My Storytelling Style

Now that I’ve started to make my work available to all of you, I thought it would be appropriate to introduce you all to how I craft my projects.

First of all, I am a storyteller by extension of being a lover of stories. Put another way, I write because I love reading. Aside from writing, I probably spend more time reading than I do doing anything else; I will literally forget to eat and lose sleep while reading. I don’t even listen to music or watch movies or shows as much as I read. I’m the sort of bookworm other bookworms would call too obsessed with books (although I’m nearly every bit as obsessed with all other media, as well).

When I read (or watch a movie, or play a game, etc.), I always expect a few things: I expect to be entertained, I expect to learn, but most of all I expect to lose myself in a stunning fictional world.

This is the main reason I read: the escapism. I don’t much care for reality; my childhood was extremely difficult and unhappy due to a number of things, including being witness to a pretty nasty divorce, having a thoroughly screwed up extended family, and being viciously bullied by other kids.

The bullying was absolutely the very worst part; I’ve always been extremely weird and socially inept (I have Asperger’s Syndrome and ADHD, among other things) and completely nonconformist. As a result, I was abused physically and emotionally by other kids throughout my entire elementary school career. Since I live in Utah, a lovely little hamlet of repression and unenlightenment of the honorary Deep South, the adults did nothing, thinking it wasn’t a real problem.

The bullying deeply damaged me. Between my abuse at the hands of my peers and my authority figures’ complete lack of interference, I developed a deep hatred and mistrust of my fellow human beings that I continue to bear to this day. I completely lost any empathy for those who’d done me harm, and began desiring to inflict the same pain upon them that they’d inflicted upon me. I’m so very grateful for my mother, who understood and cared for me and was largely responsible for me not becoming something truly horrific like a serial killer or a school shooter or something like that. As a brief aside: to all those who read this, monsters are made, not born. Trust me, as someone who was well on the path to becoming one, I know.

I’m convinced now that sociopaths are perhaps the most empathetic people around; my mother (who is a brilliant psychology student) told me that everyone has empathy, but most sociopaths are so sensitive and have had such terrible experiences that they can’t bear their own emotions and simply switch them off. I can personally attest that that is probably true; I’m extremely sensitive and compassionate (especially towards animals), but after my suffering at the hands of my abusers I no longer have any of that compassion whatsoever for those I deem to be evil. I think at this point you could accurately say that I’m partially sociopathic. You know how I compare myself to Sherlock Holmes, Leleouch Lamperouge, and Light Yagami? Yeah, I’m not kidding.

I’m eternally grateful for my mother. She’s every bit as intelligent and sensitive as I am, and she was able to understand me and was instrumental in my survival in a frankly dark and rather hopeless world. She nurtured my empathy and helped steer me off the course of exacting vengeance upon those who’d wronged me. Another of the best things she did for me is she pulled me out of school and homeschooled me during my middle school years.

I’m also very grateful for my dad. It was his side of my family that is especially screwed up, and he and my mother’s divorce was because of things he’d done, so I’m not saying he’s a saint by any means. But he’s a much better person than he used to be, and I owe him eternally for one thing: if my mother saved me from my despair, my father was the gatekeeper to all that brings me joy.

The word “nostalgia” is meaningless to me. I had a horrible childhood, and I never want to have it back. However, there is one source of happy memories within that bleak time: reading, watching movies, playing games, and otherwise consuming media. The only happy times I can remember are when I watched Disney movies, played games on my Gameboy and PC, was read books to at bedtime, and all the other times I sat and listened to stories. I can only recall joy in those moments watching The Secret of NIMH, or playing Klonoa: Empire of Dreams, or when my dad read me Ender’s Game or told me epic fantasy stories he made up as he went along.

There’s nothing I love my parents for more than this. Through stories, they gave me my only moments of happiness and my only escapes from my relentless sorrow. Though both of my parents gave me both of these things, my mother provided me more of the latter while my father provided me more of the former. Of course, I can trace my love of many of my favorite works to my mother; because of her I love The Wizard of OzPride and Prejudice, and Hitch. However, though my mother introduced me to these and saved me from becoming a monster, it is my father who made me who I am.

My father was a nerd in the ’80s when geekdom was still a tiny subculture. He’s one of Star Wars’ biggest and oldest fans, he was one of the first in line to see The Fellowship of the Ring when it was first released in 2001, and he was a hardcore gamer in the golden age of arcades. He passed the flame of highest-caliber nerdiness down to me by watching Batman Begins with me, reading Harry Potter to me, and playing Medal of Honor with me. It is he who gave me my tastes and my passionate, burning love for media. Matilda is one of my favorite books because I can relate so deeply to Matilda Wormwood; like her, I was a brilliant, miserable little kid whose only escape from his dark, cynical world was the bright, optimistic world of fiction.

I cannot describe how much I love reading. It continues to be what makes me happy and what makes my life worth living. I found that I could not be satisfied with what I had, however; there were books that I wanted to read that did not exist. So naturally, the duty fell to me to make it so I could read them. This is actually why I am an author: I write the books that I want to read but currently cannot. I am simply a storyteller as an extension of being an audience.

I’ve been writing and drawing my whole life. Most of what I made at first was fan works of my favorite stories. From the moment I could hold a crayon, I drew Spider-Man over and over and over again, getting steadily better each time. I wrote very poorly-spelled stories about Batman and Pokémon and Klonoa and everything else I loved. I read my first novel (The Incredibles) in one sitting, and proceeded to do the same with every installment of the Harry Potter books. As I grew older, I began writing (somewhat) original stories by asking myself questions such as: “What would happen if a boy fell in love with an alien girl?”, “What would happen if a serial killer turned up in Idaville, and Encyclopedia was the only one who could stop him?”, and “Shouldn’t there be an amazing Santa Claus novel?” These questions have led me to write novels called UFOPact, and Santa Claus respectively, which I will at some point finish and release for all of you to read.

