February 29, 2016

Thoughts on Supergirl 1x15 “Solitude”

Honestly, making these “initial thought” things a weekly thing was not my intention, but I do feel like I should put something down about this one because there was a lot I liked about it!

First off, the whole theme of the episode is about the bonds between the various characters breaking and/or shifting, which is great! Previous episodes have attempted to shake up the dynamic in small ways, but this one really lays everything out on the table and just kinda see where things stick. I’m glad Kara got the chance to operate on her own for an episode; it reminded me of the early days of the show where she wasn’t quite with the DEO yet, and that was cool to see. I do wish they’d continued the themes and character conflicts established last week between James and Kara like they did between Kara and the DEO. They didn’t acknowledge her and James’ conversations on morality at all beyond the fact that Kara left the DEO. I’m getting mildly annoyed that the writers are holding off on pressing character relationships in favor of the current episode crisis; not horrible, but worth noting.

The relationship between Lucy and James has always felt forced to me, but the tension here was real enough, and I’m glad they’ve at least tried to inject some natural conflict into the relationship. Lucy and Kara’s interactions also felt real and weighty. How that ends, though, that was a real sticking point for me. I was hoping Lucy might somehow find out Kara’s secret on her own and that’s what would’ve ended the relationship somehow, but having her jealous over Kara as a civilian and her and James’ friendship seems petty at best and contrived at worst. Lucy is a lot smarter and a lot stronger than that. I also don’t know how I feel about Kara give permission to James to reveal her identity, something she’s kept close to the chest anyway. The whole ending to this just seemed reckless and contrived, though I’m glad they didn’t go through with the reveal (yet).

Siobhan’s opening up to Winn was out of nowhere, but it does fit in if you’re thinking ahead to her eventual villainy, how now Winn will lose someone yet again to villainy, and it’ll give that origin story a bit more weight. I’d’ve liked to have seen their relationship grow more organically from the start, but I expect we’ll see more of it as the show goes on. Winn in general got to shine a bit more here too; again great suspension of disbelief must be taken in order to buy that he could’ve done… well, any of what he did here, but they payed lip-service to it in a smirking way, so it’s all right.

And of course, there’s the big admission at the end which I actually liked a lot more than I thought I would! It would’ve been easy for Kara to walk out of there again and then have this subplot of she and Alex hating each other, but this is actually a stronger writing decision for me, because it means that they’ll now have to struggle with the weight that this puts on their sisterly relationship instead of just being “enemies.” This makes it more complicated and real. I also liked how J’onn was forgiven too, and Kara embracing a weeping Alex and holding J’onn’s hand is a pretty good summation of their relationship: they all rely on each other, but it’s now fractured and tentative and mournful.

The Indigo character is one-note… y’know, they really need to step up there game with the villains; c’mon, fifty years of comic history and you couldn’t mine a bit deeper into this character? Plus it’s Braniac!! Like REALLY?? I do like her pseudo-Mystique makeup and movements though! (I wonder if she’s run into Livewire in the digital cyberspace land!) Having Supergirl stop a nuke was cool too (I liked that they dropped the fact that she flies faster than Superman earlier in the episode; it’s a subtle subconscious justification for how she can keep up with it that admittedly wasn’t really needed but was a welcome extra). That felt like a solid victory and how everyone dealt with it afterwards made the weight cary.

I guess I should mention the Fortress of Solitude for all that we got to see of it; the title definitely applies more to the theme of the episode than the actual location. Which is good; I’m glad they didn’t fan-service us for an hour with the Fortress, but it did initially feel like they cheated considering how much the marketing people played it up. Lots of DC Easter Eggs in there, I’m sure! I doubt we’ve seen the last of it.

Overall, this one was a solid above-average episode of Supergirl. It doesn’t hold a candle to last week’s, but it was good. Cat Grant continues to be my inner monologue on television pretty much and the effects dazzle as always. Melissa Benoist’s gleeful geeky expression when holding up the dwarf star key made me crack a big smile too!

