Spec in Song explores the use of the speculative in music, whether it be fantasy, sci-fi, horror, or beyond.
The content of Kyle Morton’s songs is just about as wide-ranging and eclectic as the musical styles he works into them. This makes sense considering that his main band, Typhoon, consists of eleven multi-instrumentalists; their work features acoustic and electric guitars, basses, violins, drums, ukuleles, banjos, and even a horn section. Yet somehow in this mess of moving parts, he manages to craft imaginative and intricate speculative worlds.
Morton is by no means a ‘speculative artist,’ however you might define it. His themes and stories are all grounded in real-world problems such as aging, relationships, and chronic illness—specifically Lyme disease, of which Morton is a sufferer.
However, as he addresses these ideas in his colourful soundscape, the imagery and plot he weaves place him among some of the greatest sci-fi and fantasy writers of our time.
In “100 Years,” from Typhoon’s third studio album, White Lighter, Morton paints a bleak and downright disturbing picture of a post-modern dystopia. After he (or his character) falls asleep under a tree and sleeps for 100 years, he wakes up to find the world changed. “I awoke in the future,” he says, and what a future it is.
“Entire cities of old folks’ homes / In every household a hospital bed for everyone / They laid me down and they stripped my clothes / They gave me a shirt that says / ‘I survived my own life.’”
Morton draws a painful link between society’s emphasis on survival over living and his own struggle with mortality. In doing so, he flings the listener into a different world. Yet this world is torn down just as quickly as it is created, giving way to introspection. “I told you / I told you / I have nothing left with which to hold you.”
Morton’s lyrics are an interesting blend of metaphor and hyperbole. Some are realistic, if overstated (like living for 100 years, even in sleep), but are combined with fantastical elements. What comes out of this mix is fantastically deep world-building, spiralling even out of a few short lines.
He continues this world-building on his solo studio album, What Will Destroy You, bringing a post-apocalyptic flavour to tracks such as “Survivalist Fantasy.” This is a song that explores his complicated relationship with intimacy in a sort of ‘last man on Earth’ scenario.
The scene is set by the lines: “The traffic lights are out and all the phones are dead / Don’t answer the door for anyone.” In a world with a zombie apocalypse obsession, these lines strike a cultural chord. At the same time, the lyrics aren’t intrinsically apocalyptic, and can bring to mind real world scenarios of riot and revolution.
“Before we lost the power I think the television said / Stay inside your homes wait for help to come / That must have been weeks ago / Now I’ve got this sinking feeling / You and I are the only ones.”
Again, we see world-building that takes familiar themes and alienates them so that they make more sense surrounded by the fantastical. Who hasn’t thought, when fighting with a partner or struggling to communicate with a loved one, that the world is coming to an end? Who hasn’t questioned the value of living when there doesn’t seem to be any life in their years?
Morton writes stories that are both close to home and entirely other-worldly, which makes for a complex lyrical experience. Being familiar and yet new, it’s definitely worth a stumble through one of his worlds.
Discussion around mental health has been growing over the past few years. Though the graphic fiction medium isn’t one to shy away from such discussions, it’s always a treat to find a comic, like Look Straight Ahead, so focused on understanding this issue.
Penned by up-and-coming Canadian author, Elaine Will, this fantastically real journey follows high school student Jeremy Knowles through his struggles with mental illness, depicted in one of the freshest and most accurate takes on the subject in years. I was recently fortunate to have the opportunity to talk to Elaine about her book and the importance of representing mental health in graphic literature.
How long did it take to write Look Straight Ahead?
Well, it took four years to draw the graphic novel, but it probably took more like ten years altogether to figure out how to write it.
Any specific reason?
I couldn’t decide exactly whether I wanted to tell a story about myself or a fictional analog, or whether I wanted it to be grounded in reality or more sci-fi. There was a version I started in about 2003 that was a lot more sci-fi and I was in it as a character and there were some completely fictional characters in it, and it was a prose novel, and I decided, “well I’m not that great at writing prose, so…”
Well you can draw pretty darn well, so that turned out well.
[Laughs] Thank you.
So where did the inspiration come from?
In 2002, I suffered a nervous breakdown in my senior year of high school—I guess I always call it a nervous breakdown, but I guess it was really a psychotic episode.
So it’s both a bit based on you and a bit based on a fictional analog as well?
Yeah, and I decided to do that in the end because a problem with writing autobiographical stories is there’s always the danger of alienating your friends or family if they don’t like the way they’re portrayed. I thought it would be best to fictionalize everything. So the characters—some of them are based on real people and some of them are composites.
