Books: If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face?, The Guardians of the Galaxy [2008, volumes 1 and 2]
If I Understood You, Would I Have This Look on My Face? by Alan Alda
This is Alan Alda's 2017 book about his unexpected second career in teaching communication to scientists -- work which unexpectedly shares techniques with improv theater.
This is a light, short, breezy piece of nonfiction. It feels like something of an infomercial for improv, explaining (with some scientific backing) how it helps people with communication skills and empathy. And that's a nice, warm, fuzzy topic to read about. But on the other hand, it means that I pretty much know all the material, from the explanation of what "Yes, and" is to the promising work being done teaching improv to autistic children.
True to Mr. Alda's personality, the coverage is sunny and optimistic and peppered with wry humor that's just this side of dad-jokes.
So, it's a pleasant-enough book to read, so long as you don't expect to learn much. It's probably a great introductory book about improv for muggles.
The Guardians of the Galaxy [2008, volumes 1 and 2]
I read the first two trade paperbacks of the Andy Lanning/Dan Abnett 2008 run of The Guardians of the Galaxy, the comic about a misfit team of aliens who wind up fighting universe-scale threats.
I read The Unbeatable Squirrel Girl a few weeks ago, and I walked away from it thinking it was one of the most delightful books of *any* sort that I'd read in ages, and thinking that well, apparently all comics are that good now and I've been foolishly missing out.
Then I read this run of The Guardians of the Galaxy, and it brought my expectations for the medium crashing back down to earth.
It embodied all the things I *don't* like about comics. It was very wrapped up in massive continuity, with every other page relying significantly on some or other piece of in-universe context. I was never quite annoyed or confused enough to scurry off to wikipedia for the details, but I also never really knew what was going on.
And I was shocked that it wasn't funny. And it's not like these comics were *aiming* for a different, more somber tone than the movies. No, they were trying to be funny, and pretty much failing. Most of the dialog defaults to the sort of combative banter you associate with 90s sitcoms -- where everybody's always a little bit snippy, in more or less the same way, with middling jokes you wouldn't think to laugh at without a helpful laugh track letting you know the desired reaction. But it felt more bro-y, so... maybe more like Entourage? Cruel words, indeed, but writing comedy is really hard, and I have little mercy for material that doesn't measure up.
The art didn't blow me away. It was neat to see them go more inventive, both with the out-there things they depict and with their color palette, for their "cosmic Marvel" world. But the characters somewhat lacked... well, character. There seemed to be a default design for men -- musclebound, with gruff, square features, with a resting expression like they were halfway through a particularly taxing dump -- and a default design for women -- all porn-star proportions in skintight outfits, even when they were alien bugs, or killer robots, or post-human time travellers. And that's fine, don't get me wrong, but porn, y'know, exists, and I kinda favor fiction that doesn't feel aesthetically pitched at a desperately lonely hetero tween boy.
And lastly, there's a storytelling phrase from Ryan McGee that I've been thinking about more and more these days: "complication without complexity". This is where your story is heavy, heavy, heavy on plot -- it frantically moves the pieces around the table as often as possible, with as many shocking reversals as possible, and objectives and alliances and locations all shifting from scene to scene to scene -- but none of that plot creates *complexity*. The characters are simple. They're plot vectors -- things that move the plot around. But the plot acrobatics don't inform the characters, or add layers or nuance. In fact, half the time they obliterate nuance, as the plot contrivances force character inconsistencies.
Compare this to a "<x> of the week"-style show like Buffy. Here's where I earn the ire of fandom: plotting on Buffy is dead simple. Every week, there's a monster. It usually appears in the teaser. Then we have the Scooby gang learn about the monster, there's a research scene in the library, they go out and fight some lesser minions, there are act breaks where we learn the monster is more dangerous than we thought, they defeat it towards the end with something clever, and then a ruminative denouement. It's mainly just that, over and over again.
Plot-wise, it's not complicated. But it creates *complexity*. The showrunners were very deliberate in building those plots such that every monster of the week illuminated something new about the characters. They kept getting new facets and details. And to this day, the fans know exactly who those characters are, in a deep and intuitive sense. Each episode is like a brushstroke, filling in a little more of the canvas, testing the characters and thereby teaching us more about them.
If instead you frantically keep moving the pieces around the board, it does create surprises, and it creates the *impression* of story, but that story feels kind of empty. You can skip long stretches, find a plot rundown on wikipedia, and feel like you really haven't missed anything.
And that's how the stories in these Guardians volumes felt: lots of whizzing around and double-crosses and death and resurrection and travel to alternate realities. But none of it really mattered.
Sadly, I can't recommend this.
For next week: I'm watching season one of Jane the Virgin, and I still have to write about The Art of Language Invention, David J. Peterson's guidebook for constructing languages.
 We could chart out Chuck or The X-Files in similar ways.
 I have some issues with the films (WTF did they do with Mantis?!), but I give them massive credit for (1) having jokes that actually work, and (2) creating simple, affecting emotional arcs for the characters. Both are incredibly hard to do, and these comics illustrate what you're left with when you can't pull either off.
Mood: contemplative · Music: none