Two assassins walk into a diner. You know the type. Snappily dressed, probably with a badass soundtrack running behind them (when they’re not in the diner, at least). They enjoy the little things in life. Girl Scout Cookies, Big Kahuna Burgers, Scrunions. They also probably have a favorite gun, but aren’t afraid to get creative. Forward, reverse.
After binging all of The Umbrella Academy on Netflix, I realized there’s this thing that I like. Buddy Assassins. If there’s an assassin duo that’s out there murdering and have any type of chemistry whatsoever, I am THERE. See: Jules and Vincent from Pulp Fiction, Mr. Wrench and Mr. Numbers from season 1 of Fargo, and my first exposure to this trope, Hazel and Cha Cha from the comic and now Netflix original The Umbrella Academy.
I’ve been trying to pin down what exactly it is that I love about this trope, because it never fails to grab my imagination and hang on for dear life. These are the characters I’m wondering about when the story is over. Unless they’re dead. Sometimes they’re dead. BUT if they’re not dead, I will obsess, because these are usually side characters, hanging out on the edges, hack slashing their way through the sidelines and right into my heart.
I think it’s the doughnuts. And the Scrunions and the Big Kahuna Burgers. Eating food is a universal experience. It’s relatable. It’s a weird humanization of characters that should be completely unrelatable. Comic book Hazel and Cha Cha is the purest representation of this, as it is literally the only thing that humanizes them. In the comic, Hazel and Cha Cha’s intro revolves around them eating pie. Their next two interactions involve Girl Scout Cookies. Even if you find the constant food motifs don’t humanize them, their sweet teeth keep them intriguing and watchable, even as they’re sawing off a guy’s arms and legs to get his secret pie recipe. There’s an unexpected innocence in a character who does the murdering and then hands his bro a box of cookies and a hug. Aw, how sweet. They’re about to go torture that guy they just knocked out.
There is always a diner. That American symbol of comfort, of sweetness that even the baddest, most evil murderers will love. This is where the epiphanies come, that next step towards humanity that comic book Hazel and Cha Cha never reach.
Netflix Hazel is tired of the grind. Jules is ready to be the shepherd. Mr. Wrench just wants to go home. And why can’t just one job be easy or go right? Who hasn’t had a breakfast where they just bitched about their life over coffee?
I’d say that I want a comic/show/movie where this kind of duo would star, but I feel like their side-character status is part of the allure. They’re treated as mundane by their stories, which makes them even more interesting. Are you trying to make murder for hire boring? That’s not boring! That’s good ole American fun! The story proves itself wrong. And we somehow end up relating to and appreciating these monsters. They’re not heroes, but not exactly villains either. They just are. They eat their eggs and hash browns like the rest of us.
I am slowly falling for the charms of Spider-Man. I’ve been a long time, vocal “Spider-Man is overrated” person. But Miles Morales has won my heart. I love Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse. It was sweet, heartfelt, funny, and not Infinity War, so I’m set. Also I cannot stop listening to this soundtrack (I am listening to it now, as I write).
There was just one thing. One, little, 5-second thing, that threw me off. It was this lil thing:
There it was, smashed between the Marvel intro and the beginning of the movie. The seal of the Comics Code Authority.
I didn’t know anything about the Comics Code Authority (CCA) until earlier this year, when I attended a panel at C2E2 that talked briefly about how the CCA kept LGBT+ content from being published, and I learned a bit more when I started volunteering for the Comic Book Legal Defense Fund, which actively fights censorship of comics, and currently owns the Comics Code Authority seal. My general understanding of the CCA was “the 50s through the 70s was a rough time for comics.” Which is inaccurate, because the Comics Code Authority Seal did not stop being used until 2011.
But what actually was this thing, and why did they put it at the beginning of Into the Spider-Verse? I turned to google to find out. Looking at easter egg lists for the movie proved unhelpful, and mostly just said “this was a thing put on comics until 2011,” with no actual analysis. Which. I’m not sure what I was expecting to get from a listicle. More google search terms, maybe?
So I just started digging into the actual history of the thing, hoping that would give me answers, and it kinda did. Spider-Man was involved. But anyway, here’s where a few hours of googling spat me out:
The Comics Code Authority was a self-regulatory organization that major comics publications formed to avoid government regulation. In 1954, a psychiatrist named Fredric Wertham published The Seduction of the Innocent, and began his campaign against comics. His argument: Comics are making juvenile delinquents of our youths.
