Friday, December 30, 2016

Conan: The Servants of Bit-Yakin: The Platypus Reads Part: CCCVII

It's been a few years since I last dipped in to the world of Robert E. Howard's sword-swinging barbarian, Conan. While the writing is always high quality, the racism and sexism that riddle Howard's oeuvre is hard to handle in large doses. After a good, long break, then, I decided that it was finally time to have a go at finishing my annotated edition of the complete works.

The Servants of Bit-Yakin:

The Servants of Bit-Yakin returns us from the microcosmic novella that is The Hour of the Dragon to the world of the standard Conan adventure story. Once more, we return to the pseudo-Africa that so dominated Howard's imagination. This tale, with its ruined city created by a lost race of white men who were able to perfectly preserve their corpses, and its eternal queen apparently owes its inspiration to H.R. Haggard's She. Rather than give us another She-Who-Must-Be-Obeyed, however, Howard evolves the adventure in his own way with the mysterious element  coming in the form of the savage creatures that haunt the ruins, the servants of Bit-Yakin. These gorilla-like monstrosities may have cast their shadow over Michael Chrichton's Congo, but they are very much the sort of degenerate "monsters of evolution" that fascinated pulp authors like Howard and his pen-pal, H.P. Lovecraft (see especially Lovecraft's The Cave). In keeping with Haggard's She, the source of this weird peril seems to be rooted in the natural, though the super-natural is never ruled out (also a common feature in Lovecraft's consciously atheist fiction). The other characters in the story are true to Howard's types: the courtesan, Jim-Crow-inspired superstitious and lustful Africans, and Conan as the Barbarian with a code that forbids rape and mandates saving women in distress over accumulating shiny things. Stories like The Servants of Bit-Yakin prove that Howard's genius had very little to do with what he wrote about and everything to do with how he wrote about it. The story works, as Howard's stories always do, by careful attention to plot, mood, and pacing.

Monday, December 19, 2016

'89 Batman: Film Platypus

After reading Glen Weldon's book The Caped Crusade: Batman and the Rise of Nerd Culture, I decided to add my second encounter with the Dark Knight to our Netflix queue. What I knew of Batman as a kid came from the Adam West t.v. serial. Seeing Tim Burton's Batman was a revelation. It cemented my love of the character for years to come. I think it's been well over a decade since I last watched the film, so it was with not a little trepidation that I popped the DVD into our home computer this past weekend. I'm glad to say that after all these years the 1989 Batman is still a treat.

The first thing that struck me was the art direction. Gotham looks like New York felt before Giuliani cleaned it up. There's that run-down Art Deco aesthetic crushed under the weight of steel girders and Brutalism all covered over with a thick patina of filth. We can feel the weight of urban decay. The helplessness of Gotham's dedicated civic leaders, the Mayor, Harvey Dent, and Commissioner Gordon accentuates the setting as do Danny Elfman's haunting score and Prince's decadent vibes.

The story in Batman often gets panned as loose and thin, but my wife and I were actually struck by the tightness of the writing. Every action the hero or villain takes finds itself mirrored in the other and wrapped around the axis of Vickie Vale. Watch the scene where hero and villain each try to woo Vale: both bring flowers, both fixate on themselves, and both use violence in an attempt to force Vickie to listen. We are asked again and again what the real difference is between Batman and the Joker. Both are obviously insane, both are have a flair for the dramatic and an ego the size of Gotham, and each created the other in a toxic codependent cycle of pain. In the end, the answer seems to be that Batman channels his pain into a desire to protect others while the Joker wants everyone to feel his hurt. It's a message that comes up repeatedly in Burton's gothy oeuvre.

