An Update on Monsters Among Us

Okay wow, it has been a bit. Who knew that raising a child could be so time-consuming? I mean, at least there’s not still a pandemic, rising homegrown fascism (fueled by just the most brazen ignorance), a largely ineffective American government, and one of the most useless and wasteful wars in history also going on…

You’d think with all the complications of life, it would be fun to escape into some creative writing. Ordinarily I’d agree with you, but Monsters Among Us, my next novel, has proven to be anything but ordinary. This draft has been sitting, fully written and 95% edited for months. I’m no stranger to writer’s block but this goes beyond anything I’ve ever experienced as a writer. So, what exactly is going on with Monsters Among Us?

Continue reading An Update on Monsters Among Us

Frankenstein vs. Dracula: The Battle for Social Progress

I might as well lower everyone’s hopes right now. No one is actually fighting in this essay. If you want to see Frankenstein’s monster duke it out with the Count, I recommend tracking down this film instead. No, today I’m more concerned with the theme than the monster used to showcase it. In particular, I’m going to be discussing how two of the western world’s most famous monster stories have polar opposite themes, and how they have informed (American) society in the past century.

Frankenstein: Humanity before Progress

Those who have not read Mary Shelley’s 1817 novel or witnessed the 1994 film adaptation by Kenneth Branagh may be surprised to learn that the story of Frankenstein is, in part, bookended by the story of Captain Robert Walton, a failed writer turned would-be explorer out to “discover” the North Pole in the name of scientific progress – ice and freezing temperatures be damned. It is through this misadventure that Walton meets Dr. Frankenstein and hears the tale of the creation of the creature.

After learning of how Frankenstein’s blind ambition and irresponsibility destroyed his family and cost lives, Walton has a choice to make: Push on or turn back. Victor Frankenstein, near death though he is, urges everyone to keep going. After all, forward progress must be maintained! Walton, however, decides to not listen to his newly discovered nutcase friend and instead orders the ship to return. Frankenstein dies shortly thereafter, but not before telling Walton “happiness in tranquility and avoid ambition.”

It’s pretty on the nose. Dr. Frankenstein is depicted as someone controlled by his desire to keep going, his ambition toward discovery, progress, and knowledge. Responsibility, and by extension, humanity, come second. Even after the creature has murdered and destroyed, Victor still wants to go on. He’s not someone to say “enough is enough.”

Dracula: Humanity due to Progress

In Bram Stoker’s 1897 novel Dracula, by contrast, depicts progress in a much more positive light. It is a man of learning, Professor Abraham Van Helsing, who leads the charge against Dracula. Moreover, Van Helsing and his vampire hunters use technological advances (such as the railroad) to outmaneuver Dracula and arrive in Transylvania ahead of him. This allows the vampire hunters to set a trap, killing the Count before he can return to his castle.

In this way, Dracula actually shares something in common with another famous monster, King Kong. Both are shown to be apex predators in their native lands, killing with impunity and dominating the local people. Once they enter modern civilization, however, they are met by forces they do not understand, forces that – while at first appear weaker – have an understanding of technology that prove to be fatal to the would-be invader (it is worth noting that Dracula comes to civilization willingly, while Kong is forced).

This is not to say technology is the sole good guy. Indeed, Stoker’s approach is far more nuanced. Many of the techniques used by Van Helsing are spiritual tools, rather than scientific instruments – and the professor himself chastises many of his scientific colleagues for being too dismissive of possibilities (such as the existence of vampires) if science cannot offer an immediate answer. That said, I feel that Van Helsing’s attitude, his “let’s keep an open mind and gather all the facts” is intrinsically a scientific mindset, and he is simply being critical of human weakness, it’s ability to lapse into “easy answers, no questions” rather than continuing to progress, even if it means challenging pre-existing beliefs.

In this way, Dracula is an even more progressive book, as takes a man of scientific height in society as showcases him as a hungry learner, someone who is never content to just listen to what other people have done, but who must earn the knowledge himself.