February 27, 2016

Beyond the Red- Shadowcon Mini-Views

Let me be very clear: this review is NOT a reflection of Ava Jae herself. This is a review of her book Beyond the Red. Indeed, I am as big a fan of Ava Jae as anyone; I love her blog Writability and have learned a lot about writing from her. She was the person who inspired me to actually sit down and write a first draft of my own book, and she is someone who I look up to a lot.

And I wanted to love Red! Seeing the development of this project through Jae's various blog posts and status updates was exhilarating, and her own excitement and happiness about her first book being published just made me so happy! And rightfully so, as this is a big deal and she should be very proud that she's a published author with fans who evidently love the book, and I would not want to diminish that nor do I want this to come across as though I don't think she doesn't deserve it. She does.

But the fact remains that I just didn't find this to be a very good book. And I'd like to think that Jae would much rather have me be honest about what I feel than tell her what I think she would want me to say; that is the more honest review in the end, as it is treating you like the intelligent person that I think you are. So, no, sadly, I didn't like this. And that mostly comes down to the writing, but also down to personal taste.

Here's the Goodreads synopsis: "Alien queen Kora has a problem as vast as the endless crimson deserts. She’s the first female ruler of her territory in generations, but her people are rioting and call for her violent younger twin brother to take the throne. Despite assassination attempts, a mounting uprising of nomadic human rebels, and pressure to find a mate to help her rule, she’s determined to protect her people from her brother’s would-be tyrannical rule. Eros is a rebel soldier hated by aliens and human alike for being a half-blood. Yet that doesn’t stop him from defending his people, at least until Kora’s soldiers raze his camp and take him captive. He’s given an ultimatum: be an enslaved bodyguard to Kora, or be executed for his true identity—a secret kept even from him. When Kora and Eros are framed for the attempted assassination of her betrothed, they flee. Their only chance of survival is to turn themselves in to the high court, where revealing Eros’s secret could mean a swift public execution. But when they uncover a violent plot to end the human insurgency, they must find a way to work together to prevent genocide."

Right away, this looked neat! Unfortunately, it does little with the premise and even less with its characters. However, I will start with the positive aspects of the work, as I feel that just bashing the book would be in poor taste. So, here they are:

1. This is an intriguing world- I love the planet! More specifically, I am interested very much in the history of the planet. We get a brief synopsis of how humans came to be here, and that actually carries more of a pull as a potential story than what we get in the actual book. I think a prequel to this would actually go over extremely well.

2. The end- No spoilers, but I will admit that Jae does know how to ratchet up suspense and then just leave you there! Admittedly, the actual plot of the ending and how the book ends doesn't impress me, but the fact that it does end almost mid-climax and lacks a specific coda is an interesting choice.

3. The cover- Okay, I know, it's kinda not really relevant to the actual story, but come on! Look at this cover, guys! It's so gorgeous! I have it set as my phone background and oh my god it just makes me smile!

However, these three things are not enough to redeem a haphazard debut. There are hints of an amazing story in here, but the actual book is bogged down by three things:

1. A lack of distinct voice- The book is split between two POVs: Eros, the half-blood slave, and Kora, the queen of one of the eight territories of Safara. This sounds fine, and indeed the potential for voice distinction is here in droves: two characters coming from radically different lives, one struggling with issues of belonging and acceptance while the other is dealing with needing to impress and hold an entire nation under her order, I mean, this is ripe stuff. Unfortunately, especially with Eros, we get very little character-specific introspection, reflection, or clear identity. There is a lot of saying and barely any showing; Eros says he's a half-blood and he complains that he's ostracized and how he doesn't belong, but seldom unfortunately do we get to witness him as a man carrying the emotional punch that this should bring. Kora fairs slightly better, though not by much; we do get some idea of how she feels about her role as queen, and there are inklings of her feeling sad that she and her brother are estranged, but again, none of that is fleshed out enough for us to gravitate to her as a person. All of this is due to the fact that the book is plot-driven, not character-driven, and for me, that's a detriment. I love complicated nuanced characters, so having compelling traits boiled down to simple tropes really didn't sit well with me.

