Friday, February 22, 2013

Genre Savvy: The Big Net

So I spent the last couple of months covering what I think are the six major genres of fiction.  These are actually pretty good major groupings, covering all the major elements, from the no nonsense Drama to the high flying High Fantasy.  Dug into the depths of Horror, and plied the stars of Science Fantasy.  Laughed all the way to the bank with Humor and found the hidden secrets of Urban Fantasy.  I like these categories, as they cover time, elements of the genre, and the emotions they evoke.

But there is a problem.  Where does The Surreal Adventures of Edgar Allan Poo fit?  Horror?  It does connect to Edgar Allan Poe and some of his stories.  High Fantasy, with it's references to ancient gods?  Urban Fantasy as it takes place in a hidden world underneath the one where Poe lives?  Not sure?  Nor am I.

Worse, there's another, Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass.  Lewis Carrol's classic stories doesn't actually fit into any of these categories either.  It's not quite Humor. for despite it's satirical bent, it's not exactly funny.  There's no Drama or Horror beyond Alice feeling quite lost.  Urban Fantasy perhaps, as it again takes place "under" Alice's normal world.  Again, it kind of stands out on it's own.

So should I create a seventh genre?  Maybe call it Surreal and have it fit things that don't make sense.  Or maybe I should expand out one of the other genres to better cover this corner of fiction I missed?  No, I won't do either, because it comes down to the nature of genre in the first place.

Genres take the role of organizing our fiction.  We put like items together and call them a "genre" so we can seek out similar pieces if we happen to find something we like.  The issue with genre, however, is that it's eternally divisible down to single pieces.  This is why things like steampunk and Lovecraftain horror exist, because somewhere along the way it was decided that they weren't science fiction/fantasy or horror and needed their own box.  I don't consider them actual genres, as I've said a couple times, but aesthetics, a look and feel to a particular piece of the larger genre.

If the scale of genre can get be divided down into nothingness, the scale up is just as daunting.  The genres I defined are pretty wide reaching, covering what normally would be their own genres, and even each other in several cases.  Widening those nets suffers the problem that there is always something OUTSIDE of that net.  How much so?  Even if the net is tossed across ALL of fiction, there's still non-fiction as a whole, and poetry as well, which is neither.  The biggest net is, of course "everything" but then the point of genre is utterly lost in the process, and it no longer functions.

I picked the six genres I did because it covers MOST of fiction, and most of the webcomics I read.  Sure, a few slip through, like Edgar Allan Poo, but most, on one level or another fit into these genres.  It's not exactly how I SORT comics (I do that by when they update and if I read them or not) but it is how I think about them.  With these in mind, I can make recommendations to others for various comics.  Asking "what do you like?" also proves to be the most difficult because some people really can't define it, but that's an issue for another day.

Thus genre, in the end, is kind of amorphous.  It changes depending on the perspective of the person asking and the one answering.  What I think of as High Fantasy, someone might think of as just plain Fantasy, and so on.   It's not something that is carved in stone, but one that changes and modifies as needed.  Being Genre Savvy is knowing that genre is artificial and subjective.  I could have saved 2 months of posts just saying that, couldn't I?

Of course not!  Then I might actually review webcomics on my blog about reviewing webcomics, and that would be silly.  Which is why I'm not doing it next week either, and instead doing some housekeeping and touching base.  Until next time kiddies.

Friday, February 15, 2013

Genre Savvy: Humor

Drama and Comedy were separated because the Greeks felt hope was evil and didn't want to deal with it.  Comedy meant silly things were to happen, which made people smile, and that wasn't hope, so it was good.  Humor continues that tradition of making people smile, laugh and generally feel good.  So much so, Humor is often leaks into, well, everything, even it's fellow over-genres.  Nothing escapes Humor, but often Humor escapes people.

As great and powerful as Humor is, it's also completely subjective.  I mentioned that some people enjoy depressing stories in the Drama article, but it doesn't make the events any less depressing.  At best, tragic events will anger someone over that stupid choices and actions of the characters, but even so, it'll be because it created sadness, not because they have a different perspective on what sadness is.  Humor, however, varies greatly between people.

For example, I love the movie Airplane!, a film that pokes fun at the string of 70's disaster films that dominated Hollywood for a time.  It's a great comedy, and if you haven't seen it, for shame.  The thing is, I think I like the sequel, Airplane II:  The Sequel, better.  Yet the films are quite different.  The original was based directly on an actual disaster film, Airport, so much so they were nearly copying it frame for frame, while inserting jokes as necessary.  The sequel takes all the jokes from the original film, and amplifies them and adds in other films (like 2001:  A Space Odyssey).  They're so different that even the makes of the original film had NOTHING to do with the sequel.  The result:  Some people hate the sequel with a passion.  Others, like me, like it all the more.

