A Review of The First Episode of NBC’s Constantine

First, since this is my first review on this blog, a little about my philosophy of reviews.

A: The purpose of reading a review is to discover the odds of whether you, the reader, will enjoy a given work, before you potentially waste your time experiencing it.

B: Therefore, it is impossible to do this without knowing something of the reviewer, their viewpoints and preferences, and possibly even a bit of personal history with the work, if such applies.

C: Reviews cannot be objective.

(More on the impossibility of objectivity – and the undesirability thereof – in media reviews, coming soon in another post.)

So, here’s my history with Hellblazer.

There’s a special experience in being a fan of a long-running comic. I can think of only a few other media that have this kind of opportunity to follow not only a story but the changes in staffing, editing, writing team, evolution of style, and other changes that come inevitably to any work that stretches for sufficient length.

When you participate in this for long enough, it becomes a feature of your life, and becomes something that you can hardly imagine living without. For me, that work has always been Hellblazer. I was born too late to read it in its infancy, and to experience the character of John Constantine in his original context in Saga of the Swamp Thing when those issues were originally published, but when I discovered the character in my early teens, I promptly ran to the library and read everything I could get my hands on. It wasn’t until college that I began really amassing my own collection, and it wasn’t until shortly before the series ended that I managed to have a complete set of my own. But John Constantine has been a fixture in my literary life for about twenty years, through ups and downs in media quality, and I have tracked down and read literally every story I can find in any medium featuring him in any of his incarnations. I have read all of the side stories, even the godawful novelizations. I stuck with the series even when I knew the writing was bad.

There’s a funny story there, actually. I have always been able to stick it out through less enthralling arcs of Hellblazer, partly because I know they are temporary. Writers and artists come and go, it’s one of the Great Truths of the way comics work. But at some points it does get hard to keep waiting. (Remember the filler episodes of Naruto, anime fans? Like that.)

And so I talked to a friend one day, and said, “You know, I’m considering dropping Hellblazer

He stared at me as if incomprehendingly for a few seconds, then said, flatly, “But you read Hellblazer.” It was as if he was stating a truth, using it as an incontrovertible argument.

“Good point,” I said, and kept reading.

This same friend pointed out to me when the Keanu Reeves Constantine movie came out, that I would have to watch it, “to keep the universe from unraveling because I didn’t watch the Hellblazer movie” (his words, not mine). I eventually let him talk me into it because he promised I could throw popcorn at his TV.

Oh gods, the Constantine movie.

This movie was almost physically painful to watch. If it had just been bad, it would have been fine. I could have written it off as a terrible film, and moved on.

But… it wasn’t that bad. Keanu Reeves showed all of his usual emotional range, for the most part, and the character was almost unrecognizable, and the plot was a watered-down version of the “Dangerous Habits” arc, but… okay, yeah, it was pretty bad. But it definitely could have been a lot worse.

For one thing, there were these brilliant moments of vintage Hellblazer scattered throughout. But those were really the problem, for me – they kept reminding me of what the rest of the movie wasn’t.

So those were my expectations for the NBC television series. And I was pleasantly surprised.

I’m okay with most of the changes they’ve made. Chas is certainly going to be playing a different role here, at least one person from Constantine’s history has been transplanted to the United States, and John himself seems to be slinging a lot more power than he usually has access to in the comics. But it is an adaptation, and this kind of change is to be expected. A little jarring, still, but one has to accept it when watching this kind of thing.

Even so, clearly, the writers have been paying attention to the canon, and they want to make sure their fannish viewers know it, even if they have relocated the series out of London (all right, it’s for American audiences, I suppose it makes sense, but still – London is one of the main characters of the comic, and I’ll miss the city’s presence). They tried to cram a huge amount of backstory canon into the first episode, to a point that it threw off the pacing. We got Newcastle (the story with the little girl who was damned to Hell by John’s mistakes), and Ravenscar (the asylum), and John’s miserable childhood, and his friendship with Chas, and hints at the band he used to play with (there’s a poster in Rick’s office if you look carefully), some implications that “Dangerous Habits” has already happened (possible explanation for why he doesn’t smoke anymore, interesting), plus all of the actual storyline they’re trying to write for the new series.

There was material for way more than one episode there. Normally, that kind of fast-paced method isn’t a problem, particularly when you’ve got great action and effects sequences like this one does. But I fear that NBC’s writing team for Constantine may have lost sight of one very important fact.

Hellblazer was never about plot, to be perfectly honest.

A summary of the overall plot of the comic: John Constantine is a chain-smoking, bitter, sarcastic, British mystic and exorcist who does crazy awesome things involving demons and spirits on a regular basis that frequently get a lot of people, including him, badly hurt.

