Geek Punditry #21: A Complete Trip Down the Yellow Brick Road

No matter what your particular fandom is, there are many different strains of Geekery – the Viewer just watches the movies or shows, the Shipper is obsessed with who is (or should be) hooking up with who, the Collector wants the merch, the Debater just likes to argue – and all of them are perfectly valid. One of the more difficult ones to be, though, is the Completionist. The Completionist is someone who wants to read, watch, or play every incarnation of their favorite franchise, no matter what. (When you cross this with the Collector, you wind up with someone who can open a museum.) Being a Completionist can be time-consuming or all-encompassing if you allow it to be, which is why I try to restrain myself, because I definitely have Completionist tendencies. I can refrain from reading every Star Trek novel ever written, but I definitely want to watch every movie and TV series in the franchise, even the one I don’t like. (Yes, that’s singular.)

Completionism is more difficult with some properties than others, of course. Fans of modern franchises like Game of Thrones or Harry Potter have it relatively easy – the number of books, movies, and TV shows is comparatively small and all of them are easily available for anyone who wants them. A George R.R. Martin Completionist’s fear is that the series will never be finished, not that they won’t be able to find it. But it gets much more difficult if you’re a Completionist for an older property, especially one that has lapsed into the public domain. For example, I’m a big fan of L. Frank Baum’s Land of Oz, and if I really wanted to, I could spend the rest of my life trying to complete my experience in that world and never have a chance of success. When Oz is mentioned, the average person usually thinks of The Wizard of Oz, the 1939 film starring Judy Garland and absolutely zero suicidal Munchkins, no matter what Freddy Campbell told you in sixth grade. The movie is, of course, a legitimate classic, and everybody has seen it. Fewer people have read the novel it’s based on, The Wonderful Wizard of Oz, although most people are probably at least vaguely aware that it exists. What even fewer people understand, though, is just HOW MUCH Oz content exists in the wild.

Wait a second, I think Google Image Search may have screwed something up here…

Baum himself wrote 14 novels about Oz, plus assorted short stories, some stage plays, and even a couple of silent movies. After he passed away, his position of “Royal Historian of Oz” was passed on by the publisher to Ruth Plumly Thompson, who wrote even more books than Baum before the title got passed along again. All in all, the “original” Oz series consisted of FORTY different books by seven different authors before it was retired in 1963. Not that the authors retired, though. Many of them wrote other Oz books later in life, although those are not usually counted among the “Famous Forty,” as they are known to Ozites. 

But this is only the beginning. In addition to the seven official “Royal Historians,” other people started to put out their own versions of Oz, even before the earliest books started to slip into the public domain. W.W. Denslow, the illustrator of the original Wizard of Oz, tried doing his own Oz stories without Baum after the two had a falling-out, although they didn’t enjoy the staying power of his collaborator. Some of Baum’s own children wrote Oz books that wound up getting squelched when they were sued by their father’s publisher for violating their copyright. But once the Baum books went into Public Domain, things exploded.

A quick explanation of Public Domain, just in case there’s anyone who doesn’t know what that means: when someone makes a creative work, they (or their employer, if it’s a work-for-hire) automatically own the copyright to that work. Copyright can be sold, transferred, or licensed, but only the copyright owner has the legal right to profit off that specific work in any way. Eventually, some time after the creator’s death, copyright expires and these creative works lapse into what is called Public Domain, which means that nobody owns the rights any longer and anybody is free to create their own derivative work based upon it. It’s the reason why so many people do their own versions of Shakespeare’s plays and why there are ten billion different versions of Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol – you don’t have to pay anybody to use the story, but you still get to trade on the public opinion of the name to build your audience. Copyright laws have changed over the years, mostly due to the efforts of the lobbyists working for the major IP holders (Disney in particular) trying to get it extended over and over again, but eventually it does end. It’s going to be really interesting to see what happens when Steamboat Willie, the first Mickey Mouse cartoon, finally enters public domain next year.

Another masterpiece brought to you courtesy of Public Domain.

Having said that: a work can be in public domain, but the derivative works can still be copyrighted. The Baum Oz novels are in public domain, but the MGM movie is not, so you cannot use any elements specific to the film in your own work without paying up. The best example of this came with Return to Oz, the 1985 Disney film that you may remember as giving you nightmares when you were seven years old. The movie was based on the second and third Baum books, The Marvelous Land of Oz and Ozma of Oz, and they were free to use those elements, but they also wanted one of the most iconic symbols of Oz: the Ruby Slippers. The problem is that in Baum’s books, Dorothy’s magic shoes were silver. MGM changed them to Ruby to better show off their Technicolor process, and they still owned the copyright on Ruby Slippers, so Disney had to pay them for the right to use Ruby Slippers in the film. Crazy, right?

This one shot cost Disney seven times your annual income.

Anyway, once the copyright finally ended on the earliest Oz books, the ones by Baum, it became legal for anybody to tell their own versions of or use elements from that story as they wished. From SyFy’s Tin Man miniseries to the classic musical The Wiz, the public domain nature of Oz has led to hundreds if not thousands of derivative works. And here’s where it gets hard to be a completionist: not only is there simply too much stuff out there to read or watch it all, it’s almost impossible to even create a comprehensive list.

A while back, I decided to try to compile a list of Oz books and short stories, but even with the help of websites like The Royal Timeline of Oz or their sister website, Wikipedia, it became apparent that the sheer volume of what I was attempting to do made it nearly impossible. I started putting together a Google Sheet with all of the different Oz books I could find, a list that as of this writing is breezing past 400 different works and still going. That’s to say nothing of the hundreds of Oz comic books (a few of them are on my Sheet, but not nearly all) or countless movies and shorts that have been built around Baum’s universe. By the way, I invite anyone interested to take a look at my sheet and let me know what I’m missing – I may never finish the list but I’ll never stop adding to it either. It’s the Completionist in me.

You see, in addition to the “official” works, dozens of other publishers have taken it upon themselves to continue the stories, both in ways that are faithful to Baum’s original works and others in ways that Baum may never have considered or even approved of. That’s another aspect of Public Domain: the fact that anybody can make a derivative work can often draw upon people who are doing so not out of love for the original property, but in an attempt to subvert it. Earlier this year, for example, we saw the release of the film Winnie the Pooh: Blood and Honey, which takes A.A. Milne’s beloved icons of childhood joy and innocence and turns them into bloodthirsty horror movie slashers. Give me a break.

