The Emperor’s New Spam

Recently, I’ve been getting spam – the Chinese equivalent of the famous Nigerian bank scam, where someone has left me a gazillion dollars, and all I have to do to receive it is give the scammers access to my bank account.  These emails come from someone named “Hong Wu”.  The name seemed to ring a bell somewhere in the back of my brain, and after I’d received several of them, I heard a voice in my head saying “Marks of the Hong Wu?  That is a vexed question.”

Ah, yes, then I remembered… that was Edward Hardwicke’s voice, from the Granada Sherlock Holmes episode “The Illustrious Clent”, wherein Holmes (Jeremy Brett) sends Watson (Hardwicke) disguised as a collector of rare Chinese pottery to draw the villain, Baron Gruner (Anthony Valentine), away from his study, while Holmes searches it for evidence.  Thanks to the client of the title, Holmes has sent Watson along with an actual piece of Ming pottery to intrigue the villain.  In the film, the Baron becomes suspicious, and questions Watson on several obscure points about pottery. Watson’s done some boning up, of course, but  couple of days of study does not a true expert make.  Still, he’s doing pretty well, holding his own, until the Baron asks his opinion about “the marks of the Hong Wu.”  When Watson, confused by this, temporizes, calling it a “vexed question,” Gruner replies, “I should think so.  There are no marks on the Hong Wu,” and Watson’s imposture is discovered.

Watson (Edward Hardwicke) and Baron Gruner (Anthony Valentine).

“Marks of the Hung Wu? that’s a vexed question.”

Curious now, I checked Wikipedia to discover that Hong Wu (aka Hungwu, given name Zhu Yuanzhang, 1368–1398) was the founder and first emperor of the Ming Dynasty of China. His era name, Hongwu, means “great military power”.

Zhu Yuanzhang, aka Hongwu (1328 – 1398). Painting in the National Palace Museum, Taiwan.

Why a long dead Chinese emperor would need to run the modern equivalent of the old Spanish Prisoner con is, paraphrasing Watson, a vexed question.  I suppose the Communists have probably confiscated whatever monies he had stashed away all those years ago.  I hate to tell him he made a bad choice sending his email to me – even if I weren’t wise to the con, there’s hardly enough money in my bank account these days to make it worth his pilfering it.

Sorry, Hong Wu, better luck next time…

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Fire Aloft Cover Reveal

The collaborative steampunk novel Fire Aloft, written with my old friend (and editor on Darkwalker) Rev DiCerto, is now available for pre-order. Here’s the cover:

And here’s a larger version of just the illustration:

Fire Aloft is what I’d call “hard” steampunk – there are no sorcerers, werewolves, zombies or vampires (sparkly or otherwise), just technological advances based, so far as we could, on real science. And air pirates.  After all, what’s a steampunk tale without air pirates?

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The Paper vs Pixel Debate

Recently, someone pointed out this article to me:

E-Book Sales Slip, and Print Is Far From Dead

It’s a longish article, and if you can’t be bothered to read the whole thing, the headline gives you the gist.  And it kicked up a lot of heated debate on social media between the advocates of ebooks and those who cling to real paper books.

Me, I’m what they call a hybrid reader, a fan of both ebooks and paper, so I don’t have a horse in this race.  But what this article misses is that outside of the Big 5, the AAP’s 1,200 publishers are mostly the Big 5’s many imprints, along with textbook publishers and university presses (both of which are more heavily print-oriented).  And it barely acknowledges that the Big 5 have been inhibiting their own ebook sales with their artificially inflated prices.  Ebook sales are not declining – the ones that have gone missing from AAP’s report have migrated to buying from small, indie, and self-publishers that AAP doesn’t track.  From all the reports I’ve seen, those publishers are still seeing a steady increase in their sales.

Of course, the article condescendingly admits that the sales may have moved to “cheap and plentiful self-published e-books,” a snotty, perjorative phrase that unfairly condemns a whole class of creators.  That some inexpensive ebooks are just crap goes without saying – but so are many paper books.  Sturgeon’s Law exempts no medium.  Which sounds discouraging, until you consider that along with condemning the vast majority to the dung heap, it also suggests that you will always find ten percent at the top of the heap that’s brilliant stuff, pure gold, no matter what venue, genre, or medium you look into.

