Geek Punditry #12: Nothing New Under the Sun

One of the most common criticisms of modern movies is that there aren’t any new ideas. People point to the nearly endless stream of sequels, prequels, remakes, and franchises as evidence that Hollywood has run out of creative juice, as if there’s somehow nothing original in seventeen movies about a robot that can turn into a jet ski. There are two problems with this, though. First, it’s not really true. There are thousands of scripts circulating in the movie industry at any given time – each year a “Blacklist” is released of the best unproduced scripts currently making the rounds, and some of them eventually find a studio or a director to take them on. The problem isn’t that original stories aren’t out there, it’s that the people holding the strings of the purses are afraid to spend money on them. You can take a chance on that period drama about a coal miner who discovers a secret that will topple a kingdom, or you can make the ninth installment of an action franchise that you know is going to make at least $200 million even if it’s terrible. I’m not saying I agree with this decision, mind you, but I certainly understand it.

Nothing original my shiny hiney.

The other problem with this complaint is the assumption that this is a recent phenomenon, that it’s only in the last few years that this mythical well of creativity has run dry. What happened to those great epic films of the past based on totally original ideas? Things like Jaws or The Wizard of Oz or The Ten Commandments? You know, things that were made from whole cloth. It’s nonsense, of course. People have been borrowing stories since the first story was told. And you know what? That’s okay.

I took a quick glance at IMDB’s top 100 narrative films and counted at least 40 movies that I know are based on books, plays, real life, or are sequels – and those are just the ones I’m aware of. I’m sure that there are more, but I don’t have time to read the trivia on all of them. This also doesn’t count those films that aren’t “official” adaptations, but borrow liberally from earlier stories (such as Star Wars taking elements from Buck Rogers and Hidden Fortress). A large chunk of our most acclaimed cinema is taken from other sources. And there’s nothing wrong with that. William Shakespeare himself “borrowed” from everybody. The histories, obviously, aren’t original ideas, but beyond that we have Romeo and Juliet based on an Italian poem, Othello was lifted from a collection of short stories, and Hamlet was a straight-up ripoff of The Lion King

Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are fed.

No, seriously, it’s based on an old Danish myth about a young man who has to seek revenge after his father is murdered by his uncle. There were, in fact, several versions of this story going back hundreds of years before Shakespeare cherry-picked his favorite parts of each of them, added a ghost, wrote the song “Hakuna Matata,” and BAM! made it the most famous play in the English language. 

Something else to consider is that as vast as the well of human creativity is, we’ve been exploring it for a really long time, and there aren’t a whole lot of corners left to excavate. Back in 1895, Georges Polti published his list of “The Thirty-Six Dramatic Situations,” in which he outlined what he believed was every possible plot that any writer can use. Granted, these 36 plots are incredibly simplistic (abduction, revolt, enmity of kin, Godzilla Vs. Mechagodzilla, etc.), but I first read about these plots in a writing book nearly 20 years ago and since then I’ve never come across a story that didn’t fit at least one of them, not even Space Jam. The point, then, is not to come up with an entirely original idea, because that seems to be virtually impossible. The point is to find the story you want to tell, and then tell your version in an entertaining and satisfying way. 

Too many writers get hung up on being original and freeze. A long time ago I had a friend read a story I wrote only to panic when she asked me when was the last time I read The Chronicles of Narnia. It had been years, but upon reflection I realized I used a device remarkably similar to an element from the Narnia novel The Magician’s Nephew. I hadn’t done it intentionally – I hadn’t read the book since elementary school and I had very little memory of it – but the device was so similar I have to concede that I was drawing on it subconsciously. Another time a friend of mine asked me if I’d heard of Rick Riordan’s Percy Jackson series, and because I trusted his recommendation, I picked up the first book. I loved it and I also got sick to my stomach, because the conceit of the Greek Gods in modern times was something I had been working on in a novel of my own that pretty much died on the vine. I obviously wasn’t stealing that idea, because at the time I had never read Percy before, but the knowledge that there was such a popular book out there that used some of the same ideas slaughtered my enthusiasm for the project. In retrospect, that was a mistake. The take I was planning really wasn’t at all similar to Camp Half-Blood, the only real similarity was that it was contemporary mythological characters, but I was so shaken that I lost the thread of that story and was never able to find it again. 

“Hello, literature police? I’d like to report a murder…of my hopes and dreams.”

Rather than abandoning a story with old roots, a writer should cultivate those roots and find a new way to grow. Stan Lee famously combined Frankenstein and Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde to create the Incredible Hulk, after all. Kevin Williamson and Wes Craven bought stock in decades of slasher movies to give birth to the Scream franchise. George Lucas drew on Uncle Scrooge comics by Carl Barks when he conceived of Raiders of the Lost Ark. (I know that sounds like the kind of thing I would make a joke about, but it’s not. That one’s a straight-up fact.)

Let’s go back to Shakespeare. Everyone knows Disney borrowed from Hamlet when they made The Lion King, but that’s only the tip of the iceberg. Romeo and Juliet inspired West Side Story, MacBeth became Kurasowa’s Throne of Blood, The Taming of the Shrew became Ten Things I Hate About You. As of this writing, William Shakespeare is credited as a writer for 1746 projects on IMDB. That’s nearly 2000 movies and TV shows, stories told in mediums that were not invented until he had been dead for almost three centuries. (He’s also credited once under “music department” and a baffling SIX times as “additional crew.” I could click on those links for clarification, but I kind of prefer my headcanon, in which he was involved in craft services on the set of The Human Centipede.) 

What’s more, those 1746 credits are only the films that specifically list him as a writer, not those that borrow from him without applying the credit, nor does it account for the thousands of stories that use his work outside of the realms of film and television. I did college and community theater for many years and one the best shows I was ever in was The Complete Works of William Shakespeare [Abridged], a gut-busting comedy featuring three actors trying to perform parts of all 36 of Shakespeare’s plays in one evening. Then just yesterday I got Ryan North’s book To Be Nor Not to Be, in which he retells Hamlet as a Choose-Your-Own-Adventure story. I’ve read it through once so far, choosing the “original” path of the play before I branch out and test the wackier versions, but even the “original” is really funny. (North also seems to have a much greater fondness for Rosencrantz and Guildenstern than most people, treating them in a way that’s very much at odds with Tom Stoppard, who himself used Shakespeare for the basis of his play Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, which in turn inspired the epic drama Bubble Guppies.)

“To suffer the slings of outrageous fortune, turn to page 32. To suffer the arrows, turn to page 19.”

A lot of writers wear their influences on their sleeves. Stephen King – who you should realize by now is a perennial favorite of mine – used Robert Browning’s poem “Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came” as the launching pad for his own The Dark Tower, the series he calls his “magnum opus.” The series has feelers and roots in dozens of his own novels and short stories, but also in the works of other creators. Along the way he sprinkled in a visit to Oz, a riddle game that feels like Twisted Tolkien Theatre, robots stolen from Marvel Comics, and nuggets of Harry Potter to fill in the gaps. King, in turn, has inspired many other writers, among them his own sons Joe Hill and Owen King and the entire writing staff of the TV show Lost.

Mythology is another popular source to “borrow” stories from, which is why I tried to do it myself before Rick Riordan inadvertently kicked my teeth in. The Odyssey, for example, has been retold multiple times: the Coen brothers transplanted it into turn-of-the 20th Century Mississippi for their film O Brother, Where Art Thou?, DC Comics used it as the basis of the Adam Strange/Starfire/Animal Man section of their year-long experimental series 52, and a few years ago some schmuck from Louisiana replaced Odysseus with Santa Claus and tried telling his own version of the story

“My name? Nobody-El.”

DC is actually returning to the Homeric well beginning this week with a series called Superman: Lost. In the first issue of this 10-issue series by writer Christopher Priest and artist Carlo Pagulayan, Clark Kent and Lois Lane are hanging out at home one evening when he’s summoned away by the Justice League to deal with an emergency. He comes back only minutes later, but now he seems to be in a state of shock. After a few panels of Lois trying to figure out what’s happened, Clark drops the bomb that – from his perspective – he’s actually been gone for 20 years. The first issue is excellent, and I’m very much looking forward to the rest of the story to see why he’s been gone so long, what timey-wimey ball of phlebotinum is going to be applied to bring him back to the present, and how much is borrowed directly from The Odyssey. Priest is a writer whose work I’ve enjoyed for a long time, so I’ve got plenty of faith going in.

The point is, originality is not the be-all and end-all of storytelling. True, it’s always great to be genuinely surprised, but that doesn’t mean that there’s not room for good movies, TV shows, or books that have a familiar flavor. If you don’t like something, fine, that’s your prerogative, but if the only thing wrong with it is that you feel like you’ve seen it before, try to decide if it has other merits before you dismiss it entirely. You may find something worth experiencing after all. 

And if not, just go watch something original and brand-new. Like The Last of Us. Or Wednesday. Or that new show Night Court. Or…

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. Please do not mistake this “originality isn’t everything” position as an endorsement of plagiarism or, even worse, using AI to write a story. Both of these are crimes for which you should receive, at minimum, a toilet that won’t stop running all night long even after you take off the top of the tank and stick your hand in the water to try to adjust it. That’s what you’ve got coming to you. Jerk.  


Geek Punditry #11: Write What You Know

“Write what you know.”

It’s the first piece of advice anyone gives someone who is trying to write, and like so many pieces of common homespun wisdom, it’s kinda useless when you really start to think about it. The intent behind this, of course, is to urge writers to focus their energy on topics or stories with which they have a personal connection, which makes sense because that’s always the writing you’re going to be the most passionate about. But far too many people take the phrase literally, which is the reason as soon as someone says, “so the book is about a writer from Maine,” you don’t need to hear anything else to know that they’re talking about Stephen King.

The main character of 97 novels published since breakfast.

The thing that makes King popular, though, is not that so many of his protagonists share his profession and home turf, but that so many of his protagonists ring true as characters, as real people, and smart-ass critics like the guy who wrote the preceding paragraph miss that all the time. King himself may never have been a prison guard like Paul Edgecomb (The Green Mile), a prison inmate like Andy Dufresne (Rita Hayworth and the Shawshank Redemption), or a retired Army special forces operative like Dale Barbara (Under the Dome), but the feelings and emotions that drive those characters are all things that anyone can relate to. Edgecomb is a guy who is forced to confront the fact that the job he’s about to do may not be right, Dufresne is an innocent man trapped in a system that doesn’t believe in him, Barbara is someone who just wants to leave his violent life in the past but is not allowed to do so. The core of his characters is realistic, and that’s what makes his work resonate with people.

If everyone took “write what you know” literally, there would be no science fiction in the world, no fantasy, and all the horror would be of the gruesome true crime subset. Other fiction, “literary” fiction (a term I’ve always found distasteful, as the intent seems to be to divide fiction into “the real stuff” and “everything else”) would still exist, but much of it would be unfathomably boring, because while it’s true that everyone is the hero of their own story, a large number of those stories left unadorned would be of little interest to anyone else. As much as all writers like to believe they’re Hemingway, basing their fiction on their two-fisted, hard-drinkin’ lifestyle, writing is often a very solitary craft, where you sit in a room with your instrument of choice (a computer, a typewriter, a hammer and chisel) and metaphorically slash your wrists and let it flow on to the page. If the only things that came out in my writing were from my actual life, there would be an awful lot of chapters of a character watching Star Trek and wondering if that new marshmallow Peep flavored Pepsi is any good, which is something my wife Erin assures me nobody wants to read about.

“He popped the tab and lifted the can to his mouth, nostrils tantalized by the lotus-like aroma of gelatinous sucrose.”

