up and then send me back to work. I didn't have to wait long in the Accident and Emergency department, only an hour and a half. Three x-rays later and another 90 minute wait and I am told that my arm is broken, that the bone responsible for the lifting and the rotating of my hand will be out of action for the next six weeks and would I like some more pain killers. By this point the answer was an emphatic yes please. My arm, for the first week at least, was painful enough to hurt despite the drugs. It's a little better now but still out of action.

    I've got it in a sling but there's no cast. I can't do anything with it but it's only a little uncomfortable most of the time. The worst part is trying to get to sleep and keeping it at a right angle all night. Okay, but seriously. I know what I did was stupid but you have to admit it was pretty hard-core to arrive on time for work despite the impassable ice and a bloody broken arm. That is dedication right there. Allow me to present (with apologies to Google Maps) the portion of my route to work in which there were no gaps in the ice, where it was skaters only:

    And now here it is with the path I took marked out in red and the portions that were uphill and downhill highlighted. I'm walking right to left towards the train station:

    For the purposes of scale, those tiny specks to the left are cars. Those white boxes are warehouses.

    But these satellite pictures were taken in the heady summer of 2009 and don't convey the sheer amount of cold and falling down. So, again courtesy of the Google, here's a picture to rectify that:

    Oh nooooooos Mr Polar Bear!

    In other news, they sent me back my Xbox in the post. And it was actually my Xbox. All my save games remain intact and the Xbox is the same as before, except without the weird checkerboard pattern and the turning itself off. Maybe they should ship my arm to Germany to be fixed or replaced within four days.

    I had an amazing Christmas with all my family, which seems to grow in size each year to include new members. I hope you did too and I hope you're all still in one piece.

    Merry Christmas

    Posted 06:29 (GMT) 24th December 2010 by David J. Bishop

    I hope you all have a great Christmas and I'll see you in the new year with the first of what I hope to be many 2011 comic strips. Much love.

     

     

     

     

     

     

    I Can Tell You You've Got 3 Choices

    Posted 12:36 (GMT) 15th December 2010 by David J. Bishop

    New Strip!

    I hope you're all having a great December and gearing up for the big day later this month. I'm starting to feel warm and toasty inside myself, or that might just be because I've been drinking cough syrup right out of the bottle. We have a few things to go through. First, there is a new strip today. I comes exactly a month after the last strip. There will be another strip in exactly another month's time and so on until I can update more frequently. I'll post on my Twitter feed as soon as something's up but you can bet it will be around the middle of the week in the middle of the month every month. Why such a slow pace? Well, I don't think I've ever updated this comic every month of a single year it's been running. That's kinda sad, isn' it? And it's been running now for, what, five years? There have times when I have updated three times a week. Three times a week! I'm lucky if I can sit down to draw three times a week these days. There have been other times - too many by anyone's count - when months have passed without any comics. People never remember the frenzies, they always remember the gaps. So this time I'm trying something bold. I'm going to set an updated schedule I know I can adhere to and slowly plod along with a consistent but painfully slow update schedule. Instead of losing my shit and putting stuff up as soon as it's done I'm going to build up a buffer - that way if the shit ever hits the fan again at least I won't disappear off the face of the earth next time my appendix explodes or I move house or I lose another job. More important than frequency, I think, is consistency. Let's try for at least one comic every month of 2011 and see how things go. I'm trying to be responsible about this stuff for once.

    Computer Problems

    Speaking of strips, I have now reposted last month's strip. It is a source of great shame to me that I posted something I wasn't 100% happy with. My policy has always been to post something late or not at all rather than something sub-standard, but I was going to be without my beloved computer for an indefinite period of time and I had an absolute deadline. So, falling back on habits I had not indulged since my university days, I stayed up most of all night Monday that week finishing the inks for the comic chugging red bull and eating fajitas, then coloured it all of Tuesday in a flurry of activity before the ambulance finally came to take my computer to the hospital. I posted the strip, dashed off a post and packed up the computer without even waiting to see if the site had updated successfully. That's how close to the mark I came. Of course after the computer was in another city being repaired and there was nothing I could do I checked the site on someon'es phone and observed all the spelling mistakes and goofs, like forgetting to colour Shivani's belt or drawing the jug weird. At least I had ample time to meditate on my failure.

    Anyway, when the computer returned it had been fixed. Better than fixed, actually. Improved. It's running quieter than it did when I first got it. It remains my loyal manservant, it still carries me breakfast in bed as it were, but now instead of announcing its arrival up to the stairs to my chamber with a series of loud grating coughs, now it just silently appears by my bed, tray in hand. It's unassming to the pont of invisibility. I turn it on and nothing happens, which is what happened when it was broken. So I am frightened. But then, if there are no other sounds, I can detect the tiniest of hums - this is how I know my computer is turned on. When I say "if there are no sounds" I mean any sound as loud as the steady rhythm of my own breathing, the murmer of wind in the trees outside, the blanket of silence brought on by softly falling snow or the sound of human thought. So, my computer runs very quietly now. It's starting to creep me out a little.

    Xbox Problems

    So my computer is back in action and just as things get settled my Xbox gets the red ring of death. Tragic for me, I know, but I think this could actually be good for the strip. One second my girlfriend and I are playing Lego Batman and generally having a blast, the next the image has frozen up and everything has a nightmarish checkerboard pattern on it. And then I see around the start button three red lights, like the burning eyes of some tricloptic demon of punishment. The first thing we do is reboot - same thing happens again on the dashboard. The second thing we do is check Wikipedia. I always thought the red ring of death was when all four red lights came on, so maybe three isn't so bad. You know, four = critical hardware failure, three = not-so-critical hardware failure. Turns out I was wrong, three is the ring. Four red lights just means you're out of icecream or something innocuous. Although it's not really a ring when only three lights show, is it? It's more like the three-quarter ring of death. Plus I didn't actually die, so there's another inaccuracy. At any rate, here's where the story gets weird. I've just finished submitting my repair request, having found myself to still be within warranty for these kinds of issues by two months - not really knowing what else to do and feeling for all the world like someone who has lost a bet with God I open Twitter and tweet about my loss. I didn't know what else to do!

    I wrote the following: Three flashing red lights. RIP Xbox...

    I'm particularly proud of the ellipsis, there. I'm just trailing off, it's almost like my Xbox's soul is trailing off into the wind - like in Kung Fu Panda. It's whistful.

    No more than a second passes, then suddenly someone calling themselves XboxSupport sends me a message:

    Sad to see this. Try this guide: http://xbx.lv/9k2t5s And let us know if it helps. =) ^EM

    That link, by the way, is to a page that doesn't work. But what the hell? I didn't add any tags or links or anything to my message, it was just a statement to say my Xbox has popped its clogs - next thing I know Xbox Support themselves are in there like a shot to tell me they're sorry for my loss. Like they care, or like anyone gives a damn about my Twitter posts. It's doubly unnerving because nobody ever replies to my Twitter posts or passes comment on them at all. As far as I know I'm the only one who reads the damn things. It's like pushing a letter into a bottle and throwing the bottle into a bottomless pit as far as I know. Now I get the impression that the Xbox support group have been waiting within that pit for the slightest mention of their technology malfunctioning so they can pounce on it and offer their sympathies in person. They've clearly been stalking me all this time, waiting for my Xbox to break.

    I also got a message from some guy called Tim - again, someone I do not know - who said:

    RED LIGHTS!!! >>> Gag! Having been down this road several times, I can tell you you've got 3 choices.

    But then he never told me what the choices were and it seemed pretty obvious that mailing it back to the company to get it fixed free of charge was the best and indeed the only option. So that's not creepy, just funny.

    I can imagine Tim helping people out in a similar way. He could be sitting next to a guy in a bar and the guy says, "My wife just left me."

    Tim just yells at the top of his voice: "DIVORCE!!! Man, that's rough. I've been through two divorces and I tell you what, it ain't fun. Now the way I see it you've got 3 choices."

    Then he walks off.

    No More Computer for a While

    Posted 15:36 (GMT) 16th November 2010 by David J. Bishop

    Hey everyone. I'm sorry to announce I'm going to be without internet access and my computer for about a fortnight. Work on future updates will commence as soon as I get it back from the shop.

    In the meantime, please enjoy my thoughts on the Twilight phenomenon:

    Even though it's cliché right now to jump on the bandwagon and make fun of the breathtakingly epic Twilight Saga, its dishwater-dull protagonists and its hordes of squealing fans it still needs to be said: Twilight is ridiculous nonsense and if you like it you like ridiculous nonsense. That's fine by me, I have a place in my heart for all kinds of stuff most people find bizarre and repulsive (I own Lady in the Water on DVD) but don't try to pretend that it's well-written or resonant or empirically worthwhile. It's bad. You might love its badness, you might cherish it as a guilty pleasure – that's fine. But we all need to recognise how awful it is.

    I think it's the baseball-playing vampires that tip it over the edge. Nothing can prepare you for the mind-shattering horror of vampires playing baseball. Up until that point the film is a fairly plodding and mediocre supernatural drama. Then everyone dresses up in cute little baseball uniforms and plays ball, swinging the bats with super speed, racing through the woods to catch the ball and running around the little white bases. And it's at once cute and funny and pathetic, like an incontinent puppy. Having spiralled so rapidly into self-parody, it could only be marginally sillier if they sang the song from the baseball scene in High School Musical 2 as they ran. Marginally.

    "Since when did vampires like baseball?" Bella asks. A better question would be "Is this the best thing you can think to do with your super powers? Pitch very fast? Get a home run? Really, Edward?" Edward doesn't have a satisfactory answer, either. I suppose you could argue that they're essentially human creatures and therefore they can enjoy any pastime normal folk could participate in. They could watch Gilmore Girls in their pyjamas, they could play Hungry Hungry Hippos or they could just play hour after hour of Minesweeper with the lights off. Yet each of these things activities seems equally unsuitable. It could be because they're supposed to be many lifetimes old and from all over the world and are therefore no more likely to enjoy playing baseball than George Washington or Queen Elizabeth II.

    Another thing: heart-throbbingly gorgeous though he may be, Edward Cullen is not a vampire by any measure of anything being anything, which is to say that he is a vampire in the same way that I am an Ewok. Let's look at the facts:

    1. He doesn't drink human blood
    2. He doesn't turn to dust in the sunlight
    3. He's not dead
    4. He has no problem with crosses, garlic, stakes or holy water
    5. He has a reflection
    6. If Edward encounters some grains or seeds he will not feel compelled to pedantically count every grain (like the Sesame Street character)
    7. On that same note, he wears neither a cape nor a monocle
    8. He doesn't drink human blood!

    If he did any of these things he would be a vampire. But he doesn't and therefore isn't. He's just fast and strong and his big pretty eyes change colour and he's telepathic and his skin goes all glittery and he's like so totally dreamy.

    Well that's fine, Edward. That qualifies you to be an X-man. It doesn't mean you're a vampire. If you use that word to describe yourself I'm afraid you'll water down its definition. Right now, that word means something specific, as specific as the difference between vampire bats and fruit bats. If Edward Cullen is a vampire then is Wolverine a vampire as well? Is Cyclops? How about Jean Grey? At least she actually died.

    I Take It Back

    Posted 07:29 (GMT) 11th November 2010 by David J. Bishop

    My computer may just be the best computer in the world. It's certainly the best one I've ever had. It runs Photoshop at a fair lick, without running out of virtual memory all the time like my laptop kept doing before its violent death. Games look great on it, whenever I get a chance to play them. Best yet, in over a year I can count on one hand the number of times it's crashed.

    It's a friendly little companion. Faithful like a puppy but reliable like a butler. It's a puppy butler.

    It therefore came as no surprise that when it started to malfunction it did so in the politest, most stoic manner possible. I would turn it on and the fan started to make a horrible buzzing sound, like the last thing a Spitfire says before it explodes.

    "BLAAAAAAAAAARRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRRGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGGLLLLLLLLLLE!" my computer would say.

    To which I would reply, "Computer? Are you okay?"

    "It's nothing, uh, just a cough. Just ignore me. See? All better. Ahem."

    About a week ago it started promptly turning itself off after start-up, which the internet tells me is down to some horrbile hardware failure. No error messages, no blue screens o' doom - it just politely and wordlessly turns itself off.

    I try to turn it back on again but after a few seconds its shuts off again without warning.

    "Terribly sorry, sir," computer says, "not right now."

    After the fifth attempt it finally powers up and resumes its speedy and helpful servitude as if nothing had ever been the matter, only last night it did so without displaying anything on the screen - a trick my laptop learnt right before its brain melted. Now this last detail, this is making me start to think something could be wrong with it.

    Sadly, I haven't managed to back up anything I've done in the past year since puppy butler and I first became acquainted. I managed to transfer all of the data from my laptop that I rescued right before it curled up its toes onto the new tower but since then my computer and the portable hard drive have started a feud, refusing to speak to each other. That leaves me with one and only one copy of 2010's comic output + one very expensive paperweight.

    I'm calling the wizards (and I'm almost certain they are actual wizards) who put this little puppy together today to see what the matter is and how soon it can be fixed, then I suppose I'll have to take it back to the shop. I felt less nervous in hospital waiting to hear if I had cancer (I totally didn't but you know how they like to scare you in hospital). I said something about updating soon, right? Right. Sure, I see no reason why not.