Dracula’s Adaptations: The Loss of Progress

The reason I focus on the role of technology in Dracula (the book has numerous other critical interpretations) is because it is often overlooked. Heck, the Wikipedia page of Dracula doesn’t even include modernization and technology as a major theme. To date, I have never seen a film or television adaptation of Dracula that actually preserves this aspect of the novel. Most are too concerned with the women’s necklines or the allure of a sexual predator to even think about what the heroes are doing.

While pretty much every adaptation preserves the cautionary conservatism of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, very few (none judging by what I’ve seen) deem Van Helsing and co.’s use of modern science to defeat Dracula as worth keeping. Perhaps it is because the latter is more timely than the former. After all, few readers in 2021 are reading about phonographs and railroads and going “wow, the future is here, man!”

And yet, given the larger body of American horror cinema, I can’t help but wonder if the fear of the new just lends itself better to horror. Let’s take a look.

Legacy in America: Dangerous Progressives

Okay, I know everything in America is political today (including so much that shouldn’t be – vaccines, climate change, freaking He-Man), but I want to stress that when I say progressive and conservative, I’m not talking Democrats and Republicans. Heck, I’m not even talking about anything new. Just look at the 1950s, an era when fears of radiation and communism dominated American horror cinema. Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Them!, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms – all of these and more essentially said “hey look at this new idea, it’s pretty scary when you think about it!”

It carries over, even today, into “liberal” Hollywood. Thanos, the most famous movie villain in recent memory, can be seen as a metaphor for climate extremists. And he’s not alone: Kingsmen: The Secret Service (2014) and Godzilla: King of the Monsters (2019) also feature similar antagonists. Those who wish to upend the status quo are often seen as villains, even if their motives are just:

It’s very common and shows no signs of slowing down. This is not to say that conservative ideas are never depicted as villainous – heck, while Disney is doing dangerous progressives in Marvel, they often save evil conservatives for their animated feature films. In general, however, I feel that the Frankenstein theme of “progress must be checked constantly by humanity or else disaster ensues” is more prevalent than Dracula‘s “yeah science isn’t perfect but we can vanquish a lot of longstanding evils with modern tools and weapons.”

Of course, every now and then you get a work of fiction that goes for a more complicated route…something more challenging and thus, more difficult to pull off. I encountered one such work recently, which is why next time we’re going to be talking about Ready Player Two.

They Lost the Power: Revelation

Well people of all ages, it’s that time again: Time for a creator to bring a new and creative spin to an existing franchise…and time for some “fans” to freak out about it. The most remarkable thing about any of this is that it’s actually not Star Wars for once. So what franchise are the woke elite after today? None other than:

Is nothing sacred!?!

Yes, today’s victim of the cruel SJW agenda is none other than He-Man, beloved action figure, not even remotely homoerotic hero of Eternia. I recently sat down to watch creator Kevin Smith’s new take on the Masters of the Universe…and really loved it. Like yeah, I hope the ending doesn’t stink but I’m very much onboard with this new exploration.

But of course, I never really watched the original show. It was a bit before my time (He-Man being really popular from roughly 1981 to 1987). I had the toys though, by virtue of having two older brothers. Oh lord did we have the toys. I’m honestly not sure if there was anything we didn’t have – we had all the characters, all the playsets, it was awesome. I say this to give my background as a He-Man “fan”…someone who likes the universe but really never got into it beyond as an action figure line, at least until Noelle Stevenson’s excellent She-Ra series came along in 2018.

Had all these and so much more!

After all these years, it’s wonderful to see such awesome stories coming from Eternia and Etheria. What’s less wonderful? Seeing continued toxic reactions to the efforts to update He-Man and She-Ra for the 21st century. I wish I could say it was a new phenomena, but sadly this has been around for a while.

He-Man and the Masters of Sexism

And you don’t need to take my word for it! Just give the He-Man episode from the Netflix show The Toys that Made Us a watch. One of the creators involved basically blames She-Ra for He-Man losing popularity. It’s been a while so I won’t try to quote, but what he said basically boiled down to “once girls had the power it wasn’t fun anymore.”