You have some really great fantastical visual elements, you said it was almost a science-fiction story. Why did you choose to depict Jeremy’s mental illness in that way?
It was just the best way I could think of to describe it, like I had to have some sort of visual metaphor because it’s such a difficult concept to try and put into words—or even images—especially for someone who hasn’t experienced it. And I wanted to give an impression of what it was like for someone who hasn’t experienced it.
So you use the characters of ‘God’ and ‘Prinzhorn.’ Why did you use these characters as physical personifications?
‘Prinzhorn’ is actually German. He’s named after a psychiatrist from the early 1900s who collected artwork by mental patients. And I guess ‘God’ represents the euphoria I felt during my manic episodes, and this strange power that I felt I had been imbued with. The demons represent depression and the way that it constantly drags you down into a hellish pit.
Why do you think it’s important for mental illness to be portrayed in graphic fiction?
I think it’s very important because it’s a medium that’s very accessible, especially to young adult readers who may be struggling with mental illness. They probably need it most, and it’s important for them to read stories that represent what they might be going through. I’ve heard from a number of readers who’ve said they’ve had similar experiences, and that my book helped them. I’ve also heard from a couple of people who said they came to a greater understanding of mental illness through my book.
That’s awesome! That’s a real testament to the power of this art form we’ve got here. So based on that, what do you think is the most important thing that readers should take away from your book?
I would say, “There is hope and you aren’t alone, and if you have a story of your own, you might want to share it.” I understand that maybe some people don’t want to, but it’s important to open up discussions surrounding mental health, lessen the stigma, and perhaps even encourage better mental healthcare.
And now a question that I pulled from reading the back of your book. It says here that the book will ask “What does it mean to be crazy, anyway?” I was wondering if you could answer that.
Well, there’s a section in the book that I often read when I’m asked to do a reading, because I think that it sums it up quite well. It’s when Jeremy’s first admitted to the hospital and he’s having a conversation with Ian, the cool older guy that he meets there. Ian says, “Well, sometimes I think that you and I are the enlightened ones and everybody else is actually crazy,” because if you think of all the crazy things that happen in the world and this horrible capitalist system that we live in that favours the rich, and that sort of thing, I think the normal reaction is to perhaps fall into depression. It’s no wonder there are so many people struggling with depression, you know? In the difficult world and the difficult times that we live in?
That’s an interesting thing, because that’s such a dark statement, but at the end of the book, we know what you’re trying to have them come away with: that there is hope and you can make it better. When a story can tackle both sides of the story well, that’s sort of the hallmark of a good piece of literature.
I have been criticized for the ending of the book: that perhaps it was too abrupt. But, I didn’t want to tell anybody how they should recover, and my own recovery was actually every bit as swift. One thing I maybe should have included is that maybe you won’t ever be “cured” if you have a mental illness, but you can manage it, and you can live a “so-called” normal life.
So-called, yeah. That is, if you have access to the right sort of resources, which unfortunately many people don’t. I was really fortunate to have a really good psychiatrist who never argued with me about my delusions, because he knew that they were real to me. And I don’t think it is humouring to work with people with their delusions, you know?
To validate them.
Yeah. I think that’s important because you’re just going to make someone more upset if you try to argue with them.
To wrap it up a little bit, what are you working on now? Do you have anything in the works?
I’m finishing up a graphic novel called Dustship Glory, which is an adaptation of a novel about a Finnish immigrant farmer who lived in Saskatchewan during the 1930s and tried to build a huge steamship in the middle of his wheat field—this is a true story. I’m also going be working soon on a graphic novelette that my partner Mark wrote called “Arcade”, which is a metafictional story about an old, forgotten retro-videogame character called Axe-man. He’s a Viking warrior with an axe for a hand, and faces the destruction of his world because the cartridge chip is deteriorating, and he has to get the attention of a retro game character in the real world.
And as someone who’s breaking into the industry, what advice would you give to any people who are trying to get into the graphic fiction industry, or even just start making comics themselves?
Start making comics and exhibit at as many shows as you can. And one thing to remember about shows is that you might not always make money. I think Noah van Sciver said it best when he said “be prepared to be at a signing at a store where hopefully one person will show up and cough on you,” which is very true. Not every event will be like that obviously.
