Fighting the Phonies 1919-2010

“I thought what I’d do was, I’d pretend I was one of those deaf-mutes. That way I wouldn’t have to have any goddamn stupid useless conversations with anybody. If anybody wanted to tell me something they’d have to write it on a piece of paper and shove it over to me. They’d get bored as hell doing that after a while, and then I’d be through with having conversations for the rest of my life.”

Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex makes recurring references to the work of legendary American recluse JD Salinger, whose judgemental Holden Caulfield in Catcher in the Rye bears some similarity to the Laughing Man, and even supplies the quote for his logo. The tune, ‘Comin’ Through the Rye’, is a regular feature of daily life in Japan in everything from elevator doors to pelican crossings, and has cropped up before in the anime Vampire Hunter D and Grey: Digital Target.

Salinger’s short story ‘The Laughing Man’ was first printed in the New Yorker magazine in 1949, and featured a tale within a tale, about a boy kidnapped by Chinese bandits, and vengefully tortured by having his head partly crushed in a vice. Left with a gaping hole where his mouth should be, he takes to obscuring the lower part of his face with a mask. He proves a fast learner, even comprehending the language of wolves, and becomes a bandit with skills he had learned from his former captors. But his whole existence is a case of misdirection, for the story is actually about something else entirely, the tales of banditry and derring-do merely the means employed by a character to distract the reader from the real story going on around him, a thwarted romance.

(Excerpted from Jonathan Clements’s sleeve notes to the Ghost in the Shell: Stand Alone Complex box set, released in the UK by Manga Entertainment, and reprinted in the collection Schoolgirl Milky Crisis).

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Cameron's Artifice

I have been having a good giggle this week at the redesigned election posters at http://www.mydavidcameron.com. for readers outside the UK, this is a site that lampoons the opposition election campaign by inviting the public to creatively vandalise one of their posters. The example illustrated, by one Ian Yates, is particularly nice, although I am baffled by the UK public’s supposed indignation about one element of the campaign.

There are plenty of things to argue about in British politics — real issues like education, health, crime and defence. And yet a large proportion of this week’s debate seems to have been about the fact that the picture of opposition leader David Cameron has been *airbrushed*. As if this is some sort of sin against nature.

I find it odd largely because the newspapers and TV shows behind this furore will be fully aware that everyone is airbrushed. On my days as editor of Manga Max, Vanessa the designer used to spend hours touching up the covers, even though they were often supposedly flawless anime digital images to begin with. She spent similar intricate efforts making the insides of the magazine look nice. Few images available to the press are ever plug-and-play.

Back when I was a presenter on Saiko Exciting on the Sci Fi channel, there was a brief storm in a teacup over the revelation that I wore make-up on air. This was whipped up by some people who thought that there was something unmanly about it, as if I were duping the viewers by not letting them ogle my zits. The plaintiffs seemed unaware that everybody wears make-up in TV, because you’re sitting under zillion-watt lights that make you look like zombies otherwise.

Most large-scale advertising images are doctored. If you’re on an billboard at 1200 dots per inch, why on earth would you want to look bad?

This isn’t even new. There was a little squib of fun in the 1940s, when a British politician’s wife, Lady Diana Cooper, was amused to discover that the president of Finland, Carl Gustaf Mannerheim, was wearing make-up when he met her. She didn’t consider that Mannerheim was also meeting the press that day, facing down the world’s media, and hoping not to look like someone who had been living in a shed in the forest.

A digital effects technician of my acquaintance got his first break in the industry going through a film that you have heard of, frame by frame, gently erasing the blemishes from the face of the leading lady. An actress of whose career you are aware, sure to be named in the top ten actresses you come up with if I asked you to list them, has an asking price that includes a million dollar fund to clean up her image digitally. Now, politicians are not actresses, but give them a little credit. If David Cameron had a big spot on his nose on the day that picture was taken, only a complete idiot would run with it as a campaign image to get him elected.

In the movie field, there’s a broader issue. If you’ve got a copy of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis the book, you may have already read my discussion of the possibility that animation is now perceived as a threat to “real” films. Some forms of artifice, it seems, are more acceptable than others. Special effects that make actors look good are welcome to many Motion Picture Academy voters. Special effects that make actors redundant are a very different matter — a large proportion of MPAA voters are thespians. As “animation” becomes so heavily integrated into special effects, and special effects so heavily integrated into live action, that we see “live-action” films that are almost entirely “animated”, the chance finally arises that a “best actor” award might go to a cartoon character, that a “best movie” Oscar might go to a… well, a cartoon.

