Posts Tagged ‘hero’s journey’

Warning: Contains spoilers!

Second Warning: You will cry.

Third Warning: I’m not messin’ around! For realsies, you’re going to cry like a baby and the unstoppable river flowing from your eyes will create a pristine lake of tears. Children will water ski in your tears while their mom watches from the shore and dad drinks a beer as he drives the boat!heartbox

Sure, I’m having a bit of fun with the emotional outpour that will result in reading Heart in a Box, but it comes from a place of truth. I tend to put a lot of distance between myself and the media I consume. I’ve been that way since I was a kid and it’s never really gone away. Don’t get me wrong, I connect with a lot of books, movies, television, etc. but the impact never feels as strong as that of others when they react to the same thing. Heart in a Box, written by Kelly Thompson (Jem and the Holograms, Captain Marvel & The Carol Corps) with art by Meredith McClaren (Hinges), did its best to pierce my comfort bubble and succeeded with flying colors. I laughed, I cried, I wanted to throw things – basically this book ran me through the emotional gamut and I’m all the happier for it. Thompson and McClaren never shy away from the heightened intensity that comes from affairs of the heart. Instead, they use a fantastical premise to facilitate an honest and, at times, brutal look at a young woman’s journey towards emotional maturity.

The plot goeth thusly: After an extremely harsh breakup, Emma, embittered and frustrated with the lingering feelings she has for her ex, wishes her heart away with the “help” of a mysterious stranger she calls Bob. Realizing she can’t live without her heart, Emma embarks upon a cross-country quest to regain the seven pieces needed to make her heart whole again.
hiab-page-3-panel-excerptAs lead characters go, Emma is a refreshingly honest look at the flawed female protagonist. It’s been coming up a lot more as new writers and artists inject comic books with characters devoid of decades worth of continuity but heavy on presence and personality. And thanks to Thompson’s superb grasp of voice and McClaren’s expressive art, Emma feels real. She’s by no means a terrible person, just emotionally immature, but as the story unfolds we learn the reasons behind Emma’s actions and we gain new insight about the wide spectrum of love through her journey. Emma’s struggle and eventual redemption act as metaphorical explorations of the many ways in which love is given and taken. Each interaction she has produces a different display of love, but those interactions also come with the added baggage of rage, regret, loneliness, and hope tied up in a knot of confusion and occasional clarity. Nothing is simply done or explained in Heart in a Box because the book’s greatest strength is in its complex and nuanced portrayal of people.

Whether it was intended or not, Heart in a Box has shades of the hero’s journey in its plot and structure. Emma’s call to adventure starts with her desire to put her heart back together. Bob, acting as mentor and helper, gives her the box that will mend her heart physically and each person or animal in possession of a piece presents a challenge or temptation. Emma’s turning point comes when she ends up as caretaker to a crotchety old man and, upon his death, digs up his grave to get her piece back (trust me, it makes sense in context). Her need to complete the quest drives her forward but it’s only after she receives her final gift from an unexpected source that she feels whole and healed again. It doesn’t match entirely, but the elements are definitely there.HIABOX_WM-108

As I said before, Kelly Thompson has an amazing gift for voice and character. Her sense of humor comes through repeatedly but it never steals the book away from the dramatic moments. Instead, Thompson finds a lovely balance between comedy and drama in just about every part of the book. Characters like Bob and Mr. Jamison, who would typically be used as comic foils for Emma in other works, do just as much heavy lifting within the narrative. Bob may be totally evil (possibly) but he’s often the only person she can talk to and he respects her emotional needs even if Emma isn’t aware of what she wants. Mr. Jamison, a bitter old man, isn’t just reduced to flinging insults at Emma. He has his own story to tell and how it reflects on Emma is brilliant storytelling on Thompson’s part. Seriously, from a character and narrative perspective, Emma and Mr. Jamison’s time together is the cornerstone of Heart in a Box.

