Two Decisions

  1. I am not going to use Nanowrimo to revise Tallulah, or to start another zero draft (more on that in a bit)
  2. I am not going to use Nanowrimo to draft my “shitty YA thing” either

Re Tallulah … it feels correct to call all the work I’ve done thus far as a big “what if” experiment, in retrospect. I got this far with X ideas, and while I’m sure I could force myself to keep pushing at the current version of the story and pump out something adequate, I don’t think it would be something I’d be happy with. It’s not the kind of story I was trying to tell at the beginning, and in fact I never got a chance to tell that story. Hence the “start another zero draft” possibility. It’s still a possibility, in fact more than a possibility. I feel really good about the idea; as I was discussing with my buddy Viola today, while I was intensely focused on writing that last research essay, every now and then I would think of Tallulah, and I didn’t think of the story in its current state. I went straight to a couple of ideas, scenes, moments; they were the ideas I started this story with in the beginning, and when totally mentally engrossed in another task (essay-writing), those parts of the story were my first port of call, not the stuff that I stuck in there during the zero draft while spontaneously ranting my way through to the finish-line and then forced myself to work with in the first revision. So when I do come back to Tallulah, my thought now is that I’m going to start over and just kind of pretend the last two drafts didn’t happen, canon-wise. I do want to go back and start afresh with Tallulah. Just not for Nano.

And re Shitty YA Thing

I’ve decided to instead finally commit to drafting my sprawling postmodern high fantasy epic that I’ve been not-writing since I was 14 years old, because it is in the most solid and encouraging state it’s ever been, and I’d love to do it if I can do it right – and for the first time, I’m really quite certain that I actually can.

I mean I managed to take a really kind of risky idea that worked when I was 14 and then seemed increasingly not-serious-enough as I grew older and more angst-ridden and authenticity-driven and come full-circle to see that, actually, I was right the first time. I turned the main character into a girl. I have an actual plot. I have a plot – a very general plot, but that’s all I need to start with – that spans a really satisfying-feeling first story and most of an also-satisfying but potentially very-difficult-to-manage sequel, and since I’m only writing the one novel for Nano, that’s plenty.

It’s also nice that as I come to terms with Tallulah not having progressed the way I wanted it to and facing the prospect of starting all over again, I have this story that’s been hanging around and not being written for 13 years finally, finally coming together as a coherent tale. Door closes, window opens. Something like that.

It’s nice. It’ll be even better to actually get to work on it.

And it’ll be something different, and technically new, to take my mind off Tallulah with, and will prevent me from making a snap decision about it right this minute – and it will actually be the first proper break I’ve taken from Tallulah, psychologically, since I started. I could probably do with a bit of that.

In the meantime, we did actually get that extension that was a possibility, so now I’d better go make use of it.

Wish fulfillment

So I got one essay handed in. Turns out that 5000 words gets eaten up kinda fast. Also turns out that I can, in fact, plan out what I’m going to write before I write it and then stick to that plan. I mean there’s always deviation and stuff, but I most certainly adhered to the direction and structure of my plan, even if it was not with perfect 1-to-1 accuracy. And it worked really well, and if I get a passing grade for it then so much the better.

The second and final essay is also longer and due on Halloween, which is why my Nanowrimo plan felt so convenient, starting right after I handed it in. However, since a whole bunch of us collectively asked for a little extension I might actually have until next Monday to hand it in, and while on the one hand I like the idea of just getting shit done by Halloween and then being finished and free to move on to the next thing, I also want this essay to be good, because happy as I am with my ability to make a plan and stick to it with the essay I handed in today, I do wish I’d had more time with it, to let the ideas settle and get a chance to look back over it. It could have been better. I mean it only had one draft so that kind of goes without saying, but my point is that I don’t mind the idea of putting off Nanowrimo for a couple of days in order to make this essay better, especially considering that this essay goes towards determining my academic future and shit, which Nanowrimo does not.

Nanowrimo does, however, give me the opportunity to put that whole “make a plan and stick to it” thing into practice in long-form writing, a novel instead of an essay. My “shitty YA thing” was the project of choice going into it, a chance to take a break from Tallulah and get some much-needed space, a change of perspective so that I could come back to it with fresh eyes, and you already know what I’m going to say, right?

I kinda want to use it to draft Tallulah.