When someone is “writing what they know,” what they should be doing is mining their own experience to figure out what they have to say, then determining the most interesting way to say it. I’ll use myself as an example because I know how it works for me and because it gives me an excuse to plug my ongoing serial novel Other People’s Heroes: Little Stars, a new chapter of which appears every Wednesday on Amazon’s Kindle Vella platform. (See, that’s literally writing what I know. Dull, isn’t it?) Little Stars is about a young woman whose mother is the world’s most beloved superhero, and about how her life gets turned upside-down when Mom’s secret identity is revealed to the world. Believe it or not, none of these are things that have ever happened to me. However, the core of the story is about a relationship between a mother and her child.

This is where the “true” comes from.

In 2017, two things happened to my family in a matter of ten days. First, my mother unexpectedly passed away, then my wife found out she was pregnant. This caused what I called at the time a tornado of emotion. Either one of these events is a cause for complete upheaval in a person’s life. Dealing with them both at once was a maelstrom that nobody could have prepared for, and my creative output was throttled as a result. It took some time before I could figure out how to write again, and even longer (summer of 2021) before anything I began writing gained any traction and grew into something lasting, specifically Little Stars. That said, once I started to get ideas again, I began to unintentionally follow a pattern. I’ve got two other partially-formed ideas that I intend to get around to when Little Stars is over: one is about a father whose children are taken by a mysterious force, and the other is about a pair of sisters who run away from their parents when they discover a secret about their late, beloved grandmother. (There’s a lot more going on in these stories, of course, I’m not just ripping off Taken, but these are the relevant parts.) I also wrote my annual Christmas stories, including a novella with a major subplot about a divorced dad reconnecting with his son and another Christmas short about a vampire hanging out with Santa Claus in an effort to get back to his daughter. I didn’t mean to do it, and I did it several times before I realized the pattern, but my work these days is very heavily focused on stories about parents and their children. And it would be pretty damn disingenuous if I didn’t admit that this is probably because I’m still trying to work through the emotion of losing a parent and becoming a parent almost at the same time.

But that’s okay, because that’s what “writing what you know” – if done correctly – is really good for. For the audience, art is entertainment or education. If you’re really good, like Jim Henson and Joan Ganz Cooney, it can be both. But for the artist, art is therapy. It’s how we choose to understand ourselves and try to make sense of a world that seems dead-set against making any sense on its own. The joke about Stephen King is that his stories are all about writers from Maine, but people forget about how many stories connect to other parts of his life: outcast children (It), issues from fatherhood (The Shining), or substance abuse problems (line up any of his books from the 80s and throw a dart). This is what great writers do. F. Scott Fitzgerald was writing about the world around him when he created The Great Gatsby. Mark Twain based the hometown of Tom Sawyer and Huck Finn on his own childhood. Stan Lee really got bitten by that radioactive spider that one time.

100 percent historically accurate.

We’re so used to “write what you know” as a metaphor that when someone does it literally but does it really well, it’s a gut punch. For example, the movie The Big Sick was written by married couple Emily V. Gordon and Kumail Nanjiani, and it’s about a real-life incident in which Emily — very early in their relationship — fell into a coma due to a mysterious illness, creating an unexpected bond between Kumail and her family. It’s funny, deeply emotional, and a great showcase for Nanjiani as an actor. More importantly, though, it hit every nerve in my brain in a way I never could have anticipated.

I know you’re expecting a joke here, but I deeply loved this movie and you should watch it twice.

As with any movie “based on a true story” there are elements added for drama or comedy or to make a more coherent story (real life is rarely that coherent), but you could tell while watching it how true and real the heart of that film is. It also happened to come out in the aforementioned 2017, a few months after my personal turmoil began, and I found myself sitting in a movie theater next to my pregnant wife weeping like a starving infant. Not because the movie was tragic (when the coma victim is one of the co-writers of the movie, you can’t go in expecting a Nicholas Sparks ending), but because at that moment it was delivering the message I needed: that the world is hard and chaotic and awful sometimes, but it’s still possible for things to turn out okay in the end. A movie that’s 100 percent fictional could have delivered the same message, of course, but knowing that much of it was true made it hit much, much harder.

The other film I want to talk about here, a more recent one, is The Fabelmans. Steven Spielberg is a polarizing figure – movie fans often consider him one of the greatest filmmakers who ever lived, whereas movie snobs dismiss his work because it’s popular, as though that somehow disqualifies it from being good. The Fabelmans is clearly his most personal story, a movie about a young man who uncovers a family secret that rips him apart, and how he uses movies and filmmaking to cope.

A love story about a boy and his camera.

This one feels more “fictionalized” than The Big Sick, of course. Spielberg directs the film, but Nanjiani actually played himself, Spielberg didn’t use real names, and the decades of distance from the real events no doubt necessitated him conjuring up much of it out of whole cloth, but again, it’s a film with a real emotion in its soul. Reportedly, the relationship between Sam Fabelman’s parents is a reflection of Spielberg’s own, and if that’s true I have to applaud the man for his willingness to bleed on screen. The story that’s told is somewhat raw and heartbreaking, not the sort of family secret that many people could ever bring themselves to talk about, and yet he put it on a thousand movie screens and got a Best Picture nomination. Is it my favorite Spielberg movie? No. But I think it’s his most authentic, his most emotionally honest, and I truly love it for that. Plus the final scene of the film – based on a story that Spielberg has talked about in interviews in the past – is a lovely little way to cap off the story of a boy who had a rough time of it, winking just a little at the camera to assure the audience that he turned out okay in the end.

So for the writers out here, my message is not to write what you know. Write what’s real inside, what you’re really feeling, put it on the page. Dress it up however you want, of course, whether that means an alien or an undead slasher or a superhero or just a kid in Arizona, but figure out what’s real in that story. That’s what you share with us. That’s how you get to be great.

It’s easier to recognize greatness than achieve it, naturally, but I really am trying.

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. How many times can he post that link before it’s considered gauche? Ah, who cares?

Geek Punditry #10: Shouldn’t Have Slept on This

There are a lot of comic books published every month. Like, at least four of them. And for someone who has been reading comics since childhood, there are times where the sheer volume of books being published can get overwhelming, even if you don’t read X-Men titles. The two biggest publishers, Marvel and DC, each have an intricate universe that carries on a complex interwoven meta-narrative that has run continuously, in one form or another, for decades, somehow subsisting even before variant covers were invented. And if you’re the sort of person who has things like a job or a family, or who enjoys eating food, there simply isn’t enough time to read everything that’s being published.

Fortunately, both Marvel and DC have in recent years launched online subscription services, where you can read a substantial portion of their respective libraries, with more books added each week. I’m a comic book collector, I can’t imagine a future where I didn’t want to get printed comics, but I consider myself a reader even more than a collector. And there’s a definite comfort to knowing that I don’t have to get all 1,124 books published a month (that’s 10,419 covers) in case there’s something I might want to read later. For books that I’m not enthusiastic about, things that I would be reading just to fill in a gap, it’s great to know that I can always go to the app a few months after release and it’ll be waiting there.

The best part about this system, though, is that when you go back and look at the stuff you missed, sometimes you find a gem that you may not have otherwise read at all. Since I’ve started reading these comics digitally, I’ve stumbled on several titles that I passed on in print, but really came to enjoy after the fact. So this week, for your edification, I’m going to share four comic series from the last few years that I didn’t read when they came out, but I’m sorry I slept on now.

Duo (DC/Milestone Comics)

Milestone Media, which has published through DC on and off for 30 years now, came back in 2021 in a big way, and while a lot of attention was given to the return of characters like Static, Icon, and Hardware, less attention was given to some of the new properties released in that universe. Duo, from writer Greg Pak and artists Khoi Pham and Scott Williams, focuses on David Kim and Kelly Sandborne, an engaged couple whose research in nanotechnology is on the verge of a breakthrough. With the right funding, David and Kelly believe they could revolutionize medicine: healing injuries, combating disease, even reversing the aging process itself. When they approach an investor to take their work to the next level, instead they find themselves under attack. Kelly is thought to be killed, but David soon discovers that she’s been saved by the nanobots the only way they could: transplanting her consciousness into his own mind. Now, sharing one body and immense power, David and Kelly have to stop her killers and find a way to separate.

Duo is a really great book. It takes elements from one of the old-school Milestone comics, Xombi, but also incorporates concepts and themes that feel more like the Starhawk/Aleta body-sharing dynamic from the old Guardians of the Galaxy or Valiant’s original Second Life of Doctor Mirage, about a married couple in which the husband was a literal ghost. The character beats between the two of them are great, with some surprisingly funny moments even turning up at Kelly’s memorial service, and the book deftly deals with the troubles of having the person you love literally living inside your mind. We don’t get a real grasp of what the villains are up to until the third issue, but the character building and questions raised by the story are more than compelling enough to pull us in even before that point. Modern Milestone is doing a lot of interesting stuff, but I’m surprised to discover that this book is my favorite of the pack.

Aquaman and the Flash: Voidsong (DC Comics)

Ah, the miniseries. When the concept first really came to prominence in the 1980s, a comic book miniseries felt like an event, like something special. Now it almost feels inconsequential, with “ongoing” titles being relaunched every twelve minutes and proper miniseries feeling somewhat inconsequential. The idea of a miniseries starring the Flash and Aquaman facing an alien invasion felt like the sort of book that would never be referenced again, never have a serious impact on that “meta-narrative” I mentioned before, and therefore would be easy to skip. And I was wrong to feel that way.

The above description of the series, written by Jackson Lanzing and Collin Kelly and with art by Vasco Georgiev, is technically correct, but despite what Futurama would have us believe, that’s not always the best kind of correct. As the story goes, an invasion fleet immobilizes the entire planet with a sort of harmonic weapon (the titular “Voidsong”) that affects everyone except for the Flash and Aquaman – who were both insulated from the sound for Comic Book Reasons – leaving those two heroes as the only ones who can save the world. The great thing about this is that Aquaman and the Flash are not a traditional team-up pair. Sure, they’ve both been members of the Justice League since the very beginning, but when time comes for the heroes to pair off you’re more likely to see the Flash pal around with Green Lantern, while Aquaman hangs out with Wonder Woman or the Martian Manhunter. You almost never see these two, specifically, in a story together, and the story neatly moves from an early personality clash to a more respectful relationship in a very entertaining fashion. If you skipped this book because it wouldn’t “count,” I hear ya, but I’m telling you that we all missed out.

Daredevil by Chip Zdarsky (Marvel Comics)

Among Stan Lee’s Silver Age creations for Marvel Comics, Daredevil is probably the one I’ve read the least. It’s not that I dislike the character, but an awful lot of writers over the years have taken the approach that Daredevil is the hero that absolutely can never be allowed a single moment of joy. A lot of the modern runs on his book have had him suffer one tragedy after another without ever even a hope of peace or happiness. Years ago, when I was sent Marvel comics to review for the late, lamented Comixtreme website, I reached a point where I started to dread any new issue of Daredevil not because the book wasn’t good, but because I knew it would be so bleak I would need a shower afterwards.

Fortunately, Marvel seems to have decided that Spider-Man is now the character that will never be allowed anything resembling happiness, cheer, or entertainment, so Daredevil has lightened up a little bit. Chip Zdarsky, who is one of the more interesting writers working in mainstream comics today (under duress, it sometimes seems), took over the series in 2018. His version, admittedly, isn’t all rainbows and puppy dogs: early in the series, Daredevil accidentally kills a young man in the commission of a crime and eventually turns himself in to the police, getting sent to jail still wearing his mask. It’s a ridiculous concept, the masked hero in maximum security with a bunch of criminals, but once you accept the sheer lunacy behind it the story is fascinating. Zdarsky’s interpretation of Daredevil feels very in-character but, despite the dark inciting incident, manages to avoid the utter hopelessness so many writers have brought to the title.

