Reading “The Kindly Ones: 12”

So, when I wrote up my post for the last issue, I mistakenly said it was the end of Nuala’s story in The Kindly Ones.  I had forgotten that she does get a little bit more resolution in this issue and the next, so I want to revisit her quickly before I get into the meat of the issue, the relationship between Dream and Matthew the raven.

Yes, Nuala! Get away from that toxic environment. (Artwork by Marc Hempel)

Nuala’s scene in this issue is a brief one; we see her grieving her part in Dream’s doom and the fact that she’s still stuck with the glamour that Cluracan put on her to save face in front of Queen Titania.  A boggart who’s appeared to pester Nuala before shows up and recites a bad poem to entertain her.  Nuala immediately recognizes the boggart as Cluracan in disguise, and she complains to him about Dream being in danger and not returning her love.  Cluracan rather flippantly asks if she would prefer that Dream did love her and was in danger, once again highlighting how he tends to diminish his sister’s feelings.  The intended point, that it’s ridiculous for Nuala to focus on Dream’s affection while he continues to be mortally threatened by the Furies, is a fair one, but it still diminishes Nuala’s stake in the story.  I’d prefer if she hadn’t fallen in love with Dream, but that’s one of her two major motivations throughout The Kindly Ones, so we need to respect how it impacts her character.  She’s reeling from a failed confession of love, and that’s certainly something with which most people can empathize.  Nuala’s other motivation, which I think’s a far less troublesome one for the audience, is her frustration at having her own wishes constantly undermined.  It’s fitting that Cluracan’s silly poem serves to inspire Nuala to leave Faerie and go make her own way for once.

The main event of this issue is between Dream and Matthew.  Matthew has been around since the second major arc of The Sandman, The Doll’s House.  I don’t remember if I’ve gotten into his background as a character before, but it’s worth bringing up here that readers commonly believe that Matthew the raven is the supporting character Matthew Cable from the comic series Swamp Thing.  During Alan Moore’s famous run on that series, Matthew Cable became an alcoholic and a domestic abuser, and he was eventually killed off following events that play out like a fantastic version of domestic violence.  In the continuity of The Sandman, Matthew is one of the select few mortals whom Dream keeps from going into Death’s domain so that they can serve a purpose within the Dreaming.  Understanding Matthew’s mortal life provides a lot of important context for his relationship with Dream throughout The Sandman.

Because so much of Gaiman’s cosmology is informed by his extensive knowledge of folklore and mythology, it’s not surprising that he established that Dream keeps a raven as a messenger and advisor; Odin has appeared at regular intervals with his own ravens Huginn and Muninn.  In The Kindly Ones, ravens are a recurring motif, with Gaiman using them as a way to signal the impending slaughter in the Dreaming and also having Dream explain to Matthew that he’s employed a long line of ravens.  This is a question that Matthew’s wondered about for a while now (I think the first time the question comes up is during Brief Lives), and it points toward his doubts about his role in the Dreaming.  Matthew’s history is never directly discussed within The Sandman, nor is any explanation given for why he was chosen to be Dream’s new raven, and his questioning (which seriously began at the start of The Kindly Ones) suggests that he’s in the dark about his arrangement as well.  This existential crisis strikes me as notable because it emerges at just the moment when Dream is in the depths of a parallel struggle.  In The Kindly Ones‘s first chapter we find Matthew seeking out Dream to check on him and to ask for more information about the Dreaming’s line of ravens.  It’s not a very fruitful conversation for Matthew, and he comes away from it in just as broody a mood as Dream.

I think the obfuscation on Dream’s part (he dismisses Matthew rather than offering any answers) is significant because it marks a split between these characters that hasn’t been present before.  Dream doesn’t generally like to explain things if he thinks they don’t need to be known, but in the time that Matthew has been his companion, they’ve always had a slightly more open relationship than that.

This is where Matthew’s background comes into play.

Remember that Dream’s arc throughout the entire series has been a gradual development of empathy and humility.  I think that his long imprisonment in the Burgess house and the subsequent struggle to reclaim his power from John Dee do a lot to teach Dream that he would be better served to build up his interpersonal skills, and it’s no coincidence that he selects Matthew to be his new raven once he returns to his full stature.  Matthew’s mortal life ended in ruin, and he made a lot of choices that damaged people he cared about; he’s a flawed person who knows a lot about messing things up, and he’s invested in trying to be better.  These qualities make him an ideal advisor to Dream, who at least subconsciously knows he needs to learn the same lessons.

