The Bureaucracy of the Supernatural: A Review of Neil Smith’s “Boo”

Boo Neil Smith
image source: news.nationalpost.com

Warning: Spoilers ahead!

“The facts of America do not apply here. The fact is that an unplugged lamp should not turn on… the fact is that people should not vanish into thin air when they die.” 

I came across Boo, by Neil Smith, through an interview with the author on CBC radio. It sounded worth reading, but I couldn’t remember the title or author, so I went to Chapters and sleuthed around until I found it in a “New Can-Lit” display.

Boo is about Oliver Dalrymple (nicknamed “Boo” for his pale appearance), a young boy who wakes up in heaven.

The story is narrated by Boo in the form of an extended letter to his loving mother and father. He hopes that, if he can ever get it to them, it will ease their pain. Throughout the narrative of his death, we learn more of his life – severely bullied and obsessed with science, Boo was a weird-looking loner frequently stuffed into his periodic table-decorated locker. He’s a bit of a smartass, though unintentionally, and has a weird sense of humour that comes across in his narration.

I was particularly drawn to Boo’s narrative style. There is something subtle about the formality of his tone, and the character himself, that reminds me strongly of one of my close friends. Though he’s hardly a typical teenage boy – being dead and all – Boo seems familiar and amiable in a way. We want to be nice to Boo. We also might want to make fun of him, just a little bit.

What I like best about the novel are the intricacies of the setting and the characters’ nonchalant attitudes towards them. It is the “bureaucracy of the supernatural” – where something mysterious and otherworldly turns out to be run in a similarly mundane fashion as our own world. There’s no escape.

As he explains to his parents, Boo’s heaven is a place called Town, surrounded by walls and entirely populated and run by thirteen-year-olds. The afterlife is subdivided by age and country, so Boo is surrounded by everyone else who died in America at the age of thirteen. Once someone dies and comes to Town they stay there for about fifty years, so that they get a chance to live out a full lifetime. With its city council of thirteen-year-olds and rummage-sale furniture, Town reminds me of being homeschooled (I started school in grade six, after years of kid-focused nonstructural learning).

Town has hospitals and cafeterias and a thriving arts scene. Books, food, and other things are provided as needed by what most “Townies” assume to be God. There are art classes, support groups for getting over being murdered, and a museum of curious things including a revolver and a kitten. Townies do not grow old and their bodies don’t change; wounds heal themselves, buildings repair themselves, and traumatic memories are often wiped. Smith captures the intricacies of a thirteen-year-old personality so nicely: the uncertainty, the bravado, the desperation for answers. Boo figures he lost a few IQ points but gained a few social skills, and makes friends. He does much better in Town.

At first attributing his death to a heart condition, he soon realizes that there’s more to it than expected with the arrival of Johnny, another boy from his school who died shortly after Boo. Johnny insists that they were murdered at school by some crazy kid he calls “Gunboy”, and, along with their friends, the two boys try to solve their own deaths while navigating the peculiarities of the afterlife. Desperate to find a portal back to the living world, Johnny’s quest for revenge upstages Boo’s curiosity-fuelled scientific quest for understanding when they run into a boy Johnny is convinced killed them. From there, the story quickly snowballs into a clash of friendship, violence, and the supernatural.

Smith’s world and characters are surprisingly uplifting, and the plot was charming and exciting. Every time they think they’ve caught an answer it escapes, and the story gets more involved until the intense climax. In the bittersweet conclusion, Johnny is given a second chance and Boo learns more about himself than he ever did while alive. Town gives Boo what he needs in order to both find the truth and be happy with himself. It is, in the end, his own heaven as he needed it to be.

-Contributed by Risa Ian de Rege

“The Raven Cycle” Might Be Exactly What YA Lit’s Been Missing

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image source: readbreatherelax.com

Go to Chapters, and take a book from the nearest Young Adult bookshelf. Flip to any page that does not involve a dance, a love interest, a clique or a “queen bee”. The more you read, the more you may notice that today’s YA genre is inundated with books by authors who no longer remember what it was like to be a young adult.

Or, if they do, they do a terrible job of writing about it.

In these books, high school is reduced to trope-y cliques. Characters are slaves to the whims of their hormones, and often two-dimensional. Even speculative YA fiction often falls to these clichés.

However, there are a few books that break this teenage drama mould. In Maggie Stiefvater’s 4-part series The Raven Cycle, the high school-aged characters are written with their intended readership in mind. Not only are Stiefvter’s characters dimensional and captivating, but they deal with real issues, garner sympathy from the reader, and meddle in magical realms to boot. And that’s only a small part of what makes The Raven Cycle so incredible.

Blue Sargent, the non-psychic daughter of a clairvoyant mother, has been told for as long as she can remember that her kiss will kill her true love. But being a sensible person, she disbelieves the idea of true love at all and lives by the policy of avoiding all boys. In particular, she ignores the boys who attend Aglionby Academy, a private boys’ school near her home in rural Henrietta, Virginia.

It isn’t until she sees the soon-to-be-dead spirit of a boy named Gansey — and that very same Gansey shows up at her door for a psychic reading — that her world becomes tangled in the odd, magical world of the Raven Boys.

The series deals heavily with themes of identity — found through struggles in class differences, sexual orientation, and realizing how to discover one’s meaning. Gansey, a product of old Virginia money, desperately wants his over-privileged life to be worth something. This something, he believes, will be discovered as soon as he can find Glendower, an ancient Welsh king rumoured to be buried in the mountains of Virginia. Without the psychic abilities of her mother, Blue Sargent is driven to seek out her own future.