    UPDATE: Seems to be a problem with the power supply. Taking it into the shop on Wednesday, should get it back in a couple of weeks. November updates now seem unlikely but we'll see.

    Sneak Preview

    Posted 06:49 (GMT) 10th November 2010 by David J. Bishop

    Hmm? What? Where am I? What year is this? Oh, I remember! I had an awful dream that I was an insurance saleman who occassionally draws cartoons, then I awoke to discover I was a cartoonist who occassionally sells insurance.

    Given that I am a cartoonist, there really should be more comic strips around here. I can fix that. Given that I am bad at being a cartoonist, it may take a while.

    Keep an eye on the Twitter feed: I'm going to try and update that thing more often and it's the first place I go to tell people a new strip is up.

    The current update frequency appears to be one strip every 3 months. Let's see if I can't get it down to 2 months. Stay tuned! It's time I went to work.

    21 Awesome Years

    Posted 22:33 (GMT) 27th July 2010 by David J. Bishop

    First things first. There is a new comic up.

    Secondly, birthdays.

    Birthdays aren't really about yourself, they're more about the other people in your life. They come together, they work hard to throw you a party, make you a cake, take you to dinner and give you presents. It's a chance for them to look back on the years they've spent with you and reflect on how much worse they would have been if you'd never been born. Or maybe they're just going to get you drunk and draw a dick on your face.

    The point is - the point is - you the birthday person are a secondary character in this pageant. You don't really need to do anything except receive praise and gifts with gracious thanks (no matter what you're given), pretend to be surprised when people jump out from behind your furniture and otherwise stay out of the way. A birthday is something that goes on around you, it's not something you're necessarily the focus of.

    Par example: Marilyn Monroe singing 'Happy Birthday' to the American president. Everyone knows she did that. Everyone knows how it went. I'm damned if I know which president it was. I mention this, of course, because today is once again my brother's birthday and we have a yearly tradition of depicting him as saving lives and breaking hearts every Goddamn day. Now some of you may doubt that my brother rides around on a bike fighting aliens and delivering babies - for those of you who think that I have nothing but disdain, you blasphemers - but the reality of the situation is ultimately irrelevant. Whether real or not, portraying my brother as impossibly awesome on my website (i.e. the one with my name all over it), showboating more and more each time, sometimes taking as long as three months to finish a single comic page and basically using what is ostensibly a celebration of my brother as an excuse to showcase my own skills... well, it presents a contradiction. The first person to point this out to me was, of course, Matthew himself. Have you seen the episode of Futurama where Bender makes Nibbler a birthday cake? It's kind of like that, in a way. Are these epic comics about my brother more about my awesomeness than his?

    Well, let's look at the facts. My brother is taller than me, younger than me, prettier than me, smarter than me and more charismatic. I know I'm not the world's best cartoonist but whatever talent I do possess is the only talent I have at anything. I have never mastered a foreign language, I've never been able to act, I can't play any musical instruments. I can't even juggle. My brother has done all of these things and more. It is not just that he is better at acting than I am at drawing, it's that he is excellent in every area that I am inadequate. Breaking hearts? Whilst I gain weight and lose hair, he still has thick wavy hair and a muscly physique. By the time I was his age I had more grey hairs than I could count. Him? Not a one. How about saving lives, then? Oh, did I not mention he's training to be a doctor? He is actually going to be saving lives. Every. Goddamn. Day. Honestly, if the UFO thing turned out to be true would you even be surprised at this point?

    Am I jealous? Of course. Am I bitter? Not in the slightest. I have my talent at cartoons to keep the top of my head warm. Who needs hair? And Matthew deserves every moment of success and victory he gets. He's been my best friend for 21 years and he is one of those genuinely great guys that people want to get to know. Me, I get one day of the year to make a fuss and make fun of how much cooler he is. It goes some way to redressing the balance.

    This year finds the character of Matthew in some kind of cross between Victorian England and modern-day Vienna, and our hero has been on the road doing his thing for some time now. It's got to the point where he is doing so many awesome things he can barely keep track of them all.

    And you know what? 100% accurate. Don't you dare contradict me, Matthew. Today isn't about you.

    The Updates Keep Coming

    Posted 22:58 (GMT) 2nd July 2010 by David J. Bishop

    Whoop! Another comic is up. I hope everyone likes this new drawing technique I'm rolling out. This week I would like to show you something amazing.

    This is what my friends gave me for a birthday present. I finally got around to taking a picture:

    The original strip is here. I am so lucky.

    Resident Evil 5: I Hope You Like Negotiating Inventory Screens

    Posted 14:20 (GMT) 26th June 2010 by David J. Bishop

    I do and I still hate it. Sorry, more on that in a second. First of all: new comic. WAHEY! I did it again. This is very encouraging. Are you encouraged? I'm encouraged, man.

    The Strip

    Part two of the coffee monkey saga, then. As is often the case, the first of these two comics was written ages ago - specifically in the summer of 2009 whilst in a coffee shop where they really did get my order wrong - and then the second part came to me whilst I was drawing the first. It's complete coincidence that the misfortune that befalls the hapless barista is almost exactly the same as that which befell me last month. I wasn't pouring coffee but someone did make a complaint about me which was both completely untrue and entirely made out of spite - sadly it led to me losing the job.

    People always say you should write from personal experience. I always thought it was nonsense but maybe there's something to it in one way at least: if your writing doesn't reflect your experiences then your experiences may come to reflect your writing. Next time: coffee monkey wins the lottery.

    Oh, I almost forgot. This comic was drawn entirely freehand. When I first started back in 2005 I used templates to keep the characters consistent. At some point since then I have learnt to draw like a big boy. I think it looks better - I hope you do too.

    Resident Evil 5

    Well this will teach me to... buy games. I've never played any of the previous Evils, resident as they may be, but I picked this one up because I heard it had great co-op. And co-op is the best way to enjoy the Xbox experience, but it's also very rare. Most of the time I'm stuck playing Gears of War over and over again, and recently Left 4 Dead. So I really had to pick this up just so I would be able to play it with my ladyfriend. I wasn't familiar with Resident Evil but I knew what to expect - zombies, guns. This would be similar enough to Left 4 Dead for me to get my head around.

    Yeah, it's not.

    For a start it's not a shooter. Yes you have a gun, you have a number of guns in fact, but when you try to aim the camera doesn't switch to first person view or peer over your shoulder. No, a tiny red laser sight appears out of your third person character and you have to guide him as to where to shoot. And this is made incredibly difficult by the split screen in co-op. The screen isn't split as such, you just get two tiny screens adjacent to one another on your TV like it's Ocean's Eleven and your screen takes up about a quarter of the screen's total area, half of which is just devoted to black space. And let's not forget that Chris Redfield's meaty body takes up a generous portion of the view. And the enemies are very far away. So aiming is about as easy as directing your own mother to shoot the zombies. You're squinting past a guy at something far away that exists in a tiny box. I need to press my nose to the screen just to stand a fighting chance.

    And there are no crowds of undead racing towards you, just the odd zombie who will move towards you incredibly slowly but admittedly with a kind of deliberate menace, swinging a club or a butcher knife or something. It's no easier than Left 4 Dead though, because these guys take about five shots just to go down and then another six or seven just to stay down - and that's just the basic easy ones - so it's like killing ten Left 4 Dead zombies, just a lot less satisfying and a lot more irritating. And the pistol you use doesn't have unlimited ammo so you will run out of ammo.

    As annoying as that sounds, the only thing worse than running out of ammo is having ammo because there's this inventory screen that contains every physical object you will ever touch in this game from your bullets to your health sprays to the weapons themselves. I'm surprised my money doesn't take up a slot. It's like torture. The vast majority or playtime is spent fiddling with this damn thing, swapping things around, trying to decide if you need an incendiary grenade more than you need to heal. The inventory is a complete ball ache but if you have enough dedication and patience you can kind of trick it into working how you'd expect it to. Example: you have to select ammunition, open a drop-down menu, scroll down to 'Combine' and then select your gun in order to reload. And you have to do this every time you find a new object to pick up because it only has nine slots and the four guns you'll need and their ammo take up 8 of those slots. So if you want to lob a grenade or heal ever you'd better hope you run out of spare bullets fast.

    So besides inventory management, most of the game consists of moving from one end of the map to the next, opening doors to identical empty rooms, smashing boxes and barrels open to collect their goodies, collecting keys, inventory management, upgrading your weapons with the Gil - sorry - gold that you find, inventory management and I suppose surviving the occasional random encounter with the undead. Also there's some inventory management. So it's an RPG! It's just an RPG viewed through the lens of an incredibly cumbersome shooting game in which you can't hit the broad side of a barn.

    The cut scenes are the worst. I thought we were past this, guys. Cut scenes are for moving the story forward by having your character do something they can't do in the game. They are not there to just show the characters doing the same stuff I just did. I could do that. Just let me do it, game. Sometimes the game recognises this and let's you do stuff. There was a cut scene in which a truck hurtled towards me and my companion down a narrow bridge. No way to escape or retreat. Then the game dropped me in it without warning. Suddenly the truck really was coming towards us - in real time no less - and we had about 3 seconds to do something about it. But we didn't know what to do and the game hadn't told us. So we died and did it again. And died again.

    Then there was the scene with the bikes. Zombies on bikes were riding all over the place in this cut scene and I was just waiting for the game to plonk me down into the action again without any warning. But it never happened. Chris and his girlfriend Sheva just went to town on these guys, shooting them down whilst me and my girlfriend sat and watched them do it. Honestly, it looked like fun. I don't blame those two for not sharing. It's like pie - the only thing better than eating a pie is watching someone else eat one right in front of you and not letting you have any. Right?

    By the way, zombies can't ride around on bikes. This is bullshit. They're zombies for Heaven's sake. They're supposed to have reduced cognitive abilities. I don't care if they run or shuffle, if they're infected or undead, the definitive characteristic of a zombie is it's mindless. I could just about accept zombies wielding knives and clubs as they shamble around but I categorically do not accept zombies riding bikes, driving cars, throwing complicated explosive devices or operating gatling guns.

    That's like a vampire that doesn't drink human blood and can walk in the sun. You've defeated the whole point.

    Left 4 Dead

    Posted 16:24 (GMT) 11th June 2010 by David J. Bishop

    Sorry the comic is late. In brief: I moved house - that lost me about two weeks. I moved closer to work so I could do more overtime, but the overtime I was working left me with less time to work on the strip. This problem was solved quite neatly when I lost my job. The story behind that event can't really be told on what is supposed to be a comedy site.

    The Strip

    I always promised that I would never let my limitations as an artist hold me back from writing whatever comic I wanted to because if I limit myself to just the jokes that are easy to draw I'll never get better and you'd miss out on the jokes. So sometimes the strip falls behind on its update schedule while the art 'catches up' with the writing. Today's strip is a perfect example of that. I couldn't draw it – any of it. I had to painstakingly teach myself how every step of the way. I think I've grown as an artist as a result, so next time I need to draw a strip like this it won't take so long. David pushes his art, David grows as an artist, everybody wins. The only downside is that I look like a jackass for not updating the comic in the meantime. Well I did move house and then… other stuff. I'll put up some of the artwork on my Deviantart account in a little while.

    Left 4 Dead

    The visual storytelling in this game is perfect. There is no script and yet Left 4 Dead tells a beautiful and rich story of a post-apocalyptic America simply using the environment. And it's really scary as a result.

    You walk into an abandoned apartment. The kitchen floor is strewn with food, the fridge door is open, a frying pan sits empty on the hob, there is a small heap of clothing on the floor of the living room, newspapers and magazines are on the table, the television is still turned on but showing only static fuzz. The hallway outside is littered with dead bodies, about half a dozen. Downstairs a woman is lying face-down on her bed; she has been dead for days. Each one of these details is like a dot in an impressionist painting, giving subtle clues about what the people in these apartments were doing when the world ended - and whether they had time to cook some food and pack their belongings before they died. We're, what, two minutes into the game?

    The infected themselves tell a story of their own. They don't exist to run with single-minded stupidity at the camera as soon as you appear, like the Locusts in Gears of War. Some will run at you, others will just stand there ignoring you. Some sit in the middle of the floor, their heads bowed, almost thoughtful. Some stand slumped against the wall in attitudes of despair. Some just fight each other. Some puke their zombie guts out. Not only is it far more creepy and scary than if they just ran at you, it gives you some insight into what it's like being infected (it doesn't look like fun) and creates the impression of a deeper world that exists independent of your place in it.

    Then there's the graffiti on the walls. Easily ignored, often funny or nightmarish or heartbreaking – sometimes all at once. For example:

    "NO ZOMBIE IS SAFE FROM CHICAGO TED"

    and

    CLAUDE HUGGINS
    YOU ARE A COWARD
    AND YOU LET YOUR CHILDREN DIE

    Brrrrr!

    Then there is the Witch, who just sits and weeps. It's a sound as unearthly and monstrous as it is human and relatable. And you will hear that sound for a long time before you actually encounter the source – great racking sobs. She also tells a story of sorts, since you really have to question how much of her higher brain functions have been lost since she was infected if she's still able to cry. You feel sorry for at the same time as being terrified by her. You could cut the pathos with a knife, right up until the moment she stops boo-hooing and tears you in half. I think the Witch and Bioshock's Little Sister are two of the greatest video game characters of all time.