What we’ve come to understand since the end of Brief Lives and throughout The Kindly Ones is that Dream is deep into an existential crisis that he doesn’t believe he can escape.  His nature is too fixed to fully embrace the changes he needs to make to repair the relationships that he cares about, and his rejection of Matthew in that first chapter is indicative of that.

Here in chapter twelve, where Dream is ready to confront the Furies with the full knowledge that he really only has one option to get them to leave the Dreaming alone, he relents and allows Matthew to accompany him.  That Matthew remains loyal to Dream, even after he’s been mostly shut out throughout this story, is pretty heartwarming.  That the last exchange between Matthew and Dream involves Matthew insisting that Dream needs to ask nicely almost makes me want to cry.  Even when Dream’s fully aware that he’s about to die, he’s still learning how to be better from Matthew.

Besties say goodbye. (Artwork by Marc Hempel)

Next time, Dream dies and the aftermath begins.

So I Just Saw Ghostbusters (2016)

This has not been a movie-heavy summer for me.  I’ve leaned more towards watching new television with my free time and generally avoiding the annual summer blockbusters.  I never went to see Captain America: Civil War even though most people agreed that it’s a fantastic action movie, and I skipped X-Men: Apocalypse despite my great love for the franchise.  It seemed unnecessary to fork over a large sum of money to see one movie that, while highly praised, looks to be very much established in the conventions of its genre (that is, it’s a male power fantasy that features a mostly white, mostly male cast doing things that lead to various explosions) and another that everyone agreed is simply mediocre.  Superhero fatigue can set in for anyone, and this was just not a summer for me to indulge the genre at movie theaters.

Of course, that logic didn’t apply with the new Ghostbusters movie; Rachael and I agreed pretty early on that as long as it wasn’t an objectively bad movie, we were going to pay to see it in theaters.  That’s not because the movie has such impressive visuals that it’s best appreciated on a big screen; in fact, as a buddy comedy the film’s special effects are mostly ancillary outside of the big climax (which struck me as the weakest part of the film; you really do get tired of seeing explosions after a while).  There’s nothing here that must be seen on a big screen.  No, the reason we surrendered our money to see this movie in a theater is because it’s a summer blockbuster about women doing the stuff that is normally reserved for men in other standard event films.  That’s a factor that we both want to see develop into a trend that will eventually become part of the cultural fabric of moviemaking.  The film industry is hugely risk averse, and monetary support of things that you want to see more of is essential to getting studios to buy in.

“But was it any good?” someone is going to ask.

Yes.  It was fantastic.

That’s not to say that the film isn’t flawed.  It is, and I’ll discuss the flaws I noticed a little bit later, but first I want to talk about the things that it does right.

The main characters of Erin, Abby, Holtzmann, and Patty are all thoroughly likeable.  They spend most of the movie simply being friends with one another, laughing, pulling pranks, sharing serious details about their lives.  Erin has a crush on the incredibly dim receptionist Kevin that’s based entirely on him being a big dumb Australian beefcake, and everyone else regularly teases her about it.  Holtzmann builds incredibly dangerous things out of spare parts and gleefully causes (let’s be honest, most of the) explosions throughout the movie.  Patty immediately accepts the weirdness of her new friends and runs with it, even though she’s an outsider to their work.  They all have their quirky personalities that make them the kind of characters that you want to spend a couple hours with.

Kevin the receptionist is a delightfully doofy inversion of the usual token woman trope in action comedies; he’s not smart, he’s not objectively useful, his only explicit value is as a sexual object, and he’s directly endangered in the third act to give the heroes a personal stake in saving the day.  Anyone who complains about all these tropes being bound up in a male character should remember that female characters in other stories are repeatedly subjected to these same tropes, and one instance of inversion is meant to poke fun at how horrible the tropes are in the first place for any character; when you get a Kevin in every movie that comes out for years on end, then we might be able to have a discussion about the problematic portrayal of men like this.  In the meantime, this example is hilarious, right down to one of his last jokes where he explains that he picked up a sandwich while he was looking for the Ghostbusters in the deli on the corner as they were battling a twenty storey ghost, and Abby, frustrated with Kevin’s incompetence, seizes the sandwich and throws it away off screen; the punchline is that Kevin then casually asks someone off screen for some help, and they throw the sandwich back to him.  Even as a useless, sexually objectified plot device, Kevin is still swimming in a sea of male privilege.

Besides the characters, the general comedy beats worked really well for me.  I giggled pretty much nonstop, which is all I ask for with a comedy.  Especially gratifying was the opening sequence, which involves the guy who plays Gabe on The Office getting terrorized by a ghost (I have nothing against the actor himself, but Gabe is just such a terrible character on so many levels that I took a lot of pleasure in his discomfort nonetheless).  The cameos of the original Ghostbusters cast were all pleasantly spaced as small bits of fan service throughout (Sigourney Weaver’s is probably the best, and she fittingly got the last one in the movie; make sure you hang out through the ending credits, which are generally done in a way that’s engaging all the way to the end).  The overall tone is generally light and positive, even as you realize that this is a movie about ghosts trying to break through the barrier between worlds and destroy the living.

