Missives from and to the internet, delivered by a series of tubes.
Welcome, dear readers, to our Thursday feature – a letter column of horrors culled from our inboxes. There will be things that are real and decidedly unreal – but hopefully all content presented here will be entertaining.
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Letters might be edited for space, but not for intent.
Thank you, internet.
Marc (@dasnordlicht91) asks: Do you watch wrestling regularly?
James: Oh, heavens no. Don’t get me wrong, I am not someone who is a snob about professional wrestling. Like anything, it can be great, and like anything, it can suck. I grew up watching it on Saturday afternoon replays and then, during the 1990s Attitude Era, on Monday Night Raw. There are matches and storylines I enjoyed and remember fondly, and I believe that professional wrestling is a really interesting combination of impressive athleticism and soap opera melodrama, and I find that fascinating as all hell. That said, I don’t watch it that often.
Part of this is just that for every really hilarious joke (I will never get tired of the Team Hell No odd couple) or phenomenal hurricanrana, there is a really weird moment where someone makes a racist joke or slut shames AJ Lee for having really problematic writing done for her, I dunno. Whenever I watch Raw (this week was the first time I have watched it almost all the way through in over a decade; usually, on the occasions I watch it, I’ll put it on in the background while I read or catch a segment or two), I’m basically just audibly begging for the show to give into its homoerotic subtext-that’s-not-even-subtext because I think it would be really funny to see the reaction of a certain segment of the audience as much as I am appreciating the story lines or athletics. One of the reasons I am adoring AJ’s “heel turn” is because, like CM Punk when he’s written correctly, she’s got a legitimate complaint and they’re including it in a really metatextual way. The “AJ-is-boy-crazy” stuff often makes me really uncomfortable, so her “I’m doing this for me and I’ll do what I want and fuck you if you dislike me” speech was really enjoyable for me. Plus, I legitimately love that “heel AJ” is just regular AJ who frowns a little bit more and has skulls on her crop top.
However, the biggest reason I don’t watch wrestling a lot is because I have a lot of other media stuff going on. I co-run a site that’s theoretically about comics, so I should probably read those. I watch a lot of TV. I enjoy books and magazines and video games and a whole bunch of other stuff like cooking and seeing movies and spending time with friends, so an entire evening of watching wrestling is not really something I take the time out for. So I watch little bits and hope to be entertained. Honestly, at 3 hours long, Raw is just too long, period. There ends up being a lot of fluff, which leads to a lot of the show’s worse creative impulses actually making the air, and a lot of people get extra ammunition to make fun of the medium. I think two hours, tops, would be good. Focus on some good stories and some highlight matches. A good third of the stuff that makes the air right now could easily be turned into dark matches, and save the hot stuff for the air. Make it shorter and I’ll watch a lot more often, end of story.
Brandon: I stopped watching with any kind of regularity maybe around the first time The Rock fought Hulk Hogan at a Wrestlemania. Like James, I’ll check back in occassionally, but I’m generally ashamed to remember how I used to chuckle at the frankly ridiculous amount of homophobic jokes, and how the show really hasn’t done anything remotely awesome in years. I mean yeah, everyone’s favourite era is probably the one they watched as kids because… well, you were a kid and things were pretty awesome. But much like the comic book medium, they seem to be far too ashamed of the inherent silliness that permeates the industry, and they try far too hard to be serious. All of this stuff should be fun, dammit.
Marc continues: Would a “next issue” teaser consisting of preview pages from the next issue work in comics?