Zdarsky’s run on the book went for 36 issues before it was restarted with a new #1 because it was a Wednesday. The current volume is on issue 11 and I don’t know how much longer it’s going to go, but I’m certainly along for the ride.

The Nice House on the Lake (DC/Black Label)

DC’s Black Label imprint is…well, I’ll be honest, it’s a mess. It was originally announced as a place for more “mature” versions of traditional DC heroes (“mature” here is being used in its traditional Latin definition, “more likely to drop an F-bomb”). The stories were also said to be out of continuity, except for the ones that aren’t. And sometimes they’re oversized and sometimes they’re not, sometimes they have characters formerly published by Vertigo and sometimes they have characters related to Batman. That’s about 90 percent of the time, actually. But sometimes they have absolutely nothing to do with established DC characters whatsoever. If you asked me to define what exactly the Black Label comics are supposed to be, the only consistent answer I could give you would be “something I would not give my eight-year-old nephew.”

Fortunately, it doesn’t matter what Black Label is, James Tynion IV and Alvaro Martinez Bueno’s The Nice House on the Lake is the gem in the crown. In this sci-fi/horror series (which I should stress has absolutely nothing to do with the DC Universe), ten people are invited for a week-long vacation by their mutual friend Walter at a…well, at a nice house on a lake. The cast is a very eclectic mix of people from Walter’s life – friends from high school, friends from college, friends from later. Some of the characters have a history with each other, others are nearly strangers, with Walter being the only link between them all. Before they can even settle into their vacation getaway, though–

Ah hell, I don’t want to tell you anything else, because this is a book built on mystery and surprise. There’s so much going on here, and almost all of it is built on character, which is fantastic. It’s a wild comic that takes a horrific turn at the end of the first issue, at which point it becomes virtually impossible to predict where things are going from one minute to the next. The book ends with a sequel hook, and I desperately hope that DC (or Black Label or whatever) is already well into working on the next volume, because while this series does come to a relatively definitive conclusion, there’s plenty more to explore and I can’t wait to do it. I won’t be sleeping on the sequel.

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, of course, other books he slept on besides these. For example, if you didn’t read Justice League Vs. the Legion of Super-Heroes, you can consider yourself one of the lucky ones.

Geek Punditry #9: Pop Culture Comfort Food

Reportedly, there are studies that indicate people like rewatching old TV shows and movies because there is comfort to be found in familiarity. I don’t have those particular studies in front of me because I don’t feel like looking them up at the moment (this is a highly scientific approach), but I completely believe it. When the world is starting to be too much, I often find myself going back to movies, books, or comics that I have enjoyed before. There’s something about returning to old stories that makes it feel like you’re reconnecting with a friend. There’s an ease and a comfort that can be desperately needed when there’s a weight on your shoulders, when the anxiety begins sending the pins and needles across your skin, when every text or phone call makes you worry that the worst has happened. I go back to these things a lot, is what I’m saying.

And since I know I’m not alone in this, I thought that this week I would share with you some of my storytelling comfort food. I’m going to tell you one example from each of my preferred forms of media (movies, TV, books, and comics) that I can and have returned to more times than I can count, stories I know as well as the walk from my car to the front door, characters who are as close to me as family. When I’m feeling down or beat up or that nothing is going to be okay, these are the places I turn to so that I can be reminded…sometimes it can be.

Movies: Back to the Future 

A series that never fails to take you back in time.

In the interest of clarity, I guess I should say the Back to the Future trilogy, because heaven knows I can never stop with one. The first movie came out when I was 8 years old, and I distinctly remember sitting down in front of the fireplace after my parents rented it and put the VHS tape in. I remember how quickly and deeply I fell in love with the film and how we went to the movies together to see Part II, and how we went out during a storm while out of town on a family vacation on the opening weekend of Part III to see just how the saga concluded. I even remember my father commenting on the weather and saying that anybody who went out in it to see the movie must have been a die hard fan. Which, of course, I was.

I know I don’t have to explain to anyone why these films are so great, and I’m certainly not going to waste any time on a recap, but I’m going to tell you what it is about them that makes me feel better. Part of it, like with all of the things I’m going to share with you, are the characters. There’s something about the unorthodox friendship between Doc Brown and Marty McFly that resonated with me even as a child. I had already spent years dreaming of being picked up by a tornado and thrown to Oz or finding a closet door with a passage to Narnia, but even at eight it was starting to seem like either of those would be a stretch. Finding an eccentric mentor who would bring me along on grand adventures seemed much more plausible. Even now, at a stage in life where I find myself relating more to Doc than Marty, that relationship seems pure and genuine. (Ironically, I think that’s part of the reason Rick and Morty became so popular so fast – it’s a parody of the Doc/Marty relationship, but that parody wouldn’t have worked as well if there was something foul or sordid about the original.)

Then there’s the basic fantasy of time travel, of being able to hop into a machine that can whisk you away to another place. The idea of seeing the past and the future is tantalizing, and I would be lying if I said I wouldn’t be tempted to use Gray’s Sports Almanac the same way Marty intended to. 

The other thing, which people may perhaps not think of immediately but I consider of utmost importance, is the music. The best movies often have memorable scores, but Alan Silvestri’s composition is one of the all-time greats. The sweeping tones automatically bring to mind the film, hit those triggers in your memory and pull you into the world of Hill Valley, and charge your heart with anticipation. The music moves from exciting to thrilling to, ultimately, triumphant. When you hear Alan Silvestri’s score to Back to the Future, you find yourself capable of believing that even when things are tough, like they were for Marty McFly, there is a solution that will make everything turn out okay in the end.

And c’mon. The car is really cool.

Television: Cheers 

Where people know troubles are all the same.

Bet you expected me to say Star Trek, didn’t you? Yeah, I know, Trek is my jam, but sometimes you wanna go where everybody knows your name.

Cheers, the sitcom about a little bar in Boston, has two distinct stages, and I love them both…but not equally, if I’m being honest. In the early years, the show was mostly a workplace romcom about Sam and Diane, with the rest of the characters there to add flavor. It was a fine show, it was a funny show, but I was a fairly young child at the time and, although my parents watched it, I didn’t really start paying attention to the series until I got older. This may be part of the reason that – although I would never skip the Diane years when doing a rewatch – it’s the Rebecca years that leave the most indelible mark on my memory.

But my relative age isn’t the only reason the second life of Cheers is my preferred era. Like I said, during the Shelley Long years, the show centered around Sam and Diane’s relationship. This was good. This made for some excellent television. But after Long left to become a major movie star (I recently watched her performance in 2012’s Zombie Hamlet, and I highly recommend it), they replaced her with the recently-deceased Kirstie Alley, and although there were the occasional flirtations with making her couple off with Sam like they did with Diane, the writers wisely realized that the same chemistry wasn’t there, and shifted the focus from a romcom to more of an ensemble comedy. The other characters grew in prominence, Rebecca Howe found a different niche to fill than the one vacated by Diane Chambers, and the show blossomed yet again. 

While the likes of Woody, Cliff, Carla, and Norm all had their moments in the pre-Rebecca days, post-Diane they had far more episodes in the spotlight. Frasier Crane was a Diane castoff who stuck around, but it was in the Rebecca era that he bloomed to one of the stars of the show, eventually spinning off into his own series (also a comfort watch for me), with a revival of the latter currently in the works. I’m not saying that the early years of Cheers weren’t GOOD, please don’t misunderstand me. It was a remarkable comedy, the character of Coach was sorely missed for the rest of the series, and the episode guest-starring John Cleese is perhaps one of the funniest half-hours of television ever put to film. It’s just that the pure love I feel for the series, the way I have affection for these characters as if they were personal friends of mine, the fact that I remember that Frasier’s first wife “Nanny G”’s phone number was 555-6792…that’s all a product of the Kirstie Alley years, and I’m fine with that.

Boy, I deserve some sort of trophy for THAT deep cut. 

Book: The Princess Bride by William Goldman. 

Skipping this would be inconceivable.

I may be cheating a little bit here, since much of what is wonderful about this novel is also applicable to the movie, which I also love and watch as comfort on many an occasion. But this is probably the novel I have read more times than any other (a feat which I insist is more impressive than the movie you’ve watched most often). It is the book I pick up when I’m sad. It’s the story I turn to when I’m depressed. It’s the tale I want to hear again when I feel like there is nothing good and beautiful in the world. I need this story at those times, because if it were true that there is nothing good and beautiful in the world, then how could a novel such as this even exist?

I know you’ve seen the movie, so I won’t bother to retell you the story. Instead, I’ll tell you about the elements unique to the book so that you can understand why it resonates with me so deeply. 

First of all the framing sequence. In the film, the tale of Westley and Buttercup is being read by a grandfather to his sick grandson. In the book, Goldman creates a metatextual story (this was before metatextual stories) about his own family, in which his father read the story to him as a child. It was not until adulthood that he tried reading it himself to his own son (a fictional son, by the way, as the real William Goldman had only daughters) and realized his dad skipped all the boring bits and just read him “the good parts.” The book is presented as adult Goldman abridging a classic novel by getting rid of all the flowery muck and bits of Elizabethan satire that modern audiences wouldn’t give a crap about. It’s a really funny conceit, and it’s executed so perfectly that a lot of people reading the book for the first time don’t realize the framing sequence is fiction as well. (It’s me. I’m a lot of people. I didn’t get it the first time.)

Second, the writing is simply marvelous. A lot of the great bits of dialogue made it into the film, which isn’t a surprise since Goldman wrote the screenplay himself, but there simply wasn’t room for everything, and many of those pieces left on the floor are absolutely priceless. For instance, the movie largely ignores Buttercup’s parents and their unending bickering, for which they keep score. It skips over the history of Fezzik entirely and leaves out all but the most essential parts of Inigo’s backstory, which makes an already amazing character so much richer. There’s more time spent with Humperdink, more time devoted to Vizzini, and much more to Westley and Buttercup’s burgeoning romance. Because yeah, it is a kissing book.

I don’t begrudge Goldman any of the cuts, of course. The very premise of the novel is that sometimes parts of a story don’t translate from medium to medium. But if you’ve only seen the movie you haven’t experienced the whole story.

The last thing about this book is perhaps the most important: the message. In the framing sequence, Goldman discusses a conversation with an old neighborhood woman who served as something of a mentor to him. This segment concludes with the child Goldman learning that life isn’t fair. Rather than being angry or hurt at the realization, though, he is utterly jubilant to hear the news, because once you accept that life ISN’T fair, isn’t SUPPOSED to be fair, then a lot of the crap the world throws around suddenly makes a LOT more sense. This is, I think, a very important message, and the great thing about it is how it is presented in a way that is joyful and positive rather than dour and depressing.

The point I’m getting at is that if you haven’t read this book, you should, and I’m envious that you’re going to get to experience it for the first time, which I will never have the chance to do again. But hey, that’s all right, because life isn’t fair.

Comics: The Triangle Era Superman.

This was MY Golden Age

Okay, this paragraph is just for the uber-nerds like myself who already know all about the “Triangle Era” of Superman. The rest of you can skip to the next paragraph. Ahem. I’m about to give a super-condensed history of the era. I know I’m leaving out a bunch of stuff. Like William Goldman, I choose to focus on the good parts rather than telling everybody the intricacies of comic book numbering and whatnot. Please don’t send me corrective emails.

