Reading “The Wicked + The Divine #31”

One of the major challenges of doing this issue-by-issue analysis, which in itself is nowhere near comprehensive, is keeping my commentary focused just on what has been established in the story up to whatever point I’m at.  For my personal reading, I consume the whole thing with a quickness; case in point, my copy of The Wicked + The Divine‘s seventh volume arrived this past week, and I read the whole thing in an evening.  Folks who are current on the series understand that the ending of each successive arc, especially in the back half of the series, recontextualizes the whole thing as long running mysteries are resolved.  We’ll see a major taste of that in a few issues when we wrap up Imperial Phase Part 2, but until we get to that point, I’m trying to maintain the fiction that I’m only working with what’s been revealed by this point in the story.  It’s difficult, especially after finishing the series’s penultimate arc, because I’m now looking at even these relatively recent issues in light of what I know.  It’s sort of like trying to watch Lost after you’ve seen the entire series; on one level you can enjoy the tension of the moment, but you can never get the original sense of mystery back (at least in The Wicked + The Divine‘s case, I trust that Gillen and McKelvie have a satisfying plan in place).

Anyway, let’s get on with the story.

Poor self care habits aside, Dio clearly has the coolest powers. Let’s take a moment and enjoy him at a high point before things go south. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson)

As it goes, we’re hitting the crescendo of the entire “Imperial Phase” arc.  This issue sees the sky gods confronting Sakhmet about her murder orgy and the research gods (that is a terrible classification, but I can’t think of a better way to describe the weird alliance between Cassandra, Woden, and Dionysus) put on the massive show they’ve been planning at Valhalla in a bid to figure out what the murder machine does.  There are, of course, betrayals of various sorts, and we even get our first god death since Persephone ripped Ananke apart; it’s a big issue in what will be a series of big issues.

Who knew that a reflective helmet with no visible expression could look so smug? (Cover by Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson; Image credit: Comic Vine)

This issue’s cover features Woden in a relatively restrained green neon trimmed suit with coat tails.  It’s his third appearance on a standard cover, and it’s only slightly less threatening than that one where the shot’s centered on him cracking his knuckles like he’s about to get into a fist fight with someone.  The whole pose evokes the image of Mr. Burns from The Simpsons, with the dome of his helmet simulating a bald head and his fingers steepled like he’s totally pleased with some devious plan that he’s secretly executing.  You can just image him hissing “Excellent!” to himself.  The inset panel, which has been gradually losing its coherence, is totally overrun with circuitry the recalls the same visual style of Woden’s various creations.  We know that things have been spirally, but it’s obvious there’s no going back at this point.

I didn’t really discuss the ongoing subplot of Laura and Sakhmet in the last issue because there wasn’t a whole lot of development of that thread besides the revelation that Laura has kept quiet after she finds Sakhmet in her apartment.  The timeline of this arc is extremely compressed, almost as much as in Rising Action, so it makes sense that there wouldn’t be a lot of movement on the Sakhmet front.  In this issue the weekend has passed (Amaterasu’s party happened on a Friday night, and Sakhmet showed up at Laura’s on Saturday), and Sakhmet is getting bored with lying low.  She decides to leave to go on one of her night walks (like the one that ended with her eating her father many issues ago), and Laura takes the solitude as an opportunity to tell Baal what she knows.  We only get to see Laura’s side of the conversation, but it’s clear from her expressions that Baal is less than pleased that she’s been hiding the Pantheon’s resident mass murderer.  Laura justifies her delay in telling Baal with the excuse that she thought she might be able to talk some sense into Sakhmet or at least was afraid her girlfriend might kill her (both are reasonable excuses on their face, but Laura immediately admits she’s unsure about her real motivations); either way, she’s dropping a hot tip now.

Dionysus is always ready to drop good friend 101 advice, even in the middle of an awkward “hypothetical” conversation about his own friendships. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

With the research plot line we get our regular reminder about Dionysus’s primary flaw: he doesn’t take care of himself when he has any reason to believe he could be helping someone else.  This characteristic manifests in his insistence that the show go on despite Cassandra’s observation that Dionysus is way too exhausted to perform and Woden’s uncharacteristic suggestion that they delay the show until their living dance floor is more stable.  Dionysus insists that he’s fine to do the show, and then we get a couple of extended scenes where Cassandra finds herself discussing the last thing she would want to discuss with either of her research partners: relationships.  Woden, pulling his signature annoying move of being right about something, points out to Cassandra that Dionysus is pushing himself so hard because he’s in love with her.  Then, to further debase this comedy of manners, Woden lets slip that he’s also attracted to Cassandra, although he’s quick to declare that it’s purely a physical thing, and she doesn’t need to worry about managing his  shriveled misanthropic feelings too.  This pseudo-love triangle among the researchers is a weird take on the trope as Cassandra is already in a closed relationship with the other Norns, and her two would-be suitors are perfect foils to one another.