Oh, bother.

Look, I like horror movies. I like slasher movies. I like goofy slasher movies. But I don’t care for people who take a crap on precious childhood memories. Characters like Pooh and Tigger are beloved by children all over the world – do they really need to see Pooh gutting somebody with a chainsaw? Full disclaimer here: I have not seen Blood and Honey, nor do I intend to, because it’s the concept itself I dislike. (Quick note to mention that it’s the original Milne books that are in public domain, not the more well-known Disney version of Winnie the Pooh. Man, it always seems to come back to Disney, doesn’t it?)

That doesn’t mean that there’s no room for a dark derivative of an old story, of course. Let’s run down the Yellow Brick Road again to Gregory Maguire’s Wicked, a novel of Oz that tells the life story of the Wicked Witch of the West. Like the original Wizard of Oz, Wicked is a fine novel that has been somewhat overshadowed by its own musical adaptation, but no matter which version of the story of Elphaba you’re enjoying, it’s definitely a more mature version of Oz than Baum ever wrote. With Wicked, though, Gregory Maguire was using Baum’s backdrop to tell an intriguing story, something with interesting social commentary, something that had a point. I have no problem with that whatsoever. What bothers me is when someone twists an icon of childhood without a good reason to do so, when somebody creates something shocking just for the sake of being shocking. I don’t care for that. I don’t respect it. And everything I’ve seen of Blood and Honey makes me feel like that’s what the movie does. If I’m wrong, by all means, let me know.

Anyway, the point is that with all of the Oz out there, it seems impossible that I’ll ever get through it all. I’ve read all of the Oz books Baum himself wrote, but I haven’t made it through the rest of the Famous Forty yet. I’ve enjoyed Eric Shanower’s original graphic novels and I loved the adaptations of the Baum originals he did with Skottie Young for Marvel Comics, but Zenescope Comics’ Grimm Fairy Tales has a whole Oz spinoff line that I’ve barely touched upon. I’ve still got three out of four Wicked Years books to read, and I’ve only begun to scratch the surface of the series by later authors like March Laumer or Baum’s own great-grandson Roger S. Baum. And this is to say nothing of the “official” productions that are still coming out! The International Wizard of Oz club produces an annual magazine, Oziana, which always includes new short stories (and sometimes even short novels) set in Baum’s world. And as they had the utter temerity to begin publishing Oziana back in 1971, before I was even born, it seems quite unlikely that I’ll ever be able to track down every piece of Oz media that exists.

Slow down! I’ve got twelve decades of IP to catch up on!

But that isn’t going to stop me from trying, is it?

Completionism is a fool’s game, my friends, and it’s a game that most of us are doomed to lose. But even so, it can still be an awful lot of fun to play.

Blake M. Petit is a writer, teacher, and dad from Ama, Louisiana. His current writing project is the superhero adventure series Other People’s Heroes: Little Stars, a new episode of which is available every Wednesday on Amazon’s Kindle Vella platform. He is most definitely not writing this column just to give people ideas for what to get him for Father’s Day, his Birthday, Christmas, or International Oz Completionist Day. 


Geek Punditry #20: Prequel Pitfalls

If you haven’t heard, there’s a new Hunger Games movie coming out. “But how can that be?” you ask. “Didn’t the original trilogy of four movies end the story in a tidy, satisfying manner?” Eh, kinda. But this one isn’t another sequel, it’s a prequel, The Ballad of Songbirds and Snakes, based on the prequel novel by the creator of the series, Suzanne Collins. I was a big fan of the novels, and the movies were…okay. But I haven’t yet read the prequel novel and I’m honestly not feeling a huge need to do so. As I mentioned a few weeks ago during one of my almost-weekly Star Trek discussions, pulling off a satisfying prequel is tricky as hell, and not a lot of franchises have done a good job of it. So before you line up to see Songbirds and Snakes, let’s take a little time this week to discuss what it is that makes prequels difficult and a few franchises that have overcome that inherent degree of difficulty to give us a satisfying result. 

You know, by definition, ballads have words, so I’m expecting these birds and snakes to talk. Do it, you cowards.

Any time you return to a successful franchise, there is a compulsion to raise the stakes. There’s no reason to go back to familiar territory, after all, if you can’t enhance the next installment – greater spectacle, more blood, a more fervent tugging on the heartstrings. It’s the reason that horror movie sequels always have a higher body count and why the first Fast and Furious movie was about illegal street racing but in the most recent one they were literally driving cars into outer space. And while we usually think about this escalation issue in terms of sequelitis, we want the same thing out of a prequel.

Even sequels don’t always pull off the escalation in a satisfying way (in truth, the list of sequels that are better than the original film is relatively small when you consider how many sequels have been made), but it’s even more difficult to do so when rolling back in time because many of the things audiences usually want to discover about the characters and the world they live in have already been established by the original. Going back to Star Trek as my example (because this is my blog, dammit), when you sit down to watch an episode of Strange New Worlds, there is never any fear in your heart that Spock might die because you know he’s still alive during the original series. Not to say that death is the only challenge a character might face, but the same logic applies to most of the unanswered questions we usually cling to. No one cares about a “will they/won’t they” romance with characters who we’ve already seen having “willed” or “won’ted.” That invasion that’s happening is kind of dull if you know from the original movie that the aliens are, indeed, successful in conquering the world. And if a character that has no children in the original film gets pregnant in the prequel, get ready for bad things to happen. Bad prequels feel like watching somebody draw a connect-the-dots picture. We watch as the story goes from point 1 to point 2 to point 3, and no matter how many numbers you have in the image, you’re never surprised by what happens next.

From left to right: Safe, At-Risk, Hella Safe, Don’t Get Too Attached, Gonna Survive the Series But Wind Up in a Space Wheelchair, Originally Played by Majel Barret Part 1, Originally Played By Majel Barret Part 2, Could Buy it at Any Time, and Bet You Forgot This Guy Was in TOS.