You know, I don’t think David Cameron’s people are all that worried about the satire. I think they are telling themselves that no publicity is bad publicity, and, I suspect, storing up a whole series of stories about their rivals in the Labour party (shock!) wearing make-up and doctoring their photographs, ready to roll at the next news cycle. But as for David Cameron’s long-lost cousin, James, artifice is something to be proud of. He might even get an award for it.

Death March on Wulai

For reasons not worth going into right now, I once had to climb a mountain with a group of Taiwanese special forces. I was assured that I would be in perfectly safe hands, as I was accompanied by some of the toughest men in the world, whose final examination supposedly comprised being dumped naked into the Taipei sewers and forced to subsist for three days on whatever came to hand. They were the ultimate survivalists, able to stay alive with hardly anything. It was only later I realised that this wasn’t good news for me.

They couldn’t light a fire. Nobody had brought matches or a lighter. None of the commandos knew how to rub wood together or use flint and steel, because… well, they had never needed to. Far from preparing them for the world at large, the Taipei sewer experience had left them utterly cavalier in their attitude towards survival. Nobody thought to bring a tent; they could just sleep under the stars. Food, they had decided, was an item only suitable for lazy schoolgirls. Instead, they planned on munching on any bugs that were unlucky enough to wander into their path, or possibly strangling an incautious squirrel and eating it raw.

This wasn’t much help to me. Two hours into our journey, we were hit by a typhoon. It then rained continuously for seven hours, in a relentless, pelting storm that caused mudslides and rock falls. It cut off the road back into town. The river also flooded, somewhat to the detriment of the camp site we had pitched on the bank. I was wearing shorts, a T-shirt and a pair of flip-flops. Somebody finally managed to get a fire going in a cave, and, during my ten minute shift in the dry before I had to stand outside again, I ate something in the dark that later turned out to be a pig’s small intestine.

And that’s why I don’t like camping.

Hissy Diva Fit

On 14th June 2002, I reported at Universal in London for a promotional photoshoot. I was one of three presenters on a new TV show to be called Saiko Exciting. The channel was called Sci Fi, which everyone in SF fandom thought was a daft decision. If only they knew what they’d change it to! We should have just called it Schoolgirl Milky Crisis.

—–

Two make-up artists are crouched over Sarah and Emily like surgeons, slapping in Wound Filler, Botox and whatever else it is that make-up artists slap in.

“The song goes ‘Saiko-Exciting! Come in it’s so inviting!’ Or something like that,” Sarah is saying. “I had the whole dance routine worked out, but then they made me perform it running the wrong way down a travelator, so it was kind of hard to do. Sort of like doing the can-can on roller-skates.”

The make-up artists tut sympathetically as they crimp.

“I’d have a complete HDF,” says D’Arcy, who is unfeasably camp.

The producer drags me outside and down to the studio. It’s a pokey room in the basement of the Universal building, complete with a super-smooth floor for camera tracking, which means you can’t really wear shoes on it. Inside, the cameraman and his assistant are setting up what appears to be a small radio telescope.

“This is where we’ll be doing the show,” the producer says.

“Oh,” I say striding inside purposefully. “I was expecting something much smaller.” I poke my head around the corner, to discover it isn’t a corner at all. “Actually,” I add. “Perhaps I wasn’t.”

Emily, the new presenter, has just squeezed herself into a stretchy pink thing under partly-undone military-fatigues.

“Does this make me look tarty?” she asks.

“Darling, I think we could sell you right now,” says D’Arcy.

Emily heaves a frustrated sigh, causing the topmost button of her fatigues to fly off.

“Fuckity shit,” she says, gracefully.

“Darling, don’t panic,” says D’Arcy. “I’ll just sew it back on. All we need is a needle and thread.”

Nobody has a needle and thread. It was left off the list of Important Items along with a crystal chandelier. The producer puts out an APB on the Universal intranet, and before long, a burly giant of a man from Video Editing has turned up with a hotel sewing kit.

D’Arcy gets to work. I have already read my magazine and the book I brought with me. I have however, found one of those sucky things that allows you to pick up panes of glass or climb walls like Spider-Man. I start trying to climb the wall with it.

After two and a half hours, the cameraman calls me in for my first set of shots. Because I am taller than his stepladder, I have to do the splits at a 90-degree angle to be the right height. This becomes tiring after roughly 15 minutes.

“Now listen,” says the cameraman. “It’s very important that you understand… blah blah blah… depth of field… blah blah blah… slow film… blah blah blah, focus length, blah blah, which means you can’t move off that X on the ground. Not even if we are rocked by a massive earthquake. Because it will RUIN the shot!”