Ghostbusters Poster

At least Patty got on the poster; that’s better than you can say about Winston. (Image credit: IMDb)

Now, we should talk about the movie’s flaws.  On a purely narrative level, this movie’s plot is pretty much a beat for beat rehash of the original.  Some details are different, like the fact that the villain is an angry guy rather than an ancient god, but the plot arc remains generally the same with the same character archetypes that were used in the first movie (Erin, Abby, Holtzmann, and Patty are roughly analogous to Ray, Peter, Egon, and Winston respectively).  You have their first big success followed by being publicly discredited followed by the mayor’s office begging for help followed by a big damn heroes moment and universal acclaim across New York.  It feels like Paul Feig was trying really hard to pay homage to the original in a way that would appease the franchise’s hardcore fanbase plus all the manchildren who have been complaining nonstop about the reboot starring four women instead of just owning that some people weren’t going to be pleased no matter what and trying to do something genuinely new with the concept.  This problem’s overall pretty minor though, as the metatext of this Ghostbusters movie is very different from the original.  At its core, the thematic arc of the new movie is about the importance of believing people’s experience; the old one was mostly just a parody of the spate of paranormal thrillers that were so popular in the early ’80s (and also a treatise on the superiority of science over superstition).  If you can sum up the original’s message by way of its classic tagline, “I ain’t afraid of no ghost,” then you could say that the new movie is best captured by the words, “I believe you.”  It’d be a stronger film if it leaned more on that new idea rather than looking to the old one for support.

On a character level, there are a few problems with Holtzmann and Patty.  Pretty much everyone on the internet is in agreement that Holtzmann is supposed to be read as a queer character; her interactions with Erin can frequently be construed as flirty, and both Paul Feig and Kate McKinnon have said that they interpreted the character as queer.  On one level, it’s fantastic that a gay character is portrayed in a major role in a summer comedy without her sexuality being made fun of (contrast this with, say, Mr. Chow from the Hangover series portrayed by Ken Jeong) or depicted as something strange about the character.  On another, there’s something dissatisfying about Holtzmann’s sexuality being left to mere subtext.  The voices that I listen to most often in the queer community often talk about the significance of queer subtext in popular fiction; in a culture where your sexuality hasn’t been socially acceptable for decades, you tend to take what scraps you can get in the way of finding characters with whom you can identify.  It’s great that Holtzmann’s sexuality doesn’t have to be a big deal, but it’s still important that the fact that she’s gay be made actual text in the movie rather than reliant on Word of God.  Otherwise, you still run the risk of erasure, as I can’t help wondering really how apparent Holtzmann’s sexuality is to people who aren’t already looking for it in a positive way.  As for Patty, well… she’s still a Black stereotype.  She’s immensely likeable, but she still checks all the boxes of what Hollywood imagines Black characters need to be in movies.  This essay by Tanya DePass enumerates all the problems with Patty’s character better than I could; you should read it if you haven’t already.

Overall, the new Ghostbusters is a thoroughly enjoyable movie that moves forward on a lot of important progressive fronts.  It’s far from perfect in the ways it treats its characters, and it honestly could lean on the nostalgia less, but it’s a solid movie that I thoroughly enjoyed seeing.

Friendship Day

This story begins with me getting some long overdue maintenance done on Rachael’s car.  I wasn’t prioritizing it the way I should have, and things came to a head when we had a tire blow out earlier this week.  Seeing that this needed attention, I took Rachael’s car for a few days so I could get it serviced, especially since this coincided with her beginning her summer classes.  For one day, I planned on dropping the car off to get some work done on the brakes and then going to hang out with my long time friend Becky, who also happens to be on summer break (well, “happens” probably isn’t the right word; we’ve worked together for four years, so we’ve always had the same break schedule).

Folks, kudzu is no joke.

As things happened, Becky was also without a car, so I planned to hike the short distance from the mechanic to her place, which involved a pleasant stroll through an old graveyard, a briefly harrowing walk along a stretch of road without room for pedestrians on either side (it was fine; the road doesn’t see much traffic at all at that time of day), and a momentary pause at a patch of kudzu to take a picture, because that stuff is really impressive up close.  Once I got to her place she greeted me with tea, and we set out with our plans for the morning.

