Love and comfort in fantasy, or why George R. R. Martin isn’t the American Tolkien

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I totally stole this image. I honestly have no idea where it originated, but I really like it. So many, many props to some unknown but sincerely appreciated artist.

First, I am really enjoying HBO’s adaptation of George R. R. Martin’s Game of Thrones. I was enjoying the books, immensely, until I realized I was forgetting so much between volumes that it just made more sense to wait until the entire series is finished to dive into them again. My “to be read” stacks are perilously high, and having to re-read an entire series of not exactly concise tomes every time a new volume is released takes a lot of all-too-scarce reading time away from other books, any one of which might become a new and beloved favorite.

Overall, though, I’m a fan. I mention that because what follows might be perceived as throwing shade on Mr. Martin’s books, or on HBO’s adaptations, and I don’t mean it that way. This is, in fact, not a review at all. It’s just a series of thoughts that occurred to me about my own writing, specifically in my Widening Gyre series, as I was watching the most recent episode of A Game of Thrones on HBO.

Sure, Professor Tolkien’s and Mr. Martin’s books have a lot in common … on the surface.

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Also, both Professor Tolkien and Mr. Martin introduce heroes of smaller stature. I stole this image, too, by the way.

I often hear Mr. Martin called “The American Tolkien.” I can see why people say that. (Was Lev Grossman the first?) Both write (or wrote) extremely complex fantasy novels, both have very passionate fan bases (with a great deal of overlap), both have created British Isles-inspired worlds rich with invented history and languages, and, well, both authors have the initials “R. R.” in their names.

But honestly, I think the resemblance ends there. The similarities are superficial at best.

Mr. Martin’s books are grounded in, well, the rather unpleasant realities of a world at war. Mr. Martin has made no secret of the fact that his books are inspired by true history, most notably the War of the Roses. When his books are brutal, it’s because, well, history was brutal. In fact, Mr. Martin has criticized Professor Tolkien, pointing out that his wars aren’t like the wars of history (they certainly aren’t), and even pointing out that The Lord of the Rings never bothers to address Aragorn’s tax policy. (For more, read this article and this one.)

To be fair, I think Mr. Martin’s complaints have more to do with how Professor Tolkien has become a template for lesser writers than with any real issue with The Lord of the Rings, but I think the point is an interesting one.

You see, Professor Tolkien and Mr. Martin are writing books in the same genre only to the extent that it makes it easier for bookstores to know where to shelve them. Mr. Martin writes grounded, historically-based fantasy that appeal largely (I think) because they are so grimly real. The famous shocks and twists come from the harsh brutality of a world at war. Even the famous Red Wedding is based on two different historical events. (For more information, read here and here.) To a large (and often uncomfortable) degree, Mr. Martin is writing history, with a few ice zombies and dragons tossed in.

Professor Tolkien, on the other hand, is writing myth.

In his book The Inklings, biographer Humphrey Carpenter recounts a significant and now famous conversation between Tolkien and a then-atheist C.S. Lewis. The two were walking among the colleges in Oxford on a September evening in 1931. Lewis had never underestimated the power of myth. One of his earliest loves had been the Norse myth of Balder, the dying god. All the same, Lewis did not in any way believe in the myths that so thrilled him. As he told Tolkien, “myths are lies, and therefore worthless, even though (they are) breathed through silver.”

“No,” Tolkien replied. “They are not lies.” 

Tolkien went on to explain that early man, the creators of the great myth cycles, saw the world very differently. To them “the whole of creation was myth-woven and elf-patterned.” Tolkien went on to argue that man is not ultimately a liar. He may pervert his ideas into lies, but he comes from God, and it is from God that he draws his ultimate ideas. Therefore, Tolkien argued, not only man’s abstract thoughts, but also his imaginative inventions, must in some way originate with God, and must in consequence reflect something of eternal truth.