    Speaking of great characters, I couldn't mention Left 4 Dead without giving special mention to Zoey, who is that rare animal in video games: a female character who is neither a love interest for any of the male characters nor a cleavage-wielding Lara Croft action girl. Zoey is one the survivors, she just happens to have lady parts. She is heroic but never aggressively independent, she is often scared but never shrill, she is likeable whilst never really asking that you like her and attractive but never sexualised. This is the way female characters in video games should be. I would just like to say how disappointed I am that a Google Image search for reference pictures yielded so few screenshots of her and so much badly-made pornographic fan art, especially the ones that... make use of the Smoker's tongue. Yeah, it's gross. Shame on you guys. Not only have you missed the point entirely but also I threw up a little bit inside my mouth. I can never unsee that. I apologise on behalf of all men everywhere for my gender's tendency to ruin everything cool by getting a boner.

    For double points: a picture of Zoey making out with the Witch. That sound you hear is something wonderful inside me dying.

    Would You Kindly Click These Links?

    Posted 19:02 (GMT) 14th April 2010 by David J. Bishop

    Yeah I did.

    The Strip

    One of the advantages to making a blog post a week after an update is you can comment on the reaction to the comic in the same breath as drawing attention to it. A lot of people have been getting back to me asking me to explain the punchline. Listen, if you don't get it just wait for the next one. You'll get that one. I can't explain anything - as soon as I do it stops being funny. And if I write a comic that needs an explanation it just means I failed as a writer. A lot of people will scratch their heads over some non-existent joke they imagine is hidden in the last panel and which they simply can't perceive - to these people I say you're overthinking my work. Everything I want you to know is there on the page. If anything seems like nonsense to you it's probably supposed to be nonsense. I still want to thank everyone who fed back to me on this one, though - it inspired me to write a storyline that I'm really happy with. You'll know when it happens.

    Patricia Snook - Ace Photographer

    Patricia is someone whose website you're going to want to check out for the following reasons:

    1) It's a wealth of classy photos and detailed reference pictures, most of which are pretty girly. As such it's an invaluable resource for anyone creating art about/for women or for anyone who happens to be a woman. Or a man whose really into designer women's clothing. At first I didn't use any reference pictures because I thought of it as cheating but now I spend hours at a time slavishly researching designer clothes, pictures of different hairstyles, handbags - anything I know nothing about. Therefore this picture of pastel cream designer high-heeled shoes? My heart skipped a beat, I don't care how gay that makes me sound.

    2) She's very good at what she does and deserves recognition for her art. I remember when I first started my site and had no readership. I was just sending comics out into the ether to be read by precisely no-one. Now I have the opposite problem - thousands of people coming to the site and I'm updating fortnightly. Let's show our support for artists toiling in obscurity by checking out the awesome stuff they make.

    3) I really want to show off how numerous and loyal my readers are, as will be demonstrated by the huge spike in traffic on Patricia's Google Analytics account. I know you'll all support me in this goal, click this link and browse several pages deep into the site because when I ask my fans to do me a favour they always surprise me with their generous response. I know this time will be no exception.

    4) Somewhere on Patricia's website is a photograph of me as I appear in real life, the only publicly visible image of my face available on the internet. It was bound to happen sooner or later. Maybe after you see it you'll understand why I use my cartoon picture so much.

    DeviantART

    I have a DeviantART account now. I mean, I've had one this whole time but now I'm actually using it. I'm going to throw up some behind-the-scenes stuff, step-by-step tutorial things that show how I make the strip and I suppose any other stuff I draw that has no place on the site proper. Check it out, I'm updating it every other day right now.

    Twitter

    I also have a Twitter account. And I've had this one for ages too - I was doing it before it was cool. When the site updates hear about it first! Also hear whatever pops into my head at any given time. Song lyrics! Observations about life! Excruciatingly detailed reports of what I'm doing at that moment! It's enthralling. Hey, I just wrote a Twitter post about this very blog entry!

    There's a lot to digest here. Go away and look at those other websites. I'll see you bright and early next Wednesday with another new strip.

    Books, Beds and Beamish Boys Who Are Actually Nudist Blondes

    Posted 20:23 (GMT) 2nd April 2010 by David J. Bishop

    Okay, let's do this.

    Parish Notices

    So there's a new strip up in case you haven't noticed. It has, after all, been a week. I remember (way back when I was a good cartoonist) I used to update on Wednesdays. So the next strip should be up on Wednesday and then every fortnight after that while I try to build up a buffer. It's hard to believe I used to update twice a week. Maybe I can update with greater frequency after I finish moving house.

    I didn't mention this when the Ke$ha (urgh) comic went up because I was too busy explaining my long absence, wringing my hands, flagellating myself (that's the one with the whips, right?) et cetera ad nauseum but the strip might look a little different now. It's not something I want to make a big deal out of but, yeah, one of the things I've been doing while I was away is becoming a better artist. I bought this book by this guy, Tom Bancroft. He's got a history in animation, did a lot of work for Disney. It all started when I was listening to the hilarious Webcomics Weekly podcast and they answered a question submitted by this guy, Rob Lundy. Rob put this tutorial on his site (which is now gone) about drawing a cartoon head and he made a reference to giving the character appeal. Appeal is this quality cartoon characters need to possess, apparently. I had no idea what Rob was talking about. But he has a history in animation, too. It must be something animators learn, the secret knowledge passed down by their cartoon masters who sit cross-legged beneath cherry trees stroking their beards.

    It turns out that creating appealing characters is the goal of this thing called "character design", something I had never until that moment given any thought to. I just sort of drew my characters. I never thought about what I was doing. So I picked up a copy of Creating Characters With Personality to see what I was missing. And it was like having the top of my head unscrewed - the light rushing in, my eyes unfocusing, a flicker of a grin playing over my lips.

    It's hard to explain in a way that doesn't make me sound like a pretentious douche. There are my cartoons as they appear in my head when I'm imagining how the comic's going to look and then there's how they look on the page. There's a pretty big gap between those two. The image starts off in my brain looking perfect, travels down my arm into the pen and then onto the page, where it arrives with significant signal loss. I always thought that there was some kind of crap in my arm that was causing interference, like the clogged remains of some greasy meal I ate at a Burger King in 1998. Turns out I just needed this book. I need to sit down and think about things like shapes, references, lines, curves, anatomy, style, design. The gap is narrowing now - thanks to Tom Bancroft. Let's see what happens.

    Beds

    Did I mention I'm moving house? I went bed shopping today. Those sales people are sharks. They're cunning creatures who will do and say anything - anything - to get you to spend money that very instant on the nearest thing to you. I'm in a perfectly nice bed shop in town, I think it was called Kingmakers or Snoozemasters or something but I'm mindful that there's another one about five metres away on the other side of the car park. The woman opposite me in the purple uniform is singing the praises of springy beech wood slats and foam mattresses. With a slightly hungry look in her eyes she tells me her daughter has a bed just like it so, you know, she's treating me to the same deal she would give a loved one, her own young no less. I tell her beech wood is great, it's by far my favourite kind of springy wood, but I'm just going to head over the road to Slumbertime Dreamfactory or whatever the hell it's called and make a quick comparison.

    She winces, like I've physically wounded her, and makes a deep "Ooof!" sound. The kind people make when they get kicked in the stomach. "Oh, you don't want to go there," she says. "The cheapest bed they have is £600," (that would be about nine hundred of your Earth dollars) "and they charge you extra for the slats." Yeah and this one time? She went round the back of their store? She totally saw the manager - she shits me not - giving Satan a blowjob.

    "Satan," I say, "as in the Devil?" It sounds stupid coming out of my mouth even as I say it but I have to be sure I've got this right.

    "Beelzebub, Lord of Flies, Prince of Hell." She blinks.

    "I'm just going to have a look and come back in five minutes," I say.

    "Okay, as you wish. But you'll be sorry," she says. She stretches out that last word, starts widening her eyes and walking backwards out of the light as she says it.

    So over the car park in the other bed shop I ask the salesman about how much their beds cost. And do you know what? They're exactly the same price. No bloody difference at all.

    "So..." remembering the woman's warning I look for the catch, "...do I get slats for that?"

    "Of course! You get slats, you get the mattress, you get a 10 year warranty on the bed. You want pillows?"

    "Not really."

    "I'll throw in some pillows, free of charge."

    He even goes out of his way to show me a bunch of beds that are even nicer for the same money. These beds are the same price, just a lot comfier. His name tag says his name is Mark, he's the store manager. As I'm lying on the comfiest double bed I've ever seen in my life I glance at his mouth for traces of demonic seed. Nothing. So I guess the lady in the other store was lying the whole time.

    "Well of course she was lying," my brother says, "they're paid on commission."

    "I don't mind them bombarding me with numbers and packages and quoting how many thousand megacoils there are per mattress, but slandering their competitors? That's low."

    Mark laughs "I'm just here to help you I don't want to lie you. If I thought you should buy that bed over there I would just tell you. Don't though, it's not very good."

    There is something he says that strikes me as odd, though.

    "My daughter has this exact bed, you know."

    I smile. I suppose there are some lies I can tolerate.

    Alice in Wonderland

    Not a very good film. The new one, the Tim Burton affair. Alice returns to Wonderland after her childhood adventures there to find that Wonderland is very much a changed place. For a start Johnny Depp and Helena Bonham Carter are there because this is a Tim Burton film and he doesn't cast anyone else in anything he does. Christopher Lee, too. I want to know when it was that Christopher Lee became Tim Burton's pet actor. Does he just keep him in a little cage in his house and lets him out to make a cameo in every single Tim Burton film ever made. But everyone just accepts it because it's a Burton movie, like they accept the stripes on everything.

    "I'm going to make a Sweeney Todd film!" Mr Burton cries.

    "Okay," says the wary public, memories of The Corpse Bride still fresh in their minds, "what are you going to do to put your own creative mark on this musical?"

    "I'm going to make it stripy."

    In fact "I'm going to make it stripy" is probably the pitch he uses for every project he touches. It's his frigging modus operandi.

    So I did not have high hopes over what Tim Burton could bring to an adaptation of Alice in Wonderland, besides abundant stripes. Well for a start it's not an adaptation of Alice in Wonderland at all - which is just as well because that would be dull and un-filmable - but rather a much more action-packed effects-fuelled joyride through Wonderland - which they rename Smunderland or something to make it sound more like a fantasy setting - which is set a full decade after the original stories. Why then is it called Alice in Wonderland? I mean, I'm willing to accept that she is Alice and that in the film she is largely in Wonderland (or Sunderland or whatever they call it) but that title was taken. How about Return to Wonderland or Alice in Wonderland 2: This Time it's Stripy. This is just confusing, like Final Destination 4 A.K.A. The Final Destination.

    Secondly, why does Alice have to be so sexualised in this film? She's always growing out of her dress or shrinking herself out of it or ending up naked for no reason. It's hard to escape the idea that Tim Burton finds all this powerfully erotic. You know what it actually feels like? Fan service.

    And what's the plot? Something about a magic suit of armour which Alice has to put on and a Jabberwock that must be slain with a magic sword she must procure to fulfil an ancient prophecy. And I can only assume that after the evil has been defeated Alice will take her place on the throne of Wonderland like Conan the fucking Barbarian. Probably wearing about as much clothing too given her track record.

    So point A is the start of the film which has Alice falling down a rabbit hole and point B is Alice totally cutting the Jabberwocky's shit right the fuck off, and the film gets from point A to point B by visiting as many Lewis Carroll characters as possible along the way. We've got the Dodo, the White Rabbit, the Cheshire Cat (voiced perfectly by Stephen Fry actually), that caterpillar guy, the March Hare, the Queen of Hearts, the Dormouse - the whole gang are there. It's like they're running down a checklist of all their favourite characters in an effort to catch them all like Pokémon so they can be shoe-horned into a battle they don't really have any reason to fight... again, like Pokémon. But this is a battle against the forces of evil!

    Except I'm pretty sure the Cheshire Cat is evil. At least, I always thought he was in the damned animated film. Nightmarishly evil, like he would just start cutting you without any provocation and never stop. He seems to crop up a lot on people's lists of favourite Disney villains, at least. And, you know, he's purple. That's never a good sign. But here the Cheshire Cat is a good guy, chiefly because Tim Burton really loves the character. So all his favourite characters band together and become, like, super best friends and they totally defeat evil forever and it's awesome. But wait, there's more! You ever read the poem 'Jabberwocky'? They actually have a vorpal sword. And a Jubjub bird which flies around doing the bidding of the bad guys. And a Bandersnatch, which looks kind of like a really fat leopard except it too is evil. I guess he works for the Jabberwock or something? I don't know. But I think Tim Burton loves this character too because he totally become a good guy as well - just so Alice can have an epic mount for the final battle. And is it frumious? I tell you, it's the most frumious thing I ever saw.

    Yeah, no. It's imbecilic. This is the efforts of someone who really liked that there were made up creatures in this one poem called 'Jabberwocky' written by this guy who was apparently the J.R.R. Tolkien of mad Victorian mathematicians and decided to write an entire film around them. We get a completely arbitrary scene where Johnny Depp recites the damn poem (or rather bits of it) out of context and out of the right order (and if you've read my rant about it you too will have flashbacks to The Libertine). Then he says to Alice "It's about you." Is it? Is it, Hatter? So why is the line "Beware the Jabberwock my son"? And why does the whole poem refer to a "he", clearly the father's son, seeking out the manxome foe? Why does the father cry "Come to my arms my beamish boy"? It's about Alice, is it? She's the beamish boy? Is anyone else not buying this?