I also have to say that I enjoyed Keaton's take on Batman. In the limited space he has to work with, the comic actor succeeds in creating a multi-faceted character that has all the labyrinthine twists and turns of the opening credits. We feel the fracturedness of his personality and understand why he keeps the Batman costume locked and bolted behind foot-thick steel. Jack Nicholson's Joker is a work of art in itself and still stands strong after the brilliant work Heath Ledger did in re-inventing the character for The Dark Night. I was left feeling that the two principle characters perfectly balanced and complimented one another -two halves of the same flawed coin.

Finally, it was wonderful to see a lushly imagined movie with no CG. CG is amazing, but there's still no hiding the intangibility of it. Models and mat paintings may lack polish, but the sense of weight they provide is priceless.

Monday, December 12, 2016

Early Inklings Scholarship: The Platypus Reads Part CCCVI

There's nothing quite like arriving late to the conversation. It's why I don't like being late to Christmas parties if I can help it. When I began reading Inklings scholarship (Tom Shippey on Tolkien, Doug Gresham on Lewis), I knew that I'd arrived late to the party. Things were being referenced or scoffed at that I didn't fully understand. Over time, I began to pick up on elements of the earlier conversation and orient myself. Recently, however, I've been able to go back and look at that earlier part of the discussion; specifically, the parts before the coming of Humphrey Carpenter and his monolithic J.R.R. Tolkien, and The Inklings.

The particular works in question come not from Oxford insiders or authorized biographers but academics on this side of the pond who were willing to risk professional scorn by asserting the literary greatness of the Inklings and their associates. They are, respectively, Understanding Tolkien and The Lord of the Rings (copyright 1968) by William Ready, and Myth, Allegory, and Gospel: An Interpretation of J.R.R. Tolkien/C.S. Lewis/G.K. Chesterton/Charles Williams (copyright 1974) by Edmund Fuller, Clyde S. Kilby, Russell Kirk, John W. Montgomery, and Chad Walsh. Those in the know will recognize the names of several North American scholars who were instrumental in securing Inklings material for future research. These are the guys that Humphrey Carpenter seems to be pushing back against when he asserts that the Inklings weren't particularly united or particularly Christian. They also look like the fellows Diana Glyer is giving a nod to when she proves Humphrey Carpenter to be in serious error.

For me, this was the missing part of the conversation. I had reconstructed the basics from context clues, but it was highly enlightening to actually see the argument. Hearing the participants in their own words gives me a better idea of how to understand later speakers like Carpenter and Glyer. I had to get these books on loan or from the used bookstore, but they were well worth the extra effort -if not because of their conclusions then because of the hole they fill in the conversation.

So, if you feel like their might be some holes in your understanding of Inklings scholarship, may I suggest picking both of these volumes up?

Saturday, December 03, 2016

The Season Finale That Never Was (Cont.): Creative Platypus

Ok, so I couldn't resist...

I've been fiddling around with Paint for my own amusement and using it to dress up a few of my pen and ink drawings. Spending time around the local comic shop with a few coworkers recently has also put comic book layouts are on the brain. My own efforts are about as far from Hellboy or Rai as I am from Pandemonium or 4001 A.D. Still, it's fun to play around with a little zero-risk creativity.

Often we wish our hobbies were jobs. Jobs can be wonderful things when we love what we do, but they are also work. There are deadlines to meet and customers to satisfy. We may enter a business in one department and drift inevitably over time into another. In other words, when we're tied to the paycheck, we have to follow the money. In our unpaid hobbies, however, we are free. No one penalizes us for puttering away at side projects. The labor is unprofitable by definition.

Henry David Thoreau worked for six weeks a year and then lived simply so that he could do what he wanted with the other forty-six. For him, that meant doing the work of a naturalist, or what we might today think of as the duties of a park ranger. His challenge in Walden to "simplify, simplify" is not meant to be a call to do as he did but it is call to all of us who have yet to land our dream job. If our work takes us away from our loves, then maybe we can reduce the time we spend at it by reducing our wants. The balance can then be spent as we will. The trick is to know what we really want.

So... Bad Nun
How far would you go to find your calling?