So how can you make a prequel work? Well, there are a few ways. One is to rely less on a story that just marches towards the original and instead try to tell a story that matches the original’s flavor in a satisfying way. You’re drawing on the same page, but you aren’t just playing connect-the-dots. This is what makes Strange New Worlds work. Yeah, I’m never worried that Spock is in mortal danger, but the truth is that we were never really worried when we watched the original series either, were we? This was a pre-Game of Thrones era, a time where series regulars didn’t get killed off randomly. It’s literally the reason that the redshirt trope came to exist: they needed to kill off SOMEBODY who wasn’t in the credits, so cannon fodder lined up in the casting office. Strange New Worlds takes the sort of episodic approach that the original series did, and while the stories are perhaps a bit more sophisticated than those that Shatner and Nimoy performed in, the tone is really spot-on perfect. That’s what makes the show so satisfying, even without the spectre of the Grim Reaper hovering over half of the cast.

Another way to make a prequel work is to use the setting of the original property, but an entirely (or almost-entirely) new cast of characters whose fates have not been determined. Star Trek has tried this approach as well. Enterprise was a series about the founding of the Federation, 200-ish years before Kirk. Even though you always felt the world we knew from the original series as the North Star that the Enterprise NX-01 was sailing towards, there was room for danger for these individual characters. They also tried this with Discovery, but this time set it only a decade pre-TOS and mingled in characters so hopelessly intertwined with Spock that it became a distraction to simply try figuring out how any of it meshed with the stories we already loved. The second season finale had a half-assed attempt at explaining why the events of Discovery had never come up in-universe before (especially Spock never mentioning an adopted sister that he was apparently quite devoted to, even when his rogue half-brother previously turned up in Star Trek V), but it just never properly landed.

Of course, no discussion of prequels would be complete without the franchise that popularized the term, and in fact includes one of the greatest prequels ever made. That franchise is Star Wars. The prequel? Rogue One.

No, not the other three. You see, another way to make a prequel work is to subvert the audience’s expectations – make them think they know what you’re going to do, but give it an unexpected twist. Since the audience knows how the story will end, you have to pull off some pretty big surprises to get there. This is both how the prequel trilogy failed and Rogue One succeeds. The trilogy is about the fall of Anakin Skywalker, the character everyone who saw the original films knows will eventually become Darth Vader. We know from the original series that Anakin was a Jedi who fell to the Dark Side of the Force and became an apprentice to the insidious Emperor Palpatine. It sounds like a story that’s ripe for tragedy. But in telling that story, George Lucas stuck painfully to the blueprints, with nothing particularly shocking or surprising about Anakin’s fall except for the sheer number of details that failed to mesh with the original series. (“Hey Leia, remember your mom?” “The one who died giving birth to me? Yeah, she was beautiful, but sad.”)

Rogue One, on the other hand, is not only the best Star Wars film of the Disney era, it’s one of the best examples ever of how to toy with an audience’s expectations. In the original Star Wars Leia delivers data to the Rebellion that will help them to defeat the Empire’s superweapon, the Death Star, with the only explanation of how it was obtained being the single sentence, “Many Bothans died to bring us this information.” (EDIT: I have been reminded that the Bothans line was actually about the second Death Star from Return of the Jedi. I deeply regret this error, but it does open a window to make a Rogue Two movie about the Bothans.) Rogue One tells the full story of how this vital information was secured, and director Gareth Edwards and his screenwriting team pulled off a damn magic trick in doing so. We, the audience, already know that the mission will ultimately be successful – it’s literally how the original trilogy begins. So how can you build suspense for that? Well, first you introduce a cast of interesting and sympathetic characters, characters that fit in the Star Wars universe but don’t fall cleanly into the cookie cutter shapes of the older films, and make the audience feel for them. Then – and I’m about to spoil a movie that came out seven years ago, so stop reading if you haven’t seen it – then after we grow to love and care about the characters that are on a mission we know beyond a shadow of a doubt will be successful…

This poster and caption provided as a public service buffer in case you haven’t seen the movie yet.


They succeed in transmitting the information, but every character we’ve come to love dies in the attempt. This kind of ending, where every major character dies and which TV Tropes calls a “Bolivian Army Ending” after the finale of Bonnie and Clyde, is dangerous for a writer. There’s a real risk of being accused of trying for shock value, upsetting the audience in a visceral way that may not be truly satisfying. Rogue One nails it, though. The characters die heroically, succeeding in their mission at the cost of their own lives, and even as the audience is left weeping for them we’re also left with the knowledge that their sacrifice was not in vain. The movie ends just seconds before the beginning of the original Star Wars movie, and even though they were made nearly 40 years apart, watching them together gives the original an added context and an added weight that actually makes it better.

That’s what a great prequel does, by the way. It recontextualizes the original property in such a fashion that you look at it differently. Let’s talk about Better Call Saul, the spin-off of AMC’s drama Breaking Bad. It’s not often that somebody creates what is perhaps the greatest dramatic TV series of all time, but somehow, Vince Gilligan managed to do it twice. The fact that the second time was a prequel is the TV equivalent of walking a tightrope blindfolded and then doing it again backwards.

Breaking Bad was a series about a high school chemistry teacher who winds up falling into the world of drugs and organized crime. Bryan Cranston’s Walter White starts off as a deeply sympathetic and wonderfully human character – beaten down by a life that didn’t go the way he expected, a marriage that has grown stale, struggling to connect with his son…and if that wasn’t enough, in the first episode he learns he has cancer. It begins in desperation, cooking methamphetamines in order to make money to take care of his wife and children after his death. Over the course of five seasons, though, we watch this man transform from a quiet, relatable antihero into a cold-blooded crime lord, somebody who is terrifying to watch, but the writing and performances are so compelling that you just can’t look away.

Not since Dan Fielding have you loved a sleazy lawyer so much.

One of the characters who gets pulled into Walter White’s web is Saul Goodman, a shyster lawyer whose services are provided to the criminal element of Albuquerque when they’re in a tight jam. Bob Odenkirk’s performance as Saul was an instant hit, providing comic relief at necessary moments while still having the emotional gravity that the show demanded. When Breaking Bad finished its run, Gilligan and Peter Gould spun off the Saul character into his own series that began some years earlier. On paper it doesn’t sound like a great idea – who cares how a shyster lawyer became a shyster? It turns out, everybody.