    This shit ain't canon. This is favouritism. This is one guy gushing self-indulgently about how awesome he thinks Alice in Wonderland is, using the characters like playthings and making them act out scenarios that this guy would love to see them in regardless of whether their characters would do it or whether this makes any sense in the context of the original work. There is absolutely nothing in that poem to suggest the vorpal sword is an epic sword of magic destiny which only the chosen one can wield. Also, the "frabjous day" evidently just means "fabulous and joyous" instead of a prophecised day of reckoning upon which jabberwockies must be killed. It doesn't make any sense. If you read the poem it's obvious that the day has become frabjous precisely because the boy has slain the jabberwock, not the other way around.

    This whole scenario reads like fan fiction. That's what this is. This is Tim Burton's Wonderland fanfic. It explains the fan service, it explains the weird Alice/Hatter shipping and it explains the arbitrary grouping together of characters to fit a purpose completely divorced from anything the original author intended. And I don't like it.

    That said, whilst I don't particularly like the story I have to admit from a purely design point of view the film is a triumph. The special effects, the settings and the characters are all gorgeous and there are some really strong performances here. I liked how Anne Hathaway's White Queen character glided through a kitschy world of vague insincerity. I liked how the Red Queen spoke and behaved in a bratty petulant lisp, even if it was just a shameless rip-off of Queen Elizabeth I from Blackadder II. In fact all the characters had one interesting quirk about them, from the Mad Hatter's bizarre and thoroughly off-putting habit of slipping into a Scottish accent to the March Hare's annoying tendency to throw things at the other characters. It's interesting how annoying it is, though! But that's as far as it ever goes, a string of one-dimension characters who all have a single tic each in lieu of any real motivation or backstory, a tic which ultimately feels so tacked-on that it may well have been drawn at random from a hat. Worse still the girl playing Alice couldn't act to save her life, poor thing.

    Finally I would like to announce a permanent ban on the use of prophecy in any story ever again until the end of time. It's lazy, it's arbitrary and it's frigging insulting. This film highlights exactly why.

    Alice arrives in Wonderland and is told straight away - like she's being stopped at customs to be given this information - that...

    a) there is a crazy monster and

    b) she and she alone can kill the wretched thing.

    Alice says something along the lines of "Why me?" to which the only answer is "Because the prophecy says so." This is the same answer given in every story where the writer wants a character to do something but there is no earthly reason why that character would do such a thing - in this case lop a monster's head off with a satisfying snicker-snack sound. So the author breaks the fourth wall and tells the character:

    "Listen, it's like this. I have you killing a monster on page 78 of the script so we both know you do it."

    "But," the character replies, "what's my motivation for doing that?"

    "Because it's in the script."

    "Yes, but I don't want to do that. I'm never going to do that."

    "You are, it's in the script and everything."

    There, that's your prophecy. Someone looked into the future and saw them do it so they have to do it. It is dictated by the plot! You are the chosen one (i.e. the protagonist)! The ancients said that you must place the sacred MacGuffin on the set of the final battle scene to end the film! Only then will the magical camera crew be banished from the set of destiny and the dread god Bur-ton will sleep once more.

    It's pointless. Cut it out. All of you, forever! It has been foretold you will start writing real plots for your stories. That's a good enough reason, right?

    Dollars Don't Belong in Names

    Posted 22:12 (GMT) 15th March 2010 by David J. Bishop

    Let's talk about Kesha. Sorry, Ke$ha which I choose to pronounce Ke-dollarsign-ha, voicing the final 'ha' as a haughty snort of contempt. So she's made a name for herself with a catchy little electropop ditty called 'Tik Tok', the title of which shows about as much contempt for the place letters have in a word as you can expect from someone called 'Ke$ha', and which I'm told is a daring white girl rap about having crazy party times but which sounds to me like a wino muttering incomprehensibly as they slide slowly but inevitably off a bar stool.

    It's all slurred speech and half-formed thoughts that only appear to hang together into coherent English if you're in the habit of not listening to individual words that make up a sentence. Hence "Tick tock, on the clock" - added I'm sure to clarify that we're not talking about some other item that might tick, such as a clockwork automaton or an old-fashioned bomb. Furthermore "boys", we are given to believe, are "blowing up our phones", which stops me dead in my tracks and creates vivid mental images of bundles of cartoon dynamite, furtive sniggering, plungers sinking into detonators and Ke£$%ha returning to her bedside table to find it littered with bits of smoking Nokia. The less said about Mick Jagger the better.

    So she wakes up feeling like P Diddy, does she? And we can all have hours of fun trying to guess what P Diddy feels like, something the internet has been doing to death no doubt whilst I have been away from my drawing table saving babies' lives and solving crimes.

    I care little for such trifles. My main concern is how one is supposed to go about brushing one's teeth with a bottle of Jack Daniels whiskey. I think when the first thing you do before leaving the house is pour a large quantity of spirits into your mouth, it's unlikely that you will get far. Ke-dollar-ha's reasoning behind her pouring the booze into her rap-hole is that when she's leaving for the night she ain't comin' back.

    Let's not mince words here: K3sha doesn't intend to return home that night. She's getting drunk now, specifically numbing the inside of her mouth in fact, to that end. She will arrive at a venue with no money, no means of getting a taxi home when she gets a little worse for wear - she's not going to spontaneously go home with someone if that takes her drunken fancy, it's literally her only option as soon as the evening begins. She's made a premeditated decision that she's going to wake up somewhere other than her own bed the next morning and she deliberately got herself "a little bit tiiiiiiiipssssshy" so as to heighten the experience (i.e. not remember any of it).

    The music video only serves to strengthen this narrative by showing Ke$$$ha waking up in a bath in someone else's house, using their toothbrush, brushing past photos of people she clearly doesn't recognise and generally looking non-plussed. She has no idea where she is or how she got there. Well, that's something every girl wants to experience upon waking up, right? That's something we should encourage. Let's write a little song about it.

    She stumbles downstairs to find a suburban household. The children react as if Santa Claus just walked into the room and, sure enough, she later gives them a bike for no reason, like a liqoured up white trash Babushka. Suburban housewife lady just drops her stack of pancakes in surprise clearly wondering more than Ke$ha what the hell she's doing in her house. Ke$ha just shrugs and honestly I don't know if she's saying "I have no idea where I am" or "Sorry lady, I probably fucked your husband."

    At the risk of sounding like a stuffy old housewife letting her pancakes crash to the floor, I'm going to go out on a limb and venture that something is wrong with this image. Ke$-HA cannot sing worth a damn and her whole shitck seems to be built around unironically appropriating elements of urban hip-hop culture (references to "po-pos" and "swagga" etc.) and repackaging them to sell to overenthusiastic teenage white girls living in the suburbs and shooting a music video in which she shows enough skin so that the stupid white men who apparently rule the world will give her a free pass. This is nothing new - so far so Pussy Cat Dolls. Where Ke$ha differs so drastically is that whilst her music industry peers seem determined to present themselves as cool, sassy and in charge - demanding that you loosen their buttonz or iniviting you to put a ring on it - Ke$ha herself just comes across as a loser.

    She wakes up hungover in a bath, immediately gets drunk, stumbles to a party where there is plenty of beer, jumps up and down, falls into people, gets very sweaty, is mindful that people are trying to touch her junk and then falls asleep in another bath like a homeless person curling up on park bench. Who thought this was a good idea? Who thought this was remotely cool? It's not just irresponsible in the usual sense, it's more sort of scary and dangerous and nihilistically bleak.

    I don't know what P Diddy feels like when he wakes up. If Miss Kesha is telling the truth and her lifestyle is anything like the grim picture she paints then I can only assume that P Diddy wakes up not knowing why he is sore in places.

    This Was a Triumph

    Posted 19:54 (GMT) 12th March 2010 by David J. Bishop

    Hey! I'm back! Do you hear me? I'M BACK! HA-HA-HA-HA-HA!

    How've you been? Well, it's been a crazy 5 months and 20 days on this end. I'm supposed to write funny things here but the story of my life for those past 171 days has been a little sad. That's not the sort of thing you write on a comedy site. But I owe you some kind of God-damn explanation for my behaviour.

    But that explanation involves a complete run-down of who I am, what I value and how I choose to run my life. It's a story of me hitting rock bottom and pulling myself out by my bootstraps. Whilst I'm not very proud of the situation I found myself, I'm incredibly proud with what I did from that point, the choices I made and the things I achieved even if one of those choices was to stop updating the site and achieve 0 updates. So here goes.

    Where The Hell I've Been All This Time

    This story actually begins further back than even last September when the machinery of my life ground to a halt and one last comic dropped off the conveyor belt. I suppose the story begins when I put the first strip up, blew through my 30 strip buffer running a thrice weekly update schedule and settled down into a long, uncomfortable hiatus. I was young and I was deeply embarrassed by how unfunny and badly drawn those first comics were. I wanted them getting out of the way as soon as possible, so ashamed was to have them on the homepage. I never actually considered whether it was a good idea to launch a comic strip at the time. I didn't imagine it would mean late nights or hard work or guilt or responsibility. I was a teenager then and responsibility was something I thought meant being sensible and not drinking too much.

    That's only part of it. Stuff like that is only responsibility for your own life as it relates to you. But in October 2008 I fell in love with someone in a way that I've never done before, someone incredible. I had always imagined that as crossing the finishing line but it's actually only the start of your problems - but what wonderful problems they are! - since now you have a huge burden of responsibility to get your shit together, not for your own sake anymore and not even because another person is in any way financially dependent on you but because it upsets that person to see you not having your shit together.

    I realised that I was no longer just responsible for my own happiness, that it was within my power to make my girlfriend unhappy just as much as it was within my power to make her happy, not directly but indirectly through how I ran my life.

    Here's where the story really begins. May 2009. And here's how I ran my life: I was late, I was disorganised, I was feckless and lazy. I didn't keep a budget so by the time I finished my university course I was deeply in debt, in possession of a big pile of nega-thousands, and looking for a job for the first time in three years. I couldn't find one. I hadn't been listening to the news at all but I was told by responsible adults I knew that there had been some kind of economic downturn (...?) and that this could affect my chances of getting a job. It did. I didn't get one. In your face hopes! Take that, plans!

    So I had no choice but to move back in with my parents and sign on for unemployment benefits. Not my finest hour. This was when my parents turned around and asked me if I had a business plan. This webcomic I was doing, was that making me any money? If not, when would it make money? How much? How many readers did I have? How many of them would be willing to buy a t-shirt with one of my humorous catchphrases on it? They were seriously considering that my new full time job could be cartoonist, and I realised how much this - four years (on and off) of work - had all just been a hobby.

    Luckily, we didn't have to find out how well Life on the Fourth Floor would pay the bills since I was able to get a minimum wage job as a waiter in the back end of nowhere. Well, I made good money there - not by being paid for what my time was worth but by putting in insane hours and seeing my friends never. It was hard work - straightforward but hard - and this lazy man-child felt the sting of sweat on his brow for the first time in a long time. It took sacrifice and never having a weekend off but within six months of starting this job I was able to pay off the entireity of my debt. I'm so sorry I didn't update the comic during those months. I really didn't have the time and I had until May before the bank would start charging me interest on my overdraft. These were desperate times - my friends missed me, my girlfriend missed seeing me on weekends, my family missed me. I needed to prioritise in the harshest way. I wasn't able to attend any gatherings because people always arranged them for Saturdays. I did an everage of four and a half hours of uninterrupted exercise a day. I lost about 2 stone in weight.

    I always liken my relationship with you guys to a couple. So I was seeing someone else for six months, a little someone called Minimum Wage Work following a brief affair with her younger sister Unemployment and received the odd sexual favour from their friend Debt. I suppose it would be incredibly trite, then, to say I was thinking of you the whole time. I did have a lot of time to think, though. Not just time to think about the awful mess I'd found/got myself in but to time to write and think about writing. I always carried a notebook in my apron pocket as I cleared plates and wiped tables. I filled it with countless comic strips and storyline ideas. I got to observe people in their natural environment, up close. I got to reassess my assumptions and make new ones. I learned a lot about writing from those six months spent not writing at all. That notpad in my pocket was my armour - it was my reminder that I was a writer who waits tables and not a waiter who writes. I'm not saying there's anything wrong with being a waiter or earning minimum wage. I loved my job, I decided that if I was to be a waiter I was to be the best damn waiter in the world and find manifold little ways to make people a little happier. And everyone there worked damn hard and deserved better - but employers don't pay what you deserve, they pay what they can get away with paying. It's not like we could hav complained to the waiter's union.

    So I took a break from the strip - from us - to claw myself up from being an unemployed graduate with scary debt to a lean working man with a good credit rating who apologises to no-one. I'm not going to lie to you: this was a dark period in my life. For all I knew I was never going to escape. It upset my girlfriend to see me squander my time and energy to earn the absolute bear minimum a company can pay. It upset my parents to think that I might be living with them for goodness knows how much longer. It upset me when I realised how I had let them down more that myself. It was humbling to realise how much people expected of me, how much they thought I could achieve and it was heart-breaking to realise I was falling short.