When creating a myth, a storyteller is engaging in what Tolkien called mythopoeia (myth-oh-pay-uh). Through the act of peopling an imaginary world with bright heroes and terrible monsters, the storyteller is in a way reflecting God’s own act of creation. Human beings are, according to Tolkien, expressing fragments of eternal truth. Tolkien believed that the poet or storyteller is, then, a sub-creator “capturing in myth reflections of what God creates using real men and actual history.” A storyteller, Tolkien believed, is actually fulfilling Divine purpose, because the story always contains something of a deeper truth. Myth is filtered through the artist’s culture, experiences, and talents, but it is drawn from a deeper well.

By Tolkien’s argument, all myth is a response, a reaction to the force of creation occurring all around us. Granted, this calls for a slightly different definition of myth — and ignores the perhaps (probably) different intentions of the storytellers — which, of course, we can never know in any case. But a story can be myth, Tolkien would argue. Indeed, it could scarcely be anything else, because any act of creation is a reaction to the call of the Divine. Tolkien and the Inklings were responding to the same “shout” that the creators of myth have been responding to throughout the ages — the utter magnificence of a beautiful, dangerous, and impossible universe.

I’ve written more on that topic here (in fact, I stole the preceding five paragraphs from myself).

I bring that up because I can’t help thinking that anyone who reads The Lord of the Rings and comes away asking about Aragorn’s tax policy has completely missed the point. (Although again, I think Mr. Martin is actually ranting against the clichés that sprung up from Professor Tolkien’s imitators, rather than the books themselves. The Lord of the Rings was groundbreaking … but I certainly can’t blame Mr. Martin for wanting to break the template. In fact, I applaud him.)

The twin ideas of mythopoeia and eucatastrophe are at the heart of Professor Tolkien’s work. Indeed, the deeply mythic concept of eucatastrophe, a sudden turn of events at the end of a story which ensures that the hero does not meet some terrible, impending, and very plausible doom, is antithetical to the core of Mr. Martin’s work.

Professor Tolkien formed the word eucatastrophe by affixing the Greek prefix eu, meaning good, to catastrophe, the word traditionally used in classically-inspired literary criticism to refer to the “unraveling” or conclusion of a drama’s plot. For Tolkien, the term had a thematic meaning that went beyond its literal etymological meaning. It was at the very core of Christianity and his love of myth and art. It was a part of his very DNA.

Eucatastrophe is the blessed conclusion we all crave; it’s something we long for deeply in the heart — a time when wounds are healed, the broken are mended, and rights are made wrong. That longing, I think, is key.

In that sense, Mr. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire and Professor Tolkien’s The Lord of the Rings are polar opposites, matter and antimatter.

Let me ask you this. Would you really want to visit Westeros?

There’s quite a few variations of this meme floating around on Facebook and Twitter:

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There’s something in the mythopoeic works of Tolkien and Lewis that calls to that deep longing within us. There’s a part of us, somehow, that knows that the fantasy landscapes are a metaphor for something beyond, something more than the fields we know. It makes us feel almost homesick for a place we’ve never been.

I image that most of Mr. Martin’s fans can relate to the Hunger Games fans. A visit to the world of A Game of Thrones is … well, less appealing.

(Although I think there’s another blog to be written about the appeal of The Hunger Games. Stay tuned.)

This idea struck me when I was watching the most recent episode of HBO’s A Game of Thrones with my wife, Carol. The episode happened to feature two absolutely stunning shots of the castle Riverrun. Carol and I turned to each other with wide eyes and just said, “wow.” The shots were lovely. It was, in fact, the first time I can remember that a location in A Game of Thrones had made us want to visit that place. The fact that there was a siege going on quickly damped our enthusiasm, but still, I was struck with the idea that A Game of Thrones is almost utterly devoid of any kind of wish fulfillment, key elements of fantasies like the Harry Potter series or, say, Star Wars.

It made me wonder if anyone would want to visit the locations in my books, or spend time with my characters. I hope so. I really do. At very least, I hope readers would long to visit the Renaissance festival in Blackthorne Faire, or the Commonwealth pub in The Widening Gyre. I try to ground things, solidly — a lesson I’ve learned from Mr. Martin — but mythopoeia and the longing for eucatastrophe are in my DNA, too.