Better Call Saul premiered with Bob Odenkirk playing…well, not Saul Goodman, but Jimmy McGill, an attorney trying to get out of the shadow of his brother and struggling to make ends meet. Like Walter White, he makes an early decision out of desperation that pulls him into the criminal underworld of New Mexico, and from there, the story is about how Jimmy McGill transforms into Saul Goodman.

Aside from – again – the excellent writing and phenomenal performances of the cast, the thing that makes Better Call Saul so compelling is the way it acts as a PARALLEL to Breaking Bad. We know where Saul Goodman ends up, but like Walter White, we watch in impotent terror as he falls deeper and deeper into the chaos that surrounds him. Like Walter, sometimes he makes terrible choices. Like Walter, sometimes he is compelled to make these decisions by forces beyond his control. There’s a lovely contrast here, too. Walter begins doing bad things with the intent of helping his loved ones, but is eventually intoxicated by the criminal lifestyle. Jimmy/Saul, on the other hand, is a con artist who’s trying to stay on the straight and narrow but just keeps slipping until he surrenders entirely. 

Both shows are about someone who begins as a basically decent man becoming something much darker and losing himself in the process – Walter becomes the criminal kingpin “Heisenberg,” while Jimmy McGill becomes smooth-talkin’ Saul Goodman. When watching Breaking Bad the characters of White and Goodman couldn’t be further apart from one another. Watching Better Call Saul makes you realize maybe they aren’t that different after all.

Beyond just Odenkirk’s character, though, Better Call Saul features frequent appearances by other characters from the earlier series, and knowing that these characters are safe from death doesn’t hurt the show at all. Nowhere is this more evident than with Jonathan Banks’s character Mike Ehrmantraut, who was a major supporting player on Breaking Bad, but is so vital to the prequel that they almost could have titled it Better Call Mike. Mike is a rough character, a former cop turned criminal who is willing to and capable of doing very bad things in pursuit of his goals, and when we first see him in Better Call Saul he doesn’t seem very different than he does in the other show. Then we see his relationship with his daughter-in-law and granddaughter, a story that we knew from the previous series, but not in its entirety, and much like Saul Goodman and Walter White, he becomes more sympathetic. Mike, Saul, and Walter all do terrible things for the purpose of helping people they care about, and as an audience member, they force us to question how far we would go for the people we love. In the case of Saul and Mike, the knowledge that they’re eventually going to fail gives the show the air of a Shakespearean tragedy. Their fall is as guaranteed as that of Anakin Skywalker, but is far more compelling.

Going backwards in the timeline can be dangerous, and the truth is there are far more examples of franchises that have made the attempt and fallen flat. But as these few examples show, it is possible to make a prequel work.  

What I’m getting at is that my Decepticon Babies pitch is NOT any stupider than anything you let Michael Bay put on screen, Paramount, so dammit, return my calls. 

Blake M. Petit is a writer, teacher, and dad from Ama, Louisiana. His current writing project is the superhero adventure series Other People’s Heroes: Little Stars, a new episode of which is available every Wednesday on Amazon’s Kindle Vella platform. There are probably some people who thought he was joking about the “cars in outer space” crack. Heh. Just watch F9, guys. 

Geek Punditry #19: Mad Scientist Storytelling

When you hear the word “experiment,” you usually think of something scientific: a guy in a lab coat mixing multicolor liquids from test tubes over a Bunsen burner, electrifying that corpse he’s got strapped to the table, or kidnapping strangers and throwing them into a deathtrap together to see how they react. Or maybe not, I don’t know what your high school science classes were like. But experiments don’t have to be  scientific. In the arts, experiments can be a way to drive in new directions, inspiring new waves of creativity, and transforming storytelling. Movies were once an experiment: a melding of theater and photography to create something that had not existed before in any meaningful way. Repeating the experiment but replacing photography with hand-drawn art invented animation. Virtually every kind of story and every way a story can be told was an experiment at first, and that’s what makes it worthwhile to try. And while it’s possible to take chances within your art – in the message, in the characters, in the story itself – what I’m interested in today are those creations that take chances with the form of art, something that is created in an unusual way or presented to the audience in a fashion that they aren’t used to, because that kind of Mad Science Storytelling is what I find really inspiring.

Pictured: How Nicholas Sparks imagines himself.

The thing that brought this topic to my mind this week was Dracula Daily. Once a Tumblr blog and now a free Substack, Dracula Daily is presenting an old, familiar story in a fresh new form. The original Dracula by Bram Stoker was an epistolary novel, a story told through documents composed by the characters in the story. This can take lots of different forms – diary or journal entries, personal letters, newspaper clippings, police reports, and so forth. In a way, it’s kind of the grandparent of modern found footage movies. It was a highly popular format in Stoker’s time, and although not as dominant anymore, it still exists today.

What the team behind Dracula Daily is doing is taking the original novel and breaking it down by the dates on the “documents,” then sending those chunks out via email on the corresponding date. The earliest part of the novel chronologically, for example, is a journal entry by Jonathan Harker dated May 3, and Dracula Daily began up on that date, emailing Harker’s journal to everyone signed up for the list. This went on for a few days until May 9, when Mina Murray sent a letter to her friend Lucy Westenra, which was that day’s installment, and so forth. It’s a fun way to experience a familiar story, and if that sounds interesting to you, there’s plenty of time to catch up – only eight short installments have been sent out as of this writing, and the project will continue until the story’s end in November.

“Dear Diary: The Count is soooooo dreamy. He looks just like the guy from Leaving Las Vegas.”

Dracula Daily brought experimental stories back to my mind, but the notion has hovered there for a while because of a few other experimental stories I watched earlier this year. The thing about experiments is that sometimes experiments can…well…fail. And as the point of this blog is to celebrate what I love, I didn’t want to talk about just negative examples without having positives as well. I’ll get back to a few cool positives in a bit, but first let me tell you about the two things that, in my opinion, fell a little flat, but at the very least, were interesting.

