In 1944— a time when the war lowered a lot of barriers— Chu Hing became one of the first Asian-Americans to work in comics. He created a superhero named the Green Turtle, who fought the Japanese who were attempting to conquer China. Rather strangely, the comic never shows Green Turtle’s face; the supposition is that the publisher refused to allow an Asian face, and in return Hing refused to draw a white one.  Another oddity is that the Turtle’s shadow is drawn (without explanation) as a big black turtle, with yellow eyes and a red mouth.

Now Gene Luen Yang (Asian-American) and Sonny Liew (Malaysian-Singaporean) have teamed up to revive and explain the character.

Liew

His origin story: he’s Hank, a Chinese-American boy whose only goal is to help his father run a grocery store, and run it himself after him.  But after his mother meets a superhero, she gets it into her head that Hank should be one too. She takes him for martial arts training, arranges accidents with industrial waste, and even knits him a costume… with a big 金 and the helpful legend GOLDEN MAN OF BRAVERY.

This part of the book is a lot of fun— Hank’s mom is both adorable and annoying, and Yang recognizes that the whole superhero thing is a little ridiculous.

It gets more serious later on, as Hank confronts the tongs that control Chinatown. As part of this, he meets the tortoise spirit, one of four ancient spirits that safeguard the Chinese Empire, and are a little lost when the Empire disappears.  So now he has real superpowers— though he has to learn how to use them to do some good. Also he can finally choose a better superhero name, the Green Turtle. (Which happens to be close to the name of his father’s shop, 玉龜 ‘jade tortoise’.)

(Pedantic note: the book gives this as Yu Quai, but the family is Cantonese so the first character should really be Yuk. Possibly a little interference from Mandarin ?)

The story is set in the 1940s, and deals realistically with the casual anti-Chinese racism of the time. The viewpoint however is always with Hank and his family, who have little interaction with whites; even the villains are other Asian-Americans.

I have to say that Sonny Liew’s art takes some getting used to. He’s great with cityscapes and shadow creatures and Hank and his father.  Everyone else is caricatured in a weird ugly way… if a white guy drew Chinese people like that it would come off as racist. Still, I’d love to see a Volume 2.

As a bonus, the book provides one of the original Chu Hing Green Turtle comics from 1944. Even at the time, it was surely a bit odd that you never saw Green Turtle’s face. For a modern reader, there’s another peculiarity: the Chinese in the story are drawn nicely, but the Japanese are monstrous.

I also recently read a graphic novel of Liew’s: The Art of Charlie Chan Hock Chye.  It’s an odd meta thing: a mock retrospective of a not-very-successful imaginary cartoonist. This gives Liew the opportunity to parody all sorts of historical styles (e.g. there’s a nice tribute to Pogo), and also to recount the dramatic history of Singapore: British rule, the Japanese invasion, independence, Lee Kuan Yew’s authoritarian rule. The mockumentary format is well suited for wandering through history, and for pastiching cartoonists he admires; perhaps less so for maintaining narrative momentum.

 

 

 

 

 

 

A game based on Philip K. Dick is either going to be great, or horrible.  From reviews, it seemed that Californium at least looked great, so I picked it up.

Basic idea: a failed writer, Elvin Green, starts finding holes in reality. So he starts to seek them out, and see what happens.

20160502225138_1

Bubbles of alternate reality

And you gotta admit, that’s a pretty Dickian idea.  The implementation is pretty neat, too: when you open a hole, it expands into a sphere, changing everything inside it.  There must be some interesting engine work going on there– see in the picture how nearby objects get a perfect circle cut out of them.  And this is a dynamic process– once a bubble has opened, it even wavers back and forth.

You can figure out most things by yourself, and should, but here are some things to know that may avoid frustration.

  • You will find TV sets that indicate the number of holes you still have to find in that area.
  • There’s a bug in level 2, which you can avoid by going into the police station last (i.e. when you’ve explored every other area).
  • Some of the holes are only visible from certain angles.  You may have to walk around or change your angle.

I’ve seen some reviews that chafe at that last bit, but really it’s part of the point.  The idea of a glitch in reality that may hide when you look directly at it is just part of the existential nightmare.

There is a light puzzle aspect to some of the holes.  I think it’s best to just give in to the spirit of the game here, even if it means walking around trying to find that maddening last glitch.  If they had made the puzzles harder then the story would perhaps have felt intrusive, and if they had made them easier (e.g. adding audio cues or a compass) you’d be done in half an hour.