Another thought struck me soon after.

Both the television and the novel versions of A Game of Thrones are short on love. I don’t (necessarily) mean romantic love, but love. Love of family, love of place, love of friends, love of partner. When love is there, it’s usually broken in some way … think of the late King Robert’s lost love for Ned Stark’s sister, Lyanna. Think of Jamie and Ceresi Lannister (but not too much, because ewwww). Think of Tyrion’s love for his prostitute, Shae. Perhaps the purest love in the story is that of Ned Stark’s family, and look how that turned out.

By contrast, The Lord of the Rings is bursting with love, even though it is (almost) completely devoid of romantic love. There are certainly deep and loving friendships — Merry and Pippin for Frodo, Sam and Frodo, Gandalf and Bilbo, Gimli and Legolas. There is also a deep love of place … think of Frodo’s love for the Shire, all the walks he takes. Think how heartbreaking it is when Frodo’s ultimate sacrifice isn’t his life, but rather the life he has known and loved in the Shire. When he returns, his battles won, the Shire is lost to him, but not his love for it.

Indeed, the whole story turns on the role of Providence, the divine love that leads to eucatastrophe, that dearest of all loves.

The Narnia stories, too, are rich with love. So are the Harry Potter stories. They shine with love and grace.

Last — and this is something that the films missed for the most part — The Lord of the Rings, the novel, holds precious moments of comfort, even in the midst of terrible war and danger. There’s Bag End of course (who wouldn’t want to visit Bag End?) — which, to be fair, the films absolutely nailed. But Bree, a port of (at least temporary) safety in the books, is a frightening place in the films. Ditto Lóthlorien, that precious place of unfallen paradise. Gone utterly are Tom Bombadil’s house and Crickhollow.

The dear and comfortable places make Professor Tolkien’s Middle-earth come to life. It makes us long to visit, just as (for example) Cair Paravel and Beaver’s Dam make us want to visit Narnia, and Hogwarts makes us long for an owl-delivered letter.

For the most part, the Lord of the Rings films miss these moments of comfort, and the moments of the numinous. I think that’s why they’re less likely endure the test of time, as the books certainly have.

These moments are, at best, rare in A Song of Ice and Fire. Mr. Martin seems to be crafting more of a puzzle box, closer to, say, Lost than to The Lord of the Rings. When was the last time you heard someone talking about Lost? (To be fair, I expect a much stronger resolution to A Song of Ice and Fire.)

I wonder … when the last shock has shocked and the last twist has been revealed in all its gory glory, will we still turn to A Song of Ice and Fire?

Probably. I certainly think so. I think Mr. Martin’s achievement is a remarkable one that will continue to find new readers for generations. I hope writers will learn the right lessons from it … break the templates, don’t just imitate the new ones.

I think A Song of Ice and Fire will gain as many new readers as The Lord of the Rings does. When all the mysteries are unfolded, and there’s no need to go back and scour the text for clues, I wonder if A Song of Ice and Fire will have as many re-readers? I don’t think so.

I wonder, too, if A Song of Ice and Fire will inspire the same enduring love, and longing, that The Lord of the Rings kindles. Time will tell.

In the meantime, both have lessons to teach writers like me. I’ll ground my fantasies. I might even think about the tax policies of my own (metaphorical) Aragorns. But I’ll always season my stories with love, place, and comfort, even in the moments of darkness.

Mr. Martin isn’t the American Tolkien. He’s the American Martin. That’s more than good enough.

Reinventing this blog … just a little. (Or … A New Mission)

Hey, folks!

ProfileJAIf you’ve been following this blog for a while, well, there’s some changes coming. Don’t worry; I’ll still be doing the reviews … of books, movies, beer, root beer, and pretty much anything else that strikes my fancy. In fact, I’ll probably be doing a lot more of them.

That’s not all, though. As many of you already now, I’ve recently signed with a new agent, Mr. Peter Miller of Global Lion Intellectual Property Management. Peter’s a great guy, and to be blunt, he gets things done and deals made. I’m just all kinds of lucky to be working with him.

