Media Criticism: This Hannity Situation

It appears that Sean Hannity, Fox News contributor and one of the highest paid news personalities in the world, has been outed as incredibly compromised in his ability to deliver any sort of objective news or insightful commentary to his audience, at least when it comes to our current president. While I certainly can’t say that this development surprises me, it’s still quite the development that Michael Cohen, widely criticized attorney to Donald Trump, who paid off adult film actress Stormy Daniels to hide an affair she allegedly had with the president, is also the personal attorney to Hannity, quite possibly Trump’s greatest supporter in the mainstream media. Let’s put aside my personal feelings about Hannity even before this revelation, however, and just make it clear that Fox News, if they desire to keep any reputation as a legitimate news outlet, needs to remove Sean Hannity from his position as one of their most prominent voices. Fox’s top guy is now directly linked to the news stories that he’s reporting on, even if I personally like Hannity’s work, it’s just not reasonable to allow him to continue to function in his normal capacity on the network.

During a visit to my local radio station a couple semesters ago, it was brought up that one of our networks license’s Hannity’s show, with the comment that “whatever you might think of him, he brings in ratings”. I can’t necessarily agree with that argument, but I can at least understand it. But I hope that stations like mine, even ones that traditionally fall in line with Hannity’s views, can at least see that this situation they’re now faced with is fundamentally different from that. But I suppose the onus is on them.

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The Simpsons and the Apu Controversy

Recently, The Simpsons aired an episode which made some attempt to address the longstanding controversy around one of its characters, the Indian owner of Kwik-E-Mart, Apu. The debate surrounding this character was recently brought back into the spotlight by comedian Hari Kondabolu’s documentary The Problem With Apu, in which he dissected the legacy of the character and his effects on the way South Asian people are viewed in reality and in the media. Mallika Rao wrote an interesting column about The Simpsons‘ lackluster in-story response to the criticism, and makes some engaging inferences about how many generally-progressive white comedians might be hesitant to accept criticism of possibly problematic aspects of their comedy. While I’m certainly not the person to make grand judgments about this topic, I can definitely agree with many of the point she brings up.

Personally, I’d agree with the suggestion that entertainment writer Scott Weinberg alluded to on Twitter (which is evidently based on an idea brought up by an interviewee in The Problem With Apu): Recast Apu with a South Asian actor using their authentic accent, and then reveal that he’s been faking much of the stereotypical voice and attitude for years because it’s what the townsfolk expect him to be like. That’d be a much more satisfying response to this criticism than what was aired the other night, which amounts to little more than a soft whine about how “political correctness is killing comedy”. Then again, it’s nearly universally agreed upon that The Simpsons hasn’t been particularly good or nuanced in over a decade, so it might be foolish to expect better from them now.

Hellblade: A Masterful Example of Video Game Storytelling

It’s always exciting to see a video game released that tries to tackle more than just the lizard-brain satisfaction of player victory. As much as I enjoy the medium and its endless variety of ways to scratch whatever interactive itch you fancy, many video game narratives are overall perfunctory and serve only as a way to progress the player forward through a series of encounters. As John Carmack (one of the creators of DOOM and a technical wizard) once said, “Story in a game is like a story in a porn movie. It’s expected to be there, but it’s not that important.” I certainly don’t agree with that sentiment as a whole, and think that video games can and have evolved beyond that point narratively. However, it can certainly be argued that a majority of games do follow this philosophy, or at least the developers of these games are fine with the story content being disregarded in favor of the piece’s mechanical merits. That is why games like developer Ninja Theory’s Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice are so important in progressing the medium forward, and showing that video games are not only capable of addressing interesting, controversial, or taboo topics and concepts well, but sometimes in ways that only this relatively new medium could possibly achieve.

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Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice, released in August 2017 for the PlayStation 4 and PC, places the player in the role of Senua, a Celtic warrior (specifically a Pict) who dives deep in the Norse underworld in order to confront the darkness that haunts her and reclaim the soul of her lover, who was killed and sacrificed to the goddess Hela by Viking raiders. What makes Senua a thoroughly unique protagonist is that she struggles with the effects of acute mental psychosis, which are exacerbated by the emotional abuse she previously suffered at the hands of her devout Druid father, who considered her condition a curse that would bring ruin on their land. In a short developer documentary included with the game, director Tameem Antoinades detailed the lengths that Ninja Theory went to to accurately and sympathetically portray the symptoms of psychosis, which included speaking to psychiatric professionals and those with psychotic conditions. This results in a narrative that does not frame Senua as freakish or frightening as many other pieces of media have depicted neurologically atypical people in the past.