I mean I don’t think that I will. I’m pretty certain that a break would do both me and Tallulah a lot of good; and through writing another story I could come back not just with the rejuvenation of taking a break, but also whatever lessons I’d have learnt from getting to grips with a different story. But the reason I kinda want to use Nanowrimo for Tallulah is because ever since I decided I’d be making huge changes to it, I’ve started thinking about what it is about the story that I actually feel moved to tell, rather than feeling like the entire story – the story as-is, in writing – has to remain a singular entity. I’ve been getting better at just focusing on the parts of the story that I’m moved to tell, and while there’s nothing like a coherent picture of this new version yet, I’m starting to feel hopeful that, given time, I’ll be able to put together a story that I really want to tell, rather than a collection of ideas that I feel obliged to deliver as a package, some of which I like and some of which I feel like I can’t afford to give up, because I have nothing to replace them with.

And the Nanowrimo thing is because in a lot of ways, this feels like starting a story from scratch: going with bits of story that feel urgent but don’t necessarily have anything else to them, no completion, just moments that feel like part of a larger, as-of-yet untold story; not feeling like I have to tie everything together yet and just enjoying the process of feeling out these ideas. I’m concerned about this being just a case of yearning for something new, but I don’t really think that’s the case. The ideas that I like are ideas that I’ve had for ages; this feels like I’m really paying attention to them, giving them their space and allowing them to stand alone for the time being, instead of trying to force them into a narrative.

So basically I have resigned myself to the drawing-board with Tallulah. After almost three years of trying to write it, it would be very easy to look at this as a huge setback. But right now I’m thinking it’s better late than never. Right now I remember how hard it was to cut through the filler of the zero draft and get to the actual story buried underneath. It’s not a matter of giving up on the story; it’s realising that I never had that much story to begin with, and that this could be my chance to shrug off the choices I made that have turned out to be more obstructions than anything else, go back to that handful of ideas that I actually wanted to work with and develop into a story – and actually do it.

I’m hesitant to commit to this because, again, it is easy to look at this as a huge setback, and because the fact of the matter is that I know, if I apply myself, I can turn what I’ve got into a serviceable narrative and flog it off for publishing and, importantly, finally be done writing the fucking thing. So it’s the old cliche artist’s dilemma, choosing between artistic merit and pragmatism. What keeps me from deciding to just do that, to take what I have and force it into a coherent shape even if I don’t really like it, is the fact that, at the end of the day, nobody may want to publish my stuff no matter how good it is. So I may as well be really fucking happy with it, put my best foot forward, all that stuff.

I have plenty of ideas that are easier stories to navigate, simply because they’re ideas that took root when I was younger and more interested in narrative-driven stories that had good characters, as opposed to my artistic bent during undergraduate study, finding appeal in concepts of culture and politics and building stories out of them in order to develop an argument, more or less, 0r the brief but fruitful transition period just after I’d broken off contact with Wickham and any and all ideas just came spilling out of me, some driven by characters, others by narrative, and some just propelled by fun. I don’t want to exclude myself from telling any of these kinds of stories; I’m not going to force myself to become the long-suffering artist who creates complex characters and tries to realise them as realistically as possible; I’m not going to swear off experimentation and even perfectionism in order to just get something serviceable and solid written and ready for publication. I’m going to do both, and hopefully more than just those two options, according to what’s best for each story.

Tallulah is a story that needs time, as far as I can tell. Well, not so much time as work, which will consume time, but it’s an important distinction. This decision to take Tallulah back to the drawing-board is me learning once again that time spent does not equal progress made; and at the same time I really do think I need to write this other story instead of forging ahead with this brave new revision of Tallulah, because it may well be that I’m trying to make huge changes because I’m frustrated with how long it’s taken to get not very far, as opposed to these being changes that need to be made. I feel like they do, but I don’t know that I’m right. And I don’t want to sabotage this story. Even if there are only little bits of it that I truly believe in, they’re worth saving, and they’re worth doing justice to.

If I want my wish-fulfillment, maybe I need to wait a bit.

Hopefully I’ll hear about this extension soon enough; I do want it after all. But if we don’t get it, all that means is that I’ll be finished in the next couple of days, for better or worse.

Or just hand it in late and hope that the deducted grades will be more than made up for by the brilliance of my academic mind.

I really want that extension.

All that hard work

I’ve spent three years on this fucking novel. Three fucking years. One conversation with a friend was enough to get me to throw those three years halfway out the window and dangle it above the pavement by the ankle. This tells me that I’m really not happy with the story, and that I’m desperate to change it, just in general, because anything might work better than this novel in its current state.