Actually though, both films represent the elements that make Humor work.  The first, of course, is laughter.  Both have them, of course, thought Airplane 2 has more jokes per second.  They come fast and furious, tapping into not only sight gags but reference gags to things only people around at the time would get.  It's funny watching William Shatner rattle off this rambling speech why a space shuttle crashes through the window, and he doesn't seem to even notice.  It's over the top and keeps going until the final moments (the film AND that speech).

So why, if the sequel builds on the jokes of the first, do people not like it?  If Humor is about making one laugh, then it should be better than the original, right?  Well, that's because jokes alone do not make humor.  As I said, the original Airplane! is based on another, serious film, Airport.  They modeled the acting and actions on that film, even having the film on the set so they could review it while making their comedy.  This dignified drama was thus given a full treatment of jokes at it's expense, like doing an episode of Mystery Science Theater 3000, but with actors and sets rather than shadows and puppets.

Dignity, that's the opposite pole of Humor.  Without it, the jokes aren't nearly as funny.  A hobo slipping on a banana peel is funny, but a well dressed billionaire doing the same is hilarious.  Meanwhile, a bumbling billionaire slipping on the peel isn't nearly as funny as a hobo who acts like a gentlemen doing the same.  Watching someone who thinks highly of themselves knocked down a peg, even if it's only for a one off gag, is far more entertaining, and thus funny, than someone who is already a clown.  Might be why clowns aren't viewed as all that funny by many, they are meant to be the butt of jokes, and that lacks the punch.  Same with the difference between the two Airplane! movies, one is much more dignified than the other, so the humor is stronger.

So this is the point at which I pull out some webcomic examples, but for once, I've got WAY too many choices.  I'd say more than half of all comics on the internet are Humor comics.  From gag a day strips like Station V3 and Cyanide and Happiness, to long form comics like 8-Bit Theater, Humor comics run a massive gambit of strips, to the point of absurdity.  It also doesn't help that Humor is so subjective that finding a great funny comic is hard for me to do and justify beyond "well I think it's funny."  Is 8-Bit Theater's long joke funnier than the gags in Station V3?  Maybe, from a certain point of view, or perhaps they're equal, or the other way around, or neither are very funny at all.  Thus the riddle of Humor is forged:  Is it really funny, or is it just me?

Next time, I conclude this series, but not in the way one might expect.  Until then kiddies.

Friday, February 8, 2013

Genre Savvy: Drama

When I originally spoke about Drama, I made a mistake:  Drama is not one of the classic Greek genres, it described all of Greek literature.  Drama itself was divided into Tragedy and Comedy.  My Drama is more the equivalent of Tragedy, but like Humor vs Comedy, I like the term Drama better.  And again, I'm capitalizing everything, is it any wonder my shift key is wearing away?

Tragedy, of course, describes the central emotion of Drama, sadness.  That's actually rather odd for what is, essentially, the most important and most widely accept form of fiction in the world, but nearly every Drama is built upon being brought low by some event or another.  Why is that?  I suppose it's because people can relate to being sad, as everyone is at one point or another.  Even the perpetually happy have their moments of self doubt and depression, though they do a good job of hiding it.

I couldn't even begin to cite examples of sadness in Drama because I'd be here forever.  Les Miserables, Romeo and Juliet, hell nearly anything by Shakespeare, the list goes on and on forever.  The thing is, being sad isn't just a personal thing in these stories, it's often shared, a collective depression that the various characters sometimes try to find a way out of, but often simply wallow in through the length of the story.  Often, it also gets worse as the story goes along, one tragedy building on another until it seems the weight of it should utterly crush even the most hardened soul.  The great tragedies of our age often result in the entire main cast dying as a result, even though the most powerful moments often only need one or two to die to bring the point across.

Like fear in Horror, though, sadness alone gets old very quickly.  Still, there are some people who really enjoy it, which is why the Blues exists.  For those who don't want to dwell on depression and tragedy, there is an out via Drama's other pole, hope.  Hope provides a point to all the tragedy in the story.  The idea that maybe, possibly, the world can be a better place is what gives hope power, and keeps people going.  It's odd to think that the ancient Greeks viewed hope as one of the great evils of the world in this sense, but sometimes hope is misplaced and results in more tragedy than anything else.  The road to hell is paved with good intentions, to use the old phrase.

Again, good examples of hope are hard to come up with because there are SO many.  One of the best ones, is, again, out of date, but A Christmas Carol is a good example of hope.  Hope that one man, however much tragedy he has caused or has been done to him, can shift from being a horrible old man into a great and wise person is a great example.  It is still just one of many stories, and often forms the backbone of nearly all fiction.  The hero of any story is generally the physical embodiment of hope in those stories.  When the hero fails, the story becomes tragedy, for sure, but coming back from that failure is hope in it's most potent form.  Perhaps this is why it is so rare for a story to be pure tragedy, as everyone wants hope in their story.