I’ve been wondering what it is that makes a movie ‘good’ ever since this year’s Oscar winners were announced back in February. This isn’t because I was displeased with the movies nominated for Best Picture, or the men for Best Actor, or the women for Best Actress, not even the fact that Fifty Shades of Grey somehow received a nomination. No, I was drawn to the animated shorts section in support of Don Hertzfeldt, my favourite filmmaker, and his film World of Tomorrow.
As an avid fan, I have seen every film he’s ever made, whether wonderful or horrible (and I’m not ashamed to say that he’s had one or two duds). Yet, when I watched World of Tomorrow for the first time, about a week or so before the nominations were announced, I found something different from anything he’d done before: a sci-fi flick.
Don’t get me wrong, I love science fiction from the bottom of my heart. I saw Star Wars: The Force Awakens three times on opening weekend and I am not ashamed in the least. However, when I watch a Don Hertzfeldt film, I expect to see less ‘galaxy far, far away’ and more ‘so deep I can’t even see you anymore.’ As an imaginative and angsty indie filmmaker, Hertzfeldt is more likely to deal with the ethical and moral issues of whether Han shot first than actually animate a blaster-burned, bug-eyed bounty hunter. And yet, the latter doesn’t seem so impossible after watching World of Tomorrow. Heck, we even get an appearance by a snake boy! (A Hutt maybe?)
I’ll keep my review short, as I’m obviously a little biased, and if you wanted a true review, you’d be on IMDb, so let’s not kid ourselves. In simple terms, if you and I are of similar mind and thought any of his other films were genius, this one will appeal to you. However, for the sake of most of the population who are unfamiliar with this man’s work, it is important to know a bit about his other films. Generally speaking, they’re always very introspective and character-driven, and deal with grand themes regarding the nature of reality or the human condition.
World of Tomorrow fulfills all of these criteria handily.
I have a few friends who would balk at my assertion that a film could be sci-fi through and through, yet still bear these stereotypical qualities of a ‘good’ film. Nevertheless, that’s what Hertzfeldt has made. The plot focuses on a girl named Emily, who is contacted by, and then transported via time travel, to her third generation clone in the far-flung future, who retains all of the memories of ‘Emily Prime,’ and thus is essentially the same person. You don’t really find anything more introspective or character-driven than that.
Furthermore, as it runs its course, the film presents many philosophical quandaries via these two awkward protagonists, including but not limited to: What is love? What makes the world beautiful? What role does sadness play in being human? At what point will technology end our humanity? And so on. Themes don’t often get much grander than that in my experience.
Now, if you’re anything like me, you read that last segment with disdain when I implied it was surprising that a sci-fi film could be more than aliens and blaster rifles, and were screaming, “Yes, many do raise the same philosophical quandaries, you blithering idiot!”
I would agree with you (except maybe on the idiot part). However, society’s mark on me would not.
Did you know that a science-fiction film has never once won an Academy Award for Best Picture? Oscar history has been one of drama after hard-boiled drama scooping up the top prizes. Occasionally, a comedy will rise up an remind everyone that the world is not entirely terrible all the time, but science fiction, fantasy (with the notable exception of The Lord of the Rings: Return of the King), and other speculative genres are typically shoved into the categories of Costume Design, Visual Effects, or the ever-popular Sound Mixing.
It would be a sweeping overgeneralization to say that most people, or even most film critics, don’t take speculative genres seriously. But for the fans of such films, it often feels that way. We are often relegated into a ‘nerd’ culture that the media clearly sees as painfully other, comical, and even downright silly. Watch a recent episode of The Big Bang Theory if you have any doubt.
But maybe even that is putting aside the issue too easily. It’s very simple to blame the mainstream society that has clearly ‘othered’ us nerds for our nerdy misfortune. At some point, we need to ask ourselves why our speculative films are viewed with such disregard.
“Don’t judge a book by its movie,” is a phrase I hear getting thrown around a lot lately. If we can’t respect our own movies, how can we expect anyone else to? This is not to say that we should blindly love every movie adaptation of our favourite book (I’m going to be honest, the movies based on the Percy Jackson series sucked), nor do I mean to focus solely on adaptations.
My point is that speculative films should contain the things that made us fall in love with these genres in the first place. To beat on Percy Jackson again (sorry Chris Columbus, but you peaked with Harry Potter), I loved the books because they could weave crazy magic and monsters with characters, themes, and situations I could actually care about, whereas the film was pure consumerist fluff.
In a world where commodification is everything, the artistry that comes with the massive imaginations of speculative writers and filmmakers is quickly getting sucked away.