As as my books and scripts get closer to finding their way to bookstores and screens, I’m going to be sharing a little bit of that journey here.

Right now, Peter is placing Challengers, a novel based on a television pilot I wrote a few years back. The pilot’s not dead, not by a long shot, but the novel version lets me spend a little more time with a cast of characters I have come to love dearly. It’s a modern take on the old pulp heroes, so I’ll be spending a lot of time talking about the old pulp heroes: Professor Challenger (who gave the team its name), Tarzan, The Shadow, Mandrake the Magician, and guys like that. So I’ll be talking about the pulps a lot … the first superheroes, and what it might take to make them work in the modern world.

A while back, I started working on a trilogy of King Arthur novels. I couldn’t quite make it work, but I think I’ve finally cracked it. It’s now a four book series … all of them massive tomes. I’ve finished two and about a half of the third. The series is called The Unbroken Circle, and the books are called The Widening Gyre, Winter Kept Us Warm, What the Thunder Said, and The Last Light Flickers. I honestly think these are the best things I’ll ever do.

I’ve written a screenplay that’s received some fantastic feedback that has both shocked and humbled me. It’s called A Planet Called Eden, and it’s basically astronauts vs. dinosaurs. Well, you could also say it’s about a 22nd century space expedition that finds an artificial planet in a faraway solar system with mysterious connections to the origins of life on Earth. But seriously, it’s astronauts vs. dinosaurs.

I’m really proud of the Eden script, and I can’t wait to have time to dive into the sequels, but to be honest, the book kind of sucks. I’ll be talking about the steps I’m taking to try and improve it here. I’d love your thoughts and feedback. We used Eden for the rough demo we did for my “eBook 2.0” publishing company, Gramarye Media.

There’s another book, too. Blackthorne Faire is a contemporary New Adult fantasy adventure with elements of paranormal romance (with a dash of a war between the courts of faerie and the mob) set at a Renaissance Festival. But that’s getting its own blog. Stay tuned.

Book Review: City of Dark Magic by Magnus Flyte

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Read City of Dark Magic: A Novel

Magnus Flyte is a pseudonym for the writing duo of Meg Howrey and Christina Lynch. I knew that name was too good to be true. The book is a delight, though.

Magnus Flyte is a pseudonym for the writing duo of Meg Howrey and Christina Lynch. I knew that name was too good to be true. The book is a delight, though.

If I didn’t travel, I probably wouldn’t have discovered City of Dark Magic, a lovely little gem of a novel that doesn’t fit neatly into a genre box, or rather it seems to fit into several of them at once. It’s part historical mystery, part conspiracy thriller, part spy novel, and part, jeez, contemporary fantasy or magic realism, I guess, all wrapped up in a candy shell of romanic comedy. Unfortunately, that makes it kind of to browse for in a bookstore. If I hadn’t noticed it in an airport newsstand, I surely would have missed it. That would have been a shame.

The Prague of City of Dark Magic is a city I'd love to visit. I'd glad the book took me there.

The Prague of City of Dark Magic is a city I’d love to visit. I’d glad the book took me there.

The Prague of City of Dark Magic is a city steeped in legends of magic, a history of blood, and a legacy of secrets. It has been home to geniuses and eccentrics. It is also a city of secrets as music student Sarah Weston discovers. Sarah has come to the Prague Castle for the summer with a team of colorful academics to restore the Lubkowicz Palace to its former glory and turn it into a museum filled with centuries old treasures. There, she finds clues that might finally unravel the mystery of Beethoven’s famous immortal beloved. What follows is a tale of mystery, politics, furtive sex, music, alchemy, murder, a time traveling prince, a centuries-old dwarf, and even a portal to hell or two. Yes, and its a romantic comedy. This isn’t a book that follows genre conventions, it lays them out like toys and plays with them.

Sarah is a delightful character to spend time with, and the Prague created in these pages is one I’d love to visit. Even minor characters are vivid and often fascinating. The mystery is intriguing, the danger feels real and immediate, and the comedy is wicked and delicious. The plot twists in the most delightfully labyrinthine manner.