In town there is a local park that contains a community center where Rachael and I went contra dancing with Becky and some other friends a couple times a few years back when we first moved to Athens (it’s kind of like square dancing, but dances often last around ten minutes, and it’s really energetic), a community pool, hiking trails, a lake with a dog-walking area, and a small zoo with local indigenous wildlife.  It’s within walking distance of Becky and her fiance Hugh’s place, so we took off with a couple of full water bottles, the intent to see all the animals at the zoo, and no idea when I was going to hear about Rachael’s car.

Walking to the park was incredibly pleasant.  It’s located in the middle of a heavily wooded area, and the road we went along was shaded by trees the entire way.  Traffic was a little heavier than normal, so we had to keep stepping off to the side while cars passed, this felt more like part of the adventure than an inconvenience.  Aside from running, I don’t deliberately go outside much, and taking the time to walk somewhere that under normal circumstances I’d drive was a great change of pace.  My sense of smell isn’t very good, but I enjoyed the scent of the trees and plants.  It’s a different sort of environment from what’s located along my normal running route (and honestly, when I’m exercising what I’m smelling is the last thing on my mind–until I pass by some roadkill that hasn’t been cleaned up yet).  Along the road, Becky told me about a game she and a friend of hers sometimes play when they run that route, saying that you get to take a walking break if you can sprint up the steep hill at the end without stopping, otherwise you have to keep running.

At the zoo we saw a lot of different local animals, including several kinds of owls.  Becky somehow spooked a barred owl so that it puffed up on its perch and stared at her until we moved along to another enclosure.  We also saw a family of black bears (Becky said the cubs had grown a lot since she’d last seen them a few years ago), and a bald eagle who looked quite dignified on his perch.  One of the most fun parts was seeing a vulture playing with its meal of a dead mouse while children who were there for a field trip looked on.

This turtle was totally chill while I took its picture. Also, it found a nice rock where none of the other turtles could crowd it.

After we toured the zoo, I suggested we go look at the park’s lake before going back home.  For a summer day in Georgia it was incredibly mild, and Becky had mentioned that the lake was full of turtles.  As you all know, turtles are, objectively, the best animal, so I wanted to see them.  And see them, I did.  The area around the lake isn’t as shaded as the rest of the park, so wherever there was a rock sitting above the water, as many turtles as could fit were visible sunning themselves.  We got to see some pretty big turtles, including a couple that had shells that were probably a foot in diameter, all covered in algae.  Most of the turtles were pretty skittish, but some paid no mind to people walking around (Becky explained to me that a lot of locals release their pet turtles in the lake when they can’t take care of them anymore; it’s not the most ecologically responsible practice).  Those were usually the domestic breeds who had been released.  While at the lake we also got to see a drake trying unsuccessfully to mate with a few ducks, who repeatedly chased him off.

Back at Becky’s place we decided to watch Interstellar, which neither of us had yet seen; it’s a good hard sci-fi movie that warrants re-watching.  Around lunchtime, Hugh came home from work and the three of us went to get some food at the local burrito chain.  I have an enduring love of overstuffed Tex-Mex burritos, so this was the best of all possible ways to cap off the day.

Altogether, it was a really good way to spend a day with my friends.  I’m a pretty introverted person, so I can usually go for long stretches subsisting on the minimal social interactions I manage on the internet, but I do sometimes get anxious to spend time with people, especially when Rachael’s busy with school.  Becky and Hugh let me impose on them for a day, and it was great.  I’m really thankful to have friends like them around.

Reading “Men of Good Fortune”

Though it’s pretty easy to forget about details like this, I try to appreciate that because The Sandman was a serialized story, it was published piecemeal for over six years, and in that time Gaiman made a point of having contemporary stories happen more or less in real time.  Dream escaped from his imprisonment in Sandman #1 around the same time he penned the story in 1988, and in this issue when Dream arrives to meet with Hob Gadling at their usual public house, it’s late 1989 when the Doll’s House plot line began and was supposed to be occurring.  I like to take this to mean that “Men of Good Fortune” is a story that happens in the midst of the drama surrounding Rose and Jed Walker.  It’s like Dream takes off from ruining Lyta Hall’s life to go meet his buddy Hob for a drink down at the pub, because whatever crazy stuff is happening, he’s not going to flake out on a standing date he’s had for six centuries.

Given all that, this story feels very similar to “Tales in the Sand,” since its connection to Doll’s House isn’t immediately apparent.  My best guess is that considering the next installment of Rose and Jed’s plot line was a double-sized issue and this story has guest artists, that it was originally an editorial stopgap so the book wouldn’t have to be delayed.  That doesn’t mean Gaiman didn’t already have this story planned out, but its placement always seemed kind of odd to me; there’s no real narrative reason it couldn’t have waited until Doll’s House concluded.