I nod dumbly and he starts fiddling with lenses.

A perky girl wearing multicoloured jeans suddenly walks in front of the camera and offers me a sewing kit.

“Were you looking for a needle and thread?” she asks. I point her at Emily and D’Arcy and she shuffles off again.

“Back on your mark,” says the cameraman calmly, as he trains something like an anti-tank gun on me.

After about ten minutes, he gets off his ladder and looks at me with a look of utter befuddlement.

“It’s not the camera,” he says with knitted brows. “Your face is actually out of focus.”

It’s time for my shots with Sarah.

“I’ve never stood this close to you before, Jonathan,” she says as we gaze into the lens. “And I’m not sure I like it.”

We both check behind us for inappropriately placed signs. For the last year, there has been a picture of Sarah on the Sci-Fi channel website in which she appears to have the station logo sticking out of her arse. Nobody is sure how it got chosen, but everybody thinks it is very funny.

I discover there is an unexpected advantage to being photographed with a pretty half-Japanese model. Sarah stands in front of my beer gut and thereby helps conceal unsightly blemishes.

A shaven-headed Operations Manager built like a brick shithouse blunders into the studio holding something tiny and dainty in his hand.

“Was someone asking for a sewing kit?” he booms. He starts smiling the moment he sees Emily. She thanks him profusely while he beams ecstatically, and sends him on his way a happy man. After he has gone, she chucks it onto the growing pile.

Emily has decided to change costumes. She dons a kimono-thing which is somewhat low-cut.

“I can sew you into it,” says D’Arcy, grabbing supplies from the stack of needles and thread that is building by the door.

“You’re up next, Emily!” calls the producer.

Emily turns to answer, and connects head-on with D’Arcy’s upwardly-travelling needle, which impales her in the cheek just below her left eye.

“OH MY GOD!” screams D’Arcy. “I just stabbed the Talent in the face!”

“Ouch,” says Emily, calmly.

D’Arcy gingerly pulls her off the needle, and as she walks across the floor to the camera set-up, bright droplets of blood start to seep out. By the time she has hit her mark, she is crying red tears.

“That’s very manga,” I say to Sarah, who starts laughing.

“That’s it! That’s what I want!” yells the producer excitedly. “The two of them laughing at each other!”

“Hang on,” says the photographer, turning back from what appears to be a hospital EKG monitor. “Er… F8 I think. Give me a light reading, Andy. Eleven? Eleven! You must be joking. Oh, okay… right… change lens, take the back out… sort his collar again… is that lead in the way? Okay, backs straight… and… BE SPONTANEOUS!”

We try to be spontaneous and move off our marks.

“YOU MOVED TWO INCHES! ARE YOU STUPID!?” he yells. “HOW AM I SUPPOSED TO CREATE!?”

Behind him, D’Arcy mouths the letters “H… D…F…” and I finally understand.

A Thorn in Their Sides

It’s all been very quiet for a while over at Matt Thorn’s blog. Despite its presence in the links section at right, I’d given up checking to see if he’d done anything new. Then I’ve been busy for the last few months on a new book project and I simply haven’t had the time. Which is why I am late to the party over at his site about this article, in which Thorn puts the boot repeatedly into what passes for translation in the manga field.

This is, of course, a subject close to my heart, and I agree with everything he says. Those lucky individuals who already own a copy of Schoolgirl Milky Crisis will have already read the transcript of a lecture I gave on translation at the University of East Anglia, in which I approach many of the same issues, but with regard to the anime business. But I was speaking to an audience at the Department of Literary Translation, so I was able to ignore many of the basic issues. I was, in effect, already talking to professionals. Thorn’s frustration is born of the boggling number of *amateurs* in the manga field, who do not understand the basic principles of translation.

I’ll add no more to Thorn’s thoughts except to cut and paste an email I sent to him a couple of years ago, when we were bitching about this among ourselves:

“Last month I was offered a manga translation job for the first time in years. Apparently it required “special talents” (read: someone had to open a dictionary) and was expected to win awards and suchlike. I had apparently been on the slate for this one for three years, and now it was my Big Chance to earn what I estimated as $33 a day.

“The guy was very upfront. He showed me his sales projections and his budgets, and demonstrated that that was all he could afford to pay me. Yes, I said, but you are asking me to make your bad business decisions *my* problem. This is a one-month job, if I do it right. I will not rush it in a week just so that the money doesn’t feel like I am working at McDonalds.”