It’s not a perfect novel. There are flaws; for example: the enigmatic prince’s secret, which drives much of the plot, is revealed in an off-hand way that does more to set up a sequel than to resolve tension. Sarah and the novel’s primary villain, an ambitious politician with a shadowy past, never spend much time together. None of the flaws diminish the absolute fun of City of Dark Magic. It’s smart, exciting, sexy, and laugh-out-loud funny. If you like a little dark mystery, magic, and romantic adventure (spiced liberally with cleverness and loads of charm) in your summer read, this is the book for you.

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Pizza Review: Pizza K (no, really, it’s good!)

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Visit Pizza K Decatur/Emory

About a year ago, I published one of my more popular blog posts, 10 Places to Get Terrific Pizza in Atlanta. Since then, one of them (Decatur’s Zucca) has closed, alas. So I’m one short. In the interest of public service and keep the number at 10, here is a replacement, also in the Decatur area.

I likely wouldn’t have stopped at Pizza K. It’s a generic-looking hole-in-the-wall in a Publix strip mall at the corner of Clairmont and North Decatur. (Coincidentally, that’s two more spots on my list of ten great spots for pizza are near that same intersection … Athens and Cappozi’s. Talk about an embarrassment of riches.) I’d stopped at that center for dog food, and decided to get a little people food, too. But it was raining, and I was too lazy to venture to the Publix. So I gave Pizza K a try. I’m glad I did, because wow, this was a surprise. A couple of them, actually.

Frankly, I wasn’t expecting much. But much to my surprise, I saw bags of flour, tomatoes, and, you know, actual ingredients. Not frozen dough or canned sauces. That was surprise number one.

The second surprise was that they had actual Chicago style pizza. Not deep pan pizza that’s all bread. Real Chicago style pizza. With the thin crust stuffed with mounds of cheese and ingredients, a thin upper crust, and real sauce on top. Sort of like what you get it Nancy’s, but at least as good. Maybe even a little better. And for a fraction of the price.

Granted, this is colored bit by low expectations. But I’ll be back, and often. I haven’t tried anything other than the Chicago style, and it’s so good that I may never. But the other styles are probably worth a try. In the meantime, this is probably the best Chicago style pizza I’ve had outside of the cities of Chicago or Orlando, at least since Uppercrust closed back in the 80s.

The prices here are amazing. Little Ceasar’s prices, but for real pizza. Sadly, there are no tables. It’s take out or delivery only. But it is amazingly good, especially for the price.

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Theatre Review: The Book Club Play at Horizon Theatre

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See The Book Club Play at Horizon Theatre

8703078440_dda1453400_zThis is a short review, largely because I want to urge you to catch this show, and since it closes soon, I don’t want to slow you down more than necessary. Well, better late than never, right? The Book Club Play isn’t as edgy or innovative as much of the work Horizon Theatre in Little Five Points/Inman Park is known for. It is, however, an absolute, laugh-out-loud delight that deserves to be seen. But hurry, you only have a couple of weeks.

One of my heroes, C. S. Lewis, once wrote that “we read to know we’re not alone.” I also think we read to find out a little about who we are. We feel compelled to share, and to explore more deeply, because the secrets we discover are secrets about ourselves and how we relate to one another, and to an increasingly complex world. But when we scratch the surface of secrets, especially in the company of others, it’s not always going to be a comfortable experience. Ann, played wonderfully by Wendy Melkonian, has a perfect life … career, catalog-perfect home, handsome husband, and tightly-knit book club. When the delicate mix of the latter is stirred both by the presence of a stranger and by becoming the subject of a documentary film, intimate discussions lead to sit-com level pandemonium.

Yes, the play is sweet, even cloying. The outcomes are neat and fairly predictable. But the cast (which also includes Bryan Brendle, Maria Rodriguez-Sager, Danielle Deadwyler, and Dan Triandiflou) is so terrific, and the laughs are frequent and loud. More, the questions raised are interesting and worthy of exploration. More, the characters are genuine, and I was delighted to spend an evening with them. Real belly laughs have been rare this season (The Internship, I’m looking at you). The Book Club Play provides them in spades … with more than a little intelligence and heart thrown in for good measure.