    I started to look for another job - I made it my full time job to escape my current full time job. So again, no comic. I applied everywhere and finally got an interview for a tech support job. Good pay, good hours, no weekends. Helping people. I started in Febuary. It's been a little over a month now and I'm all settled in.

    The story doesn't end there, of course. Now I have another task ahead of me: I need to find myself a home. Yesterday I applied to rent a flat near where I work. I had to pay a hefty administration charge just for the privilege of getting my foot in the door - now whether I pass the credit checks and references or not I've lost the money either way. I'm told this is normal and unavoidable. It still hurt.

    Still! I've gone from having a huge unmovable debt to being able to rent a place of my own within 10 months! And all it took was to lose touch with all my friends and let the dust gather on Life on the Fourth Floor. Now I realise why most webcartoonists wait until they're 24 to start their first comic. You can't start a business on no money and you can't consistently update a creative project when life gets in the way, as it has so often done in these in-between years. Not having a life but getting one, building one up from nothing using only abstract things that lurk within your soul.

    So the process began in May. It's goal? Become the sort of 24-year-old cartoonist who can earn money worknig a day job and draw comics during the weekends he finally has back. It took time. Too much time. It was a full time job. Actually it was 5 full-time jobs:

    1. Finish degree

    2. Look for job to pay off debt

    3. Look for job so as not to be unemployed

    4. Work as a waiter

    5. Look for a job that isn't work as a waiter

    6. Look for flat

    I'm still waiting to find out if this flat is going to be my home or if men in suits have essentially mugged me. In the meantime, enjoy a new strip. I'd like to say there will be more on the way, soon. There are certainly hundreds of scripts in the pipeline waiting to become finished pages. I'd like to say there'll be a regular update schedule from now on - but I'm through disappointing you. I need to take some responsibilty. I need to acknowledge that people expect things of me. They expect great things. I can feel sick and scared by those responsibilities and run away and play video games or I can meet those expectations head-on. I'll leave it up to you to guess which of those I'm going to do: I promise you nothing.

    "Don't we get to be happy, Cathy? At some point down the line. Don't we get to relax without some new tsuris to push me yet further from you?"

    Wong Lo Kat

    Posted 01:48 (GMT) 23rd September 2009 by David J. Bishop

    Woah, I had this crazy dream last night that I was a cartoonist and I had some kind of web...site. Oh! Here it is. And there's an update on it, ladies and gents. It turns out I am really terrible at being a cartoonist. I suppose it's only been six weeks since I started my job. It feels like a lot longer. I'm getting better. Time for the parish notices:

    Parish Notices

    I haven't updated the website in over a month, which is a source of much humiliation and pain for me, to say nothing of the guilt. Oh the guilt!

    I spend a lot of odd hours during my working day writing comic strips, though. There are certainly more strips to come and hopefully at a faster rate. This would all be a lot quicker if I had one of them fancy Cintiq thingies but what's more imporant right now is paying off my bank and paying my rent. Responsible adult things that a responsible working adult does.

    Basically, I'm trying to work hit my stride both update-wise and waiter-wise, simultaneously. I've made an Excel spreadsheet that lists how many waking hours there are in the day, how many of those I will spend at work and from what's left over how much time I'll have to draw. Of course I don't spend those hours drawing, I spend them recovering from having worked or preparing myself for when I will be working or spending time with loved ones. The people I love, it turns out, are really needy. Sometimes I miss being a creepy hermit with no social skills whatsoever (i.e. David aged 12-16).

    I don't really know what to do right now, how to deal with this situation - whether it will get better over time or worse. I'm seriously toying with the idea of starting up a second comic with a really pared-down art style so that I can have something updating daily and keep Life on the Fourth Floor ticking over like the good little time-consuming sitcom it is when I have the time - about once a month it seems. If not a comic then some kind of Youtube animation thing with little drawings I made in it - or rants with pictures put in. I need to get myself out there as a writer and a cartoonist if I'm to have any hope of escaping the life of being a waiter. If you have any thoughts on the matter, I would love to hear from you. E-mails, forum, whatever. You know, weigh in, guy.

    Now onto more fun matters.

    Wong Lo Kat

    The comic is based on true events. I didn't buy 84 cans like Bob, but I did decide it might be a good idea to crack open a can of Chinese soft drink. It would be unfair to say that Wong Lo Kat tastes like cats. It actually tastes like really bad medicine that someone has tried to sweeten with everything but sugar. It's deeply unpleasant. That'll teach me to try to broaden my cultural horizons. My Chinese friend says it's nice warm. I refuse to believe that warm goblin piss is somehow nicer than cold.

    Anyway, I kept the can for the sake of reference. Allow me to quote some of its text:

    "Made from select herbal ingredients using advanced scientific technique based on traditional recipe, suits all ages."

    Gee, it's cutting edge science and ancient tradition all in one? Why did I buy this in the first place?

    Healthcare Reform

    Hey, we have free healthcare for everyone in this country. Yes, it's socialist. You know what socialist means? Sharing. Instead of some system by which 5% of the populace control 95% of the country's money. The NHS is great. The fixed my hernia right up, and whipped out my appendix. And these operations occured when I was at my poorest, when I could have least afforded any other kind of treatment.

    It's a really great system, actually. Instead of paying money to an insurance company (and everyone hates insurance companies), you just pay that money to the government and then everyone gets treated. What happens to your insurance if nothing ever happens to you? Do you get your money back? No. Yet if I don't get hospitalised at least someone else can be filling that bed, someone who needs it. And nobody walks the halls killing old people, either. I don't know where you guys heard that. Affordable healthcare does not equal pensioner murders.

    If America is really the land of the free, surely the people should have the freedom not to die from easily-treatable illnesses?

    Regina Spektor

    I'm going through a crazy Regina Spektor binge. I had heard of her but not heard any of her music until about two weeks ago - which is a shame since Spektor is everything I look for in a musician, now I need to make up for years of not listening to her music. Listen to 'Us', 'Dance Anthem of the 80's', 'Hero' and 'Folding Chair' and think to yourself: those songs were all written and performed by the same person. Not only is incredible that one person can consistently produce so many excellent things, they are so different from one another that it's actually hard to believe you're listening to the same artist. Most mainstream artists - like U2 - tend to make the same song over and over. Especially U2. At least Blackberry loves them, because I'm getting really sick of their nonsense.

    The Violet Water Beast

    What can I say about the Violet Water Beast? Sometimes creative people are friends. Sometimes they meet through their work, swap notes at conventions or at Universities and become fast friends via their art. Sometimes they start off as friends because of some strange psychological kinship they possess and sort of become artists by responding to one another's creativity, they inspire each other to do whatever they end up doing.

    My good friend Khelden Iituem is one of the latter. Yes, we both write, we both draw, we both have websites. But we were friends first. Iituem is his pen name, by the way. I'm not going to blow his mystique by outing him as a Brian or a John when he clearly wants people to call him Khelden. We spent a large chunk of our time as young men strolling around talking to each other about whatever project we had been cooking up last, bouncing ideas off each other, creating whole universes repleat with gods and heroes and strange creatures. Those were some good times, some of the best times (wait, wasn't I a creepy hermit then?). We've cultivated a kind of weird rivalry as well, based upon one man trying to constantly out-do the other in his life achievements.

    Now we are both men, our creative lives have split off into different directions. I am spending my time writing comic strips about how women and men are different, Khelden has become a kind of cross between Charles Dickens and J. R. R. Tolkien writing serialised speculative fiction. This isn't particularly surprising, with a name like Iituem what other genre was he going to be writing? The part I don't get is, at what point did my best writer friend become a better writer than me?

    Whilst I struggle to produce a cartoon in the space of a month, Khelden is knocking out a thousand words or two every two or three days like frigging clockwork. That puts me to shame already, then you read the story itself. The story - or should I say novel? - is called The Goatskin Usgar. It's set in an immersive fantasy world with an impressive level of authenticity and cleverness in its construction, full of maginificent little detials which never put you in a moments doubt that this is an entirely real, living, breathing world you are reading about. The characters are well-observed and subtly characterised. The story is compelling and rattles along at a terrific pace.

    Go back to the first part of the story, catch up, and you will see how the 35 (and growing) chapters come together to form something truly impressive in its breadth and scale. Everyone who likes good literature, especially those who crave science fiction and fantasy, deserves to read this.

    This is actually one of the hardest things I've ever had to write. The truth is I'm more than a little jealous of him - we've come from the same place, we've gone through many of the same experiences, lived the same number of years and yet that time has gone towards making me into a waiter and making Khelden into some kind of genius storyteller.

    You may think it's easy for me to praise the man. Sure, he may be my friend. Sure, I might be doing him a favour directing your attention to his site but that hasn't stopped me from refraining from doing so until now. That's because I'm not offering any free rides here. I'm trying to set myself up as a voice of integrity that you can trust. If I tell you something sucks, I want you to be able to believe me. When I tell you (500) Days of Summer is the funniest film I've seen all year I want that to mean something. The harsh truth is that I refuse to stick my neck out and recommend something to you unless I believe it is worth your time.

    So when I tell you that Khelden Iituem is one of our generation's greatest fantasy writers, I want you to know I'm not saying that because he's my friend. In fact, that just makes it twice as hard to say.

    Maybe it's the silly pen name.

    Pimp Juice

    Finally, pimp juice. I think this song is adorable. It's absolutely, unapologetically ridiculous.

    Gravy Train

    Posted 23:58 (GMT) 31st July 2009 by David J. Bishop

    Great news, everyone! There's a new strip up. That's not the news. Maybe it should be - I don't know when the last time I had two strips up in the space of one week was. Anyway. I have a job now! That's the news.

    I didn't make a big deal out of the fact that I've been unemployed for the past two months or so. For a start I didn't want to bum you guys out with my financial woes and more to the point I didn't want to fob you off with cheap excuses for not updating. I just finished a shift that went from 10:30 this morning to 9:30 tonight and ironically I have more time to work on the comic than I did before - because before my full time job was to apply to as many jobs as possible and thus the shifts were infinity long.

    I've managed to get a job working as a waiter at a carvery. People get themselves roast meat and potatoes with gravy, I clear away the plates and fetch them dessert. It's actually ideal for me because it allows me to get plenty of exercise working to help people. I've never had a job where the effort-to-client-happiness formula was so apparent. I used to collect credit card debt. People called in confused, I explained where their money went and the fifty petty ways this action complied with corporate policy, they went away angry. In this job people come in hungry, they leave full. I bring them pudding. You set pudding down, child's face lights up. It sounds stupid, but I feel good about having done that. It's a simple equation. I like it. I run round being as friendly and helpful as possible, the customers leave all clean plates and big smiles. It's like I'm working in Father Christmas's workshop and every day is Christmas. If Santa served Christmas dinner. I guess it doesn't really work as a simile.

    It's my second day. Maybe Christmas every day for a year would drive you crazy. Me? I'm just happy to be earning money. And I earnt about £12 in tips today! Just for being friendly and doing my job! The only downside is that after spending 11 hours surrounded by hot starch I come home smelling of gravy. I don't mind. That £12 puts me closer to buying my own webspace by a considerable margin. It's all gravy now.

    You know, if you guys wanted to throw anything into the tip jar...

    Matthew: 20 Years of Awesome

    Posted 06:20 (GMT) 27th July 2009 by David J. Bishop

    Today is my brother's birthday, and once again we mark the occasion by seeing what kind of adventure he has been having since we last left off in a special strip. Actually, this time the phrase 'comic strip' might be something of an understatement. This is a hyper-detailed action epic. My drawing hand really hurts.

    As is the yearly tradition, I am required to reflect upon the real-life Matthew's excellence and supernatural might as it exists separate from the strip. I have already suggested that Matthew is a kind of cornerstone for the site itself. Did you know I started the strip four days before his birthday so I could wish him many happy returns on the internet? That makes Life on the Fourth Floor a kind of birthday present.

    I bet you didn't know that the representations of Matthew's awesomeness are based on real life events. He can lift a car over his head. He has been known to make the wind change direction by cocking his eyebrow and to sing the song that makes rocks dance. I once saw him bring a dead mouse back to life with his bare hands. It was humbling.

    Today he is twenty, no longer a child but undoubtedly a man. A man who is awesome. Many happy returns, brother. Thank you for saving our planet all those times.

    Four Years of Four Floors

    Posted 18:02 (GMT) 23rd July 2009 by David J. Bishop

    I do this every year and I always struggle to write this post. Two days ago I sat in a building called the Great Hall, which looks exactly as Harry-Potteresque as it sounds, nervously waiting for my name to be called out. I was terrified something might go wrong, that I would trip or do something inappropriate. Someone said something about bowing. Wait, you're supposed to bow? Or do you just shake hands?

    They finally called my name, I stood up before a large hall full of my peers and their families, and my own family, dressed in black and green robes and accepted my degree. In the end I shook hands and did a little bow as well. Apparently I looked happy. Then it was all over, that one day symbolising the culmination of a three year course.

    I have an upper second class bachelors in English now. What have I learned? I've learned a lot about writing, mostly about ways of thinking, a great deal about storytelling. Really I've learnt why people tell stories - and why I tell stories. For me it's a kind of therapy, although the goal of therapy is to collect the conflicting parts of the psyche and fuse them into an individuated whole, whereas I separate the different parts out as much as I can, give them different hats and make them have arguments for the purposes of entertainment.