Dionysus, I love your altruism and want to shake you for having no sense of self preservation. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

I think I’ve discussed in the past the ways that Woden and Dionysus are inverse mirrors of each other, from their attitude towards relationships to their feelings about the nature of their powers to the ways that they interact specifically with Cassandra.  Woden can’t resist bringing the uncomfortable relationship dynamics to the surface just to amuse himself while Dionysus, in a scene that’s heartwarming on a lot of levels, explains to Cassandra that good friendship requires acting in a way that respects the wants and needs of others regardless of one’s feelings about them.  It’s a scene where we get to see Dionysus at his best, even though he looks terrible and we know that bad things must be impending for him.  When the show begins and Woden co-opts Dionysus’s hive mind to literally take control of the crowd, our worst fears get confirmed; never trust the Nordic jerkface because he’s always looking to get the best advantage for himself.

Given Sakhmet’s character arc, this single panel showing her being contemplative speaks volumes about the scene it opens. We’re intruding on an extremely private moment with a character who has never wanted anyone else to have access to her internal life. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson)

We catch up with Sakhmet at the British museum, the same place where she had her first encounter with an icon of her namesake as a child.  We learn that this is a special place for Sakhmet, a spot that she retreats to when she wants to be alone (that Sakhmet has a contemplative side shouldn’t be surprising, but I don’t think it’s ever been seen before now; she’s usually very much invested in hedonism and self-medication for coping with her personal traumas).

This panel is all that Amaterasu gets in the way of achieving self knowledge before her violent death, which is both incredibly sad and incredibly funny. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

The sky gods, thanks to Laura’s information, have caught up with her, and they’ve decided that Amaterasu will make first contact in an attempt to bring Sakhmet in peacefully.  Given Amaterasu’s long history of completely failing to come through during crises, this seems like a really bad plan.  Add to that her penchant for insensitive, oblivious blather during even low stakes conversations, and we can pretty reliably predict how this all goes down.   The only asset Amaterasu brings to the table is the fact that she’s the best performer in the group, and one of her specific talents is inciting pleasant emotions in her audience.  It’s almost enough to work except that as soon as she believes that Sakhmet’s no longer a threat (Sakhmet is always a threat) she stops doing her mojo and starts in with the colonialist junk along with fond memories of her father, which are perfectly Amaterasu and the precisely wrong things to say to someone with Sakhmet’s history.  Really, it seems like the sky gods pick up the idiot ball for a moment with this plan, but then you remember that Minerva has a vendetta against Amaterasu for abandoning her when Ananke was rampaging and Baal just isn’t a terribly cunning person, and it begins to look like Amaterasu was meant to go in and get killed by Sakhmet.

The moment of Amaterasu’s death is upsetting in a lot of ways (it’s graphic, destructive, and probably avoidable). It’s also entirely predictable because its preceded by her signature talent for saying precisely the wrong thing to the wrong person without any real effort at all. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Perhaps the only thing that’s even more Amaterasu than her carelessness being what finally, finally gives her a comeuppance is the fact that as she lashes out in her death throes she utterly destroys priceless Egyptian artifacts.  If that’s not a commentary on the utter vindictive nonsense that white people engage in to try to hold on to their cultural hegemony, I don’t know what is.

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Lesson Planning: Character

At this point in the unit, after I’d made pretty much all the materials that we used in class, my co-teacher insisted that I share some of the prep work with her, so we agreed that she would make the graphic organizer.  You’ll see in the picture for the notebook that it looks very different from what I normally come up with.  My design philosophy when I make handouts is something like this: the purpose of any item you give to a student for a lesson is to help the student make sense of the concept that they’re trying to learn; with that essential premise, it’s best to prioritize readability and visual clarity over elaborate design.  It’s the reason I make such heavy use of tables and avoid inserting images in my handout designs; I want everything to make spatial sense so that my students don’t need to expend extra processing power on figuring out what parts of a paper go with what tasks.  This was a technique I picked up a couple years ago in Georgia from a colleague who was really good at formatting papers in a way that minimized the need for eyes to go wandering for useful features such as word banks and the like.

