Wednesday, March 6, 2013

Artistic Integrity vs. Fan Service


Here's a topic of discussion for the masses. It happens to be a topic that has cross-appeal to any and all readers of this blog. When it comes to storytelling and music-making, there is always a line drawn in the sand. On one side, the ideals of Artistic Integrity. On the other side, the corporate aspect of Fan Service.

As I'm sure you're an enjoyer of product and entertainment much like myself, which would you rather see or hear? A movie/comic/album that is exactly what the writer/producer/director/whatever wanted (a.k.a. "artistic integrity") or the same thing over and over again because you know its what you want so that's what you get (a.k.a. "fan service"). No matter what your recreational vice may be, the notions of "artistic integrity" and "fan service" have many pros and cons on both sides.

Which side of the fence do you fall on? Would you rather see or hear something that is what the makers of that product wanted to make, or do you want something that you know you'll like with no surprises? When you go to a restaurant, do you sample the menu or do you order the same thing all the time?

They're smoking blunts, thats why his eyes are so red.

One thing to remember above everything else...the goal of product being released to the masses is an outlet for the only true religion...MONEY. Everyone's ultimate goal when product is concerned is to make money. Before you cry "sellout!" or whatever, keep in mind that from the bum on to the street to the boss in his/her tower...everyone's gotta eat. In my mind, product-for-money is what makes this a difficult comparison to make. Sometimes "trying something new" equates to just as much success as pure fan service can. On the other hand, artistic integrity can burn bridges and alienate your fanbase the same way that fan service can ultimately bore you with repetition and predictability. But at the end of the day, its still product. And product equals money.

So let's get into it. Here's some examples of artistic integrity and fan service that can be found in my favorite media outlets: Movies, Music and Comics. I'll be showcasing pros and cons of both ideologies. Along the way, hopefully we'll find the answer together.

Part 1: Movies

The success of a movie always comes back to two things. One, how much money did it ultimately make (obviously) and two, what the long-term appeal of the movie is. If a movie is successful, you are almost guaranteed a sequel in todays world. In a way, that's a perfect example of what I mean when I say "fan service." For example, since Saw was such a popular movie, they made six more of them (along with 3 video games, a comic book and even a theme park ride in England) . That's fan service. It's common sense for a movie studio to milk the cow for as long as they can.

At least Cary Elwes was in it...

On the other hand, a movie franchise such as Harry Potter is regarded in much more favor than something such as Saw. This isn't because Harry Potter started out as novels, but rather because each movie/book added to the greater story being told. The artistic integrity of something like Harry Potter or Lord of the Rings is arguably much more revered than the fan service of the various Saw or Fast & the Furious movies that were made to cash in on a singular idea.

Because we needed 6 movies about assholes with fast cars. One just wouldn't be enough.
AMERICA.

Another obvious franchise to lump into this discussion is Star Wars. I think almost any serious nerd would argue that the original Star Wars trilogy (NOT the versions with the updated graphics) are an excellent story on their own, and that the prequel movies made nearly 20 years later and animated TV shows do nothing but dilute the original story that was told. Perhaps what once stood as a pinnacle of artistic integrity was degenerated into another soulless money-making fan service machine?
Star Wars...now a part of the Disney Empire.
Expect 7 new TV shows, 38 comic book titles, 112 movie spin-offs...
...and a cake decoration.

Then you've got the obvious examples of when things go wrong for both sides. Look at Frank Miller's The Spirit as a great example of artistic integrity run amok to a point that anyone with a valid opinion about anything hates Frank Miller now. Having seen success from movie adaptations of Frank Miller's graphic novel series Sin City and 300, Miller was given free rein on the movie adaptation of Will Eisner's classic 1940 comic strip The Spirit. Not only did Miller have the balls to take Eisner's creation and turn it into a Sin City knock-off, but he didn't even credit The Spirit to Will Eisner. The Spirit was marketed as if it was entirely Frank Miller's creation, which it isn't at all. Frank Miller's The Spirit shows "artistic integrity" becoming "douchebaggery" at its finest.

Samuel L. Jackson is in it?
OF COURSE HE IS.