Sound familiar? Replace “comics” with…I dunno, violent video games, Marilyn Manson, Dungeons and Dragons, rap music, YouTube. There’s always something corrupting our youths. Somehow most of us turn out just fine.
Wertham gets enough parents and educators riled up about this that the government started looking into these “comic magazines” and what they were doing to our children. Part of the industry (famously Bill Gaines of Mad Magazine fame) wanted to stand up and fight back, but a significant part wanted all this to go away, and to avoid government-sanctioned regulation.
And thus, the Comics Code Authority was born. The original 1954 code included the kinds of things you would expect, no sex or sexiness, no gratuitous violence, no swear words. And then there was weirdly specific shit like this:
(11) The letters of the word “crime” on a comics-magazine cover shall never be appreciably greater in dimension than the other words contained in the title. The word “crime” shall never appear alone on a cover.
Also good had to triumph over evil, antiheros are not a thing, and don’t make law enforcement look bad. Honestly, just give the whole code a read. It’s effing nuts.
The CCA would be one thing if it functioned like the MPAA, which assigns ratings to our movies (which is still problematic, but that’s another blog post). A rating system allows other kinds of content to exist. But due to the structure of comic book distribution, many comics carriers wouldn’t even carry a title that didn’t bare the Comics Code seal of approval. This, my friends, is where the CCA hops right into censorship territory. No more horror comics. No more crime comics. Publishers crumbled under the CCA (see again, Bill Gaines). The CCA wasn’t a rating tool, telling parents what was safe for their children to consume, it was a censoring body, telling the entire industry what it could and could not publish.
The code remained pretty much the same, until 1970, when Spider-Man swung in on a web of drugs to kinda halfway save the day.
Stan Lee (RIP) went to the Comics Code Authority for approval to write a Spider-Man story to tell kids not to do drugs. And they said no. It didn’t matter that he’d been approached by the US Department of Health and Human Services to write the thing. It didn’t matter that there was nothing explicitly in the code banning depictions of drug use. It didn’t matter that the story demonized drug use. No little CCA stamp for you, Mr. Lee.
Stan Lee, being the badass that he was, published the three-issue arc anyway. The stores weren’t going to stop selling Spider-Man. And they didn’t. The series sold anyway, without the approval or the seal. Stan Lee saves the day and gives the middle finger to the Comics Code Authority.
Except take out that middle finger part, because Lee didn’t actually mind the CCA. Hence only kinda-sorta saving the day. Here’s Lee in a 1998 interview with Comic Book Artist:
As far as I can remember—and I’ve told this to so many people, it might even be true—I never thought that the Code was much of a problem. The only problem we ever had with the Code was over foolish things, like the time in a western when we had a puff of smoke coming out of a gun and they said it was too violent. So we had to make the puff of smoke smaller. Silly things. But as far as ideas for stories or characters that we came up with, I almost never had a problem, so they didn’t bother me. I think the biggest nuisance was that sometimes I had to go down and attend a meeting of the [CMAA] Board of Directors. I felt that I was killing an entire afternoon.
Nonetheless, Stan Lee triggered a change in the code. In 1971, the CCA made a few things more chill, but still remained incredibly restrictive.
The Code changed again in 1989, probably in an attempt to stay relevant, but changes in how comics were distributed allowed non-CCA-approved books to be carried on comic shop shelves. The CCA officially died in 2011, basically useless, when Archie Comics was the last publisher to drop the seal from its covers.
There’s obviously more to this story, and a LOT has been written about this time in comic history. If you got this far, thanks for sticking with me, fellow nerd. Now you know what that seal means at the beginning of Into the Spider-Verse, and the part Spider-Man plays in its history.
This essay dedicated to my fiance, Kevin, with whom I have this argument every damn year.
Every year, celebrators of the “Yes, we put trees in the house, and yes, that is perfectly normal” holiday gather around their television sets to watch their favorite films to get in the Christmas Spirit™. For some, this film is It’s a Wonderful Life or A Muppet’s Christmas Carol or Phineas & Ferb: Christmas Vacation. Christmas films/episodes are often defined by stubborn fiances as “Films that embody the true meaning of Christmas” (Vang, Kevin). Gremlins (1984) is a commonly contested title in the Christmas cannon, the argument against it commonly being the fact that it would be the same movie without the Christmas elements, and that it does not contain the True Meaning of Christmas™. However, Gremlins does both of these things and more, relying on images of Christmas for some of its most iconic scenes, and decrying the current commercialism of Christmas.