There are NPCs scattered around the level; they are 2-D models that turn to face you, and talk at you when you’re close, not unlike Jazzpunk. This is not my favorite design technique, but I understand that for a small studio, 3-D human models and animations would be a huge effort that wouldn’t improve the game greatly.  The voice acting is all good, however.

The best thing about the game, besides the hole-in-reality mechanic, is its feverish level design.  You start out in a supersaturated, cartoony 1970s Berkeley, California, and it’s fun to walk around the street and a half or so that you’ve given to explore.  You see other worlds in the course of the story, and they’re all fun and thought-provoking, plus they have a thematic relevance to Elvin Green’s story.

It took me a little over 4 hours, which is probably about right for what the game mechanic can support.  I mean, they could have added three more worlds, and it would probably be tedious more than exciting.

The ending is a little abrupt, and not as mind-blowing as one might hope… but honestly, Dick doesn’t usually succeed in wrapping things up nicely either.  He creates this hallucinatory blend of religion and paranoia, and just being there is the point.   So it’s probably just as well that the developers didn’t overdo the ending.  I’d say they capture the atmosphere of a Dick novel very well (though they’re not aiming at any one novel in particular), and if that sounds like the sort of atmosphere you’d like to breathe for awhile, check it out.

 

 

 

This paragraph is amazing:

Once upon a time there was a monk who was inclined to imagine things rather a lot. One day, he happened to imagine a man named Jivata, who drank too much and fell into a heavy sleep.  As Jivata dreamt, he saw a Brahmin who read all day long. One day, that Brahmin fell asleep, and as his daily activities were still alive within him, like a tree inside a seed, he dreamt that he was a prince. One day that prince fell asleep after a heavy meal, and dreamt that he was a great king. One day that king fell asleep, having gorged himself on his every desire, and in his dream he saw himself as a celestial woman. The woman fell into a deep sleep in the languor that followed making love, and she saw herself as a doe with darting eyes. That doe one day fell asleep and dreamed that she was a clinging vine, because she had been accustomed to eating vines; for animals dream too, and they always remember what they have seen and heard.

This is from the Yogavasishtha, written sometime between the 10th and 12th centuries; the translation is by Wendy Doniger in On Hinduism.

Where do you go after a paragraph like that?  Anywhere you like.  But here’s how it goes.

The vine saw herself as a bee that used to buzz among the vines; the bee fell in love with a lotus and was so intoxicated by the lotus sap he drank that his wits became numb; just then an elephant came to that pond and trampled the lotus, and the bee, still attached to the lotus, was crushed with it on the elephant’s tusk. As the bee looked at the elephant, he saw himself as an elephant in rut. That elephant in rut fell into a deep pit and became the favorite elephant of a king. One day the elephant was cut to pieces by a sword in battle, and as he went to his final resting place he saw a swarm of bees hovering over the sweet ichor that oozed from his temples, and so the elephant became a bee again. The bee returned to the lotus pond and was trampled under the feet of another elephant, and just then he noticed a goose beside him in the pond, and so he became a goose. That goose moved through other births, other wombs, for a long time; until one day, when he was a goose in a flock of other geese, he realized that, being a goose, he was the same as the swan of the Creator. Just as he had this thought, he was shot by a hunter and he died, and then he was born as the swan of the Creator.

One day the swan saw Rudra and thought, with sudden certainty, “I am Rudra.” Immediately that idea was reflected like an image in a mirror, and he took on the form of Rudra. Then he could see all of his former experiences, and he understood them: “Because Jivata admired Brahmins, he saw himself as a Brahmin; and since the Brahmin had thought about princes all the time, he became a prince. And that fickle woman was so jealous of the beautiful eyes of a doe that she became a doe… These creatures are my own rebirths.” And, after awhile, the monk and Jivata and all the others will wear out their bodies and will unite in the world of Rudra.

(Rudra is better known as  Shiva; in this tradition, he is the supreme god.)

So the interlocking dreams turn into a transference of souls just by imagination, and then into the cycle of rebirth.  And it ends up as a playful, vivid demonstration of the idea of pantheism– we’re all forms of Shiva, but just don’t realize it.

Still, it’s the little details that create the intense dreaminess of the passage: Jivata’s drunken stupor, the celestial woman making love, the bee’s infatuation with lotus sap. (As Doniger points out, the common element running through the dream is desire.)

 

Is there any advice which you used to give to conlangers but now
consider misguided? What was it, why did you think it was good advice,
and how has your attitude changed to make it not-good?

