Friday, July 10, 2009

The Breakfast Machine

I just finished reading 20th Century Boys, and whilst it was engrossing it left me unsatisfied. But perhaps that's in a good way as I'll probably be thinking about it for days and days.

I called this 'The Breakfast Machine' because the taste 20th Century Boys left me with, was that of Pee Wee Herman's breakfast machine, or on a generic level A Rube Goldberg Machine.

These days I just feel like any Manga artist that actually concludes a series deserves hearty applause, but for 20th Century Boys, my immediate verdict is that it's probably the most ambitious series in the sci-fi genre since Akira, but at the same time is no Akira.
Which perhaps isn't fair, because I've only seen the movie of Akira, and maybe they cut out a heap of superfluous shit too.
Did I ever tell you how rare it is for me to be satisfied by something though? Particularly in comics, I wouldn't even say 'Slam Dunk' was satisfying, because it just ended so abruptly. But it is probably the best comic series ever when I think about it, and I could have easily accepted the ending if the final game was the championship and not 2-3 rounds prior to it.
For me the biggest achievement in comics, doesn't belong to one artist, one writer etc. But I would award it to the editors that over saw the Batman: No Man's Land saga/story-arc. That was fucking perfect, but is obviously handicapped because it presumes so much familiarity with Batman's world. It doesn't stand alone. I could give it to a Biafran kid and say here check it! Because that kid would be all like 'Who's this Lex Luthor guy and why do I care if he comes to town?' and 'What's so scary about some clown? I don't get his fucking jokes, what a lame-ass.'

Anyway back to 20th Century Boys. One things Western Comics really suck at, (in the same way as Hollywood vs. Italian cinema sucks at) is generating emotional involvement in the characters. I think that's why writers like Loeb and Moore stand out.
I mean in a nutsack, Is 20th Century Boys worth reading? I would say 'yes' with little hesitation.

Anyway 3 things I learned either about myself (objectively) or writing (subjectively) from reading this:

It gave me the insight that 'unputdownable' doesn't actually refer to... as I'd always assumed, that every page or whatever is intensely enjoyable.
I realised reading this, that it's a precise combination, and perhaps psychological trick whcih is that 'it's unputdownable' because you are perpetually denied resolution. If there's a story, like a short story, within the greater story, the author has a tendancy to terminate it before a resolution is reached. Even more skillfully/annoyingly - he portrays a character having the revelation, but denies you the reader that revelation.
Then you find yourself turning the page and the storyline has shifted.
I'm of two minds, I have to admit, that it works, and that I'm a sucker for it. But I have to qualify it as a tactic: the most perfect example of abusing this technique is in psychological thriller 'The Game' in which a wealthy businessman recieves an invitation to participate in 'The Game' from his brother for his birthday. The game begins, and the viewer is left wondering what the fuck is going on, and furthermore what this mysterious game is, as it seems to just fuck with the protagonists mind and life and even threaten to kill him from time to time. The problem is that the mystery is extended by giving multiple - misleading explanations, and this ultimately denies you from ever accepting the actual resolution when it comes. When I saw that I literally thought, and my friend literally said 'as if you would accept that explanation after all he's been through!'.
So too with 20th century boy, the central mystery of 'friend' is strung out for so long that I was almost on the point of giving up on the story. And ultimately, I just stopped caring about the identity, as I lost confidence that any explanation would actually be satisfying.
The next qualifier is that I actually found the mystery of 'will Kenji get with Yujiki' of much more personal interest to me, and that involved little 'mystery' at all, it was just a straight forward question, but the author does a much better job of making you care about the characters than he does of caring about the mystery, such that this simple question 'will they get together?' becomes far more motivating for me to read on, than 'what's going on and why is it happening?' ever did.

The second major insight into myself/writing was to do with recursion. Art has an obsession with the new, with pushing boundaries etc. and every artist wants to create some seminally new and innovative work. Recursion is where you have something embedded within itself, eg a story in a story, a poem about a poem, a painting of a painting etc. And 20th Century boys is a manga that talks about manga.
Which is fitting because so much of the story is told in reference to childhood dreams, follies and innocence. And manga is a big part of it.
The thing though, is that the author almost sets himself/herself up to fail when he talks about manga in the manga.
Without hitting spoilers, he uses manga artists within the story to pose a question 'how do we end it? heroes are defined at the peak of their heroism, at the end they either ride off into the sunset or they die.' (I'm paraphrasing) which is sort of clever, because he points out that stories tend to conform to this binary outcome. A depressing ending where they die, or an uplifting (but equally terminal) ending where they ride off.
Which is clever, because it illustrates the problem facing the author themselves. How to avoid these two cliches, in a way that offers resolution and emotional closure on the story, whilst not being cliched?
After setting up this clever commentary, I expected the author to attempt to do something with it, but alas, he doesn't.
He just makes you aware of the challenge, then really ignores the challenge. Or if you will, he points to the frontier, then walks back inside and sits down with a coke.
Thanks for the pointer, but is it up to me to push that boundary? A similar thing happened in 'Y the last Homo-sapien' where the protagonist encounters a theatre-group that are making a play about the fictitious current situation. That is there is one man left alive, which serves as a recursive narrative within the narrative.
I almost applauded that writer because in it the actual last man, asks the playwright (who are portraying a fictitious last man) how their play ends, and the author says 'the man kills himself so that the women have to save themselves' and the guy realises it's the perfect ending.
That set the challenge in that series of avoiding such a perfect-moralising end and coming up with something equally satisfying, except the ending just ended up a mess.
This tells me where I stand (something I already knew, but feel strongly now) on the Epic Pooh debate - that is should fantasy be pure escapism, or can it actually be about something.
I think it can be both, but the 'pure escapist' school has been done. If you go down this path though, you don't want to write a fairytale, and hence you look for new ways to resolve the same old stories.
When you are writing about something, you are employing an analogy, and an analogies cleverness lies in the cliche, hence hencely the author can be obliged to write to the cliche, in order to affirm the power of the message, the idea, that is what the story was written about.