Adam Parrish, who accepts help from no one, just wants to find a bigger and better life outside the walls of the trailer home where he is abused by his father. Ronan Lynch, still reeling from the mysterious death of his beloved father, struggles to contain himself within the confines of academic, monolithic Aglionby Academy. United by unlikely bonds of friendship, this group embarks on the quest to find Glendower and, on the way, end up on individual paths toward their own destinies.

This sharp characterization is my favourite thing about the series. Stiefvater excels at writing characters who feel real, whose descriptions stick in the mind for all their uniqueness, whose backstories provide them with clear, urgent motivations, and whose struggles draw in the reader. Each character carries, in equal parts, both a sense of relatability and a touch of extraordinary magic — making them people who objectively could never exist in the real world, but who really feel like they could.

Just like Blue, I fell in love with the raven boys. Years after reading the first novel, I still can’t choose a favourite. More than anything else, I love the way this series portrays friendship as a bond that is sometimes thicker than blood. In finding your identity, you might just find your family.

Stiefvater’s gorgeous prose is another thing that makes this series so good. Just as the sentient trees in the magical forest of Cabeswater speak to our heroes in a language too The_Raven_King_Cover_Officialstrange and beautiful to be understood, Stiefvater’s writing seems, at times, to transcend the boundaries of what is real and what is magic. Her masterful control over language contributes further to the dimension she adds to her characters, and her own quirkiness and sense of humour always shines through.

After the release of book three, Blue Lily, Lily Blue, I waited a year and a half for the fourth and final installment of the series — The Raven King — to be delivered into my hands on April 26th of this year. I’m not quite sure yet if the finale lived up to everything Stiefvater promised it would be, but don’t let that discourage you from reading this series. The Raven Cycle is a jewel among the many thorns of the young adult speculative genre. If Blue Sargent’s clairvoyant mother could see my future, I’m certain she would find me constantly returning to the thrills and chills offered to me by the denizens of this series’ tiny Virginia town.

-Contributed by Julia Bartel

Celebrating the Eternal Child: An Interview with Jung Dohee

The Little Prince
photo courtesy of Jung-Dohee

Each year, OCAD University holds an exhibition for its graduating students called Grad Expo.

The Grad Expo is set-up as a showcase of both undergraduate and master’s students in various artistic disciplines, from painting and sculpture to video installations and critique. Yet with the abundance of artwork comes the challenge of being unable to focus on just one art piece, especially if you’re in a crowded room trying to get even a little peak.

Jung-Dohee’s piece “For the Little Prince, the Little boy that was”, based on the 1943 novella The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery, stood out for me as soon as I walked by it. In fact, I ended up shuffling backward and returning to it because I didn’t believe that what I saw could be real — a large paper cut-out of the Little Prince [titular hero of the novella, The Little Prince by Antoine de Saint-Exupery], surrounded by flowers, ribbons, and various tiny and beautiful details.

I lost track of time standing in front of the art piece, transported back to various moments of my childhood when I’d sit with a book and groan at the fact that I couldn’t physically recreate the images going through my head. Not only did Jung-Dohee manage to do what little me was unable to, but she also demonstrated how stories are able to find new ways of presenting themselves visually, not just through simple illustrations in books. I was lucky enough to find out more about her work, and about the piece itself.

This interview has been edited for clarity and length.

Can you tell me a little bit about the title of your piece, “For the Little Prince, the Little boy that was”?

Before explaining my title, I think it would make more sense to explain my body of work first. “For The Little Prince, the Little boy that was” is a series of art works that chronologically explains the story The Little Prince. I wanted to explore the story through different materials and give them a new interpretation.

The Little Prince is a very strange book. It is categorized as children’s literature but the author, Antoine de Saint-Exupery, has many hidden many messages for adults. As we read the story at different stages of life with different personal experiences and perspective, we find more and more messages, like a treasure hunt. Therefore, I wanted to come up with a title that could somehow appeal to both adult and children while capturing this experience.

Before the final show, I was using “Material exploration on The Little Prince” as my title but I didn’t like the fact that it sounded like a science journal. So I went through the book again thinking that there would be a treasure hidden for me to use as my title. While reading the forward of the book, I read that the author wrote ‘for Leon Werth’. Then, after apologizing to the children for writing the story for an adult, he fixed his dedication to “For Leon Werth, the Little boy that was”. I thought this was perfect for my title, which became “For the Little Prince, the Little boy that was”.

What made you choose to revisit The Little Prince? Did you want to capture your own love for the story or were you hoping to bring something new to it?

I love using narrative elements in my work. Stories, especially children’s literature, have always been a big inspiration for me. They are innocent, but at the same time they often have a deep message hidden within simple wording. For my thesis, I was looking for a story that focuses on a general life rather than specific emotion or event.

Some might say that The Little Prince does not portray the general life of people, because most of us do not fly into the desert and meet a little stranger from another planet. But the story that the author captures in the book is very much based on everyday life. It’s shaped by the emotions and people that everyone experiences throughout their lives. This is why I think it has such a significant power, because it can talk to so many different types of people.

The Little Prince 2.jpg
photo courtesy of Jung-Dohee

Your piece is very complex, with a lot of small details. Can you tell me a little bit about the process of making it? Have you ever attempted anything like this before in terms of the scale and complexity level?