First was a movie from last year called The Seven Faces of Jane, starring Gillian Jacobs. This is a film attempt at creating an “exquisite corpse:” Seven filmmakers were given an opportunity to make a chapter of the story of Jane, played by Jacobs, over the course of a long weekend after she dropped off her child at camp. The experiment interested me, as did the fact that one of the chapters was directed by Jacobs’s Community co-star Ken Jeong and also featured another Community alumnus, Joel McHale. Community being one of the greatest TV shows of the century, I’ll peek at literally anything people involved in that show are up to. However, Jane uses a TRUE exquisite corpse format, meaning that the filmmakers had no idea what the stories being told either before or after their segments would be. As a result, we don’t really get a movie as much as seven short films starring Gillian Jacobs and a blue car. There’s no consistency, nothing to adhere the segments together. The segments come from different genres, have clashing tones, and the primary character seems to be a completely different person from one minute to the next. Anthology movies can work, but there’s usually some sort of unifying element or theme that the film rallies around. In this movie that’s supposed to be Jane, but the segments are so different from one another that it’s impossible to accept it as a unified weekend from the life of a real person. For God’s sake, there are three separate segments about her briefly reconnecting with the long-lost love of her life, and it’s a different long-lost love every time. That’s a hell of a weekend. 

The other experiment that falls a little flat I’m going to be a bit kinder to, as I haven’t watched the whole thing…but if I thought the experiment was working, I would have watched it by now. I’m talking about the Netflix miniseries Kaleidoscope. The series tells the story of a heist, and heist movies are fun. The high concept, though, the thing that makes it experimental, is that the episodes can theoretically be watched in any order. Each episode (with a color-coded name, as befits the idea of a kaleidoscope) shows a segment in time relating to the heist, from the “Violet” episode set 24 years before through the “Pink” episode, six months after. When you hit the play button, Netflix randomizes the order of the episodes, with the only constant being the “White” episode – the story of the heist itself – coming last. 

It’s a fascinating concept, and nonlinear storytelling is certainly an interesting thing to experiment with, as the thousands of film students who have worshiped Quentin Tarantino for 30 years will vehemently attest. But the problem is that by randomizing the episodes, you’re also pretty much requiring every single episode be a good jumping-on point for the story, and that’s what didn’t work for me. I was randomly assigned the “Orange” episode (three weeks before the heist) as my introduction, and I just felt lost. I didn’t know who the characters were and, much worse, I didn’t care. Having a confused audience isn’t necessarily a bad thing as long as they’re  compelled  to follow along until the confusion is alleviated. I wasn’t compelled. 

To date I’ve only watched the one episode of Kaleidoscope, and it’s possible that further watching would change how I feel, but with so many other TV shows competing for my time, I need a really compelling reason to give a second chance to one that left me so flat. In the interest of fairness, though, there are a lot of people who disagree with me. I can say that the Orange episode isn’t a good place to start, which in and of itself seems to indicate that the randomizing option isn’t entirely successful, but a quick Google search will show you that virtually everyone who has watched the entire series has a different opinion as to which is the best order to watch the episodes in. For the life of me, I can’t figure out if this proves that the experiment was a failure or a success that I’m just not seeing.

As experiments go, these two kinda Britta’d it.

So after those two duds, I was really excited about experimentation, but I needed to find better examples. Netflix’s Black Mirror: Bandersnatch came to mind, as it’s an “interactive movie” which requires that the viewer make decisions for the character at various points in the story, leading to several possible endings. It’s a fun movie and well-made, but ultimately it’s a filmed version of one of those old Choose Your Own Adventure books that 80s kids like me grew up loving. Yes, it’s an experiment, but it’s kind of an old one, like growing a bean in a paper cup in elementary school science class. It’s fun because it’s new to you, because it’s your bean, but it’s not something that you can really point to as innovative. 

I asked friends on social media to suggest other experimental works, and the one that kept coming up was Mark Z. Danielewski’s novel House of Leaves, which is an examination of a documentary that doesn’t exist unless maybe it does about a house that…well, it’s complicated. But the book is pieced together in a very unorthodox way, in a semi-epistolary format that also plays with things like the color of the printing and the orientation of the page. Because of these elements, it’s the sort of book that you can’t read on your phone or a tablet, you have to have an actual physical copy on hand, and it’s mainly for that reason that I haven’t gotten around to finishing it yet. In fact, I haven’t even got far enough into it to make an educated statement about its effectiveness either way. I’ve got a five-year-old son, people, what do you want from me? I promise I’ll try to read it eventually and, when I do, I’ll tell you what I thought. 

Then another movie came across my radar, a little indie film called Jethica. Directed by Pete Ohs, this quick movie tells about a pair of old high school friends who reconnect after several years. One of them tells the other about a struggle she had with a stalker, and how that trauma is following her, quite literally. I don’t want to say too much more because I don’t want to spoil the movie (available on the Fandor app or to check out from Hoopla), but also because as good as the movie is, it’s the way it was made that really fascinates me. I learned about the film when Ohs was a guest on The Movie Crypt podcast, and the description of how the film was made blew my mind. Ohs brought his cast together and rented out a trailer for two weeks,  went there with a rough outline of the first half of the story, and then the five of them got together once a day to work out what the next scenes to be filmed would be, how to tell the story, and write a script as a team. Halfway through the shoot they took a day off from filming to figure out the rest of the story, then repeated the process to get to the end. 

As a writer and as someone who has directed theater productions (although never a film, I concede), this is one of the gutsiest things I’ve ever heard of. First of all, the fact that he began making the movie without even knowing the ending blows my mind. I’ve often said that when it comes to writing I’m more of a gardener than an architect – I plant seeds and cultivate them rather than planning out everything in advance – but I still have to have an idea of where it’s going to go before I start. I’m willing to take detours and change my mind along the way, but I still need some endpoint to march towards.

Second, the degree of collaboration is astonishing. I love collaborating with other creative people. I feel like I’m at my best when there are other artistic types around me, that the creative energy allows us to feed off each other. But the degree of trust that Ohs had in his cast is truly next level. The film’s script is credited to Ohs and the four members of the cast, all as co-writers, and that’s darn near magic.

And as if that wasn’t enough, Ohs then explained that this is how he always makes his movies.

Mind blown.

No, the name of the movie is Jethica. You thought that was a typo, didn’t you?

