Reviewing The Witches of Echo Park and Death’s Daughter

The last two years have not exactly been the best for me. I quit my job instead of riding it out until I could qualify for a 10-week pension and unemployment to move to San Diego, where I floundered for 8 months failing to find a job, only to be dumped back in Vegas and all of my possessions packed poorly and sent back a week later and placed in storage (where the overwhelming majority of it still resides). That was just a prelude for a 2015 where my job prospects were nil and I barely managed to scrape together enough cash to keep things like this website going as I mooched off my parents. Despite the regular activity on this blog, my work ethic dwindled, and my health generally cratered. Worse, I distanced myself from a lot of people (for reasons that I find valid) and essentially retreated to one small room for most of the day (when I wasn’t sleeping in that same room). Things have improved substantially in 2016 because I have a job (hooray, money!) and because I spent a lot of last year making new friends online (on Twitter and the StoryWonk forums primarily) and doing a lot of old-fashioned soul-searching (I’m loathe to call it “good” since a good deal of it involved getting over someone that I let slip out of my life years ago and recognizing what a huge mistake that was). In the end, I’d like to think that I’m at least a marginally better person as I start to get fully back on my feet.

One of the big pillars of strength since leaving San Diego has been engaging in StoryWonk’s re-watch of Buffy the Vampire Slayer and Angel. I’m a bit ashamed to say that it’s the first full-on re-watch since both shows left the air (even though I had been buying the comics until a year before I quit my job), so re-watching has been more than a little good for my soul. Obviously, my opinions are a bit…..odd coughWillow/Xander shippercough, but it’s been all good. However, when I received the welcome windfall of free gift card money for Christmas, Dusted had just passed “Hush” and the introduction of Amber Benson as Tara.

It’s not hyperbole to say that Amber Benson’s performance is a massive inspiration to me: I took to live-tweeting Buffy (and the occasional Angel) because of her debut, and I was literally a blubbering mess during “Hush” and “New Moon Rising” (the episode where Willow officially starts dating Tara) because of this. Tara, despite being the shyest character in the entire franchise (she can barely speak when we first meet her), quickly establishes herself as the bravest and purest of the Scoobies, and Amber Benson never once failed to play the part with integrity and honesty, and she has been unswervingly kind and decent in every interview or appearance that I’ve ever seen or read. It was this bundle of factors that led me to use some of the gift card money to purchase two of the books she has written: The Witches of Echo Park and Death’s Daughter.

Full disclosure time: I didn’t make this purchase blind, and had been considering it off an on for years. One of my first Buffy-inspired purchases in 2002 was the Tales of the Slayers trade paperback that Benson had contributed to,  and I watched the Ghosts of Albion web series for the BBC that she had co-written years ago (which is currently on my virtual re-watch pile), and in typical fannish fashion, I’ve been aware of her second career as a writer and director. This was simply when I finally decided to jump in and start reading.

When both books arrived in the mail, I eventually (after a not inconsiderable amount of waffling) decided to start reading The Witches of Echo Park. The plot, in as TL;DR a fashion as I can provide: Lyse is traveling to LA to visit her great-aunt Eleanora, who she has just found out is terminally ill. Lyse, who lived with Eleanora after her parents died, is less than eager to return to Echo Park after all these years, but she may be staying for a lot longer: Eleanora plans to induct Lyse into her coven of witches, which completely turns her life upside down.

There’s a lot to like about this book, but the first thing that grabbed me is just how well Benson builds her world. I felt like as if Echo Park was almost tangibly real (it is a real neighborhood in Los Angeles, but that’s entirely beside the point) in a way that felt a bit magical.

And wow, that was an awful pun.

Bad punning aside, there’s a vibrancy to the environment and characters that I found to be quite engaging. This grounded and authentic environment allows for a surprisingly seamless transition from Lyse’s assumed mundane world to the magical world that she actually lives in, and sets a clear tone for the book. The world building is also aided by the book’s structure: instead of your standard numbered and/or titled chapters, each chapter is titled by the name of one of the members of the coven (Eleanora, Lyse, Lizbeth, and so on), and the narrative follows that character. What this means on a practical level is that we learn not only a lot about each member of the coven (and their families, friends, and snuggle whore cats), but we find out that they’ve been keeping secrets from one another…..with Eleanora having the most and the biggest.