But my most defining experience was when I conceived my magnum opus. While I was playing on the swing-set in my front yard, I formulated the idea of a story with a few basic concepts: a girl who could transform into a mouse, a witch, an inky, warped, black figure with red eyes, a hotel room, and psychedelic rainbow-ness everywhere. The idea really intrigued me, and I thought it was really cool.

Then I completely forgot about it.

A few years later, in the summer of my eleventh year, I was reading a series of books on the paranormal called Mysteries of the Unknown in my town’s public library. My father had brought them from the library a few years earlier, and I’d adored and been fascinated by them since. This is actually perhaps my most vivid memory; I can tell you exactly where I was and which book it was. I was cross-legged in one of the corners and the book in question was Utopian Visions.

Upon finishing one of the pages I closed the book and thumped it against my knee. “Wow,” I thought. “This stuff is amazing. How the heck has someone not written a novel about it?”

I think the thing I loved most about those books (and the weird, supernatural subjects they covered) was the pure, unadulterated sense of wonder I felt reading them. It’s a bit difficult to describe what I mean, but I’ll try: play Bejeweled 3, or read A Wrinkle in Time, or listen to The Real World by Owl City. Hell, just read The Mysteries of the Unknown. You feel that? That’s the mood, the feeling, the wonder I’m talking about.

“Why hasn’t someone made a novel about this stuff?” I thought. Of course, stories about aliens, or ghosts, or vampires, or Bigfoot, or telekinesis, or fortunetelling, or bending reality had all existed already. However, most everything I’d yet seen of the subject matter (such as GhostbustersAtlantis: The Lost Empire, or the aforementioned A Wrinkle in Time) covered only a few of these things, mentioning the rest only in passing. But I had yet to see a story cover all of it at once, let alone on as grand and epic a scale as, say, Lord of the Rings.

“If someone would write a book like that,” I thought, “that would be the best book ever.”

And at that moment, the inspiration struck me. I suddenly remembered that beginning of an idea I’d had years before, and with this newfound realization the story rapidly grew. would write that book, and it would indeed be the best book ever.

At that moment I immediately ran home, pulled open a binder full of filler paper, and began writing a book I knew should be titled Rainbow. My reasoning was simple: it was the only name that suited it. Only rainbows were comparable to the wonder and beauty this book would contain. Only rainbows were as magical.

Ever since I began this project seven years ago, it has been my greatest obsession. It has remained almost entirely unchanged from those ideas I formulated on the library floor when I was eleven years old. I have dedicated my life to it; I fully intend to make it truly the Grand Masterpiece of All Literature. In my mind, all other things are subordinate to and serve it; I eat, drink, and sleep so that I can write it. I read, play games, and watch movies and shows to increase its quality. Finally, I create other works simply to support and expand upon it. Indeed, this website itself is ultimately here only for the sake of Rainbow.

About a year later, I sat down and watched an anime with my father and brother. Though I’d seen Pokémon and Digimon and Yu-Gi-Oh and Naruto, I hadn’t yet seen what anime was truly capable of.

The anime my father, brother, and I watched was Tengen Toppa Gurren Lagann. It was the most thoroughly mind-blowing experience I’ve ever had.

I was absolutely staggered at how overwhelmingly epic and enormous this show was. It was bright, it was colorful, it was emotional, it was existential, it was thrilling, it was exciting, it was awesome, and it was so, so damn beautiful. Ever since then, I’ve been every bit as obsessed with anime as I was with Rainbow, and very shortly thereafter I realized that I must make Rainbow an anime; believe me, when you all read it, you’ll see that anime really is the perfect medium for it. Shortly after that I decided I’d move to Japan to make it fully realized; I would make the Grand Masterpiece of All Literature shine across every medium; prose, animation, graphic literature, live performance, and simulation. Japan is the perfect place to accomplish all that.

With all that in mind, I can now explain my style of storytelling.

Firstly, I write for myself. As I said before, I write the books I want to read. I have dedicated my life to writing Rainbow because I have dedicated my life to reading Rainbow, which I will be unsatisfied with unless it’s the greatest novel of all time.

Because of this, I am determined to make every one of my works a timeless masterpiece. Once again, because those are the sorts of things I want to read.

My writing is passionate, direct, and blunt. I do not write to shock, but I also do not care if what I say shocks my audience. I aim to tell the truth, no matter how shocking it is nor how much people don’t want to hear it. Because of this I have no doubt I’ll be controversial, but I say: so be it. Nearly every great work (and man) shakes the world, and as Gandhi said: “First they ignore you, then they laugh at you, then they fight you, then you win.”

People say that True Art is Angsty. I disagree; I think that true art is angsty, but hopeful. My favorite works are those that plunge the audience into deep darkness, but show that there is still enormous beauty and light in the world. If you want great examples of this, watch It’s a Wonderful Life or The Wizard of Oz or Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs. All of these movies are stereotypically “happy,” but if you watch them they are actually quite dark; none of them shy away from the depths of horror and despair that humans can experience. However, they don’t conclude with the message “the world sucks and we’re all screwed;” rather, they reassure us that despite the great horror and misery in the world, it’s still unbelievably beautiful and you can still be happy. I create my works with this philosophy; I attempt to make every one of my works speak a message of hope and compassion after its characters undergo great trial and tribulation to demonstrate the truth of it.

By the same token, all of my works are deconstructions/reconstructions of themselves. I believe all the best works are; for instance, Harry Potter is an unbuilt story, since it’s about a kid who goes to a magic school. However, even though it was the first story to popularize this concept, it deconstructed its own ideas before anyone else could; though the world of magic is shown to be wondrous and awesome, it’s also demonstrated to be dark and horrific. Once again, I don’t believe in darkness for darkness’ sake, but rather to make the victory of light all the more triumphant, which I believe is what will naturally happen when a story is truly great. This is one of my philosophies: a story should be self-aware and intelligent.