I would say that all of my pieces are very big and detail oriented compared to a lot of other jewellery metal works. Throughout the school year, I’ve created pieces with many detailed piercings on them, so I thought it would make sense to have it as a big part of my thesis as well.

“The Star” is the papercut installation about the Little Prince and everything about his star. It was my first time attempt at papercutting, and it turned out better than I thought. I collected elements from the text, and then illustrated them in small scale first. Then I enlarged them and started to cut them out. I have created numerous sketches for piercing metals so I thought it would be similar, but it was quite confusing with paper.

“Six Planets” are the six metal containers, and they are an example of what I usually do. I sketched and made each and every piece by hand, which is typical for all my work. It’s like a collection of many techniques that I have learnt during school. I started by etching the hand-drawn patterns on the outside of the sheet for the container, file-fold the sheet to form the container body, then solder, and pierce the elements and layers for all six containers. If the layers have any small parts to be attached, I cold-jointed them by riveting small elements onto the layer.

When all of them were ready, I set them into the container using the wire setting that was soldered in place in advance. After all the layers have been set, I soldered the top layer, then I soldered hinges and catches to each lid and container. When the containers were put together, I set four earth magnets to each container using resin and epoxy mixed with gold colour powder so that all six containers come together as one cube. Finally polishing everything, I completed the “Six Planets”.

A lot of sketches and brainstorming had to be done to find the best illustration for each layer and for the overall look, as well as to consider the technical issues for the mechanisms that were part of the piece. I have learnt most during making this piece and had a lot of fun with it, too.

What are the little metallic boxes? Do they also depict passages from the book?

The six metallic boxes are representative of the six planets that the Little Prince visits in the story. He visits six different planets, and meets six different types of people before he lands back home on Earth.

From these parts of the story, I felt that the author is trying to describe the six different types of people that every individual meets at some point in their life: the King, who has authority over everything and likes to rule but seems a little lonely; the Show-Off, who thinks that he is the smartest, handsomest, and wealthiest person on the planet and does not listen to others; the Drunkard, who drinks to forget the embarrassment of drinking, making the same mistake over and over again; the Businessman, who claims all the stars he sees are his possession and records them in his book, but does not know how to really enjoy them; the Lamplighter, who works day and night in order to keep others comfortable; and the Geographer, who had the biggest and most beautiful planet but did not put in time to look around because he considers it useless, and only listens to others about the facts of land.

The people we meet in our lives may not be a King, Geographer, or Businessman, but I think we all know at least one of these people. And I think that the author of The Little Prince describes them very illustratively and beautifully.

I was deeply inspired by these personalities and really wanted to illustrate them with my specialty in metal illustration. I tried my best to respect the original text, so I used the chapter introductions for each of the six planets on the container covers. To add more of my personal touch to it, I also illustrated the inside of the containers with my own drawings. The opening mechanism of each container is meant to resemble a book, so that when people are opening my piece, they can also feel like they are ‘opening each chapter’.

What made you choose paper and metal specifically as media?

My thesis is a series of work chronicling events in The Little Prince, interpreted with different types of materials. The two pieces that were on display in this exhibition were the two parts about the Little Prince’s planet and the six planets that he visits. I have chosen white paper for “The Star” because I wanted it to be big scale and look warm. Considering the aesthetic and the efficiency of creating the piece, I decided that paper would be the perfect material. I then chose to make the “Six Planets” because I wanted to show the audience some metal art for part of the exhibition. 

Did you run into any difficulties while working on this piece?

I ran into so many difficulties during making these two pieces. For “The Star”, because I was not used to using the X-Acto knife, at first I had some trouble making clean lines. For “Six Planets”, because the scale of the piece was a little too big, I had trouble controlling heat while trying to put all the elements into place. I also ran into many other mechanical problems while making this piece, such as ‘where to attach the catch of the container without visually bothering’ or ‘how to successfully insert earth magnets’, but with the help of my amazing professor, technicians at the OCADU jewellery studio and my studio mates, I was able to come through these technical issues.

Are fairy tales a big part of your artist statement or are there other themes you focus on? What other kind of work do you make?

Not specifically fairy tales but story and narrative elements are a very big part of what I do. I also enjoy the use of light and shadow for other types of work that I do. I really like making candle holders with detailed pattern piercing, or big scale installations that have crazy piercings on them so that they create different effects when light and shadows are added to them.

Do you have a favourite fairy tale/story/myth from your childhood?

I loved Alice in Wonderland. I used to like the children’s literature version, but after watching the ballet ‘Alice’s Adventure in Wonderland’ at the Four Seasons Centre, I fell in love completely. It’s the reason why I would love to work in the ballet or theatre scene. So I guess it’s not my favourite from my childhood but it is my favourite overall.

Do you think you will make something similar in the future, based on another story or character, or do you have other project ideas in mind?

First I would like to finish “The Little Prince, the Little Boy that was” series. I have five different pieces in mind for this story so I think I’ll be exploring more of the Little Prince for a while. I think my future works will have a lot of narrative elements in them, but I never know where I will be getting crazy inspirations from. The concept and theme might change, but I don’t think the techniques involving a lot of piercings and my style will change so much. I would also love to properly study stage and theatre art because I think it is an absolutely amazing type of art to explore.