Most of this summary is actually character description, and there’s a reason for that. Hellblazer has always been about the character, and if you can’t get into the character portrayal, there’s no real point and no real continuous attraction. Individual arcs can have awesome stories, such as the aforementioned “Dangerous Habits,” among many others, but keep in mind that out of 300 issues plus annuals, specials, and side-stories, that particular one – the most famous for a reason – contained only six issues. Out of twenty-five years of Hellblazer, that story ran for six months. The individual stories can have tremendous impact, but on a series of such longevity they come and go, as do the writers and artists and editors who make them available for us to read. I personally have always found Neil Gaiman’s “Hold Me” (issue #27) to be one of the most affecting of the entire series, along with Paul Jenkins’ “Riding the Green Lanes (issue #91). The two have a few things in common, in addition to being single-issue stories: in neither issue does much actually happen; the focus is on Constantine’s relationships rather than his actions; in both stories, the well-being of a few individuals is at stake, rather than the fate of the world or even the city of London; the reader gets a heartful of Constantine’s emotional pain; Constantine’s personality comes through loud and clear in all its positives and negatives.

I wonder how many viewers came out of that episode really getting a sense of the overwhelming force of John Constantine’s personality.

On the other hand, it’s just the premiere. This is the episode where they have to catch people’s attention, and I think it certainly did that, through sheer information overload if nothing else. I’m glad that most of the description I just wrote for the comic made it into the show. It certainly caught my attention, and made me want to watch the next episode as soon as I possibly can.

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Representation of Disabilities and Persons with Disabilities in Avatar: The Last Airbender (and Legend of Korra)

Note: The later part of this essay will contain spoilers for the most recent episodes (as of 10/22/2014) of Legend of Korra, and there will be warning for when they will begin. The whole essay will contain spoilers for the TV version of The Last Airbender in its entirety.

As a person with disabilities whose hybrid spirituality includes certain aspects of Eastern Buddhist thought which are beautifully expressed in the Avatar franchise, watching this series was quite the experience. The variety of disabilities displayed both in Avatar: The Last Airbender and now in Legend of Korra is unusual in television, as is the astute writing. I plan to write more about both shows in the long run, but for now I’m going to focus on this particular aspect.

There are four major recurring characters in Avatar: The Last Airbender (noted after as A:TLA) with disabilities that directly affect the course of their storylines: Teo (a wheelchair user following a traumatic injury), Zuko (facial scarring, speech impediment, potential visual impairment, emotional trauma and possible PTSD and depression), Azula (severe mental illness), and Toph (blindness). One thing all of them have in common is that none of them are given a chance in the show to experience full recovery. The audience is allowed to understand that Zuko may recover from some of his trauma, and I understand that in the comics Azula makes something of a recovery from her illness, but the core show ends before either can occur. Teo and Toph have no chance of recovery from their physical disabilities.

Let’s examine the mental disabilities first. Zuko experiences flashbacks under certain circumstances, has many of the emotional issues often found in people with histories of abuse, particularly in childhood. Azula shows symptoms of the same, though different symptoms – which is a rarity in television, to see two characters showing very different symptoms as a result of directly-related emotional traumas. Their emotional issues show up in particular relief against the contrasting sibling relationship between Sokka and Katara. Azula, in addition to her trauma- and abuse-related issues from her family life, is clearly unstable in a much deeper way, perhaps so deeply as to be identifiable as sociopathy. As her life changes and the pressures alter in ways she is unprepared for, her grip on reality loosens. By the end of the show, she is hallucinating her missing mother, and spends her last moments on-screen chained to a grate, screaming and spitting blue fire. This is particularly poignant when a viewer considers again the fact that this is a sixteen-year-old girl who wants, more than anything else, to be loved. There is a reason why Zuko and Katara, contemplating her at this time, are not even smiling over their victory.

Zuko is the one character who perhaps shows a mix of physical and mental disability. In addition to his flashbacks, trust issues, and clear depression and anger control difficulties, Zuko also flinches when touched, or when someone approaches from his scarred side; he turns too far around when looking to that side, indicating perhaps that there is some visual impairment on that side. This may just be a fluke of animation, however, as there is nothing ever said in the actual dialogue about this. At the same time, it is noted that his hearing is extraordinarily sharp, a trait often found in those who have an impairment in another sense. It is certainly a valid interpretation, and very subtly expressed if intentional on the writers’ part.

The two characters with definite physical disabilities have obvious visual cues: Teo’s bandages and wheelchair, and Toph’s white eyes. At no point have the writers in the Avatar franchise examined the type of physical disability that doesn’t come with that kind of indicator, but to be entirely fair, that would be very difficult to animate on the budget A:TLA had. Perhaps sometime later in Korra? We’ll see.