So I tried writing out a plan for this new take on it, peeling back to a version of the story closer to the original by cutting out or at least seriously diminishing the roles of the side-characters, and it got dark and heavy really, really fast. It went that way because I thought about the original premise for the story and, while it was uncomfortable and sad, it was also kind of uncomfortable and sad in a very privileged way. So this time I thought: “Hey, why not put in some *actual* pain and misery instead of this vanilla bullshit and prove that I’m a real person who has no privilege whatsoever and is totally not sheltered and lacking in life experience at all? That’ll be fantastic.”

It is not fantastic; it is so dire that I don’t want to write it, and if I did write it I would not want to read it. I would also not want to read it if somebody else wrote it, and that for me is probably the main thing, because I try to write stories that I want to read but don’t exist yet.

I’m down with pain and suffering, I really am; pain and suffering in fiction, when done respectfully, give us tools that we can use in order to engage with real-life pain and suffering that we might otherwise lack. Including our own. Stories that contain pain and suffering can help us to deal with those things in our own lives, in the lives of those we love, and can help to bolster our survival toolkit, making us more resilient. But what I worry about is that this story as I’ve planned it out (and not very thoroughly, so I might just be overthinking things as per usual) is not helpful or respectful, but, for lack of a better term, suffering-porn. You put in too much pain and suffering and suddenly what you have to offer is not a story but a smothering blanket of unpleasant moods and thoughts, and that’s nothing to offer anybody.

There are two other plans I want to draft out an outline for: the original original idea, which would be about 20-40k words, and a more narrative-driven version where I keep all the side-characters and just beef up their roles. Hell, I might even throw in another plan where I cut them all out but instead of making things bleak and miserable I turn it into a dramedy.

My other issue with the dark tone this plan has taken on is the fact that the darker the story gets, the more it just sounds like excerpts from my life, which makes me feel guilty for lacking self-restraint and impulse-control.

I am looking forward to writing something else come November. And I think that, regardless of whether I have anything planned out for Tallulah by then, I’m still going to move on and write something else, because simply for my mental, emotional health I think this would be a wise move.

And when I get back to Tallulah, I feel like I’ll be faced with the frustration of having spent three years getting to the point where I had to start over again, that I have to go back to basics and actually work out what the fuck I want to write about, why it is that this story means so much to me, in precise terms, which I should have done from the very start. I’ll have to go back to the drawing-board, because I’ve realised that I never really spent any time there to begin with, and what time I did put in there didn’t pay off because I got completely sidetracked while writing. As happens, but it’s still frustrating having to deal with this kind of stagnation and three years of my life devoted to maintaining it.

I mean maybe that’s what this is; maybe all that’s going to come of this is that I’ll learn, the exceptionally hard way, that I should have not pushed forward as blindly and brazenly as I did, that the progress I think I’ve made up to this point is actually hardly anything at all, like when it took me a year to finish the zero draft and I realised that, however long it took me to write it, it had not come any further than it had come. Time spent does not equal progress made. And honestly I think that if I’d really forced myself to write this thing instead of sitting on my hands for most of the year, I could have done, like, three drafts this year alone, and probably three last year as well.

All this “hard work” I’ve done has mostly been procrastinating and worrying. And it is hard work, emotionally, but it’s not progress, just labour. It’s energy spent and time invested, and 80% of it is going in the exact opposite direction to what would be helpful and productive. So I am going to have to really force myself to get shit done from November on. I’ve got the shitty YA paranormal action/adventure/comedy/romance thing to practice with in Nanowrimo, and hopefully what I’ll learn from that is that I can work hard and I can work fast, and most importantly I can work consistently and not need to wait around for inspiration to strike, that I can actually just grind shit out until it’s finished. Hell, I need to do that starting right now anyway because I have two huge research assignments due by the end of the month, which it almost is already.

Ugh.

To be fair, I had to get this far to realise what I “should have done from the beginning”. I don’t think my process was that bad, really; it just took too goddamn long. And maybe it’ll turn out that this was all a horrible idea and I should just give up and move onto the next thing, and not have a book by the end of this process to show for my efforts. That’s quite depressing, but maybe it’s true. I don’t know how to look at this project as a story I want to tell, and thinking back to when I decided I’d give it a shot, the main reason I did make the attempt was because it was a story unlike anything I had ever thought up before, something so unlike my “trademark style” that I had to give it a shot, just to see how far out of my comfort zone I could get. And that’s been worth the experience in and of itself, even if the story never gets published. I’ve found that, yes, I can actually tell more than one kind of story, if I try.

