The Joy Of… Alternative Mainstreams

The day before I prepared this article, I happened to hear about a couple of long-running BBC radio shows (one of which had been running for more than sixty series!) that I’d never even heard of before (which have possibly inspired more popular TV shows on the BBC). This intrigued me because radio seemed like a totally separate media ecosystem with it’s own traditions, history etc… that runs parallel to the more well-known one on television.

In other words, it was an alternative mainstream. I vaguely remember finding something similar whilst playing a low-budget computer game called “Retro City Rampage”, which also references well-known indie games in a similar way to how it references well-known films, old “mainstream” games etc.. This made me think of the idea of there being a “mainstream” for indie games, and how interesting this would be.

However, a better computer game-related example of this type of thing would probably be games in the hidden object genre. Although it’s been quite a while since I’ve last played a hidden object game, this is a genre that is pretty much never mentioned in mainstream gaming media, yet it pretty much has it’s own ecoystem – with big name publishers, smaller developers and long-running series (eg: “House Of 1000 Doors”, “Twisted Lands” etc.. ). It’s like an entirely different gaming culture that exists in parallel to the more well-known one.

Then there’s music. I remember hearing part of a fan recording of an Iron Maiden concert where the lead singer, Bruce Dickinson, went on this absolutely brilliant rant about how their music is never played on the radio, how it doesn’t appear in the most music magazines etc… and yet they still have literally millions of fans, because people can make up their own minds about music. It made me think about the contrast between the mainstream mainstream and alternative mainstreams.

Because Iron Maiden is, quite rightly, one of the most popular heavy metal bands out there. They were the band that introduced me to heavy metal and, even in the days when online shopping was still a relatively new thing, you could always find their CDs in even the most mainstream of high-street record shops. This made me think of the idea of a more meritocratic mainstream, where (like with heavy metal bands like Iron Maiden), popularity is determined entirely by quality and musical skill rather than celebrity.

Then there’s the TV show “Eureka”. This is a sci-fi TV series set in a secret town in America where all of the country’s top scientific geniuses live. One of the interesting things in the show was how it would reference real 20th/21st century scientists in the same way that famous historical figures etc.. are usually referenced.

Although this idea isn’t entirely new (it reminded me a bit of an old episode of “Sliders” where academics are treated like famous sports stars), it made me think about how fame in certain spheres rarely translates to fame in the everyday world. In other words, it made me think about alternative mainstreams again.

So, why are alternative mainstreams such a fascinating thing?

In addition to all of the stuff I’ve mentioned about how they often tend to work differently to the actual mainstream (eg: they can be more meritocratic, they can be less commercialist, they can be more tradition-based, they can place emphasis on different qualities etc..), there’s also the intriguing idea of these things quite literally “hiding in plain sight”, like some kind of secret parallel culture or something like that.

But, more than all of this, alternative mainstreams are fascinating because they show us how culture works. They hold a mirror up to “mainstream” culture and allow us to see which parts of it developed “naturally” and which parts of it were due to celebrity, advertising etc…

Finally, they are also reassuring because they show us that “the mainstream” isn’t the only mainstream out there. That, hiding in plain sight, there is a “world” where bands gain popularity purely on musical merit, where low-budget 2D games can be popular and where well-known programs can run for over sixty series.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

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Three Reasons Why Fan Works Can Sometimes Be Better Than Their “Official” Counterparts

Last year, I ended up watching a really brilliant “Blade Runner” fan film that was made for just $1500. The surprising thing was that it actually seemed to capture the general atmosphere and tone of the original “Blade Runner” in a slightly better way than the film’s official sequel did.

Naturally, this made me think about why fan-made things can sometimes be better than their official counterparts. And, after some thought on the matter, I’ve come up with a few possible reasons:

1) Money: Generally-speaking, fan works have a totally different relationship with money when compared to “official” creative works. The most obvious element of this is that fan works are usually only tolerated by major studios, game companies, publishers etc.. because they are non-commercial (plus, they’re both free advertising for the official thing and a way to maintain fan interest too).

Because of their non-commercial status, fan works don’t have to focus on things like appealing to a mass audience, finding big-name talent, advertising or any of that nonsense. So, they can focus more on the really important stuff like creativity, imagination and enjoyability. Because they don’t have marketing people or executives trying to meddle with the creative process, people making fan works have a lot more creative freedom.