Digital or traditional, it’s all the same to me.  I love getting my hands in actual paint, and I also love using my Wacom and painting with pixels.  It’s not about the medium, it’s about the content.  All art is essentially a form of communication, and what you have to say is far more important than what tools you use to say it.  To my mind, anything that lets you make a mark, define a form, write a message, is a valid medium, whether it’s a burnt stick against a cave wall, or a chisel on a wax tablet, a quill pen or a keyboard, a bristle brush against canvas, or your finger directing effing pixels projected in the air.

When we get into debates about ebooks vs paper, or photoshop vs oil paints, we’re missing the point.  As creative artists, we’re stepping further away from each other over the less significant aspect of what we do – the media we use – and missing the connection we should be making over the more important aspects – what we do with it.  Chevy or Ford, Mac or PC, practical or CGI, pen or keyboard, if you can make it work for you, who cares?  All that stuff is irrelevant next to where are you going, what are you writing or creating?  Does it move the reader or viewer?  Does it engage them, and provoke a deep response?

McLuhan was wrong – the medium isn’t the message.  The medium may influence and condition the message – but only so far as the creator allows it to.  In the end, content trumps form.

I think real paper books and oil paintings both will always find an audience, even if that audience is smaller than it was in previous times.  They can’t be “killed” by ebooks or digital art, any more than radio was killed by TV, or painting killed by photography, or oral storytelling killed by writing.  All those mediums of expression survive today, and manage to thrive, even though they are no longer the primary medium they once were, and they thrive on a smaller scale.

If ebooks come to rule the market that mass market that paperbacks once owned, as seems likely, the “threat” in that is not to the existence of paper books, or even (despite the suits and bean counters’ fears) to the bottom line of the big corporate publishers. The only real threat is to the big corporation’s business model.

It’s my theory that when the dust settles, we’ll find that while ebooks may eventually replace paperbacks, as paper books become more rare and specialized, we’ll also see a resurgence things like the illustrated books made famous by Wyeth and Pyle and the golden age illustrators.  When content is downloadable at a click, the value in a paper book shifts from being primarily the value in the content, to it’s value as an object, as a physical thing you can feel and smell and, well, taste, I suppose (okay, I guess, if licking books is your thing, who am I to judge?)  Publishers of paper books, in order to stay competitive, will have to leverage that thing-ness, that physicality.  Some may try including scratch n’ sniff panels, or holograms, but those would be passing fads.  The logical thing is to produce well crafted, beautiful objects with quality bindings, great illustrations, artistic type design.

Of course, I could be wrong, and history would suggest that I probably am.  Most people who’ve had the stones  to make any sort of prediction about this kind of stuff have eventually been proven wrong, why should I be the exception?

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On Digital Art

I’m sometimes amazed, considering some of the work that’s out there, that some people – most notably traditional media artists, but others as well – continue to disparage art that’s produced digitally. While I wouldn’t hold myself up as the best example – I mean, I think I’m pretty good, but there are many out there who are far better than me – my work is created exclusively on computer these days. Granted, I have a background in traditional media, but some of those brilliant digital artists out there have never touched an actual paintbrush to real life canvas – or, to be more accurate, many of them had never handled traditional media until well after they mastered the digital. It’s worth noting that most of the best of them have, at some point, chosen to experiment with traditional forms just to expand their experience and skills.

Digital media offers opportunities that traditional media does not, and this is true, I think, in all the various art forms. My best friend and co-author Rev is also a musician, and though he still plays an actual guitar, he’s also recording using some of these digital techniques, doing stuff he could never, ever have done without a computer, at least not without spending outrageous amounts of money (which is true of many musicians). I know filmmakers who can produce professional looking results that would have cost millions, or needed a big Hollywood production company behind them, without the computer.

Yes, there’s a lot of crap out there, and the democratization provided by digital technology puts the ability to create and disseminate work in the hands of people who have no idea what they’re doing, filmmakers with zero sense of cinematography or story, artists without a clue about anatomy or composition, writers who publish through Amazon who don’t know their arse from a hole in the plot. But this technology also puts these possibilities in the hands of those who do know what they’re doing, and and provides far more options than they ever had before.

Sturgeon formulated his famous law (“90% of everything is crap”) in 1958. That it’s still true today should be no surprise. Computers and the internet aren’t responsible for this. All they’ve done is increase the total volume of both crap and valuable work, and made all of it more accessible.

What I’ve noticed is that every time there’s some technological innovation, there’s a flood of that crap that seems to overwhelm the good stuff, as both the clueless and the clueful glom onto it – but eventually it settles down. Because with notable exceptions, the shit tends to sink and the worthwhile stuff floats to the top. I see it happening right now in self publishing. Initially, you couldn’t find anything good for the ocean of badly written books with terrible covers. Today many of the self and indie published works are rivaling what the big publishers put out, in both the quality of the writing and that of the packaging. Sure, there are a few bad writers who’ve hit it big this way, but no more of them than the bad writers who are traditionally published.