James: Man, anything works well if it’s done right. That said, some straight-up preview pages of the next issue are harder to pull of than most things, because unlike, say, a movie trailer or the “Next week on ___” spots after a TV show finishes, preview pages aren’t cut for appropriate dramatic effect. They’re just, like, four pages of what’s coming next and it’s not necessarily often that you’re going to have a convenient place to stop things that isn’t the middle of a scene or sentence. Worse, they can disrupt the pacing of the end of an issue. A good cliffhanger or resolution means a little (or a lot) less if you just turn the page and get the beginning of the next story. It makes the ending not actually an ending, just part of a scene. It can lessen the impact – and thus the value – of the thing you actually paid money for. Earlier this year, Amazing Spider-Man ended an issue with Peter Parker’s boss coming up to him with the goal of having a serious talk about him and Spider-Man. As it was written, the issue ended with Peter’s secret potentially being discovered and Peter losing his job. Two weeks later, we got the second half of that conversation, and it was something else entirely. This accomplished two main things:
1. It set up a cliffhanger ending that I believe to be effective; I spent two weeks actually wondering what was up with Peter’s life, since someone discovering his identity is something that could (and has) happened. It made me anxious to read the next issue;
B. When the next issue arrived, I got a satisfying defusing of the situation, a relief to my anxiousness. By having a gap between those two pages, the book was able to pull off a very interesting narrative trick that’s only possible in serialized fiction.
Now, if I’d just turned the page and discovered the second half, none of this wouldn’t have happened. It would have taken away a big part of the serial nature of the medium, and actually ended the book on something that was less impactful or potentially nonsensical. By having that gap and keeping it true, Marvel was able to create drama and ultimately, entertainment. Included preview pages would have ruined it; it would be a bad artistic decision.
I’ve seen some comics that did this, and unless it’s one of my favourite series that I desperately want to see a little bit more of, it just tends to bore me because, well, I’m already reading this comic. I’m probably going to buy the next month’s issue, too. By including the preview pages, they’re not just potentially disrupting the pacing of the issue proper, but they’re not really selling me anything extra. Those four pages are generally better served, at least to me, including ads or previews for other series that I might not be already reading. I’ve bought comics based on a few pages being included in the back of an X-Men book or Amazing Spider-Man, or gotten interested in a series based on a really arresting ad design. They’ve sold me extra comics using this method. Including preview pages of the same comic doesn’t sell me anything they weren’t going to get my money for already; it’s just not a smart business decision.
I like the way comics generally do previews now, i.e. a bit of text and maybe the next issue’s cover. If the cover is designed well, or the teaser text is interesting or funny, it can serve as the “dramatic snapshot” that a “Next week on ____” spot is on television. It’s something specifically catered to be a teaser, and that’s the smart decision.
One of the more interesting ways I’ve seen a creative team approximate the next issue teaser is what Grant Morrison and his artists have done in the pages of Batman & Robin and Batman Incorporated. In these comics, the teaser is an actual part of the comic’s final page itself. It’s a big, “Next month in ____” followed by a series of interesting images that are stripped of enough context that they don’t actually spoil any plot or ruin any pacing. TV teasers work because they provide some sensation without actually tipping too much of the plot (at least when they’re done well), and Morrison et al’s in-text teasers do the same thing. It makes me excited to read the next issue and doesn’t ruin the dramatic impact of their latest cliffhanger. It’s artistic, it’s smart and it’s good business. That’s how you do it.
Brandon: I’ve always been a big fan of comics that take out of context preview panels from upcoming storylines, and place them in a “coming soon” page – but that’s about as close as they can get to doing this while ALSO being concious of each page costing lots and lots of money…
Marc finishes: How do you avoid the pitfalls of writing a character as a Mary Sue character?
James: I dunno… be a good writer? Like, that’s pretty much the only way. Some writers use it to make metacommentary. Others just write really good stories. The only thing in common is that you have to be a good writer to do it.
Brandon: If you’re basing a character off yourself in some way, shape or form, give them flaws and have them lose. If “you” are always winning, then you’re doing it wrong.
Jay (@jayrunham) asks: What do you guys think is the best JJ Abrams-produced and/or -directed TV show or movie?
James: First of all, we’re gonna have to separate this into two different categories, because TV and movies are very different art forms that accomplish their goals differently. What makes, say, a Mission Impossible movie successful is not what makes Alias successful.
With Abrams‘ TV series, for me it’s a toss-up between Lost and Fringe. Lost did a few things briliantly: it was gorgeous, it had some great cliffhangers and episode beginnings, and it had a deeper mythology that was there to obsess over if you were so inclined. Lots of people will say that they didn’t stick the landing, but I found it really enjoyable. For me, the mythology of the series was always second-fiddle to the characters and their development. I liked seeing Charlie evolve into a hero, or Sawyer become less selfish as he learned to be a functioning human again. I was okay with not getting every answer, partially because I like ambiguity and this means there are still things to ponder and debate, but also because it wasn’t why I was watching the show in the first place. For people for whom their priorities were different, I can imagine it was significantly more frustrating.