I am primarily a world builder. This makes sense, I think, since the primary motivation behind my love of reading is to escape to a better world. I’ve never had much tolerance for works that attempt to show the “gritty and ugly” side of life; if I wanted to experience that, I’d just go out and walk down an impoverished street. My philosophy is: there is no reason to not make everything about your work beautiful. If sewers can look gorgeous *cough* *cough* Eternal Sonata *cough* *cough*, anything can. This is actually why my art falls in a spectrum between anime-style art and fantastic realism; I find that they are the most aesthetically pleasing art styles. This is also why my favorite works are very slick and/or colorful, and I aim to make all of my own exactly the same.

Because of my love for intricate and detailed worlds, I have an especial love for doorstoppers. You are all free to call me “tree-killer;” I love doorstoppers and most of my works will probably be doorstoppers themselves.

With regards to themes, my subject is always human nature. Of course, my magnum opus tackles the biggest ones: the meaning of life and the secret of happiness, but all of my others tackle some or other aspect of the human condition. I expect to learn when I read, and by the same token I aim to teach when I write.

I believe in never talking down to my audience. As far as I’m concerned, Viewers are Geniuses. That’s not even an exaggeration; if you go to the TV Tropes page on it and read the description of a stereotypical example, it reads,

“…you go and write a series loaded with difficult quantum mechanics, quoting obscure 17th-century philosophers, with characters who are philosophical Magnificent Bastards who speak a dozen languages while conversing to each other by sending Shakespearean Zen koans hidden into chess move patterns, and packed with allusions to ancient Sumerian religion. You make sure all your Techno Babble is scientifically plausible and go to great lengths to make sure all your ancient Roman soldiers are wearing exact replicas of period equipment.

This is almost word-for-word exactly what my works are like. Seriously, when you read Dragons or Rainbow and read that quote again, I think you’ll find that they fit pretty well within that hypothetical, satirical, exaggeratedly ridiculous description. One of my greatest challenges has actually been attempting to categorize my works; I could accurately call Rainbow Science Fiction, Fantasy, Horror, Dystopian, and Romance all at once. As for what age group it’s for, I’ll probably end up marketing it as a YA novel; after all, its protagonists are thirteen-to-sixteen-year-olds. On the other hand, it’s very violent and sexual, with torture, human trafficking, genocide, rape, war, and incest all coming into play. It also has a very healthy dose of existential cosmic horror. But on the other hand, I would have absolutely adored it when I was a kid. Then again, when I was a kid I was reading Dracula and Les Misérablesso perhaps I never represented the child demographic very well…

Nonetheless, I know children like it when a work is high quality and respects them; after all, children aren’t stupid, and they’re humans just like everyone else. Therefore I refuse to talk down to them.

Finally, concerning the sort of characters I write: I diligently attempt to represent every kind of human in my works, but when it comes to my main characters (that is, my main protagonists and main villains) you’ll probably see a disproportionate amount of Author Avatars of varying degrees of blatantness within them. If you want to know precisely how pure of Author Avatars any of my characters are, look for characters who resemble Sherlock Holmes, Sheldon Cooper, or Leleouch Lamperouge. Especially Leleouch; I would say that he’s probably closer to what I’m like than any other character in fiction. Pay special attention to magnificent bastards and tortured well-intentioned extremists; more often than not those are probably supposed to be me. It’s almost certain they are if they are albino (I have vitiligo, which basically means that someday I will be an albino) and/or bisexual (I’m not, but wish I was, since I feel I’m denied the ability to detect all human beauty, which I as an artist desperately desire. This one’s more wish fulfillment than anything). You can bet the house on it if the character in question is flamboyantly campy (again, just like Leleouch. People think I’m gay all the time because I’m really like this; I think masculinity is an idiotic ideal to aspire to). Yeah, you guys can probably see why I love Emperor Kusco and Lord Shen so much. I’m insanely vain and egotistical on every level it’s possible to be.

Here’s to my works; I hope you’ll all enjoy them as much as I am.

Almanac: the Pulps

Pulp Newsstand

It’s the ’30s. The huge, awesome party known as the ’20s has come to a sudden, screeching halt.

It’s the Depression. You and everyone you know are dirt poor. You’ve been laid off, or at least had your wages cut. You don’t know if you’re going to be able to eat tomorrow.

You need to escape. Perhaps through alcohol, even though at this point it’s prohibited. But maybe illegal narcotics aren’t your particular cup of tea, and you want something else.

You could go to the movies; during this decades there are several very good movies out. You could see Frankenstein, or Gone With the Wind, or Modern Times, or The Wizard of Oz, or perhaps Snow White and the Seven Dwarfsthe first-ever traditionally animated film (and one that would still be considered excellent a century later, in fact).

But as it turns out, when you reach into your pocket, all you fish it is a lousy dime. Movies cost twenty-five cents a ticket, but all you’ve got is a coin worth about two dollars by 2015 standards.

So what do you do? Well, there are always the newsstands, which are always selling the pulps. Those can always take you right out of your crummy life.

Amazing Stories First Issue

The pulps were cheap, disposable fiction magazines printed on the cheapest printable paper available. They were shocking, they were violent, they were vulgar, most of the stories in them sucked, and I love them to pieces.

If I’m going to talk about geekdom, I simply must discuss these things. If nerd culture reached maturity in the ’80s and ’90s, then it was born with these things in the early twentieth century.