If there’s a downside to The Witches of Echo Park, it’s that it becomes pretty clear that the book is the first in a series towards the end. Granted, the second book was about to come out when I purchased this one (and the third is currently being written), so I knew this was the case. Moreover, there is a complete story here, but my first thought was that of slight annoyance at the end because it was just getting really good. (So, basically, my biggest complaint is that the book left me wanting more.

And, now for something completely different: namely, Death’s Daughter. While as much of a work of fantasy as The Witches of Echo ParkDeath’s Daughter has an entirely different tone and structure. Gone is the ensemble cast and instead we have a singular protagonist, Calliope Reaper-Jones, who narrates the book from her perspective. Callie is a snarky, self-absorbed, and occasionally self-depreciating twenty something toiling as an assistant for the VP of Sales at House and Yard. Suffice to say, she is less than thrilled with her “glamorous” existence.

I should hate, Hate, HATE Callie, and if she was a real person, I probably would. But in this context, and with the book being this well written, I don’t. In fact, I quickly began to like Callie and her near-constant stream of top-shelf snark.

A massive part of this is because it appears to be a coping mechanism: Callie has literally used a forgetting spell so that she won’t remember (and therefore avoid her obligations to) her family. On its face (and particularly after Callie unloads the full force of her ‘tude on her father’s assistant, Jarvis), you’d think that it’s because Callie is rebelling against her family or being petulant, but then she retells in full detail two incidents that convinced her that being the daughter of Death and living with the immortality that came with her father’s position isn’t all it’s cracked up to be. And later on, the snark covers for some imagery that’s worthy of the worst (or best, depending on your outlook) of Stephen King’s philosophy on horror: “I recognize terror as the finest emotion (used to almost quintessential effect in Robert Wise’s film The Haunting, where, as in The Monkey’s Paw, we are never allowed to see what is behind the door), and so I will try to terrorize the reader. But if I find I cannot terrify him/her, I will try to horrify; and if I find I cannot horrify, I’ll go for the gross-out. I’m not proud.” The contrast between the humor in Death’s Daughter and the more horrific elements is central to the story: Callie has avoided the ugly aspects of Death, but now has to embrace them in order to rescue her sister and father.

The same elements that made The Witches of Echo Park so enjoyable are also present in Death’s Daughter: strong characterizations and great world-building abound. The best being the structure of the supernatural world, with Death being a corporation. This idea, while far from original (Dragon Ball is probably the most famous example), makes sense here. Instead of just giving lip service to how bureaucracies behave (generally to score some cheap jokes), Death, Inc. is actually seen as a functioning corporation, and it even presents a logical answer to the question of what happens to deities who are no longer worshipped? (The answer: they’re reassigned.)

It’s this attention to detail that Benson such a great writer-enough detail to create realistic, immersive worlds without ever bogging down the story. The Witches of Echo Park and Death’s Daughter represent the best type of fantasy: they make the impossible plausible. So, by all means: buy these books. Amber Benson is a hell of a writer, and I’m thrilled now that I’ve finally taken the time to sample her work.

What Have We Learned, Tara?: The Ongoing Problem Of LGBT Representation In Media

Yesterday, March 10th, was the 19th anniversary of the premiere of Buffy the Vampire Slayer, which was noted in fan circles and by Sarah Michelle Gellar herself in an appreciative message across her social media accounts (alongside an image of her from the Season 1 promo photo shoot in that truly hideous beige dress). I’ll admit that the 19th anniversary isn’t that big of an issue for me: besides the 20th being a nice, round number, next year is also the 15th Anniversary of me first watching the show. But, later that evening, I stumbled upon a trending topic on Twitter that dovetailed with my previous blog post on Willow’s sexuality: LGBT Fans Deserve Better. And after clicking on the link, my heart quickly sank:

It happened again.

“It” being the death of a popular gay character on a show (this time it was The 100, which I don’t watch) in tragic fashion. And worse, fans were so distraught that a fundraiser for The Trevor Project (an absolutely wonderful charity that I wish that we didn’t need) in the name of helping people who might be feeling suicidal.

It hurt to read that, and it hurts even worse to write it.

And then I see that The 100‘s showrunner has been less than responsive to the death of this character, Lexa.

My heart sank again.