2. The chemistry between characters is all physical or surface-level- I kept noting this every time the romance between Kora and Eros would rear its head: none of this feels romantic. Indeed, Kora's and Eros' attraction is entirely physical, from the moment they meet to the end of the book, it's all surface, and that is a very poor writing decision when the characters themselves are imbued with backstory and flaws that are ripe for intermixing and discussion. This could have been an incredibly nuanced look at how two people grow to understand each others' dilemmas and find romance through emotional connection. Instead we have a very physical attraction between these two and it falls flat. This is also true for Kora's betrothed, Serek, who I actually liked as a character though he could've been introduced into the story a bit sooner. He is all body in Kora's eyes though, and having her conflicted between him and Eros when all the reader has been given of her attraction is that she's physically drawn to these two men... y'know, it just doesn't have very much of an emotional punch behind it as it should. Romance aside, even the interactions between the characters on a platonic or familial level are poorly scripted. Kora's relationship with her brother started out interesting enough, but Dima quickly devolved into a one-note baddy by the end and their history and the effect that that has on Kora is left hanging. Eros' human friends and family are poorly developed, and the book leaves little time for us to care about them because of its plot-oriented drive.

3. The pacing is unbalanced- When i started reading reviews of this, a consistent praise from everyone was how awesome the pacing is. Fast-paced, certainly, but for me, this book lurched more than it soared. Indeed, the pace is to blame for most of my problems with the book: a lack of fleshed out characters, well-scripted interactions, and emotional connections all stem from how quickly the plot wants to move. This seems to be at odds with the type of story Jae wants to tell, that of a complicated chemistry between two people set in the foreground of an engaging mystery/political thriller plot. But that's not the tone we get from the pace of the book. The broad beats of the plot are there, but the nuances, the spit and polish sheen are not, and that hampers the book considerably.

When I was reading this book, I kept wanting to love it. But in the end, it just wasn't for me. As a reader who loves engaging characters and deep thick plots, this book was unsatisfying to me. I found it to be a poor demonstration of Ava Jae's potential, and I only say that because what she has to say about writing itself, the craft of it and so forth, is pretty good, and I was looking forward to her demonstrating her own skillset. I don't believe this is the best that she can do. There's an amazing manuscript by her buried in here, but the final result is not it.

Having said that, however, I don't think this really needed to be it. This is not the book that Ava Jae gets to show off and blow everyone away with; this is the book that she gets to prove can swim before she moves on to something incredible. And in that respect, based on reviews and early buzz, I think she's proved that. But that doesn't change the fact that I found this book to be disappointing. And I've never felt more sorry to say that, because I was looking forward to this so much.

My feelings about Beyond the Red do not change how I feel about Ava Jae. She's still an awesome blogger and a source of knowledge for me. She has a genuine love for the craft and an excitement about books in general that always puts a smile to my face. I sincerely wish her best of luck with her next book, because I know, as do all her fans I'm sure, that she has the potential to write something groundbreaking!

February 22, 2016

Thoughts on Supergirl 1x14 “Truth, Justice, and the American Way”

So, okay, yeah, this COMPLETELY made up for last episode… kind of.

Thematically, this was handled loads better, actually capitalizing on its themes of morality and the lengths that Supergirl is willing to go in order to keep the world safe. It’s a great theme, and having her working with the DEO and bringing that strand into the mix was a good idea. There are two very substantive debates that Kara has with Jimmy about what she’s doing with the DEO, holding a bad man hostage without due process and ignoring his rights as a human. And that’s explored well here. Jimmy says that Supergirl’s methods bring her down as a hero, saying that doing the right thing is conflicting with doing what is morally right. And Kara’s rebuttal in the DEO headquarters is telling in that she almost seems to like taking the easy way out, as if she’s tired of being heroic all the time, and that’s understandable. Symbolically, Supergirl is the type to always believe in idealism, but by working with the DEO, she’s cooperating with a system that is not in concert with that idealism, and moreover, she’s realizing that humanity is not like that all the time, and by aiding them, she’s working from within a corrupt system in order to theoretically preserve a moral compass.