Both Teo and Toph have a positive attitude toward their situation, and refuse to be restricted and defined by their disabilities. Teo, whose disability is based in his mobility, uses his wheelchair to fly. As an intermittent wheelchair user, it brought tears to my eyes to watch this. Toph, whose disability is a missing sense, replaces it with another ability: her earthbending. Of course, the catch is that, in our world, neither is possible. It makes me wonder what the writers were getting at here.

There isn’t too much more to do with Teo, he’s a relatively minor character, so let’s turn to Toph, whose disability is the most explicitly examined throughout the series in a number of ways. We see how it affects her in certain environments more than others; we see how she is able to function and live a relatively normal life in spite of her inability to see, but still does run into difficulties that clearly rankle; and we see how others react to her based on their knowledge of her and her disability. Each is worth examining separately.

I read a joke theory once, I think it was on TVTropes, that Toph is blind because “she can’t see anything less badass than she is.” Hilarious though that concept is, because Toph really is badass almost beyond description, it really does encapsulate the way in which her disability doesn’t actually impede her in getting things done, most of the time. She can still walk around towns, talk to people and do almost anything she needs to get done. At the same time, she can’t read wanted posters, or write, or enjoy books, or see when they fly over things, or see through sand or ice or certain other surfaces or… a number of other things, because she is in fact disabled. She’s competent enough that it’s easy to forget, both for the viewer and for the other characters, but it comes up just often enough that we’re reminded that for her, it’s a constant. This is absolutely brilliant writing, reflecting the experience of a competent person with a disability, and rejecting the concept of disability binarism (the idea that a person is either completely able or completely disabled all the time with no variance).

It’s worth looking at how the other characters experience her disability, and, to go further, how she experiences their experience. There are two categories of people in Toph’s life: those who knew her first as blind and then as a great earthbender, and those who knew her first as a great earthbender and then as blind. Those who encounter her disability first tend to see her as fragile and in need of protection and restriction, and unable to make decisions for herself. It is difficult for people who know her first as a little blind girl to understand that she can be more than that. Those who know her first as a great earthbender, often forget that she is blind – most often Sokka, played for laughs, but other characters as well. The first is more obviously discriminatory and oppressive, but the second, particularly in light of the insensitivity it reflects to the experience of constancy described in the previous paragraph, is also a serious issue, particularly given that these are supposed to be the friends who understand her best. Again, this is excellent writing, and reflective of the experience of many people with disabilities. The best part is that, being Toph, she’s willing to trap them in it, call them on it, make fun of them for it, forgive them, and move on. She makes an amazing role model.

Alright, it’s time to talk about Legend of Korra up through recent episodes, you might want to skip to the end of this essay. Go to the next line of italics and you’ll be safe.

Another of the greatest women on TV these days is the protagonist of the sequel series. It was a brave move on the writers’ part, to put her in a wheelchair at the end of season three. Unlike A:TLA, we’re going to have time to see Korra process what has happened to her, and either make a recovery or not. She’s been told now by both Katara and Toph – both of whom know of what they speak – that it will come down to her attitude and her decision whether or not that recovery occurs, and to what extent.

So often, when a television protagonist is injured, we get some kind of time-skip and everything is fine. Even this show has been guilty of the rapid-fix, such as the end of season one, when Korra’s bending was restored awfully quickly after being taken away. This time, the writers are taking their time to do this right. We’ve had a time-skip, but we’ve also had flashbacks to physical therapy, to individual steps one at a time, to the painful process of working through the recovery from an injury and an illness. All the while being told by well-meaning people that she should take her time, everything’s under control, her job is being done by other people.

Which is great, because she does need to take her time. On the other hand, she’s also clearly absorbing the message that maybe, just maybe, she isn’t needed anymore. And that part of her identity is being called into question. The viewers see Korra trying to get in touch with her Avatar spirit and failing. And yet, there’s hope, because we know how strong Korra is, to have even survived this far.

Alright, the spoilers are over. You can come back now

As someone who’s been through some of the issues of disability, illness, recovery portrayed in the show (obviously not the Avatar spirit stuff, but I’ve definitely been through a sense of spiritual damage and recovery), it’s hard to watch sometimes. But that’s a sign the writers are doing it right. It should be hard to watch. I hope it’s hard to watch for people who haven’t been through it, but know someone who has. I hope it’s hard to watch even if you don’t know someone who has, because you know there are people out there who have been through it. This shouldn’t be easy to watch.

I so appreciate that there are writers out there who don’t pull their punches on these issues, and write them with care and precision, love and humor. The world would be a better place for people with disabilities if more media examined disability this way; popular understanding would naturally expand. Please support media you see doing good work like this, and point me at other examples you know.

Downsizing for Geeks – Also, Why Digital Media Rocks

Sorry for the long absence, readers. Life ate me. Among other things, I’ve had to deal with a very difficult move which included a significant downsizing aspect: my husband and I have moved from a two-floor, two-bedroom townhouse of about 1200 square feet, to a one-floor, one-bedroom apartment of about 400 square feet.

