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Art

Sexualization and the charge thereof

I had the pleasure of reading through an early draft of a friend’s story that he’s preparing as a submission to an anthology I’m editing. He introduced a trope that is usually associated with fan service but did so in a way that “took the high road” and did not sexualize a very often sexualized trope. And I’m cool with that.

I think it’s the word “sexualize” that I’m not cool with.

I had been posting some fantasy pictures to my D&D party’s online facebook group until two of the members objected. To make a long story short, I think (they weren’t very clear about their objections and I was too annoyed to ask for specifics) they objected to the female characters in the depictions being sexually attractive. The term “sexualized women” was mentioned.

I don’t get this term. It implies that something has been done to the women, or the pictures, or both, that wasn’t inherent to either the women or the pictures beforehand. The pictures I shared were of two models, both women who had arranged for someone to take pictures of them in cosplay, all on their own. These were not women who had been hired to wear skimpy costumes for the sake of pleasing men. These were women who chose to portray themselves in fantasy costumes for their own pleasure and that of those they shared their pictures with. And I, for one, don’t see that as a crime, and certainly not a sin.

I don’t see a sin with males enjoying pictures of attractive females or heroes getting it on with sexy princesses and that sort of thing in stories. Rather than remove descriptions and situations of women in sexual roles in fiction, I’d like to just adjust the balance and make sure that there’s more beefcake to balance the cheesecake. I’d like to make sure there’s as many heroines getting it on with sexy princes they’ve saved as heroes with alien princesses. The old Frank Frazetta paintings had as much half-naked Conan-type barbarian men as half-naked fantasy women, you know? That’s what I think would be fair. Fantasy is called fantasy for a reason.

Usually when I say that, someone lifts their nose and gets all snooty and says something to the effect of “fantasy doesn’t need naked women to be successful.” I agree. But I like naked women and I don’t have a problem saying so. What’s wrong with finding beauty in the human form? What’s wrong with enjoying sex? Fantasy is entertainment and I’d rather have more entertainment than less.

So — anyway — while I won’t ask the author of the story in question to change his work (I’m really biting my tongue not to mention specifics but I don’t want to give away spoilers), it’s his choice and I respect that. Besides, he is a really good writer and there are other aspects to fantasy writing than naked sweaty people.

I’ll just be sure to add more naked sweaty people to my own work, so prudes of the world be warned.

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New Orleans-based fantasy and science fiction author Brandon Black is the editor of the By Gaslight steampunk anthology series. He has a Bachelor’s in Military and Political Journalism and a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. His short fiction has appeared in Dark Oak Press’ Dreams of Steam III and Seventh Star Press’ A Chimerical World: Tales of the Seelie Court. Brandon has just published a short anthology of steampunk and gaslamp fiction short stories entitled Mechanical Tales and is working on completing his first novel. His most recent story “The Night Mississippi Declared War on the Moon,” has been published in Capes and Clockwork 2.

The Nature of Good and Evil in Dungeons and Dragons (and what to do about it)