    I make the comic so I can be happy, not really because I'm entertaining you but more because it's something I have to do, as a fish needs to swim or a pigeon needs to crap on a car. Then there have been the moments when I haven't been able to work on the comic, not because of lack of time but because of lack of juice - creative juice sapped by having to write such things as dissertations or exam papers. It's been rewarding and deeply fulfilling to spend three years working on a course that has not just stimulated my intellect but also my imagination, but this comes at a price. Especially towards the end, my higher responsibility to my degree has prevented me from spending as much time drawing as I would have liked. Life on the Fourth Floor has never been far from my thoughts, and I have certainly managed to script enough comics in the past three years to keep my busy for another ten years of updates.

    But let's not get ahead of ourselves. Today Life on the Fourth Floor is four years old. It's an incredibly exciting milestone, since it coincides with so many other changes in my life. For the first year of the comic my gap year was a thorn in my side, since I had to work hard to earn enough money for university. For the next three years updates were constantly hampered by my workload. Now that obstacle is cleared, now I am free to take my life in whatever direction I choose to. The best time to start a webcomic would really be today, now that I'm old and wise enough to do it properly, and unburdened enough to create an update schedule I can stick to. But I started early. The updates may have been sporadic, even intermitent, but I've managed 168 comic strips each of which I am exceptionally proud. In addition to a degree, we've been through two hospital operations, a recession, three birthdays, countless changes to the visual and verbal style of the comic itself and along the way most of my hair has fallen out.

    All that was a freebie. That was a bonus. Now the real work begins. I've had a ceremony and I've been given a piece of paper - it's a rite of passage, a sort of symbol acted out and to me represents this: I am not what I was before. I am no longer a student. Today I am something else: I am a cartoonist! Anything else I do with my life from this day forward will be in service to that truth - any money I earn will be money that allows me to keep running this site, any skills I learn will be skills I need to make this comic better, any investments I make will be in books and shirts and web hosting.

    Now it's time to get serious and make this comic strip into something remarkable. No longer a hobby, no longer something to feel guilty about not working on but a job. The job I've wanted to do since I myself was four years old. I hope you'll stick around to watch the transformations take place. Now all that remains is to repeat the same sentiments as before. Please stay tuned, something is about to happen.

    I'm Sorry, I Really Wanted to Like Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen

    Posted 23:11 (GMT) 11th July 2009 by David J. Bishop

    Boy do I feel stupid. Because I actually quite liked Transformers. Yes it was noisy and frenetic, yes it had moments of stupidity, yes Director Michael Bay seemed more concerned with blowing up as much as possible rather than such things as character development and plotting but if you are of a certain disposition I'm still almost certain there's a lot to love there.

    Maybe not that certain. Maybe I need to rewatch that piece of crap.

    But surely creating an imaginative action sequence with giant automatons kicking ten kinds of robotic shit out of each other is a kind of art form in its own right? I mean, robots! That turn into vehicles, by the way. Isn't that cool?

    Somehow, Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen is not cool, in the same way that getting kicked in the back when distracted is not cool. I initially quite liked the title, because I've never really cared for this tradition of calling sequels the same title as the last film but shoving a number on the end. Spider-man, Spider-man 2, Spider-man 3. Because I have said in the past that a title should answer the question of "What is this film about?" and the film is not about "Spider-man 3", in fact that doesn't make any sense. I quite liked it in Blackadder, because each sequel was really a reimagining of their original premise in another period of history, in which case it was quite literally about Blackadder II (as in Blackadder the Second), dealing with the exploits of the original Blackadder's descendant. And the final chapter Blackadder Goes Forth struck me as particularly clever. You never see this naming convention in books or plays. The sequel to Joseph Heller's masterpiece Catch-22 is not Catch-22 2 or something retarded like Catch-23 - it's called Closing Time. Because there's absolutely no reason to give a sequel the same title as the previous work - or any kind of hideous subtitle that somehow incorporates that number like Escape 2 Africa or 2 Fast 2 Furious.

    So the fact that the sequel to Transformers was not called Transformers 2 initially struck me as a classy move. Then I found out what the title meant. I just assumed that 'the fallen' was an adjectival noun, like 'the bold and the beautiful' or 'the good, the bad and the ugly'. No, the title refers to some guy who is literally called The Fallen. That's his name. Well, fuck me hard. Incidentally, he (spoiler alert) never does get his revenge, so the title actually refers to the hypothetical revenge, never realised, of a robot literally named The Fallen. And, sadly, it only gets more bone-headed and confusing from there.

    The story concerns Shia Lebeouf's character Sam Witwicky getting an alien computer stuck in his head Chuck-style and then he flips out and draws these strange alien glyphs everywhere and then some more stuff happens which I can only assume follows on from what came before. I can't just sit here and list everything that was wrong with the film. I did that with My Best Friend's Girl and my brain began to dribble out of my ears. Instead I will pick a single moment - from another film - and reflect upon its relative merit in light of Revenge of the Fallen.

    There is a scene in Independence Day when the American military comes up with a plan to defeat the alien threat and then there follows a montage of various people from around the world getting wind of this daring stratagem. There is a shot of some beret-clad Frenchmen wearing stripy shirts, smoking little cigarettes and wearing onions round their necks discussing the Americans' plan, then there's a shot of some British soldiers receiving the message. One soldier says "The Americans have a plan," to which the other replies "It's about bloody time." Because without America the entire civilized world would just sit on its hands looking glum. Yes, there is no French resistance, there is no British blitz - everyone has just been patiently waiting for the states to save their arse like in WW2 - thank God they did. That moment always rankled me. Well, compared to the kind of aggressive patriotism exhibited in this film, that little moment of xenophobia feels like caring multiculturalism.

    For example, as we are told during the first 10 minutes of this masterpiece in a heavy-handed chunk of 'tell don't show' exposition delivered entirely in voice-over, as if we're watching a PowerPoint presentation delivered by Optimus Prime (which sounds really cool but it's really just annoying), the American military has teamed up with the Autobots to track down Decepticons. (It's very important that we learn this information because it proves vitally important later on and isn't just an awkwardly-inserted action sequence which should have been cut from the picture in any kind of sane world). And as a result the American government speaks to these alien robots on behalf of the entire fucking planet. It's like the film is bellowing into your face "YEAH! AMERICA!" Then later we see a robot attacking a bridge. I say 'attacking', it really just climbs onto the bridge and snaps off the little American flag. "OH NOS THE STARS AND STRIPES! AMERICA!" Sam Witwicky's parents visit France for their holiday, which is represented by:

    1. Eating some snails, which are apparently disgusting (and undoubtedly no match for a cheese burger)

    2. Being annoyed by a mime artist, who gets right up in their grill while they're trying to eat

    Then some Parisian architecture gets destroyed, but not in a way that makes us care. "YEAH, FUCK YOU FRANCE AND YOUR SO-CALLED 'DELICIOUS' FRENCH CUISINE! AMERICA!" Weirdly enough Shia Lebeouf's surname is actually French for 'the beef' and his father spent time as a mime artist, so maybe this wasn't a snippet of venomous anti-French sentiment but really just an elaborate effort on Michael Bay's part to make Shia Lebeouf cry.

    Yet we can't ignore the fact that the last quarter of the film is concerned entirely with running around Egypt destroying as much of its ancient architecture as possible, but as before we aren't encouraged to care. At one point the Jordanian military flies in to help fight the evil robots but their aircraft gets destroyed and all the soldiers die. The only reaction from the other characters is an expression of mild disappointment, as if they've been inconvenienced quite badly by those foreigners dying. So again, the film doesn't want us to care. We're supposed to weep bitterly when an American aircraft carrier is destroyed or when a robot snaps off a flag but when an Egyptian pyramid gets destroyed we're supposed to cheer? Quite a large amount of death and destruction and brutal violence is depicted, the equivalent of about 90 terrorist attacks, only it's shot in the most detached manner imaginable. We can't have a moment's reflection, we can't have a shot of people screaming before their lives are snuffed out, we're just not supposed to care. At all. This must be how psychopaths see the world.

    Furthermore, there is a comic relief character, a Mexican named Leo, who serves no purpose in the film whatsoever except to be as annoying as possible and to be humiliated and harmed in as many ways as the 12A rating will allow. He is so painfully irritating and so grotesquely unsympathetic he makes Jar Jar Binks look like Han Solo. And he's Mexican. Meanwhile if any of the white characters experience so much as a moment's peril we are supposed to be on the edge of our seats. I'm not saying, I'm just saying.

    Oh shit, I almost forgot Mudflap and Skids, two goofy robots who are unable to shut up, do nothing but get in the way and prove to be utterly useless at every turn. They have ears that stick out. One of them has a gold tooth. And they say the most stereotypically 'street' things imaginable like "I'ma pop a cap in yo' ass." I half expected one of them to say "n***a please" at some point in the film.

    Casual racism aside, what else does this film have to offer? Tasteless, unfunny moments of 'comedy'? I suppose we covered that, although I'd kick myself if I didn't mention that there is a shot of giant robot testicles in this film. Hmmm... how about story elements and subplots that don't make any sense? Mild spoiler here, there is a character called Alice who is a student at Sam's college. Unlike the Mexican guy, she is white and therefore has a purpose in the film. Alas, she is also a girl so her purpose is to show as much skin as possible and throw herself at Sam with all her might. At first I thought Sam possessed some supernatural ability to attract women so far out of his league he shouldn't physically be able to stand in the same room as them but it turns out she's actually an evil robot spy whose job is to... ruin Sam's relationship with his girlfriend by trying to have sex with him. Yes, apparently the, ahem, ins and outs of Sam's love-life are of the utmost importance to the extra-terrestrial sentient machines. My brother saw the film with me and he was under the impression that Alice was there to steal the alien glyphs, which the Decepticons want to get their hands on... for some reason. Certainly, they go to a lot of trouble to get these glyphs, going as far as probing Sam's brain via his nose just to project the glyphs onto the adjacent wall. If they could do that all along it begs the question of why they sent a sexy fembot to get the glyphs instead of the probe. Furthermore, if Alice's mission is to get these glyphs she doesn't need to seduce Sam at all because he keeps writing the glyphs down on every available surface, right in front of her. Like, two or three times. No need for probes, no need for alien robot seduction. Just copy them down. Since she shows no interest in the glyphs I can only conclude that her primary mission is to break Sam and his girlfriend up. She's certainly there at the college before Sam realises his brain is full of glyphs, before he even arrives, so for this to make any sense at all it would have to indicate an incredible amount of foresight on the part of the Decepticons. More foresight than, say, the writer or director showed when they sat down to film this part of the movie.

    Sadly, the prize for most thoughtlessly nonsensical character has to go not to Alice but to Jetfire, an old man robot. He has a long beard and a cane. How does that even work? Machines can age now? Age like humans age? They need canes? Really? I don't know why I'm expecting this to make any sense, when we already have a robot double in mass whilst raping a satellite (really), then shooting another robot out of his ass which lands on the Earth as a cycloptic robot cat skeleton. Then the cat robot vomits a load of ball bearings into a vent. Then each ball turns into a little bug robot. Then all the little robots combine into a bigger robot, which is two-dimensional for some reason. It's like one of those Russian dolls, except that each doll is slightly larger than it should be and the doll it came out of isn't hollow. Doesn't conservation of energy mean anything to these robots? If they can just duplicate themselves like that, if they can just double in mass inexplicably, why don't they multiply into a frigging army of machines and take over the planet? Screw this espionage shit, just increase your ranks until you outnumber human beings one million to one. To further flout basic concepts of space and mass, at one point an object breaks into a million pieces, some of those pieces are gathered up and carried miles away and then reform into a whole object again. It's not even smaller, it just grows somehow. It still has some fragments of itself clinging to it. So apparently you can break something apart, lose half the pieces and then reassemble it exactly as it was before it broke.

    Let's make a list of things that can turn into robots in these films. Things that come out of robots turn into robots. Things that come out of those robots can turn into robots. Those robots can turn into a robot. Large robots can combine into a giant robot. Bits that break off the large robots can turn into little robots. Household appliances such as toasters, hoovers and waste disposal units - even vending machines - can randomly just turn into robots. "YEAH! TAKE THAT, LAWS OF THERMODYNAMICS! AMERICA!"

    And each of these robots can turn into other robots, cars, planes, trucks, cranes, mobile phones and, yes, even human beings. Why take the form of anything as conspicuous as a hydraulic mining excavator or an Audi R8 if you can just break yourself apart and turn into a load of harmless mobile phones? Why bother with any of that nonsense if you can assume human form? How would anyone ever know? Then, once you've seamlessly integrated yourself into the human populace kill them all since they seem so good at ruining your evil schemes. Just slaughter them all. Disguised as their parents. Another great idea: if you're disguised as a human and then the other humans find out you're a Decepticon, turn into something else so they don't kill you. Turn into one of the humans, so they turn on each other and don't know who to kill. Turn into a human and then kill him and take his place, like the T-1000. Or turn into a tank and run them all over - none of the other robots worry about things like energy and mass, why should you? Don't just stumble around in robot form. There's no point adopting a disguise at all if you just discard it at when you need it most. And don't bother with your old disguise - they already know you're not a real human. Just give up the charade and tear their heads off.