Haven’t we as a culture learned anything? Representation on television matters. Heroes matter. If there’s anything-and I mean ANYTHING-we should have learned from Tara’s death all those years ago is that no matter how well plotted or conceived a character death is, there are repercussions, and they are ugly, and they are horrible, and they hurt. One of my favorite quotes from G.I. Joe‘s biting satire of ’80s TV, “The Wrong Stuff”, is when Cobra Commander says, “You lack imagination, Destro. We possess the ultimate weapon of control! People trust television; it’s their friend. They believe what television tells them about the news, the weather, or G.I. Joe! Don’t you see? We control the creation of truth!” It is of course one of the many chillingly accurate points in an episode of television that skewers its own medium with some brilliant black comedy, but there is an incredible positive side to this point: people who are not a part of the cultural majority have long been humanized by television, and Ellen DeGeneres coming out of the closet in such an open and honest way paved the way for the incredible strides that LGBT people have made since 1997. The year before, Congress passed DOMA, The Defense of Marriage Act, one of the most vile pieces of legislation of my lifetime. “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” was still a relatively new policy for our nation’s military, which forced gays and lesbians serving our country into the closet. Now, DOMA has been ruled Unconstitutional, and Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell is deader than disco, and we have Ellen DeGeneres and the ensuing flood of fictional LGBT characters to thank for this. But even then, we’re still making the same mistakes and giving voice to the same damaging stereotypes like the Dead Lesbian and the Evil Lesbian.

Worse, the character of Lexa was killed off because her actress, Alycia Debnam-Carey, is fully committed to Fear the Walking Dead, which is expanding past its initial six-episode season (Season 2 will be 15 episodes). The thing is, on Fear the Walking Dead, like its parent show, characters are never safe. It’s highly conceivable that Debnam-Carey’s character dies within a year or so, freeing her up to return on The 100. (this naturally ignores the reality that it’s possible to write off a character without killing them off.) This is just painfully sloppy, especially in comparison to Tara’s death, which was the culmination of a storyline that pre-dated Amber Benson’s incredibly fortuitous casting in the wake of Seth Green’s abrupt departure in Season 4.

In this way, I fear we may have regressed in how LGBT characters are represented.

I had made my comment on Twitter, and was beginning to move on with a heavy heart until Emma Caulfield (who played Anya on Buffy and is all kinds of awesome besides) posted a link to a post on The Mary Sue about the entire situation (it’s here, and the writer, Teresa Jusino, did a far better job breaking down the issue than I’m doing), which did nothing to make me feel better. In fact, with one paragraph, she made me feel literally sick to my stomach:

“Fans often cited a similarity between Lexa’s death and Tara’s death on Buffy the Vampire Slayer. In that case, too, the ‘real’ lesbian was mourned while the queer girl who’d previously had a long-term relationship with a guy didn’t get as much attention – that is, until she kept asserting on the show over and over that she was indeed a lesbian, and that her relationship with Oz was a fluke.”

Why?

WHY?!

It sounded like something from my rant on Willow’s sexuality, and it made me realize that no one is right here. It’s all just a giant disaster, and it breaks my heart for everyone making The 100, for the fans distraught over the death of their favorite character, for the bi fans who are being subtly thrown under the bus again, and for everyone else, because this makes us all smaller and pushes us further apart. The worst part is knowing that I don’t know how to help at all, and I desperately want to be able to wave a wand and make it so that everything and everyone understands that love is love is love, and that things like the death of Tara, or Lexa, or whoever on a show doesn’t leave viewers feeling like they don’t matter.

I wish it was that easy.

Guardians of Forever: Grace Lee Whitney

With Star Trek officially picked up by NBC, the series entered into a short-lived but tumultuous shakedown. Besides recruiting episode writers and rounding out the production staff, there was the matter of getting the cast in order. While William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy, James Doohan, George Takei, and the soon-to-be-indispensible Eddie Paskey were the only cast members from “Where No Man Has Gone Before” retained (though Roddenberry already had plans to try and “sneak” Majel Barrett back onto the show), there were still many characters needed, least of which being the idea of a female yeoman that Gene Roddenberry was unusually adamant about including. For the third (and ultimately final) attempt at such a character, the decision was made to cast Grace Lee Whitney.