Where to start? Well, at this point science fiction was barely a century old, assuming you consider Frankenstein to have begun it. Only with the beginning of the 1900’s did the genre begin to grow enormously in popularity, with publications such as Amazing Stories and Astounding Stories. The Swords and Sorcery and Proto-Superhero stories also began in magazines, which of course I can never thank enough, since from these genres emerged my beloved franchises Batman and Dungeons and Dragons, among others.

Magazines like these gave us our modern detective stories, and they were the trailblazers for modern horror.

As I said before, most of them were awful. These were pretty much the B-movies of literature, so what did you expect? The authors were paid a penny per word, if even that, and these came out weekly or twice monthly, so the aim of the game was to produce sellable, fast writing. People knew the writing wasn’t expected to be anything good; when they were done with them, they would throw them away, and get the next issue next week and repeat the process.

However, I would argue that they didn’t know what they were doing. Of course most of the writing in these things was insanely shoddy- they were made to sell, not for quality. But the fact still remains that some of the writers working for these publication really were dedicated to their craft, and strived for true quality. The most obvious example I can think of is H.P. Lovecraft, the of course now-beloved horror author whose entire body of work was in these magazines. People would throw the magazines with his writings away, not knowing that someday those words would be regarded as works of genius; a deeply troubled genius who put an enormous deal of work into his stories, such as interconnecting many of them within the same universe (now known as the “Cthulhu Mythos“).

Astounding Stories February 1936 Issue, advertising Lovecraft's "At the Mountains of Madness," considered by some to be his best

Astounding Stories February 1936 Issue, advertising Lovecraft’s “At the Mountains of Madness,” considered by many to be his best work.

Another thing I must thank the pulps for is for giving Zorro to the world; not only is Zorro an amazing character in his own right, but he’s also a direct ancestor to Batman, who is my favorite character of all time.

All-Story Weekly August 9 1919 Issue, which had Zorro's first appearance

All-Story Weekly August 9 1919 Issue, which had Zorro’s first appearance

Though these stories were often made for the lowest common denominator, the fact remains that these stories served a very important function for the literary world: they were refining fiction to be more thrilling, more fast-paced, and more entertaining. Sure they (and their covers) were filled with gratuitous shocks, violence, and fan service, but you cannot deny that they forced writers to hone their skills as escapist entertainers. In their quest to create engrossing stories, they produced some of the most compelling scenarios and characters we’ve ever seen.

Of course, the pulps eventually died out, but their legacy is still very much alive and well to this day. They paved the way for comic books and paperback novels, which still use many of the techniques and ideas they’ve pioneered, warts and all. Because of them, we have deeply compelling speculative works that are more addictive than nicotine, and we now have airplane novels that are meant to entertain and then be disposed of as soon as they’ve fulfilled their purpose to titillate and distract you from reality.

Another interesting thing that I’ve noticed is that this format of literature still lives on to this day; we have publications like The New Yorker that publish short stories every week, as well as Japanese light novel and manga magazines that follow the pulp format of serializing several stories simultaneously over several issues of a publication.

But the biggest thing I give thanks to the pulps for is their covers. Because of the pulps, the covers of which were designed to be eye-catching, bold, memorable, and pique your curiosity, we now have the incredibly gorgeous and magnetic pieces of artists such as Michael Whelan and Drew Struzan. When I publish my own works, they are going to have covers in this tradition; compelling, stunning, and beautiful.

Here’s to the pulps, the mothers of all things nerdy!

Almanac: Religion Introduction

As a philosopher, few topics inspire as much fascination for me as religion. As indicated by a previous article, I’m an anti-organized religion agnostic ultimate atheist. To go a little more in-depth, I’m firmly of the conviction that nobody should worship anything and that people should pursue their spirituality independently without allowing others to tell them what to believe. In other words, one of my greater life philosophies is phrased thusly in Assassin’s Creed II:

“Do not follow me, or anyone else.” – Ezio Auditore

However, though I strongly oppose organized religion, I can see many benefits to religion in and of itself:

The first (and perhaps most obvious) is that religion has produced an enormous amount of astonishingly beautiful art. A good first place to begin showing this, I think, is the religious texts themselves; for instance, the King James Version is a poetic, quality translation of the Bible that has become one of the best-selling books of all time. This, to me, makes sense; Christianity is the world’s most prominent religion, and English books are the best-selling. Why though, one might ask, would this particular translation rise to the top?

King James Bible

Well, of course, there’s the fact that it saw a pretty freaking wide distribution in England, and therefore when the English came to the United States it’s the one they brought along with them. However, that still leaves the question as to why England basically recycled it over and over again for centuries rather than making any new translations when it grew archaic. In my opinion it’s because not only is it (reportedly) a good translation, it’s also beautifully written. Of course, I might just be a sucker for flowery early modern English resembling Shakespeare’s (it probably helps that Shakespeare was supposedly one of the translators), but a sign of quality writing is memorability, and we have a long list of common phrases from this translation, including:

“Bottomless pit,”

“Den of thieves,”

“God forbid,”

and “Holier than thou.”

These are phrases that have been stuck in our heads for half a millennium now. Only the universally-recognized genius Shakespeare has had such a huge impact on English. That’s some damn good writing right there.

Another such enormous literary achievement is, of course, the Quran. As I said before, memorability is a pretty good sign of quality writing, and the Quran had to be memorable; according to Islamic tradition, Mohammed was illiterate and had to recite it for others to memorize and write down. Assuming this is true, I can only assume it’s pretty memorable. It’s been compelling enough to become a religious text for over a billion people, and it’s had an even bigger impact on Arabic than the KJV has had on English. As for my take on it, although I don’t know Arabic I’ve read an English translation and found it to be quite pretty. Of course, this could simply be a translation far outshining its source material, but as I understand it this is pretty hard to do. Until I can read the original Arabic text myself, I feel rather confident assuming it that it is, in fact, a literary masterpiece.