In 1986, DC Comics hired writer/artist John Byrne to revitalize the Superman character. He took over both Superman and Action Comics, the two titles that starred the hero, and they added a third book to the line as well, Adventures of Superman, which was usually done by other creators such as Marv Wolfman. After a while, Byrne left the character in the hands of other writers and artists, and while he had done good work in his time, it was after his departure that a certain kind of alchemy began to happen. With Superman starring in three comic books a month, the writers and artists would have to collaborate to make sure they weren’t contradicting or causing problems for each other. This collaboration began to grow more intricate, and in time, the three different titles began to function almost as one. Stories that began in Adventures of Superman one week would continue in Action Comics the week after. Before long a fourth title was added, Superman: The Man of Steel, so that there were four monthly Superman books that worked almost as a single weekly title. Then someone noticed that 4×12=48, but there were 52 weeks in a year, so a fifth title (Superman: The Man of Tomorrow) was added to fill in the extra gaps. At some point, DC started to put a triangle on the cover of each issue demonstrating which week of the year it was to help readers keep track of what order the books went in, thus the “Triangle Era” was born.

The weekly nature of the serial was a great concept. Knowing that there would be a new chapter of an ongoing storyline each and every week forged hardcore loyalty and created a devoted fanbase that still exists today. What’s more, although the main story was ongoing, each individual series had its own subplots that made it stand out. Adventures, for example, was more often going to deal with the mad scientists of Project: Cadmus, while Man of Steel devoted time to a story about an orphanage and a young child who would eventually be adopted by Perry White. The books were part of a larger whole, but still had their own flavor and identity.

The Triangle Era lasted over ten years, but those early days happened just as I started reading the books and featured many of the writers, artists, and storylines that are still most dear to me: Lois learning Clark’s double identity, their engagement and marriage, the somewhat vindicated-by-history era of Superman Blue/Superman Red, the classic “Panic in the Sky” storyline, and of course, the legendary Death and Return of Superman were all products of the Triangle Era. Like all comfort media, part of my love for these books is no doubt because these were the comics I read in my formative years. But there’s also the fact that, for a very long time, these comic books were just really good. The world of Superman, which had not-undeservedly been called stale and out of date a decade earlier, was suddenly energetic, exciting, and full of new characters, concepts, heroes, and villains. Many people have made Superman comics over the years, but Dan Jurgens, Brett Breeding, Roger Stern, Bob McCleod, Jerry Ordway, Tom Grummett, Louise Simonson, and Jon Bogdanove remain the gold standard in my mind.

As the song goes, these are a few of my favorite things. These are stories, characters, and worlds that I never grow tired of. These are the things that mean something to me, things I flat-out refuse to let go of, things that come together and help make me who I am.

So what are yours?

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 bets you thought he was kidding about Zombie Hamlet, didn’t you?

Pictured: the career worth leaving Cheers for.

Geek Punditry #8: The Magic Candle

The digital revolution has made it easier than ever for people to make movies and TV shows. You can do virtually every job that’s absolutely necessary to make a film with nothing more than a smartphone and the right apps, and people have begun to do so. This does nothing to increase the talent of the people involved, of course. Even that doesn’t seem to be a hard obstacle, though, if the YouTuber my son watches called “Granny” is any indication. (She’s a nutcase who puts on a wig and a muumuu and rides an adult tricycle to fast food joints and orders food in a horrifically cloying voice. Although I do not advocate this behavior, I guarantee you she’s gotten a lot of saliva in her food.) What’s more, there are thousands of avenues to share the content – dozens of streaming services, almost as many social media platforms. For an entire generation, consuming media in bite-sized tidbits on your phone is not only the norm, it’s the preferred method of being entertained.

God, do I hate that.

Pictured: Evil.

I know I’m going to sound like a crotchety old man, but there’s a good reason for that: I am a crotchety old man. I don’t like watching stuff on my phone, not when I’ve got a perfectly good television. And I don’t like 30-second bursts of “content.” I’m a storyteller, and when I watch something I want to watch a story. And while telling a satisfying story in 30 seconds is certainly not impossible, it is tremendously difficult, and there are very few people on TikTok who have proven themselves up to the task. No, while my students may swarm around a clip of someone sending a pizza to the wrong house and giggle as though there’s something clever about that, I’d rather watch ten episodes of a science fiction epic telling a serialized story that gives time to develop character, theme, and an entertaining arc. 

Even a television is not the optimal way of viewing a story, though, although that’s how I do most of my viewing. It’s fine, don’t get me wrong, especially in this day and age when your home system can have an amazing picture and stereophonic 4-D quantum sound, if you’re the kind of person who has the sort of money to burn on such a system. But that doesn’t do it for me – nothing does it for me – like sitting in a movie theater. 

Optimally with these guys.

I know all the arguments against going to the movies, of course. Yes, it’s expensive (and just getting moreso, with AMC’s recently-announced scheme to charge more for better seats). Yes, the concessions are overpriced. There are frequently rude people in the theater as well: people who talk during the movie, people who come in late or trip over you while spilling their popcorn, people who (and this should be a criminal offense) turn on their phones, the glare blinding you at a critical moment of the narrative. And damn it, you can’t pause it to go to the bathroom. There are dozens of very solid arguments in favor of watching movies at home instead of in a movie theater.

My point is: I don’t care.

All of those complaints are true, valid, and they annoy me as much as anyone else, but the long and short of it is that when I’m excited to see a motion picture, there is no better environment in which to do it than in a darkened room with minimal distractions surrounded by other like-minded people who are there for the same thing. The first movie houses were just vacant vaudeville theaters with a screen put into place, but from the very beginning they found the perfect way to experience a film. When you watch a movie at home, it’s far too easy to get pulled out of the world of the story. The sun is coming in through the window, you’re getting Facebook notifications and text messages, your child keeps handing you his magna doodle and telling you to draw a picture of the Burger King logo. Those things don’t happen in a movie theater – or at least they shouldn’t, if you turned your phone to “do not disturb” like a civilized human being. 

What’s more, no matter how great the home theater experience becomes, the “home” part will never be able to match the thrill of being in a theater with hundreds of other people who are there for the same thing as you. Think about the first time you saw Avengers: Endgame. When Thor’s hammer lay on the battlefield and was picked up by a mysterious figure, the room grew silent. Moments later, when it smashed Thanos in the face and returned to Captain America’s hand, the theater exploded. I have never experienced a simultaneous eruption of joy in a movie theater to rival that moment, and I don’t know that I ever will again. 

A moment this awesome cannot be replicated at home.

Think about Attack of the Clones. It is, if I’m being honest, my least favorite Star Wars movie, but I will always treasure the memory of the midnight screening I attended and how the fans roared when Yoda took out his lightsaber for the first time. Even bad movies are made more fun with an audience. Nobody is going to argue that the Green Lantern movie was great cinema, but there was a load of fun to be had in my New Orleans-area screening because the movie was filmed in our area, and we all laughed together as we saw familiar streets and landmarks that they tried to pass off as being in California.

I’ve seen a lot of great movies in my life, and I’ve seen a lot of them at home. But every great movie experience I can remember happened in a theater. It’s like being in a more benign version of Plato’s cave, a magic candle shining excitement on the screen. You can’t do that at your house.

Movies serve as landmarks in my memory, too. I remember, as a child, going to the movies with my parents, my brother and sister, and each time considering it a treat. I know that I saw Ernest Goes to Camp, Santa Claus: The Movie, Batteries Not Included and Masters of the Universe that way. I remember seeing Forrest Gump with my dad in a sadly-defunct dollar theater the week before I graduated high school. I wish I knew what the first movie I ever saw in a theater was, but unfortunately my memory isn’t that good.

I got older and my friend Jason and I started going to the movies almost every weekend, sometimes two or three movies a week. Jason ran a video store back when those still existed, so it was market research for him, but we both just loved the experience of going, of watching, of holding out our thumbs to indicate approval or disapproval for the trailers that flickered across the screen. It was with Jason, watching the wrestling movie Ready to Rumble, that I started to think about superheroes being run like the WWE, a germ of an idea that eventually led to my first novel, Other People’s Heroes. Thanks, awful movie! 

If you love my writing, thank this movie. If you hate my writing, blame this movie. I do.

I know the first movie Jason and I saw at the local Palace Theater the weekend it opened (The Lost World: Jurassic Park.) I know the first movie I saw with my girlfriend Erin (Madagascar), the movie we saw the night before I asked her to marry me (Skyfall), the last movie we saw before our son was born (The Dark Tower) and the first movie we left Eddie with a babysitter to watch (It Chapter One – my history with Erin is inexorably tangled with the works of Stephen King, a story which will probably be its own column at some point). 

All of this is to say that on Tuesday I added another memory to the cinematic roadmap of my life: the first movie we took our child to see in a theater.

I need to explain a few things to help you understand just how significant this is to my family. I don’t know that I ever really believed I would get to be a father. It just wasn’t something that I thought was in the cards for me, and I’ve never been happier to be wrong. Being Eddie’s dad is the greatest thing in my entire life. But it hasn’t been free of challenges. Some time after Eddie turned one year old and he still wasn’t talking, we started to get concerned, and we eventually managed to confirm that he’s on the autism spectrum. Any child comes with challenges, but his were different from many others. He started reading early and he’s terribly smart (this is not just a proud parent talking, we’ve been told this by numerous doctors and teachers), but he also tends to fixate on things like logos and clocks. His obsession with time in particular is perplexing to me. And of course, there was the talking, which for the longest time he simply was not interested in doing.

He talks now, he virtually never stops talking now, but there are a lot of milestones in his life that have come later than usual. It’s terribly difficult to get him to sit still, he has trouble with disruption to his routines, and sometimes he has trouble with extreme stimuli. When he was two years old, for instance, we took him to my niece’s Christmas pageant at school. As soon as the audience applauded at the end of the first number, he began to scream in terror. I had to take him out in the lobby and sit with him there until the show was over. (Jason was actually there too, keeping us company, as his wife was one of the teachers at that school.)

So we were nervous. I was worried that he wouldn’t be able to deal with crowds and the stimulation of a movie screen, which would have made me terribly sad. Like I said last week, I don’t want to force my fandoms on the boy, but from the moment I knew we were going to be parents I wanted to share the things I loved with him.The idea that it might not be possible was heartbreaking.

But he’s older now, and he’s dealing with things better than he used to. He’s no longer scared of fireworks, for example, and this school year we brought him to another Christmas pageant and a band concert with no problems. So this week, with Eddie and I both out of school for Mardi Gras and assuming it wouldn’t be too crowded, we decided to finally try our hand at taking him to a movie theater. 

The only kid-appropriate movie playing was Puss in Boots: The Last Wish, so we got our tickets, which with my Stubs membership and the “discount Tuesday” promotion meant  the three of us got to go to the matinee for less than $20. This, Erin said, made it easier to accept the fact that if Eddie wanted to leave, we’d have to just eat the ticket cost. What bothered me, though, was less the ticket price and more the fact that I have never walked out of a movie in my life. No matter how atrocious the film may be, I soldier on so that I can sound informed when I call it a piece of crap. It’s a matter of honor.

But for my son, I would take that risk.

Eddie’s first theater experience.

Anyway, we got to the theater, we bought the boy some Sour Patch Kids and an apple juice, got a bucket of popcorn for the family, took our seats, and crossed our fingers.

I haven’t seen all of the movies in the “Shrek Cinematic Universe,” but The Last Wish is far and away the best of those I have seen. I never would have expected it from this movie, but the film turned out to be a serious meditation on aging and mortality with a positive and uplifting message about the importance of family and living life to the fullest. It was deep and meaningful, but without sacrificing moments of genuine comedy. The animation was gorgeous as well. Rather than giving us the plastic CGI that early Dreamworks movies sported, Erin pointed out that director Joe Crawford was borrowing visual cues from Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse, with the same sort of staccato motion and faux-painted look to the imagery. It was lovely to look at and fun to watch.

More importantly than any of this, though, is that Eddie watched the whole thing.

