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Tag Archive: George R.R. Martin


barriers - Great wall of China

WELCOME TO EARTH-4

A Weekly Column with J. Torrey McClain

I love when a story starts me guessing like “The Wall of Darkness” by Arthur C. Clarke.  I have so many notions of walls and barriers that once Clarke reveals there’s a mysterious black wall in the dark lands where the planet’s sun doesn’t reach, my mind immediately guesses likely conclusions.

Due to the surge in popularity of all things Game of Thrones, the Wall of Westeros first came to mind.  A structure built of ice and stone to separate the civil from the uncouth and things unimagined.  The dangers were so serious that an elevator is needed to get you to the top of the wall for it is so high. Would the wall of darkness be the same?  What monsters must inhabit the lands devoid of starlight where the wall only becomes accessible at the highest days of summer?  Would they be blind?  Would they be legion, held back by the material of the wall, waiting for a foreign object to infest so as to spread throughout the light?

Wall of Westeros

Then again, the other side of the wall could be something more akin to George R.R. Martin’s inspiration for the Wall – Hadrian’s Wall.  On the other side might be a separate version of the planet’s inhabitants, people that have learned to live without the warmth and light of a star.  They may have fashioned great cities lit by artificial light and have evolved in different ways while exploring cuisines that flourish in the night.  (Think lots and lots of catfish sautéed in mushrooms.)  Maybe this time it’s the Morlocks that are kind and just and they built the wall to keep out the Eloi.  It’s much more romantic than thinking of the Romans and Scotsmen of the very earliest part of the AD centuries separating with a wall due to differences in distance over now adjacent time zones on the same continent.  It’s more romantic to think of Starks and white walkers.  As an earthbound human, our walls are just another case of separating ourselves from those that are “different.”

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By Jason McClain (@JTorreyMcClain)

IF YOU PLAN TO READ THIS SERIES, GO NO FURTHER.  SPOILERS ABOUND.

Ok, maybe not “spoilers” but just a spoiler, still, you don’t want to know.  It will spoil the surprise.

At some point in the last third of A Storm of Swords these exact words hit the page, “His axe took her in the back of the head.”  The Dog, Sandor Clegane, hits Arya Stark in the back of the head with his axe.

I immediately put down the book.  Then I picked it right back up and leafed through it until I saw one simple word heading up a chapter over 100 pages away.

“ARYA.”

Then, I knew I could continue reading.

I’m not sure if there has been a character that I’ve read about quite like Arya.  George R.R. Martin creates quite a few interesting narrators, fills them with traits that make them interesting to the reader and at times makes them frustrating.  I love to hear all of their sides of the story, except for maybe Cersei, but I’m sure there will be a payoff for her in A Feast for Crows.  However, Arya is different.  I don’t know why, but she is the character that I care about most.  We can see that she’s scared, but we also see how she screws up her courage and presses on.  Maybe it’s how she treats others with honor – she’s her father’s daughter and before he died, Eddard was pretty damn cool.  However, 11-year-old Arya is learning more about the world than he ever knew and how duplicitous it can be.

What makes a character a favorite?  Think about it.  Who are your favorite characters from literature, from television, from movies?  Off the top of my head, let’s go with Butch Cassidy, Yossarian, Sam Gamgee, Hermione Granger, Mr. Incredible, Yorick Brown, Inigo Montoya and The Dude.  I’m sure you could come up with some different people.  (I bet the folks of borg.com could each come up with their own list and they’d be pretty different.)  Just looking at the list, it’s not like there’s a common quality, but follow me as I jot down what I consider to be the overriding characteristic of each character:

Butch Cassidy: Adventurous
Yossarian: Hatred of bureaucracy
Sam Gamgee: Faithful
Hermione Granger: Intelligent
Mr. Incredible: Familial love
Yorick Brown: Dreamer
Inigo Montoya: Vengeful
The Dude: Easy-going

I’m sure you could probably find different characteristics for each of them and I could agree with you.  Still, I bet that even if you did come up with a different description, it would have something in common with this list.

They are traits we all aspire to have.