Without it’s Christmas backdrop, Gremlins would be just a monster comedy that is pretending to be a horror flick. The scene that makes this movie is without a doubt the scene where we are introduced to the Gremlins for the first time. Lynn Peltzer creeping up the stairs to investigate why “Do You Hear What I Hear” suddenly started playing on the record player needs this specific Christmas carol to be effective. Any other song would not have given the scene the same tension as “Do You Hear What I Hear.” The Christmas backdrop paints a stark juxtaposition of joy and horror as Lynn shoves Gremlins into blenders and microwaves, and as she fights with her Christmas tree. Take the Christmas out of this scene and it loses at least half of its tension. It is this juxtaposition between the implied happiness of Christmas and the horrible mischief of the Gremlins that keeps us watching this movie decades later.
Gremlins finds it’s attack on Christmas Cheer™ not in the titular monsters, as one might expect, but in the common horror trope of “Dope Who Makes a Stupid Choice,” AKA Randal Peltzer. Gremlins opens on Peltzer delivering voice-over and attempting to sell some of his sad inventions to an offensive caricature of a Chinese man, who is deeply unimpressed by Randal’s shenanigans. Eventually, Peltzer notices an adorable little Mogwai singing in its cage, and decides his son has to have it for Christmas. Despite the shop’s owner saying no repeatedly, no matter the price, Peltzer insists, eventually buying the Mogwai off of the owner’s grandson, who sells Peltzer the Mogwai behind his grandfather’s back and gives Peltzer some vague rules. Peltzer’s insistence on buying the Mogwai here is reminiscent of the mom who decks another mom in the face for the last Tickle Me Elmo on Black Friday. For the viewer, this is clearly supposed to be a terrible choice. The movie is, after all, called Gremlins, not Cute Furby that Sings. We know that Mogwai is somehow linked to the monsters. We know that Peltzer has made a misguided choice in the name of bringing Christmas Cheer to his family. After giving the Mogwai to his son, Billy, as an early Christmas gift, Peltzer is in a couple scenes before he leaves for a Christmas Eve inventor fair, in effect using the Mogwai as a surrogate for actually spending time with his family during the Christmas season. Peltzer is, in fact, an idiot, as the film implies by showing us a parade of his awful inventions, but a good-hearted idiot who genuinely believes his consumerist Christmas choices are what is best for his family.
The second time we see a critique of the consumerist insanity that Christmas has become is the final showdown between Billy and Stripe, the last Gremlin. It is no accident that Stripe, the ultimate mutation of Peltzer’s consumerism, runs into a department store for this final fight. Looking at this final scene, you see Stripe using the items of the store as a weapon, while Billy blazes a trail of broken televisions and sporting goods. Stripe then goes to an elaborate, decadent fountain in an attempt to replicate and takeover the town again. But Stripe is too late, and it is the power of Christmas morning’s sunlight that is eventually his undoing.
Gremlins is not just a horror comedy with some goofy bits. Through the power of Christmas we see a family brought together by crisis, and the day is saved not by Santa Clause, or the exchange of gifts, but the simple, clear light of Christmas morning. Between the aesthetic of Gremlins to its anti-consumerist themes, Gremlins is, definitively a Christmas movie, fit to join any cannon of traditional Christmas classics.
I feel like this is turning into a blog where I just talk back at my teenage self. Eh. I’m rolling with it.
Facebook Memories just told me that when I was seventeen and NaNoWriMo-ing back in 2010, I had 19,024 words at this point. My current NaNoWriMo adventure is at 6083. Not even enough words to justify a comma. Google Drive says my last edit was 5 days ago.
I want to write a novel. I want to write a stupid novel. I did it once when I was seventeen. SEVENTEEN. It’s hard to not feel like there’s something wrong with you when you can’t even measure up to who you were seven years ago, back when NaNoWriMo was fun. But it goes back even further than that, to when I was in middleschool and I wrote through recess and between classes (or through classes) and deep into the night until my eyes got wrecked. I don’t do that anymore. By volume, I don’t write very much anymore.