It’s a good dynamic to have, and I wish they could’ve done more with it, especially in developing the conflict between J’onn and Kara; it’s false conflict, sure, and maybe they don’t want this to overshadow the inevitable fallout between Kara and Alex, but it’s something that I think should be discussed more than in a quick coda. Still, the Kara/Jimmy scenes worked, and were by far the strongest points of the episode, and the theme itself is woven through the story in a tighter way than the show normally does things, which was refreshing.

I also like that not all of the Fort Rozz prisoners are bad people. Like a lot of people who are in jail, they’re just ordinary people who’ve gotten mixed up in bad things, but whose moral center remains optimistically good. It ties in nicely with the thematic overtones of the story, and helps Kara realize that justice does not mean executing everyone who has ever done something bad but rather recognizing their good nature in spite of that bad deed and have their punishment be equal in quality to the crime. Obviously, this is an extremely simplified version of the justice system… which frankly is too big and too complex a discussion to go into here (and I’m really exhausted anyway), but the fact that this episode even brought it up and hashed it out between the various characters was great, and having the Fort Rozz people and its guard serve as literal interpretations of the things being discussed helped to hug the theme more closely to the action of the episode.

The funeral scene was nice, in my opinion. Benoist again shows how she can just make the audience cry on command, even if what she’s saying is a bit too Christianized for my taste; I’d’ve loved for her to speak in Kryptonian! Alas. I also wouldn’t have minded a bit more of a punch to Kara’s emotions with regards to Astra’s death. Like, maybe they’re saving that for “Solitude,” but come on; Astra was the last of Kara’s blood that she had a personal connection to (besides Kal El… obviously), and to dull that knife here just seems like a step backward. Maybe the writers didn’t want that to overshadow the themes they were trying to push… but I don’t know, I think it would’ve been a neat line of thinking to explore deeper. But yeah, the funeral. Good stuff there; Krypton is in some parts of its culture, if not in all of its culture, a matriarchy, and I’m glad that Non was grudgingly respectful of Kara during this and kept his word.

Finally, I guess I should talk about the villain of the piece, the Master Jailor. I’m admittedly not familiar with him; my knowledge of Supergirl comes from this show, the DCAU, and the occasional Supergirl comic, so I don’t know him all that well. As such, I was confused as to what his power set is; that first fight was pretty good, though it got old quickly because I couldn’t tell what Kara’s main objective was in trying to stop him, like his weakness. Moreover, he’s a really one-note baddie. I mean, even for this show, this villain kinda sucks. It’s entirely possible I just don’t have an attachment to the character from the comics, so maybe that’s clouding my investment in him, but I don’t know, he didn’t really work for me.

Overall, I did enjoy this episode. Lots more meat to chew on here than in previous outings, a couple of great scenes with the CatCo people (Cat Grant’s confession scene was handled really well), and Benoist was awesome of course. It just felt a bit too rushed and that climax and coda especially just really needed to be slowed down; it felt like they wanted to end the episode three different ways but couldn’t decide which one to end on, so they just kinda jumbled all three together. However, thematically, it was one of the stronger episodes for this show, and I’m looking forward to next week as always!

February 21, 2016

Cam Girl- Shadowcon Mini-Views

So, in proper college nerd fashion, I've stayed up really late into the night finishing the amazing book Cam Girl by trans writer Elliot Wake (formerly Leah Raeder; that's the name on the cover too), about Vada, an art grad student turned cam girl trying to figure out her complicated relationship with her best friend/friend with benefits Ellis; struggling with a permanently damaged arm; and discovering the allures of camming and meeting a client named Blue, with whom Vada forms quite a close attachment.