Do yourself a favor and don’t miss this. But get moving; it ends June 23, alas.

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Movie Review: Man of Steel

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superman-man-of-steel-ew-pictures-4-04112013-102722-1First, I really enjoyed Man of Steel. It’s a really good film, and one of my favorite superhero films ever. I loved the epic scale, I loved the realization of a truly alien, dying Krypton, and I loved the richness of the characters, even the ones that are only on screen for a few moments. Lois, especially, is a driven, capable character with courage, clear motivations, and, yes, a strong moral compass that guides her actions, and even makes many of them inevitable. Amy Adams plays her with strength and genuine earnestness that never winks or devolves into damsel in distress camp.

Henry Cavill looks perfect as Superman, but his performance goes far beyond the visual. Quite simply, he makes the role his own. I didn’t once think of Christopher Reeve, the man who absolutely owns the part. Cavill’s Superman is different, and goes for gravitas rather than Reeve’s effortless charm, although I ached for Reeve’s sly wit. Cavill doesn’t echo Reeve, but his portray is unique, interesting, and satisfying. I look forward to seeing how it evolves in later films. As surely as Reeve, if in a very different way, Cavill makes a Perfect Superman.

The backstory is fascinating, and the conflicts between villain General Zod, Jor El, and later Superman, are poignant and fascinating. The mythic structure and overt religious imagery works extraordinarily well. I didn’t care for the uniform (or much else, really) in Superman Returns, because it seemed too much a departure from the classic union suit for my taste. The uniform in Man of Steel is even more of a departure, but somehow, it just seems to work much better.

In short, it’s a terrific film. I say that up front, because I am about to complain about it now. Beware, folks, there be spoilers ahead. If you haven’t seen the film and plan to do so without knowing a lot of stuff that happens, turn away now. But please come back after you’ve seen it, because I’d love to know what you think.

Still with me? Okay. You were warned.

amy-adams-henry-cavill-man-of-steel-skipJonathan Kent dies. That’s no surprise, in most versions of the story he usually does, and his loss is one of the events that shapes who Superman is as a character. Here, he dies in a tornado, and Clark could have saved him. Easily. Now, a key thematic element of this story is the importance of keeping Clark’s powers secret. I get that, and I liked it. It worked beautifully in the structure of the film. But the way this key death was was handled was … well, bad. Just bad.

To be frank, I HATED the tornado scene. Hated it. There were just too many ways to save Jonathan Kent without revealing the secret. I can’t believe that Superman, in any incarnation, would allow his dad, or anyone, to die when he could stop it. In Donner’s film, Superman The Movie, Jonathan Kent’s heart attack had resonance, because it was the one thing Clark COULDN’T stop, and made him that much more dedicated to stopping the things he could. In this film, the death shapes Clark’s obsession with guarding his secret, and highlights his alienation. That works. Again, Jonathan’s sacrifice was moving, but the execution (no pun intended) just struck me as unforgivably lazy writing.

Also, in the climax, General Zod forces Superman to kill him. It’s a powerful moment (again, no pun intended), and everything we’ve learned about Zod’s character makes it inevitable. But I can’t help thinking that the climax would have had more impact if we had seen Superman reluctant to kill before, or if the question had at least been raised. Also, to me, the scene kinda showed that Superman could have ended that epic fight at pretty much any time. Wouldn’t it have been stronger if Superman was constantly having to choose to let Zod go temporarily in order to save the people of Metropolis?

Am I the only one who really ached for some humor? Iron Man III was, in many ways, a dark film. There aren’t that many lighthearted romps about Post Traumatic Stress Syndrome and terrorism. But it had more than a few really good and warned laughs. The Avengers comes close to matching Man of Steel for sheer destruction, but it still had some laughs. We needed to break a little of this tension.