I feel like I’m not super good at creating icons for association with concepts, but this generally seems like it works. Note that we left space on our input page for students to do a quick write at the start of class in order to jump start their thinking about how characters work before we get into the direct instruction about characterization.

All that’s not to say that I dislike the handout that we provided for this lesson; it totally works to its intended purpose.  It’s just different from what I would have come up with.

For characterization, we decided to build our lesson around the SLATE model (I’ve previously taught this model using the acronym STEAL, but I figured we should do what we can to discourage crimes in the youth; a side effect of this rearranging has been an ongoing joke where we try to figure out other interesting acronyms using this very versatile set of letters).  For folks who may not be familiar, the SLATE model of characterization is broken down like this:

  • Speech
  • Looks
  • Actions
  • Thoughts
  • Effect on Others

It’s a succinct way to organize the various modes of indirect characterization that authors can use in their work to give readers a complex picture of who a character is.  Experienced readers of narrative will intuit a lot of these things on their own, but I like that this model makes explicit what students should look for when they are doing character analysis.

For the direct instruction portion of the lesson, I brought back the animated short that the class viewed back when we were first looking at plot.  Using stills from that text, I walked students through how different aspects of character were revealed by supplying some of my own written narration of what happened in each scene.  By this point we had only looked at two short stories, and I wanted an example that would bridge the visual information students are used to picking up from video media with the practice of finding these same modes of characterization in a written format.  If I were more versed in picture books and illustrated children’s literature, I might have pulled something from that medium in order to build a stronger connection with reading skills (this may all be moot, since much of language arts is about building critical reading and thinking skills in a variety of media, but they get tested on their ability to interact with prose and verse, so there you go).

We decided that because we were asking the students to do a relatively complex task with character analysis, we would structure the practicum beginning with a whole group example followed by individual practice.  A frequent question I have about my own planning is always how much I should favor group work over individual practice for these complex tasks; I understand the value of students discussing a new skill among their peers, but it’s rarely the mode of learning that I immediate jump to when I’m planning out an activity.  Anyway, with this lesson we worked as a class to do analysis on a character from the first story we had read this year using the SLATE model as a guide for finding evidence.  At the end of this activity we had a model on the board that students could reference in addition to having them make a copy of the model themselves as we proceeded through the exercise.  From there, we asked them to pick a major character from the second story we had done and perform the same task independently.

For the notebooks, we found with this lesson that we could create double sided inserts and have students tape them in between pages to avoid using up extra space that we could utilize in other ways.  The interactive notebook experience continues to be a major learning process for my co-teacher and me, but we’re beginning to feel much more comfortable with considering how to make use of the tool in our lessons.  The next major goal we have is to figure out more ways to actually make the notebook interactive so that students actively refer back to it instead of simply using it as a repository for assignments and notes.  This is not to be down on the notebook functioning as a notebook; one of the fundamental deficits that I often find students on IEPs have is a lack of organizational skills that need to be explicitly taught.  Even a simple repository for assignments and notes is a major step in the right direction for them.

Life is Strange 2: Log 1

So the first episode of Life is Strange 2 has been out for a couple weeks, and the other night Rachael and I sat down to play through it.  I’ve been looking forward to this one for a while since it’s developed by the same studio that did the original Life is Strange with a new story set after Max and Chloe’s adventures in Arcadia Bay.  The protagonist of this story is Sean Diaz, a sixteen year old boy from Seattle who is forced to take his little brother Daniel on the run with him after an encounter with a jumpy cop.  Where the first game was primarily concerned with the experience of navigating life as a teenage girl who has to manage various implicit and explicit threats from the men around her, this sequel focuses on the racial discrimination experienced by Latino men and boys in America.  Sean and Daniel are first generation Mexican-Americans who have spent their whole lives in Washington state; their father Esteban hales from the fictional Mexican town of Puerto Lobos (wolf motifs abound within the game’s narrative, paralleling the animal associations that were begun in the first game with Max’s deer and Chloe’s butterfly).  They’re a relatively happy family just trying to live life in the shadow of the impending 2016 election.