    You'd think a species that has a computer for a brain would be a little more logical, wouldn't you?

    In addition to hot girl robots and old man robots and Optimus Prime we have a whole load of generic decepticons who all look exactly the same. Optimus is red and blue so you can pick him out fairly well. Everyone else is grey and interchangeable. So, during the hours of robots fighting other robots, it becomes impossible to tell who you're supposed to be rooting for, who's killing whom, whether they're good or evil or what they were before they transformed. Even if you figure out what's happening there's not much plot, so you don't know why it happened in the first place or what was achieved. Add to that the fact that all of the robots' character designs save that of Optimus Prime and Megatron consist of triangular shards of metal forming themselves into the shape of eyebrows and lips around free-floating eyes. Also the Decepticons all have sharp little teeth. Not metal teeth either, tooth enamel. What are they eating with these teeth?

    While we're asking questions, why do the Decepticons spend half their time speaking English and the other half speaking their own special alien language which requires subtitles? Why do they refer to Megan Fox as 'the female' but they have a good enough understanding of the nuances of human society to:

    1. Pose convincingly as humans and discuss the intricacies of human relationships

    2. Grow beards

    3. Possess testicles

    4. Call a dog "slobberpuss"

    5. Threaten to pop a cap in someone's ass

    Not only does the tone of the robots' conversation shift erratically from otherworldly to inappropriately colloquial, the tone of the film shifts just as violently from deadly serious to obnoxiously zany and irreverent. And there's nothing in between, no happy medium. We're either grimly defiant in the face of annihilation, masturbating to the stars and stripes wafting in the breeze while patriotic bugle music plays in the background or we're guffawing as cartoonish Mexicans get taser-shocks to the neck and goofy jug-eared robots exchange the kind of undignified jibes that would make a Saturday morning Disney spin-off cartoon character cringe.

    So the film doesn't make any sense on a script level either, and thus the viewer must endure such assaults on the active mind as this little nugget of wisdom, said of the Autobots by a soldier: "If we were made in God's image, who made them?" Who indeed, sir? Who indeed? That's probably the most asinine observation you could make about a transforming space robot. How about this one? At the end of the film Sam comes up with a plan to save the day. He does it after a particular piece of alien technology does something unexpected. He had no idea it would do what it did before he touched it and now that it's done it he has no idea what to do about it. He doesn't know how this technology works but he comes up with a plan nonetheless, a plan which amounts to "take this one thing and rub it on another thing in the hope that magic happens". He has no way of knowing if that plan will work, and considering the sheer stupidity of the plan I would say the odds are that it will not. The dialogue proceeds as follows:

    Sam: It'll work, I know it will.

    Megan Fox: How do you know?

    Sam: Because I believe it.

    That's not just really bad dialogue, it doesn't make logical sense. What he meant is this:

    Sam: It'll work, I know it will.

    Megan Fox: How do you know?

    Sam: Okay, I don't actually know. But I have a hunch. An unjustifiable hunch. Let's do this.

    There is a kind of disease infecting American thought, and I have found this only in America I'm afraid, which can be summarised as the equation of knowledge with belief when in fact they are two different things. It crops up a lot in arguments made by creationists against the Darwinian model of evolution, as in the phrase "I used to believe that God made evolution. Now I know God made us in 7 days." Belief is not knowledge, in fact belief is what you end up with when you don't have enough evidence to know anything, in which case saying you know is at best an assertion and as worst an outright lie. It's a little thing called Plato's image of the divided line. Bear in mind as you read this that it was written about 300 years before Jesus was even born and that Plato's words have formed the foundation of natural philosophy, science, and Western philosophy, both Christian and non-Christian alike. And I quote:

    "Do you understand this distinction between visible things and intelligible things?"
    "Yes."
    "Well, picture them as a line cut into two unequal sections and, following the same proportion, subdivide both the section of the visible realm and that of the intelligible realm. Now you can compare the sections in terms of clarity and unclarity. The first section in the visible realm consists of likenesses, by which I mean a number of things: shadows, reflections... and so on. Do you see what I'm getting at?"
    "I do."
    "And you should count the other section of the visible realm as consisting of things whose things are found in the first section: all the flora and fauna there are in the world, and every kind of artefact too."
    "All right."
    "I wonder whether you'd agree," I said, "that truth and lack of truth have been distinguishing these sections, and that the image stands to the original as the realm of belief stands to the realm of knowledge?"
    "Yes," he said, "I certainly agree."

    "And you should appreciate that there are four states of mind, one for each of the four sections. There's knowledge for the highest section and thought for the second one; and you'd better assign confidence to the third one and conjecture to the final one. You can make an orderly progression out of them, and you should regard them as possessing as much clarity as their objects possess truth."
    "I see," he said. "That's fine with me: I'll order them in the way you suggest."

    Taking all this one board, we can draw that line and order things as Plato tells us.

    Basically, Plato arrives at a working definition of knowledge as justified true belief. The more evidence you have, the more you can justify your opinion. The less justification you have, the less you can be sure that your belief is true. Sam Witwicky has absolutely no justification for believing what he decides to believe, no evidence visible or intelligible, not an image, not an object, not a thought. He says "I know" but really his precious 'belief' is on the other end of the scale in Conjectureville. Sure, it turns out to be true. But it's not justified so it's not knowledge.

    Do you hear what I'm saying? The dialogue in Transformers: Revenge of the Fallen isn't just bad, it flies in the face of all conventional wisdom of the past 2300 years.

    Family Guy? More Like Torturously Unfunny Guy.

    Posted 10:26 (GMT) 29th May 2009 by David J. Bishop

    Sheesh, this always happens doesn't it? Whenever I fall behind with the updates the next strip to finish is always an 18-panel hyper-detailed epic with a full cast of extras and rich elaborate backgrounds. Still, I really like the way it turned out. The next one won't take as long I'm sure so come back soon. It won't be long before I'm caught up again.

    In other news I'm noticing that Family Guy isn't remotely funny anymore. I mean, it's not as if when it was at its best every single joke was a hit but they packed so many gags in there it didn't really matter if you didn't like one, the next joke was coming in about three seconds. No single element was by any means the best but what was there was energetic and well-edited. Now... uh. Now it just seems like there's one joke per episode, which is stretched out and broadcast and underlined and repeated and then explained until anything about it which might have been entertaining, let alone humorous, has died. That's right - explained. They actually explain jokes. Not even good jokes, either. The kind of weak-ass jokes you told as a child. You see the stupid sight gag and then Peter Griffin turns to the camera and says "You see, all the chicken wanted to do was get to the other side." That's not meta, that's not trying and then passing it off as self-referential.

    In fact, the words 'not trying' really sum up the entirety of Family Guy's output now. If an episode only has one joke, what fills in the rest of the space? Protracted musical numbers, protracted silence, racist comments and cut-aways. All those stupid cut-aways. They were tolerable when they picked up on plot points, back when episodes had such things as plot points and, indeed, plots. Now they're just strings of badly-written skits set up by a character saying "Like the time I..." only it's never remotely like what's happening. Someone will say "This is worse than a chicken on the moon eating toothpaste with George Washington." And the audience can just sit there and wonder why a tooth-paste-eating lunar chicken is worse than what was happening before they cut away. These ideas are exactly as moronic as that. Then the chicken just sits there glumly eating toothpaste, turns to the camera and says, "What were you expecting, comedy?"

    It's finally happened. The show has finally become a parody of itself.

    I swear to God they write the cut-aways by throwing a dart at a board covered with films and TV shows from the last twenty years and then throw another dart at a board covered with names of animals or everyday situations. The result - Two and Half Men and an ostrich, Jaffa from Aladdin getting an eye test, Alan Rickman's answering machine. They actually did all of those things! The only way you could justify that kind of painful amalgamation of tropes is if it was building up to a wickedly funny punch line... but then no punch comes. Apparently our minds are supposed to be so blown away by the idea of Alan Rickman having an answering machine that they don't need to write a punch line. Or animate anything - we're just content to watch an answering machine and hear a bad impression of Alan Rickman come out of it for about five minutes. FIVE MINUTES! That's just one example. Everything goes on exactly too long to no real resolution. Everything! Whereas before Family Guy specialised in frenetic pacing and quick cuts, now they specialise in looooooooooooooooooooooong awkward silences. Don't misapprehend me, awkward silences can be really funny - in live action comedy. Because you get to see the performer react to the silence, you get to see small nuances in their face that really sell the joke. In Family Guy they just... stand there. It's literally a static image. They actually animate less during those moments because if you stare at the screen you can see they're not blinking their eyes anymore. And then you catch yourself staring at unblinking eyes and thinking, what the hell am I doing? Am I amusing myself by staring at a picture of the show I'm supposed to be watching? Where's the animation? Where are the jokes?

    That's depressing though, isn't it? They didn't have enough badly-written jokes about The A-team to fill their half hour time slot so they had to play for time. How about cutting away to Conway Twitty for three minutes? Yeah, that ought to eat up some time. Not even animated Conway Twitty at this point. No, just footage of Conway Twitty singing. Let's say hypothetically that cutting away to Conway Twitty is hilarious - which it isn't - even if that's the case how does the idea of Conway become funnier by playing the entirety of the performance? Yeah, they're killing time. The writers must have lost their frigging minds.

    And some of these randomly-selected pop culture references aren't references at all but pains-taking re-enactments. For example, they had one character sing 'Somewhere That's Green' from Little Shop of Horrors. It's a funny song from a musical close to my heart. I don't see how animating that part of the film shot for shot with one of your characters adds anything or takes anything away. The lyrics weren't rewritten for parody. Nothing about the sequence was different apart from the characters. It feels a lot less like satire and a lot more like plagiarism now. We get to the end of the sequence and there's no punch-line, nothing that presents any kind of pay-off for what was nothing more than a drawn-out musical number. In one episode we get to see Stewie Griffin re-enact the skateboard scene from Back to the Future. It was a great scene in the film and so it's an entertaining moment in the episode by virtue of being exactly the same. Really, though, how hard would it have been to undercut the moment of triumph by writing in a... thing... what's it called?... oh yeah, a joke. You know, to be funny!

    Speaking of drawn-out musical numbers, Family Guy seems to have a real hard-on for them as of late. I'm not saying these songs aren't well constructed - they're just not funny in any way. They possess no innate funniness and whatever potential funniness might arise is inexplicably ignored. What the hell, man? You're a comedy show. Someone throw a pie! Long awkward silences and long song-and-dance routines do not hilarity make. Maybe if you spent less time singing and more time trying to write jokes you might actually have a funny show again.

    And by 'jokes' I don't mean 'discomfitingly un-ironic racial slurs'. If you keep repeating over and over again that the Jews killed Jesus and then make no attempt to highlight why that doesn't make any sense it goes a long way towards convincing me that you actually think it's true - certainly, it allows someone who believes that to watch your show and assume you agree. It's irresponsible. As it happens the Jews didn't kill Jesus. It was the Romans. There are scenes in the Bible where people conspire to bring about Jesus' death and yes they are Jewish but that's because EVERYONE IN THE STORY IS JEWISH APART FROM THE ROMANS! Including Jesus! Why are Jesus' disciples not Jewish but the bad guys are? You can't take all the villains in the story and decide they represent the entire race. That's fucking racist. If I have to hear one more person say the Jews killed Jesus I'm going to beat them to death with the nearest heavy object. So thanks, Family Guy, for propagating hatred.

    Urgh, and some of the sequences are just insulting to the audience. And I don't mean insulting like "Do they expect us to be entertained by this?", I mean insulting like "Oh, you like Family Guy do you? Then take this, loser!" Peter Griffin singing 'Surfin' Bird' again and again and again and again and again and again? Is the joke there that... it's annoying? That's not a joke, not by any stretch of the imagination. It's just annoying. Almost aggressively so, as if the writers actually hate their audience and are finding ways to overtly express their contempt.

    At what point does a television show officially start adding to the sum of human misery rather than the sum of human happiness?

    Thank You For Telling Me I'm Right, I Love Hearing It Always

    Posted 23:33 (GMT) 20th May 2009 by David J. Bishop

    I just want to give a big shout out to everyone who's contacted me either through e-mail, via the forum or in some other fashion to express their agreement over the Raine Dog rant. After posting it I read it over a couple of hundred times and went through the usual pattern of guilt for being so mean to another creator, self-doubt that it was really as terrible as I made it feel in my head and finally vindication as people I know tell me that no I'm not in fact crazy and yes it really is awful for a boy and a dog - even a cartoon dog - kiss one another. I still feel like a bitch - bad dum tish! That's the kind of humour you only find in furry comics. Yeah, so amongst all the vitriol I do have moments of reflection and uncertainty. I never told you that before because I thought it would sound like weakness. But yeah, thanks for e-mailing me to tell me I'm right. Those are the sweetest words in the English language. To be honest, it's nice when anyone e-mails me about anything.

    Here, I'll cut you guys a deal. If you send them more often I'll check my inbox more often. And... update more often. I almost forgot. In light of one reader's comments, I would like to respond that I never thought Maid Marion was - ahem - foxy. That's more than a little gross.

    It's probably just a coincidence but it feels like even Kris Straub, who is the nearest internet comics has to a comedic genius, has weighed in on the issue with his latest strip. As always, I spend umpteen paragraphs ranting about the intricacies of fur fetishes just to have the brunt of my argument summarised perfectly by a more succint artist. It's happened before and it will happen again.