The guts to try something different is really the essence of experimental storytelling. If you’re not taking a risk, after all, where’s the experiment? And that brings me to the last example I want to bring up today, Kyle Higgins’s excellent superhero comic book from Image, Radiant Black. The story of a disillusioned young man who comes into possession of a mysterious and powerful suit of armor has been a big hit for Image and has even launched a new shared universe, both with spinoffs of Radiant Black and through crossovers with other books like Ryan Parrott’s Rogue Sun (which also did a sort of “Choose Your Own Adventure” timey-wimey issue a while back). But all of that stuff is standard in superhero comics. What makes Radiant Black an interesting experiment is the degree of connectivity Higgins has with his audience, finding ways to surprise the reader and make them involved that mainstream comics don’t often do.

The first time I noticed Higgins taking a chance with the book came in issue #15, in which Radiant Black discovers a movie crew making a fan film about him. A cute concept, one that I’m a little surprised that I hadn’t seen in comics before, but the surprise came on the last page where there was a QR code. Scanning the code brought you to a YouTube video, an animated short of the film that was made in the comic you just finished reading (and featuring the voice of Batman Beyond star Will Friedle). It was a clever way to bring the readers into the world of the comic, make it a little more “real,” and include them in the process.

But in the most recent issue, #24, he did something much more surprising, which is kind of spoilery, so if you’re reading Radiant Black and you haven’t caught up yet, go catch up before you read the rest of this.

This comic cover doubles as a spoiler buffer. See? EXPERIMENTAL.

Alright, if you’re still reading I assume either you’re caught up or you’re not worried about the spoiler. It’s on you. Radiant Black pulled a bait-and-switch a few issues in, where the main character, Nathan, was put into a coma and the armor was passed to his best friend, Marshall. Marshall was Radiant Black for a while until Nathan awoke from his coma and they discovered the ability to pass the armor back and forth between the two of them. This has been the status quo in the book for some time, leading up to the end of issue #24 where a proclamation is made by one of those cosmic-type beings that occasionally make proclamations in comic books: the armor can no longer be shared! Nathan and Marshall must choose which of them will be the sole Radiant Black from now on! 

And in the middle of that last page…ANOTHER QR CODE. This one takes you to a webpage where you vote on which of the two friends will be the permanent Radiant Black. 

Again, it’s about the writer having guts. No doubt he has plans for both characters, an idea of where the series is going to go no matter which way the vote goes, but think of the implications of that. This means Higgins has taken the time to map out and develop two different storylines, having the faith that both of them are worthy of telling and knowing that one of them will have to be abandoned. It’s hard enough to come up with one story that you believe in enough to tell. Doing two with the intention of junking one? Mr. Higgins, I salute you.

Now this isn’t the first time that comic book fans have voted on the fate of a character. There was the infamous Batman: A Death in the Family storyline from 1988, in which the second Robin, Jason Todd, was caught in an explosion after being beaten nearly to death by the Joker. Fans were asked to call a 900 number (ask your parents, kids) to vote on whether he would survive or not. Fans chose “not.” (This book, by the way, also inspired a Choose Your Own Adventure version, the Death in the Family animated movie, which came out a few years ago. You see why I couldn’t call Bandersnatch a proper experiment on its own merits?) 

More recently, Marvel has used the internet to poll fans for the last few years to occasionally realign the lineup of their X-Men characters, having the readers vote on the final member of the team. And of course in the ancient times (by which I mean the 1960s), DC Comics allowed fans to mail in their votes for the leaders of the Legion of Super-Heroes. None of these are as gutsy as what Higgins has done, though. In the case of the Legion, the question of who was technically leading the team at the time rarely had relevance to the stories being told – it was simple to swap out one for another as the story demanded. The same goes for X-Men – with so many characters in the book, having wiggle room for the last one isn’t problematic. Whether Robin lived or died, of course, was a much bigger deal, but Batman was also a much bigger book and then came with a smaller risk. You know Batman and the X-Men aren’t going to be canceled. The writer might get fired, sure. The book might be overhauled or renamed or it may start over with a new first issue because it’s Wednesday and they haven’t had one in a while, but one way or another that book is still going to be published next month.

Fun fact: In comic books people who are legally dead CAN come back and vote. In comic books and Chicago.

Radiant Black, like most Image titles, is creator-owned, and if it crashes, that’s kind of the end of it. But Higgins isn’t just a good enough writer to launch a new popular superhero title in a crowded landscape with a dwindling audience. He’s a confident enough writer to do it in a unique, creative, and risky way that still entertains his readers. It’s that confidence, I think, that impresses me the most. “Confidence” seems to be his middle name. It’s mine too, but in my case it’s preceded by “Complete Lack Of.” 

People have been telling stories for so long and have found so many different ways to do it that it seems almost impossible that there are any methods still waiting to be found. Even when an experiment doesn’t quite work, like Jane or Kaleidoscope, the people who tried it get my respect for the attempt. But when something new does work, that’s when a creator is going to make me a part of the audience for the long haul. 

Blake M. Petit is a writer, teacher, and dad from Ama, Louisiana. His current writing project is the superhero adventure series Other People’s Heroes: Little Stars, a new episode of which is available every Wednesday on Amazon’s Kindle Vella platform. He is accepting suggestions for other experimental stories all the time. Let’s have ‘em! What should he be reading or watching? He swears, he WILL get around to House of Leaves one of these days.

Geek Punditry #18: The Animation Hole

J. Michael Straczynsi is an accomplished storyteller, a phenomenal writer, and a little bit of a troll when it comes to teasing his fans with the promise of upcoming content. Among his other achievements, Straczynski is the creator of Babylon 5, which a lot of people consider one of the finest science fiction shows ever made, and which is in many ways a precursor to the current model of long-form storytelling that we enjoy on television. But while B5 is acclaimed, it’s obviously not as well known as the likes of Star Wars and Star Trek. Aside from the series itself, the universe has only enjoyed a few TV or direct-to-DVD movies, a spinoff series that lasted a single season, and a relative handful of novels, comic books, and short stories which are all long out of print and not even available digitally. Last week I told you guys how fans always want “more.” By that metric, Babylon 5 fans have been starving for a long time.