 More of Jung-Dohee’s work can be found on her website: http://www.jung-dohee.com/

 -Contributed by Margaryta Golovchenko

Shadowhunters and the Hunt for the Demon of Profit

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image source: variety.com

Book-to-movie adaptations have always been a natural indicator of a literary work’s popularity.

When cinema was only beginning, black-and-white adaptations of Shakespeare’s work served as an indication of what society perceived as “good” literature from an academic standpoint. Today, that hardly seems to be the case.

Movies and TV shows show us that today’s focus is a bit less on the quality of scripts and a bit more on the quantity of bills. The adaptation of literary works is no longer a novelty, translated to add dimension to the original series. Instead, it’s all about taking a series as far as it can financially go.

Cassandra Clare’s New York Times’ bestselling series, The Mortal Instruments, shamelessly mixes many common (and more importantly, popular) speculative elements. From werewolves and vampires to the legend of the Nephilim, the spectrum is quite wide.

First, we have a standard love triangle between the female protagonist, Clary Fairchild, her best-friend-turned-vampire, Simon Lewis, and the Shadowhunter (read: demon slayer) Jace Wayland. There is also a romance between Alec Lightwood and Magnus Bane, which explores not only the issue of racism in the division between the higher Shadowhunter society from the lower shadow world, but also addresses duties to one’s family in the case of Alec’s homosexuality.

Malec
source: pinterest.com

The series came out at a time when the hype was still in full swing for the more familiar aspects of the speculative realm, and the call for more vampires and werewolves, along with the growing demand for magicians and fairies, caused publishers to narrow their vision.

It’s safe to say that the original 2013 film adaptation of the first book, then, did not come as a surprise. Not only did it guarantee that many fans would see it, but it would also act as an extra push for the book series, whose position on the bestsellers’ list began to grow shaky in 2012. The film’s poor reception, however, demonstrated differently.

The movie received mixed reviews and failed to recoup the budget, causing directors to speculate whether or not a second movie would be released. Petitions were posted online for sometime by fans who trilled their undying love for the series, wanting to see more. Their request was partially satisfied when an announcement was made stating there would, in fact, be a TV adaptation of the series starting from scratch, with a new cast and a different interpretation of the plot.

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image source: geekenstein.com

I will readily admit that I have been guilty of falling into the trap of popular series. I jumped onto the bandwagon with The Hunger Games as soon as the first book came out. Others, such as the more recent Divergent, I hoped to stay away from, but after watching the first two movies my curiosity got the better of me and I did end up reading the books.

With The Mortal Instruments, however, my patience ran out after the first two books, and after hearing that the series’ immense popularity caused Clare to add three more books to her initial trilogy, I was adamant in my refusal to touch it. Yet I must also admit that I saw the movie when it came out a few years ago and (perhaps against my better judgement) just finished the first season (yes, there’s a second season coming next year) of the TV show.

Why? Because of the curiosity to see what came of these attempts.

I thought to myself, was it worse than the books? Was it better?

Turns out it wasn’t great. For me, The Mortal Instruments proved itself to be a case study of sorts in a discussion of profit and the coexistence between the film and publishing industries. It’s partially understandable that a TV adaptation, rather than a movie franchise, allowed for a new start and possible changes in the way the original plot was presented.

The irony lies, however, in the similar reception the show, though some credit should be given to the overall higher reviews. The insistence on running a second season, given the way in which the first sloppily crammed subplots and events from various books into one, is the more puzzling aspect.

Perhaps we should be worried more about addressing a different kind of “dark force” that books skid around or fall prey to: the allure of franchising and riding the wave of popularity. While there are certainly some interesting plot points and witty dialogues within the books, there is not much that The Mortal Instruments, along with its tangle of prequels, sequels, and spin-offs, adds to the literary world.

The very fact that the franchise has expanded so much makes one wonder whether the author really is so enamoured with her own construction, or whether the influence of popularity has a bigger role. Making a remake of something not entirely successful the first time is a similar case of trying to keep the popularity alive for a series that is difficult to evaluate as a literary work.

The series focuses too much on appealing to its audience with its modern references and speech, and the way it falls prey to character archetypes that earlier New York Times bestsellers have already exploited.

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image source: shadowhunterfans.blogspot.com

Series such as The Hunger Games have arguably warranted their film adaptations. Moreover, even with the shortcomings and plot errors that occurred, a handful of these film adaptations did it right the first time they took on the job.

The fact that there is a remake of an adaptation should already act as a warning sign that begs the question of how much say the writer has in their own creation, as well as how much dignity they carry forward with it. It’s common nowadays to meet those who say they write in order to produce the next “big thing” and become a bestseller, and to a degree the allure of profit is understandable.

Yet it is hard not to go back and wonder about some great novels that may not have received movie adaptations, such as Marquez’s One Hundred Years of Solitude and Milton’s Paradise Lost. It also begs the question of why other great works—Shakespeare being the most common—have received so many if the possibility of them being forgotten is practically impossible. Perhaps it is because few have come to recognize the modern incarnation of the classical demon, and the way in which it has precipitated into current society in a quiet comfort.

-Contributed by Margaryta Golovchenko

4 Heroes. 4 Movies. 4 Mistakes. 4 Puns.

Fantastic FOur cover
image source: d.gr-assets.com

There have been four attempts to bring Marvel’s first family to life on the big screen. First in 1994, then 2005, 2007, and most recently in 2015.

Whatever grand cosmic meaning might be found in four failed Fantastic 4 movies escapes me, but all of them have sucked.