Another example would be the movie adaptation of Alan Moore's graphic novel Watchmen. Zack Snyder's version of Watchmen followed Alan Moore's graphic novel closely, yet was so brightly colored and had many awkward scenes (such as the "hallelujah" sex scene) that the movie fell flat. Add in a completely inappropriate soundtrack to go along with unnecessary penis flashes and you've got what is considered to be the bastard child of comic book movies. Is Watchmen an example of artistic integrity gone wild, or fan service gone too far? You decide, as thinking about it makes my head hurt.

Because even gods shave off their pubes.

Let's switch gears and get into some examples of this conundrum in the music world....


Part 2: Music

In my opinion, the music community is where the argument between "artistic integrity" versus "fan service" is felt the most. With a planet full of more bands than food for poor people, and genres that range from hillbilly techno to african death metal, there are many bands that fall into either category.

The Hillbilly Skrillex.

Let's face it. Any band that hates each other yet reunites 20 years later and tours for the rest of their lives are doing one thing and one thing only....fan service. It doesn't matter if you're a successful underground touring band (like Motorhead) or a classic rock band that hasn't stopped touring since the 1960's (like Rolling Stones). If all of your new music sounds just like your old music, then all you're doing is servicing the fans that come see you play live every year. In my opinion, there's nothing wrong with this. A lot of musicians wind up not having many options as they grow older and start families. It's not like a lot of these guys have high-paying skills in the workplace from being a rocker.

Hey, its the "Time of the Season" to go see The Zombies.
Get it? GET IT?

Take a look at this interview with Trevor Peres of Obituary. This is a band that broke up in 1998 and reformed in 2003. Since their reunion they've released 3 albums and have toured non-stop. Not once have they experimented with other genres of metal (like many bored metal bands like to do) or strayed from "the Obituary sound." Watch the whole interview if you can, as it's pretty interesting to hear him talk about the difference of the music industry between their heyday and today.

Trevor Peres of Obituary
2011 Interview

Personally, I only like Obituary's first three albums and could give or take the rest of them. In my mind, they perfected their sound with those three albums and everything since has been the same. I'm happy that they've found a formula that works for them though, as you never know which Obituary album will be the first album a new fan listens to. From there they can explore further if interested. Obituary is an example of fan service done right.

I apologize for continuing to bring this album up on my blog, but I just can't help it. If there was ever a better example of artistic integrity biting a band in the ass than Morbid Angel's Illud Divinum Insanus album, I still haven't found it. Personally, I like this album. It's grown on me. But when a band is known for being brutal death metal and brutal death metal alone, and they throw an album at you with industrial music peppered throughout a flat-sounding death metal record and you've got a band full of old guys who can't agree on what their band is.

Morbid Angel
"Too Extreme!"
Illud Divinum Insanus
Season of Mist Records (2011)

Check out this interview with Dave Vincent, lead singer and bassist for Morbid Angel, where he answers the interviewer's questions about the negative reaction the Illud album received. You can sense that he wishes it was still 1996, when there was no Youtube or readily available venue for people to vent their hatred for this album. His frustration with the line of questioning becomes quite apparent as it goes on. 

David Vincent of Morbid Angel
2011 Interview

I think Illud Divinum Insanus is a perfect example of a band throwing a temper tantrum in order to do things the way they wanted to, with little regard for their fanbase. This begs the question...should Morbid Angel have churned out another death metal record instead of trying something new?

Of course, artistic integrity and fan service agree on a more corporate level as well. Let's look at a more commercially-successful band that has sinned on both sides of this comparison. The almighty Iron Maiden.

Bill & Ted's classic misinterpretation of what the "Iron Maiden" was in feudal England.

Like many popular metal bands of the 1980's with egotistical lead singers who got too big for their britches, Iron Maiden suffered through the 1990's with a terrible lead singer replacement in the form of Blaze Bayley. I remember interviews with bassist Steve Harris in 1995 (from Hit Parader magazine), talking about how the band had wanted a singer with a deeper voice so they could go in "a new direction" away from what was done with Dickinson. What they got instead was a singer even more monotone than their first singer, Paul Di'Anno. The difference being...Paul Di'Anno was awesome. Blaze Bayley, not so much. If you want proof, take a look at this clip from Iron Maiden's first major tour with Blaze. Talk about butchering a classic...