Last, a couple of questions for those of you who have seen the film:

First, what was Jor El’s plan for the codex? To have Superman gradually gain trust, and then bring forth a new race Kryptonians? I get, metaphorically, that he is now the father of all Kryptonians. That worked. Last Son of Krypton and all that. I’m with you. But from a story point of view, how was Jor El’s plan different than Zod’s, save (perhaps) for the terraforming?

Second, in the flashback where Clark is playing with the blanket cape, who is he pretending to be? (Lovely gem of a scene, though.)

I bring these issues up largely because when a film is very good, the obvious flaws that keep it from being great are that much more frustrating. I did really enjoy the film, though, and I can’t wait for the sequels. Although while I liked Jenny Olson, I miss Jimmy. And Krypto. And while Hans Zimmer’s score was effective, and even stirring, I still miss John William’s iconic theme, which is, frankly, one of the greatest film scores ever. Zimmer’s music is brilliant, but they won’t be playing it after super (see what I did there?) catches at baseball games.

Oh, and for those of you who are interested, this is a list of Easter Eggs you might have missed.

So, what did y’all think?

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Musing on Some Elements that Work in Fantasy, Part Two: Iconic Imagery

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One of the most iconic images in all of fantasy literature: The One Ring from The Lord of the Rings.

If you read Part One of this series, you already know that some partners and I are starting a new publishing company, ePic Adventures, Inc. As I mentioned, we’ll be doing print books, both hardcover and paperback, but our emphasis is on eBooks designed to stretch the capabilities of smartphone and tablets and redefine what an eBook can be in the age of transmedia. Again, think of them as eBooks 2.0, or the Magician’s Book from Narnia, or the tablet/smartphone equivalent of a volume from the library at Hogwarts.

As we build the ePic Books brand, we’re focusing on a single genre (or range of subgenres, I guess), at least for the first year or two: fantasy. A part of our strategy involves looking for certain elements that the very best and most successful fantasies share in common. When I say “most successful,” I’m talking about the classics of the genre, the most beloved and enduring works that stand out, across years and even generations. These are the works that shine above the rest, when as works of equal, or arguably even greater, quality dim into obscurity.

One of those elements that most enduring and successful works seem to share, Iconic Imagery, is very closely related to the Iconic Locations detailed in Part One. If you haven’t read it, skip back. It’s okay. we’ll wait.

Back? Okay then.

Absolutely iconic.

Star Trek is a terrific source of iconic images: the famous badge, the bridge of the Enterprise (always recognizable, generation after generation), tribbles, and, of course, Spock’s ears and Vulcan salute. Bladerunner? Don’t even get me started.

Speaking of the bridge of the Enterprise, how is an iconic image different from an iconic location? I admit the line is thin. In fact, at least three of the examples I mentioned in Part One, the Lamppost in Narnia, the Starship Enterprise, and the Death Star from Star Wars, might better be called iconic images rather than locations. The lamppost especially … our first view of it includes two characters, Lucy and Mr. Tumnus with his umbrella and bundles; the characters are as much a part of that scene as the lamppost and the snow-covered trees. So whether you consider it a location or an image, the point remains; it’s iconic and unforgettable. You want images like that in your story … assuming that you are striving for one of those enduring, unforgettable classics. And if you aren’t, seriously, why the hell not?

I should also point out that iconic images, at least as I’m thinking of them, aren’t always exclusively visual (which makes me think I have likely picked the wrong word, but there you are). Consider the Lightsabers in Star Wars. Those glowing laser swords are unforgettable—and are even, I think, a part of why the first film was so astonishing successful. But as iconic as that image is, most of us, I am willing to wager, can recognize a lightsaber even without the visual. The sound, that unmistakable hum, is as much as part of the integral lightsaber-ness as the visual design. If someone plays you a clip of a light saber activating or deactivating, you’ll know it at once. Go head, give it a try.