I find this topic interesting largely because it comes so fast on the heels of my comments about the continued success of Ironfist Chinmi. The money I was being offered for this project was roughly a third of what I was offered for Chinmi, and I am not sure there was any royalty element either. When I did Chinmi, I was 24-year-old graduate student and so, arguably, still young and stupid. But some modern entrants into the manga translation field are expected to accept fees that are only at 30% of 1995 rates. Are we surprised that even the good ones are over-worked, harassed and otherwise distracted?

Pay peanuts, get monkeys, as Confucius almost said.

Epiphanies

Christmas comes late for authors in Britain, as 6th January is when we receive our statements from the Public Lending Right. This is a wonderful body that pays a royalty for books taken out of British libraries. For a sole author, that’s currently a payout of 6.29 pence every time someone checks me out (in the library sense, that is). The numbers are extrapolated from sampled data, so there’s always a bit of wiggle room — this year, for example, one of my books earned nothing at all when I was quite sure it was going to be in the top slot. Depends on which libraries are being asked.

For the last ten years, my highest-earning book has been an obscure work for children that I wrote using someone else’s name (no, I am not going to tell you what it is). This month’s statement ends that reign at last, with the hardback and paperback editions of my Confucius biography officially hitting the top spot.

Here’s the JC top ten loaners for 2009:

1: Confucius: A Biography (hardback and paperback combined)

2: A Brief History of the Vikings

3: Wu: The Chinese Empress Who Schemed Seduced and Murdered Her Way to Become a Living God. This would have easily been number one if it were also available in paperback. Something which I hope the History Press gets around to sooner rather than later.

4: Bejing: The Biography of a City. Which surprises me. But it was a cheap book, and presumably a lot of libraries bought it ahead of the 2008 Olympics, as we hoped they would.

5: The First Emperor of China (hardback and paperback). Surprised this isn’t higher, to be honest. The British Museum was shipping this by the crateful during their Terracotta Army exhibition, but then again, if more people are buying it for themselves, they don’t need to go looking for it in a library.

6: Ironfist Chinmi: Cutting Edge. Yes, even though as the translator I only receive 30% of the PLR fee, Takeshi Maekawa’s Ironfist Chinmi manga occupies the #6, #7, #8 and #10 slots on my earnings from libraries. Heartening to see that it’s still earning after fifteen years on sale, although odd that Cutting Edge, the last in the series, should be the highest ranked.

7: Ironfist Chinmi: Whirlwind Fist.

8: Ironfist Chinmi: Victory for the Spirit.

9: Marco Polo.

10: Ironfist Chinmi: Drunken Master.

You’ll notice that Schoolgirl Milky Crisis isn’t on the list. In fact, although it’s registered with the PLR, it was published in February 2009, and hence unlikely to make it into any library collections by the June cut-off point. Perhaps it will show up next year. Meanwhile, the Anime Encyclopedia, despite selling more copies than most of my other books combined, continues to be low earner for PLR — this is because most libraries don’t allow visitors to check it out at all, and insist that it remains on-site as a reference work. The powers that be in the authoring world are well aware that some books slip through the net, and are trying to come up with a new model that also includes reference works that are consulted but not borrowed. Whatever; I am just immensely glad that the PLR exists at all. It never fails to brighten my Januarys.

Rumspringa

2000adcc103_thedevilsplayground_1417_cover_medium.jpgMy Judge Dredd: Devil’s Playground is in the shops. Herewith the words I wrote for the bit inside the sleeve that nobody ever reads.

My Judge Dredd: Solo was about the people who lived on the edges of Dredd’s world, in the no-man’s land of Alientown. Judge Dredd: 99 Code Red forced Dredd to confront situations more familiar from our own time – an old fashioned hospital. Trapped on Titan dealt with the rejects from Dredd’s world, a society largely comprising the perps that people like Dredd put away. When producer John Ainsworth announced that the next Dredd releases would be narrated by single individuals, I immediately volunteered to do another story from an outsider’s point of view – someone for whom simply crossing the street in Dredd’s world would be an episode of overwhelming culture shock.

The most surprising thing to me about the Amish people is not their self-imposed isolation from the American mainstream, nor even the consensual time warp that keeps them from adopting modern technologies – let’s call it 122 years in the past, the same distance that separates Dredd’s world from ours. What really surprises me is that they volunteer for it.

Today’s Amish send their teenagers out into our world for a year of self-education called “rumspringa”. They drink, they smoke, they wear jeans, they ride around in cars, and when their time is up, most of them happily leave it all behind, having learned that our modern existence is a hellish torment to be pitied rather than envied. You are already in the Devil’s Playground. Judge not…