A lot of what the story has turned into now is just the result of concessions and coping mechanisms for how awkward to handle I found the whole thing, the sprawling first draft where ideas kept popping up and, instead of separating the wheat from the chaff, I just took the whole package as it was and tried to carve it into a nicer shape. I focused on presentation rather than content, and I did that because I was too exhausted to make the effort of really looking into what happened in this story, and what needed to happen, because I had no fucking idea. Or at least no idea beyond the vague story-seed that started the whole thing, and got submerged in several sub-plots and other distractions over the course of the zero draft’s construction.

All that hard work turned out to just be the process of making more work for myself further down the road. That’s how it feels right now.

Right now it is 3am, though, so my state of mind is not exactly that of the peak-performing linguistic and narrative athlete. I’ve just been stuck in a fucking rut with this book for a year and it hasn’t ended, I haven’t broken out of it, and I’m fucking fed up. I’m done with this creative cul-de-sac, and other than just going out the way I came and undoing all of this “progress”, or trying to take what I’ve got and make something out of it as best I can, which I don’t want to have to settle for …

Like, should I be okay with settling for it? That’s a question that only I can answer, and my answer is “No, but I’m so fucking tired and it sounds easier than the other thing”. And I don’t know that it was a mistake to make that decision the first time this question of how to proceed arose, to take the easy way out because at least it came with a fairly coherent set of instructions instead of wrestling with my own lack of clarity that was only further compounded by the messiness of the zero draft, but I think it’s a huge concession to make right now. And if there’s a chance that I can get my energy back and actually have what it takes to pick the harder but, to my mind, better option – and if all it’s going to take for me to get that energy is to go away for a while and write something else – then that’s a chance I’m not willing to pass up on. I mean in the worst-case scenario I’d get the energy and just decide I want to do the easy thing anyway; the point is that I’d have the option, rather than giving in due to fatigue. That’s a survival tactic, and this isn’t survival: this is writing a goddamn book. I don’t have to survive. I’m thriving. I don’t need to resort to these kinds of measures. I can take a goddamn break and come back and do it later.

I mean it’s been three years already. What’s another month?

Erase rewind

That’s one of those songs that I think is good but can’t actually stand listening to. I don’t know quite what that is. Like, I would tell people that I like that song and it wouldn’t be lying, and yet whenever it comes on while I’m listening to my songs I generally skip past.

No clue.

However, after interacting with another human being today and telling her all about my Tallulah woes, she gave me her opinion, and two things occurred to me:

  1. I really want people’s personal opinions on my work, but only sometimes, and I have no idea what differentiates those times from the other times when I want everybody to keep their goddamn opinions to themselves
  2. Feedback from actual other people is fucking invaluable

And as a result the revision is back on-track, and the first thing I’m going to do is kill all of the supporting characters.

All of them.

Although it really is more of an erasure than a killing, as once the revision is done with it will be as though they never existed to begin with.

Before I made this decision, I was thinking of how I could go “back to the beginning” and tell the really simple story that I originally had in mind, where, as my best friend put it, it was more “fantasy as metaphor” than actual fantasy, which is so concisely the description I could never quite come up with myself that I’m going to have to start overusing it just so that I remember it. It seemed a rather better solution than continuing with the kind of revision plans I’ve been making this year, where I take the current draft, slim it down a bit and try to streamline it and shift things around to be in a more dynamic order, while at the same time trying to keep as much the same as possible, and that means keeping it as uncomfortably undecided as it currently is – the changes all feel superficial now that I’ve talked to somebody about it, and that’s been my issue with it, and part of the nosgaltic motive behind wanting to rewind this story back to its inception.

Because I do still like that story idea, the character-driven story, but while my best friend also liked the character stuff she also liked the plot elements, and just wished that they’d been more neatly tied together. I have to say that I also like the plot elements. And I’ve been trying to fit them together in complimentary ways, and it just doesn’t seem to be working, or not at anything faster than a glacial pace.

Hence the erasing of peripheral characters. Things are already going so slowly, and I don’t need anything else getting in the way. I remember writing at least one deeply concerned post about the continued relevance of these characters sometime last year, and I decided to keep them because I wanted to. Now I’m deciding to plan out a revision based on somebody else thinking it would be a good idea to get rid of them.

(I guess that’s when I like people’s opinions: when I ask for them. Makes sense.)

I do not think I can get this revision written before November. But I can get it planned before November, and because it’s quite a radical shift I’m happy enough to set that as a goal in and of itself, for which I will then be able to reward myself by indulging in writing my shitty YA paranormal half-parody.

