Whitewashing With Big Time Mediocrity


In my post on the Avatar film casting controversy, I expressed a lot of skepticism over the choice of as director. Those reservations were based on the films he has directed throughout his career. His style, preferred subject matter, and increasing pretentious quality, are incompatible with the kind of straightforward adventure found in the original series.

As for the casting controversy, while not absolving him of being involved in this mess, this casting call and the choice of four all-white tween heart-throbs might have been pushed on him by Paramount to maximize the film's mainstream appeal and profitability. Whether this is true, and whether he initially fought, or unquestioningly supported, those directives is something no insider has yet divulged (as far as I know). Even Avatar's creators have kept mum this entire time. The silence from everyone is deeply suggestive of something going on behind the scenes.

The replacement of one of the leads with Indian-British actor in some ways actually makes things worse. 1st: it comes across as tokenism calculated to assuage fans who have initiated letter writing campaigns. Coming off the success of , Patel is already a proven talent and thus a relatively conservative choice. But 2nd: he's being cast in the antagonist role, making him the villainous Oriental fighting against the heroic Caucasians. And 3rd: the casting of a South Asian to play a role closer to East Asian still smacks of cultural insensitivity. All Asians apparently still all look the same to Hollywood.

The casting controversy has engendered some rather vehement online denials over the show's problematic Asian identity. This being the internet, they can get as tiresome and monotonous as self-righteous fan outrage. So I'd rather single-out Derek Kirk Kim's post again, as well as that of Gene Yang. Matt Thorn's essay on the drawing styles of Japanese manga and anime serve the case of Avatar just as well.

Given how little information is available on what is still the preproduction phase, no one knows yet what the film will finally look like. Fans are assuming that Shyamalan is attempting to reproduce the Asian-flavored world of Avatar. Hence the yellowface accusations. But it's possible that before this is over Shyamalan will stray from the cartoon's premise and present us with some kind of corporate-defined multicultural setting in order to give the studio an excuse to sidestep those accusations. Such a hypocritical alteration would then be used to justify ignoring demands to recast the leading roles.

The creators of Avatar mirror the young audience's fascination with manga and anime - A phenomena Hollywood doesn't really get. It falls outside a certain narrow stylistic range of animation. It doesn't fit into traditional views of their audience. It must be Westernized, whitewashed, and watered-down by comitee into something mediocre. Given the stuff he has to work with, I'll be very surprised if Shyamalan somehow succeeds in forging this material into something truly original.

More on Avatar Racebending


Geeks in Love

Marie and Pierre Curie by Kate Beaton.
Marie and Pierre

Kate Beaton has drawn some Valentine Day's cartoons.This one's my favorite. I am a little bit fascinated with the Curies. Is Marie trying to pour radium down the back of Pierre's neck?


Sulk #1-2

Sulk #1 by Jeffrey Brown.Sulk #12by Jeffrey Brown.

I have to admit that my exposure to Jeffrey Brown has been limited to his autobiographical work. But his latest project is a series of digest-sized books titled Sulk. Each volume is a standalone work so the reader isn't required to pick-up the other books. From what I understand, the series is a catch-all title for whatever subject matter Brown wants to tackle. So this is a good opportunity as any to explore the versatility of his output.

Issue one, which is titled "Bighead and Friends," features the return of his gentle superhero parody featuring a main character who's superpower is his unusually large cranium. The volume reads as a series of episodes representing the contents of several pamphlet issues. Brown's obviously well-versed in the various superhero conventions. Bighead battles an array of villains: some typical, others offbeat. He teams-up with other heroes. He has adventures as "Little Bighead." He dies and is resurrected. He even gets to encounter "The Author" in one story. Unlike the writer Grant Morrison revealing to Animal Man that he is a fictional creation, the Author simply torments Bighead with a bunch of seven year olds.

Sulk 1
Brown's parody works so well in part due to the awkward and rubbery look of his characters. They're cute and appealing without being too obnoxious. His gags don't require any kind of insider knowledge of any pre-existing continuity to understand them. Brown just celebrates the absurd nature of superhero comics. In one story the police, frustrated by Bighead's interference in a sting operation to arrest drug addicts, send a clone(?) to battle him. After a lengthy fight someone emerges victorious. But the narrator neglects to mention which Bighead won that fight.

While not groundbreaking, "Bighead and Friends" is recommended to anyone looking for good superhero parodies to read.