There have been few books that I've read that I've considered life-changing after I've read them. This book is one of them! It's amazing! The last third in particular, but the whole thing is just so vivid in its imagery, characters, and especially in its themes that it just sends my heart to pounding and brings a smile to my face! There's a rawness to this, a realism that leaps from the page; it feels genuine because it is genuine, the author nailing all sorts of themes related to sexuality, identity, and so forth, and presenting them and the protagonists' views on them in a respectful way while remaining true to who these people are.

The writing is very visual and razor sharp in its language. It's also very steamy, not censoring itself at all, but all the sex and erotic elements are there to serve a thematic or character-specific purpose and do not exist for their own sake (most of the time), which is a very good thing; it could have easily run away with itself, but there's a remarkable amount of intelligence surrounding all the camming sessions and sex episodes, grounding everything in emotion. The characters are wild in their actions and fierce in their beliefs, and these types of scenes serve to illustrate or bolster that.

The thematic overtones are of bisexuality, being transgender, female agency in a male-dominated world, grief and personal loss, physical disability, and coming to grips with internalized misogyny and gender/sex-phobias. All of these are tackled and explored really well, certainly more than I thought would be possible in a tight book already teeming with a mystery plot and a perhaps unhealthy romance at its core; these could have easily been dropped in as lip-service, but having the main characters discuss them in relation to themselves as people is stirring to read and made me want to stand up and applaud Mr. Wake for his capturing of the untamed and raw nature of how we as people come to grips with these ideas in radically different ways.

If you have the chance to read this, do so. It is a masterwork, a laser-focussed study in emotion, character, and theme. It has amazing prose, a sharp, unapologetic, and fierce moral center, and a relationship that pulls you in and surrounds you entirely. If you want to feel like you're witnessing a beautiful tapestry being woven with words, read this book! Elliot Wake is a master of his craft, wringing emotion out of his readers and feeding them rich morsels of queer/feminist theory through stirring prose and vivid characters. As the first book I've read by him, I'll say this: Wake is one to keep an eye on. Cam Girl is one of my favorite books of all time, a tale that refreshed my interest in romance and reminded me of the potential thematic and character paths one can take with the genre.

February 18, 2016

The Optimism of CBS's Supergirl

Something kept going through my mind as I watched yet another episode of the excellent Jessica Jones series that was released on Netflix a few months back: this show is really bleak. Don't misunderstand that: that's by no means a criticism of the show itself, in fact I'd argue that Jones does the whole bleak thing better than most shows or films that aim to do that with a female protagonist in the lead; we get films like The Hunger Games, the Divergent series, and shows like The 100 that try ever-so-much to be gritty and just come off as boring, forced, and frankly obnoxious; even Agent Carter, an excellent show no doubt, still situates itself in a realistic and narcissistic world. Even with the quality of Jones' and Carter's writing, we are still stuck in the mindset that in order to be taken seriously, female leads and the shows that they inhabit must be bleak as all hell or at least downplay the fun factor.

Not so with Supergirl, a show that practically revels in its adorkable nature and overt feminist messages.

February 8, 2016

Thoughts on Supergirl 1/13 "For the Girl Who Has Everything"

This was the weakest episode of the series by far.

I’m actually really upset, mostly because they completely wasted the concept of Black Mercy, they executed the major beats for that story completely incorrectly, and what could have been the best character-driven episode of the show utterly failed to do anything with Kara’s character.

This is based loosely on Alan Moore’s “For the Man Who Has Everything” comic book Superman story, which was all about Kal El living in a fantasy so completely engrossing that he never wants to leave, and the challenge is not just in him escaping from mind control, but needing to essentially gut his own soul and memories in order to return to the real world. His victory over the Black Mercy is more bitter than sweet, as he now needs to return from a heavenly paradise into a cruel world.

That’s a major character moment, and the potential to do a satisfying twist on that with Kara’s show was here in spades: we have an internal conflict with Kara feeling like she’s living in her cousin’s shadow, that she feels simultaneously accepted on Earth but also alienated from it; we have Astra’s side of what went down on Krypton and how that’s effected Kara’s image of her mom, and likewise planted several seeds of self-doubt and doubled the loss of her world (that she now knows that there was someone who was on the verge of saving it, even if it was by dubious means); and we have her various relationships with her human family and friends. ANY of those issues could have been explored and that would’ve been a fascinating episode in and of itself, but this episode didn’t even TRY to explore anything.