I’ve heard people say maybe the Fantastic 4 just suck as a concept, or maybe they can’t be translated well into live action, or maybe they’re just too far out to get right. But… no. I’m here today to tell you that isn’t true at all.

The reason that we’ve never seen a good Fantastic 4 movie is because, well, nobody has ever made a real Fantastic 4 movie. Almost none of what made the comics so incredible for so many decades has ever been realized on screen.

Let me elaborate in the form of four major points, because that structure both allows me to argue what I want and also kind of make this whole thing a Fantastic 4 pun, which means this is the best day of my life.

1: We have never actually seen the real Doctor Doom.

In the comics, Victor Von Doom is the iron-fisted dictator of a sovereign island nation called Latveria, and grew up as an orphan living with a band of gypsies. The group he was in stayed on the move to avoid the wrath of the oppressive regime, until, through a combination of inventions and black magic, Victor lead an uprising and seized control.

Because yes, Doctor Doom can do magic.

A once-handsome man, Victor Von Doom’s downfall started when he summoned a portal to hell in order to bring his mother back to life; however, true to comic form, the portal exploded in his face instead, forcing him to seal himself inside a suit of magical armour.

Also in the comics, Victor is a master of science and technology, rivalled only by the mind of his college roommate, Reed Richards. Both studied science that I assume Stan Lee made up on the fly. This all happened in his early twenties, until, after getting his doctorate, Victor was kicked out for unethical practice and sent back to Latveria (where he lead the aforementioned uprising shortly after.)

See? Doctor Doom isn’t even a supervillain name, you guys. Victor has a doctorate. His actual name is just Doctor Doom.

Doctor Doom
image source:vignette2.wikia.net/marveldatabase/images

Word play jokes aside, Doctor Doom is arguably one of the greatest supervillains ever put to page. He once took on the Celestials (otherworldly beings of infinite power) and forced Galactus to kneel before him, and became essentially God as the most powerful being in the entire Marvel Universe (twice). He can occasionally do good as well, proving that he actually cares about the people of Latveria, and in one instance he even protects Franklin and Valeria Richards (the children of his worst enemy) from harm.

In fact, Doom has actually saved the world several times, because when all the heroes are sitting around contemplating what to do, Doom just busts open the door with a cry of “DOOM CARES NOT” and that’s that.

None of the details of this incredible character have ever appeared in a movie. In the 2005 movie, Doctor Doom was a seedy business man who gains the power to shoot lightning, and in 2015 he was a… programmer? I guess? Why is Fox so afraid to make Doom the magical science tyrant he truly is? They even have a problem with his name. In each live screen version, they tried to change his name (“Victor Von Damn”, and “Victor Domeshev “, respectively), and then changed it back at the last second.

The ongoing dynamic between Doctor Doom and Mr. Fantastic is probably one of the most interesting relationship in comics, save for that of Professor X and Magneto from the X-Men. Their rivalry and hatred of one another is strangely contrasted by the respect and kinship they try so hard to hide. Despite being morally polar opposites, deep down both Reed and Victor know that the only true equal either one has on the entire planet, maybe the entire universe, is each other. They are the two smartest men in the universe, both of them convinced that they have the right way and authority to save the world. But while Reed gets to be the hero, Doom is the villain.

In the movies we’ve never gotten past “Victor is jealous because Reed is smarter and can make out with Sue”.

If you need more convincing of how great of a character Doctor Doom is, go read the entirety of Jonathon Hickman’s Fantastic 4 run, half his Avengers comics, and his colossal finale Secret War. I promise, it will convince you. Doctor Doom is the number one Marvel supervillain according to Newsarama, and the third greatest comic book villain of all time according to IGN. So why are the studios so afraid to give us the Doom we deserve?

2: Where is Galactus, the devourer of worlds! 

Galactus
image source: cdn1.sciencefiction.com

Does anybody actually remember Fantastic 4: Rise of the Silver Surfer? 

I mean, no, not really. Because that movie was terrible. But it is pretty easy to name both the best and worst thing that movie managed to do. The best? I’ll admit, the Silver Surfer looked damn cool.

This is a character that Jack Kirby created supposedly because he was tired of drawing spaceships. It is the shiny, nearly featureless outline of a man who flies on a surfboard. It’s not such a hard thing to get right and they did. So what was the worst thing?

Probably the evil space cloud. That was not Galactus. Like Doctor Doom, Galactus is a genuinely fascinating and complex character.

The gargantuan planet eater Galactus is the only survivor of the universe that existed before our own. In fact, Galactus essentially is the universe of before, bonded to the last mortal of its existence, and was reborn into the giant purple-hatted being that constantly clashes with the Fantastic 4. But the fascinating thing is that the character of Galactus himself is not actually evil. He is a thinking being that can be reasoned and debated with, as well as a force of nature. Galactus destroys what he feels he must for his own survival, and for what he believes is best for the universe as a whole. He even created the Silver Surfer in order to seek out uninhabited planets that Galactus could eat without committing genocide.

And sure, Galactus often goes back on his word in that respect and tries to destroy the earth. But he is also a being that Reed Richards and the Fantastic 4 have spoken to, and have come to an uneasy alliance with.

So, as opposed to a boring space cloud, imagine superheroes fighting a planet sized alien being with a purple helmet who has existed since before the dawn of time itself.

I mean, maybe it’s just me. But a movie dealing with that character sounds genuinely interesting.