Issue Two is titled "Deadly Awesome." It's a more ambitious volume composed of one story instead of several pieces. The subject is a mixed martial arts match. The story is structured to resemble a televised coverage of a fight: The pre-fight interviews, short bios of the competitors, a rundown of the rules, and analysis of the ringside commentators. Anyone who has watched enough TV fights can imagine the crowds screaming and the music blaring.

The fight itself is at first glance a stereotypical David vs. Goliath battle between a cagey veteran middleweight from Japan called Haruki Rabasaku, and a much younger light-heavyweight powerhouse from America named Eldark Garprub. Age vs. youth; East vs. West; Small vs. big; Skill vs. power. They're all familiar memes within the Asian fighting arts.*

Where the story departs from the conceit of a televised coverage is that the narrator uses thought balloons and narrative captions to expose the inner workings of each fighter's mind. Both fighters carefully consider their options rather than blindly rushing in to finish of the opponent. This helps to undermine any misconception that MMA fighting is a brutish affair for violent thugs.

Sulk 2
It would seem at first that Brown's style isn't particularly suited to the subject matter. But while his figures still retain their elastic nature, they're drawn more realistically to more properly capture the athletic physiques of the fighters. The action is believably portrayed without exaggeration. Brown has either heavily referenced his characters or has watched enough fights to create a fictional fight from scratch completely while envisioning every technique. Brown also uses a greater variety narrative techniques to flesh out the action and each fighter's emotional state : In one panel little imaginary Rabasaku heads dance in front of the frustrated Garprub's face when he fails to land a punch despite gaining a superior position.

One limitation of the story is that the characters get little treatment beyond their abilities as fighters. As a result there is little emotional investment in the outcome of the match. It's well told, but no better than a real-life MMA fight.

*The image of the tiny Oriental defeating the larger clumsy Westerner propagated in the popular media, has its basis on real-life challenge matches that took place in late nineteenth/early twentieth century East Asia. These were usually initiated by expatriate boxers in need of money or hoping to boost their reputations. If a native won, he was feted as a patriotic hero by the local press. Post-War American soldiers stationed in Japan would sometimes study Japanese budo. They tended to be the targets of bullying from their seniors who were interested in impressing on their foreign charges the inherent value of their skills.

While MMA has been cited as a test case to demolish the idea of the smaller skilled master defeating the larger man, this is not the first time the myth has been tested. Perhaps the best example can be found in . Japanese judoka were initially ambivalent about enforcing weight classes before 1964. Their attitude changed after 1961 when The massive 6'7" Dutchman crushed the best Japanese fighters in the open class competition of the World Championships. Weight classes were officially adapted when Judo became an official event at the 1964 Olympics in Tokyo. continued the early Judo tradition of fighting in local challenge matches, an important precursor to the Ultimate Fighting Championships. The early UFC events had no weight divisions. During this period Brazilian jiu-jitsu exponent developed a reputation for defeating larger opponents who were less experienced as Gracie was in this format. But as the skill level of American fighters inevitably rose, weight divisions were introduced.


No Spirit

The Spirit (2008) directed by Frank Miller.
via aceshowbiz
Speaking of film adaptations...

I finally saw Frank Miller's version of The Spirit this weekend. While I never believed that Miller had it in him to stay faithful to comic book creation, I wasn't prepared to be so bored with the experience. A lot of that could be blamed on the indifferent acting and poor characterization: Whether it was Gabriel Macht's interminable monologues as The Spirit, Samuel Jackson's overacting as the villainous Octopus, Dan Lauria's grousing as the disapproving Commissioner Dolan, or the several interchangeable femme-fatales, the movie's characters are nothing but tedious and cliched.

There was never any great demand for a Spirit movie. The character doesn't have the name recognition of more famous comic book heroes. And unlike other properties adapted into film, The Spirit has always been attached to a very specific milieu. That this film ever saw the light of day was probably due to Frank Miller being involved with it - Which is the point when things became problematic. Not only do Miller's present stylistic ticks conflict with Eisner's humanism despite sharing superficial similarities, Miller is also a rookie director. His stark visual design and framing of shots is similar to the comic panels he draws. But that doesn't mean he knows how to handle actors or pace his story. The result is a monotonously told narrative.

The Spirit not only shares little in common with its source material (No Ebony White, the hero has a healing factor) but shows a lack of synergy between its interpretation and the current comic book re-imagining being published by DC. While comic book fans would like to see this movie buried and forgotten, it's unfortunate that the movie, not the comic, will be for many their first and only exposure to the character.