Quran

While we’re on the subject of the Islamic world, let’s talk about their calligraphy. Muslims are insanely good at calligraphy. If you don’t believe me, take a look:

Student Islamic CalligraphyIslamic Lamp

Working Title/Artist: Leaf from a Qur'an manuscriptDepartment: Islamic ArtCulture/Period/Location: HB/TOA Date Code: 07Working Date: 13th-14th century photography by mma, Digital File DP238067.tif retouched by film and media (jnc) 5_31_12In this Thursday, Jan. 26 2012 photo, Palestinian calligraphy expert Adel Fauzy practices at his studio in the West Bank town of Hawara, near Nablus. Parchment, feathers and "qalams," a pen made of dried bamboo, are still used by sophers Jewish scribes and khattats Muslim calligraphers. AP Photo/Bernat Armangue)Tell me these writings aren’t drop-dead gorgeous. Because the Islamic people venerate the Quran so enormously and they’ve had a general aversion to graphical images due to their strict laws against idolatry, they’ve naturally become perhaps the world’s best calligraphers, rivaled only by the Chinese. After all, constraints foster creativity.

And of course, buildings. Religion has produced what are (in my opinion) the world’s most beautiful buildings. Here are some mosques, temples, churches, and other awesome, awesome buildings from an assortment of religions:

Notre Dame de Paris

Buddhist Temple

Shinto Temple

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA

Need I even mention the paintings that religion’s produced?

da Vinci John the Baptist

Creation of Adam

Or the sculptures?

Buddha

Pieta

Yeah. Needless to say, religion inspires unbelievably amazing art.

But then why, you might ask, do I oppose organized religion so strongly? For the answer to that, look up the Spanish Inquisition. Or the Crusades. Or the Salem Witch Trials. Or the September Eleventh Terrorist Attacks. Even if you think those are  overly dramatic examples of religion’s harm, go look at Jehovah’s Witness deaths over (lack of) blood transfusions or LGBT suicides over bullying.

Now, I want to make something abundantly clear: I do not think it’s religion’s fault these sorts of things occur. After all, the world’s most genocidal man was an atheist. Rather, I believe that it’s the problem of mankind itself; I believe that humans are basically evil and that kind, virtuous people are rare (and by the way, before any of you start shouting that I’m even more full of myself than I am, I don’t count myself among the decent; I may be on the side of the angels, but don’t think for one second that I am one of them). I think that rather than allowing passion or conscience to drive them, people allow fear to be their primary emotion, and that religion simply accommodates and (potentially) amplifies this.

Therein lies my greatest criticism of religion: I think that, taken literally, it’s almost invariably fear-based. People even readily admit this; notice how common the phrase “God-fearing” is. Especially with Abrahamic religions, ethics essentially boils down to “carrots and sticks;” do good, and you’ll be rewarded. Do evil, and you’ll receive punishment. In my opinion, this way of viewing the world is deeply misguided and cowardly.

Of course, I think that religion can do great things, as well; in my opinion, the wisest of all men were deeply religious (Jesus, Buddha, Gandhi, Fred Rogers, etc.) and religion has inspired a great deal of charity, warmth, and brotherhood.

The reason I believe religion is capable of causing such tremendous evil is because it can make people act in fear of the ultimate retribution: eternal suffering. The reason I believe religion is capable of inspiring such tremendous compassion is quite simple: people are very visual creatures.

To explain what I mean by this, think of the method of loci or Oriental abacists. People are able to memorize staggering amounts of information and make enormous calculations by visualizing imaginary locations and objects. By the same token, we use stories to teach lessons; with Hansel and Gretel, we use the vivid imagery of being eaten alive and burning in a furnace to teach the lesson of not trusting strangers. With the Lion and the Mouse, we get an obviously highly contrasted pair of characters to demonstrate for us the potential self-benefitting nature of altruism. Wise religious leaders have thoroughly understood this; Jesus framed his lessons as parables, one of the most famous being the Good Samaritan, establishing that all men are brothers and should show compassion and kindness to one another (as a brief aside I think it would do Islamophobic Christians much good to recall this parable).

What I’m ultimately saying is: we need stories in order to learn, and in many respects religions have the most potent stories, and therefore the most potent lessons. After all, it’s hard to get loftier and more vivid than lakes of brimstone and fire or a parting sea or being raised from the dead. This is where I believe the benefit of religion lies: it has perhaps the most powerful images and ideas with which we can learn and understand the world.

By this standard I am in a way deeply religious myself; I use books to shape my morals and the characters therein to be the personifications of my ideals to be emulated.

However, once again, I would advise against organized worship, or even worship altogether; when it comes down to it, my thoughts on whether or not there’s a God (or gods) is: I don’t care. If none exist, I’ll live the best I can with the time I have. If one does, I acknowledge it as nothing more than another being with greater power than myself and I will continue to attempt to live ethically and happily, regardless of what it tells me or threatens to do. Anything that wants to be worshipped doesn’t deserve to, and anything that deserves to be worshipped wouldn’t want to, and therefore I worship nothing.

Although I believe that it would ultimately be better for people not to worship anything, I believe that so long as people are kind to one another and strive to make the world a happier and more peaceful place it ultimately doesn’t matter what they believe.

This is my simple religion. There is no need for temples; no need for complicated philosophy. Our own brain, our own heart is our temple; the philosophy is kindness.” 

Dalai Lama Tenzin Gyatso

Review: Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dame

The Hunchback of Notre Dame Poster

Perhaps one of the most underrated films of all time, Disney’s The Hunchback of Notre Dameadapted from Victor Hugo’s Notre-Dame de Paris, is an impressively spectacular experience that serves as one of Disney’s finest offerings.

As you will probably guess, I absolutely adore animation (especially traditional animation) and I absolutely adore Disney. I like to consider animation to be the supreme medium, as I think it offers the most possibilities for artistic expression of any medium. If you can dream it up, you can make it happen in animation.