When it comes to depression and sadness, I think the best comic I have as an example is Hopscotch, a short story comic that is, at the end, quite sad.  It's a good comic, no doubt, but it is a sad story.  The main characters do not come out of the story living happily ever after (though they do come out alive).  The tragedy of their story is quite potent and the emotions feel quite real, and I really think it should be read rather than me telling the story again.

Hope's example is Between Failures, whose title already implies depression and drama.  The hope though, comes from a single moment that turns the comic in a new direction.  The power of hope actually changes the comic from black and white to color, which is symbolic of the attitude and nature of the strip.  Hope drives everything, hope that life will get better, with a little work and planning.  Will it end up that way?  Hard to say, though I suspect it probably will end with a bit of tragedy, the hope generated now will carry over and keep going, making that final blow much less painful.

Drama is a powerful genre, and one that covers such a wide net as to dominate most of the others, except one:  Humor.  That'll be for next week, the last genre, but not the last article in the series as there is another.  Until then kiddies.

Friday, February 1, 2013

Genre Savvy: Horror

The three Fantasy genres are about the things within them.  Histories, hidden magic, fancy technology.  They cover periods of time, past, present and future.  The over-genres care little for such things, they focus more on the stronger forces in life:  emotion.  Oh, but they are so powerful and over-arching that they can't just cover just ONE emotion, but two and it's because of this they stand over top even the very broad Fantasy genres, and sometimes on top of each other.

The first one I'll be talking about is the Horror genre because, um, I wrote it first.  Seriously.  But let's not dwell on that and instead focus on WHAT Horror is as a genre.  And as I said, at the beginning of this article, it is about a key emotion:  fear.

Making something scary is hard, nearly as hard as comedy.  Establishment of tension is key, the growing suspense of the shock, and the shock itself are necessary to make it work.  Thus it comes down that Horror generally requires a lot of atmosphere to make it work.  Without atmosphere, typically the suspense that leads to fear never really materializes.  Hitchcock had a famous story that yes, it is scary when there are two people sitting at a table and the table suddenly explodes, but it's even more terrifying if the audience sees the bomb and the two men continue on without knowing it's there.  The tension and suspense ramp up the initial shock of the bomb going off to a much greater height than the explosion alone can do.  Good Horror needs this build up to keep things going.

That said, Horror cannot live on that suspense alone.  There must be a moment of release, however brief.  That moment must be in proportion to the suspense before.  If the bomb, despite all the trappings of a larger explosive, is really nothing more than a firecracker, then the audience feels cheated.  If the explosive is a nuclear bomb, then the shock is out of proportion to the preceding scene.

Take Edgar Allan Poe's "A Tell Tale Heart" for example.  While not a story that scares the reader, the fear the narrator has is quite real, and built up very strongly.  Like Hitchcock's classic example, there's even a "bomb" under the floor in the final scene, but the narrator is aware of the ticking, and is so paranoid that he's convinced that the police officers in the room with him hear the ticking too.  That madness is the building tension and suspense, and the final reveal is the shock that finishes the story.

Ah, but Horror cannot JUST be about fear, because that starts to feel hollow after a while.  Suspense followed by a scare only works for so long before it no longer gives the same thrill.  Thus there must be something to balance the fear out, and that's courage.  Standing up to fear, rather than being consumed by it, is a powerful trait and gives the audience or reader someone to cheer for against the horrors of the tale.

Not that courage means the hero wins in the end.  Or comes out intact or stronger.  Take H.P. Lovecraft, for example.  His work inspired an entire aesthetic, Lovecraftian Horror, and most certainly features fear and the unknowable at it's core.  At the same time, it also features a lot of courage, as the various protagonists attempt to face down and possibly understand the horrors presented to them.  From the scientists traveling through the abandoned Antarctic city in At the Mountains of Madness, or the captain who rammed great Cthulhu with his ship, these are brave people.  However, bravery is but the lack of common sense, and by the time the story is over, these people are also batshit insane, or dead.  Dead likely would have been better in some cases.

Comic examples are pretty sparse I'm afraid.  Atmosphere wise, the long dead Flatwood probably fits the bill better than most.  It feels dark, and the use of gifs to surprise the reader keeps it going, but it suffers from the issue that the horror and fear never really breaks and the build is slow anyway.  It's there, of course, coming through despite the more cartoony character designs.  I certianly felt the chill back when it was updated, but since I haven't read it in a while, only the feeling remains, and that is a great accomplishment for a horror story.

On the more courage side of the horror sits Twilight Lady, which while not strictly a scare fest, it is about standing up to the things that would scare normal people.  Of course the protagonist here is almost unknown as well, making an odd story where the reader should be just as afraid of the heroine as they are of the monsters, but in a different way.

I'm not that big into Horror, honestly, outside of Poe and Lovecraft I'm not much for scaring myself.  So I really don't have a lot of scary comics on my lists, and those I do have are, well, not that scary, at least to me.  Next week, though, the genre one of the biggest genres ever:  Drama.  Until then kiddies.