Life is strange 2.png

Title logo for Life is Strange 2. (Image credit: Wikipedia)

The election and the political climate that it made white folks painfully aware of is a major presence within the game’s environment.  The story begins on October 29, only a little more than a week out from November 8, 2016.  Scrolling through Sean’s old texts on his phone, you can come across an exchange with his best friend Lyla, an Asian-American girl, where she frets, “He’s going to win, isn’t he?” followed by the morose declaration, “I don’t want to live in this world anymore.”  The national embarrassment is never mentioned by name, but discussion of his infamous wall is a major point of characterization for a character that Sean and Daniel encounter on the first leg of their road trip.  Though the drama of this story is generally centered on the personal tragedy of a family being disrupted, it’s undeniable that the larger societal circumstances that make Sean and Daniel’s situation so precarious should never be far from the player’s mind.

Because this is a narrative game, the chief mode of engagement for the player is through making decisions about how Sean acts.  His relationship with Daniel, who is constantly watching nearby, introduces a dimension to decision making that’s reminiscent of the first season of Telltale Games’s The Walking Dead where the player had to consider how Clementine would react to their decisions as Lee.  Children follow the role models they have, and with Daniel that holds true; one of the small wrenching moments in a story that’s full of sadness for me was a small moment where I discovered that Daniel had stolen a small thing from a character who had helped the brothers out after seeing Sean steal camping supplies while trying to get away from another, hostile character.  In the moment I felt like the theft was fully justified after being attacked and held involuntarily, but seeing how this decision influenced Daniel made me reconsider my reasoning.  The whole setup works pretty well to dodge an issue that I’ve been mulling over since finishing the episode, which has to do with the problem of the model minority.  Sean is a boy put in an incredibly difficult position, but there is a detachment between the player and the character.  In other morality-based choice systems, I find that it’s frequently easy to go for the idealistic choice irrespective of the personal cost the character might experience.  Wanting to play a story about systemic injustice, I found that I was inclined to make decisions based on my expectations of what an ideal victim of systemic injustice would do.  My version of Sean, despite it being established that he smokes weed and engages in underage drinking with his friends at parties (and that his father has a relaxed attitude towards this behavior so long as it’s confined to controlled spaces), doesn’t pack beer or his weed pipe during the opening sequence before the event with the cop happens.  Later, when he and Daniel are in serious need of supplies, I had Sean refuse to consider stealing food or other sundries despite a tiny budget; my reasoning in both cases was that I should minimize the potential excuses any antagonistic characters might have for causing the brothers trouble.  Part of this whole rationale was practicing empathy with the pressure that people of color feel to do everything possible to minimize being noticed by hostile white people, but part of it also felt like some recapitulation of the persistent myth of white privilege that doing everything according to the law will afford you no run-ins with dangerous authorities.  I’m not sure how all that sits with me, other than just recognizing that there are biases and blind spots in my decision making process.  I want Sean to be a normal teenager, which means he should be allowed to make stupid decisions sometimes, but I’m left contemplating how to balance that against other impulses.

The idea with this log is to share my thoughts on the game as I play through it; I hope that the format will complement the game’s episodic nature, especially since I intend to play each episode as it’s released, giving a more real-time account of how I’m encountering this game.  I’m really looking forward to the next episode.

Reading “The Wicked + The Divine #30”

Issue #30 does a pretty thorough examination of some of my favorite characters in this series: Baphomet and Dionysus.  Baphomet has been largely off panel since the end of the Rising Action arc, primarily because, we discovered a few issues back, he told the Morrigan about his flings with Laura and the Morrigan did not take kindly to the news.  Dionysus has been around, but mostly in a supporting role within Cassandra’s plotline; he continues to be the cheerful helper of anyone who needs him (except for Woden, because nobody likes Woden), and here we finally get an examination of what that means in terms of personal cost.

The design on the Morrigan’s gown is almost reminiscent of Baphomet’s goat skull icon, but that’s probably looking too deep. The void stares back and all that. (Cover by Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson; Image credit: Comic Vine)

Because the majority of real estate in this issue is dedicated to Baphomet and the Morrigan, she graces the cover with her flock of ravens bursting out of the inset panel that’s become familiar throughout Imperial Phase.  She appears in her regal aspect here (neither Badb nor Gentle Annie have graced any of the McKelvie/Wilson covers, although they are prominent in a few guest covers), which is appropriate given the tone that this cover series is trying to evoke.  The gods present themselves with their best foot forward, although the Morrigan, like Sakhmet, isn’t fully able to appear less than threatening.  While she’s posed as though in the middle of a ballroom dance, the cover’s focus rests on her hand, which bears a taloned gauntlet.  Like we see in the issue, violence is always imminent even when the Morrigan appears to be controlling herself.