—Thomas

This is going to be pretty boring, but: nah, not really. My stuff is mostly not advice per se; it’s just introducing linguistics to people. When I do have regrets, it’s usually that I haven’t covered somnething, and the solution is usually to write another book.:)  So a lot of things that didn’t get into the LCK got into ALC instead.

I did take the opportunity to revise the LCK to give a better introduction to aspect, though.

I always wanted to give a better overview of transformations and how they revolutionized syntax. I studied that a lot in college and found it fascinating.  On the other hand… well, I can’t really say a conlanger has to know that stuff.  Plus the field never reached a consensus on the best way to handle syntax.  (My Axunašin grammar attempts to do justice to transformations, though I think it’d have to be three times as long, and include lots of cumbersome trees, to really explain the concept.)

 

Alert reader Raphael reminded me that my website is now 20 years old.  That’s, like, older than several multibillion-dollar web businesses; I obviously wasn’t a very savvy operator.

To celebrate, I’ve created an explosion of content!

Hopefully that’s a little something for everybody.

The best Catwoman comic may not be a Catwoman comic at all.  Of the ones I’ve read, I liked Darwyn Cooke’s the best. But I found a book that is just what I think Catwoman should be: Paul Tobin and Colleen Coover’s Bandette. It started as a webcomic, but it’s now available in two hardbound volumes.

bandette rembrandt

Bandette is a Parisian teen girl thief.  (Her real name is Maxime Plouffe.)  The first two chapters set the tone: she breaks into a mansion, steals some Rembrandt minatures, gets seen, escapes, helps out her police friend with the aid of her teen irregulars, talks to her rival (whose nom de vol is Monsieur), flirts with her friend Daniel, and earns a death sentence from a villain named Absinthe.

It’s fun, it’s well done, and it’s completely weightless.  No grimdark at all, at least in volume 1– Absinthe seems no more dangerous than Mr. Rastapopoulos in Tintin. Can you tell I’m sick of grimdark?  Not long ago in the DC universe, Joker apparently cut his face off.  And then his face became a McGuffin for awhile, and then he got it back again.  Back on his face, that is.  I guess that’s pretty crazy, but a) it’s a steal from another media property; and b) it’s really pretty dumb. It’s grimdark as the camp body horror other half of Batman 1966.

I’m guessing Tobin has read some French BDs… the fact that the police inspector’s name is BD may be a clue; also the Tintin-level mixture of humor and adventure. Bandette also owes something to Irma Vep, classic catsuited French thief.  Tobin has everyone talk as if poorly translated from French:

Daniel: But what is this list?

Bandette: Is it not obvious, Daniel?  It is a mischief list!

Daniel: A mischief list?

Bandette: Yes, it’s very exciting! It’s a listing of items owned by Absinthe.  …It would be the height of folly to attempt to steal them.

Bandette aims to do just that, of course– she has a very high opinion of herself. Which in a real person is not a very attractive quality, but she somehow pulls it off, perhaps because the fun she’s having is so contagious.  (When she visits Monsieur, to propose a mutual challenge, she starts off by asking if he has any cookies.)

I picked it up on the strength of Coover’s name– I loved her Small Favors, and few artists are so good at drawing cute girls. But she can draw much more: big-nosed Parisian cops, middle-aged master thieves, Parisian rooftops, etc.  It’s stylized but beautifully drawn; it fits the story perfectly.

I think what goes wrong in most of the Catwoman books I’ve seen is precisely the lack of lightness.  It’s fine if things go wrong– that’s what makes stories.  But I want her to be smart, witty, resourceful, a little cocky, and graceful and admirable as a thief– like Bandette.  There’s no need to give her the same traumas as Batman.

(I was at the library today and volume two was unavailable.  So these remarks are based on volume one.  If she runs into Joker in the next book, it’s not my fault.)

The one DC book that captures some of this lightness is Amanda Conner’s Harley Quinn. A recent episode had Power Girl hit by a space alien and lose her memory.  She wakes up in Harley’s back yard, and Harley convinces her that she is actually her loyal sidekick.  Wacky is hard to pull off, but Conner gets just the right balance, I think.

I finished reading the Ramayana. Or at least I think I did.  What I read was a modern retelling, The Ramayana: A Modern Retelling of the Great Indian Epic, by Ramesh Menon. The author explains that previous retellings were “too short” as well as too Shakespearian, while he finds scholarly translations lacking “poetry and mystery”, and even more archaic in language. Besides, who has really read Rāmāyaṇam except those who have plowed through its 24,000 verses in Sanskrit?