This is from 5th Edition D&Ds Basic DM Rules: “Humanoids are the main peoples of the D&D world, both civilized and savage, including humans and a tremendous variety of other species. They have language and culture, few if any innate magical abilities (though most humanoids can learn spellcasting), and a bipedal form. The most common humanoid races are the ones most suitable as player characters: humans, dwarves, elves, and halflings. Almost as numerous but far more savage and brutal, and almost uniformly evil, are the races of goblinoids (goblins, hobgoblins, and bugbears), orcs, gnolls, lizardfolk, and kobolds.”
I’ve been unhappy about racism in D&D for some time. It didn’t take me long to see the connections between how humans treat orcs in D&D and how the British treated the Scots, the Irish, pretty much everyone else on the planet. ‘They’re evil. They’re inferior. It’s okay for us to conquer them.’ In D&D, you can kick the door in on someone else’s home, kill them and take their stuff and it’s okay because ‘they’re evil.’ That’s just nuts.
So — what do I do about it? I had planned a D&D world that was much more cosmopolitan, where different races got along, at least in some locales and when they didn’t, it would be absolutely clear that it was because of simple racism. I never thought I’d like a racist character but I’ve got an elf mage I’m working on who’s totally racist and yet, works for me as a character. He’s got the whole snooty elf superiority complex thing going on and he’s a wandering mercenary. I like it because it explains what such a character is actually doing. I mean, after all, if elven society is so much better than any other society on the planet, why isn’t he back there instead of wandering the world? The answer is: he only considers his actions as a mercenary acceptable because he ISN’T visiting death and destruction upon fellow elves for money. Killing humans, or orcs, or dwarves, or trolls, well, that doesn’t count. As long as he isn’t killing elves, he’s free to wander the land, blasting people with magick and getting paid to do it.
Drow, in particular, or rather their depiction, pisses me off too. The only dark-skinned race in D&D to get any depth of culture or politics or religion and they’re evil. They’re a subterranean race but they are dark-skinned — because they’re evil. Logic would make them albinos as they are in Warhammer but evil trumps reason in D&D — they have to be marked with dark skin like black people in Mormonism.
5th edition FINALLY made playing Drow a standard PC option. I remember when 5th edition first came out and I was so excited to see that and I looked forward to playing a good Drow character and then when I got to +1 Gaming, Jeremy Henson (and I’m not picking on him) was trying to persuade people to play anything BUT drow because drow are traditionally evil — even though a few good individuals are known to exist. I didn’t listen and played a good drow anyway. I’ve spent too many years playing a black human in D&D from Fabled Offmapia because neither commercially created fantasy worlds nor DM homebrewed worlds had an African continent equivalent. Dark-skinned people have a right to play heroes that remind them of themselves too.
Anyway — my doubt. I was cool with just making a cosmopolitan world where different races can get along or not as they see fit and it isn’t because one side is automatically good and the other automatically evil, except I read this article where someone was complaining about the “Klingonization” of orcs. He was referring to orcs in World of Warcraft being treated as people and not monsters and they’re not being ‘evil’ just a barbarian culture that’s been in opposition with humans and dwarves and elves for so long that it’s become habitual. In other words, exactly the kind of thing I was planning on. Except it reminded me of how I feel about demons.
Buffy the Vampire Slayer and its sequel series, Angel, watered demons down into aliens. They weren’t manifestations of supernatural evil. They weren’t all inherently evil. Many, if not most of them, were just people who wanted to live their lives and not be noticed. Yes, there were some who had great power and abused that power for their own desires but there’s people like that too. I hated that view of demons, not because of it’s symbolic portrayal of diversity but because you took a fearsome category of monster and turned it into a homeless guy who just wanted to be left alone. And I can see how some people would feel the same way about orcs.
You could say the whole utility of orcs in a game like D&D is that they’re supposed to be irredeemable and they are a continual menace, like they are in Warhammer 40K and thus there can be no peace with them and thus “There can only be war.” And that’s entertaining and this is supposed to be entertainment so it’s okay. “They’re supposed to be monsters; let’s treat them like monsters.”
So I’m not really sure now. I like the cosmopolitan world but fantasy is ultimately about — well — fantasy — sex and violence — killing the bad guy, getting the girl, tossing gold coins and gems into the air and partying well into the night to celebrate your victory. What do we lose if we make fantasy mirror the real world and every enemy is only an enemy because they look different from us or because of their deep-seated psychological problems stemming from childhood?
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New Orleans-based fantasy and science fiction author Brandon Black is the editor of the By Gaslight steampunk anthology series. He has a Bachelor’s in Military and Political Journalism and a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. His short fiction has appeared in Dark Oak Press’ Dreams of Steam III and Seventh Star Press’ A Chimerical World: Tales of the Seelie Court. Brandon has just published a short anthology of steampunk and gaslamp fiction short stories entitled Mechanical Tales and is working on completing his first novel. His most recent story “The Night Mississippi Declared War on the Moon,” has been published in Capes and Clockwork 2.
All text copyright Brandon Black 2016.