In addition to this, the budgets for fan works often tend to be a lot lower. What this means is that people making fan works have to be more creative in order to counteract this. Since they can’t always dazzle the audience with famous names, special effects that cost millions etc.. they have to dazzle the audience with things like storytelling, interesting characters, creative design choices, acting, music etc.. instead.

Their low-budget status often also leads to more of a focus on small-scale drama too. Small-scale drama is something that is often missing from large-budget films, blockbuster novels, mainstream comics etc.. these days. So, this alone can make fan works seem a lot more interesting and creative than their “official” counterparts.

2) Refinement: The whole concept of “fan works” is a relatively new one. The distinction between “official” and “fan-made” works only really came into being with the invention of modern copyright law (and things like the printing press, cameras, sound recording etc..). Prior to this, no-one really “owned” stories, songs etc…

What this meant was that pre-existing stories and songs would often be refined over time by different people coming up with their own interpretations of them. For example, Shakespeare often based his plays on pre-existing stories. But, he’s revered as a famous playwright because of what he did with these pre-existing stories.

So, fan works can often carry on this tradition. Since they don’t have to do the hard work of making something completely new, they can focus a lot more time and effort on improving a pre-existing thing.

You can also see this in fan works’ more respectable (and legitimate) counterpart – original works inspired by other things. Computer and video games provide some really good examples of this – like how the original “Resident Evil” from 1996 is considered a classic of the survival horror genre, even though it was at least partially inspired by a game from four years earlier called “Alone In The Dark“.

The two games have a similar underlying concept (eg: escaping a monster-filled mansion) and similar gameplay mechanics, yet “Resident Evil” did some interesting new things with the template established by “Alone In The Dark”.

3) Expectations: This one is probably pretty self-explanatory. When a new official thing is made, then fans will often tend to have extremely high expectations of it. Likewise, it will often be hyped up by months of advertising and pre-release publicity too. All of this means that official works have to be especially good if they want to meet these sky-high expectations.

On the other hand, people’s expectations about fan works tend to be a lot lower. After all, there’s a lot of crappy fan-made stuff out there, plus fans often don’t have anywhere near the budget that official creative works do. As such, if a fan work is good, then it will seem even better because the audience’s expectations are a lot lower.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

English: An Open Source Language – A Ramble

Well, the night before I wrote this article, I happened to read some fascinating BBC articles about the inconsistencies in the English language and about how handwriting can vary from area to area. So, I thought that I’d talk about the English language today.

One of the really interesting things about the English language is the way that it evolved from several different languages (eg: Old English, Norse, German, Latin, French, Greek etc..) and how many English words are phonetic transcriptions of random words from various languages (eg: the word “alcohol” comes from the Arabic “al-kohl”, a term that originally meant “the eyeliner”).

This evolution also added depth to the language by giving English formal and informal vocabularies, based on different linguistic origins. Generally, words that are considered informal tend to come from German and Norse and more formal words tend to come from Latin and French. For example, most current English profanities are just Anglicised German/Norse words for the “polite” words a Latin speaker would use when talking about copulation, anatomical organs and bodily secretions.

This has also led to lots of other interesting phenomena, such as the fact that there are different “standard” English spellings in Britain and America – with standardised spelling itself being a relatively recent invention (before dictionaries were created, people just spelled words however they thought each word sounded).

Likewise, the evolution of the English language also means that if you’re an English speaker and you travelled back in time more than a couple of centuries, you would have a difficult time understanding the English language. I remember having to look at a medieval Middle English text when I was at university, and one of the things that surprised me was that the English in the text was barely recognisable or comprehensible by modern standards.

Unlike, say, the Académie française in France, there is no formal body that controls the English language. In addition to being a brilliant way to wind up people who are ultra-pedantic about grammar (and, yes, you can split infinitives and begin sentences with “And”), this lack of an official body also means that the language is free to evolve quickly and naturally through common usage, and to adapt the best parts of other languages.

In short, the English language has a lot in common with open-source software. In other words, it is something that people can freely adapt, alter and use in different ways. It is something that belongs to everyone who uses it rather than to any specific organisation. And this is one of the language’s greatest strengths.