He doesn’t always “watch” things at home. We’ll put on his cartoons and he’ll laugh and dance with the music, and his ability to pick up on a tune is wicked sharp, but he is easily distracted (even without text messages coming in) and wanders around the room, bouncing from one toy or activity to another, often oblivious to the entertainment on the screen. Here, with the lack of distractions, he kept his eyes on the film most of the time. He laughed at some of the funnier bits. He smiled a lot (I know this because I was watching him as much as the screen). And yes, he got a little antsy, looking at my watch frequently, although that is as much because of his obsession with clocks and time as it is anything else. He did ask “How much is left on the timer?” three times, but he never complained.

It’s warming my heart. Because again, I don’t want to force him to do things he doesn’t want to do, but if he enjoys going to the movies, I’m going to take him as often as I can. Sure, not as much as I went to the movies back in the day, I mean…I’m not going to take him to see Scream VI no matter HOW big a fan he is of Courtney Cox. But when there’s a movie for him, I want to bring him. He seemed into the trailer for The Super Mario Bros. Movie, coming in April. Pixar’s entry this summer, Elemental, looks cute. Heck, by the time Spider-Man: Across the Spider-Verse hits this fall, he may even be ready for that.

These were the things that went through my head as we watched the movie, of course. The real litmus test would be how he felt after the movie was over.

After we walked out of the theater, I asked him if he had fun. He said he did. I asked if he liked the movie with the cats. He said he did. He often agrees with random things, though, so I wasn’t sure if he was happy about it until later when asked to recap his day.

“What did you do today, Eddie?” we asked him.

His face beamed like it was washed with the light of that magic candle and he proudly proclaimed “I went to AMC Palace! I went to the movies!”

“That’s so great! What did you see at the movies?”


Okay, so he’s still got some learning to do.

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 promises that this column won’t be about his kid EVERY week, but…hell, it’s gonna be about his kid whenever it feels appropriate. It’s his blog, after all.

Geek Punditry #7: Sharing the Love

Italian really is the language of love…and billionaire ducks.

Earlier this week, some of my students asked me what I got my wife for Valentine’s Day. They seemed to approve of my answer (tickets to a concert she wanted to go to) and then asked what Erin gave me. At that point, I paused for a moment, trying to decide how to answer the question. The answer was wonderful – my wife went on eBay and found the recently-released 3500th issue of Topolino, the Italian Disney comic book series, which came bundled with a figure of my favorite Disney character, Scrooge McDuck. The thing is, how do I explain this to a group of high school seniors without coming across as a gigantic nerd?

Then I got over myself, because…hell, just look around. On one bulletin board in my classroom is a collage of superhero and sci-fi images clipped from magazines and catalogs. There is a shelf of Superman-family Funko Pops, a set of Eaglemoss Enterprise models, several magnets from the LEGO Minifig of the Month Club, and a Star Trek: Lower Decks calendar on the wall. There is literally no denying my heritage as a geek. It is, in fact, something I have long since decided to embrace.

I challenge you to come up with an adequate definition of “Geek” that does not apply to the person in this picture.

That’s part of what being a geek is, really. Sure, the dictionary may say something about biting the heads off chickens, but in the modern context I propose the following definition for the term. “Geek (noun): One who loves a particular fandom to the extent that it becomes an element of their personality.” You should note that this definition passes no judgment, nor does it specify the type of fandom. It can be a movie, a TV series, a comic book, or a video game. It can be music or sports or science or history. You can be a geek about pretty much anything you love, so long as you love it wholeheartedly. Nor does it imply exclusivity: one is fully capable of being a geek about multiple things. In truth, I think almost everyone is a geek about something. It’s just that those of us in genre fiction have chosen to fully embrace the term.

Geekery is contagious as well, spread through casual contact. It happens when you tell your friend how much you liked a movie, when you walk around in public wearing a T-shirt for your favorite band, when you get in someone’s car and they’re listening to a podcast, or when enough of your students are carrying around the same book that you finally break down and read it to find out what all the fuss is about. And like any germ or virus, the longer you are exposed to any particular strain of Geekery, the more likely you are to begin exhibiting symptoms yourself.

Which brings me to my five-year-old son, Eddie.

Any kid of mine would, by virtue of the fact that I’m there, have grown up in a house full of comics and books and movies, watching cartoons and seeing superhero T-shirts almost any time I’m not dressed for work. And when kids are very young, before they start exhibiting their own preferences and fandoms, we as parents have a tendency to dress them in our own. From the beginning, my kid had onesies and pajamas featuring superheroes and spaceships, his plates bore the likenesses of characters from the cartoons that we liked, and he had pacifiers featuring the logos of both the New Orleans Saints and the Pittsburgh Steelers. And our friends and family just fed the monster – two of the gifts we received at Erin’s baby shower included a Batmobile walker from some of my aunts and uncles and a lovely toy chest handmade by our friends Jason and Andrea, decoupaged with panels from Superman comic books. 

What I’m getting at is that Eddie never had a chance.

Eddie’s favorite part of every episode.

In my defense, though, it’s not just my geekery that he’s been exposed to. I may be the reason he jumps up and giggles at the sweeping vistas of outer space in the beginning of every Star Trek episode, but my wife is the reason that when he started learning to identify shapes he could pick out the circle, the square, the triangle, and the Millennium Falcon. Erin is a geek too, you see, and fortunately the Venn diagrams of our respective geekeries have a lot of overlap. We both love genre movies and TV shows, we both enjoy musicals, we both like sitcoms. That concert I got her Valentine’s tickets for? It’s the music of John Williams. We blend.

Even in those places where the overlap isn’t perfect, there’s enough that we enjoy what the other is bringing to the table. She’s a little more into horror movies than I am, I’m a little more into comic books than she is, but that doesn’t mean that we don’t each appreciate the other’s fandoms as well. We just, like any two individuals on the planet, lean a little more in certain directions than the other, and that is reflected in our parenting. When Eddie was a baby the joke was that you could tell who dressed him on any given day based on whether his clothing featured the Grateful Dead or Spider-Man.

“No, it’s…you know what? Close enough.”

Over time, he started to express his own love for our things in various ways. For example, when I turn on the FreeVee app, he begins to sing the theme to Night Court. He’ll walk into the comic book shop with me and immediately identify the logos for Marvel Comics, DC Comics, Superman, Batman, etc. At only five years old he sings along to the opening themes for Mystery Science Theater 3000 and RiffTrax, a feat that Albert Einstein himself never accomplished in his entire lifetime! And if you ask him what we watch on Saturday night, he will proudly exclaim “Svengoolie on MeTV!” (Actually, he pronounces it “Svengoofie,” a misarticulation I believe Rich Koz himself would greatly approve of.) 

I couldn’t let the fact that this should not exist prevent me from getting one.

It’s not that we want to force our geekdoms on our child, it’s just an inescapable byproduct of having us as parents. Even once he got old enough to express his own preferences, ours tended to creep in. For instance, when he was two or three years old we learned that Eddie loved cars, and since then he has amassed a Hot Wheels collection that would make Jay Leno jealous. And although he is not picky about what cars he gets, with us as parents it is inevitable that assorted Batmobiles would work their way into the fleet, to say nothing of things like Scooby-Doo’s Mystery Machine, vans with Justice League murals on the side, and the occasional USS Enterprise (which is Hot Wheels brand even though it has no wheels. It doesn’t make sense to me either. I bought one for Eddie and one for myself.) If you go through his books (which he loves) you will see an extensive library dedicated to Daniel Tiger’s Neighborhood, Bluey, and trucks, but also a Little Golden Book starring the Universal Monsters and an alphabet book based on Jaws

The job of a parent is to teach their child how to be a kind and functional adult, even for those of us whose own functionality is questionable at best. Part of that, I sincerely believe, is being able to choose those things that you love, and that you love them without fear. And sure, sometimes that may result in your kid latching on to something you don’t like. This is especially true when your child is very small and they discover something like Blippi. (For those of you fortunate enough to not know what I’m talking about, “Blippi” is a guy in orange suspenders who prances around indoor playgrounds in a manner that any reasonable judge would consider grounds for a restraining order, then puts videos of it it on YouTube. Blippi is the opposite of entertainment. He is like a bad Saturday Night Live parody of a children’s show host. His videos run on an unending loop in the darkest level of Hell. My son loves him and he is now a millionaire.) 

But that’s okay. Because it’s his thing, so I suck it up and tolerate it and even read the stupid Blippi alphabet book when Eddie asks me to, because I know that once I’ve washed my hands of it he’ll come back later with something like his Ghostbusters Little Golden Book, and that makes it better.

The way I see it, if my son grows up able to demonstrate his love for a fandom in a healthy way (read: not on Reddit), I’ll have done my job.

And as long as he knows that Saturday night is for “Svengoofie,” so much the better.

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. In addition to the Uncle Scrooge figure, his wife also gave him the idea that led to this week’s column. If it weren’t for her you may have just read 1500 words lamenting the Ultraverse or something. Thanks, Erin!

Geek Punditry #6: Seeking Sitcoms

The show that is indirectly responsible for everyone you know that can quote an episode of Rick and Morty verbatim.

It’s Desi Arnaz’s fault. As the story goes, when Lucille Ball got pregnant during the run of their legendary sitcom I Love Lucy, it was Desi who suggested to the network that they run some older episodes again to fill in the weeks when she would be out of work. The idea was bizarre. Run episodes again? Re-run them? Who would want to watch an episode of a TV comedy that they had already seen?

The answer, as it turned out, was everyone. There’s a comfort in returning to something that made you happy the first time you watched it, like finding an old friend or reminiscing about the good old days. It’s something that we all need at some time or another. 

The rerun became a standard television feature and changed the landscape of entertainment. Not only could they run the same show for an entire year without having to make quite as many episodes or skipping a week, but this eventually led to the concept of syndicating reruns of old episodes to show outside of their original timeslot. And it is syndication, I believe, that has allowed TV shows to become iconic parts of our culture. Think about it: were it not for syndication, if the shows were not still available after their initial airing, would anyone today still know the theme to The Brady Bunch, or be able to tell you how many castaways were stranded on Gilligan’s Island? Who would remember the man named Jed, a poor mountaineer who barely kept his family fed? Could a gentle whistle  conjure up the image of Andy Griffith and Little Ronnie Howard carrying their fishin’ poles down to the fishin’ hole?

And although it isn’t a sitcom let’s not forget that Star Trek (arguably the font from which all modern fandom springs) is only remembered today because people kept watching the reruns after the series was canceled. It was in syndication that the show’s popularity truly boomed, syndication that led to things like Star Trek conventions, merchandise, novelizations, comic books, and fanfiction…and it was those things that fueled the fire and ultimately led to the revival of the franchise. That’s huge even if you’re not a Trekker, because the fandom of virtually every major franchise since then has followed that template.

I’m not saying it’s the greatest sitcom ever made, but I won’t argue if YOU say it.

When I was younger, I would get home from school and gorge myself on a diet of sitcom reruns. Shows like Cheers, Night Court, or Mama’s Family were staples for me. The 90s came and Home Improvement, Seinfeld, and Friends joined my education. And no matter how many times I watched any given episode, I faithfully watched them again, to the point where I can remember minute details of ancient TV shows better than I remember things like the current whereabouts of my social security card. Because of syndication, I can throw out an obscure joke or comment about virtually any topic, then watch my wife roll her eyes at me when I tell her it’s a classic Simpsons reference.

The streaming revolution has changed things, of course. Once, these reruns were a way to fill time on the air before new series start. Today, fewer and fewer people are using “air time” in their television viewing at all. With the exception of sports, weather, and Svengoolie on Saturday nights, I virtually never watch any live television anymore.