Fringe was a show I didn’t give a fair shake at first, but once I did (because it was dirt cheap on Blu-Ray and I was out of Lost episodes to watch on DVD), I discovered a series that is really rewarding and really well-made. It’s less flashy than Lost, partially because it’s simply less exotic in terms of locale and doesn’t tackle as many weighty issues as conspicuously, but it combines an always-building mythology and long-form storytelling with serialized weekly mysteries, good effects, great actors and a lot of emotion. I really like how each season finale changes the scope and focus of the series considerably, and takes it in a different direction. I’m thrilled with this final season and how well it’s managed a time-jump (something very few series have ever done well, I’m looking at you, CW) and managed to wring even more emotion out of its characters. Its mythology is more utilitarian than Lost‘s, which was very far-reaching, but this lets them close loops and stories more efficiently. Plus, there’s still that moment in the second season when the show finally lets you know a giant plot point that it’s been building up for almost two full seasons. It plays the endgame really, really well.
As for movies, I’ll confess that I’ve only seen Star Trek and Super 8 out of all the ones he’s been involved in, so my opinion here is somewhat limited. Some day I’ll check out the recent Mission Impossible movies and maybe Cloverfield, but that doesn’t help me now. It’s honestly hard to pick between Star Trek and Super 8, because they’re so very different. Star Trek was the nearly perfect re-imagining of a series and franchise I’ve loved my whole life. Despite some visual quirks, it had a great cast and more than that, it captured the spirit of the original series, which was boundless adventure. I’d seen these characters and some of these tropes, but I hadn’t actually felt that same whoosh of excitement and pure possibility since I was 10 or 11. It made Star Trek something I could discover again, which is amazing, and it simultaneously spread it to a new audience, too. That’s awesome. And Super 8? It’s just a really gorgeous, really moving, really-just-well-done family action movie. It’s unmistakably modern, but it could have stepped out of the 1980s, when movies and TV series were generally less self-consciously dark and gritty than they are now. There is sadness to Super 8, but this really interesting hope and warmth, too. It’s a great summer movie and I am actually embarrassed I haven’t bought it yet. What the fuck,James?
Jay continues: The Toronto Raptors have now won four games in a row. Will they make it to the playoffs?
James: In all honesty? Probably not. They’ve had good stretches before and blown it. They’ve certainly blown a lot of games this season. But at the same time, what’s far more important is whether or not they make you feel hopeful, like there’s a point of watching the team tomorrow or next week or next month. One reason the Oakland A’s were so rewarding for me as a fan this year wasn’t just that they did well in the second half of the season and made the playoffs – though that was great – but the feeling that any game, no matter how dour, could turn around. I watched them come back from really incredible odds, and a lot of the time, they didn’t even win those games. But I was interested and excited, and I had fun. If the Raptors are making you think they can make a run for it, that’s what’s important, and that’s the feeling you should chase. The playoffs are really brief in comparison to the rest of the season; savour the latter while you can.
Brandon: You seem to be forgetting that they are from Toronto. You should know what that means by now.
Chris (@chrisinedmonton) asks: Leno or Letterman? Ferguson or Fallon? Also, why all the alliteration?
James: I dunno, maybe you had a stroke or something.
As for the hosts themselves, while I’ve never been as big a fan of Letterman as I am of others, I easily prefer him to Jay Leno. It’s easy to hate Leno for his seeming unscrupulousness and drama he’s created about his Tonight Show transitions, but after reading The War For Late Night, what I dislike even more is his assembly line approach to writing jokes, which are based less on his own sense of humour than they are on what kind of stuff is popular. It leaves me unable to connect with his humour. Now, Letterman is not putting the same effort into The Late Show that he used to, primarily due to his age, but his time at Late Night was truly genre-exploding and remarkable in every single way. He deconstructed the form of late night talk television in a way that had never been seen before, and bits of that genius, wit and sharp tongue still sneak through once in a while, and when they do (like during the whole Leno/Conan debacle), he’s still great.
