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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Finding Good Things In The Mainstream – A Ramble

Although I sometimes take a somewhat cynical view of modern “mainstream” culture, I had a rather interesting experience that made me think about it in a slightly different way.

This was mostly because, during a nostalgic moment, I remembered that there was a brief period during the late 2000s/early 2010s when modern British pop music was actually really good.

In 2009-11, La Roux had released songs like “Bulletproof”, “In For The Kill” and “Tigerlily”. Tinie Tempah had released songs like “Pass Out” and “Written In The Stars”. Ellie Goulding put out a song called “Guns And Horses”, Clare Maguire put out a song called “Ain’t Nobody”, Jessie J released “Do It Like A Dude” and Mini Viva released “Left My Heart In Tokyo”. For a couple of years, modern mainstream pop music here was actually worth listening to.

Despite the fact that modern mainstream culture is often eye-rollingly terrible, it does contain good things. Although lots of them rarely appear at once (eg: the only other recent example I can think of is how both a remake of “Ghost In The Shell” and a sequel to “Blade Runner” were released in 2017) and some even have high barriers to entry (eg: system requirements for modern “AAA” computer games etc..), they are certainly there. Not to mention that many of the old things from the 1980s and 1990s that I love so much were probably at least slightly “mainstream” when they were originally released.

Yet, finding good things in the mainstream is often either a rare surprise or more like panning for gold. This is, of course, why “mainstream” stuff from the past often tends to be far better than modern mainstream stuff. Leaving aside the awesome historical nostalgia in many “mainstream” 1990s TV shows, movies etc… History usually has a habit of ensuring that only the best things are remembered.

Although this isn’t perfect – since contemporary classics (like “The Matrix” or “Half-Life) can overshadow other good things in the same genre released at the same time – history does serve as a very good quality filter for “mainstream” things.

So, one of the best ways to find good things in the mainstream is simply to either wait a few years or to look at things that were mainstream a couple of decades ago. Generally, if something has stood the test of time, then this is usually a good sign.

But, often the best way to find good things in the mainstream is just to trust your own instincts. If something sounds like it could be good, then check it out (when the price has gone down a bit) and see how you react to it. I mean, some “mainstream” authors that I really like include Lee Child, J.K.Rowling, G.R.R Martin and Dan Brown. Yes, their popularity was the thing that first introduced me to their novels, but it was the quality and/or enjoyability of their work that kept me interested.

So, let your own quality standards be your guide (instead of advertising or whether something is “popular” or not).

Because, yes, sometimes good things become popular. Sometimes they don’t. Although there are a lot of criticisms to be made of the mainstream, the fact remains that there are occasionally good things that can be found there.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

The Individuality Of Art, Webcomics And Prose Fiction – A Ramble

2017-artwork-individuality-creativity-and-the-mainstream

One thing that always amuses me is watching videos and reading articles about how Hollywood films portray reality in unrealistic ways. How large numbers of major films can make the same kind of “unrealistic” mistakes as each other, because “it’s what the audience expects”.

Likewise, it always amuses me when I read articles on major sites complaining about “comics” (or enthusing about them) for the simple reason that they’re almost always writing about just one well-publicised genre of comics (eg: American superhero comics). There’s often nothing about manga, webcomics, horror comics, newspaper comics etc… it’s literally like comics are only about superheroes, even if that’s blatantly untrue.

So, why have I mentioned this? Well, it’s to illustrate one of the strengths of art, webcomics and prose fiction. Namely that, since they’re often made by just one or two people, they can often contain a lot more individuality and creativity than things made by larger teams of people do.

Because there’s a much smaller number of people involved in creating these things, then they tend to reflect the imaginations of their creators a lot more vividly.

For example, a webcomic like Winston Rowntree’s “Subnormality” is set in a slightly surreal version of Canada and it features a strange cast of characters (including a sphinx!) who often like to talk at length about all sorts of introspective and philosophical topics. The comic is both incredibly realistic and incredibly unrealistic in it’s own unique way. There is quite literally nothing else like it in the world.

Likewise, an absolutely amazing writer called Billy Martin (who wrote under the pen name of “Poppy Z. Brite” before retiring) set most of his stories in a “realistic” version of America. But, the locations in his stories are often depicted in an extremely vivid, descriptive way that almost makes them seem like something from a comic or a painting. He’s written gothic fiction, splatterpunk fiction, surrealist stoner cyberpunk beat literature and heartwarming romantic fiction and yet all of these vastly different stories still seem to come from the same unique imagination. Again, there’s nothing else quite like these stories in the world.

Yet, I can’t imagine Hollywood ever adapting anything from these two amazing people. Yes, both of them have had their work adapted (eg: Winston Rowntree wrote and made the art for an animated web series called “People Watching“, and one of Martin’s short stories was adapted for an episode of a TV series called “The Hunger”), but this has often been done by smaller or slightly more independent outlets.