3: Science Fiction Extraordinaire

Silver Surfer
image source: s-media-cache-ako.pinimg.com

Right off the bat, lets skip the origin story.

Over half of the Fantastic 4 movies that have been made have been about the Fantastic 4 getting their powers, and then spending the whole movie trying to get rid of their powers.

That is genuinely the least interesting premise for a Fantastic 4 movie I can possibly conceive of, unless someone were to film Ben Grimm sitting on the toilet for two hours reading a newspaper. Seriously. Most superheroes don’t actually require that much context. That’s why so often the second movie for a superhero character is the better movie (The Dark Knight, Spider-Man 2, The Winter Soldier, and X-Men: United all come to mind).

So why not skip ahead to when the Fantastic 4 are genuinely an interesting family of pure insanity? So many of the classic FF tales are huge science fiction adventures into the depths of the earth, or the depths of space, or occasionally into another dimension entirely!

The early days of the Fantastic 4 were illustrated by Jack “The King” Kirby, who is basically the godfather of comic book art. Kirby’s FF days were punctuated by massive otherworldly images, shapeshifting aliens, mind-bending space battles, and galactic invasions of Earth.

In one comic, Mr. Fantastic (Reed Richards) was once inducted into an inter-dimensional organization called the “Council of Reeds”, which was entirely populated with alternate reality versions of him trying to save the multiverse. Best part? The story culminated with Doom defeating a race of Gods and the Human Torch locking himself in another dimension to fight an endless army of insect monsters. I mean that is… that would make the most wacked-out movie ever, right? And there’s the fun of the Watcher, an alien who lives on the moon and can see everything and has a giant head.

So far, we have seen none of that in the attempts at bringing them to screen, because the studios seem weirdly embarrassed of the more science fiction elements of the Fantastic 4 universe. Really, if you want these characters to work, abandon self-consciousness at the door. Give us the insanity and true scope of science fiction possible with these characters.

We were all happy to watch a talking raccoon with a space gun mourn the death of his talking tree friend.

We can handle it.

4: Family                                                                     

Above all else, the Fantastic 4 are a fundamentally different group dynamic than any other super team in comics. They aren’t the collection of mighty heroes like The Avengers, or the collection of outcasts like X-Men.

The Fantastic 4 are fundamentally a family. So you want to make them stand out from the rest? Make them an actual family. Instead of the painfully awkward romance between Mr. Fantastic and the Invisible Woman (who where near strangers), Give us the actual married Reed Richards and Susan Storm. But more than that. Give us their children, the occasionally cosmically-powered Franklin Richards and the super-genius Valeria Richards. Give us The Thing and the Human Torch being referred to as “Uncle Ben” and “Uncle Johnny”. Give us that super uncomfortable kinship between Valeria Richards and Doctor Doom, who see eye to eye on slightly more than her parents might wish.

Because that, more than anything else I’ve mentioned, is what sets the Fantastic 4 apart. This is a story about a real, developed and mature family that behaves as such. Please, someone out there, give us all these things.

Give us the real Galactus and Doctor Doom, and Mole People and shapeshifting aliens, give us the family dynamic and science-fiction insanity that have graced the pages of comic books for over half a century.

Give us the Fantastic 4 movie we deserve!

– Contributed by Ben Ghan

Say that Again? – The Trouble with Translation in the Speculative Genre

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Illustration by Katicha Hirigoyen

Tom Marvelo Riddle is a great anagram for “I am Lord Voldemort”.

In English, that is.

I often get surprised looks from people when I tell them that I absolutely cannot watch the Disney animated version of Robin Hood in English. It simply doesn’t feel right to me. Growing up with a particular version, with a specific cast of voice actors, my mind refuses to process anything different.

Even now that I am grown up, the original English versions of movies are still not dominant in my life. For instance, I will happily sing “When Will My Life Begin” from Tangled in Russian, and with the exception of Avengers: Age of Ultron, I haven’t seen any of the Marvel movies in English.

A topic that is particularly valid throughout the realm of speculative work is a question of whether or not translation is even a possibility. And if it is, then how much of the original meaning and “cleverness” value is maintained in the translation? 

For example, many jokes cannot be translated literally language-to-language. Sometimes the wordplay is unique to a text’s mother tongue, other times the difficulty is in a culture gap. I didn’t realize just how interesting the issue was until I tried having a conversation about Harry Potter with some students at a coffee shop, and discovered I was at an impasse.

The world of Harry Potter is known for its use of made up concepts and new terms that rely frequently both on wordplay and a degree of linguistic understanding. In the case of the term “Horcrux”, I spent a long time explaining what I was talking about to people because the term that I was using, “Крестраж” (“Krestraz”), bears no similarity to the original. Here, the translators had to be creative, although another alternative was to simply take the English term and create an Anglicized term that could be written in Cyrillic.

Other translators rely on the denotation of the words themselves to find a more-or-less fitting equivalent. Terms such as “Howler” become “Громовещатель” (“Gromoveschatel”, literally “loud-proclaimer”), and “Sneakoscope” become “Вредноскоп” (“Vrednoskop”, literally Nastyscope).

With other words, creativity and wordplay was necessary. One of my particular favourites is the translation for “O.W.L.S.”, which becomes the Russian word for “owl”, “сова”, or “S.O.V.” in a literal English equivalent. The best part is that it can also be deconstructed as an acronym, translating as the “Standards of Learning Magic” with the Russian acronym.