Born Mary Ann Chase before being adopted, Whitney first got into show business in her early teens as a singer in Detroit and eventually Chicago before breaking into acting. Most of Whitney’s pre-Trek roles were in comedies (and with a number of “eye candy” roles thrown in). One of these appearances was on The Outer Limits, in the episode “Controlled Experiment” (which had been intended as a pilot for an unrelated series), gaining the attention of Bob Justman. She also appeared on The Lieutenant, which led to her being cast in the failed Police Story pilot mentioned here two weeks ago. Upon being cast, Whitney was given another western-inspired sales pitch: Her job as Yeoman Janice Rand was to be Miss Kitty to Captain Kirk’s Marshall Dillon: a close confidante and implied love interest, but prevented from doing so by duty. This was not a minor role: Miss Kitty was (despite-or maybe because-she ran a brothel) one of the strongest female characters on television at the time, and Amanda Blake (who played Miss Kitty) was one of the most liked and respected actresses in the medium because of the gravitas she brought to the role. More importantly was the implication that Yeoman Rand was as essential to Star Trek‘s long-term success as Miss Kitty was to Gunsmoke‘s.

I mentioned during my all-too brief eulogy for Grace Lee Whitney last year that she had influenced the switch from trousers for the women to the now-infamous miniskirts and go-go boots. Now is the time to tell the story. After being cast and sold on how to play Yeoman Rand, Whitney noticed a serious disconnect after her first promotional photo shoots with William Shatner and Leonard Nimoy: it was difficult to appear alluring in trouser, especially since she, as a dancer, had great legs. Furthermore, the high, stylized collars simply would not do, seeing as how she was also blessed in other areas, as well. So, not only were skirts in (which Gene Roddenberry, true to form, made sure were scandalously short-we’re talking Sarah Michelle Gellar in Season 1 of Buffy short), the necklines were lowered just enough to draw viewer’s attentions downwards, but not enough to undermine military decorum or anger the censors. The whole thing was genius, but as the feminist sex wars started up, opinions towards the skirts turned unfavorable (especially as their existence was blamed on Roddenberry, who was by this time well known for his hedonistic tendencies). I’m not touching any of this in its own essay since 1) I was a child during the feminist sex wars, 2) I like the skirts because, hey, straight guy (and this was one of those things that helped to confirm that), and 3) because tackling the sexist elements in the series on an episode-by-episode basis is the best strategy.

But, in the end, the miniskirts were introduced at the behest of a female cast member who understood fully her role on the show, and that cast member never complained about the skirts after the fact. Unlike a lot of the more notoriously scandalous outfits on the show, there was never any doubt that the decision was made by an empowered actress. (And as we’ll eventually discuss, that’s an all-important distinction for Grace Lee Whitney.) So, yes, this is one of those “agree to disagree” moments here on the blog.

Next week, we’re staying in 1966 to discuss one of the great civil rights and labor leaders of the ’60s.

Mirror, Mirror: Spider-Man And His Amazing Friends And The Incredible Hulk

In true internet fashion, the separate intros are in awful shape or time-compressed.

Despite having a longer and more extensive history with the characters of DC Comics, I consider myself to be more of a Marvel Comics fan. A lot of this is because famed Marvel writers like Steve Gerber, Gerry Conway, Roy Thomas, and Marv Wolfman wrote extensively for animation in the ’80s. But an even bigger reason is because Marvel Productions, the animation studio owned by Marvel Comics, was responsible for a lot of the most popular cartoons of the time. And I’ve written about most every single one. But now we’re going to talk about the oldest cartoons of the lot: Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends and The Incredible Hulk.

Granted, I’m being a bit historically facetious here: Marvel’s ’80s animation efforts were prefaced by a number of shows, most by DePatie-Freleng Enterprises in the ’70s. DePatie-Freleng, which was founded by Friz Freleng and the final producer of Warner Bros.’ Looney Tunes and Merrie Melodies, David H. DePatie. The studio became famous for the opening animated titles to The Pink Panther, which successfully launched a series of theatrical shorts (which were partially bankrolled by NBC, who aired them on Saturday mornings), as well as a notoriously low budget (and limited character lineup) revival of the Looney Tunes in the late ’60s. However, DePatie-Freleng had minimal success breaking into Saturday morning television (which was dominated by Hanna-Barbera, Filmation, and live-action producers Sid and Marty Krofft), but in the late ’70s, they produced a pair of shows for Marvel Comics: The Fantastic Four, and intended sequel of Hanna-Barbera’s ’60s cartoon version of the comics (which is now infamous for the robot HERBIE, introduced because of a rights snafu with The Human Torch), and Spider-Woman, which was part of a hasty character roll-out initiated when Filmation developed a character named Spider-Woman (though she was eventually christened Web Woman). These two series were successful enough that Marvel purchased DePatie-Freleng lock, stock, and barrel when Friz Freleng retired in 1980, and the result was Marvel Productions.