This has been particularly difficult because my husband and I are both geeks. Or nerds, whichever identification you prefer. (More on my thoughts on the distinction between the two in another post. I happen to think we qualify as both.) One thing about people with this kind of hobby – gaming of all kinds, sci-fi, anime, action figures, comics, manga, filking, anachronism, cosplay, plus the fact that he’s a computer scientist and I’m a classicist – is that we acquire a lot of stuff. Multi-thousand-dollar collections of various kinds take up a tremendous amount of space, just by necessity.

We’ve had to ditch a lot of our possessions. Even more have had to go into storage. Tip, should you ever find yourself having to do this: find yourself an accessible storage unit, and put your geek stuff in front, so you can switch things out, should you want to. Make your storage space an extension of your home storage, and let yourself swap things when needed. Then it won’t seem quite so catastrophic to suddenly have your manga collection effectively vanish.

Fortunately, that necessity is changing, as we can have some of our collections in digital form. Now, I know that there are certain things I really like to have in physical form: old books, autographs, things with amazing images, leather-bound books, special editions, boxsets, etc. Not to mention certain things that I picked up over the years that I have an emotional attachment to, even if I could easily replace them. No amount of coercion could make me give up my David Eddings books, or even my collection of disastrously awful Arthuriana, some of which I even recognized was awful at age fourteen when I bought it. Others I’m content to replace, but don’t want to spend the money unnecessarily right now. After all, moving is expensive. Others, I could not replace fast enough (Wheel of Time, here’s looking at you, with those awful paperback bindings – the exception being my signed hardcovers, which I am of course carefully keeping.)

At the same time, geeky collections can be divided into two categories: the kind we want to have immediate access to, and the kind we’re content to know we have but can put into safe storage. It’s the former that makes digital media so useful when downsizing. For example, I have been able to store many DVDs that I would otherwise have to keep on shelves in our tiny apartment, because I can access the media on Amazon Prime or Netflix. I have been able to store books I want to keep and have access to, by getting a Kindle copy for access purposes and storing the print version. Digital media has been essential to our ability to downsize by two-thirds.

Equally essential has been careful planning of the apartment itself, of course. Several friends have asked how I managed it, and here’s the key: holding myself to a set of criteria concerning the furniture I brought in. Every object used to furnish this apartment absolutely must fulfill at least one and preferably more of the following criteria, no exceptions:

1) It must be larger vertically than horizontally. In a small apartment, you have to be able to arrange things in all of your vertical space, because your horizontal space is what will be at a high premium. Chests of drawers that stretch out lengthwise are probably not a good fit. Shelving units that go floor to ceiling are a better option.

2) It must create storage space. Some exceptions to rule 1 can be made for things that will create space to put things. Bookshelves will fit however they fit, and should be maximized. Space to put your geek stuff will be the most valuable thing in your arrangement of your apartment, so furniture that can create that space for you is vital.

3) It must be flexible and transformable. Furniture that can be changed from one thing into another, such as a sofa that can fold out into a bed, is awesome for a small space because it can serve double-duty and leave you more space for other things, or simply add versatility to what you can accomplish in your living space. If you have a bed and a sofa, but each can transform into the other type so you can have two beds, or two sofas, at a time, you’ve made your apartment into a space that can host delightful geek gatherings much more easily.

4) It must be lightweight and mobile. Things on wheels or things made of light materials such as wicker are great for this. You want to be able to rearrange things at will to make your apartment usable for whatever purpose might come to mind. Having a D&D group one weekend, a filk circle the next, and movie night the next, requires the ability to have your apartment in very different configurations. To do that safely, you need to have things you can move around.

5) It must have emotional significance. Many people discount this one, but don’t leave it out. It’s the emotional things that make a place home. Even if it isn’t the most practical thing, let yourself have a couple of items that just make you happy. You’ve just uprooted your life, and put a large portion of it away where you can’t see it. Keeping some items that are important to you is a way of taking care of yourself in a stressful time.

6) It must be an actual necessity. Yeah, nothing you can do about the cat’s litter box. Oh well.

Living in a shoebox can be a tremendous amount of fun, when it’s with the right people. The right people can be your loved one(s), or dear friends who also make understanding roommates (note, not all dear friends make good roommates, and any toxic roommate situation is magnified by close quarters, so be careful). Small can be cozy.

And it’s a heck of a lot easier to keep clean and organized – also a common issue for those with lots of stuff. This is probably the reason it’s a stereotypical problem for geeks. Sure, it isn’t luxury, but when you’ve got access to what you really want on a day-to-day basis, and you’ve got the right people around you, and you can still immerse yourself in all those wonderful geeky things you love so much, who needs luxury?