James’ Top 25 Life Influences, part 5
21. DC Comics
Before the Marvel vs. DC debates begin, let me say that Marvel of course had itâ€™s influence over me too, as did the often overlooked EC Comics of the 1950s. As a kid I never paid much attention to the company name when choosing my comics. I read whatever caught my imagination. It just so happens that DC did this more than anyone else.
My three favorite heroes belong to DC Comics: Batman, the Green Lantern, and towering above all others, Superman. Add to that roster the rest of the Justice League and youâ€™ve got, in my opinion, the best pantheon of super powered beings since the Greek Gods. Maybe thatâ€™s why I love DC…itâ€™s my religion.
Marvel presented me with characters I could identify with: Mutants that felt different, irradiated teenagers with girl problems. DC gave me people to aspire to be. I read the adventures of Superman or Batman the way past generations listened to tales of heroism around the fire. These were my deities, my Zeus, my Poseidon, my Athena.
The weaving of mythologies influenced me as a writer. Manic Expression: A CollectionÂ is comprised of 36 stand alone stories, but each of those stories weaves together to form a bigger tapestry. In one story a waitress takes the order of our main characters. In the next, she is the main character. I got this from seeing Flash pop in on Wonder Woman, or Green Arrow lend Aqua Man a hand.
More over, the DC heroes taught me right from wrong. Batman stands up for the downtrodden. Wonder Woman looks for a peaceful solution before jumping into a fight. And Superman, always the moral compass, never uses his great power for personal gain. I may wake up Peter Parker, but I should always aspire to be Kal-El.
22. Stanley Kubrick
When I was in high school, I was desperately struggling to find a voice in my writing. While I had come a long way since writing kiddie crap as a little boy, I knew there was something missing. My worldview was fairly black and white. My stories had bad guys and good guys, and didnâ€™t have much of an edge to them.
Then I saw A Clockwork Orange, and everything changed.
The same year that I saw A Clockwork Orange, I wrote a story called Lapdog Destiny which forever changed the way I wrote. Clockwork was my inspiration. Here was a movie with a hideous lead character, yet we manage to view him sympathetically. Unlike the Universal Monsters, Alex is not an innocent, nor is he cursed. Heâ€™s just a vile human being, yet the great Stanley Kubrick found a way to make me care about him.
Time and again Kubrick has challenged me with his films, and in turn Iâ€™ve done my best to similarly challenge my readers. In Lolita he asks me to pity a pedophile. In The Shining he shows me father as murderer. In Dr. Strangelove he presented government as buffoons. Kubrick refuses to allow my worldview to be black and white, and bless his heart for that.
23. Lord of the Rings
If Star Wars and Braveheart made sweet, sweet love, thus producing a child with both their DNA…the Lord of the Rings trilogy would still kick the shit out of that miraculous being.
By 2001 Iâ€™d given up on the possibility that any movie could truly blow my mind. The Star Wars prequels were a disappointment, new franchises like Lara Croft: Tomb Raider were hollow and lifeless. I figured I was in for a lifetime of watching and re-watching all my favorite movies from the 20th century, without any chance that something new might claw itâ€™s way into my imagination.
Then came Lord of the Rings, the movie that changed the way films were made in the 21st century. I wasnâ€™t a fan of the books – Iâ€™m still not, actually. Just not all that interested in medieval fantasy. So I held out no hope for LotR, and yet what I saw over the course of those three movies was astonishing. Not only did Peter Jackson make a masterpiece that will survive as long as cinema does, not only did he pave the way for everything from Christopher Nolanâ€™s Dark Knight trilogy to The Avengers, but he actually managed to create a trilogy of films that replaced the original Star Wars films as my favorite trilogy of all time.
How did Jackson do this? The answer is simple: He filmed all three movies at once. In doing so he achieved what no other trilogy had ever done before: Create a flowing narrative. Think about it: If Lucas knew that Luke and Leia were brother and sister, would he have had Leia kiss Luke in Empire? From plot holes to retcons to casting changes, every trilogy I can remember before Lord of the Rings suffered from some inconsistencies that took me out of the movie.