Artist’s Statement

I had a conversation earlier today with the amazingly talented and gifted poet Dionne Cherie and in it, she described my work as “truly exquisite, sophisticated, intricate and descriptive.” I should have her do all my press, right? Anyway, I’ve been thinking of putting together an artist’s statement regarding my work and her description is certainly something I’d very much like to live up to and as such, I’m thinking of just adopting it outright as my goal: to produce work that is truly exquisite, sophisticated, intricate and descriptive.

I looked up the definitions of those words and here they are:

Exquisite:

marked by flawless craftsmanship or by beautiful, ingenious, delicate, or elaborate execution

marked by nice discrimination, deep sensitivity, or subtle understanding

finely done or made: very beautiful or delicate

very sensitive or fine

extreme or intense

Sophisticated:

having or showing a lot of experience and knowledge about the world and about culture, art, literature, etc.

highly developed and complex

Intricate:

having many complexly interrelating parts or elements

Descriptive:

giving information about how something or someone looks, sounds, etc. : using words to describe what something or someone is like

So one problem has been neatly solved for me; I’ve got an artist’s statement.

But now a new problem presents itself. I don’t know what I should be writing. I mean, the last two big stories I wrote were pulp (I almost wrote ‘just pulp’). I don’t know. It feels like I should be more ambitious. I mean, producing work that’s “truly exquisite, sophisticated, intricate and descriptive” and I’m basically cribbing 1930’s pulp fiction – it just feels like I should be doing more. Stretching my abilities, trying to do things I haven’t done before. I just don’t know what.

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New Orleans-based fantasy and science fiction author Brandon Black is the editor of the By Gaslight steampunk anthology series. He has a Bachelor’s in Military and Political Journalism and a Masters of Fine Arts in Creative Writing. His short fiction has appeared in Dark Oak Press’ Dreams of Steam III and Seventh Star Press’ A Chimerical World: Tales of the Seelie Court. Brandon has just published a short anthology of steampunk and gaslamp fiction short stories entitled Mechanical Tales and is working on completing his first novel. His most recent story “The Night Mississippi Declared War on the Moon,” has been published in Capes and Clockwork 2.
All text copyright Brandon Black 2016.

Shakespeare and the New Steampunk Aesthetic

I posted Shakespeare’s Sonnet 127 to my facebook page and my friend, Eva Caye, thought it was one of mine. It’s great work to be sure, but it’s not my great work. When I said that to her, she said I needed to label it because “here I was thinking you took steampunk to this whole celestial literary level!!!”

So now I have a new goal — to take steampunk to a whole new celestial literary level.

Here’s the sonnet by the way:
In the old age black was not counted fair,
Or if it were, it bore not beauty’s name.
But now is black beauty’s successive heir,
And beauty slandered with a bastard shame.
For since each hand hath put on nature’s pow’r,
Fairing the foul with art’s false borrowed face,
Sweet beauty hath no name, no holy bow’r,
But is profaned, if not lives in disgrace.
Therefore my mistress’ eyes are raven black,
Her eyes so suited, and they mourners seem
At such who, not born fair, no beauty lack,
Sland’ring creation with a false esteem.
Yet so they mourn, becoming of their woe,
That every tongue says beauty should look so.
— William Shakespeare (Sonnet 127)

I posted it to my facebook page because one of the ongoing themes of my work is to re-engineer Western imperialist colour symbolism and fight the idea that “Black = Bad/Evil.” Black means rich depth, beauty, and mystery to me and that’s something I try to convey in my work.

And in trying to promote that, I’ve gained a whole new goal for my work — to bring steampunk to a whole new celestial literary level.

How am I going to accomplish that?

I’ve no idea.

I’ll take suggestions. Really.


Uncle Brother

I remember my Uncle Brother. His nickname was “Brother.” I want to mention that now so that when I refer to my Uncle Brother, you don’t think of me and my family as being incestuous rednecks out in the woods.