Kara’s dreamscape is immediately false because she wakes up and is confused right away. This is completely at odds with what the Black Mercy is supposed to do: give you a fantasy that you do not question. So why is Kara questioning it? It’s a major stumbling block that didn’t need to be there at all, as later in the episode Kara’s accepted her fantasy world anyway. Her reaction to this world once she’s accepted it is one of ambivalence and mundaneness; she doesn’t seem happy, she seems dazed. And I love Benoist as an actor, but come on, she’s much better than this normally. Moreover, I as an audience member did not feel like this was a fantasy world; there’s little here that entices me beyond the physical spectacle of Krypton, which hey, credit where it’s due, the CGI on this show is amazing for a TV budget. But the heart and soul of Kara’s world is absent from this. The fantasy world could have seen Kara at her happiest, of having this responsibility of Supergirl and having to put on a front for a public acquainted with her cousin now lifted. Instead, we have snippets of this world that do little to actually explore Kara as a person or explore Krypton as a planet; it’s amazing that we got more in ten minutes of dreamscape screentime from the Justice League Unlimited rendition of Moore’s story than we do in the roughly twenty minutes of Kara’s that we see here.

In the real world, things aren’t much better. Alex does have some good character moments, fleshing her out as a sister to Kara, but manifesting that in the plot of “she must go find Kara and rescue her literally in her dream” was boring and unconvincing. Sure, have Alex be Kara’s anchor to Earth, but don’t make that literal. I also didn’t get the whole Jimmy stopping Hank thing that went down. I get that they were trying to play up the intensity amongst the characters, which is fine, but this whole thing with Winn and Jimmy in the DEO felt forced and unnatural as a whole, and that strand of sub-subplot very much so.

Indeed, much of the real world material felt disconnected and disparate from the actual Black Mercy story they were trying to tell in the first two-thirds of the episode, and given that the real world is the majority of that… y’know… I mean, it just seems like such an obvious thing to explore Kara and her character more here and have the real world elements elevate that instead of doing two thematically separate arcs that are connected only by plot. I don’t know what the writers were trying to do; it felt like they didn’t have a new angle to put on the Black Mercy story so they just said fuck it and didn’t do any angle - not even doing the original story properly.

Because I’m fine with a twist, that’s what makes new riffs on old ideas unique and interesting. But to just throw such a loaded story like this away, with all the story and character and thematic potential it has… it’s just such a shame.

I guess I should mention Astra’s “death.” I’m putting that in quotes because yeah, there’s no way she’s dead. I can’t imagine that they’d make such a foolhardy story decision (even in an episode as weak as this one). It also would’ve been much stronger had Kara been the one to face off with her; that would’ve really packed an emotional punch, having Kara, with her Black Mercy memories fresh in her mind, trying to talk Astra down, having those various stories from previous episodes come together somewhat here in a confrontation that might have had the two women hash out their different views of the world and of Krypton and all that. Instead we get a not un-entertaining fight between Martian Manhunter and Astra. On the flip, we have Supergirl versus Non, with some of the worst battle dialogue Benoist has ever said. Seriously, I cringed when this happened. It was all so aware of itself and familiar, the “do you have any idea what you’ve done to me” line in particular. Just so on-the-nose. This, coupled with the fact that I’d actually just re-watched the JLU episode yesterday too, so all that was fresh in my mind and really just showed how far this episode is from that one.

So yeah, overall, I’m obviously not happy. I’m not even mad so much as just goddamned disappointed. Wasted potential has never had a more accurate incarnation. If it had focussed up and centered itself around Kara instead of having that be a consequence of a larger plot, it might’ve gelled better. As it stands, this is my least favorite episode of an otherwise cheery and thoroughly enjoyable show. I am looking forward to next week!