And I think tomorrow – well, later today – I’ll actually make this decision properly, and feel liberated about it. Because these characters I’m getting rid of are characters I’ve grown quite attached to, and when I’m not slightly freaking out about research essays *cough* I’m sure I’ll be able to take stock of that fact and actually get excited about moving these characters to a new home.

We shall see.

Cold feet reprise

No. I did not go and revise my novel like I said I would.

Now that that’s out of the way: I did spend that day and the next writing. It’s something I’ve been writing for about two years, and it’s very easy to sink time into writing. Is it good writing? Fuck no. Like, along no possible metric could this ever be considered good writing. I don’t think. Perhaps I’m wrong. But it’s writing, whatever the quality, and I did a lot of it.

Like 20k words in 2 days.

All right I’ll clarify: it’s erotica, for lack of a better word; and no, I don’t have the slightest idea how to write that kind of stuff. But that’s not really my point. My point is that I decided very early on in writing this thing that every significant event that happened in the story had to revolve around a sex scene. Why? Because it was already ridiculous, so I figured I might as well make it even more ridiculous, just embrace the inanity and see what I came up with.

The odd thing is that it actually works. Need the character to have a revelation about something? Sex scene. Need the stakes to suddenly go up? Sex scene. Plot twist? Sex scene. Filler? Sex scene. Exposition?

Come to think of it I haven’t actually gone the old HBO “sexposition” route yet; maybe I need to reconsider that …

But my point is that I just wrote this damn thing; it was and is utterly terrible and will never see the light of day, and it got written, in all of its repetitive, formulaic, contrived glory. I got so ridiculously wrapped-up in it and spent a lot of time re-writing just because it wasn’t formulaic and contrived enough. And as a result, I got very comfortable with forcing events into the service of a clear narrative. There is nothing quite like forcing yourself to arbitrarily follow a certain set of rules for getting really well-acquainted with those rules, because you have to make sure that every single thing you do ties back to them.

So by the time I ran out of steam and went back to look at my revision plan for Tallulah

It really struck me just how … narrativised I’ve made it.

I’ve written before about how Tallulah was originally not so much a story as a story-seed, a premise, almost a static image that offered the possibility of a story, the way you can find an old photograph and wonder what was going on at the time, starting to draw conclusions based on the very limited amount of hard data and your own imagination. The zero draft was me just having ideas and writing them as they came to me. The first revision was taking the result of that and trying to chisel it into the shape of a story, and this second revision was to be more of the same.

But after looking it over, after reading my plan back to myself and even with the idea of making as few changes as possible while still making it flow better, I started to really, seriously doubt the value of making this story the kind of story that I’ve been trying to turn it into.

I can remember first starting out and drawing a line in the sand between my precious Tallulah and the Superhero Narrative, or what I deemed to be the Superhero Narrative, which is more or less the Spider-Man formula: young person discovers powers, young person has to learn how to cope with said powers in their everyday life (keeping secrets from loved ones, juggling that secrecy with moral obligations due to the power they now wield), and eventually somebody else with powers comes along who is evil and they have to fight, using their respective powers. It’s all very … power-full. And I did not want that, at all.

Yet it’s exactly what’s happened. And it’s not like it’s a bad thing; there are plenty of enjoyable Superhero Narratives and I’m sure I could have plenty of fun writing one, but it’s struck me now that the revision I’ve got doesn’t tell a clean story, and I might not want it to. What it does currently is tell a non-narrative story in the way a narrative-driven story ought to be told, and it just kinda hurts to look at. It feels bad. I’ve got this thing that isn’t written properly one way or the other, taking the worst parts of both because it’s not sure how to be the one it wants to be and hates having to settle for the one it thinks is easier to become.

Basically, it needs a major overhaul, and I just need to make up my damn mind about which direction to take it in. I can tell the narrative story, in which case it’s a major tonal overhaul, or I can tell the character-driven story, in which case it’s a major content overhaul. This will not be a small, easy task is my point; it might even be a from-scratch rewrite, because what I’ve got now just seems so lost and tangled-up in its confusion that trying to use it might end up doing more harm than good, even though on the face of it it means I don’t have to do as much work.

And this might mean that I can’t use Nanowrimo to write my fun stupid YA thing. Damn.

Actually no. I’ll still do it. Perhaps what this has taught me is that I actually do need to go write some other shit so that when I do come back to Tallulah, I’ll have some perspective on how to make it better, which direction I want to take it in out of this uncomfortable hybrid slump.