Someday I’ll manage to discuss an issue of WicDiv without taking a tangent about Cassandra. Maybe after she dies (I hope that’s not soon). (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Fraction, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Before jumping into the primary plot of Dionysus sitting around in the dark while the Morrigan’s various aspects come to talk to him, we begin the issue with a scene where Cassandra and Woden discuss the logistics of their upcoming show.  Besides the slightly scary prospect of Woden nearly perfecting his imitation of Dionysus’s miracles, we get a bit where Woden points out to Cassandra that she isn’t the utilitarian she thinks she is.  It’s an interesting point that Gillen doesn’t dwell on very much here; Cassandra’s primary philosophical trait is that she’s a nihilist.  She thinks the larger universe is indifferent to existence and people delude themselves when they try to attribute larger meaning to their lives.  This is not the philosophy of a person whom you would typically label an idealist, but in Cassandra’s case I think it works (curse you, Woden, for saying something I agree with!).  While Cassandra is definitely prone to dehumanizing people when she gets caught up in solving them, the level of rage and frustration she expresses when others don’t listen to her suggests that she does care deeply about at least some folks.  Despite all good sense telling her and everyone else that Laura Wilson is bound on a path of complete self immolation since her transformation into Persephone, Cassandra continually tries to intervene and support her friend.  During the Norns’ debut during Ragnarock, one of the key thoughts that saturates the crowd is “We only have each other.”  Granted, that thought’s immediately juxtaposed with “It’s never enough,” but this appeal to community no matter how small is a central part of Cassandra’s character.  So yeah, she’s a nihilistic idealist.

Gentle Annie’s the nice one, but somehow I don’t have a good feeling about her kind word to Dionysus. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Fraction, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Moving beyond Cassandra’s quibbling with Woden over how they compare as users of people, the issue’s main event is the series of conversations that Dionysus has in the dark.  In the previous issue he resolved that he would stay in the Underground and wait until the Morrigan allowed him to speak with Baphomet, and because Dionysus has an iron will when it comes to helping out his buddies (and Baphomet is his oldest buddy in the Pantheon), she eventually relents.  True, Dionysus suffers some abuse of his own before we get to that point, but he’s ultimately successful.  The sequence that leads to this moment is weird and a little nonsensical from a non-mythical point of view; Dionysus declares his intent to see Baphomet, and then he plonks himself down on the ground to wait until the Morrigan changes her mind.  The whole thing reads like a test of wills, but with the added twist that the Morrigan’s will is split into three personas which operate more or less independently of one another.  We can surmise from the bruises and scratches that Baphomet appeared with at Amaterasu’s party that the Morrigan’s default aspect and Badb are in agreement that no one else should see him, but Gentle Annie hasn’t made an appearance since the Morrigan was trapped in Woden’s god cage back in issue #16.  This makes sense; she’s had reason to be angry for a very long time, but besides the pacifist element of Annie’s personality it’s important to remember that she also embodies the Morrigan’s role as a death god (remember that it was Gentle Annie who revived the burned cop during Baphomet’s debut show).  Annie doesn’t need to display malice or indulge in violence because she holds power over life and death.  That she appears to Dionysus here is significant.

Speaking of Dionysus, this issue serves as a good moment to look at his character more in depth as well.  I am a major fan of Dionysus, primarily because he’s so incredibly cheerful and intent on helping people; at the same time, Gillen’s made it abundantly clear since Dionysus’s first appearance that the dance floor god is tragically incapable of taking proper care of himself.  Dionysus doesn’t sleep, instead keeping himself constantly awake through a combination of willpower, energy drinks, and probably a little bit of god magic (sleep deprivation has deleterious effects within a couple weeks of sustained consciousness; he has to be doing something supernatural to keep his body from literally shutting down).  There’s an element of carpe diem to the whole affair, as though Dionysus, aware of the limited time he has available to enjoy his godhood, just can’t bear to waste any of it.  More prominent though is the self sacrificial strain of thought in Dionysus’s personal philosophy.  In many ways he’s more aligned with the inspirational gods like Baal and Amaterasu, but unlike those high flyers, Dionysus takes his role as a divine conduit to an extreme level.  You can certainly credit Baal with having a major sense of obligation because of his personal stake in stopping the Great Darkness, and Amaterasu, for all her egregious flaws as a human being, does attribute larger significance to her godhood, but neither of them submits to the immense personal cost that Dionysus takes on to maintain those ecstatic parties for the sake of his followers.  He wants everyone to experience the joy that’s available to them; he just doesn’t have a proper mechanism for giving himself a break from doling out his gifts.