The interesting thing is that this gulf between individual creativity and mass media wasn’t always so wide. I mean, just look at Clive Barker – he makes really unique-looking paintings and writes very imaginative and distinctive horror/fantasy fiction. And, during the 80s and 90s, he got to direct several Hollywood films (eg: Hellraiser, Nightbreed and Lord Of Illusions). Yet, it’s very unlikely that he’d be able to direct a major Hollywood film today without it being reduced to some kind of bland, mass-market, CGI-filled, focus group-designed “PG-13” rubbish that contains at least one superhero.

Ironically though, this historical trend can also be seen in computer games too. Back when “mainstream” games were the only games out there, there was a lot more creativity and innovation. But, thanks to gaming becoming more popular and the internet allowing independent studios to distribute their games cheaply, games seem to have split into two very distinctive “types”.

There are the major large-budget games that seem to require the absolute latest hardware and which seem to focus on both a few simplified types of gameplay and on flashy hyper-realistic graphics. Then, you’ve got lower-budget indie games which sometimes tend to run better on older systems and often display the same level of variety, innovation, complexity, uniqueness and creativity that used to be standard in computer games.

Yet, art, (non-superhero) comics and prose fiction have rarely seen these kinds of changes. And I think that it’s all because of individuality. In all of these formats, there isn’t really a large team involved. Likewise, actually writing a story or making art costs considerably less than, say, making a film or a game does.

So, I guess that the rule here is that the more money and the more people are involved in creating something, the less creative it will be.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Why Creative Mediums Are Better In Their Early Days – A Ramble

2016 Artwork Why Are New Meidums Better In The Early Days

Although this is an article about creativity and history in general, I’m going to have to start by talking cynically about computer games for a while. As usual, there’s a good reason for this that I hope becomes apparent later.

A while back, I was going through yet another 1990s computer gaming nostalgia phase. That is, to say, I was feeling slightly more nostalgic about the golden age of computer games than I usually am.

As usually happens during one of these phases, I started to think “Computer games were way better in the 1990s!” And they were.

There’s a reason why, with a few exceptions, I mostly play actual 1990s games (and modern 1990s-style indie games) these days and it isn’t just because many modern games have ludicrous system requirements. Although games may have been less “graphically advanced” back then, they actually contained a lot of creativity.

In the 1990s, “point and click” adventure games were filled with humour, fascinating locations, beautiful artwork and/or interesting characters (then again, they still are today). 2D platform games were still a major genre. Even first-person shooter games not only had a sense of humour about themselves, but they often featured a wide variety of imaginative locations, level designs, challenging battles, outlandish weapons and unique monsters.

Not only that, some game designers provided fans with the things that they needed to extensively modify their games and/or encouraged people to share these modifications with others (I mean, there’s a reason why I’m still playing “Doom II” in 2016!) Back then, computer gaming was cool. It was fun. It was rebellious. It didn’t take itself so seriously.

Although computer games are more popular these days, this has come at a large cost. Almost every major game uses bland photo-realistic graphics, the gameplay in some genres of games has been heavily simplified, games companies are always looking for new ways to milk their customers (eg: “DLC”), games take themselves too seriously, games companies don’t boldly stand up to controversies in the way that they used to etc…

But this isn’t just the case with gaming, a similar case could possibly be made for comics aimed at more mature audiences.

Although I only really discovered this type of comics in 2008-11, the examples I saw showed me that my views about media being better in it’s early days are certainly true – albeit to a lesser extent than with games, since some of the more modern comics I read then were actually kind of good.

When comics were a relatively new medium, a lot of people in America produced astonishingly good horror comics during the 1940s and early 1950s that were filled with imagination, dark humour and wonderfully grotesque artwork. Of course, these got banned on both sides of the pond during the mid-1950s and “comics” soon became a synonym for the kind of generic, bland, sleep-inducing superhero stuff that still monopolises cinemas to this day.

In the 1970s-90s, comics aimed at mature audiences made a comeback in the UK (and via British writers working for US companies too). So many great comics, with a punk sensibility, were made back then. I’m talking about comics like “Tank Girl”, “The Sandman”, “V For Vendetta”, “Transmetropolitan”, “Judge Dredd” etc.. Comics were badass, comics were punk, comics were awesome.

I suppose that this attitude kind of lives on in some webcomics to this day, but comics just don’t seem to be as punk as they seemed to be in their earlier days. Not only that, many (western) comics often seem to use the same kind of almost photo-realistic digital artwork. Whatever happened to the days when “serious” print comics from Britain and America looked like they were actually drawn by a person holding a pen?

So, why are things often better in their early days? Well, it’s probably because of a number of factors. The first is that people who are new to a genre are either trying to rebel against what came before, or they’re trying to make an equivalent of the things that they love (from other mediums) using this new medium. I mean, there’s a reason why a lot of old early-mid 1990s computer games contained copious amounts of movie references, in jokes etc…

In addition to this, when a medium is new, the people making things in it are a small group of dedicated fans. The audience for the new medium also consists of a relatively small group of dedicated fans too. These are the only two groups of people that a new medium has to appeal to in it’s early days. In other words, it can be geekier, more complex, more edgy etc.. for the simple reason that the only people reading, playing, watching etc… are people who absolutely love the genre.