Ugh.

I will still make a revision plan; I’ll simplify the one I’ve got so that not too much is changed, and I’ll either leave it at a plan or carry it through, depending on how I go with these research essays. This plan is definitely the “narrative plan”, and maybe I’ll write it and find that I do actually like this story as a more narrative=driven piece. Or maybe I’ll hate it and wish I hadn’t wasted all this time trying to force it to work. I can only find out one way.

Also my last two university blog assignments have been hella late, one of them right now still overdue and unwritten, and grr fuck time-management why do you hate me.

I do think I need to write other things. A plan is not its execution. It might be that, in practice, my revision plan actually works really well. And I mean there’s nothing wrong with having gone in the exact direction I was dead-set against going in at the beginning. I don’t owe it to anyone or anything to reverse that decision for purity or consistency or whatever. It’s just that there was a reason for my not wanting to do it this way, and it was a good reason, and because of how uncomfortable the story is right now I’m thinking that maybe it was the correct decision and I just didn’t make it, or wasn’t focused enough to try and make it.

Yeah. Definitely need to write something else for a while.

 

I think I can; I think I can …

I think I can bust out this revision and work on my two research essays without detriment to either undertaking!

I did all the things I had to do by this week; I wanted to send off a draft for one of my course convenors to look over for feedback by today and that didn’t happen, but I have gotten started actually drafting that essay, and like 3 weeks before it’s due, so that is still something to celebrate. I mean for me actually being pro-active and not waiting for last-minute anxiety adrenalin to power my way screaming facefirst into each and every single assignment I ever do is basically discovering that I was born under a red sun. I’ll take it.

And also because this oral presentation is out of the way, I can oh wait FUCK I still need to compile my blog posts for the other paper … ugh …

But even then, that’s not going to take more than a couple of hours; I can “narrativise” it if I wish, but maybe I don’t wish, who knows, I might do anything, I’m a wildcard man I can’t be tamed, also I need to buy one of the films I want to write about but because it’s a cool movie that’s not such a big deal I guess, just that I have to spend some of my student money on a thing, which is never a happy occasion.

And then, post-Halloween, I’ll be doing Nanowrimo, steaming ahead with my indulgent YA novel – which I will actually plot out – and proving that I can actually write an entire draft of a novel in just a month, and that I don’t have to take a whole year about it. That will feel very good.

And then after that I’ll finally have time to read all of those books I own and have not yet read, finally find a way to articulate my thoughts and feelings about Vampire Academy, I don’t know why but I just really have a lot to say about the first book especially; and I may even have enough momentum at that point to throw some stuff up on YouTube and even record my Darth Vader rap, which I conceived of in 2010, I think.

And also draw and play guitar and SO MANY THINGS WILL I DO YES MMM

It’s exciting.

And I think, also, I’m coming to terms with the fact that Tallulah is just kind of not a fantastic story, just a bundle of good ideas that I can cram into a roughly cohesive narrative and send out into the world. I think I’m just about ready to accept that; the important thing is to get it done instead of trying to make it perfect. I mean I have problems with all of my favourite stories told by other people; why not allow my own to have a couple of flaws?

I’m feeling good right now, and so good that I can probably capitalise on it big-time. And since I’ve had these moments before and let them slip by without making use of them, I’m going to stop blogging now and actually go do something about it.