There’s the well-known problem of comparing yourself to others, but I feel like comparing yourself to previous versions of yourself has a tendency to be overlooked.
I’m trying to change the yardstick that I use to measure my success and productivity. I haven’t been a wordcount gal for a while now. After forcing myself to write eight, nine, ten-thousand word stories at Stonecoast, I’ve reverted back to flash fiction so short I can’t even sell it to flash markets. I shit you not, I am constantly under word-count for markets that want extra short fiction. How.
NaNoWriMo has pushed this over the edge for me recently. I sat down to write at my computer on day eight and I thought, “Holy shit. I hate this.” With “this” being the act of writing, which is not a feeling I remember having ever. It wasn’t an “I hate this, but I need to power through to get to the fun part,” or “I hate this because it’s hard I just want to go back and cuddle my comfort zone.” It was “I hate this. This is not fun.” It was like a switch went off in my brain at the six-thousand word mark, and that was so frustrating. Writing novels is something I’m supposed to be able to do; it’s something I’ve done before. Just. Do it again, Emlyn. DO IT AGAIN.
But it feels wrong. I’m taking this story that I love and jamming it into this structure that is not cohesive with how I think about stories and storytelling right now. It’s just wrong. Maybe it’s the wrong way to tell this specific story. Maybe my brain just isn’t wired to write a novel right now. Maybe I try again next year. Or the next one. Or whatever. I’m probably never going to have that specific burn to write and write and write and wreck my eyes anymore, and that’s ok. I’m ok with that. My relationship with writing is allowed to change. I’m allowed to change.
For now, I’m going to keep using NaNoWriMo as an excuse to write, but not 1600 words a day, and probably not a novel.
When Carrie Fisher died, the background of my phone was Princess Leia with Nicholas Cage’s face superimposed over hers. I remember sitting alone in my dark little cubicle in the corner of the printing company that I worked for and staring at Nicholas Cage’s face and being angry and sad and trying very hard not to cry.
I get teary every time someone posts about her, or a new promo for Last Jedi comes out, or even if I just think about her too hard. Despite how funny it was, I was choked up while reading most of Wishful Drinking.
A lot of girls grew up looking to Leia as the badass girl in the boy’s club. She was amazing with her cinnamon bun hair and blaster and sass.
I don’t think that’s true for me though.
Recently I’ve been looking back at things from when I was a kid and realizing thier major influence on me. How my passionate love for writing Naruto fanfic as a teen is probably the reason I’m still a writer. How anime and cartoons set my suspension of disbelief high in a way that was perfect practice for writing magical realism. There are so many things that I’ve looked back on recently and gone “Wow. You changed me. Thank you for existing.” I wish Princess Leia was one of those things for me, but she wasn’t.
I do not remember a time in my life where I didn’t know about Star Wars. I don’t remember watching it for the first time. It’s just something that has always been there for me. Pre-prequels, I wanted to be Luke, not Leia. I was a hardcore tomboy and I wanted to use the force so bad. Leia was a girl, worse, a princess, and she couldn’t move things with her mind.
By the time the prequels came out and I was looking for a lady role model, I loved Amidala/Padme. She was a queen. She had cool outfits.
So why the hell am I so upset about Carrie Fisher? It’s not that she’s someone that is deeply relatable to me. I didn’t grow up a child of Hollywood stars, or hop in and out of rehab. I’m depressed, but not bipolar. People don’t look at me and think “SPACE PRINCESS.”
But just before Force Awakens came out, she did this interview, and I fell in love:
What a beautiful, goofy lady.
THEN, to take up some more room in my heart, she opened an advice column at the Guardian (where she was only able to respond twice before she passed away), where she said this small line that tugged on my heartstrings and has stayed with me:
Hilariously – after all the drug addiction and celebration marriage and mental illness and divorce and shock treatment and heartbreak and motherhood and childhood and neighborhood and hood in general – I’ve turned out to be (at close to 70) a kind of happy person (go figure!).
She was happy. And I believe she was happy. She was a woman, fighting her mental illness and addictions, and she was recovering from that every day, because people don’t realize that when you have a mental illness (and I assume it is similar for addiction) you are recovering from that every. fucking. day. And she was still happy. That’s why I love her. That’s why I’m so deeply sad that she is gone.