Naturally, the new Marvel Productions wanted to move into making further cartoons based on their characters, but there was a problem: the staff, consisting primarily of veterans from the classic days of Warner Bros. (and even then, it was depleted since Freleng’s “retirement” involved making compilation films and specials for Warner) had little experience with action-adventure shows. Luckily, Filmation was experiencing a major exodus, as producer Don Christensen, once a major asset, was becoming a serious problem (which would eventually result in him being fired in 1981 when Lou Scheimer realized what was going on). So, Marvel scooped up a great deal of experienced, highly skilled talent (and would continue to poach from Filmation throughout the ’80s)……but not enough to animate a series in America. The solution was twofold.

First, Marvel went to upstart Korean animation studio MiHahn, formed by Steve Hahn. MiHahn had just animated Plastic Man for Ruby-Spears, which was a massive success. Hahn was a hard-nosed producer, and along with his assistant Nelson Shin, MiHahn was ready and willing to take on more work. Secondly, Marvel went to their friends at Toei. Toei was (and still is) one of the biggest and most successful movie and TV studios in Japan, responsible for an endless stream of animated shows and feature films as well as the live-action Super Sentai franchise. The latter franchise, interestingly enough, began life as an offshoot from a live-action adaptation of Spider-Man in which Marvel gave Toei free reign to adapt the character to Japanese sensibilities. Toei Animation also adapted the Tomb of Dracula comics into a TV movie. And with Toei being one of the top outsourcing studios at the time (and renowned for the quality of their work), it was a no-brainer that Marvel would continue their partnership.

NBC was interested, but there was some doubt that Marvel could actually make a series. As a result, they produced a 26-episode Spider-Man series as a proof of concept. The show, while possessing solid animation and stories faithful to the comics (with designs directly inspired by those of famed Spider-Man artist John Romita), suffered from a lackluster cast, specifically Ted Schwartz as the title character. However, it (and presentation art by Romita himself) sold NBC on Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends.

However, this was during the era of Superfriends, so a solo Spider-Man cartoon was the last thing NBC was looking for. And that’s how the Spider-Friends were born. The original plan was to pair Spidey with his old friend The Human Torch and Iceman of the X-Men, but the same rights issues that kept the character out of the 1978 series. The result was that Iceman was suddenly a sarcastic joker, and a new character was created: Firestar. Conceived as a female mutant with essentially the same powers as The Human Torch (NBC was extremely specific on the point of what exactly could be done with fire-based powers), but as a former member of the X-Men (as was the case with Iceman). And, thanks to some superb casting and good writing, it worked.

For the second season, The Incredible Hulk was given his own show (after a guest appearance in the first season). Despite some rather silly network restrictions, the show was a success, and quite faithful to the original comics (including mimicking the art style of then-current Hulk artist Sal Buscema), though NBC ordered no more episodes (and only one more season of Spider-Man and His Amazing Friends before sending it into reruns). However, the second season brought a major innovation: narrations by Stan Lee himself, in the same breathless style of the narration in the ’60s Marvel Comics that Lee had scripted and co-plotted.

Oddly, this is where things ended for Marvel adapting their own characters. They tried a backdoor pilot for The X-Men a couple of times (the last including a character named Videoman, who appeared in multiple forms during the series in a blatant and poor attempt to cash in on the popularity of video games), and even produced a pilot in 1988 (which was oddly adapted into Konami’s famed X-Men arcade game in the early ’90s), but no one was interested. Worse, Marvel Productions spent most of the decade producing shows for Sunbow, Henson, King Features and others while not retaining any rights to them or benefitting from the profits. The result was that Marvel Productions was shut down and reorganized at the end of the ’80s, a victim sadly of being both behind the times of the ’70s superhero boom, and ahead of the ’90s superhero resurgence.

Next week, the first of the posts about the new cast members of Star Trek, and in this case, a post about the most notorious wardrobe element of the entire series.