What sets Hellblade apart from other similarly sympathetic depictions, however, is its use of its medium to elicit further identification from the viewer (or in this case the player) than might be possible in another medium. Pretty much any video game involves playing the role of someone you’re not, and aligning to the logic of events and circumstances that usually don’t work exactly the same way as they do in everyday reality. Therefore, by using the symptoms of Senua’s psychosis as gameplay elements that the player must experience in order to progress, the player is inclined to directly examine the world from this likely very different point of view from their own. For example, the disembodied voices which Senua hears (which, to be heard accurately and effectively, the game recommends the use of headphones) often provide subtle hints as to puzzle solutions or enemy locations, though they’re just as likely to lead you astray at times. The integration of these effects into the game’s mechanics is solid enough that, were the game not immediately prefaced with a warning displaying “This Game Includes Depictions of Psychosis”, an average player might not immediately recognize these mechanics are representative of those symptoms.

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Outside of its core premise and narrative breakthroughs, Hellblade is successful in most other areas as well. Despite being made with a lower budget than other high-profile titles and with a team of only about twenty developers, the game boasts astonishing graphical fidelity while still running solidly, and the art design is imaginative and striking. Despite being performed by a team of relatively unknown actors, all of the vocal delivery is solid as well, with Senua’s actress, Melina Juergens, winning a Game Award for Best Performance despite never having acted before. The combat is overall satisfying and weighty, which might come as a surprise to players of Ninja Theory’s previous game, DmC: Devil May Cry (which was critically panned for not possessing the mechanical depth of previous entries in its series), but which fits the setting and character much more effectively than a fast-paced, stylish action system might have.

My minor criticisms mostly come from some of the puzzles being a tad obtuse at times, though I realize that’s quite possibly part of the point (and that I’m not always that great at puzzles anyway). Some criticized this game for being “boring to play” or “not fun” upon its release, but I would argue that, while it certainly shouldn’t be frustrating on a mechanical level, this story really isn’t one that warrants a player going “Yeah! I did it” except at certain points in the story. Steven Spielberg once stated that video games could never be considered “art” because of their competitive aspect (i.e. that if you fail in a video game and a village is destroyed, your instinct is to think “oh no, I lost” instead of “oh no, all those people died”), but even outside the argument that competition does or doesn’t disqualify something from being “art”, I’d argue that a game like Hellblade (and indeed prior works like Shadow of the Colossus) runs counter to that assessment, by encouraging the player to feel emotions other than just victory or defeat, and making those feelings core to the game’s narrative.

Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is most certainly one of the best games of 2017, and the vast majority of criticisms of it are easily quelled by both its much greater strengths and its price point. Hellblade is sold digitally for $30, half the price most games of its fidelity and length would retail for. For that price, you get a powerful narrative about a young woman overcoming demons both internal and external, in a beautifully released world that sets the stage for satisfying combat encounters and interesting puzzles, ones that are often intrinsically tied to the game’s story and the unique nature of its protagonist. The Xbox One version of the game, which releases TOMORROW (Tuesday, April 11), will include the possibly of more graphical options on the Xbox One X if you have one, and Ninja Theory is also planning to hopefully donate some of the game’s proceeds to mental health nonprofits if early sales are strong.

Games of this kind don’t come around often, and while I took my time getting to it, Hellblade: Senua’s Sacrifice is definitely an experience I won’t forget any time soon. I would heartily recommend this to anyone who’s even vaguely interested in any aspect of it, whether you’re intrigued by the representation of mental health issues, you’re a fan of the setting and mythology of Norse and Celtic cultures, or you enjoy good hack-and-slash and puzzle games (and don’t mind the two being fused in interesting ways). Keep up the good work, Ninja Theory. I hope this can lead to further expansions of the medium, both from them and other developers.

Column: A Critical Review of Battle Angel Alita, Volumes 1-4

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Battle Angel Alita is often considered a seminal work in the comics medium, but despite this, it has generally languished in obscurity, at least in the west. Attention was brought to the series recently with the release of a trailer for a live-action film adaptation, directed by Robert Rodriguez and produced by prolific blockbuster director James Cameron. Having heard of the series’ reputation and with my interest piqued by the trailer, I picked up the original nine-volume run of Yukito Kishiro’s 1990 manga series. After reading through the first four volumes (which the film will primarily be adapting), I can say that I’m definitely impressed.