When something becomes more mainstream, it often has to be watered down in order to appeal to a mainstream audience quickly. In addition to this, when something enters the mainstream, it becomes part of popular culture and is held to the same stern and judgmental standards (whether conservative and/or liberal) as everything else is.

For example, if it was a new comic that started today, “Tank Girl” would be banned within a month or two. Both liberals and conservatives would probably be outraged by it for different reasons.

But, thankfully, “Tank Girl” didn’t start today. It started back in the days when comics that weren’t aimed at children were still a relatively “new” genre. It started in the days when these kinds of comics had a smaller audience that actively sought them out. It started in the days, when mature comics were ignored by the mainsteam. If something is ignored by the mainstream, then this usually equates to more freedom of speech – which equates to more creativity and individuality.

Finally, another reason why things are better in their early days is because there’s less money. Since there’s less money for people to spend on the superficial parts of the new medium, they have to focus on the things that really matter in order to attract (and keep) customers. Likewise, in the early stage of something, there aren’t that many corporate middle managers who want to maximise their revenue by playing it safe and making things as “mainstream” as possible.

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Anyway, I hope that this was interesting 🙂

Should You Make Niche Or Mainstream Stuff?

2015 Artwork Mainstream or Niche article sketch

Well, since I’m making a series of fan art/parody paintings based on an array of vaguely obscure things from the 1990s at the moment, I thought that I’d talk about the tension between making mainstream stuff and making niche stuff.

This is probably a dilemma that a lot of creative people have faced before, but I thought that I’d talk today about whether you should try to appeal more to a general audience or to an audience with more obscure interests.

Generally speaking, niche stuff is a hell of a lot more fun to make than mainstream stuff. After all, you usually can’t really make something in a slightly more obscure genre (eg: splatterpunk horror fiction, things inspired by mid-1990s FPS games, cyberpunk stuff, gothic stuff etc…) unless you’re already either a fan of the genre or at least have a working knowledge of it.

But, at the same time, the audience for it is a lot smaller. However, whilst you might end up having a smaller quantity of fans, you’ll have a much higher quality of more devoted fans if you produce good stuff in a genre where there’s relatively little other stuff in it.

Likewise, making more “mainstream” stuff can be fun every now and then, but at the same time, it’s a more limiting form of creativity – after all, you have to make something that will appeal to the widest possible audience and this will inevitably place certain limitations on what you can make. I mean, you have to make something that will not only make sense to “ordinary” people, but will also be something that they will actually like.

And, of course, you can’t really geek out about things in mainstream stuff in the way that you can when you make more niche things, you can’t always assume that your audience is familiar with the type of story you’re telling or the type of art that you’re making. But, at the same time, you’ll get a much larger audience if you make good mainstream stuff.

So, yes, it’s quite the dilemma. But, what should you do?

Like with most dilemmas, there’s no real “right” or “wrong” answers here, but I thought that I’d give you my opinion about it. Generally, I think that it can be a good idea to produce a mixture of both niche and mainstream stuff to appeal to both audiences.

However, this also runs the risk of alienating either audience if they look at your other stuff. But, at the same time, it might also make them interested in something that they haven’t also looked at before too. So, I’m not quite sure how this works.

It might also be worth thinking about making niche stuff that has a more mainstream appeal. Yes, it will probably annoy dedicated fans of the genre in question if it’s done badly (eg: don’t get me started on how “Call of Duty” etc… is ruining the FPS genre). But, at the same time, if it’s done well – then it will attract both a mainstream audience and a niche audience too.

mean, some great example of this include “Game of Thrones” (which has popularised the historical fantasy genre) and Stephen King’s horror novels (which, whilst they may not be the best, most gruesome and/or scariest horror novels in the world, are probably some of the most well-recognised).

As I said, there aren’t really any “right” or “wrong” answers to this question, so it will be something that you’ll have to decide for yourself.

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Sorry for the short article, but I hope it was useful 🙂

Today’s Art (29th May 2014)

Well, I was in a slightly more.. cynical… mood than usual earlier, so I decided to celebrate the sadly inevitable onset of *ugh* summer by making a painting about the many delightful mainstream music festivals which will be taking place across the UK over the next couple of months…

As a blog exclusive (since this painting will probably already have been satirising mainstream festivals on DeviantART before it’s arrival here), I’ll also provide the lineart for this painting too.

As usual, both images in this post are released under a Creative Commons BY-NC-ND licence.

"Mainstream Festivals" By C. A. Brown

“Mainstream Festivals” By C. A. Brown

And here’s the lineart:

"Mainstream Festivals (Lineart)" By C. A. Brown

“Mainstream Festivals (Lineart)” By C. A. Brown