Generally speaking – rules, words and spellings that actually serve a useful purpose tend to stick around (eg: the order of words in sentences) whereas those that don’t tend to fall by the wayside. For example, the term “pen” apparently used to just refer to the nib of a pen, with the whole pen being called a “pen and pen-holder” or something like that. Of course, when pens became more available and widely-used, it became easier to just use the word “pen”. So, like open-source software, the English language is optimised for efficiency.

So, why have I spent so long talking about English? Simply put, to show the utter absurdity of being too uptight about things like grammar. If you love the English language, then you should love the fact that it is something that is constantly changing, adapting, optimising, expanding and improving itself. After all, the only true authority on the English language is however the vast majority of speakers are using it at any given moment.

Not to mention that it’s even sillier when people use the English language for the purposes of nationalism. If it wasn’t for words derived from other languages, English would be a very limited language. English is such a rich language because it is an open language.

So, yes, English is an open-source language, with no owner other than the millions of people who speak it. And this is awesome 🙂

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Three Cool Benefits Of Reading More In The Past Than You Do Now

Note: I write these articles fairly far in advance of publication and, at the time I originally prepared this article, I wasn’t reading much. However, I’ve got back into reading regularly since then 🙂 So, expect regular book reviews to appear here every 2-6 days from late November onwards 🙂

Still, for the sake of posterity, I’ll post the article here (even though it makes me cringe a bit when I look at it now. Seriously, why was I so cynical about books? They’re awesome 🙂).

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A while before I wrote this article, I ended up reading a few online news article about books and literature. This, of course, reminded me of the days when I used to read a lot more novels than I do now.

But, surprisingly, rather than being filled with regret or guilt about the fact that the number of novels I read per year these days is in the low single figures (at most) rather than double figures, I just found myself feeling glad that I used to read more during the previous decade than I do during this decade.

So, as an antidote to all of the “I wish I read more these days” regrets that are circulating on the internet, I thought that I’d list a few of the benefits of reading more in the past than you do now.

1) Books were cooler when you were younger (because you were younger): One of the many reasons that I used to read so much when I was a young teenager was because of film censorship. Basically, since I didn’t look old enough to buy most of the cool horror films I wanted to see on video or DVD, I quickly realised that books had no such issues.

Best of all, the old second-hand 1970s-90s splatterpunk novels that I used to find in charity shops and second-hand shops were cheaper and considerably more gruesome than the average horror movie. Although I still felt a burning sense of injustice about the fact that some stuffy old censors didn’t think I was old enough to see “Zombie Flesh Eaters” or whatever, it didn’t matter quite as much because I had a decent collection of Shaun Hutson and James Herbert novels. I felt like some kind of badass rebel who had found a way to get around the censors.

As I grew slightly older, I had more of these kinds of “cool rebel” moments with other types of books. Whether it was reading Hunter S. Thompson’s “Fear And Loathing In Las Vegas” when I was fourteen, or reading J.G.Ballard’s “Crash” when I was fifteen, reading beat literature when I was seventeen etc.. books were a cool and rebellious thing when I was a teenager. Or, rather, they were cool and rebellious because I was a teenager and reading books was one of the easiest ways to rebel.

The last truly “cool” moment that I really had with books was when I turned twenty and finally got round to reading several gothic novels and short story collections by Billy Martin (writing under the name of “Poppy Z. Brite”). I’d seen these books on the horror shelves of bookshops for longer than I could remember, but the time finally felt right for me to read them. They seemed like exactly the right books at exactly the right time. The mixture of hedonism, nihilism, lush prose and the feeling of finding refuge from the world in alternative subcultures was absolutely perfect for my twenty-year old self. They felt like they had been written just for me.

So, why have I mentioned all of this stuff? Simply put, reading a lot can really enrich the earlier parts of your life. But, a lot of this is also because you were younger then. So, a lot of the “I wish I read more these days” regrets that people have are often “I wish I was younger” regrets in disguise. So, be thankful of the contributions that books made to your life then, but remember that this was also because of the context that you read them in.

2) It actually makes you less pretentious: If you haven’t been reading for quite a while, it can be easy to look back at the times when you did read with rose-tinted spectacles.

But, when you end up picking up a book again, you might be surprised to feel something along the lines of “Oh, this again? Meh. It’s pretty ordinary, in a good way“.