Of course, animation is expensive and animation is difficult. With live action films, one need only point a camera and shoot. The result might not be any good, but that’s the bare minimum requirement to produce that kind of film. To even produce a poor traditionally animated film, you must draw many frames of at least one subject. All by hand. To give you an idea of how much work that is, Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs contains more than 250,000 separate, hand-drawn pictures.

That kind of work is costly. During the production of Snow White the artists actually produced more than 2 million pictures. With a rough estimation of a modern anime artist’s salary (which is criminally low, by the way), such a product would cost $7.5 million for the animation alone, without even taking into consideration things such as sound, acting, or even finishing stages for the drawings such as inking, cleaning, or coloring. Yeah, there’s a reason Disney was told he would go bankrupt if that film failed.

What this means is that traditional animation is tremendously risky and tedious to make. Even when such a movie receives respectable sales, such as with the case of Sleeping Beauty, it may still loose money due to its inability to recover its high, difficult-to-market cost. Obviously this means that such films aren’t attractive investments, and that’s why we see so few high-quality ones. Disney actually shut sown their traditional animation division because (by their logic at least) the films weren’t capable of carrying their own weight.

And you know what? They’re kind of right. Traditionally animated movies don’t make their budgets back. But you know what else? That’s not the films’ fault. It’s ours. Traditionally animated movies don’t sell because we Americans don’t think of them as “real movies.” We think of them as being “just for kids,” despite the Japanese having clearly shown that this is obviously not the case for decades. Nonetheless, we Americans don’t care an iota about other cultures, so we don’t pay attention to them or learn from them. So while those other cultures are producing Fullmetal Alchemist and Howl’s Moving Castle we’re stuck with Shark Tale and Teen Titans Go while masterworks such as The Adventures of the Galaxy Rangers and The Iron Giant quietly fade into obscurity because we think that animation is only for children and, even more infuriatingly, that no effort should be put into them because children are supposedly stupid.

Well you know what? I’ve had enough of that nonsense. I’m incredibly smart, I always have been, and I’ve always been able to detect passion and quality. I’ve loved The Hunchback of Notre Dame ever since I was quite small, and this film is dark, complex, and thought-provoking, so don’t you dare tell me that kids aren’t smart enough or they’re too innocent for films like these. Above and beyond that, don’t use that stupid excuse to not see this film yourself. This is a mature film that respects its audience, and in fact its greatest weaknesses are the parts where it doesn’t. Films like these need to be rewarded because we need more of them. With that in mind, here’s why The Hunchback of Notre Dame is so excellent:

The film opens with a monastic choir singing in Latin, followed by a booming, grandiose overture featuring powerfully ringing church bells and the monastic choir vocalizing the film’s main leitmotif as the camera cuts through a sky of clouds towards the distant, accurately-drawn structure of the cathedral Notre-Dame de Paris. Rarely have I seen an opening that so perfectly sets the tone for the rest of a work; it’s grand, beautiful, and demonstrates the dedication that went into the film. Furthermore, it foreshadows the themes of the film; that leitmotif is from the villain’s song, which is all about the nature of temptation and evil, a subject explored throughout the entirety of the film.

The camera then moves down to the city of Paris down below, where the Gypsy king Clopin sings the exposition of the film’s backstory to some children: twenty years ago, the dogmatic, zealously religious Judge Claude Frollo trapped some Gypsies and attempted to have a Gypsy woman’s baby taken from her, thinking it to be stolen goods. He pursued her to the steps of the cathedral, where he took the baby and killed the woman. When he looks at the baby he sees that it’s deformed, so he becomes convinced that it’s a demon from Hell and attempts to drown it in a nearby well. He is stopped by the Archdeacon, however, who warns him that he must raise the child himself to atone for the sin of murdering its mother. The Archdeacon allows Frollo to raise the child in the cathedral’s bell tower, and though Frollo is resentful of his punishment he decides that the child may someday prove useful to him. Clopin concludes the introduction by informing the children (and by extension the audience) that Frollo gave the child the cruel name Quasimodo, meaning “half formed”, and asking who between the deformed Quasimodo and the wicked Frollo is truly the monster and who is truly the man.

Twenty years later, Quasimodo has grown into an ugly but kind young man who wishes to go to the annual Festival of Fools. His gargoyle friends Victor, Hugo, and Laverne urge him to go despite Quasi’s master Frollo forbidding him to ever leave the tower, and he eventually relents and decides to. However, while eating with Frollo Quasi accidentally slips that he wants to go, leading Frollo to tell him as he’s told him before that the world outside is cruel and they will hate and revile him for his deformity. Nonetheless, Quasi sneaks out and goes to the festival.

Meanwhile, the good-hearted Captain Phoebus arrives in Paris from the wars to become Frollo’s new Captain of the Guard. Frollo tells Phoebus that his duty is to help him exterminate the Gypsies, as their “heathen ways inflame the people’s lowest instincts.” Frollo tells Phoebus that to do this they must find the Gypsies’ hideout, known as the “Court of Miracles,” which Frollo has been searching for for 20 years. They then go to the Festival to oversee it.

While at the festival Quasi meets the beautiful Gypsy dancer Esmeralda, who draws the attentions of Quasi, Phoebus, and Frollo. It is declared that the man who could make the ugliest face in Paris would be crowned King of Fools, and thinking Quasi is wearing a mask Esmeralda brings him onto the stage with the other contestants. However, he is revealed to not be wearing a mask, which initially shocks and horrifies the audience, as well as exposing Quasi to the furious Frollo. However, the crowd is quelled when they are reminded that they asked for the ugliest face in Paris, and since Quasi is he is the rightful King of Fools. Quasi is initially happy but the townspeople begin torturing and mocking him. When he begs Frollo for help Frollo coldly refuses to intervene as punishment for his disobedience.