This does not mean the end of reruns, of course, it just means that you have to seek them out instead of turning on whatever Channel 26 was showing at 5 p.m. In fact, for many people seeking out these older shows has become a lifestyle choice. Whereas once someone would have to content themselves with the seventeen or eighteen episodes of The Big Bang Theory that TBS shows on any given weekday, now the option exists to literally watch it 24 hours a day on HBO Max, and you can choose any episode you wish. If you go to a Bob’s Burgers group on Facebook and ask what shows the fans watch when they aren’t watching Bob on Hulu, you will be greeted by several quizzical faces that fail to comprehend such a time could exist. There are people who watch The Office on constant repeat, people who never turn off Family Guy, and folks who will spend their entire lives immersed in Pawnee, Indiana with Parks and Recreation.

There are a few too many people who don’t understand this character was meant to be a cautionary example.

I’m not entirely sure this is a good thing. Oh sure, it’s great to be able to go back and revisit your favorite shows, but I think it’s making it more difficult to find new shows, especially comedies. There’s plenty of talk about “prestige” television, but most of the time this refers to genre shows like Stranger Things or dramas like Yellowstone. The conversation doesn’t really center on blockbuster comedies the way it used to. Would it even be possible, in the current TV climate, for a show with the level of cultural penetration as Friends or Seinfeld to come into being?

As much as I love the sitcoms of my youth, I’m also the sort of person who is constantly on the lookout for new characters, new stories, and new worlds to explore. Even now, I sometimes feel a strange guilt if I watch something I’ve already seen, faced with the knowledge that I could be using this time on new entertainment. I get over it, though, and since streaming really took off in force there are many classic comedies and shows of my youth that I’ve gone back and watched in their entirety: Cheers, Frasier, Wings, The Office, Head of the Class…part of it is because I like to watch new shows with my wife (hi, Erin), and I used to go back to older shows as something to watch while she’s at work. That didn’t quite work out, though, as she would get home while I was in the middle of an episode of Everybody Loves Raymond, she would get into it, and I then I had to wait to watch the old shows with her too. Now I just make her tell me explicitly which shows I am and am not allowed to watch without her to avoid confusion.

How legendary is Ted Danson? His picture is in this column twice.

Anyway few years ago, I realized it had been quite some time since I found a new comedy that I really got into, and I made it a point to start seeking them out. I began with The Good Place, which was both a wonderful choice and also completely antithetical to what I was trying to do. If you’ve never seen it, The Good Place is about a kind of scuzzy woman (played perfectly and adorably by Kristen Bell) who dies and, through a sort of cosmic clerical error, winds up in Heaven, which turns out to be run by Ted Danson.

I refuse to say any more about the story because to do so would rob new viewers of one of the most sublime television series ever made, but I will say that I never thought I would see a show that could blend together philosophy, spirituality, religion, and deep, complex contemplations on the meaning of life and the nature of existence itself with a fart joke and make it all seem utterly perfect. It is both hilarious and one of the most profoundly thoughtful and emotionally-compelling TV shows I’ve ever seen. And it’s for that reason that it’s not a show I can re-watch too often, because there are only so many times you can cry on a random Tuesday afternoon.

So The Good Place is an excellent show and I urge everyone to watch it immediately…but it wasn’t the sort of thing that made me want to put it on constant repeat the way I could Frasier. The search would continue.

The most scientifically accurate television program since SeaQuest DSV.

The next comedy that really got my attention was Abbott Elementary. Upon the suggestion of friends of mine from work (I am, in case you didn’t know, a high school English teacher), I checked out the first few episodes of the show, then I stopped and made my wife sit down and watch them with me, because it’s so good. On the surface, it feels like one of dozens of Office clones – a faux documentary set in an American workplace, this time an elementary school. There’s a wacky boss! There’s a new guy in the first episode to act as the audience surrogate! There’s a will they/won’t they couple that the audience is clearly supposed to root for! All the fingerprints are there!

What sets Abbott apart for me, at least, is the authenticity. There have been a number of TV comedies set in schools, but the majority of them have focused on the students (Saved By the Bell), or on the class of one influential teacher (Welcome Back Kotter, Head of the Class). This is the first show I’ve ever seen where the faculty are the stars of the program. What’s more, it’s the most realistic show set in a school I’ve ever seen. You’ve got the young teacher (played by show creator Quinta Brunson), eager to please and determined to be the best that she can be. You’ve got the grizzled veteran teacher (Lisa Ann Walter) who does what she wants and doesn’t care what anyone thinks of her. The awkward teacher (Chris Perfetti) who is determined to be thought of as cool despite the fact that he clearly is not. The teacher who has been at that school forever (Sheryl Lee Ralph), is perfect in everything she does, and is both intimidating and nurturing to everyone around her. I’ve taught with every one of these people. I have been many of them at some point or another.

It also shows the repercussions of events in a school in a way that most shows don’t. Budget cuts, classroom size, getting adequate parental support – all of these are issues that have turned up on the show in a realistic way. Well…semi-realistic. It is still a TV show, after all. Count the number of times in Saved By the Bell students are left in a classroom with no adult supervision, and know that every one of those offenses could (and depending on the severity of that episode’s hijinks, should) have resulted in somebody getting fired. Abbott actually shows consequences to even well-intentioned mistakes, (the Egg Drop episode is a wonderful example of this) and does so with relatable, enjoyable characters. Best of all, it doesn’t reduce every teacher to a useless buffoon. In fact, unlike most shows in a school setting, every faculty character — even Janelle James’s seemingly-useless principal — has moments where they show their worth as a teacher, as a friend, or as a mentor. It is the first school-focused TV show I’ve ever watched that didn’t make me ask if anyone involved had ever set foot in an American school in their lives. It’s really lovely.

It’s not perfect. The teachers do seem to have absurdly long lunch periods and planning times where their students are in someone else’s care, but I accept that as a necessity when you’re telling stories about the adults and not the kids. Those minor problems are easy for me to get past when I go back and put the show on repeat…which is where I stumble, since we’re only in the second season, and with modern TV the first season had a measly 13 episodes. While I eagerly await each new episode, there’s not enough Abbott for a good binge…not yet.

So I keep looking for more comedy.

There are two shows about dead people on this list, and I don’t know if that says more about me or about society.

The most recent show to get my attention, like Abbott, is only in its second season, but it has a few more episodes and I haven’t quite gotten through them all yet. I started watching CBS’s Ghosts on the advice of my brother (which I mention mainly because if he should happen to read this he will immediately jump in the comments and demand credit for it), and I’m enjoying it a lot. Ghosts, a remake of a British show of the same name, is about a young couple (Samantha and Jay, played by Rose McIver and Utkarsh Ambudkar, respectively) who inherit an old mansion from a distant relative, unaware that the ghosts of numerous people who have died on the property are trapped there. In the first episode, Sam has a near-death experience and wakes up with the ability to see and hear the ghosts, and the sudden connection between the ghosts and the “livings” changes things for all of them. 

It doesn’t sound like the premise of a wacky sitcom, but it’s really great. The ghosts cover a wide range of character types, from someone who died 1000 years ago (a Viking exploring the Americas played by Devan Chandler Long) to a dudebro businessman who died in the early 2000s without any pants on (Asher Grodman). The premise allows for characters with a variety of perspectives from different time periods, which makes for a fun blend of types: the former mistress of the house (Rebecca Wisocky) has attitudes about women’s roles stuck in the 1800s, while the hippie who got killed trying to hug a bear in the 1960s (Sheila Carrasco) tries to help her break out of them. The scout leader who was killed in an archery mishap in the 1980s (Richie Moriarity) wants to be best friends with Sam’s husband Jay, but it’s tough to be pals with someone who can’t see or hear you. 

The first season of the show is a fun one that sets up the premise very well, but the second season is even better as it starts to explore the world more fully. Sam encounters more ghosts beyond her own property, we get more information about the lives of the deceased, and an ongoing plotline begins to build around the 20s songstress Alberta (Danielle Pinnock), who always claimed she was murdered. Her insistence that she had an exciting demise was considered just a symptom of her hubris until evidence starts to accumulate that suggests she may be right. There’s even a great meta joke in the second season where the ghosts learn they cannot pass through the walls of a vault in the house and Jay quips that he appreciates the expansion of the mythology.

The only problem with Ghosts is, like Abbott, there’s just not enough of it yet. I’ve only got four more episodes until I’m caught up, and then what?

Time to watch the British original, I suppose.

The point is, I’m still on the lookout. The great sitcoms of the past aren’t going anywhere, and thank goodness for that. I know I can turn on Cheers or Everybody Loves Raymond or Night Court any time I want, and I frequently do. (In fact, I haven’t started watching the Night Court reboot yet because Erin and I have to finish our binge of the original series first.) But I still crave new entertainment. So I’m open for suggestions, friends. What are the current comedies that are worth watching? 

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’s also a big fan of Star Trek: Lower Decks, but he doesn’t consider that a sitcom so much as a way of life.

Geek Punditry #5: Fandom: Why We Can’t Have Nice Things

I set a goal for myself about a month ago, to use this new Geek Punditry column to get back to writing about the movies, books, TV shows, and comics that I love. I felt like spending time on those things that bring me joy would reignite my writing chops and, just a month in, I feel like I’ve been successful. I’m looking forward to writing this each week. I’m excited to write this each week. But as early as week 3, my focus began to shift. What started as a celebration of things I love has already evolved, with the past two installments focusing on problems that I think need to be addressed. I bring this up because I’m going to do the same thing this week. I’m going to point out a problem that I think is perhaps the most insidious in all of pop culture. I mean, of course, fandom.

The Antichrist, according to Reddit User u/DeeSeeBlows42069

Earlier this week, James Gunn released a video announcing the new plans for the reinvention of the DC Universe in movies and television, and when I heard the news, that’s what I thought I would be writing about today. I figured I’d give you my feelings on what he has in the works for Superman, for Green Lantern, for Booster Gold (Booster freakin’ Gold!) and tell you why I’m excited and optimistic about it. But within hours, the excitement I felt was already being chipped away by people who, if you asked them to their face, would claim to love the very things they had begun whining about. But for people who say they’re acting out of love, their words painted another picture – venomous, vitriolic, and sometimes just plain nasty. Fans can be great, but every time a new movie is released, a new comic book creative team is announced, a new television series premieres, it becomes more and more clear that fandom can be absolutely toxic.

I’m not saying that criticism is bad. In times past, criticism itself was a legitimate form of literary discourse. But that was reasoned criticism, informed criticism. What we get today is a knee-jerk reaction that declares everything is terrible before it even sees the light of day, souring the joy for everybody. One need only look on any social media outlet, any of hundreds of Reddit pages, and one will find post after post, meme after meme, of people railing in anger against something they have not even seen. In fact, for the most part it’s criticism of things that do not yet exist. And while it’s true that the other extreme also exists – people who are happy about things they have not seen – that other extreme is a minority, and seems to me to be far healthier and joyful (or at the very least less pessimistic) and therefore is the side I would prefer to join.

Not pictured: A film that should be used as a medieval torture device.

Social media allows for no nuance, though. Everything is either the greatest thing ever made or (far more often) the worst thing ever made, with no degrees in-between. Last year’s Morbius movie is a good example of this. The film underperformed badly at the box office, even after a meme-inspired rerelease, and it has become a punchline. But this damage was not done by people who had watched the movie. The internet declared the film a failure long before its release – online hatred of Jared Leto combined with several COVID-related delays seemed to doom it before a single frame was released to the public. When I finally watched the movie, my response was, “That was okay.” It isn’t great, mind you, but it’s okay. Jared Leto is all right, Matt Smith seems to be having fun playing the bad guy, and the vampire effects – I’ll say it – were actually pretty impressive. But if you mention the title on Facebook you’ll get an avalanche of “IT’S MORBIN’ TIME!” posts and people slandering the movie, most of whom have never even watched it.