Although reading is often presented as some kind of highly-intellectual way to spend time, if you read a lot in the past then you’ll know that it’s just an “ordinary” thing. The stories you read can be relaxing, thrilling, amusing, terrifying, fascinating, profound etc.. but the actual experience of reading itself is just ordinary (in the best sense of the word). It’s just a mundane and warmly familiar everyday activity.

So, reading a lot in the past means that you are familiar with books. It means that you don’t consider reading books for the sake of reading books to be some kind of virtuous act.

It also means that a book actually has to interest you in order to make you want to read it. After all, if you want to impress people by talking about books, you can just talk about the books you read when you used to read more. As such, the motivations for reading things now tend to be a lot less pretentious (eg: because you like the author or because the blurb intrigued you enough to make you want to break your book-fast etc..).

3) You’re probably still a “book person”: A lot of the “I wish I read more these days” regrets that you might feel are probably at least slightly identity-based. Chances are, when you read more, reading was a part of your identity. You probably considered yourself to be a “book person”. Well, you probably still are a book person.

For example, even though I can probably count the number of novels I read every year these days on the digits of one hand, my bedroom is filled with piles of books. In fact, having lots of books lying around is a prerequisite for somewhere feeling “cosy” or “home”. This is the sort of attitude that only comes from being a “book person”, even if I don’t read that much any more.

Or, to put it another way, if you’re worrying about whether or not you are still a “book person”, then this probably means that you are a “book person”. After all, if you weren’t a “book person” any more, why would the question even bother you?

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Four Reasons Why Things From The 1990s Can Seem More Creative

Whether it’s games, films, (non-superhero) comics or TV shows, it can be easy to think that the 1990s was a more creative decade than this one. As a fan of the 1990s, I often tend to think this way. At a glance, the 1990s just seems more creative. But, I thought that I’d take a deeper look at this today.

Since, in boringly practical terms, the reality is somewhat more nuanced. These days, mainstream films are often less creative because TV now fills the role that films once used to. Likewise, modern indie games often contain the creativity that used to be an integral part of large-budget mainstream games.

So, on the whole, the 1990s was probably no more or less creative than the present day is. But, I thought that I’d look at a few possible reasons why the 1990s seems more creative than the present day.

1) The internet: I’ve talked about this before, but the internet was a lot less mainstream during the 1990s than it is now. Whilst this certainly had negative effects on creativity, such as making traditional publishers, large film studios etc.. the sole gatekeepers of which creative works were available to the public- it also had several positive effects too.

The first is that the lack of online video, online game shops, e-books etc… meant that the mainstream had to serve a wider role. What this meant is that things like mid-budget films and mid-list authors would often enjoy more popularity. There was more of an incentive for larger publishers, TV stations and film studios to cater to a wider audience, since they were pretty much the only game in town. Again, this was also a barrier to creativity – but it did lead to a better range of stuff being published formally during the 1990s.

The second was the lack of social media. Although critics obviously existed during the 1990s and are necessary (so that audience members can make informed decisions, uninfluenced by advertising), the lack of a way to instantly respond to a creative work often meant that public criticism was a lot more considered, professional and based on the quality of a work.

The third was that it meant that detailed data was a lot harder to obtain. This meant that studios, publishers etc… were forced to take more risks since they didn’t know literally everything about the audience. This probably meant that marketing departments, accountants etc… had very slightly less influence over major creative works. And this resulted in more creativity.

2) Another time: When we look at things from the 1990s today, we probably don’t see them in quite the same way that people from the 1990s did. This can be because they give us a glimpse at a world that is both similar to and different to our own. This can be because they evoke lots of wonderful nostalgia. This can be because we are comparing them to stuff from the present day.

In short, we’re seeing things from the 1990s through the lens of the present day. But, during the 1990s, these things were just ordinary films, games, books etc.. and were probably viewed in the same way that we think of modern games, books etc.. today.

For example, the innocent optimism that makes many creative works from the 1990s so wonderfully reassuring, inspirational and enjoyable wouldn’t have been a big deal at the time. After all, the reeason why things from the 1990s can often seem a lot more optimistic and light-hearted than modern stuff is because they were made during the brief time between the end of the cold war and before things like 9/11 happened.

In other words, people had a reason to be optimistic about the future – so, it seemed perfectly normal back then. But, when compared to the modern world, it seems a lot more noteworthy.