This, in essence, is why I was so pleasantly surprised to see World of Tomorrow nominated for an Oscar. Yes, consumerism puts more and more pressure on filmmakers to produce speculative fluff that will make you eat popcorn and feel good, but this film, and other films like it (I could probably write a complete rant on The Martian) show what can happen when filmmakers care more about the quality of the story they’re telling than the size of the explosions.
Perhaps sci-fi needs to get a little bit more down to Earth in order to reach for the stars again.
By this I mean that, excluding Archie and the odd issue of Squirrel Girl, mainstream comics haven’t been true to their name for years now. Whether you like it or not, gone are the days of the classic ten-cent The Beano and The Dandy your granny used to read down at the corner shop. This is no one’s fault, really, at least no one specific. The heart of this change is within our changing world.
Today in North America, the political world is vibrant and teeming. Not only are we in a time of great political change both in Canada and the United States, but we are also surrounded by numerous and increasingly frequent events and crises that many are all too eager to spin to fit their political viewpoints. From immigration to ISIS to LGBTQ+ rights and beyond, there doesn’t seem to be anything safe from the perusal of daytime news or the mockery of late-night talk shows.
So where do comics fit into all of this?
Author Nick Spencer and artist Daniel Acuña present their answer to this question in the form of Captain America: Sam Wilson, Marvel’s current Captain America title. Here they tackle issues such as LGBTQ+ rights, as well as building racial tensions, poverty and the shrinking middle class, and, most notably, the issue of illegal immigration over the Mexican border along with various reactions to it.
This isn’t the first time comics have been used as a platform to address political and societal issues; V for Vendetta and Watchmen did it in the eighties, as did Hellblazer in the late eighties and early nineties, and X-Men has been representing minorities for many years, to name a few. However, Spencer and Acuña’s new effort seems to signal a violent shift towards an even more culturally relevant title.
Captain America: Sam Wilson chooses to rest in the middle of this cultural spotlight, and is not afraid to tackle touchy subjects within its pages. The protagonist and namesake, Sam Wilson, the new Captain America, takes an active stance, frequently confronting the polarization of views towards cultural issues.
“Red and Blue, Black and White, Republican and Democrat, North and South—Feels like we’re constantly at each other’s throats,” he says in the first issue, in which this popular superhero makes himself incredibly unpopular literally overnight by “going partisan” and sharing his personal views on political issues. In the world of the comic, this action leads to the public questioning what role superheroes play in politics; in our world, this spurs our discussion of the political role of comic books.
Fox & Friends’ Elisabeth Hasselbeck believes she has the answer to this discussion.
“Keep politics out of comic books, that’s what I say,” she declared at the end of a segment focused on Spencer and Acuña’s new book, in which she and her two co-anchors Clayton Morris and Tucker Carlson expressed their extreme displeasure at the message that it attempts to present. The main focus of their disgruntlement was the main antagonists of the first and second issues, the Sons of the Serpent, who are portrayed in the books as American ultra-conservative extremists attempting to repel illegal Mexican immigrants through vigilantism. Though these villains have been a mainstay of Captain America comics since the sixties, acting as a Marvel Universe proxy for the KKK, the crew at Fox & Friends saw them as a display that “now the threat comes from ordinary Americans—probably some of you watching at home!”
It is unsurprising then, in the face of this real world controversy, that Spencer depicts a similar reaction to Sam’s actions in the world of the comic, as he is quickly dubbed “Sam Wilson: Captain Anti-America,” by a fictional news organization.
Furthermore, the comic adds another layer of depth to the question by highlighting the previous Captain America’s very reserved stance in the realm of politics, a thought that is echoed once again by Fox & Friends when they comment on how much they liked the older Captain America stories in which he did heroic things like punch Hitler in the face. Is good ol’ Nazi bashing fun not good enough for today’s modern readers?
The answer, unfortunately, is not a simple “yes” or “no.”
Punching Nazis, while an enjoyable pastime, was not necessarily “good enough” in the forties when the original Captain America was published, just as it is not necessarily “good enough” now. It is not a matter of whether it was good or bad content, but rather one of cultural relevancy. In a time of war and ten-cent The Beanos and The Dandys, people needed a fun dose of Hitler smacking. Today, when comics and other forms of graphic fiction have the capacity to be instruments of social questioning and change, rather than simple amusements, there is almost a responsibility to make use of the opportunity.
This does not necessarily mean that every comic book creator has to write about politically charged and controversial topics, likely to get them more hate mail than Eisner Awards. It does mean that creators should realize that these opportunities exist, and that using the same old bag of tricks on modern audiences may work about as well as promoting newsprint to a world of social media.
