Whether or not you really wanted me to, with this blog post I’m continuing my list of stories that have in some way inspired my own writing. I think that about brings you up to speed on what’s going on here. So without further ado, let’s get back to the list:
#7. Avatar – The Last Airbender
I’ll admit it’s been a long time since I’ve watched the show, or really even thought about it extensively. But I enjoy the good fortune of being reminded of its most random moments every once in a while. The cabbage guy, circle birds, etc. Each time, I find myself thinking, “Man, I should really re-watch that show.” Then I go on to not do that because I’m both forgetful and busy… and because I just don’t seem to find time to use the T.V. for much of anything besides a sleep aid anymore.
Be that as it may, The Last Airbender was a real milestone in my understanding of serialized storytelling. Little had I known while I was still in grade school that one of the best shows ever made was even then unfolding over the course of three hilarious, depthy, ingenious seasons. I skipped it at the time. Fortunately, my roommates in college made sure to show me what I’d been missing out on. It was perhaps the one time the ubiquitous culture at my university of loving Japanese-style cartoons really paid off.
There are so many ways that Airbender rivaled or surpassed pretty much everything in its medium. That is, other T.V. shows… not just other cartoons. The characters, the comedy, the art direction… it didn’t miss a beat. But what really set it apart for me was the story itself. Or, more precisely, the way the story was presented. Not that the actual plot was anything less than brilliant in its own right, but I already knew what a brilliant serial story looked like from Star Wars, Lord of the Rings, and such. What I hadn’t known up to this point was that you could do so much with the half-hour, television-episode format. Prior to Airbender, the T.V. series I knew of that seemed to have the most defined overarching plot was Stargate: SG1. I took it for granted that of course, such a regular serial would have to have filler episodes. It was just a rule of nature. Avatar was the first thing I ever saw that proved this wrong. In the entire show, there didn’t seem to be a single wasted episode. Every last one of them contributed something to the story. To me, this was to become more than a mere observation. At some point, it became a lesson. A standard in storytelling to shoot for. No filler! No chapter taken for granted. At the very least, it made me conscious of the fact that I never wanted to bother with telling a story – or even an ‘episode’ within a larger story – that I wouldn’t want to remember. I never wanted to make anything that was just content for the sake of content, filling a quota or giving me one more checkbox to check. Filler, it turned out, was not essential… not in any medium. It really seemed rather profound at the time.
Now, it hardly seems fitting to write for any length of time about Avatar: The Last Airbender without making some kind of joke at the expense of the live-action film adaptation. Unfortunately, nothing really clever comes to mind. The mere mention of it will have to suffice.
#4. The Dark Knight Trilogy
We’ll all remember where Batman was at as a cinematic franchise, prior to the Christopher Nolan revolution… except for those of us who won’t remember. The general state of affairs could be largely summarized by the phrase “ice puns”. To call the live action movies cartoonish would be an understatement, since even the animated Batman series took itself more seriously.
I can hardly help sharing an unnecessary anecdote about the experience of watching Batman Begins for the first time. It was 2005 I think, and already I’d begun to develop a general malaise about watching new movies. When my folks rented them, I often went and found something else to do. Not realizing a Batman movie had been put in… and having somehow managed not to even hear about the movie ahead of time… I reflexively wandered off for a while. My first memory of Batman Begins was the scene in Falconi’s diner, where Bruce receives this really great bad-guy-monologue from a gangster. And I had to wonder… what was such a thoughtful speech doing, coming out of a regular rank-and-file baddy of Gotham city with no super-alias to speak of? Suddenly, I wasn’t wandering the house anymore. They had my attention. I couldn’t reconcile what was happening to the Batman I knew. This wasn’t a bozo in a silly outfit spouting lazy punchlines at the caped crusader. This ordinary mob guy was serious. And for a while, I honestly believed some crazy genius might’ve made a whole movie of nothing but Batman taking down a gritty, believable crime syndicate. I thought that would be awesome. But even when my expectations were inevitably thwarted by the sudden appearance of a super-villain, I was far from disappointed…
Anyway, I could belabor the point that the Dark Knight movies were a huge and wonderful departure from their predecessors, but that’s a generally accepted fact. What matters here is to share what I learned about storytelling from watching them. Just as The Last Airbender taught me that no episode of a serial had to be taken for granted, the Dark Knight Trilogy taught me that no character had to be taken for granted. Whereas past super-hero movies had such an emphasis on the super-people that everyone else felt like cardboard cut-outs for the villain to conveniently threaten and the hero to conveniently save, these movies put all their pieces into play. Deep tracks like Carmine Falconi and Commissioner Gordon and Lucius Fox, new characters like Rachel Dawes, and even the alter egos of the supes (Bruce Wayne, Jonathan Crane, etc.) all proved memorable, likeable, and important in their own right. Within their own sphere, they each felt like a force to be reckoned with.
Suffice it to say, I want to do the same thing with my own writing. Not that I shy away from the silly and cartoonish by any means, but at the same time, I strive to make even my minor characters feel authentic… like they actually contribute something to the story by being present. I’ve seen the difference it makes when a storyteller resolves not to get lazy with characterization, and I think the benefits are well worth the added effort.
#2. Patrick F. McManus
I mean, okay, if somehow you know who I’m talking about, I’m happy for you. But I freely acknowledge that that’s not going to be the case for most…
So for those who don’t know, Patrick F. McManus was what was known as an ‘Outdoor Humor Writer’. He’s primarily remembered for his many wonderful articles written for magazines like Field & Stream. Not that I regularly read Field & Stream or anything. I’m familiar with his work because his articles were so funny that they were published in several paperback (and even hardcover) collections, which my dad had the good fortune and culture to own and keep around the house.
McManus ranks high on my list of inspirations in no small part because he’s an actual writer. From reading his short pieces, I had endless good examples of how to render humor in print. His ways of using vibrant, unmistakable characterization – and of presenting hair-brained notions with high-brow phraseology – did a lot to prove to me the viability of writing as a satisfying storytelling medium in the first place…
Not only did I learn general lessons about style from reading Patrick McManus… I also attempted to lift something I thought of as a personal trademark of his and use it for myself, in my own way. Likely, everyone has heard of the ‘antihero’ archetype. But ol’ Pat took that idea to the next level, pioneering what I like to call the ‘anti-mentor’. One of McManus’ best loved characters is undoubtedly an old mountain man named Rancid Crabtree… a surly, smelly social recluse that served as an unlikely father figure in the author’s semi-mythical early years. There’re many brilliant aspects of this character – from his thick accent to his pathological aversion to work, to his many misconceptions and misconstruals. But above all, Rancid Crabtree shines as someone that any sensible reader can quickly identify as an absolutely terrible role model. He doesn’t bathe; he doesn’t hold down a job. He lives as a hermit… hunting, fishing, and lazing all day long. In other words, he is the definitive hero of the typical pre-teen boy that McManus channels in so many of his best writings… even if he could never be anyone else’s hero. It was in trying to imagine a similar sort of anti-mentor figure leading a group of unlikely protagonists on a fantastical, world-saving quest that I found much of the story of my first novel.
Anyway, I would deeply regret even mentioning Patrick McManus without stressing some recommended reading to all of you out there with no prior familiarity. “Sequences,” “The Worry Box,” “Blowing Smoke,” and “Sneed” are just a few of my favorite shorts that spring readily to mind. I’ve had some success in the past just googling his individual short stories like these. But if it comes down to buying some of his collections, I promise that if you’re anything like me, it’ll be money well-spent!
Well, I guess I’ll stop there for now. Tune in again some other time for #1… as well as a bonus inspiration!