(By the way, you might like to know that the accept goes on the antepenult: ra-MA-ya-na. Same rule as Latin, actually: two final short vowels in CV syllables are unstressed.)

Ravana and Rama

The story, for an epic, is simple enough.  Ravana, the king of the rakshasas (the race of demons or perhaps daemons), makes a tapasya— a period of penance and self-mortification.  He has ten heads; after each thousand years of tapasya, he cuts off another head and throws it in the sacrificial fire.  At the end of ten thousand years, he prepares to cut off his last head. Shiva appears and grants him a boon. He asks for strength above all creatures.  (He also gets his nine heads back.)  Unsatisfied, he sits for another tapasya, this time to Brahma, the Creator.  When Brahma appears, he asks for the boon that no god may kill him, no rakshasa, no asura or daitya or gandharva or any other divine or demonic being. This granted, he goes off to conquer the three worlds– earth, heaven, and hell.

(If you’re a conworlder, pause to admire that opener.  Would you have created an origin story like that for your Big Bad? Where he takes a perfectly valid spiritual path to get his superpowers?)

He has made only one mistake: thinking them beneath him, he omitted to ask for protection from humans.  Or monkeys, for that matter.

Eventually Ravana’s crimes (what are they?  we’ll get back to this) become too much, and the gods petition Vishnu for relief.  He agrees to incarnate as a human being, one who will eventually slay Ravana.  His avatar will be Rama, son of king Dasaratha of Ayodhya.

The overall bones of the story are already in place, but some more complications are needed. Rama must go on a few missions to get out of the palace and level up. He meets Sita, daughter of the king of Mithila.  As Rama is the perfect man, she is the perfect woman, and an avatar of Lakshmi.  They are married right away.

The king has three wives, and one of them is tempted by her evil servant to ask for a boon.  This is to send Rama into exile for fourteen years and make her own son Bharata crown prince. She had saved Dasaratha’s life once, so he has to fulfill her wish; Rama, being perfect, acquiesces gracefully.  He takes Sita and his brother Lakshmana, goes into the jungle, and lives like a rishi, a holy man– wearing barkskin clothes and dreadlocks, hunting to support themselves.

Even this is too much bliss for a heroic character, and after Rama gets into an altercation with a colony of 14,000 rakshasas and kills them all, Ravana takes notice– and kidnaps Sita.  Oh, now it’s on, ten-head dude.

So how is it?

Initial reaction: those ancient Indians knew how to epic.  If you like big fantasy epics you’ll probably dig it. In fact it’ll probably satisfy your fantasy hunger better than (say) the Morte Darthur, or the Iliad. Bronze age or medieval warfare, after all, is just humans of similar powers and mentalities killing each other.  In the Ramayana you get different species, magical powers, and excursions into spirituality and romance.

If you’re used to fantasy, you probably crave unusual worlds, but may balk at unusual narrative conventions. A traditional epic was normally told to people who already knew the story, so there is no attempt to hide how it ends. It’s also a religious story, and there’s little of the modern interest in finding the sins of the good and the charms of the evil. For that matter Menon is quite happy to tell you, and often, that Rama is good and Ravana is evil.

I’d also say that Menon hits a sweet spot of modern but not slangy English. Epics shouldn’t sound dusty.

I did see one review that mused that Menon might have tried too hard to Westernize the source materials. Maybe it seems that way if you’ve chewed on the original, or on more scholarly translations, but for the rest of us, Menon’s version is plenty non-Western. The one criticism I’d have, in fact, is that he is a little too devoted to Sanskrit terms.  I understand the impulse– Sanskrit is beautiful, and mistranslation or poor translation can be heartbreaking.  But I don’t know that it adds that much to have Sanskrit terms that are simply glossed “weapon” or “lake” or “trident”.

(I do have to say that Book Six goes on for a long, long time. It’s the final battle, and it takes over a hundred pages.  Every single one of Ravana’s family and commanders has to go up against Rama and his army. If you like superhero comics or movies, it’s basically that. But I tire of superhero comics, too.)

Good and evil

In some ways Ravana is the prototype of an evil overlord. But in many ways he’s not.

You expect Sauron’s lair to be hard iron and rock, all midnight black and lava red. Ravana has a city, which is… preternaturally beautiful. It’s rich and lovely, and full of happy rakshasas.  Ravana knows his Vedic lore, and he has his own rakshasa brahmins.  He’s described as regal and magnificent, and he certainly has the unforced loyalty of his family, his commanders, and his army. We’re even told that many of the women in his harem submit to him quite happily, sighing only that his visits are so infrequent.