So here I say that 20th Century Boys is exactly the type of story I like. It's an analogy that communicates a simpler idea in a complicated way to get a better appreciation of it. Now 20th Century Boy and my own attempt at a comic FOWP, are kind of the same idea, they are stories that are about something, but the stories are told in the setting of a sci-fi world.
FOWP scope is small, smaller than 20th Century Boys, but strangely I have the same criticism of both - overengineering. In mine, fowp, in order to max out the feelings of the climax, I hammered the same point over and over and over again - that the bad guy was bad. But sitting back afterwards, I always wonder if I killed off the tempo, or more appropriately, overkilled the tempo.
In 20th Century Boys I've got the priveledge of being a reader, and I can say in my verdict the author actually did. Probably because it was so ambitious anyway to begin with. But if I went so far as to say that there are 3 clearly identifiable movements to 20th century boy (and a 4th, epilogue movement) I never enjoyed 2 & 3 movements as much as the 1st one.
I don't think this was bach's 'little harmonic labyrinth' either, where the story is kicked off in the key of C, moves away from it, modulates to fool us into accepting a false resolution at the end of each movement, before the author cleverly delivers a big satisfying final resolution to C.
I actually have many questions on this point as to what I learned from the high points and low points of 20th Century Boys. The best framework is Kurt Vonneguts Guide:

1. Use the time of a total stranger in such a way that he or she will not feel the time was wasted.
2. Give the reader at least one character he or she can root for.
3. Every character should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.
4. Every sentence must do one of two things—reveal character or advance the action.
5. Start as close to the end as possible.
6. Be a Sadist. No matter how sweet and innocent your leading characters, make awful things happen to them—in order that the reader may see what they are made of.
7. Write to please just one person. If you open a window and make love to the world, so to speak, your story will get pneumonia.
8. Give your readers as much information as possible as soon as possible. To hell with suspense. Readers should have such complete understanding of what is going on, where and why, that they could finish the story themselves, should cockroaches eat the last few pages.

The author really breaks #9 to the point that it became infuriating, arguably aces #6, #4 is interesting because I think he reveals character at the expense of moving the story forward. #1 is probably the one that pissed me off the most, I felt numerous times, that the author was dicking me around.
Translators on the web leave these annoying self promotion pages that punctuate the reading experience, but one made the smart-arse remark at a point towards the end 'great another character to focus on, will this story ever end' and I knew at least that I was not alone.
Back to rule no 4 which I'm going to tie in with dues ex machina, Alan Moore talks about the shape of a story, I knew Fear Of A White Planet was sort of capacitor shaped, the storyline built up resentment and eventually releases. Which is probably an elementary shape.
Most are eliptical, that means you start a story very basically, you have to. Then you build up and expand the complexity of the world. More characters, more settings, more rules etc. This builds up to a point where the reader has a handle on the story, then you start to resolve it, that means every character introduced, you need to develope - give the reader info so they understand the significance. But this creates the burden of resolution - every character you introduce, you have to resolve.
The more characters you introduce, the longer it takes to resolve. Over engineering, makes your story into a 'Rube Goldberg Machine'
put simply, I wonder if by halving the number of characters 20th Century Boys would only have had to be 1/3rd of the length. And furthermore, whether whatever it was 'about' got lost, because the simple message is buried under all the cogs and mechanics of the characters.
The only excuse in my view is to comply with vonnegut's rule #6, in that the characters fail so many times, the pain becomes almost unbearable. There is a deep sense of regret and futility amongst the characters that interestingly, almost choose to 'live on their knees' rather than 'die on their feet'. Although this isn't how it's presented so much as 'live to fight another day' is the attitude, albeit it means they don't resolve today, nor do they resolve tomorrow for the same reasons as today and so on and so fourth.
Then there is 'deus ex machina' which is the bane of manga's existence, and why I would say that manga doesn't usually stand up against the best western comics (though it shits on the crappy offerings that make up 90% of the western comic book industry).
Thing is, I just don't know why manga, which is treated as legitimate literature and art form in Japan, isn't more self conscious of deus ex machina in their most celebrated texts. Dragonball Z used it heaps, where Goku would just reveal that he was even more powerful than he or anyone actually knew, when it came down to the line in any fight. Naruto does it, where characters just reveal they had one more trick up their sleeve that nobody knew about it. And 20th Century Boys does it, by retconning the flashbacks to reveal yet more characters everyone had forgotten about.

I compared it to '7 pounds' the Will Smith movie, where the director conceals from you the premise of the film for as long as possible. It is a useful trick, but as 20th Century Boys keeps pointing out 'you can't use tricks' whilst the author breaks this time and time again, namely, concealing from the reader what the characters already know in order to keep the suspense. The author then gets greedy, and for the big mysteries conceals even the clues (as in by only giving them to you just before the revelation, achieving deus ex machina in a sad case of self-sabotage).

All in all, Harvard's right, it is a damn good Manga, and it is moving and powerful, but I have to qualify that with - it's overengineered, frustratingly so. It had the potential to be such a powerful commentary on themes so central to Japanese culture today - groupism, bullying and taking responsibility. But all this gets buried due to the authors excesses, its indecisive in its execution, and again I defer to Harvard, the interesting question is how planned out was it when it was written? Or was it largely winged. If it is winged it's a masterpiece, if it was planned it falls short.

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