Another interesting one is the Mirror of Erised. The Russian translation uses the same trick and takes the word for desire “Желание” (“Zhelaniye”) and inverts it to make “Еиналеж”. Other terms, like “Ravenclaw” or “muggle”, resort to a mixture of these strategies.

The Harry Potter example is relatively simple, however, if you look at the much more extreme side of the spectrum. Lewis Carroll’s 1871 poem “Jabberwocky” is a common example in linguistic and cultural anthropology courses when discussing the abstractness of English. Since the first stanza of “Jabberwocky” makes little sense in our literal understanding, it’s really a free-for-all in the realm of translations. The question here becomes whether translation is beneficial or detrimental to the speculative genre, and how one should approach it.

Fluency is not an ability that everyone possesses, and there is certainly something special about reading a literary work or watching a movie in its original language. But the fact that a massive studio like Disney has separate divisions in numerous countries should be an indicator of how drastically the area of translation has evolved. They show that a lot of effort is put into preserving some of the initial emotional sense of a term or phrase. Moreover, often there are humorous little rhymes and anecdotes that sound much better in the translated version than they do in the original.

There is no right or wrong in this case, as some of the explanation lies in the nature of languages themselves. One language may have a more diverse range of colour terminology, for instance, while another may have adjectives that are used to convey sounds, textures, and other minute details that another culture may not pay attention to. There is one certainty however: being able to watch or read something in two or more languages certainly makes one more receptive and open-minded to these nuances. It creates the realization that there must be something brilliant and wonderful in the work itself if so many cultures are trying to find ways to say it.

-Contributed by Margaryta Golovchenko

Doing What’s Right: A Review of Captain America – Civil War

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Image source: marvelcinematicuniverse.wikia.com

“No. You move.”

Captain America: Civil War needed to be a lot of things. As the introduction of both Black Panther and a new Spider-Man to the Marvel Cinematic Universe, the sequel to Avengers: Age of Ultron, the final instalment in the Captain America trilogy, and the sequel to both First Avenger and Winter Soldier, this movie is also the culmination of a journey that Marvel has been headed towards since Robert Downey Jr. first appeared on screen in Iron Man.

It feels very much like we were always heading for this.

Amazingly, it works. Civil War works as an Avengers movie (with, oddly enough, more Avengers than either of the movies to actually use the title), but more importantly, it works as a Captain America movie. The grander scope and moral debate at the heart of Civil War is all filtered through Cap. Even if you disagree with him, the morality makes this not only a thrillingly engaging action movie, but also one of the most emotionally investing that Marvel has ever produced.

Let’s set the scene: the characters in the Marvel U have finally noticed what we the audience have been pointing out for years. When the Avengers save the day, there is always a ton of destruction and collateral damage. Avengers fought a war in New York, (the ramifications of which are still felt on the Marvel Netflix series, Daredevil and Jessica Jones), The Winter Soldier destroyed Washington, DC, and then Age of Ultron lifted the city state of Sokovia thousands of feet into the air then vaporized it.

The Avengers come to fight and people die. Finally, the world has noticed. When an Avengers mission chasing the mercenary Crossbones through Lagos in Nigeria ends with the accidental destruction of a building, and the death of several diplomats from the nation of Wakanda, it seems to be just one step too far.

The Avengers are issued an ultimatum in the form of “The Sokovia Accords”.

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Once signed, the Avengers will no longer act autonomously, but be sanctioned and controlled by a United Nations panel. This mirrors the “registration actof the Civil War comic which ordered heroes to register with the government; however, since practically nobody in the MCU has a secret identity, this element has been stripped away.

What is brilliant about the motivations of the characters in this movie is that they all make sense. You understand why some characters sign the accords and others don’t. When the lines are drawn, you understand why each Avenger has chosen the side they do.

Tony Stark (Iron Man) began as the ultimate capitalist. In his second movie, he famously stated that he’d “privatized world peace”. But over the years, from the first Avengers movie and Iron Man 3 to Age of Ultron, we have seen Tony becoming increasingly paranoid and obsessed with security. He is shown time and time again that he and others are not responsible enough keep the world safe on their own. So this is the Tony Stark entering Captain America: Civil War. He signs the Accords because he believes the Avengers operating above the law is no longer the right thing to do.

Then we have Captain America. Steve Rogers, who, in his first movie, had such a powerful faith in the systems of government, has been repeatedly shown that these systems fail. The Army tried to stop him when he could save the lives of Bucky and his friends, so Steve disobeyed orders and saved the day. In The Avengers, Steve finds a government that lies to him, and a Shield that pilfers Hydra technology and is willing to launch a nuclear bomb at the island of Manhattan. Then, in Captain America: Winter Soldier, Steve finds his trust in systems totally shattered as Shield is revealed to be mostly controlled by the Nazi death cult of Hydra. As Steve says in the movie: “The safest hands are still our own.”

Tony can only trust systems, and Steve can only trust individuals. So with a small push from Sharon Carter, who gives Steve a speech that Cap famously gives to Spider-Man in the Civil War comic, Cap refuses to sign the accords and the Avengers are split. It’s a testament to the even footing that both points of view are given that even after having seen the movie twice, I still can’t completely commit to one side or the other.

That could have been the whole crux of the story, but of course it isn’t. This is a Captain America movie, and the sequel to Winter Soldier. And that means Bucky, and not just as an afterthought. The movie starts with a flashback to the 1990s of the Winter Soldier making an assassination on an old lonely road. When the signing of the Accords are sabotaged, the Winter Soldier takes the blame.