Battle Angel Alita (originally known as Gunnm, with character names and the title changed in its localization) follows Alita, a cyborg woman who is found in a junk heap and reconstructed by cybernetics engineer Dr. Daisuke Ido. Alita, an amnesiac, struggles with finding her identity in the dystopian world she finds herself in, a sprawling slum called the Scrapyard, which is connected by a massive cord to an allegedly utopian city in the sky called Zalem. The only clue to Alita’s previous identity is her mastery of the martial art Panzer Kuntz, which leads her to put those skills to use as a bounty hunter.

Some aspects of this narrative might bring to mind the “born sexy yesterday” trope common to a number of fantasy and science fiction stories For those not familiar, “born sexy yesterday” is a narrative trope in which a fairly normal male protagonist encounters an exceptionally attractive female character who is hyper-competent in many physical and/or analytical aspects (such as having super powers or martial arts skills), but whose lack of knowledge of the setting they inhabit or many basic social norms makes them dependent on the male character for guidance, more or less reducing them to a sort of adult child, innocent and pure (but of course still attractive so the man can romance them). It’s not a particularly healthy trope, and based on initial premise alone, Battle Angel Alita certainly does resemble this type of storytelling. But the key difference that separates Alita from its peers is the focal point from which the audience experiences it. It is clear from the very earliest chapters of this story that Alita is in fact the protagonist, not Dr. Ido. While Kishiro doesn’t tend to use many caption boxes for narration or inner monologues, the dialogue and framing convey that we are viewing this story from the innocent yet powerful Alita’s perspective, and her thoughts are supposed to be the audience’s thoughts. Even as early as her decision to become a bounty hunter, Alita is defiant of Ido’s attempts to keep her dependent on him, while still being grateful for the fact he resurrected her. And Ido, despite still being somewhat sympathetic, is not framed as entirely wholesome in his desires for her (“You don’t need to fight! All you need to do is be beautiful!” stuck out as particularly sinister to me). Despite being drawn by a male author, the artwork doesn’t particularly objectify her either.

Speaking of the artwork, I’m also struck by the fluidity of Kishiro’s character poses and panel layouts. Many comics struggle with guiding the eye along the correct path on each page, but Alita does a fantastic job of keeping the flow of action consistent and interesting, while still maintaining high levels of detail. Characters have distinct and memorable designs as well.

Overall, if you enjoy cyberpunk stories, I’d definitely give this a look. The characterization is strong, the plot is engaging and not too predictable, and the artwork and action scenes are stellar. Let’s hope the film adaptation can match up to the high bar that its source material has set.

20 Years of Cowboy Bebop

Twenty years ago this Tuesday, one of the greatest television shows ever made premiered. That show was Cowboy Bebop, a gorgeously illustrated, fluidly animated, impeccably scored, and powerfully written Japanese anime series often held as a benchmark of the medium. Produced by Mobile Suit Gundam animation studio Sunrise, and directed by the now-legendary Shinichiro Watanabe (who would later also be known for Samurai Champloo and Space Dandy), the series follows the adventures of a ragtag group of bounty hunters (occasionally colloquially referred to as “cowboys”) on a spaceship called the Bebop, in a near-future setting where colonization of the solar system has made traditional law enforcement ineffective, creating the need for a return to wild-west-style bounty systems. Our “heroes” are former mob hitman Spike Spiegel, ex-cop Jet Black, femme fatale Faye Valentine, and hyperactive kid hacker Radical Edward, who hunt down bounties and face the specters of their past failures in twenty-six of the most satisfying television episodes you might ever watch, accompanied by what is, personally, perhaps my favorite soundtrack to anything, ever, composed by the unearthly talented Yoko Kanno, and performed by her jazz ensemble The Seatbelts.

But of course, if you’ve ever even considered for a fleeting moment the possibility of getting into anime beyond the child-targeted shows you might have watched on 4Kids or Toonami as a youngster, you most likely don’t need to hear me laud Cowboy Bebop‘s brilliance, as you’re probably already very familiar with its reputation, and it’s entirely probable that you’ve watched it already. But why was it, beyond the surface level appeals of its fantastic animation, engaging setting and characters, and near-perfect music (along with, for western fans, an English dub that, despite the high quality standards most English localizations are held to today, is still quite often considered the best English dub of all time) that Bebop connected so strongly with so many people?