When it came time for me to write Manic Expression: A Collection, I knew that the stories would all intertwine in both minor and major ways. “How would I keep everything straight?” I asked myself. The answer: Learn from Peter Jackson and write everything all at once. It was Jackson who taught me that a narrative spread across multiple chapters can flow, and that making sure it does gives the audience a true immersion in the world youâ€™re creating.
I left home under stressful circumstances when I was 19. I had no family in my life and lived alone in a hotel room without so much as a toilet in it. I couldnâ€™t afford much in the way of food, let alone luxuries, but I splurged one day at the dollar store and bought myself an audio cassette (remember those?). The band: The Who. The album: Tommy.
I was never much for the music of the 60s. I liked Motown, I enjoyed some of the rock, but I despised the overly simplistic hippie protest songs of the era. Luckily so did Pete Townsend. He wrote Tommy as a rebuttal to the pseudo spiritual, shallow philosophy of the times. The messiah of his rock opera would bring truth to a world crying out for it, and in return the world would reject him for not giving them the answers they wanted.
I wore out that audio tape, listening to it over and over again in my little hotel room. The album was 30 years old at that point, but it was all brand new to me. I analyzed every word of every song, entranced by the complexity of the tale being woven by the Who. Beware those offering you salvation, they warned. They donâ€™t know anything more than you do.
At the time I was studying to be a priest, a desperate move to get out of poverty and over a heartbreak. A year later I not only gave up that foolishness, but I never set foot in a church again. I realized, like Tommy did, that the search for the spiritual was best done without gurus and priests. The answers lie within us, and are different for each of us. Weâ€™re all deaf, dumb, and blind, all on our own amazing journey to the light.
25. Manic Expression
â€œThatâ€™s so sweet,â€ you must be saying to yourself. â€œLip service!â€
Hardly. Those two words, Manic Expression, utterly changed who I am and how I see myself as a person. I am Manic Expression, and now so are many of you.
It started with the films. When making movies back in the late 90s / early 00s, I needed a production company name to go under. I decided on â€œManic Expression,â€ which I stole from a magazine cover. Under this title I made six short films and two and a half features. In 2006 I came close to co-producing a film based on my story, Bloodshot. It would have been made for one million dollars and had a cast of brilliant, professional actors. In the end I walked away when the money men wanted to screw over people whoâ€™d put their faith in me. All that remains is a poster hanging on my wall. A poster that says, at the bottom, â€œA Manic Expression Production.â€
Then came the books. When Bloodshot failed to sell I decided I would simply write everything Iâ€™d ever wanted to write and put the whole thing out as an anthology. I called it Manic Expression: A Collection. Despite being another flop thanks to a lack of advertising and an insane cover price set by the publisher, Manic Expression was the best thing that could have happened to me at the time. Writing the 36 stories allowed me to work through issues that had been haunting me since childhood and move on with my life. Consequently, writing hasnâ€™t been a priority since.
After a couple of years writing Stop the Hate, this site launched. FanFic Critic, who set the whole thing up (much to my surprise!) called the site â€œManic Expression,â€ and again those two words transformed me. Since finishing the book I really didnâ€™t know what to do with myself. I didnâ€™t know who I was or what I wanted to be. I thought maybe I had piqued.
Then this site hit 25 members. Then 50. Then 100. Suddenly I was dancing like an idiot in a video with a dozen other people. I was producing a documentary. I was writing a play and acting in others plays. Then we hit 150 members. Now weâ€™ve passed 500, and thereâ€™s no sign on slowing down. Hell, there’s even an animated movie on the way, which I intend to adapt into a book. What will this movie be called? Why Manic Expression, of course!
More important than success though are you, the members. Youâ€™ve shown me kindness, respect, and friendship at a time in my life when there was little of that to go around. Suddenly I wanted to be a better person. I wanted to talk people through problems, to help people figure their way through the dark times because so many of you did that for me.
I donâ€™t know who I would be if not for Manic Expression, but I can tell you this: Everything, from DC Comics to Lenny Bruce to Star Wars and To Kill a Mockingbird and everything else on this list has built to this. Many things made me the man I am today, but itâ€™s Manic Expression that has embraced that man and helped him reach his potential.