Iron Maiden
"Number of the Beast" (live 1995)

Blaze Bayley didn't sing many songs from the Bruce Dickinson era of the band, as he clearly couldn't hit those high notes. The songs that Iron Maiden recorded with Bayley were a bit slower (and boring), as if the monotone sound coming from Bayley's vocal chords took the energy out of everyone else in the band. Despite this, Iron Maiden stuck it out with Blaze Bayley for nearly 6 years, despite cries from the fans to get back with Bruce Dickinson. 

Then, in 1999 the fans got exactly what they wanted. Iron Maiden reunited with Bruce Dickinson and have been touring ever since. Since the reunion, they've released 4 albums in classic Maiden fashion. They haven't played anything live from the Blaze Bayley era in years. Is Iron Maiden doing exactly what the fans want? Are they now an example of fan service done right?

Iron Maiden
"El Dorado"
The Final Frontier
EMI Records (2010)

Let's switch gears once again to my final favorite outlet for entertainment...the wonderful world of comics. Believe me, there's plenty of fan service and notions of artistic integrity all over the comic book world. Let's look at a few.

Part 3: Comics

Again, I apologize if I get a bit nerdy in this section, as I'm sure I'll be making references to things that only a select few will know about. When it comes to comics, it can't be helped. If you want to be one of us, you have to do your homework!

Robin talks like a bitch, he gets smacked like a bitch.

Comic books are the best medium for science fiction to truly come alive, as the combination of storytelling and art can achieve wonders. When you don't have the budget to bring your idea to life with a multi-million dollar movie, you can always achieve your dream with comics.

When Buffy the Vampire Slayer ended it's 7-year run on TV, the story continued in comics.
Seasons 8 & 9 can be found through Dark Horse Comics if you give a shit.

And that's where a big problem lies in the comic book world. Since there's a lot of artists and writers involved in the creative process, you can imagine what nightmares exist when it comes to pleasing the fans/readers and keeping your talent happy. Also, the biggest companies that put out comic books are owned by Disney (Marvel) and Time Warner (DC). Do you honestly think they care if artistic integrity is being nurtured or pandered to? The bottom line is king, and that's why balance is sometimes hard to find. If you can bring a lot of popular characters together and make them successfully blow shit up for years and maintain consistent sales, great. If you have a popular and pretentious writer who has artistic vision that just so happens to be selling buttloads of comics, then you've got the best of both worlds. Unfortunately, that's not particularly common.

The only time Marvel & DC worked well together.

One of my favorite comic book stories just so happens to be the epitome of fan service. Avengers/JLA was a joint effort between DC and Marvel Comics in 2003. Written by industry legend Kurt Busiek with art by industry powerhouse George Perez, Avengers/JLA took the Avengers from Marvel and the Justice League from DC and made them work together to save their respective universes. The story was a great analogue for what separates the DC and Marvel universes (beyond corporate ownership). Avengers/JLA is the only story I can recall that really puts the differences between them into perspective.

The best way I can sum it up without spoiling anything is that the DC heroes tend to be more revered and looked up to, whereas Marvel heroes are more flawed and tend to be hated or feared. DC heroes have museums built in their honor and maintain fortresses of solitude or bat-caves, while Marvel heroes deal with mutant racism and social issues. DC is set more in its own universe (with cities such as Metropolis, Gotham City, etc.), with Marvel being based in "our" world (New York, Manhattan, etc.).

In the DC Universe, The Flash gets a museum. 
If he was a Marvel Universe character, he'd be hated as a mutant.
Either way, The Flash sucks. "Ohhhh I can run fast!" Fuck off.

Avengers/JLA is a pedestal that all books made for the sake of fan service should be held up to. Not only is this an excellent story, but it hits on all points for what makes superhero comics enjoyable. If you've never read a superhero book and need a good place to start...start with Avengers/JLA.