Boy does that seem to have some real truth to it now, doesn’t it? It truly does appear that certain people only care about having the power so long as it means taking it away from someone else. When women have the power? Ah they ruin everything! Just look at this planet largely ruled by men…hey wait a minute…

Not to get dramatic about it, but this is so tiring. First She-Ra “ruins” He-Man by daring to exist (all to bring more money to Mattel). Then Noelle Stevenson “ruins” She-Ra by daring to draw the character as anything less than a super feminine goddess. Now, even super geek Kevin Smith has managed to “ruin” He-Man by focusing and expanding upon a character that the old show was happy to have only as window dressing: Teela.

For the record…this was the She-Ra image that sparked the controversy. Wow, right? What a thing to get angry at.

I can’t wait to see how the upcoming cgi series manages to “ruin” the series next.

Change: A Never-Ending Story

As American culture continues into the roaring (or maybe frothing?) 2020s, it has become clear that the backlash against change will endure. Many “fans” have taken it upon themselves to become guardians and gatekeepers of the art they love and are willing to turn incredibly hostile whenever they perceive something new aka threatening.

And of course, since it’s the age of the internet, trolls are along for the ride, striking whenever and however they can. Some of these trolls are random idiots with nothing better to do. Others, well let’s say they have a bit more funding from a foreign source. Russia. I’m talking about Russia.

All of this to create a sort of constant culture war whenever anyone dares try to bring something new to an established property. And when I say something new, I mean something that doesn’t neatly fit into the original patriarchal image. See He-Man has been remade and rebooted before, once in the early 1990s and again in the early 2000s. I actually watched the latter. It was…a show? Like totally fine but not at all exceptional in any real way, at least in my opinion.

But both of those remakes were relatively safe. Both kept the focus exactly where it had been when interest dried up in 1987. Neither tried to really bring in anything new. Hey do you want to see He-Man fight Skeletor again? Well you’re in luck! Everyone else who doesn’t care about He-Man (aka the majority of audiences) went right on with their lives. This is why He-Man sank from a pop culture icon to toy collector obscurity. As American scholar Michael G. Cornelius puts it: He-Man is a narrow definition of masculinity, one that is only really focused on physical strength.

Can We End the Review Bomb?

Okay very witty, but what can we do? Well, the good news is that – so long as people keep their heads – we shouldn’t have to do much. Toxic people and trolls love to review bomb. It is their first weapon in the war to shut down the scary new. Next they will allude to these obviously fake reviews on their social media, thus trying to legitimize them in their own social circles.

Does it work? Oh yeah – been working like a curse in the American political space. Just say something is true and that everyone believes it over and over again without ever providing real proof until it is suddenly part of the cultural narrative. Masters of the Universe: Revelation is currently being review bombed on Rotten Tomatoes, IMDB, and probably Metacritic (I haven’t checked but it is super easy to review bomb on Metacritic).

Just as a refresher: review bombing does not mean that many actual people are complaining (that almost never happens so quickly). What it does mean is that a select few people are using bots and other online tools to create fake accounts for the sole purpose of driving down overall scores. Since many review sites now use aggregates to give first-glance appraisals, review bombs can have immediately visible consequences. For example, if I recall correctly – Last of Us II, a 20+ hour game, already had over 250,000 negative reviews on Metacritic inside of 12 hours of release.

Now we as normal people can’t really do much about this apart from writing said aggregate sites and asking them to improve their internal policies to stop this before it gets rolling. Rotten Tomatoes tends to purge every now and then, as does Metacritic – I’m not really sure what if anything IMDB does.

But sadly, Masters of the Universe: Revelation may have the same “controversial” label as The Last Jedi, Ghostbusters 2016, The Last of Us II, and anything else in the near future that dares take a property some “men” have dubbed theirs and empower women within the storytelling.

Is it a correct narrative? Hardly ever, but it is the one they’re desperate to keep us talking about. Why? Because someone else now also has the power, and that really upsets them. Personally, I can’t wait to talk about the themes of Masters of the Universe: Revelations once the story concludes in Part 2.

Oh, and since Netflix is doing so many new takes on He-Man, can this be a show:

Also for the record, nothing in this article was directed at those who actually watched Masters of the Universe: Revelations and just didn’t care for it. I’m specifically talking about the idiots who made up their minds before the show aired and were ready to start review bombing right away. You know, the people who heard the word “Teela” and immediately dubbed the show “woke.” That crowd.