Uncle Brother had a passion for art. Painting, sculpture, all forms of visual art. And that’s just what I knew about for years. One day, I found out that the man wrote poetry. He had notebooks full of poem after poem. I didn’t even know he was into that. I’m not sure the rest of the family knew he wrote.

You see, there was a little problem with my Uncle’s art: it was god-awful.

I really can’t convey how bad it was. It was all so heavy-handed and ham-fisted: all glitter and gold paint and shininess. It was art as if a rich gentleman in the 17th century was given the ways and means of macaroni art and had evolved it as far as it could possibly go.

I recall one piece – an ornately carved wooden frame surrounding a mono-color canvas to which a sculpture of a bird, flat on one side, had been glued to the centre of the canvas and covered in silver glitter.

You could see where he was going with some of it but it really just was atrocious. And nobody dared to tell him. No one, not even the closest members of his family – who by the way, were almost all much better educated than he – would let him know how bad his art was.
I remember one Christmas where he made gifts of his art to my aunts and uncles. I was a young lad in my early teens and I and my mother and father and brother and my aunts and uncles and my cousin were all standing outside my uncle’s home.

The adults started making fun of him.

I was incensed. The man had poured his heart out to them – not that they realized it. He had incorporated his hopes, his dreams, his visions of a better tomorrow into his art – as all artists do – and he had shared this with his brothers and sisters – and they were laughing at him behind his back, right outside his very house. On Christmas no less.

I told them all they should be ashamed of themselves. A usually quiet lad, I let them know in no uncertain terms how vile they were being and how much the man loved them to share with them his art. And, to their credit, they accepted the rebuke and hung their heads low and stopped making fun of him and his work and went home.

My mother – well, we don’t have enough time for me to go on about my mother – she decided if I thought so much of my uncle’s art that I could hang it in my room if I wished. I guess what I’m trying to say is that she missed the point, most likely deliberately in response to being rebuked by a child. My uncle’s work – in this case, a glitter covered zodiac wall plaque – found its way into our washroom. In this way, my mother could say that we had hung it on the wall and be telling the truth and yet the piece would not offend the eyes of any of my mother’s friends.

My mother’s friends were those sort of people. The “keeping up with the Joneses” kind of people. Our church, a Black Baptist church, was full of them. I wonder now if that wasn’t the real sin my uncle had committed as far as the family was concerned. He produced art objects that were designed to be shown – well, what art objects aren’t? But they were so ugly that there was no way anyone in the family would hang them anywhere they could be seen.

And so rather than help the man to grow as an artist, rather than give him the knowledge and means to do better, or even try to do better, he was a pariah and without ever even knowing it. Or at least, I hope he never knew.

It pains me. It pains me so much to see such a great gift of passion squandered. And squandered by a world sorely lacking in beauty. Yes, his art was terrible but it could have conceivably gotten better. The man lacked the knowledge of what art was – what art could or should be – that an artist needs to grow better. He was a flower that no one ever bothered to water. They could all see the rain couldn’t reach this flower and they didn’t care. They just sat there and watched it wither and die.

I wish he’d gone to college. I wish he’d received a proper education. I don’t fault the man for making ugly art. I doubt he made it all the way through high school. He worked odd jobs and hustled here and there and lived hand to mouth and was always in debt to one family member or another. He was born in the ghetto and he lived in the ghetto and he died in the ghetto. I wonder if Michaelangelo or Beethoven or Shakespeare would have done as well as he in the situation he lived and died in.

I wonder what would have happened if he had lived in a country like Germany where you can get free education all the way up to a Ph.D. I wonder if he might not have gone to a great art school and developed an artistic sensibility to match his passion. And I wonder what great works he might have forged if he had. I wonder if the name Alexander Williams Jr. might have joined the pantheon of great artists. But he had no education, and far far worse, no realization that he so desperately NEEDED one and no patrons willing to sponsor him to develop his art and so a man of immense artistic passion is remembered by few and one day, relatively soon, it will be none.