Which brings us to Meredith McClaren and her beautiful illustrative work. Like Thompson, McClaren brings personality to the art, which is a necessity given the range of emotions Emma goes through. There’s an open quality to the art that deftly draws you in and holds your attention. The line work is simple, and by that I mean it isn’t busy or unnecessarily detailed. She knows exactly 20150915_202243how much to show so that we keep our focus on the characters and she really knows how to throw a punch to the gut when it comes to Emma’s state of mind. McClaren also handles coloring duty and it goes without saying that there is some fantastic color work happening in this book. Once Emma wishes her heart away, she becomes grey and flat but with each piece returned her coloring brightens a little more as she’s infused with more memories and feelings. When I talked with Kelly on the podcast, she was very open about how crucial the coloring was in conveying Emma’s emotional status in the story. She and McClaren went back and forth on the desaturation and their hard work shows. I’m an especially big fan of Emma’s fusion moments with the pieces of her heart. It’s so raw and I love how McClaren turns the memories into different forms depending on what she gets back. Also, I’m a sucker for a sweet tattoo on a character and Emma has one awesome octopus tat!

So, if you’re looking for a good cry or just a nuanced and honest look at human emotion, go pick up Heart in a Box at your local comic book store or go online through Amazon, comixology, or Dark Horse. It’s definitely worth your time.

Advertisements

Two years and four seasons, with plenty of bumps along the way, and here we are at the end of Korra’s legend. At least the part that’s animated. We’ve seen Korra grow in so many ways – as a person, a woman, and as the Avatar. From adorable prodigy to well-intentioned, though naive and hot-headed, teenager to mature adult, Korra’s journeybook four has been fraught with multiple crises. But in her persistence and resolve to prove herself Korra, and by extension her creators, have given us a story of triumph over insurmountable odds; one that embraces mature themes of class equality, spirituality, revolution, and the price paid for being guardian to an advanced world. While The Legend of Korra owes its very existence to the popularity and fantastic storytelling of Avatar: The Last Airbender, the sequel series has, in my opinion, exceeded the legacy of its predecessor, carving out its own space as an iconic piece of Western animation.

Created by Michael Dante DiMartino and Bryan Konietzko in 2012, Korra was originally a one season exploration of the world created in Avatar: The Last Airbender through the eyes of the next Avatar in the cycle, a girl from the Southern Water Tribe named Korra (Janet Varney). Had the show only run for the one season, I’m sure we would have looked at it as a fun trip back into the realm of fantasy where people bend the elements and the Avatar thwarts yet another nefarious plot in order to restore balance. The subsequent seasons, however, became the show’s proving ground. After some backtracking in season two, Korra forged ahead with an agenda that challenged the status quo of storytelling in animation and what is ostensibly viewed as “children’s programming” while still being an entertaining and engaging action-adventure fantasy series.

korra-all-the-avatarsThe Legend of Korra is a multifaceted show that defies simple categorization. Over the course of four seasons we’ve seen this work to the show’s advantage as it essentially grew up under the scrutiny of a generation steeped in internet culture. Avatar: The Last Airbender began and ended before Twitter, Tumblr, and a number of websites were in heavy rotation, but Korra was born within the epicenter of social media and the blogosphere, a place where representation and visibility were, and still are, of the utmost importance. But even with a woman of color as the lead, Korra wasn’t a guaranteed success especially in an environment where anything with a female lead was considered “tricky” or some kind of magical unicorn never to be seen twice. Two years later and the attitude of viewing audiences have towards properties like Korra has changed for the better and yet remained frustratingly the same. DiMartino and Konietzko, or Bryke as they’re affectionately called, aren’t responsible for all matters concerning representation, but they still took it upon themselves to make certain that Korra resonated with her audience despite consistent network interference. By ending the series with Korra and Asami (Seychelle Gabriel) holding hands and staring lovingly at each other as they enter the Spirit World for a much-needed vacation, The Legend of Korra solidified itself as a program indicative of its time and place. Having a queer woman of color in the lead role of a Korrasamifantasy action series put Korra in the unique position of taking a small, but still huge, step forward in the nuanced portrayal of women of color and the LGBTQ community in Western animation and children’s programming. Yes, I’m well aware that anime has been doing this for quite some time.