Esmerelda stops the crowd and frees Quasi, defying and angering Frollo. When Esmerelda accuses Frollo of being unjust and cruel, Frollo sends his guards after her. Using parlor tricks (which Frollo is convinced is witchcraft), Esmerelda escapes into the cathedral. Phoebus follows her in and informs her that he has no intention to harm her. When Frollo enters and finds Esmerelda, as well, Phoebus lies that she claimed sanctuary and there’s nothing he can do. When Frollo tries to have Esmerelda dragged out to arrest her the Archdeacon forbids him, commanding him to respect the sanctity of the church. Frollo threatens and makes advances on Esmerelda before he leaves and posts guards at every exit.

Esmerelda prays to God to help the oppressed and outcast while Quasi watches, and when she notices him she follows him to his tower, where she learns that Quasi has been emotionally abused by Frollo his whole life and believes Gypsies to be evil and himself to be a monster. After Esmerelda tells Quasi that Frollo’s wrong, Quasi helps Esmeralda escape by carrying her as he climbs down the walls of the cathedral. Esmerelda asks Quasi to come with her, but Quasi refuses, so Esmerelda gives him a band and tells him that if he ever needs anything he need only consult it to find her. When Quasi goes back into the cathedral he finds Phoebus looking for her. Quasi tells Phoebus to leave, and Phoebus does after asking Quasi to tell her that he didn’t mean to trap her there, but he had to, and that she’s lucky to have a friend like Quasi.

Frollo is tortured over his lust for Esmerelda, and sings that she will be his or she will burn in the fires of Hell. The next day he begins ransacking Paris in search of her. At the home of a family who has housed Gypsies, Frollo bars the door and commands Phoebus to burn it. Phoebus refuses, and so Frollo lights it, forcing Phoebus to save the family before the burning house collapses over them. For Phoebus’s insubordination, Frollo attempts to have him executed, but Esmerelda stops them and allows Phoebus to escape. Phoebes is shot and Esmerelda takes him to the cathedral.

Quasimodo’s gargoyle friends tell him that Esmerelda loves him, and when Esmerelda arrives at the cathedral she asks him to hide Phoebus as he heals. Quasi agrees. As Esmerelda treats Phoebus’s wound, they kiss, devastating Quasi.

After Esmerelda leaves, Frollo comes and tells Quasi that he knows that he helped her escape. He again tells Quasi that Gypsies are evil and that Esmerelda is twisting his mind. Frollo then tells Quasi that they will soon be free of her sorcery, as he now knows the location of the Court of Miracles and will attack it at dawn.

Phoebus urges Quasi to help him find the Gypsies and warn them of Frollo’s siege, and Quasi reluctantly agrees. Quasi deduces that the band Esmerelda gave him is a map of the city, and that the Court is in the cemetery. He and Phoebus go there and find some catacombs, where they are ambushed and brought to the Court. The Gypsies try to hang them, believing them to be Frollo’s spies, but Esmerelda stops them. Phoebus tells them that Frollo is about to attack them, so they begin preparing to flee. However, Frollo then reveals himself and attacks, revealing that he used Quasi to lead him to the Court. He captures the Gypsies, Phoebus, and Quasi, and has Quasi chained to Notre Dame’s pillars. He has a pyre prepared for Esmerelda’s execution as Phoebus and the Gypsies are forced to watch.

Frollo tells Esmerelda that she must become his lover or burn, to which she spits on him. Frollo then lights the pyre, giving Quasi the renewed resolve to break his chains and rescue Esmerelda, bringing her onto the cathedral’s rooftop. Frollo and his guards begin laying siege on the cathedral as Phoebus frees himself and rallies the people of Paris and the Gypsies into battle against him. Quasi and the gargoyles force the guards back before pouring boiling lead over the roofs onto them, leaving only Frollo.

Frollo cuts through the front doors and assaults the Archdeacon when he commands him to stop. He then tries to kill Quasi, who is morning over the seemingly dead Esmerelda. However, Quasi disarms him and tells him that he was wrong about the world; the only thing dark and cruel about it is people like him.

Esmerelda awakes and Frollo continues trying to kill them. He reveals to Quasi that he murdered his mother before attempting to send him falling off the roof. When Esmerelda catches Quasi, Frollo tries to behead her, but the gargoyle he’s standing upon breaks under his weight and sends him falling into the molten lead below.

Esmerelda accidentally drops Quasi, but Phoebus catches him. Quasi gives Esmerelda and Phoebus his blessing to be together before going out into Paris, where the people at last accept him.

Pretty hardcore, huh? Not your typical Disney fare. That’s what makes this film so great; they made it so dark and so deep, knowing that such an endeavor was quite risky. This is a film that treats you like an adult, and does so excellently.

First of all, the characters are fantastic. Quasi is endearing and extremely human; watch at the way he quietly echoes every put-down Frollo has for him. This is quite a realistic portrayal of what emotional abuse is like, and his profound humanity doesn’t stop there; his heartbreak over being unable to have Esmerelda is completely believable, as not only is his display of the emotion executed flawlessly, but that’s the way such a situation would almost certainly play out. It’s tragic, but it’s true; the deformed don’t get the opportunity for love as often as others do. I cannot applaud the film enough in this regard; it doesn’t shy away at all from the harsh truths of reality.

Perhaps nowhere is that more apparent than in the character of Claude Frollo. Claude Frollo. Oh my, Claude Frollo. This is hands-down, no question, without exaggeration, one of the greatest villains of all time. First of all, he’s easily the most audacious decision Disney has ever made; he’s a religiously fanatical, perverted, abusive, sadisticgenocidal old tyrant. That’s not just a vile villain by Disney standards; that’s a vile villain by the standards of anything.