So what is his crime?  Well, he’s a warmonger, of course, going so far as to attack and defeat Indra in heaven, and Yama, Death himself, in hell. This is hardly a sin, however– conquering people is pretty much how an emperor is expected to behave.

Rakshasas do have a nasty habit of eating rishis. They like interfering with the rishis’ sacrifices and meditation, and even more than that they like eating animal and human flesh. That’s pretty bad, but you could also say it’s their role in the ecosphere.  Rather like Greek polytheism, Hindu cosmology comes across as ethically neutral.  Gods can sin; demons may be wise kings or scholars; the great trinity will grant boons to anyone who can muster a tapasya. And they’re all related anyway. (Ravana is the great-grandson of Brahma.)

Ravana’s big failing, it turns out, is women– of many species.  To be blunt, he’s a rapist.  Though by the time he meets Sita, this has already bitten him where it hurts: one of the husbands he’d wronged curses him, and this is a world where curses hurt: if he rapes another woman his heads, all ten of them, will explode.  So when he kidnaps Sita he doesn’t try to force himself on her; he merely tries every variation of threat and cajoling for months on end. His wiser councilors tell him, not to ease up on the rishi-munching, but to return Sita and apologize to Rama. But he’s fallen in love with her and is willing to fight to the end.

To clarify, as a religion of course Hinduism is very pro-virtue (dharma). Humans are supposed to be virtuous.  And gods are too… when they do sin, they have to do penance or suffer.

The problem of Sita

For a modern reader, the most disturbing aspect of the story are instances where, after Ravana has been defeated, Rama makes a big deal of Sita spending so many months with Ravana, and being tainted.  The text is quite clear that Sita is entirely innocent.  In both cases Rama claims that he never doubted her, but has to be severe in order to put other people’s doubts to rest. And I’m sorry, avatar of  Vishnu or not, that is a dick move.

One of the instances is in the 7th kanda or book of the poem, and supposedly there are doubts that it was original. (The story really ends with book 6; the 7th is largely a prequel, telling the story of how Ravana got to rule the three worlds, and includes a few stories of what happened during Rama’s 10,000-year kingship.)  The other instance may be an interpolation as well… or the fact that people say so seems to indicate that disquiet over the treatment of Sita isn’t new.

Nina Paley’s Sita Sings the Blues is a response to Sita’s mistreatment, and a lot of fun in itself.

Connections

One of the more enchanting bits of the Ramayana is the nature of Rama’s army: besides his brother, it’s all monkeys.  (His brother Bharata is ruling back in Ayodhya, and it doesn’t seem to occur to anyone to send a human army.)  Rama makes the acquaintance of Hanuman, a vanara or intelligent magical monkey, and he leads him to the king of the monkeys. They turn out to be a pretty good set of allies, and as they remind Ravana, he forgot to ask Brahma to protect him against monkeys, too.

This raises the question of whether Sūn Wùkōng, the Monkey King of Journey to the West, is based on Hanuman or on any of the other vanaras. They both have transformation powers, they both help achieve a spiritual mission, they both have magical leaps, they both combine heroism with a little mischief, they both were more arrogant in their youth.  Buddhists don’t directly read the Ramayana, but versions of the story are popular in Buddhist areas, and the Monkey King probably owes a large debt to Rama’s helper.

More speculatively, I wonder if the avatar idea influenced Christianity. The Ramayana was written no later than about 300 BC, at a time when Hellenic kingdoms bridged the gap from the Mediterranean to the Indus. That gods could take a temporary human form was of course no great imaginative leap, but the Hindu idea was of a god living an entire human life, fully human and not always conscious of his divinity. It seems like a strange idea to have occurred to strict Jewish monotheists, of all peoples.

I also wonder if JRR Tolkien ever read some version of the Ramayana. The idea of multiple sentient races, some close to God, some near-demonic, was not commonplace in fantasy before him, and there it is in the Ramayana. The general atmosphere– an evil lord far to the south, kings in exile, valued and powerful gurus, numinous elder races, key actions by eagles, various ages of the world each declining from the last, all remind me of LOTR. I’m reminded that C.S. Lewis’s brother in his childhood was fascinated by India– it doesn’t seem like a huge stretch that a British writer in the time of the empire might have heard some of these stories.

Finally, if you’re an AD&D player of my generation, you will remember rakshasas from the very fine illustration of a tiger rakshasa in the Monster Manual. They are a little underpowered, and I don’t know where they got the tiger bit.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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