People who delight in someone else’s failure are nothing new, of course. It’s good old-fashioned schadenfreude (and thank the Germans for having an appropriate word for this), it’s as old as civilization itself, but the internet has given it voice that it didn’t have in ages past. The insidious thing is that this voice is not simply celebrating failure, but generating it. What’s worse, as the louder voices on the internet start to pretend that volume is consensus, too many people are starting to accept consensus as fact. I’m reminded of a conversation I overheard a few months ago between two of my high school students about the most recent Halloween movie. One student was declaring, in much the same voice you or I might use to declare that the bathroom is down the hall to the left, “It sucks. He’s barely in it.”

“Have you seen it?”

“No, but everyone says so.”

You’re not allowed to shout at your high school students for their opinions about movies. I looked it up.

Full disclosure: I didn’t particularly care for Halloween Ends, but A) my issues with it had nothing to do with the number of minutes Michael Myers appeared on screen, and B) I formed that opinion after watching the movie myself. 

This phenomenon is perpetuated online thanks to sites like Rotten Tomatoes, which is a brilliant example of a good idea gone horribly wrong. Rotten Tomatoes gives a movie two scores: a percentage based on film critic scores and the percentage based on viewer scores. The site has no authority, no personal judgment inherent in its functionality, but people have begun using that algorithm-generated number as if it were some sort of benchmark of quality. I can’t say this often enough, my friends: consensus does not equal quality

How many movie trailers have you seen declaring a movie’s Rotten Tomatoes score the way they used to tell us that Siskel and Ebert gave a movie two thumbs up? The difference is that Gene and Roger were actual critics, people who watched a movie first and then gave intelligent, nuanced critiques of the film. If they gave a movie a thumbs-down, they could explain to you why they disliked it. But if a movie gets a 35 percent on Rotten Tomatoes, all that means is that only 35 percent of the trolls on the internet had something positive to say. When I hear that number, the only response that makes sense to me is, “SO WHAT?” I accept the numbers as a consensus of the people who have posted to Rotten Tomatoes, but why in the hell should I care what they have to say? I disagree with random people all the time. I disagree with professional critics even more. Why should I accept their numbers instead of forming my own opinion? When they started to tease the upcoming announcement of a film’s Rotten Tomatoes score, I thought my brain was going to explode and squirt out of my ears like a Looney Tunes character, who would then get anxiety over its own upcoming Rotten Tomatoes score. 

I’m telling you, it’s okay with me if you like this movie.

And you know, I wanted to like Halloween Ends. I’ve never understood the concept of “hate-watching.” There are so many things I want to watch that I know it’ll be impossible to get to them all – why should I waste time watching something I expect to dislike? Will it happen sometimes? Of course. But that’s not my goal. And more importantly, if I decide not to watch something because I expect to dislike it, I don’t declare it bad, I declare it unseen. For instance: I didn’t care for the first James Cameron Avatar movie. (Yes, I know, it made all the money. I don’t care. Consensus does not equal quality, remember?) Because I didn’t care for the first one, I haven’t watched the second. So here’s a pop quiz: when someone asks me about Avatar: The Way of Water, what is the correct way for me to reply?

A: It sucks, James Cameron sucks, water sucks, everyone sucks.

B: I haven’t seen it.

If you answered “A,” please disconnect all of your devices from the internet immediately and never talk to anyone again.

The other thing that stokes this particular flame is an “us vs. them” mentality that pervades the internet. It’s as though if you’re a fan of Property A, you are beholden via blood oath to despise everything associated with Property B. You must hate the movies, you must hate the books, you must hate the fans, and if an actor happens to jump from one to the other they are a traitor and must be dealt with possibly with bamboo shoots no later than Tuesday afternoon

My God, is there any attitude in fandom stupider than that one?

Superman is my favorite superhero. He’s a DC character. Somehow that means I’m not allowed to say how great Spider-Man: No Way Home is? If I love Star Trek, is it a betrayal to express joy for The Mandalorian? If I’m a fan of Lord of the Rings, I have to hate Wheel of Time?

Shut up.

Pictured: Fandom

Storytelling isn’t sports. When I’m watching the New Orleans Saints play the Atlanta Falcons, the nature of sports means that I want one team to win and one team to lose. This is normal. But that same rule does not apply to movies, to TV shows, to books, to comics. In sports, somebody is gonna lose, but in storytelling, everyone can win. When I say that I want James Gunn’s Superman: Legacy to be a blockbuster movie, that is not the same thing as saying I hope Captain America: New World Order is a disaster. I firmly believe that great art of any kind will inspire great art from others, and that when one franchise I love is enjoying success it’s not an obstacle to anybody else. If anything, it’s a carrot to lure them to be better themselves. I think the people who make these properties understand this. It’s very common to see actors, directors, writers, or artists jump back and forth between publishers and studios and IPs and have positive things to say about all of them. It’s only the fans that view it as a competition. (Well, the fans and the corporate executives, but that’s a whole other conversation.)

This is not to say I’m blameless in this, of course. I certainly shared my criticisms of the original Avatar online, and lord knows I posted a “Morbin’ Time” meme or two, but as fandom has grown more toxic I’ve made a deliberate effort to pull back on that sort of thing. I’ve never been the sort of person who would get on Twitter and threaten an actor because I didn’t like a movie they were in, but I realize now that in the current internet climate even well-meaning criticism may sometimes give fuel to that sort of horrific person, and I don’t want to do that. The point of Geek Punditry is to talk about things I love, not things I hate. 

I’m not saying not to criticize. I’m just asking that criticism be informed, that it be based on the work itself and not because you hate somebody’s previous movie or because you’ve chosen lines in a meaningless civil war. And most importantly, that it be respectful, both to the people you disagree with and to those whose work you are criticizing. Nobody intentionally makes a bad movie, with the possible exception of the Sharknado franchise, so even if you don’t like the work, give credit for the effort that went into it. The only people who lose when you speak respectfully are the people who refuse to speak respectfully.

And go ahead and be respectful to them, too.

Drives ‘em crazy. 

Blake M. Petit is a writer, teacher, and dad from Ama, Louisiana. His current writing project is the superhero adventure seriesOther People’s Heroes: Little Stars, a new episode of which is available every Wednesday on Amazon’s Kindle Vella platform. If, at any point during this column, you thought to yourself, “Blake is talking about THOSE people,” that probably means he’s talking about YOU.

Geek Punditry #4: Reigniting the Oscars

“Can you remember who I went home with last year?”

Earlier this week the nominees were announced for the 95th Annual Academy Awards, and the world greeted them with…well, with a collective yawn. Oh sure, people are talking a little. Everybody is happy about Brendan Fraser’s nomination for The Whale, and a lot of people are glad about the hearty showing for Everything Everywhere All At Once, but for the most part, the chatter has died down pretty quickly. This isn’t really that surprising, as Oscar viewership has plummeted in recent years. At its peak in 1998 (55.3 million viewers), the Oscars were the second-highest rated telecast in America, following only the Super Bowl. But that was a long time ago, and since 2010  viewership has taken a nose-dive, with last year’s ceremony gathering a relatively meager 16.6 million viewers. That number was touted as a win by some after 2021’s disastrous 9.85 million, although that number was no doubt influenced by the pandemic crippling viewership for movies in general the year before.

In a way, I suppose I could call myself part of the problem. I used to be a devoted viewer of the Oscars, eagerly awaiting the nominees, making every attempt I could to watch as many of the nominated films as possible before the ceremony, and vociferously arguing with the winners when I felt the Academy made the wrong call. (Lookin’ at you, Shakespeare in Love over Saving Private Ryan.) But not only do I not really care about the Oscars anymore, I don’t even really care that I don’t care. It would be easy to go on a tirade about how the Oscars have changed and left me behind, but that’s not really true. The Oscars haven’t changed that much. I’ve changed. The way we view movies has changed. The world has changed. The Oscars haven’t kept up. 

Pictured: Every “Best Picture” nominee for this year I have seen, in alphabetical order.

Out of this year’s 54 nominated movies, I have seen five. I’ve only seen one of the Best Picture nominees, and I haven’t even heard of some of the others. This is nothing new, by the way. Right now, without looking it up, how many of you remember that King Richard took home the Best Picture award at last year’s ceremony? Go ahead, raise your hand, let everyone see you. Now everybody who just raised their hand can put it down in shame: I know you’re lying because I made that part up. The winner was Coda. But you didn’t remember that either, did you?

It’s okay, neither did I. I had to Google it.

I don’t object to the concept of an awards program. I’m fine with peers (in this case, people involved in the movie industry) declaring what they consider the superior examples of their craft. And I’m not even saying they should change what movies they give the awards to in order to make them more commercial – that would be intellectually dishonest, not to mention pandering. However, if the films that get the accolades are movies the mass audience has never heard of, they don’t get to complain when the mass audience isn’t interested anymore.

But it’s not just the movies that get nominated that are causing a problem. The way people watch movies has changed dramatically in the last few years. In-theater attendance has collapsed, while streaming numbers have picked up the slack. Personally, I’m not crazy about this. I always prefer to see a movie in theaters if the option is there, but I also have a five-year-old child and I know that seeing movies in theaters is frequently difficult, if not impossible, for many people. Once upon a time I would go to the movies nearly every weekend, sometimes seeing two or three films in a single day. In 2022, I made it to the movies a grand total of once. Similarly, watching long movies isn’t easy for me either. I’m not someone who whines if a film goes beyond 87 minutes, mind you. I like long movies. I can spend an entire weekend watching the extended cuts of the Lord of the Rings trilogy and still hunger for more. But when my kid is demanding things like YouTube videos or, y’know, food, it can be difficult to set aside the three hours necessary to watch All Quiet on the Western Front. Some people are happy to break up a movie in chunks and watch it over a few days. To me, the very thought of doing such a thing makes me want to cry.

So I’ve got a few suggestions to help the Oscars win back a little of the relevance – or at least the interest – that has eroded from what was once the biggest night in Hollywood.

If you read this title and don’t want to see this movie, you and I can’t be friends anymore.

First of all, let’s address the availability issue. This is a bigger issue for categories like shorts, documentaries, and foreign films, but a lot of the lesser-known films in other categories suffer from it as well. It’s hard to make a potential awards viewer excited about nominees that they haven’t seen, but in this streaming world, why is it still a problem? Sure, if a movie is owned by Disney or Warner Bros., you know it’s going to be on a streaming service soon enough, but what about the deserving films that aren’t? One of the nominees for Best Animated Short this year is an Australian film called An Ostrich Told Me the World is Fake and I Think I Believe It. Now I’m ready to hand filmmaker Lachlan Pendragon the trophy based on the title alone, and I would love to watch this movie…but alas, it’s not available anywhere that I’ve checked.

Here’s a chance for the Academy to use some of that muscle they have for good. Cut some sort of a deal with a popular streaming service – Netflix, Hulu, HBO Max, take your dang pick – that would give nominees the option for a limited streaming window in the frame stretching from the nominations through the awards ceremony, or perhaps a few weeks or so after. Give people a chance to watch the movies, and they may start to care again. Hell, why not start their own service that exclusively carries Oscar-nominated films from the past 95 years? I know a lot of them already have their rights tied up with different companies and streaming services, but there must be plenty of orphans deserving of a chance to find an audience.

Next, let’s talk about the categories of the awards. I don’t have an issue with any of the current categories, but the films that are most popular aren’t usually the kind of things that will line up for Best Picture or the acting categories, unless they’re directed by James Cameron or have Black Panther in the title. Genre films have always been largely ignored by the Academy unless they become so immensely popular that they simply cannot pretend they don’t exist. We all remember the 2003 Oscar bloodbath when they gave Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King every award they could out of fear of the fans angry over the snubs for the first two installments marching on Hollywood and lighting New Line Cinema on fire. 

A few years ago the Oscars announced the addition of a “Best Popular Film” category in an attempt to address this problem. They quickly dropped the idea, however, when millions of angry fans on the internet pointed out that, for an organization worried about being perceived as snobbish and elitist, inventing an award specifically to placate “the little people” was probably not the best way to change that attitude. 