    In other news, I've just got home after finishing the last exam of my academic career. I have another assessment tomorrow but not an exam in the traditional sense. So... this is my first drunken news post! Woot! Okay, I sleep now. Zzzzzzzzzzzzzzzz...

    P.S. The second draft seems a lot drunker to me than the first. I think that last shot of jager might be taking affect as we speak. Ooooh. Weird. I'm drunkening before by very eyes! Brain cells... shutting down. I finally get Ctrl+Alt+Delete! It's actually pretty clever once you subdue rational thought. Shit, I should stop typing things. I'm going to sound like a crazy person.

    Man's Inhumanity Unto Dog

    Posted 14:41 (GMT) 15th May 2009 by David J. Bishop

    Hey everyone! I'm back... again! Urgh. Okay, as exhausted as I am I'm not going to burden you guys with whatever horrible stuff is going on in my life. This site isn't about that. That's why I didn't post to let you know I could update last week, because I knew that some of that stress would leak out, like urine out the bottom of a trouser leg. New strip, though!

    Short version: I'm finishing a three year university course. This is the last push before I'm finished forever. Pretty exciting. What does this mean for you, the reader? Well, after I finish full-time education I can finally get a job. After I get a job I understand they will give me money. After I get money I can invest a little somethin' somethin' back into this site. That means advertising, web hosting - professionalism.

    In the meantime I have to put up with exams which last longer than three hours, unemployment and God-awful advertisements all over my website. The ones with naked women in them are nauseating enough as it is but the one I found today really takes the biscuit. It takes the dog biscuit.

    Ladies and gentlemen, I present to you the adventures of Raine Dog. You can just read through those archives and come back. There's only 23 installments - it's the work of about half an hour to get up to speed. And I guarantee that it will be the scariest half hour of your life. It's been a few hours since I hit the site and I still can't get the taste of it out of my mouth. I don't even know how much I should tell you, whether to describe the horror I have seen or let you find out for yourselves. No, I should warn you.

    Okay, so Raine Dog is about a dog living in a city. Actually, it's a series of flash-backs to when Raine was a puppy tied together with a piss-weak framing narrative. No, scrap that. It's a furry comic. At least, I think it is. I mean, this is a dog walking around on its hind legs, wearing clothes, buying coffee and speaking English. To be fair, I only know about the cult of 'furry' because of how often it is referenced. I have no first-hand experience of these people. I feel like an explorer in a science fiction show making contact with some bizarre alien race just by talking about this.

    Here's how little I know. I don't know how the word 'furry' was chosen to represent this sub-culture, I don't know why anyone would consider it a genre in its own right or why people who consider themselves fans of that culture would congregate within such a tight-nit community. It just baffles me.

    I don't know the difference between 'furry stuff' and 'anthropomorphic animals'. Imagining animals with human qualities is a perfectly valid form of art. I loved Bolt, for example, and as a child I devoured the complete works of Dick King-Smith, best known for The Sheep Pig. The vast majority of those books were about talking animals. Then there's the Wind in the Willows, which I absolutely adored as a child in pretty much every adaptation in which it appeared. The animated film, the live action version (to a lesser extent) - I had a beautifully drawn picture book of it and an awesome pop-up book. Again, animals dressed in clothing, walking around and talking like human beings. Nothin' wrong with that. As far as I'm concerned Ratty, Mole, Badger and Mr Toad are characters every child should know and love. And let's not forget Beatrix Potter. Sumptuously illustrated children's books, all about anthropomorphic animals. The first book I remember reading as a baby - about two years old, my first childhood memory in fact - is The Tale of Peter Rabbit. And my favourite film judging by how many times I must have watched the damn thing must have been Disney's Robin Hood. Again - Sherwood forest was populated entirely by walking, talking animals.

    And don't think anthropomorphic animals are just for children. Not only are all those examples enjoyed by adults just as much as they are by children, there's a long literary tradition of anthropomorphic animals. Just look at Aesop's Fables and Chaucer's Nun's Priest's Tale. Chanticleer is essentially a humanoid cockerel.

    I don't know what separates this excellent, beloved art from what people call furry. I do know there is a difference, though. Every time I see something which identifies itself as 'furry' I'm not sure why but I hate it. Every time I see the word crop up it's always attached to the weirdest shit. The convention of making animals behave like people is a widely-recognised and almost universally beloved trope. Taking that one thing and basing an entire fandom around it is just... odd. How did this schism take place? It's like if a rabid fanbase formed around the use of simile. It's just one of many tools at an artist's disposal, it's not something to be held up as something separate in its own right. The Nun's Priest's Tale sits right there between The Monk's Tale and The Second Nun's Tale without anyone batting an eyelid. Don't separate it out, don't hold it up to the light as being something different, something to be sought to the exclusion of other things.

    Why? Because there's nothing about anthropomorphic animals in fiction that makes them in any way superior to humans. If I had made Michael, Jack and Charlotte cats would it have made any difference? No-one can say that House is a witty and thoughtful medical drama with engaging character studies but that it would be vastly improved if Greg House were a talking rabbit.

    You know... House Bunny. Anyone?

    No-one can say that! That's not to say there's no value in anthropomorphising animals! Robin Hood, for instance, is very funny to me because it uses the animal kingdom as a kind of visual short-hand to explore a number of clichés and archetypes. The crafty Robin Hood becomes a fox! The hulking Little John is a bear! Friar Tuck a badger! The slow-witted guards Rhinos! The short matronly woman a chicken! This is good stuff! Not only does it invoke the imagery of Medieval literature itself - like Chaucer or Marie de France - but it presents old characters and motifs in new and funny ways. King John as a lion with no mane? That's pretty wry stuff right there. Human animals, then, are perfect for creating caricature, for creating comedy, for holding the satirical mirror up to humanity and having a gentle chuckle.

    Why do I hate furry stuff? It's never funny. It always takes itself very seriously. No jokes here, folks. Oh, there might be observational jokes about day-to-day human life but there will never be jokes about the ostrich man sticking his head in the ground, nothing to justify making the characters animals in the first place. Worse still, it's usually shoe-horned into a gritty story about sex and/or violence. The horrific adult themes just don't fit at all with the subject matter. It's like the miscarriage story-line in Ctrl+Alt+Del - there exists a huge gulf between tone and subject matter, or between subject matter and visual style.

    100% of the time the 'furry' characters could be replaced by human beings with no ill affect. 90% of the time it would be an improvement. I feel your pain - people are hard to draw. I mostly drew animals right up until I was about 15. There's a steep learning curve. But if you have to tell a story about people in the future cutting each other's throats with barbed wire for God's sake don't use animals to tell that story. No-one wants to see a koala garroting a ring-tailed lemur. Half the time there's no physical difference between the characters besides their faces. They all have perfect human proportions for their bodies. Remember how Lady Kluck was short and fat with wings for hands? She looked like a chicken. Sure, she wasn't chicken-sized but she was short. The owl character is shorter than the crocodile. Even if the proportions are skewed, it follows its own internal logic. Every furry comic I see has identical proportions, identical bodies - the only difference is the face and even then it's usually the same cookie-cutter anime snout that everyone learns to draw. Are they a dog? Throw in a tiny anime mouth. Are they a cat? Throw in some whiskers. Are they a lizard? Uh... fuck, colour the snout green. Are they a bird? Shit, don't draw birds.

    The style people are adopting and the story they are telling makes me think they'd be better off learning how to draw members of their own species. At gunpoint, perhaps.

    That's my grief with furry comics in general. Then I read Raine Dog. I don't know what to say and, not knowing what criteria furries use to define this stuff, I don't know where it fits. Okay, so there is a dog walking around wearing clothes and speaking English. But she actually looks like a dog, within the visual language of the comic. She's not just a dog's head sewn onto a human body. This looks promising! Then things get weird. Sex and violence weird.

    The first thing I noticed about the world of the comic is that Raine Dog lives in a world populated by dogs and humans. That struck me as weird. Normally these stories take place within a kind of alternate reality in which Robin Hood could feasibly have been a fox without anyone saying "Holy shit, a talking fox!" whenever he walks into a room. Sometimes, the more I think about it, you can get humanoid animals in a science fiction setting. I suppose that makes sense - genetic engineering and all that. So what kept me reading Raine Dog for 23 strips is curiosity as to how walking, talking dogs come about in an otherwise human world. It turns out I wasted my time. Raine is just a regular dog. Apparently she learns to read the same way you or I would learn to read, by being read to and picking it up. Which suggests that dogs have the same capacity for intelligence as humans, they're just squandering their potential fetching sticks and licking their testicles.

    Am I being needlessly pedantic? I mean, I didn't pick apart Mrs Tiggywinkle, did I? Well, actually I'm not. The whole premise of Raine Dog is, in a nutshell, "Holy shit, a talking dog!" Just look through those archives. It's all about the stigma of being a dog in a world of humans, with flashbacks telling the story of how Raine made the transition from household pet to individuated citizen. We're supposed to want to know how she learnt to read, how she learnt to speak etc. Except we never find out how she learnt to speak or how she magically grew opposable thumbs or learnt to stand on her hind legs. You can't provoke these questions and then gloss over them - but even when a question is answered the answer is ridiculous. Actually no. Genetic engineering creating a race of dog-men is ridiculous. Dogs learning to walk and talk by themselves is just bone-headedly dumb.

    It gets worse. The dramatic tension, as I have already alluded to, is derived from Raine's status as a second-class citizen, another person's property. She walks into a coffee shop, wearing a coat and glasses and orders a 16 ounce chai. Pretty normal so far, right? We all know dogs who do that. But wait! Then the barista says, "Here you go, girl," and Raine thinks to herself "Girl," and sighs. You know, like if a white man calls a black man "Boy". It's like racism! Yes, this isn't just a story about a blue dog, this is a story about civil rights and segregation and equality! How awesome is that? Because what could possibly be wrong with comparing ethnic minorities to dogs? Right?

    How about this? Or this? Indescribably baffling. Listen, Dana Claire Simpson. I know what you're doing. I'm not an idiot. You're writing a comic about prejudice using this pseudo-fable of a talking dog as your jumping off point. But there's an inherent danger in what you're doing here that I don't think you have seen. Dogs holding up signs saying 'Pets are people' is twisted. Because pets aren't people. And saying they are undermines the point you're trying to make. Pets will never be people. Dogs can't learn to speak or to read. As lovable as they might be, they will never be as smart as human beings. Another sign being held up says 'Animal rights'. Are you... are you satirizing animal rights? I mean, surely this demonstrates how stupid it is to campaign for animal rights when dogs can't hold up little signs and really can't perceive whether they have rights or not. Canines don't have a sense of social justice. Listen, animals should have some rights, I don't think anyone is promoting animal cruelty here, but they shouldn't have all the rights people have. I don't think animals should have the right to vote, for example. That would be stupid.

    Am I being unfair here? I don't think so. I think the precise reason why racism and slavery are so appalling is because the victims are fellow human beings. That we can mistreat our own kind, our own brothers and sisters, is the most appalling part of it all. If the slaves really had been less than human in some way it would have been easier to justify. Slavery is abhorrent to me simply because there is no justification - and yet it happened anyway. The subjugation of dogs, on the other hand, is fine by me. Because they're just dogs.

    What I'm trying to say is that you can't elevate animals to the level of humans without denigrating humans to the level of animals. When you say cattle = people you're essentially saying people = cattle. Animals have no creativity, no imagination, no self-awareness, no connection to the abstract. Everything that makes humanity incredible is that which separates us from animals. To say we are no more than animals is shallow and nihilistic - and sort of depressing if you think about it. To say that animals are capable of all that humans can achieve is patently false, as evidenced by the complete lack of doggy sonnets.

    Comparing down-trodden ethnic minorities to dogs is just racist, dude. You may notice the other talking animal stories don't tackle these hard-hitting issues. There is an incredibly good reason for this.

    Hang tight, I haven't reached the worst part yet. How about an implied sexual attraction between the household pet and the sweet-faced young boy who plays with her? Are you feeling nauseous yet? How about now? Perhaps I didn't make myself clear. Sexual attraction. Between a child. And his dog. What. The. Fuck. Raine Dog's tagline as a webcomic is 'Question Everything'. I have done so. I'm just being polite. I've questioned how a dog learns to speak, I've questioned how a dog walks on its hind legs and picks things up without thumbs. I've even questioned what comparing the quest for doggy rights to the civil rights movement says about race and humanity - now I'm questioning WHAT THE DEUCE WERE YOU THINKING YOU UTTER TIT?

    Here's how I know Raine Dog is a furry comic. Because of indescribably squick content like a cute little boy and a puppy dog making out. Stunned and sick to my God-damn stomach, I stumbled over to the author's home page. Apparently I'm not the only person who found this comic offensive. Here's what the crazy lady wrote on her home page:

    Also, have recent developments in this story startled you?

    Yes.

    You're not alone, of course. And, anyway, they were kind of supposed to; that's kind of the point.

    That's such a relief.

    Nearly everyone who's actually written to me has had positive things to say about it; the response, actually, has been extremely gratifying. As I've said, it's a story that's been percolating in my brain for years and I've been working hard at getting it right.

    Well, you fucked it up. The positive response make me think you've got a lot of people in your audience who