This is where the mysterious villain Zemo (Daniel Bruhl) enters the picture, having uncovered an old Hydra book containing the code words that can hypnotize poor Bucky, bringing out his murderous Winter Soldier side.

Zemo’s backstory is simple. He was Sokovian military, he feels that the Avengers killed his family in Age of Ultron, and wants revenge. He is a surprisingly effective villain, and (though still a little lackluster, as almost all Marvel villains tend to be), I actually really enjoyed his simple, subtle, and ultimately tragic character. I was also pleased to find a villain who understood he couldn’t just kill the Avengers. Finally, we have a bad guy who doesn’t think himself stronger than Earth’s mightiest.

It is the hunt for the Winter Soldier that truly drives the movie: Cap’s insistence on saving his old friend and everyone else’s insistence on his guilt puts Cap up against UN orders. When Zemo sneaks into the UN under the guise of a therapist, he activates Bucky to escape (who then basically walks through all the Avengers because Bucky is Marvel’s equivalent of The Terminator). But it is Cap grabbing hold of Buck’s helicopter and crashing it down into the river below that brands Cap, Bucky, and Sam Wilson (Falcon) as fugitives from justice.

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Falcon, by the way, seems to be almost solely motivated by the desire to make Steve Rogers smile, regardless of his own personal investment in whatever is happening. And it is amazing.

On this note, Falcon and Bucky share relatively little screen time together, but when they do it’s also incredible. If this were a romantic comedy, Sam and Bucky would essentially be Steve’s two boyfriends jostling for his attention while glaring at each other and thinking “Steve likes me best.”

At this point, it is also important to talk about Chadwick Boswin’s “King T’challa” (Black Panther). The actor invented his own accent for the role, since Black Panther is the king of a fictional African country. Black Panther isn’t on one side, so much as he just really wants to kill Bucky, for reasons that make perfect sense. The character is regal, lethal, and fights like an actual cat. Even his costume is amazing, and I’m incredibly excited for his solo movie. In the end, between the voices of Cap and Iron Man, Black Panther works as the third perspective. He is essential to the plot, and at no point does his inclusion feel forced.

The Avengers eventually meet at the Berlin airport, Cap and his team racing to capture Zemo, and Iron Man and his side determined to bring Cap to justice. Everyone gets their moment in this fight. Scarlet Witch gets a whole bunch. And Ant Man, a character who I was ambivalent about in his own movie, gets a moment here which might go down as one of my favourite in movie history.

Tom Holland’s motivations and reality as “Spider-Man” and “Peter Parker” are set-up beautifully in just one scene. Through his conversations with Tony, we see Peter as the shy awkward kid who just wants to make a difference and protect the “little guy”. Which, by the way, perfectly mirrors the moment Steve had in the first Captain America movie, when Dr. Erskine asks why he wants to join the war effort.

Then we get Spider-Man for the long and glorious airport Avengers brawl.

He’s perfect. Spidey holds his own against even the Winter Soldier (where all the other Avengers have failed), fighting against Cap and his team. He’s strong and fast, flipping through the air with webs flying around him, and he won’t stop talking.

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This is the Spider-Man we’ve always wanted to see. In the twenty-five minutes he appears in this movie, Spider-Man acts more like the famous chatty, annoying kid who’s swung through comic pages for fifty years than any of the five whole Spiderman movies. As a criticism, there is no real reason for Spider-Man to be in the movie at all from a narrative point of view, but he makes up for it by being incredibly fun.

But this is all leading towards a confrontation between Cap, Bucky, and Iron Man. Without spoiling anything, the climax of Civil War has surprisingly low stakes. There’s no classic world-ending scheme or invading army. All of that is traded for emotional stakes.

Civil War is in many ways a tragedy, as the heroes don’t make amends in the end, but instead fall into a greater split that goes beyond politics. Come the end of the movie, Iron Man is fighting for vengeance and Cap is fighting for friendship, in a harrowing, violent confrontation where just for a moment, you might really believe that one of these heroes is going to kill the other.

What’s really well done is at no point does this conflict feel forced. You understand, as everything is slowly stripped away from him, why Cap will fight for Bucky at all costs. But similarly you understand why, by the end of the movie, Iron Man feels he needs to kill the Winter Soldier.

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Usually motives in a superhero movie are pretty simple. The good guy wants to be good, and the bad guy doesn’t, and then they fight. That isn’t Civil War. We understand and accept the motivations driving each opposing side, and that is why this movie works so well. It’s also why at the end, as Captain America and Iron Man fight so brutally, it really is tragic.

In all this, Steve Rogers seems to have completed the arc he began all the way back in his first movie, to transform from a man into a legend.

“You’re trying to do what you think is right,” are nearly Cap’s last words of the film. “That’s all any of us can do.”

Because this is who Cap is: he’s going to do what he thinks is right.

I’m sure everyone will be back together again by the end of the next Avengers movie, but that doesn’t change how powerful this movie was.

Captain America: Civil War, is arguably both the best solo and team movie Marvel has produced. For the first time, we are wrapping up a superhero trilogy without a weak link.

Civil War raises the bar for everything that must follow, and incidentally, this is the first I can remember where I walked out of the theater considering the movie to be better than its source material.

-Contributed by Ben Ghan