The uniqueness of the show also stems from a combination of storytelling and character development that, again, isn’t seen a lot in Western animation. For instance, the show follows patterns reminiscent of Joseph Campbell’s “hero’s journey”, but goes to even greater lengths to examine those tropes through the lens of Eastern storytelling. From the beginning, Korra has been a character who embraced the call to action. In fact, it was the central conceit of the pilot and the starting point for the series as a whole. Korra is a more proactive character in her approach to being the Avatar; where Aang tried to find the peaceful route first, Korra was always ready for a fight and the storytelling reflected those traits. Avatar: The Last Airbender was all about the overarching plot of Aang and friends going up against the Fire Lord while The Legend of Korra had contained arcs for each season, which allowed Korra to go up against multiple villains. The advantage for Korra lies in the character growth achieved through her battles with Amon, Unalaq and Vaatu, the Red Lotus, and Kuvira. It’s also another means of showing that the hero’s journey is hardly a linear model with a definitive beginning and end. If legend-of-korra-series-finale-korraanything, the hero’s journey is an ongoing process with multiple starts and stops along the way. The destination is still important, but the journey matters more in the long run and Korra’s journey has been all about growth and change in a world going through the same process.

As a character, Korra has an inherent connection to the struggles of the world she protects. Throughout the series her internal doubts and conflicts are reflected externally. Season one was about elitism and equality in a technologically advanced world, season two the lack of spiritual connection as a result of these advancements, season three the chaos of adjusting to rapid change, and season four the need to control in order to combat the turmoil of chaos. All of these hardships belong to Korra but they are just as present in Republic City, the four elemental nations, and in her enemies. This grounds Korra and gives her personal stakes in the fate of the world regardless of her position as the Avatar. Even if she turned away from the problems facing the world they still live within her. That’s incentive enough to act, but Korra’s peace of mind only appears to be fulfilled when she and the world are in balance.

Season four was a dense playground of themes and ideas, the most poignant being the Buddhist philosophy of suffering. At the end of season three, Korra is poisoned and nearly killed by Zaheer (Henry Rollins). She survives but is broken by the latest in a long line of battles. For three years she attempts to regain her strength and force herself into readiness, but only by accepting the trauma, and learning from her enemies, does she truly begin to heal. Suffering leads to perspective and wisdom, which ultimately allows her to triumph over Kuvira (Zelda Williams); not through the awesome power of being the Avatar but through sympathy and empathy. It was the worst kept Legend-of-Korra-The-Last-Stand-10secret that Korra and Kuvira were reflections of each other. Hell, Bolin (P.J. Byrne) practically spells it out for the audience and I’m fairly certain that the name Kuvira was chosen to be just similar enough to Korra so we wouldn’t miss it. The point being that the similarities between the two in attitude and demeanor forced Korra to go beyond her training as a fighter and find another angle of approach. While the two have some intense and amazingly animated battles thanks to Studio Mir, their conflict ends only when Korra offers a sympathetic ear, something that season one Korra wouldn’t have considered because she didn’t have the experience needed in order to understand Kuvira’s position or her plight. By resolving the situation as peaceably as possible, Korra comes into her own as the Avatar, and the person, she wants to be.

What is specific to Korra, but still a point of connection between her and the audience, is the idea of relevancy. The entire series hinges on a single question: Does the world still need the Avatar? By series end, the answer is a resounding “Yes!” All the mecha suits, spirit kaiju, and political haranguing aside, Korra is still relevant, still necessary to the world around her. But just as importantly, Korra and other shows in the same vein are needed and necessary to the viewing audience. Korra offers something we don’t see as often as we want in the television landscape: a place where women are valued.