This week's news that Babylon 5 is going to return with a new movie should be met with joy -- but some fans are put off because the film will be animated. Why, in 2023, are we still looking down on animation?
But lunchtime is coming…

This week, though, we were finally promised a meal when JMS announced an upcoming Babylon 5 animated movie. Although we don’t yet know the plot, the title, or the release date, Straczynski told us the following: the film includes the voices of most of the surviving members of the original cast, the movie is already finished and will be released “very soon,” and it is – in his opinion – the best thing they’ve done with Babylon 5 since the original series ended. And as with most news announced to a group of starving genre fans, the reaction had two phases:

1: YES! New Babylon 5 content! FINALLY! The prophecy has been fulfilled!

Followed shortly thereafter by…

2: Pfft. 

Any time a popular franchise makes an announcement, there is a “Pfft” contingent, and while that contingent is usually small, it is extraordinarily vocal. One “Pfft” is capable of raising his voice on the internet above approximately 5,000 fans who are genuinely happy and excited about the project, and he does so in such a manner to indicate that the news is nothing to get excited about, and anyone who is excited is beneath him. These people have existed since the dawn of  civilization, the first recorded practitioner expressing their displeasure with a cave painting of a pack of wildebeest made by Hector “Ugg” Gutierrez, but which was clearly inferior to the one made by his arch-rival, Andy Warhol.

But back to the Babylon 5 announcement, specifically. The “Pfft” people usually latch on to a few key elements to fuel their derision, such as the cast or writing. In this case, though, since it’s almost all the original people involved in the new project, they have focused their spite on the medium: animation.

“Pfft. It’s a cartoon?”

“Pfft. I’ll wait for the real show to come back.”

“Pfft. Look at what happened to Star Wars.”

(That last one is the most perplexing to me, actually, since many of the Star Wars animated projects have been widely acclaimed, but it does demonstrate the phenomenon of cross-fandom “Pffting,” an activity that has always existed but which has become much more prevalent in this age of the internet.)

Look, I’m not here to tell anybody what to like. I’m not telling anyone they have to enjoy something, and I’m not telling anyone their opinions are invalid. I am, however, going to say that if your argument against a project is based solely on the fact that it’s animated, an opinion formed before even a single frame of the project has been seen by the public, then you’re kind of a dink.

“Come on, you don’t think anyone actually liked this, do you?”

The idea that animation is strictly a medium for children is a stupid one, and one that’s never made much sense to me. It certainly wasn’t the intention when it was invented. Early cartoons were made for a mass audience, with references to popular culture that would often go over the heads of children and plenty of double entendre that definitely wasn’t intended for the little’uns. It’s hard to watch classic Looney Tunes shorts with a discerning eye and think that bits like Bugs Bunny’s Clark Gable imitation were intended for kids even in the 1940s, or that the leggy girls the male toons would often chase after weren’t there for a little bit of grown-up fanservice. The people who made those cartoons were really trying to entertain themselves, and the fact that their work also entertained everybody else just showed how talented they were.

After my standard “I am not a historian” disclaimer, I’m going to say that I think the (largely American) perception of animation being strictly a medium for children probably is due to television. Once TV became more prolific and turned into a fixture in most American homes, content for every member of the family became a requirement, and cartoons became the preferred delivery system for the kids. Saturday morning cartoons blossomed, and they were glorious. They eventually migrated to weekday afternoons so kids had something to watch after school. And then, even older works (like the aforementioned Looney Tunes) were repackaged and shown during these children’s blocks, cementing them as kid stuff in the tightly-closed mind of the public. It’s a stigma that was set firmly, and while I think the last few decades have started to chip away at that mindset, things like the reaction to the Babylon 5 announcement prove that it’s still real for a lot of people. 

The thing is, none of the arguments for animation being only for kids hold up to even minimal scrutiny. Let’s break them down, shall we?

“Animation is childish.”

Sure, it can be. It can be a realm of crude humor and slapstick comedy and lowbrow jokes and goofy gags, just like the Three Stooges – who (although they did have a cartoon in their later years) were decidedly human. The things that people call “childish” are elements of the way the story is written or presented, not the medium. Animation can be mature and serious, and I’m not just talking about raunchy humor like South Park. I’m talking about things like the razor-sharp satire of early seasons of The Simpsons. I mean experimental films like Batman: Death in the Family. How about Isao Takahata’s Grave of the Fireflies, a story about two Japanese children surviving an American firebombing during World War II? It’s a transcendent film, but most definitely not something that any reasonable parent would show a small child.  

To call something “childish” derisively seems to mean that the content is not worthy for consumption by adults. And to be certain, there are kids’ shows that fall under that category. But even shows that are aimed at kids don’t necessarily lock out parents altogether. Bluey is the most current example of this – this Australian show ostensibly for preschoolers is a favorite among kids, but has been embraced by parents all over the world for portraying a loving mother and father (sure, they’re dogs, but so what?) who do their best with their children, fall short sometimes, but keep on going. The characters have become inspirational, role models even. Animated dads have far too often been cast in the mold of Peter Griffin. The truth is, every dad should aim to be a Bandit Heeler. 

Bluey is an instructional video on parenting disguised as a show for preschoolers.

And there are far more examples. The original Animaniacs series came out when I was in middle school, and it was a show my father actually enjoyed as well. It was part of the Fox Kids lineup, but like the Looney Tunes shorts that were their true parents, it had layers of satire and entendre that kids never would have understood. I was in college before I realized the episode “King Yakko” (which you may just know as “the Anvilania episode”) was a full-plot reference to the 1933 Marx Brothers’ movie Duck Soup. Yeah, that was a joke for kids in the 90s. 

How you make something does not determine the proper audience. What you make does. 

If you’re anywhere close to my age you know EXACTLY which joke this is.

“It’s just a cartoon, I can’t feel anything like I do for human actors.”

That’s a failure of the viewer, not the film. Animation can be deep, powerful, meaningful, and personal, and it all depends on the story you’re telling. If somebody came up to me and said that the saddest 60 seconds of television ever made came at the end of the Futurama episode “Jurassic Bark,” I would be utterly incapable of arguing against it. After a full episode about Fry, trapped 1000 years in the future, coming to terms with losing the dog he left behind but finding comfort in the fact that he had a full life without him, the viewer learns that Seymour, the dog in question, literally spent the rest of his life waiting for his master to return before quietly passing away in front of the pizza parlor where Fry worked. Even somebody who hates dogs has to feel something for that.