Some have posited, and I would agree, that part of Bebop’s appeal is the general maturity of its storytelling. I most certainly don’t mean maturity in the sense of “mature content” (i.e. sex and violence), though Bebop, while not particularly grotesque or lewd compared to its peers, certainly doesn’t lack those features. Rather, as YouTube analyst Super Eyepatch Wolf pointed out in his video Why You Should Watch Cowboy Bebopthe success of Bebop might stem from the fact that its characters don’t tend to follow the same adolescent and “coming of age” tropes that are present in so many other anime series, and instead has fully adult characters running away from the sins of their pasts and just trying to survive and find meaning in day-to-day life. In a lesser series, storylines like Spike’s falling out with the mafia and his partner turned bitter enemy Vicious would be the plot of the show, but here, they serve to inform the changes and development of an already fully-realized character. One might describe this as a focus on character development and expansion, rather than character “progression”. That’s not to say that progression isn’t warranted or interesting in other series, or that adolescent tropes and coming of age stories can’t be done to great effect (most of my other favorite anime fall into those categories, though again that could easily be a matter of how many stories are being told in that mold). It’s just refreshing to see a truly adult narrative spun, without also having to resort to the idea that “adult” storytelling means throwing away fun, humor, and whimsy, or that “mature” storytelling needs to involve copious amounts of gory violence or nigh-explicit sexual material (neither of which I decry outright, to be clear) in order to appeal to a mass audience. And while that might not sound incredibly revolutionary by itself, taken in the context of the medium Bebop inhabits, it becomes a lot more clear just how different it is from its peers.

It’s honestly quite impressive that with the critical and commercial success that Cowboy Bebop has accrued, it hasn’t spawned a vast array of expanded material. A manga adaptation exists, but outside of that, the only official Bebop story material that is currently out there is the twenty-six episode series and the feature film. The film, known in Japan as Cowboy Bebop: Knockin’ On Heaven’s Door (unfortunately it had to lose that subtitle when it was brought over in favorite of simply The Movie), is worthy of just as much praise even divorced from the rest of the franchise, a standalone adventure that requires no real knowledge of the series to appreciate (though a very quick character and setting primer from a friend or the Internet is probably wise). With so many franchises always eager at the chance to infinitely expand upon a runaway success, it’s nice to see that Bebop hasn’t been diminished by the effects of sequel fatigue. Watanabe and his crew had a story to tell, they told it, and they left it alone for us to marvel at, even though it would have been so easy and so tempting to cash in.

That said…there is still apparently a live-action, western-produced television adaptation coming sometime in the near future. Personally, I hope for the best, as I feel that Bebop, while of course not requiring any sort of “Hollywood” adaptation (or indeed any adaptation of any kind) to legitimize it, is a property that could make the jump easier than many other anime. The decision to make a TV series rather than a theatrical film is, I think, a step in the right direction, one that shows at least some level of respect for the material. Sure, we can’t get Keanu Reeves as Spike as we were apparently planned to a decade or so ago (a casting many derided at the time, but seems near-perfect in hindsight), but as long as it’s made out of a place of genuine artistic merit and not just as a cash-in on a name (looking at you, Ghost in the Shell 2017), I’m on board.

Cowboy Bebop is one of the most respected pieces of animation and television ever made for a myriad of very good reasons, and if you haven’t experienced yourself, you’re doing yourself a disservice. The entire series is available on Blu-ray from FUNimation, and it’s going for under $30 on Amazon at the moment (with the movie going for $9.99). It’s also available on FUNimation’s website and app if you’re subscribed, as well as VRV if you’re subbed to FUNimation through them. You owe it to yourself to check out this absolute landmark of television and animation history.

See you, space cowboys.

Two Political Editorials of Note

Dr. Eugene Yu, in a very recent editorial on The Hill, posited that former Pennsylvania governor Rick Santorum, in making the erroneous statement that students protesting gun violence should “take CPR classes instead”, has unintentionally and ironically brought the voices of actual trained medical professionals into the gun control debate, taking them off the sidelines and into the heart of the discussion, which is an all too good thing. This is a viewpoint I can totally get behind. If the CDC is going to be barred from doing legitimate research into gun violence, it’ll at least be useful to have their input on medical matters related to the situation.