If you’re passionate about your art (painting, writing, music, whatever it is), you’ll work your butt off to get better, to learn what you need to learn to improve and perfect your work. Not only does the digital world provide you with tools to do the work, it provides tools to get better at it. There are some great online courses available, some of them free, some moderately expensive, all certainly cheaper than (and many just as good as) brick and mortar schools that would put you in debt for life. I’ve yet to meet an art director who gave a shit where I went to school if they liked my portfolio. I don’t believe most editors care about your degree if they love your novel. I don’t know much about other equivalent fields, but I suspect that outside of areas that specifically require degree programs like medicine or law, the same principle applies.

Every day, I see artists working on computer produce incredible work, as good, or in some cases better than, the ones I know who work in traditional media. The technical skills may be superficially different, but the aesthetic skills remain the same. Bottom line for me: I don’t care what your medium is, it’s the result that counts.

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Inktober: Timothy Dalton Sketch

malcommurray

Timothy Dalton as Sir Malcom Murray

in Penny Dreadful (2014-16)

One final Inktober piece, done in a new painting program I’ve been experimenting with called Rebelle.  It provides natural media style tools that rival those of Corel Painter.  Still getting used to it, but I think it’s going to be a very useful tool.

I’ve never been a fan of Timothy Dalton, but I thought his performance as Sir Malcom Murray was excellent.  And this character is a fine example of the way series creator and main writer John Logan finds inventive ways to re-tool the elements of his Victorian source material.  Rather than do the obvious thing, and haul in Professor Van Helsing as the leader of this misfit band who oppose these supernatural horrors, Logan turns to a character who naturally must have existed, but is never mentioned in Stoker’s Dracula – that of the father of Mina Murray Harker, the heroine of the novel.  His absence from the original story Logan explains by making him an explorer and adventurer, probably modeled loosely on Sir Richard Francis Burton.

I find this particularly admirable because with a single character decision (“Make him an explorer/adventurer a la Burton, Speke, Livingstone, and their like”), Logan solves several problems at once;  he provides a reason for Sir Malcom’s absence during Mina’s ordeal and kidnapping, and for the guilt about that which drives the man, and it provides the kind of background and experience which prepares him for each aspect of the pursuit of Dracula; for the violence of it, the acceptance of the supernatural aspect of his quest (he’s seen such things in his travels), and the obsessiveness required to follow through on what would appear to be a Herculean task.

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Inktober: Eva Green

Ives_01

Eva Green as Vanessa Ives in Penny Dreadful (2014-16)

Moving from the classic to the more contemporary:  I started watching Penny Dreadful with scant hope that it would be any good.  The premise of the show, bringing together the characters of the classic Victorian horror stories (Dracula, Frankenstein, the Wolf Man, Jekyll & Hyde, Dorian Grey) had been done several times before, from the Universal films of the 40s, to the abysmal Van Helsing of a few years back, and it’s almost always been done badly.  Watching Penny Dreadful, I was pleasantly surprised.  Everything about it was top-notch, from the writing to the acting and production values.

I’ve always admired the work of Eva Green, and her turn as the protagonist of Penny Dreadful, the cursed psychic/witch Vanessa Ives, was outstanding.

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Inktober: Sir Christopher Lee

leeChristopher Lee:  Count Dracula (1978)

Later generations would come to know Sir Christopher Lee as Saruman the White in The Lord of the Rings, and Count Dooku in Star Wars.  But Lee made his name originally playing Count Dracula.

Bela Lugosi established a standard for the interpretation of Dracula for the 30s and 40s, but at the end of the 1950s, Hammer Studios brought a new vision of Dracula to the public in the person of Christopher Lee with their groundbreaking version of Dracula (called Horror of Dracula in America for copyright reasons).  It was the first Dracula film to show blood (in Technicolor), fangs, and staking, and a Dracula who moved any faster than a snail on quaaludes. Lee’s approach to Dracula was far closer to the character as presented in Bram Stoker’s original novel than had ever been seen before.