Just read Kick-Ass and need to talk about it

Back to cleaning out the drafts. This one was written ten months ago, so “Just read Kick-Ass” is very much incorrect – but I’m surprised I didn’t publish this at the time I wrote it, because it seems basically finished reading it now. A little thin on details perhaps, but whatever; it’s either publish it or delete it, and I really do want to discuss this thing. I may well give it a proper review in the future. For now …

~~~

Kick-Ass, the movie, is a favourite. Yes it fails pretty hard as far as Katie Deauxma is concerned, but other than that it’s funny, snappy and just cool. Yet for all that I adore it, and for all that I enjoy the self-reflexivity, Hit-Girl and Big Daddy, when you get right down to it the movie is not too different to many other straight-up superhero narratives. I won’t say it’s an unintelligent film, because it most certainly is intelligent, but it has a very different angle to push than the comic.

It’s directly related to the Katie Deauxma thing, actually, the incredibly creepy and offensive Get The Girl moment (the whole sub-plot really), because in the comic, right from the start, Dave is stalking her. The first time we see her is because Dave is stalking her, and she tells him where to go.

And then when he does his big reveal, she immediately gets her boyfriend to bash his face in, rather than inviting him back to her place for a ‘sleepover’.

Katie in the comic is not sweet and cute and devoid of personality; it’s easy to dismiss her as a (completely justified) bitch, but that’s part of the point of the story: we only ever see her – and everyone else – from Dave’s perspective; and since the only time Dave interacts with Katie is when he’s lusting after her and/or trying to get into her pants, is it any wonder that all we see of her is how badly she treats him?

Except when he lies about being gay, of course.

And this is because while the film portrays him as a bumbling but well-intentioned teenage dirtbag – and uses it to justify his stalking as an expression of love or whatever – the comic portrays him as a stalker because that’s what he is. And it’s not like he has no redeeming features, but his actions towards Katie are not included in that list. The comic gets that this is not cool and punishes him for doing it. I know this happens in other genres, but when has this ever happened in this genre? Do I just need to read more superhero comics?

And even if this were the only difference, I would have loved the comic to bits, but it’s not. The adaptation is very faithful in most ways, like 80-90% faithful, but much like The Hunger Games it’s all about tone. The film is very self-aware tongue-in-cheek comedy-drama, but the comic is bleak.

For example: Big Daddy’s backstory is all bullshit. He’s an accountant who kidnapped his baby daughter and brainwashed her because he was unhappy in his marriage. The brainwashing angle is creepy as hell in the film anyway; throw this in and suddenly even Nicholas Cage can’t redeem Big Daddy. Not as a person. But as a character he’s awesome.

It’s the same with Dave, because he’s so egocentric, so self-absorbed, so incredibly and unassumingly selfish that he really is just some prick in a costume. He has no heroic motives whatsoever. He’s bored. That’s really about it.

And because of this lack of moral righteousness, both in the character and in the narrative, all of the typical superhero stuff that he goes through the motions of – having a secret identity, his ‘real identity’ being unable to get the attention of the girl he likes, dealing out vigilante justice – takes on a totally different meaning to the film. In the film, it’s basically just Spider-Man if Peter Parker wasn’t bitten by a spider and instead just read a lot of comics, in that he’s not just going through the motions of being a superhero; he is a superhero, just a superhero who nudges the fourth wall and references other established superheroes. The premise may be an exploration of what could happen if somebody tried to ‘be a superhero in real life’, but it ends up just … making him a superhero in real life. Because none of what he does ever has real consequences – and also because he’s driven by the exact same things as every other archetypal superhero in existence. He’s no different to them, except for the fact that he name-drops a lot.

In the comic, though, he does face real consequences. Katie’s rejection of him being the clearest example, and also kind of the defining failure of his superhero narrative, because she won’t excuse his being an asshole just because he’s the hero of the story. Which is awesome. And he also does it for real reasons. True, this is ‘real’ with quotations marks, because so often what is ‘real’ in fiction tends to fall under the ‘darker/edgier’ label and that is just another aesthetic/thematic strategy like any other, and this is no different. But the point is that he’s not some selfless idealist trying to make the world a better place: he’s a lonely and self-absorbed teenage boy who has no ability to see beyond himself, and he doesn’t try. He just acts on his impulse, this random idea that he has one day, and follows through with it to the point of obsession. He does it because it makes him feel like he matters, like he’s important. Most of his anxiety comes from jealousy, such as when Red Mist shows up and gets famous overnight, thrill-seeking, such as when he spends over two months recovering from being stabbed and then run over by a car only to immediately take up vigilantism afterwards, and wanting to get laid, as when he lies to Katie about being gay, or when he goes to hunt down Eddie – who is not Katie’s ex-boyfriend in this version, just the ex-boyfriend of some random woman he hopes might be attracted to him if he takes care of Eddie for her. Wanting to protect the innocent or clean up the streets or do the things the cops aren’t allowed to do never enters his mind, or at least not beyond how it fits with the archetype of being a superhero.