We want to jump off a cliff, even if the fall will probably kill us.  We want to fight against stupidity in all its forms, though it is much like tilting against windmills.  If our friend is going through a tough time, we want to be right there with them, giving them all the help they need.  We want to be the first in our class.  We want to know that deep down, no matter what obstacles we face, if our family faces danger we can rise up and face any danger.  We want to chase our dreams.  We want to be sure that there is justice in the world for those that are evil.  We want all of that and then roll with a clear head on league night because what has happened has happened and there’s nothing we can do but bowl.

I look at Arya and see someone I would aspire to be.  Yes, there is danger ahead and winter is coming, but I will figure out a plan and no matter the obstacles, I will try to see it to its end. If something gets in my way, I’ll adjust. I’ll keep trying even as I’m scared to death.

So, you can understand why I freaked out a bit when I read those words about Arya and the axe.  If she couldn’t succeed, it would sadden me.  Heroes die in the real world. I don’t like to see them die in fiction as well.

By Jason McClain (@JTorreyMcClain)

“But if the battle looks to be going sour they’ll break, and they’ll break bad.” – Jocelyn Bywater, p. 710 of A Clash of Kings by George R. R. Martin, Bantam Paperback.

I declare right up front that if you haven’t watched Season 4 of Breaking Bad, read A Game of Thrones or read A Clash of Kings, there will be SPOILERS ahead.  I warn you because part of the joy of these pieces of art is the unknown journey and a spoiler would change your perception.  However, it’s also because part of the journey consists of knowing that no character is truly safe.  I found that out as did viewers of the HBO Game of Thrones series when four-fifths of the way through the first book of the A Song of Ice and Fire series, Eddard, the Stark patriarch and one of the narrators, gets his head separated from his body.  Needless to say, he doesn’t return in the second book.  If you know he dies and the others live, part of the experience is gone.  However, once a main character–not only a main character, but one of the narrators–perishes, you know that no one is safe.

Viewers of Breaking Bad saw that with the finale, as the main bad guy for the past two years, Gus Fring, died as well.  I’ve already spoken with at least six people on the magic of that final episode of the season as well as his death scene as everyone excitedly wants to talk about it.  As fanatic, or even casual viewers, that episode makes us giddy.

When real stakes exist, I posit that a show is better for it.  If we know that the two main characters of a romantic comedy will end up by the last act no matter if one likes pizza and the other likes sushi, it’s not near as interesting.  If the only time a TV show takes a chance is during sweeps or a “very special” episode, then we know all of the other car chases, break-ups, boat chases, misunderstandings or motorcycle chases will end up ok.

However, to have real stakes, you have to care about the person.  To care about the person, they have to be real.

For example, I just saw the movie Moneyball last week.  It’s ok.  My favorite part is the footage of Jeremy Brown at the end because I cared about him.  The dialogue leading up to real footage of his time in the minors made him a real person (that and the fact that he is a real person with a cool story detailed in the book.)  I felt an emotional connection to that moment.  Brown diving back into first touched my heart more than any other moment in the movie.

On the other hand, the portrayals of Art Howe and Grady Fuson (probably very similar to the portrayals in the book, but it’s been a bit since I’ve read it, so I can’t say with an absolute certainty) made me shut off my mind.  Let me sum up the characters:

“I’m an old man, I’m set in my ways and I refuse to change. Harumph.”

That’s all the audience is given about these two real life people.  So, when they meet the wrong end of the pink slip, you’re expected to cheer.  Yea!  Stubbornness defeated!  Bad guys lose!  Yea!

It doesn’t have to be that way.

For example, in Breaking Bad, by my count, the main protagonist Walter White has killed eight people directly and put many more in danger.  He cooks meth for a living.  He lies to his family.  He’s arrogant.  He treats Jesse Pinkman, his best friend in the world and his substitute son in his life in the underworld, worse than you’d treat an enemy.  He has poisoned Jesse’s girlfriend’s son.  He has watched as Jesse’s ex-girlfriend died through suffocating on her own vomit.  As I write all of this, I can’t imagine too many former high school teachers that would be worse human beings.

Yet, everyone I talk to about the series cares about him and, dare I say, roots for him to survive.  Why?  Because we know him beyond a simple archetype like “man in a black hat” or “drug dealer” or “bureaucrat” or “stubborn old man.”  We know that he has survived cancer for now.  We know how much he loves his son and his daughter.  We know how he wants to provide for his family.  We know that he lets his pride get in the way of accepting charity.  We know he wants to live.