97 percent of you got a lump in your throat when you saw this picture. The other three percent are assholes.

“But Futurama is adult animation,” you say. “Not all animation is like that.” I’m going to ignore the fact that you just utterly shattered your own argument that animation is all for kids and move on to examples that are for children, but which are still deeply moving for adults. How about the Pixar film Up? As a teacher, there are occasionally days where we show films because of reasons, such as having a room full of standardized testers who have finished early and I need to kill time before we return to our normal classes. On days like that I have a strict rule to never show the movie Up, because I may have to teach some of these 9th graders when they become seniors and I don’t need them remembering that time I sobbed like an infant in front of them. The beginning of Up tells the story of a boy and girl who grow up, fall in love, marry, discover they cannot have children, and grow old together before the woman, Ellie, leaves her husband Carl as a widower, and utterly alone. It’s a powerful story and it’s told, after their initial meeting as children is over, completely without words. It’s entirely visual, requiring the viewer to infer what has happened to them at each stage, and causing their souls to crumble as the reality sets in. I admit, I’m a softie. I cry at movies. At TV shows. Whenever I heard the John Williams anthem from Superman. But this was the only time in my life a movie made me cry in the first ten minutes.

I’m gonna make you people cry before the end of this column.

Emotion is an intended byproduct of art, all art. Whether it’s a film, a poem, a painting, or a concerto, art is created for the express purpose of evoking an emotional response from the audience. And great animation can nail it just as much as live action.

“Animation is just a cheap way to tell the story.”

First off, buy a calculator. The price tag on rendering animation can be pretty staggering. But I’ll give you the benefit of the doubt here – maybe you mean that animation looks cheap. Sure. Sometimes. It’s hard to imagine that anyone involved in the 2012 magnum opus Foodfight! is particularly proud of what they have loosed onto an unsuspecting world. But that’s bad animation. Bad live action sucks too. So does bad writing, bad acting, bad special effects. If your argument is that “animation is bad,” you’re choosing to ignore the mountains of good animation that exist or the mountains of bad everything else you had to wade through to get there.

If Futurama and Up didn’t get a tear out of you, the existence of this abomination should do the trick.

Let’s go back to Babylon 5 for a second. Although very few details have been released, and everything I am about to say is speculation, the fact that Warner Bros. owns the property makes it reasonable to assume that the animated film is the work of the Warner Bros. Animation studio, the company whose history goes back to those magnificent Looney Tunes I keep bringing up. For a more recent example, and one that is thematically much closer to what the B5 movie will likely be, this is also the studio that has made the collection of DC Comics animated films that have come out over the last several years, movies like All-Star Superman, Batman: Under the Red Hood, Superman Vs. the Elite and Justice League Vs. the Fatal Five. The current unit is also responsible for many films featuring the likes of Scooby Doo and other Hanna-Barbera properties, Tom and Jerry, and…you guessed it! The Looney Tunes. And while people may debate the relative quality of any of those productions – they may dislike the story, the casting, the character design – one thing they rarely complain about is the quality of the animation itself. WBA knows what it’s doing.

And frankly, the notion of using animation for science fiction just plain makes sense. When you’re telling a story in a world beyond our own – be it sci-fi, fantasy, horror, or superheroes – the special effects are often make-or-break. The filmmakers have to convincingly create something that does not exist in the world and put it in front of an audience in a way that it appears real. Some people are great at this. Some people are not. Animation removes that requirement. Star Trek is often derided for its reliance on “rubber forehead aliens” – in other words, alien species that are created by slapping some prosthetics on human actors. Well what else were you supposed to do, especially with the budget and technological limitations of television in the 1960s? When the Star Trek animated series was created, for the first time, there were recurring alien creatures who were not wholly humanoid, such as the tripedal Edosian officer Arex. Even in modern times, where improved effects make it easier to show things that are less human, we still see a much wider variety of alien species on the animated series Lower Decks and Prodigy than we do on any of the live-action Treks, and you never hear anyone say that they look “fake”.

I mean, in live action this guy might look silly.

What about superhero movies? Since Marvel Studios changed the way blockbusters are made, the “Pfft” crowd has come out in force to complain about the overabundance of special effects that are used. “Did you see the new Ant-Man movie?” they say, ignorantly forgetting that the Wasp receives equal billing with her partner. “It’s just a couple of people in CGI suits in front of a green screen for two and a half hours.”

You know what movie they never say that about? The Incredibles.

In fact, after The Incredibles and the largely-forgotten but highly-enjoyable TMNT (an animated feature starring the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles that you likely didn’t know existed) I came to the opinion that animation is the perfect medium for superhero movies. I’m not saying that animating a huge action sequence is easy, but when literally the entirety of the universe is created digitally or on a drawing board, there are fewer limitations. The live action Marvel movies recognize this, which is the reason they’re so heavily reliant on CGI these days. And while their live action features have been a mixed bag, DC’s animated superhero projects have been a hallmark of quality ever since Batman: The Animated Series. Even non-superhero, non-science fiction movies do this these days. I’ll never forget the hilarious moment when Disney’s “live action” remake of The Lion King had so little live action that the Golden Globes nominated it for Best Animated Feature. I still laugh about that.

Superheroes and animation go together like ham and eggs, peanut butter and jelly, sauteed sea bass and rum raisin ice cream…

Animation is a medium. It’s a method of telling a story, and dismissing an entire medium because of what you perceive it to be is a kind of ignorance. If the Babylon 5 animated film comes out and underwhelms…well, that would suck. I love B5 and I want more stories in that universe, and I think that the success or failure of this film will impact the odds of that happening in the near future. But if it turns out to be a dud, there’s one thing I’m sure about: it won’t be because it was “just a cartoon.”

Blake M. Petit is a writer, teacher, and dad from Ama, Louisiana. His current writing project is the superhero adventure series Other People’s Heroes: Little Stars, a new episode of which is available every Wednesday on Amazon’s Kindle Vella platform. Thanks to his wife, Erin, for reminding him to include the Futurama example when he told her what this week’s column would be about.