As for Craig and Jimmy, I like them both. Craig is my favourite – I think he does the best interviews in the industry, bar none. By just having conversations with guests, not even necessarily about their work they’re theoretically there to plug, things can take really exciting, funny or moving directions, instead of questions that were figured out ahead of time. I also like his approach to the monologue, which is heavily improvised with interspersed jokes and topics to discuss instead of an actual script. More so than any other current host, he embodies to me that 1980s David Letterman spirit of deconstruction and restlessness, where he follows his whims and plays with the idea of the form. Geoff Peterson, his robot skeleton sidekick, started out as a joke and a play on the idea of a host having a sidekick, and has since morphed into a genuine character and partner on the show, which has springboarded them into further levels of experimentation. It’s unpredictable and it’s exciting. That said, I think Jimmy has only improved as time has gone on and he’s figured out how to play to his strengths. His bits – especially his musical ones – are genius, and he’s got the best house band in the industry, without exception. I like that he and Craig have resisted the tendency to be competitors, and instead are completely friendly to each other, right down to saying hi to each other on their shows every night for a period of time and actually exchanging gifts on-air one year. With so much acrimony at 11:35, it’s great seeing friendliness in the following time slot.
Brandon: James really covered everything quite well with his answer. Craig Furgerson is probably the master at the interview segment, Fallon and Conan are the best at bits. The rest can be highlight worthy occasionally and also I guess, Jay Leno still does things sometimes maybe.
Jessica (@starkers_in_yeg) asks: James, did you get my birthday present? If not, why are you so disappointing, Brandon?
James: I did! It was very kind, and thank you very much for it! I don’t know why Brandon is awful in general, though, just that he is and it is my duty to protect you all from him.
Brandon: where is that bag of puppies
Scott (@scottowilliams) asks: What, um… like, what do you think about
James: How it’s not my fault that people are wrong about Batman.
Brandon: How I wish that my family was proud of me instead of perplexed and disappointed? Why are you bringing this up, Scott.
Scott continues: Who is,uh, like who do you, um, what’s your favourite guy who does, like, um, stuff
James: Jesus. Would you mind if I talked to you about him for a little bit?
Brandon: Dave Eggers. Would you mind if I talked to you about him for a little bit?
Scott mumbles: What was your reaction when the thing happened
James: White hot, apoplectic rage towards you, on a very personal level. Why are you the fucking worst, Scott?
Scott rambles: Out of the whole year, what was your favourite of the whole year of this year
James: I thought Hawkeye was pretty great.
Brandon: Yeah, pretty much.
Scott scratches himself and asks: What like will be the next thing of whatever
James: People being snooty about Django Unchained and Les Miserables, opening Christmas Day!
Where’s my fucking money, Weinstein?
Brandon: Probably Young Avengers or Pretty Deadly or Sex Criminals or Satellite Sam.
Scott coughs: How did?
James: Well, it finally happened, people: Scott’s untreated AIDS (why didn’t you get the help we offered?!) finally did him in. He’s dead.
And you know what? Good riddance. We don’t need him, do we, Brandon? We can come up with our own questions! Ones with appropriate grammar and punctuation and everything! And I won’t have to try to give a damn about Aerosmith anymore! Truly, we’re gonna enter a new Renaissance, not just for this site, but for the world in general. Scott was literally the one thing holding us back from Utopia. Fuck that guy.
Brandon: James, don’t do that, you’ll get AIDS.
Scott resurrects: What was your favourite one they had for it?
James: Well, shit.
Brandon: Merry Crumpsmas to all, and to all a swag night!
That’s it for the thirty-ninth installment of Um, Actually! Check in every Thursday for a new batch of questions. If you have anything you’d like answered, hit up our Contact page! If you submit anything via Twitter – to @blogaboutcomics, @leask or @soupytoasterson - remember to include the hashtag #UMACTUALLY so that we don’t lose it. Remember: you can ask us anything.