3) People knew less: In short, the sum total of humanity’s knowledge was less during the 1990s than it is today. As such, there was more reason to “explore” and try new things, because they hadn’t really been done before.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in computer and video games. Large-budget games from the 1990s are often considered to be much more innovative and creative than their modern counterparts. Because they almost certainly are! The main reason for this is that gaming was much more of a “new” medium during the 1990s. It hadn’t been carefully studied and many of the tropes of the medium were only really beginning to emerge.

As such, game developers had to try new stuff – if only to see whether it worked or not. They had to experiment with different genres, gameplay mechanics and graphical techniques. Because, if they didn’t, then who would?

4) We remember the good stuff: This is the obvious one, but it is worth mentioning nonetheless. The best and most creative things from any period of history tend to be remembered more than less creative things do. This gives the impression that the past was more creative than the present.

Again, games spring to mind here. Although some people decry the fact that first-person shooter games are pretty much ubiquitous these days, it is important to remember that 2D platform games filled this role during the 1990s.

Although 2D platformers are something of a niche genre these days, they were everywhere during the early-mid 1990s. They were the generic “standard” genre of action game back then. When early FPS games like “Wolfenstein 3D”, “Doom”, “Rise Of The Triad”, “Duke Nukem 3D”, “Quake” etc.. emerged, they were a breath of fresh air compared to the glut of 2D platform games at the time. As such, they are (rightly) remembered as classics.

So, yes, people tend to remember the best and most creative things a lot more easily than everything else.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Make Your Filler Comics Fun (To Make) – A Ramble

Well, at the time of writing, I’m busy making this month’s webcomic mini series. However, due to being busy with lots of other stuff, I had to work out a way to make a series of comics quickly and with relatively little effort. In other words, if I wanted to avoid an annoying webcomic hiatus, I needed to make some filler comics.

After thinking about making a series of studies of historical paintings (but with the characters from my long-running webcomic in them), I eventually settled on the idea of making a somewhat non-canonical series of large digitally-edited monochrome single-panel cartoons featuring my webcomic’s characters.

Once I thought of this idea, I suddenly planned out the first five comics (of a planned six-comic mini series) within the space of about fifteen minutes. Here’s a detail from the first comic update:

The complete comic update will be posted here on the 21st August.

The one thing that surprised me the most was just how much fun this comic update was to make. Initially, I was worried that the much more limited format would result in a disappointing comic update. A piece of obvious filler content that was barely better than posting no comics at all. Fortunately, I was wrong.

Since I didn’t have to worry about lots of complex digital editing (since digital editing is much simpler with monochrome art) and since I could make comics quickly, I suddenly found that I felt some of the spontaneity that I used to feel when I made much more primitive comic updates back in 2012/13. Knowing that I could make a comic update within the space of less than an hour felt liberating – and this had some positive effects on the comic.

For starters, the fact that I’d switched to a single-panel format meant that I had to rely a lot more on character-based humour. Since I couldn’t rely on longer set-ups for each joke, I had to focus more on the characters’ eccentricities when planning the comics. This gave these planned comics a lot more personality than many of my 4-8 panel comics from the past 2-3 years have had.

In addition to this, the single-panel format also meant that I had to focus more on things like visual storytelling and implied storytelling. Although this seemed like it would add extra complexity (and time) to the comics, it actually allowed me to do things like include different types of jokes and to come up with slightly sillier premises for each comic. This silliness also reminded me a lot of the comic’s earlier days too, and the joyous spontaneity and randomness that the comic had back then.

So, what was the point of all of this? Well, the best way to come up with good filler content for your webcomic is to go for whatever feels fun. If you can find a way to make your filler comics fun to make, then this will result in better comics.

Even if your filler content is somewhat “lazy”, then this won’t matter as much as you might think if it is fun to make. This is a bit difficult to describe, but fun can be an infectious quality. If your filler comic has badly-drawn art, but the humour and personality that comes from just relaxing and having fun, then the audience is more likely to overlook any visual downgrades you might apply to the art.

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Anyway, I hope that this was useful 🙂

Today’s Art (1st August 2018)

Well, I was still in the mood for gloomy retro sci-fi art today and, thanks to feeling a bit more inspired – this digitally-edited painting ended up being one of the most detailed paintings I’ve made in a while.

As usual, this painting is released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

“Market Square” By C. A. Brown