But even though Frollo is mind-bogglingly evil, he’s still realistic and believable; his actions are a result of a combination of self-righteousness, repression, perfectionism, and bigotry. Off the top of your head I know you know some people like that. He also pulls of the truly astounding feat of making us sympathize with (if not agree with) his motivations; in his villain song Hellfire he sings of being tortured by his sexual desire for Esmerelda, as he believes lust to be evil and Gypsies to be especially evil and therefore his longings are very unwelcome to him. He shows quite desperately that he’s in extreme denial over being even remotely wicked or at fault for his own desires, blaming Esmerelda, Satan, and ultimately God for his temptations. It even shows that he might have, deep down, some remorse for and awareness of the immorality of what he’s doing with the lines “God have mercy on her / God have mercy on me,” but weather he does and to what extent he does is ultimately left up to the audience. Because of this Frollo is complex, sympathetic, and perhaps even tragic, which is what defines a fantastic villain.

Oh, did I mention that Frollo is insanely cool? Because he is. Disney deliberately attempted to make it so he would be seen as anything but, and never has anyone failed so spectacularly. They took Frollo, gave him a swishing, dramatic black robe, an awesome tricorn-like hat, excellent swordsmanship skills, the greatest villain song ever, and the voice of Tony freaking Jay, and they expected him to not be cool? Yeah, that went well. Word of advice, Disney: nothing absolutely oozes cool like evil, and unless you make your villain an unbearably obnoxious one (such as Dolores Umbridge) or make them lame nothing will ever change that.

Anyway, now that I’m done with that tangent, back to the review. Phoebus is charming, competent, and also awesome. Esmerelda is one of Disney’s best heroines, because she’s kind, intelligent, and badass, like any good main character should be. She doesn’t take crap from anyone, and stands up to Frollo before anyone else does. Oh, another thing: I hate fan service. Hate hate hate hate hate it. I categorize it with all my other most-hated cinematic pet peeves known as “Blatant Audience Pandering/Manipulation,” which include gratuitous pop culture references, fourth wall humor, and jump scares. The reason for this is I, as a storyteller and audience member, expect all media to adhere strictly to the law of Chekhov’s Gun, which states that all unnessecary elements of a work should be removed. In other words, if it doesn’t contribute to the story, don’t put it in. The reason I bring this up is I think Esmerelda does another thing well: fan service though she might be, it’s not gratuitous; her sexualized presentation is a critical plot point of the film, and is therefore necessary. Esmerelda is how you do fan service right.

In fact, my greatest criticism of the film is Gratuitous Audience Pandering in all its cynical glory; it’s the one element of the film that doesn’t respect its audience, and treats it as though it’s too delicate and innocent to be able to handle the darkness and depth of the film without getting inconsolably disturbed and bored by it. If you’ve seen the movie, you can probably guess where I’m going with this: what I’m talking about, of course, is the gargoyles.

Grrr, the gargoyles. They are members of perhaps the most-hated of my Gratuitous Audience Pandering pet peeves: the dreaded, hateful Comedy Relief Characters.

Hissing Cat

*Hiss!*

These are the worst of all characters; the characters that can dethrone great films and make bad films abominations. Some notable names from this most infamous circle include the Minions from Despicable Me, who made an already funny, good film with a protagonist I can greatly relate to into a more mindless, mediocre film; the Hyenas, Timon, and Pumba from The Lion King, who made an awesome, dark Disney take on Hamlet an overrated waste of potential; and of course Jar Jar Binks from The Phantom Menace, who made a disappointing waste of potential a painful train wreck.

The gargoyles from this film are unambiguously the worst part; their jokes are unfunny and unwelcome (except of course for their comment on Frollo’s nose and clothes), their song is uninspired and puts a blemish on what’s otherwise an incredible soundtrack, and they contribute little to nothing to the plot.

Their only saving grace is that they talk to Quasimodo and thereby give us an opportunity to look into his mind. One possible interpretation of them is that they’re figments of his imagination (it’s made ambiguous by the film) and aside from their expositional dialogue with Quasi and helping in the final battle against Frollo they could have been removed from the film without anything changing. Come to think of it, the movie would have been weaker  without the exposition they provide…. You know what? I take it back. Let’s not remove the gargoyles. Let’s just remove Hugo, because the others are (mostly) fine, and he’s far and away the largest source of my complaints.

Aside from the gargoyles (and especially Hugo) I can’t think of anything else about the movie that wasn‘t done superbly; the animation (particularly of the always faithfully-recreated Notre-Dame) is incredible, the dramatic scenes are as well-written and acted as those of masterfully performed Shakespeare, and the soundtrack is (aside from the gargoyles’ song) likely the best Disney’s ever produced. Regarding the soundtrack special mention again goes to Hellfire, which is ingeniously composed and as I said before provides the leitmotif to the rest of the film and is almost certainly the greatest villain song of all time.

In conclusion, I think this is absolutely one of Disney’s finest offerings, and I think it’s shameful that it’s not more acclaimed and well-known. I imagine a big reason it’s not is because of its rather significant deviations from Hugo’s original novel, which rubs Hugo fans the wrong way, and to those detractors I reply: again, take a look at this as a self-sufficient work independent of its source material. I think you’ll find that it stands quite well on its own. And even if you don’t,  take it from a fellow enormous Victor Hugo fan: remember how his works have the pervasive theme of subjugation and mercy for the downtrodden? I think that‘s the heart of his works, and I don’t think this film’s deviations from the novel should matter because I think this film is ever faithful to that spirit.

The only Disney film I think surpasses this one is Beauty and the Beast, and I think if the gargoyles were removed and/or fixed it would be Disney’s single greatest work. Nonetheless, as great a weight as they are on this film I don’t think they drag it down from greatness or timelessness.

This film is a masterpiece that I adore.