“Crowd-hearted” indeed. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Tragically for Dionysus, the only person he knows who has ever taken the time to ask after him is also the Pantheon’s resident whipping boy, Baphomet.  A pariah in the public world because of his assault on that police officer, and a prisoner of his girlfriend in his private life, Baphomet doesn’t have much opportunity to act in ways that reflect his best self (I know he’s trash in a lot of ways, but I still want to see the good in Baphomet).  Dionysus’s loyalty to him is one of the few reminders available to us that there is a person capable of kindness beneath those obnoxious aviator sunglasses.

Lesson Planning: Setting

I’m gonna go ahead and say this week that I don’t think this was one of my better lessons.  I spent Friday doing notebook checks at work (and I still have many more that need to be done today), and a consistent thing that I saw as I was flipping through the notebooks was that the pages for setting were relatively sparse.  I feel like I built a pretty decent sequence of practices with setting and mood identification that got students looking at actual text in a variety of narrative modes, but the amount of content I asked them to write down in their notes was minimal.  I realize this seems like a weird thing to worry over, but given the small portion of notes students needed, I feel like I could have made better use of the space I had available in the interactive notebooks.  You can see what I mean in the photo for this lesson’s layout.

The blank section where notes would go typically have about three lines in student notebooks; I could have put something else in there, like perhaps an image students could annotate directly. (Text excerpts from Arabella of Mars by David Levine, Dandelion Wine by Ray Bradbury, All the Birds in the Sky by Charlie Jane Anders, and Paul Clifford by Edward Bulwer-Lytton)

Because we were dealing with setting and connecting it to mood, I spent a pretty extensive amount of time in the direct instruction walking students through what kind of details they should look for when identifying setting and figuring out intended mood.  I used a few pictorial examples; because I was trying to emphasize that setting is an essential part of figuring out what kind of story is being told, I started with the best visual blank slate I could imagine: Morpheus from The Matrix standing in the white room waiting for items to be loaded in.  I had a pre-drawn background to go with this image as part of my lecture, but I could easily see modifying it to just start with the white background and inviting student suggestions to create a setting collaboratively.  That mode would likely create a more organic transition into discussions of mood as student input would directly affect how they reacted to the image they created.  In my case, I just made a generic beach picture because I thought it was a funny contrast with Morpheus standing in his leather coat and shades.

From the visual examples, we transitioned to discussing how setting details are evoked in language; this is the part I feel was probably the weakest in the lesson; when reviewing concepts last week to prepare for their first quiz, most students didn’t remember the connection I’d tried to draw between sensory language and setting details.  For practice, we looked at the famous Edward Bulwer-Lytton sentence; it may be overwrought purple prose, but it does effectively establish setting and mood in a relatively compact space.

By this point in the unit we had decided we wanted to move on to a new text to work with; our stubborn efforts to make the class a genuine world literature course led us to Abioseh Nicol’s short story, “Life is Sweet at Kumansenu,” a ghost story about a man coming to visit his elderly mother in her rural West African village and thank her for his life after he has died suddenly in the city where he works.  It’s an ideal text for practicing foreshadowing, but we liked the strong scene setting of its opening paragraphs and its relatively eerie effect as good examples for looking at setting and mood.  We had students listen to the opening paragraphs multiple times without the text in front of them and practice noting details that would clue them into the setting then drawing a picture of the story’s village.

The individual practice activity that I put together to wrap up setting and mood was a set of three expository paragraphs from different novels that I had sitting on my bookshelf at home.  I think it was a relatively well designed activity, but our timing of the lesson was off on the day that we did all this, and at least a couple of our classes weren’t able to complete this part on the same day while all the information was still fresh.

It Has Been A Week to Watch BoJack. Horseman, Obviously.

TW: National news

It’s not unusual for the national news to be bad these days.  We’re living in the midst of a thoroughly corrupt administration that’s being propped up by a legislative branch with little concern for checking that corruption as long as it doesn’t interfere with the ruling party’s ideological agenda.  For the last several months (pretty much since the beginning of summer), we’ve also been bombarded with news about the fight over filling a spot on the Supreme Court with a highly partisan judge that would render the Court a bastion of conservative policy for decades.  It all sucks mightily, and then to top all of that off, the news has been especially intense for the last few weeks as we’ve heard about credible allegations that this nominee committed sexual assault when he was in high school, and we’ve seen that, like with the corrupt administration, the ruling party in Congress doesn’t care because they see his appointment as a major win for their agenda.  Our government is wallowing in filth, indifferent to the pleas of the people to just find someone else whose ascension to the highest court won’t be a slap in the face to women and survivors of sexual assault.