He didn’t get to murderer in one step.  It took a while.  He struggled with the first step.  Jesse and Walt flipped a coin to determine who would kill the first person that stood in their way of survival.  That he needed to keep breaking bad for his own self-preservation made sense the further and further he plunged down the road to becoming a drug lord.

For another example, take Game of Thrones or Clash of Kings.  At the heart of the story is the Stark family, the sons Robb, Jon, Bran and Rickon, the daughters Anya and Sansa, father Eddard, mother Catelyn and ward Theon.  As different narrators with different perspectives, we follow them as they separate across the Seven Kingdoms.  We see through their eyes how they perceive those around them, their friends and their foes.  For example, we see Catelyn refuse to acknowledge Jon, the bastard son of Eddard through some unknown woman.  We see Catelyn take Tyrion Lannister prisoner to answer for the partial paralysis of her son Bran, though Tyrion was innocent.  Later, we see Catelyn release one of the most notorious prisoners and her son’s best bargaining chip in a war so that she can try to get her daughters back.

In other words, she makes a whole lot of decisions that make the readers think she is a heartless, impulsive idiot.  But, we understand her idiocy.  Catelyn wasn’t supposed to marry Eddard, but rather his older brother who died in a war to usurp the Targaryen king, so as a woman in this time, she’s never really felt safe in her role as his wife.  All she has is her kids and as they are flung to the corners of the kingdom, she is alone and scared.  How do you react when your world is turned upside down?  I don’t know, but Catelyn makes decisions that are very probable.

Conversely, in A Storm of Swords we get narration from another Lannister (Jamie joins his brother Tyrion) and we see more of the viewpoints from the faction opposing the Starks.  We are familiar with their exploits and as we learn more about their father (Lord Tywin) we see how the Lannister “monsters” in the form of Jamie, Cersei and Tyrion came to be.  They also care about their family.  They also care about honor.  They also care about love.  They want to live.

We all do.  But, when someone opposes us, we don’t look at it from their viewpoint, but rather the view that they are blocking our happiness.  Their motivations are the same.  The pursuit of life, liberty, love and happiness are the daily stakes in our lives. We all want the same thing.  Great characters want the same thing.  The pleasure is seeing when an artist knows that and makes the “bad guys” every bit as sympathetic as anyone else.  That’s when a story captivates us.  That’s when we leave the movie theater, when we put down a book or stand up from the couch and smile in happy amazement.  I look for those moments in every piece of art and in the books of A Song of Ice and Fire and Breaking Bad I’ve found them.

Comic-Con Panel:  Wild Cards or Recommendations from Friends

By Jason McClain (@jtorreyMcClain)

I know what I like and I think most people do as well.  We often don’t go looking for things that are going to go against that grain and instead look for things that reinforce our beliefs.  For example, people labeled with the generalization of “liberals” generally will not watch Fox News and conversely those labeled as “conservatives” will generally not watch Keith Olbermann or Rachel Maddow.  Why watch something that will just anger you or go against your beliefs that you have worked your whole life to create?[i]

Politics is an easy example as people tend to avoid the other side.  However, it is just as easy to see in popular culture[ii] or in comics.[iii]

We find what we like and we go with it.  How do we find what we like though?  Sometimes it is at home (my father brought home copies of The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy trilogy for our bookshelf and I just started to read them) or school (isn’t that how we all find The Great Gatsby?) or a bookstore (I found The Perks of Being a Wallflower by just sitting on the floor in a Barnes and Noble and picking a book at basically random from where I sat).

Oftentimes it is because of a recommendation of a friend.  Because a friend from college, Jason Teiken[iv], lent me Wild Cards I ended up going to the George R.R. Martin hosted panel[v] at Comic-Con this year. It has been probably 20 years since I read those books, but because I loved the stories of Aces and Jokers within each novel’s prose, I knew that sitting in a panel would be a great way to think back to that experience and maybe reopen it in the future.