Star Wars is another gold mine for iconic images: The Millennium Falcon, the X-wing, Yoda, Wookies, the creatures in the cantina, Princess Leia’s hair buns, R2 and 3PO…. In fact, that’s one of the differences between the original trilogy and the prequels. The original trilogy is chock full of iconic images. The prequels have far more incredible and imaginative designs. But how many stand out? How many are memorable? Of those, how many didn’t appear in the original trilogy first? Off hand, Darth Maul’s character design is about all I can come up with. Could you sketch him? Or even describe him in a sentence?

Tolkien’s ring is one of the most iconic images in all of fantasy. So are his hobbits, with their pipes, their small stature, and, of course, the furry feet. What would the Harry Potter books be without, say, the wands or the moving paintings? I can honestly say that I remember more about the visuals of The Wind in the Willows, from the characters to the locations, than I can about the story itself (which means it’s probably time to revisit it).

Captain Hook’s hook is an iconic image that helps define him as a character. without it, he’s a generic pirate.

Personally, I think the best and strongest iconic images are related closely to a character if only because they have the effect of making that character iconic almost by consequence, although of course the image alone won’t do that. But at a glance, they give the character a very specific look, and they tell us a little something about the character. More, the character just won’t be the same without it, like the Dread Pirate Roberts without his black shirt and mask.

Some examples? Remember how Darth Vader’s iconic black helmet and cape stands out from that sea of white-armored Stormtroopers the first time we see him in Star Wars. Think of Indiana Jones with his jacket, whip, and hat. He’s still Indy without them, of course. He’s wearing a white dinner jacket in the opening scenes of The Temple of Doom. But when I saw the film on opening night, the first real spontaneous round of applause from the audience came when Indy pulled on his familiar “uniform” on that little plane.

If you see a poster—or read a description—of a muscled man wearing a loincloth in the jungle, chances are you’ll assume it’s Tarzan. If you see a stern male figure smoking a large pipe and wearing a deerstalker, you’re probably not thinking Nero Wolfe or James Bond. When you see a man on a white horse wearing a white hat and a mask, you won’t have to ask, at least not with a straight face, who was that masked man? It’s the Lone Ranger.

Bob Kane’s original concept for The Batman, before Bill Finger suggested the dark knight we know today.

The colorful uniform made Superman stand out from his pulp-era forefathers like Doc Savage and The Shadow, themselves iconic. When Bob Kane created Batman, he originally envisioned a bright red body suit, bat wings, and a domino mask. Bill Finger contributed a different look … the brooding cape and cowl. Would Batman have worked either way? Maybe. But I doubt it.

Granted, iconic imagery is a pretty shallow way to define a character, and it takes far more than a distinctive look to make a character truly classic. The icons help us recognize a character at a glance (Harry Potter’s glasses and scar); they don’t make us care. It’s at best just one layer, the surface one, but it’s a good place to start.

Iconic images present a challenge to the writer. It easy to show an iconic image in, say, a film or a comic. On the page? Not so much. I include the screenplay page here, too. Strong visuals help a film sell. Regardless of the medium, iconic images have to be described in sufficient detail that we can see it, sure, but the best resonate through the other senses as well. When you’re reading or writing, think of sound (remember the lightsabers), smell, and weight. The icons have to be real. In this case, the written word has an advantage. You can’t smell a film, but a writer can make a scent real. For better or for worse. A film can show us a magic sword, but the written word can show us what it feels like to hold that power pulsing through the palms of your hands.

They present challenges, but they have advantages. They make your character (or prop, or location, or vehicle, or…) a part of the collective zeitgeist. Just about any man, woman, or child can recognize Superman or Mickey Mouse at a glance. Most of them can recognize Harry Potter, Spider-man, or a lightsaber. If you want to have your work adapted for the screen, or illustrated, iconic images give the interpreters a strong foundation from which to start.

And finally (this may sound a little crass), iconic images are merchandisable. You can make toys, t-shirts, costumes, posters, mugs, trashcans, and pretty much anything else you can think of. Just look at what Patrick Rothfuss has been able to do. That’s a way to keep people talking about, and promoting, your work. And it’s a pretty good way to make it attractive to studios and publishers. And it’s certainly something that’s on our checklist at ePic.

Any thoughts, writers and readers of the world?

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