That’s too much, man.

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BoJack Horseman’s title logo. (Image credit: Wikipedia)

To cope with all the unrelenting awfulness, Rachael and I decided that we were going to finally give BoJack Horseman, the Netflix animated series about a washed up ’90s sitcom star who makes many terrible decisions, a real chance.  We had previously watched the show’s inaugural episode, but as often happens with pilots there wasn’t enough to really latch on to; in that first episode, BoJack is an obnoxious, self absorbed celebrity, and the rest of the cast are relatively shallow Hollywood types.  It was honestly because of the many glowing recommendations from various friends that we decided to watch a few more episodes, particularly because of how they described the show as offering a genuinely interesting and compassionate depiction of the internal life of someone coping with untreated depression.  Once we got into the series though, we devoured it, going through a season roughly every two days (is that more than a week?  Time doesn’t seem to make much sense anymore).

What becomes apparent when you watch sixty episodes of a well-plotted comedy series in rapid succession is that while the jokes constantly move forward with topical humor and callbacks to earlier gags in ways that are constantly engaging and surprising (probably my favorite moment is when Jimmy Fallon, excited over encountering Todd and Mr. Peanutbutter’s floorless Halloween in January that claimed multiple victims in a previous season, steps back to get a selfie of himself in front of the store and instead gets hit by a bus), the structure of the show is remarkably predictable.  Every season is built around BoJack embarking on a new creative project that provides him with some stability before it necessarily ends, leaving him unmoored so that he gets caught in a self destructive spiral before finally making the decision to try to do better.  Rachael pointed out that the victory of any given season for BoJack is that after his depression leads him to do something horrible he simply chooses to keep living.  What the whole thing reminds me of most strongly, although it’s very different in tone, is the cycle of Don Draper on Mad Men (to call any story about Don Draper an arc is being far, far too generous to the character).  BoJack and Don are both men grappling with a sense of internal hollowness, but Don’s lack of genuine remorse for pretty much any of his transgressions and his series’s shifted narrative structure (where BoJack Horseman always ends a season with a sense of affirmation and renewal, Mad Men prefers to let Don’s new starts carry on just past the point of relapse before a season break).  All this is to say that while Mad Men is a difficult show to watch and enjoy because its protagonist lacks the introspective skills necessary for growth, BoJack Horseman remains compelling through repeated narrative routines because there is a sense that each subsequent season presents a protagonist who has been impacted by his relationships and experiences.  BoJack’s struggles are cyclical, but his character isn’t.

Besides the series’s eponymous character, the supporting cast is also full of rich and interesting characters once you get beyond their initial status quo.  Todd Chavez begins as the flat buffoon of the bunch, but over the course of five seasons he develops into a character with significant depth as someone learning how to incorporate his asexuality into his identity and become less dependent on the largess of his rich Hollywoo friends; Diane Nguyen mirrors BoJack in multiple ways but with a socialization that allows her to avoid harming most of her friends most of the time (Mr. Peanutbutter, her boyfriend-turned-husband-turned-ex over the course of the first five seasons, is an exception); and Princess Carolyn, who begins as BoJack’s cutthroat agent, serves as an examination of the social burdens that women who prioritize career over family (a choice men are never asked to make) have to deal with as they try to, in the colloquial sense, “have it all.”  There’s a momentum to the whole thing that constantly forces the audience to contrast BoJack’s real life with the perpetual stasis of his old sitcom, which (though we never get to see more than a smattering of scenes from the show’s whole run) did nine seasons where the characters’ status quo essentially never changed.

So it was probably a good choice for ducking a week (or however long; God, what are we going to do next?) of atrociously terrible and demoralizing news.

Reading “The Wicked + The Divine #29”

We begin the second half of the “Imperial Phase” arc immediately after where the first one left off.  The morning after Laura ghosts from Amaterasu’s party, she wakes in bed with someone who was going for a Lucifer sort of look and is immediately informed of the massacre that Sakhmet perpetrated the previous night.  It’s pretty immediately obvious that things are way more serious in the light of this particular (not so) random act of violence seeing as the victims were ordinary mortals and not super powered gods who usually draw the line at extreme levels of property destruction.