However, at the time I first read the Wild Card books, I remember thinking, why would I want to read about superheroes in a book and not a comic?  Once I started reading, I remember thinking who in the hell is this guy Fortunato? Powers from tantric sex and building up a giant orgasm?  What the #$%?  Is this pornography?  Daredevil wouldn’t do this.  Oh God, can the villains out there sexually take advantage of Daredevil?  Won’t someone think of Matt Murdock?[vi]

Years later in graduate school, having drifted away from comics, I found them again thanks to “Kingdom Come”, a recommendation from a fellow student, Matt Massey, and it still is my favorite mini-series/graphic novel of all time. Moving around the country tends to prohibit you from accumulating things beyond what can fit in your car, comics included, and if you aren’t going to be buying comics, there isn’t a point to going to a comic book store to keep up with what is out there.

Coming back to comics at several different points always leads to new things. Once I had a more stable existence, a friend who worked in a comic shop[vii] turned me onto Brian Michael Bendis and J. Michael Straczynski.  My good friend, the editor of this site C.J. Bunce, turned me onto the Neal Adams/Denny O’Neil Hard-Traveling Heroes run of Green Lantern and Green Arrow which led to a great panel in the 2010 Con about Batman becoming a nocturnal hero instead of the campy cartoon of the 60s.  I loved listening to them talk about the behind the scenes moments that led to how we view Batman today.

This doesn’t just lend itself to comics either. Books (my friend David Popham recommended On Writing by Stephen King and it was a great read that I’ve recommended to other writers and my friend Jon Dunkle keeps a blog of book reviews at Rain of Error that I will go to when I hit a library or go crazy on Amazon and he led me to Aimee Bender’s “The Particular Sadness of Lemon Cake”), movies (my friend Steve Sides recommended the wonderful Lars and the Real Girl and kept reminding me to watch until I saw it and loved it), podcasts (I thank Marcus Janzow for my exposure to the not-updated-enough, “The Memory Palace,”) and music (comps from my friend Scott Eggimann led me to “The Weakerthans”) have all entered my consciousness through friends.

Now, I feel I can recommend these items to people everywhere. Then I suppose they’ll recommend and so forth. I suppose I’ve really just outlined the inner workings of the ever-elusive word of mouth marketing in pieces of art that relate to me. However, it’s still my friends that end up giving me some of the best recommendations that I’ll ever have and those help to shape my tastes. When you start to think about it, isn’t that what friends are for on the larger levels as well?

So, thanks to friends I still see and friends that I don’t. I thank you for the time you take to let me know about the things you love and sharing them with me. No matter if it is forgotten how those loves got to me in the first place, they are there because of a good friend and that won’t be forgotten.

[i] Assuming people work for their beliefs because some might just take some beliefs and be happy not having to worry about working for them. It’s the whole division of labor thing.

[ii] If a friend recommends to you that you really need to give Justin Bieber a listen because you don’t understand the beauty in his music, would you be more likely to listen to the Biebs or refuse to listen to your friend talk about music?  What about Ke$ha?  Phish?  Lady Gaga? Motley Crue?  AC/DC?  Prince?  Oasis?  Nickelback?  Is there a band that would cause you to kick your friend to the curb?

[iii] I won’t say more than “Marvel or DC?”

[iv] He also introduced me to Twin Peaks and I’m enjoying watching those on Netflix streaming right now.

[v] The panel had all the different contributing authors talking about favorite characters and possible future routes of the series and it was pretty interesting to just reminisce. However, the people that were just waiting for the next panel with Nathan Fillion gained an interest in the series just from listening to the authors. That was probably the most intriguing part of the hour. I mean, isn’t Comic-Con just a big gathering of “friends” sharing their different loves of fantasy/sci-fi/comics/pop-culture with one another?  I would go on, but any pronoun use in this sentence with the verb “share” would just lead to an unintended double-entendre.

[vi] Yes, that is an overreaction on behalf of Matt Murdock because he can take care of himself.  Plus, the language was probably different from a generally naïve Midwestern undergraduate but the idea of reading about tantric sex, delaying orgasms or even mentioning orgasms felt weird within what I knew about comics. I think at that point I had yet to put together the meaning of the band name “Queen,” let alone read about sex in comics period especially when comic heroes are supposed to be saving the world and drinking their milk. Needless to say, I had yet to find Alan Moore. My friend Jason Vivone changed that later.

[vii] Kind of similar to the whole “is a drug dealer a friend” thing as the only times we interacted were in his comic store as he fed my addiction to “Planetary,” “Powers” and “Rising Stars.”

 

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