Ultimately, one’s own perception of what graphic fiction should be is vital to deciding what it can be, but in terms of having an influence on politics, it clearly has the ability to at least encourage readers to question their world and culture.
The funny books aren’t funny anymore, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing.
In November, it’s hard to forget. Now I don’t mean your keys or your economics quiz; those still slip our minds with regularity. No, as any human being in the Western World who doesn’t currently take up residence under a large rock will tell you, November, at least the beginning of it, is marked by the remembrance of war.
This time of year is one to remember those who fought and those who died so that we might live in a free nation, or as close to it as we can get. This time of year is one to remember the death and pain and huge cost of the many, many wars that have so badly pockmarked our earth and scarred our memories. This time of year is a time to remember, and to be solemn in our remembrance.
But—does that mean we have to be sad?
It’s really hard not to be, when the blood-red poppies we see on the breasts of each passerby remind us of awkwardly staccato recitations of “In Flanders Fields”, which only remind us of crosses row on row and larks above the guns below, which only remind us of the countless images of lurid trenches and wounded men lying feebly on stretchers.
And while it’s very important to be sad about these things, some of these same wounded men would have liked sadness to not be your only emotion at this time of year.
I recently had the good fortune of stumbling upon a book entitled Made in the Trenches, a fitting read for Remembrance Day, one would assume. However, contrary to popular assumption, this book is a comedy.
Written by (primarily) the men of the “Star and Garter” Home for totally disabled soldiers, this anthology of poetry and short stories is anything but what one would expect from such a group of men. Additionally, given the oh-so-comforting words of the preface, “In the aftermath of this grievous war there is no more lamentable and pathetic figure than the soldier who, by reason of his wounds, is paralysed and left utterly helpless”, you can’t help but go into the book with a lump in your throat and a chip on your shoulder.
What these veterans show the reader in the pages post-preface serve to smooth and brush these away, respectively. From the first story—a jolly tale of a hearty, albeit not spectacularly bright, group of soldiers blissfully daydreaming of the home they shall soon return to as bullets fly over their heads—to the last, a theme is obvious: war is hell, but life is not.
Or at least it doesn’t have to be.
There is no real value in actually critiquing such a work; the most I could say is that there is some awkward phrasing and the occasional unnecessary plot point in a few of the stories. No, the true value of this book is in its message, and how it can be applied to our lives, here and now.
By now you may have wondered how this book fits under the umbrella of speculative fiction, and you’re right to wonder. At face value, while the poetry, though sometimes a little crude, can be seen as speculative, the prose is historical fiction through and through. However, the same thing that makes this book so relevant today is also what makes it speculative.
As I’ve already gestured at several times now, this is a funny view of a time that was most decidedly not funny. The idea itself, even on paper, seems absurd, and yet it is this absurdity that makes the point so strong.
In and of itself, the book, its settings, and its content provide a window into a strange and different world—one that many, especially most Westerners, have never experienced, and will hopefully never have to. In all fairness, the world of war is as alien to the average person sitting at their laptop as that of a galaxy far, far away. For one who has never experienced warfare, writing on this topic could almost be seen as speculative itself.
However, this is not the case for the men of the “Star and Garter”. They lived through the horrors of war firsthand, and saw some of their friends and allies die as a result. For them, this was life, no speculation needed.
Where the book’s speculation and modern meaning intersect is in the wonders of the world that these men imagine outside of their place in it. Beyond the battlefield and above the muck of their painful, everyday existences, they were able to see the oft-quoted, seldom-fulfilled silver lining. In a strange and hostile universe where there really was no light over the horizon—at least none that made it through the barbed wire—they made their own.
In each of these stories and poems, whether they be about going home to see loving nurses, finding a long sought-after oasis, or merely the Shakespearian beauty in the twisted environment around, there beats a heart yearning for more than reality. Throughout the tales and odes there is a soul that realizes the value of a lie, if only in that repeating one long enough makes it a hope.
Today, we may not huddle for days on end in endless filth, but we still have our own trenches. We may not plod on with a pack on our back and a rifle in our arms, but we have our own marches. We may not live in perpetual fear of death, but we have our own wars.
There is something that we can definitely learn from these brave individuals who sacrificed so much and gained so little, but it will not only be found in the solemn blare of a trumpet. If Made in the Trenches is any testament, what we should remember this season is that when reality pins you down, it is the dreamers who push back.