beifong womenI’ve written before about the amazing cast of female characters in Avatar: The Last Airbender and The Legend of Korra, but the final season of Korra presented a plethora of women offering sage advice or kicking ass – both in Toph’s case. While Korra had plenty of male teachers and enemies, seasons three and four tipped the scale in favor of the show’s female characters. It doesn’t make Tenzin (J.K. Simmons), Mako (David Faustino), Bolin, Bumi, or Kai irrelevant, but it shows that the creators wanted to celebrate women as heroes, villains, mothers, sisters, friends, lovers, leaders, scientists, spiritual guides, and everything else under the sun. The fact that Bolin’s hero is Toph still makes me happy because it isn’t often that we see male characters on television, animated or otherwise, showing unabashed hero-worship for a female character. Bolin, more than any male character in the series, has been the ultimate cheerleader for women. He’s the first to believe in Korra, laying out all of the qualities that make her amazing, he worships Toph, and he defends Kuvira’s cause because he wants to see the good in it before the reality of his situation sets in. Through Bolin, Bryke found their own surrogate to tell the male audience that the Avatar universe is a world of celebration for women and men. Yes, it’s a realm of fantasy, but fantasy has a way of influencing reality.Bolin and Mako

Is it a feminist agenda? Of course, but the seeds have been there since Avatar. Making the next Avatar a woman as well as the reveal that the Avatar is a literal avatar for Raava, the female spirit of light and peace, are choices on the part of the creators to enrich their world as they see fit. By emphasizing the importance of the feminine spirit alongside the extensive female cast, DiMartino and Konietzko have crafted a realm where girls and women are equal in every way. The Legend of Korra accomplishes this without ever having to explicitly state the obvious in-universe compared to the first season of Avatar that went a long way to get the point across that women could fight just as well as men. The women of Korra are, without question, active agents in their world. Youngsters like Ikki and Jinora make just as much impact as the older Lin (Mindy Sterling) and Suyin (Anne Heche) Beifong. Age doesn’t denote skill or importance, giving girls of all ages in the viewing audience a contrasting image of how to define their own value and self-worth as they grow up.

So what’s next for Korra? Not sure. Hopefully a comic book is in the works a la the continuing adventures of Avatar: The Last Airbender that bridged the two series. After the series finale and the ending that will definitely be talked about for some time, it’s clear that there’s plenty of unexplored territory to cover. As Korra says to Tenzin, she’s not done learning. But if this is the last we see of Korra and company, then it’s definitely a legend worth telling.

Cast-edited

GARDEN-videoSixteenByNine1050

The path of a fairy tale, like those of myths and legends, rarely runs smooth. Though a happy ending is the goal, it’s only achieved by braving the challenges that lay ahead and finding your way through the darkness. In the end, something has changed and you’re never the same. Depending on the fairy tale, this is either good or…bittersweet. Fairy tales in the times of the Brothers Grimm or Hans Christian Andersen were morality tales, teaching tools mostly designed to scare the ever-loving bejeezus out of children and ensure obedience. They weren’t without their moments of whimsy, though, spinning stories of far away lands, princes and princesses, and mysterious creatures in need of slaying. Or, should a more realistic setting be required, adventure could be found (and lessons be taught) by simply journeying outside the safety and security of home. Over the Garden Wall, the first mini-series produced by Cartoon Network, is the modern kin to the fairy tales we grew up with as children. Channeled through the medium of animation, Over the Garden Wall throws us into a world of imaginative whimsy but isn’t afraid to tackle the darker aspects of venturing into the unknown.

Airing two chapters over five consecutive days, Over the Garden Wall, adapted from creator/writer Patrick McHale’s short, Tome of the Unknown, follows brothers Wirt (Elijah Wood) and Gregory (Collin Dean), with the aid of a cursed bluebird named Beatrice (Melanie Lynskey), as they try to find their way home. Heeding the words of an old Woodsman (Christopher Lloyd), the boys try their best to avoid the Beast (Samuel Ramey) that stalks the forest, though his influence is never far from them as they meet all manner of folk along the way. It’s only in facing the darkness do Wirt and Gregory discover how far they’re willing to go for each other before they can return to the world they know.