Carrie Fisher didn’t just write or talk about the hard parts of being mentally ill, she was a pillar of hope. She wasn’t an echo-chamber of awareness, she was surviving. And at least some of that time, she was happy.
Sometime in elementary school I was given a copy of Fantastic Beasts and Where to Find Them, which is one of the textbooks used by the students at Hogwarts. I was so pissed when I opened the book and saw that the publisher/J.K. Rowling decided the book would be better with “Harry’s” and “Ron’s” notes scribbled in the margins. I wasn’t here for their slacker tendencies. Where was Hermione’s copy? Could I have that one? No. The super cool descriptions of the magical beasts of Harry Potter were almost secondary to the fake games of tic-tac-toe and Ron’s snarky notes about Aragog. As crappy as it was, I read the whole thing. It was my first bestiary.
In middle school, I eventually moved on to Arthur Spiderwick’s Guide to the Fantastical World Around You, a beautiful bestiary written as a companion to Holly Black and Tony DiTerlizzi’s Spiderwick Chronicles. At the time, my love of magical creatures was about imagining a fantastic world running just alongside ours, and if only I could stand with one foot in the water and one on land at twilight, I would be able to see it. It was something that I deeply wished to be real.
Once you reach adulthood the whole “magic is real” thing gets harder to believe, but I still find myself needing to shove these beasts into our world via fiction. Many of them have allegorical roots (deeply Christian allegory, but still) so they lend themselves nicely to metaphor. I’ve snatched up every bestiary that I have come across: Borges’ Book of Imaginary Beings, T.H. White’s The Book of Beasts: Being a Translation from a Latin Bestiary of the Twelfth Century, and whatever chunks of Fearsome Creatures of the Lumberwoods I can scrounge up on the internet. I love imagining a world where the manticore is as real as a sheep. I also love the weird and stupid things people wrote legends about and claimed they saw. The Ax-Handle Hound that has an ax for a face, the Haggis that has uneven legs so they can climb mountains easier.
I still wish I’ll run into a friendly fey creature one of these days. Until then, I’ll keep making my little zoo on my own.
This is part 5/6 of the preface to my MFA thesis. Click below to read other parts as they are posted.
One final nugget of wisdom that the unnamed magical realist gave to his audience of young writers was that “Writing is the only true form of therapy.” He said you could pay someone to take you into your subconscious and show you your issues, but they’ll slap a diagnosis on it, which will only give you distance. Writing keeps you all up-close and personal with your problems. No distance. Just you and your subconscious. I have another word for that: wallowing.
One of the things I seemed to absorb from a very young age was that artists are tragic heroes in their own stories. From Vincent Van Gogh and Virginia Woolf, to Heath Ledger and Robin Williams, I used to think that to be an artist meant you had to constantly suffer, which was good, because I felt like I had that suffering part down. It was bad because that meant I had to keep suffering if I wanted to make anything worthwhile.
It wasn’t until I studied Virginia Woolf in undergrad that I finally started to separate the artist from her mental illness. I had just started going to real therapy with a real therapist and taking real pills to account for the real chemical imbalance in my brain.
As I learned about her and read Mrs. Dalloway, I didn’t see a beautiful, artistic martyr anymore. I saw a woman who was very sick, like me, and her sickness killed her. I remember thinking she was brilliant, and she could have shared so much more of that brilliance with us had she not killed herself. But I noticed it is this sort of analysis that perpetuates this stupid idea that people are art factories, and sometimes there are casualties. Mourn Virginia, not the work that could have been.
I like to imagine Virginia at home with the resources I have: taking pills in the morning, going to therapy. She isn’t happy-cheery all the time, but she is alive, and she doesn’t want to die, and she isn’t fundamentally unhappy. She writes because it makes her feel good, because it makes her happy. I find this imagining more heartbreaking than the piles of volumes that she could have written in misery.
Writing can be deeply therapeutic, but it is not the best, or even only therapy at an artist’s disposal these days. Art does not come from suffering. Artists deserve to be happy. I deserve to be happy.
I write because it is healing, and because it makes me happy. If it didn’t do those two things for me, it would probably kill me, and that’s not worth it.
This is part 4/6 of the preface to my MFA thesis. Click below to read other parts as they are posted.