As a result of all of this, Kick-Ass isn’t just about deconstructing the ideology inherent in the superhero mythos, but also in analysing and critiquing the inherent hypermasculine codes that are also inherent in the superhero genre, through Dave’s constant failures and expressions of insecurity. Superman, Bruce Wayne and Peter Parker all have their romantic entanglements, and they’re all successful to some degree; they never get turned down on the grounds of attraction at least, not when they’re being themselves. Clark Kent may not get any action, but Kal-El can have his pick; Bruce Wayne may be a dedicated bachelor, but not for lack of opportunity to have it otherwise (and there’s always the will-they-won’t-they dynamic with Selena Kyle for him to fall back on); and Spider-Man has Mary Jane, ’nuff said. They’re all also ripped as hell and never have to face realistic consequences to their actions, unless it’s the core premise of a story-arc, in which case it highlights just how rarely this ever happens.

Which is all hypermasculine as hell. They’re tough and strong and independent; they can have any woman they want; and their principles are unquestionably right, at least as far as the story is concerned. Sure, this all goes for Wonder Woman as well (at least when Gail Simone is writing her), but she’s one of very few female headliners in mainstream consciousness with such privileges, perhaps the most iconic exception to the gender double-standard to ever exist. For dudes it’s kind of a given.

Which is why I love this comic, because all of these codes of gender and power that are tied up in what it means to be a superhero are exposed and laid bare, broken down to show that they exist, that they are there to be seen, and that this is the fuel that superhero narratives run on: hypermasculine, misogynstic male-ego-stroking. And that includes Kick-Ass the movie, because even if its masculinity is repackaged as sensitive new-age geek masculinity, it still relies on getting the girl.

There’s nothing inherently wrong with being a hero who gets the girl. But there is a problem when you get rewarded for stalking and lying to the girl and then getting her anyway because, well, you just like her so much, it wouldn’t be fair if she didn’t sleep with you, at least out of pity. You deserve something for all of those feelings you have, right?

There is nothing wrong with having a character do things that law officials are not allowed to do for legal and/or ethical reasons, purely on the basis of wanting to make the world a safer place, because we all know that not only are even the most dedicated and ethical law-enforcers not infallible, but that there are also law-enforcers who abuse their power, and that the whole institutions has its limits, not always for good reason. There is nothing wrong with this character being beloved by the people and not only tolerated but relied upon by said law-enforcement agencies, either. But there is a problem when the only ones who think this kind of behaviour is dangerous, reckless or even immoral, not to mention a threat to the stability of society, are straw-men and villains, and their points are never allowed to stand.

There is nothing wrong with a character being selfless and stoic and jacked. But there is a problem when all they need to solve the world’s many grievous injustices is a self-righteous punch to the face of the big obvious villain.

Okay, that last one does at least have the value of being cathartic sometimes, and that’s fine, too. But it’s all part of this hypermasculine narrative that is so rarely ever pointed out or even recognised at all; it’s not neutral, and what I love about this comic is that it points this out – it’s not neutral, it’s not invisible, it’s not natural or intuitive or essential. It’s a construct, and while it certainly does have value, it’s important to remember that it is only a tool, because it can be used to justify some pretty awful stuff.

So, ultimately, I prefer the comic to the film, purely for the critical legwork that it does, much like I prefer The Hunger Games in book form for their critical legwork. In fact Kick-Ass and The Hunger Games are quite similar in a lot of ways in that regard.

Oh god … oh god the fan-fic ideas …

And it’s not like the comic doesn’t have issues. The way Katie deals with Dave’s big reveal in that he isn’t gay and just wanted to get into her pants by having her boyfriend beat him up – her boyfriend is black, this is the only time he features in the story at all, and his only contribution is to enact physical violence against a physically frail white person, who is also the main character. It employs a racist stereotype in order to further the narrative and moral agenda of a story that is, ultimately, all about a white guy, and the stereotype is deployed for the benefit of that white guy, in that it is an act of karmic recompense. I mean yeah, it could have been worse, but that doesn’t make it good.

Katie then also sends Dave a picture of her giving her boyfriend a blowjob, just to rub salt in the wound I assume – this seems sexist for the same reason the violent boyfriend/enforcer seems racist: Katie has just given Dave pornographic material of herself. The context is revenge; the reality is that now he is in the perfect position to release the image as revenge-porn.

So rather than the violent black thug stereotype and the woman who uses her sexuality as a weapon stereotype, it probably would have been better if the boyfriend had been introduced as an actual character before this point, and if Katie had kicked Dave in the balls and made him throw up and piss himself in front of everybody in school instead of sending him porn or having her boyfriend beat him up. The same general point would have gotten across, while the specifics would have been a lot less problematic.

But if I can like The Princess Bride, I can certainly like Kick-Ass, and I do. I still like the film, too, even though in comparison it suddenly comes off as rather uncomfortably male-ego-stroking, like it’s compensating for the male-ego-stroking that the comic did not provide.

Now to read the sequel, which I hear is incredibly dark. Having seen the film adaptation, I can safely say that it would have to be very problematic indeed to drop the ball quite that hard.