Wirt and GregLike the fairy tales and folklore from which it draws inspiration, Over the Garden Wall is more about the journey than it is the destination. Wirt and Gregory are as different as two brothers can be: Wirt is a fretful, bumbling teenager unsure of himself in almost every way while Greg is an unabashedly gleeful child who questions very little about the absurdity surrounding them. The strength of their bond as brothers, however, is where the heart of the mini-series lies. Wirt assumes the more traditional hero’s journey – the denizens of a tavern go so far as to label him a Pilgrim. Along the way, as he tries to get himself and Greg home, he gains the confidence needed to match his cleverness, becomes slightly more assertive, but ultimately accepts his role as an older brother with all the maturity and responsibility that goes with it; laying aside blame, resentment, and embarrassment in order to protect Greg – unless it’s comedically suitable for him to runaway in fear, abandoning his brother to a feral dog. Greg doesn’t necessarily go through the same journey as his brother, but his time in the woods still imparts a measure of maturity into a carefree child who would follow the wind if he thought it would lead him to something fun.

Described as a “comedy-fantasy”, Over the Garden Wall maintains a level of absurdity and the fantastical reminiscent of Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderland and Through the Looking Glass. Animals act like humans, attending school or riding a riverboat like the well-to-do, and humans sing ridiculously long songs about lost loves to teach the alphabet or build enormous mansions that end up running into each other. There’s also a darker underlying tone to the mini-series that invokes classic Americana and folk tales. Skeletons dressing up in pumpkins, the woodsman grinding trees for oil to keep his frogslantern lit and his daughter’s soul alive, and an old woman in possession of a pair of scissors capable of turning birds into humans by cutting off their wings are unsettling and frightening images. Which is kind of the point. Neither comedy nor fantasy implies everything will be sunshine and rainbows. There’s plenty of humor to be had, a lot actually, but it’s needed to balance out the darker moments of the story. Over the Garden Wall doesn’t go so far as to have limbs cut off or use gore to frighten the audience, but the imagery of the Beast with his antlers and glowing eyes in the darkness is what sticks with you long after the credits roll. And once you find out which garden wall the title is talking about…well, some things are better left unsaid.

rsz_the_beast_-_2_4613The humor of the mini-series is multi-layered, containing slapstick, quick asides, and straight up nonsense. Beatrice and Wirt exchange quick-witted barbs while Greg goes about his business renaming his pet frog, throwing out candy from his pants, and trumpeting his presence as he marches through the woods with a teapot on his head. My favorite bit, though, belongs to Fred the Horse (voiced by Fred Stoller). In need of money to take the ferry to Adelaide, the Good Woman of the Woods’ house, Beatrice and Fred insist that stealing money from the possibly mad, but very wealthy Quincy Endicott (voiced by John Cleese) is the only option available. When Wirt believes Fred should do as he pleases, he’s free to do as he wants, Fred reiterates this fact. He is free. Free to steal.

Tying everything together is the animation and the music. Based on the designs of Mikkel Sommer, the characters all dress in a manner that has an Old World feel ranging from 19th century European to early 20th century American styles. Until we jump back to see how Wirt and Gregory actually got lost in the first place, any indication that they come from the modern world is moderately doled out over the course of the series. For all intents and purposes, Wirt’s young David the Gnome outfit and Greg’s “elephant” costume fit right in. The art direction from Nick Cross and the animation borrow from multiple styles as well. Though the initial inspiration was Gustave Doré and the “Alice Comedies”, there are deliberate allusions to Hayao Miyazaki in the form of Auntie Whispers (voiced by Tim Curry) and an entire dream sequence in the style of Golden Age cartoons like Merrie Melodies and Silly Symphonies. Like the animation, the music jumps around from the operatic singing of Samuel Ramey to ragtime and folk music with the occasional earworm jingle like “Potatoes and Molasses” and “To Adelaide”.

For their first foray into animated miniseries, Cartoon Network picked a good one to start with. Over the Garden Wall is well paced, funny, and contains a world full of likable and fearsome characters that should delight children of all ages. The show doesn’t talk down to its audience, trusting young ones and adults alike to see the nuances or just enjoy themselves. It’s definitely a fairy tale worth watching over and over again.