But there are two categories that could be added that would not only be gratefully accepted by genre fans, but also fill in two gaping voids in the production of motion pictures that are not currently addressed by the Oscars: stunt performance and performance in animation.

Stuntwork has existed since the earliest days of motion pictures, and despite the utter brilliance of people from Buster Keaton to Chad Stahelski, the Oscars have never seen fit to recognize that aspect of filmmaking. A stunt category would create more interest from fans of genre films (which would likely dominate the category for obvious reasons), as well as finally giving credit to people who literally risk their lives in the creation of our favorite motion pictures. And it should remain distinct from the “best visual effects” category. There should be a limit on how much of the film is CGI in order to qualify, so a movie where the action is 95 percent generated by a computer wouldn’t muscle out a film where there was an actual living human being strapped to a crane and they only used a computer to erase the wires. 

Look in those big, blue eyes and tell me he didn’t deserve some Oscar love.

Animated performance has also been ignored historically. I don’t know if voice performers are technically eligible in the standard acting categories, but I know that no one has ever been nominated for such a performance. And voice acting is performance. Whether it’s someone standing at a microphone, as in most animated films, or someone doing full motion capture and acting out the part, there is a unique performance element that is as impressive an art as any other. It still burns me that Andy Serkis was completely snubbed for his role as Gollum in Lord of the Rings, a performance that almost certainly would have gotten recognition if he had been wearing makeup, but was totally ignored because he was rendered digitally.

I don’t know if I would further subdivide this and make motion capture performances their own separate category from “traditional” voice acting, but having at least one category dedicated to this type of performance would be a big step. What’s more, this is not a solo award. It should be shared by the person who performs the voice and/or motion capture, as well the animator or animation team that completes the process of bringing the character to life. Guillermo Del Toro credited the people who made his Pinocchio film this way, and the Academy should do the same.

The only downside to this, of course, is that adding categories to the awards would make the show even longer, and this brings us to the final reason that people have lost interest in watching the Oscars: bloat. The show is long, tedious, and full of fluff that the average viewer couldn’t care less about, and that’s before we even get to the acceptance speeches. What’s even worse, they make room for this bloat by taking certain categories (usually the technical awards) and giving them out at an untelevised separate ceremony, essentially declaring which awards are less significant than some actor’s impassioned speech on behalf of the life cycle of the Bolivian Dung Beetle.

So the first thing that needs to be done is blow out the fluff. Get rid of the stupid sketches and weepy speeches that don’t relate directly to the awards being given out. There should be three components to the ceremony: musical performances of the nominated songs, the “In Memoriam” reel, and the awards themselves. In and of itself, this change would reduce the length of the ceremony by approximately 17 years. 

Then come the acceptance speeches, and this is the tough part. I believe 100 percent in freedom of speech, and I will never advocate curtailing a person’s right to exercise it. That said, if given a choice between seeing the award for best achievement in sound design given live or hearing an actor lecture me on politics – even when they happen to be politics I personally agree with – I will choose the award every single time, and I do not think I’m alone in this. The best solution I can think of is to impose a strict limit on the on-stage speech – 30 seconds, a minute, whatever, but enforce it, even if it means turning off the microphone. Then, allow the winner extended time backstage to make their full speeches, say whatever they want, and upload the unabridged and unedited video to the Oscar website, where people who want to will have the freedom to watch them in full. Some people would object to this policy, of course. “But people won’t get to see my speech!” they will cry. I would answer, “The ones who want to hear it can easily find it.” And they’ll say, “But what if they don’t WANT to?” And I will simply smile and shrug.

I advocate similar changes when it comes to political campaigning. 

It’s not a perfect system, I admit, but unlike several of the people who have accepted Academy Awards over the years, I’ve never tried to convince anyone I am perfect. But I do think these changes will make general audiences more receptive and more interested in watching the Oscars again.

Or at the very least, it’ll be better than the Golden Globes. 

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’s heard an awful lot of nice things about that Brendan Fraser fella, and he hopes he’s having a good time right now. 

Geek Punditry #3: Beware the Binge

“I’m not going to start watching a show on Netflix. They’re just going to cancel it anyway.”

Everyone reading this, I promise, has heard someone on social media (or maybe in real life, if you’re the sort of person who has such a thing) echo that very sentiment recently. Every time a new show hits, someone says it. Every time a show gets canceled, someone says it. Every time I go through the drive-through at Wendy’s someone says it, which is actually kind of weird and makes me wonder if they’re still having staffing issues. But the point is, I get it. In this day and age, when television has become more more serialized and most shows – even half-hour comedies – have ongoing story arcs that play out across a season or even across an entire series, there are few things more frustrating to a television fan than getting invested in a series, watching their way through the end of the first season, feeling their pulse race with the cliffhanger finale, and then learning that there will never be a season two. 

The blame for this is usually placed on Netflix itself (although they’re hardly the only culprit), and while I agree that Netflix deserves a lion’s share of the culpability, I don’t think it’s for the reason most people usually mean. 

The assumption people have is that Netflix is just impatient. They won’t give people a chance to find a show and get to enjoy it. But I don’t think that’s what’s happening, not exactly. Netflix (and most streaming services) rarely release their actual numbers, so it’s hard to say with any degree of certainty how many people are watching any given show or how quickly, but a hypothesis has been making the rounds that I think is worth examining. Some shows are getting the axe despite seemingly large numbers, while others with smaller viewership are being allowed to continue, a practice that doesn’t seem to make any sense if you consider it series-by-series. It makes a lot more sense, though, if you look at it episode-by-episode.

What seems to be happening is that Netflix is basing their decisions not on total numbers of hours watched, as people tend to assume, but by how many people finish a season. If, for example, 20 million people watch the first episode of Mind Your Manners With Simon Cowell, that sounds better than the 15 million who watched the first episode of Toenail Fungus Finds of Eastern Europe, right? 

But keep watching the numbers. How do they trend? What percentage of that original number stuck it out to the end? If, by the end of the season, Toenail Fungus has retained 11 million viewers, but Simon Cowell has dropped down to 4 million, what makes more sense to renew? People who skipped out on Simon after three episodes are far less likely to come back for a theoretical second season than the much larger number of people who stuck around to find out exactly what kind of mold was growing under Slobodan Milosevic’s left pinky toe in the pulse-pounding season finale. 

The practical result of this is that shows that don’t get binged heavily in the first couple of weeks are far less likely to get invited back, and this is where that conventional wisdom comes back into play. Shows are not being given time to find an audience, you’re right. But the solution here is not to require every damn person on the planet to binge every show the second it hits the streamer. Doing things that way makes it far, far harder for a show to get traction unless it’s based on an existing IP like Wednesday. Something like The Midnight Club may be every bit as worthy of getting a new season, but as it doesn’t have that built-in fanbase, the chances of it hitting the same way are much worse. 

There are exceptions, of course. Stranger Things and Squid Game are both shows that seemingly came out of nowhere and had no ties (other than thematic ones) to previous movies, characters or TV shows that could have carried over their audience – but they’re called exceptions for a reason. For each of those, how many series like The October Faction, Cursed or Archive 81 have suffered an ignoble death?

There is a solution to this problem, but Netflix doesn’t want to hear it. In fact, I think a lot of you reading this right now will be horrified at the suggestion. But I’m going to say it anyway.

You know how to deal with the problem of people not binging shows quickly enough to save them?

Stop making shows bingeable. 

Excuse me, I need to go wash the tomatoes people just hurled at me from my hair and clothes.

But I’m serious about this. The problem is that Netflix is basing their decisions on how many people watch an entire season of a series in X amount of days, with X being some magical number they’re not going to tell us but which was clearly too small to save Jupiter’s Legacy. And as it seems these shows are getting cut faster and faster, you cannot blame any viewer for deciding not to invest their time, which means that the new shows won’t have anyone to watch them and then they’ll get cut too, and now we’re just in a never ending loop of cancellation and misery, like being back in high school, but sandwiched between a baking show and a murder documentary. 

But let’s look at other streamers. Netflix isn’t the only game in town anymore, after all, and few of their competitors have suffered from this same cancellation outrage. So what’s the difference?

Part of the problem is that tiny little “X” number – expecting people to find a show, binge a show, talk about a show, and then expand the audience in a remarkably short period of time. It’s really hard, and considering just how many entertainment options now exist, it’s nearly impossible. But look at the Marvel or Star Wars shows on Disney+, or the assorted Star Trek series on Paramount+. Not only are people watching, but people are talking about them. And not just for the days or (in rare cases) weeks of a Netflix hit, but for months. What’s the difference?

Disney and Paramount release their series the old-fashioned way: one episode a week. And that lets the audience find the show in a way that Netflix’s “drop ’em all right now” model never will.

How many Star Wars fans, disgruntled by Disney’s cinematic output, had to be convinced to try the likes of The Mandalorian or Andor? How many Star Trek fans immediately dismissed Prodigy or Lower Decks for being animated series until other fans persuaded them to give them a chance? If they had been released the Netflix way, the conversation would have ended in a few days, and a lot of people would never have given these shows a try.

It’s not a perfect analogy, I admit, because those are shows based on existing – and, let’s be honest, massive IPs, but it still demonstrates something. I hear people talking about these shows not just on the weekend after they’re released, but for months. Love them or hate them, these series have people engaged for a very long time, posting about them on social media, writing thinkpieces, and making memes. And every week, when a new episode comes out, the cycle repeats. This doesn’t happen with a binge show. Even Wednesday, Netflix’s most recent hit, had a quick surge of popularity, a lot of people talking about a dance sequence, and that one meme with Wednesday Addams next to a girl who looks like Luna Lovegood crossed with Phoebe Buffay, and then…it kinda dried up. Sure, people liked the show. Sure, people are looking forward to season two. But nobody is talking about it anymore right now, less than two months after it dropped. 

Compare that to the third season of Star Trek: Picard, which I guarantee will have people on the internet wildly pontificating for the entire ten weeks it’s on the air. And love it or hate it, they’re going to come back every Thursday for the next episode and do it all over again. And while they’re talking, other people will hear them, and the more people who hear them, the more people are likely to watch it, and that’s where the binging comes in. 

I’m not going to pretend I don’t binge watch. Of course I do, it’s 2023, it’s how media is consumed now. But for a new series it’s just not an effective strategy. Pre-streaming shows like Lost or How I Met Your Mother built their audience because fans got invested in the story, the characters, and the mystery, and they came back to talk about them again week after week, season after season. They shared their theories, they wrote fanfiction, they drew pictures of their favorite characters and, most importantly, they told other people how much they loved their favorite shows for a very, very long time. And say what you will about how those respective shows ended, they still have devoted and passionate fan bases that will spend more time talking about them than anyone is spending on Uncoupled. The ability to binge is a great tool for new fans, to get people who are discovering a show later to catch up and to join in on the fun. But as a way of kicking a series off? It’s like Netflix is Lucy holding the football and Inside Job is Charlie Brown, running in for his chance without realizing it’s already a lost cause.

Abandoning the binge-release model won’t save every deserving show, of course. Even in the days before streaming there were lots of great shows that never got past a first season, including some that weren’t even on the Fox Network. And sure, some viewers have no patience for the weekly release anymore, but I sincerely believe that the potential audience that never gets to find these shows under the current system outnumbers the people who will refuse to watch just because they can’t do it all at once.

So there’s my challenge, Netflix. Instead of dropping full seasons in 2023, try doing an episode a week. Then look at how many viewers make it to the end. 

And then maybe give The Joel McHale Show With Joel McHale another chance, would you?

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 hasn’t actually gotten around to Wednesday season one yet, if we’re being perfectly honest here.