Lee would go on to play Dracula for Hammer in seven more films through the 60s and 70s, and he grew to hate it more with every sequel.  He had great affection for the original novel, and always wanted to play the part in an authentic and faithful version, but Hammer had other ideas. The studio wanted to update the Count for the “mod’ generation.  People have wondered why in some of the later films, Dracula had no lines.  Turns out he’d had lines in the original scripts, but the writing was so abysmally bad, Lee refused to say the lines, and instead went through the whole film without speaking.  It says something about Lee’s popularity, how firmly he’d become identified with the part in the public’s mind, that the studio let him get away with this.

The picture here is from an indie production Lee did as a labor of love.  1978’s Count Dracula (El Conde Dracula) was intended to be a faithful rendition of the book, which was why Lee signed on.  Good intentions went downhill fast, and though the opening scenes are taken from Stoker, after that, the film becomes an incoherent mess.  But at least Lee got to do the appropriate costume and makeup, and play some of the film “right.”

As Karloff and Lugosi had dominated the horror films of the 30s and 40s, Lee, Peter Cushing (and arguably Vincent Price) would dominate the genre in the 60s and 70s.  Lee and Cushing would appear together in 22 films, primarily from Hammer and Amicus, and if the quality of the scripts was not always sterling, their performances never fail to entertain.

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Inktober: Morticia

morticiaCarolyn Jones as Morticia Addams

Considering the impact Carolyn Jones as Morticia had on my young mind and libido, it’s a wonder I never developed a Pavlovian response to French like Gomez had.  “Goth” style hadn’t been named yet, but she had it in spades.  And her marriage to Gomez had to be one of the healthiest on 60s television – certainly it was the only one with any passion in it.

Carolyn Jones had quite a career both before and after The Addams Family.  She appeared many times on Dragnet, and had parts in both Invasion of the Body Snatchers (the original ’56 version) and Hitchcock’s The Man Who Knew Too Much.  She was the Queen of Diamonds on the 60s Batman series, and played Hippolyta, the mother of Wonder Woman, on the Lynda Carter 70s series.

Irony Department:  Jones’ last gig was on a soap called Capitol, and when she was dying of cancer, she was subbed in the series by an actress named Marla Adams.  Only one “d,” but still…

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Inktober: Cushing

cushing

Peter Cushing as Baron Frankenstein (1967)

Peter Cushing was perhaps my all time favorite horror star, and a bit of a role model when I was young.  It was his performances in Hammer’s films of the 50s and 60s, as Professor Van Helsing, Sherlock Holmes, Baron Frankenstein, and others, that gave me hope that a skinny, bookish fellow could also be dynamic and admirable, and that one didn’t have to be a muscle bound hulk to be a hero (and, yes, even Baron Frankenstein seemed a to my young mind to be a hero, albeit a misguided one.  Come on, he was trying to conquer death, fercryinoutloud).

Cushing was also the un-numbered Doctor.  He starred in two Doctor Who films in the early 1960s, which apparently are not considered canon by Whovians, and his Doctor is not considered an official incarnation.  In later years, he would become known to new fans as Grand Moff Tarkin, the creator of Darth Vader in the Star Wars films.

There’s been a lot of flap on the interwebz recently regarding the digital recreation of Cushing (who died in ’94) as Grand Moff Tarkin for the next Star Wars episode.  Personally, I don’t see why they couldn’t just hire another gaunt older actor  – Richard Grant, Charles Dance, Patric Stewart, Hugh Laurie, or someone.

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Inktober: Evelyn Ankers

ankersEvelyn Ankers (1941)

I understand there are entire conventions these days devoted to “Scream Queens” – women who act primarily in horror films.  But in the thirties and forties, few women specialized in horror.  Male actors like Karloff, Lugosi, Lon Chaney, Dwight Fry, Lionel Atwill and others might be typecast, or choose to specialize (if you’re falling anyway, you may as well make it a dive, right?).  But the women who played opposite them in the drafty castles and foggy moors of Hollywood’s back lots tended to do one or two such films, and then go back to more “normal” roles.  Dracula‘s Helen Chandler, Frankenstein‘s Mae Clarke, Zita Johann of The Mummy, Rose Hobart of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, all returned to playing ingenues in dramas, romances, and mysteries, and supernatural monsters troubled them no more.

During this period, only two leading ladies acted in more than one or two horror films, and one of those was Evelyn Ankers.

Ankers appeared as Gwen Conliffe, the love interest in The Wolf Man (1941), and went on to become the reigning “Queen of the B’s,”  playing in  The Ghost of Frankenstein (1942), Son of Dracula (1943), The Mad Ghoul (1943), The Invisible Man’s Revenge (1944), and other similar films.  She also appeared in several of the Basil Rathbone / Nigel Bruce Sherlock Holmes films.

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