He looks good for six hundred years old. (Image credit: Comic Vine)

But again, it’s placement does present the darkly humorous idea that Dream is so wrapped up in meeting his obligations that he would drop dealing with the problem of the Dream Vortex and the AWOL dreams to make an appointment with a guy who made him really angry the last time they got together.

The basic structure of “Men of Good Fortune” is that Dream and Death, while wandering around 14th century England, decide to look in on the goings-on of a tavern, because Dream is bored, and Death thinks it would do him some good to interact with people on their own turf for a change.  They overhear the ramblings of a soldier named Hob Gadling, who insists that death is something that people only do because they think they’re supposed to, and he’s decided he just isn’t going to die.  Dream finds the idea amusing and asks Death to leave Hob alone so he can observe the man’s life.  We then get to see a series of scenes as Dream and Hob meet once every century to discuss Hob’s fortunes and whether he regrets becoming immortal.  We see Hob take a full turn on the wheel of fortune over the story’s course, with his wealth increasing for a couple of centuries before he’s left penniless and alone after a string of bad luck and then rebuild his wealth again as he gets involved in the Atlantic slave trade.  By the time the story ends in 1989, Hob’s doing well enough for himself, though exactly what kind of fortunes he’s recently had are left pretty ambiguous.

Of course, for all the ways that this story is imminently concerned with Hob’s life (and a slew of historical references that are pretty fun, including a scene involving William Shakespeare and Christopher Marlowe that sets up a separate subplot which Gaiman will develop intermittently through to Sandman‘s end), the point of Dream’s involvement is what ends up having the most relevance to the series as a whole.  Where he begins the game with Hob as a way of amusing himself, we get to see gradually that Dream does develop a sort of affection for his drinking partner.  I think it comes across most clearly at their meeting in 1789 when Dream, after having saved himself and Hob from assault by Johanna Constantine (one of John Constantine’s ancestors), warns Hob off from continuing in the slave trade.  It’s a throwaway line, but the fact that Dream cares enough to offer Hob any advice about his life at all (after three centuries of disinterestedly listening to him talk about what he’s been up to) marks a pretty significant development in the relationship, which Hob notices.  When he explains to Dream in 1889 that he thinks they continue to meet because Dream is actually lonely (there are quite a few immortal humans wandering around the world whom Dream could interview if he were really curious about the effects extreme longevity have on a person; Hob’s case isn’t particularly unique in that regard), Dream becomes agitated and storms out, insisting that he has no need for friendship from a human (it’s a nice reversal of Dream’s insistence that he and Nada can make their love work, and likely functions as a way of calling back how deeply that incident wounded him).  Given that the intervening century between this scene and the next include Dream’s seven decade imprisonment, the fact that he does choose to show up has some extra layers as he very recently spent a long period where he really was lonely.

I don’t have much to say about the art in this issue.  Michael Zulli and Steve Parkhouse provide pencils and inks, and their pages work well enough for the quiet, dialogue heavy story that Gaiman gives us.  Without any significant moments of magic or fantastic happenings, the grounded look that Zulli and Parkhouse make works well in this context.  If I have any complaints, Dream’s 1989 clothing looks really strange as he’s wearing sort of a pseudo-mullet that can’t seem to decide if it’s supposed to be punk rock or ’80s glam.

Next time, we’ll get to read the first double-sized issue since Sandman #1, and we’ll finally see what the deal is with the Corinthian.  Also, a bunch of serial killers.

Friendship is Thick

Marmalade the unicorn galloped gleefully through the rolling hills of Summerberry Glen.

On the next hill over, he spied another member of his herd grazing.  It was that gloomy gus, Greyflicker.

“Hello, Greyflicker!” called Marmalade.

Greyflicker swished her tail and snorted.  “Go away.”

Cantering over, Marmalade winneyed his delight.  “I know when you say, ‘Go away,’ you just mean, ‘I’m lonely!’”

Looking up from her meal of fresh antelope, Greyflicker glared at the gleaming Marmalade.  “Go greet a virgin.  I’m fine by myself.”

“Okay!”  Marmalade trotted away in search of another friend.  Maybe UNICODE-BOT would like to play.

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Today’s story has two inspirations: i09‘s Concept Art Writing Prompt, and a drabble that Rachael wrote last night about a robot who tries to befriend real unicorns.  The former gave me the seed of an evil unicorn.  The latter gave me the idea to make it a silly story about friends who are just a little bit different.  Definitely check out those links for some more fun, and let me know what you think in the comments!