This picture of Sakhmet is pretty lit if you ignore the copious amounts of blood. (Cover by Jamie McKelvie & Matt Wilson; Image credit: Comic Vine)

The cover for the issue continues the motif that was established for the arc’s first half, although a few things become immediately apparent.  Sakhmet poses in regalia (and unlike the subjects on the covers of the previous six issues, she’s actually the primary subject of this issue as well despite being off panel most of the time) but her garments are soaked in blood below the waste line.  We don’t get to forget that she just committed the cardinal sin of the Pantheon: harming regular mortals.  Also with this issue’s cover we see that the inset image, which always represents a visual motif from the depicted god’s power set, is pushing outside the bounds of the border.  Sakhmet’s flaming lion isn’t going to be stopped by normal restraints.  It all comes together to provide a succinct visual summary of what’s going down: the Pantheon’s tumbling into excess, and the veneer of control they’ve been maintaining for six months is slipping.

Laura is under a lot of stress in this issue. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

Narratively, issue #29 closely follows Laura as she absorbs the information about what her girlfriend has done .  We go with her from the police station where she explains that she hasn’t seen Sakhmet since she left the party to Valhalla where she assures Baal and the others that she doesn’t know where Sakhmet is to the Underground where the Morrigan refuses to speak to anyone until Laura leaves to another self-destructive bender to her own apartment in the Underground where she finds Sakhmet hanging out like nothing major’s happened.  It’s been such a long time since Laura was the perspective character for an entire issue that it feels a little jarring to be back in her head for such an extended period of time.  The narrative callback works well though in this case because we get intermixed with the present action a couple of flashbacks to significant moments Laura had with Sakhmet since the beginning of the Recurrence.

Sakhmet has always unambiguously been about escapism; she doesn’t think it can ever get better. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

These flashbacks are interesting because they highlight two specific moments in Laura and Sakhmet’s history.  The first one is when Laura was at the debut of both Baal and Sakhmet at the start of the Recurrence.  Baal, in his typical quippy way, remarks that he “took [the audience’s] virginity… Sakhmet’s taking everything else.”  It’s a flip way to play with the sexual element of experiencing certain gods’ miracles, but it also emphasizes what the two most senior members of the Pantheon are to Laura; she fooled around with Baphomet in secret, but Baal and Sakhmet are her public lovers.  Since her own debut, she’s vacillated between the orderly Baal and the purely hedonistic Sakhmet, and most of the time (that we’ve seen) Sakhmet has been the winner.  Sakhmet is a character totally immersed in her baser impulses as a way of coping with the genuinely terrible life she had before her ascension, and she serves as the primary model for Laura’s own coping in the aftermath of her family’s murder.  Sakhmet’s snapping and massacring a room full of fans (for reasons of which no one is yet aware; Amaterasu doesn’t count because we know that when she panics she becomes even more obtuse than normal) is the extreme that Laura likely recognizes as a potential endpoint for herself.  She’s all about self destruction, but dragging others into the mess gives Laura pause in a way that it never has for Sakhmet.

Weird how some things don’t become real until you say them out loud. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

As an aside, this issue contains a truly delightful page turn where we cut from Laura, in the middle of telling the Norns and Dionysus that she’s going home to get some rest, to her partying with abandon.  Self destruction is hard for her to avoid, and the complete lack of context for this shift from her trying to be responsible to her blowing all that up so she avoid being by herself (why else would she not go home?) is so excellent.  It’s my favorite storytelling beat in the issue, and this is a story that features both Cassandra and Dionysus being themselves to the utmost in ways that I adore.

Laura is not processing the day’s events well. (Artwork by Jamie McKelvie, colors by Matt Wilson, letters by Clayton Cowles)

What we’re left with at the issue’s conclusion is a fair number of questions to establish tension for this new arc.  It’s clear by her reaction to finding Sakhmet in her apartment at the end that Laura has been honest with everyone all day about not knowing where her girlfriend’s gone, which means that when they reunite we get to wonder about what sort of decision Laura is going to make.  Everyone else in the Pantheon is pretty well set on finding and containing Sakhmet, and Laura’s status as the group wildcard leaves her as a big question mark going forward.  She might choose to help Sakhmet (it wouldn’t be the stupidest decision she’s ever made) or she might fall in line for once.  The implications for where Laura’s going on her character trajectory are pretty varied depending on this decision.  Aside from Laura, we also have questions about what Cassandra, Woden, and Dionysus have been up to.  They make mention of an upcoming show in this issue which Cassandra says will power up Ananke’s machine, but the specifics are unknown.  We can bet though that this show’s going to be important in some way, if for no other reason than because it will provide a nice set piece where more dramatic stuff can happen.