Something I can’t exactly agree with, though, is Lloyd Green’s take on Hillary Clinton’s place in current political discourse. While I certainly don’t think Clinton should run again, this attitude of “she should just go away” isn’t helpful. From my point of view, I don’t think that the majority of people upset by Clinton’s comments would be very likely to vote Democratic in any modern context, and throwing her under the bus to try and appease them (especially when she’s essentially retired at this point) after her being raked over the coals by political elements on both sides during the election seems like it’s in poor taste. Lastly, Green’s assertion that “duking it out with Trump is better left to Joe Biden” isn’t something I can get on board with, especially with the former Vice President’s antics as of late.

A Little More College and a Little Less High School In My Spider-Man, Please

Having just finished the Peter Parker-focused storyline of Brian Michael Bendis’s phenomenal Ultimate Spider-Man comic series, I was struck by a particular question: why is the public identity of Spider-Man as a fictional character so strongly tied to him being a high school student? To preface, Peter Parker was stated (many, many years later, not in the original work) to have been fifteen years old when he first received his arachnid powers in Amazing Fantasy #15, way back in 1962. With that, yes, it’s evident that Spidey’s origins are very much tied to the fact that he began his superhero career in his freshman or sophomore year of high school, much like in his most recent cinematic outing, Spider-Man: Homecoming. That said, Peter Parker graduated from Midtown High in Amazing Spider-Man #28, which was released in 1965, only three years after the character’s debut. He then began attending Empire State University, where in our world of published comic books, he didn’t graduate until 13 years later in 1978’s Amazing Spider-Man #185. So if Peter was in college a whole decade longer in the original run of the comics than he was in high school, why aren’t there more modern stories about this period of the character’s history?

The only example I can think of is Jeph Loeb and Tim Sale’s Spider-Man: Blue, which is more or less a direct retelling of the original comics between Peter Parker meeting Gwen Stacy and them beginning to date, just re-framed from a more nostalgic, romantic perspective. It’s such an intentionally direct reenactment of those events that while the characters never state what year the story is taking place in, the fashions and trends on display place it undoubtedly in the same 1960s they originated in. That happens to be the only case of a modern comic exploring Peter’s college years I can think of, a six-issue miniseries that’s sixteen years old at this point, which explicitly frames itself in the original era’s time period. In sharp contrast, Brian Michael Bendis’s Ultimate Spider-Man, which I sung the praises of at the beginning of this piece, spends 160 issues condensing basically every single major story arc from the character’s then-40-year history (including Doctor Octopus, the Green Goblin, the Kingpin, the Sinister Six, Venom, Carnage, and the Clone Saga) into a single concise, compelling narrative that takes place over only about a year, maybe a year and a half of Peter Parker’s high school career.

This modern distinction has carried over to Spidey’s modern cartoon portrayals as well. While Peter attended Empire State University over the course of the much-loved 1994 animated series, the even-more-well-loved series The Spectacular Spider-Man from 2008 featured him attending high school yet again, as did both series that succeeded it. And even on the big screen, the amount of screentime Peter spends in a high-school classroom continues to be extended, with him graduating halfway through 2002’s Spider-Man (and attending college classes in both sequels), spending all of The Amazing Spider-Man in high school and narrowly making it to his graduation in the opening moments of The Amazing Spider-Man 2, and being returned to his sophomore status in Homecoming to facilitate what’s probably going to be a trilogy of movies based around him juggling homeroom and web slinging.

I suppose the point of all this is that I’d like to see more focus on other parts of our hero’s early days other than the very earliest of them. We’ve seen “oh no, Peter had to skip class to go fight Electro, now he’s going to get detention!” so many times already, we’ve seen Peter be an outcast for being a nerd in a social environment where nerds don’t traditionally fair so well. That’s a part of while Homecoming‘s switching of public school Midtown High to private school Midtown Tech was an interesting change of dynamic (albeit one entirely lifted and retrofitted to Peter Parker from the later Miles Morales comics, overweight dorky friend and all. There’s probably another post to be written about a more recent African-American version of a character having their story directly copied and given to the original white version of the character, but we’ll see). It’d be interesting to see how, in a modern context rather than a mid-twentieth-century one, Peter Parker would fair in an environment with less stress put on him socially, but perhaps even more pressure put on his time management and academic skills (as well as monetary demands). There’s most certainly a story in their somewhere, all it takes is someone to write it.