So now that we've looked at another example of fan service done right, lets look at an example of artistic integrity gone foul. Even though Grant Morrison is one of my favorite writers in the comic book world, his mega-event story Final Crisis for DC Comics was one of the worst goddamned things I've ever read, and it's entirely due to Morrison having free rein on this story. Morrison took absolutely no regard for the rest of what was going on in the DC Universe at the time, and wrote a story that was so jarring and abstract that it's still argued about today.

Surprisingly had almost nothing to do with Final Crisis.

For those who don't know DC Universe lore inside and out, let me give you as much of a reader's digest version of it that I can so that you can understand why Final Crisis was such a trainwreck. First off, "Crisis" stories carry a lot of weight in DC lore. Not only was Crisis on Infinite Earths an absolute EPIC story that completely changed the DC Universe from 1985 onwards, but Infinite Crisis instituted a new status quo for the DC Universe that pretty much stayed intact from 2005 to 2011. So when Final Crisis came out in 2008, it felt "a little too much too soon" for many fans. Added to that, Grant Morrison wrote Final Crisis as more of a follow-up to his 2005 Seven Soldiers miniseries than as the final chapter to the "Crisis" epics. To make matters worse, almost no-one read the Seven Soldiers miniseries!

Seven Soldiers sold roughly 30,000 copies as it was coming out monthly, whereas Final Crisis was selling around the 80,000 mark. This means that more than 50% of the people reading Final Crisis were completely lost from the get-go.

It certainly says a lot when the writer's name is in larger text than the title of the book...

If you think that's the end to the trespasses of Final Crisis, think again. Grant Morrison took DC's main players (Superman, Batman, Wonder Woman, Green Lantern) off the map for the bulk of the series and had fourth-tiered characters like Tattooed Man, Frankenstein, The Ray and Mister Miracle take center stage. Worse than that, many of the main plot points to the overall Final Crisis epic were told in tie-in issues (also by Grant Morrison) rather than the main book. The folks who only read the main Final Crisis series (as many did) wound up totally confused by the ending. Final Crisis is bad comics and a true example of artistic integrity run amok. Final Crisis is what happens when a major company gives one of their top writers absolute control and doesn't give said talent a dose of reality.

It would have been nice if these characters showed up in more than 10 panels of the story.


In Conclusion...

So has anyone reading this blog come across an answer? IS there an answer? What's worse, artistic integrity or fan service? Clearly, both can achieve great success or go completely off the rails. In the end, I don't think there is an answer. It all just comes down to what you like. Personal preference is IMPOSSIBLE to define. If it was, then there would be a reason why I can listen to Ray Charles and Skinny Puppy in the same sitting. 

In my mind, fan service is ok if it pulls people in and makes a new fan along the way. It's bad when it's just a money-grubbing, corporate-driven nightmare. Artistic integrity is good when artists can truly express themselves and attain worldwide acclaim because of it. It's bad when a person's ego drives them to no longer listen to reason.

I hope you enjoyed this entry. Maybe you learned a thing or two along the way, and had a random thought or two pop in your head as a result of reading this. That's about all I ever expect.

Until next time, bow me out Bruce!

Iron Maiden
"The Number of the Beast"
The Number of the Beast
EMI Records (1982)
*done the right way!*

4 comments:

  1. Wow, there was a lot to digest in this post. Good stuff.

    I remember seeing Blaze with Maiden in '98 with my best high school bro Ben Dunbar. At the time, not knowing Bruce would come back, we enjoyed the heck out of the show. Seeing Maiden again 2 years later, this time with Bruce, really was quite the contrast to that first show.

    Final Crisis *puke*

    Speaking of Skinny Puppy, John found a few VHS tapes of there's that are now in my possession, mainly because he doesn't own a VCR. One of them showed a bunch of their older music vids...I kind of dug their older stuff.

    And speaking of VHS, I'm not the proud owner of "Black Sabbath - The Last Supper" and "Kiss - X-Treme Close-up." I plan on watching them with John and Ben this Saturday (they're coming to town for a record show at the local Quality Inn). Wish you could be there man!

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  2. Skinny Puppy was awesome, man. I want those tapes!

    Not sure when a Michigan trip will be on the schedule, but hey man it's your turn to co e down here. Bring the clan, I'll make sure we all have the time of our lives.

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  3. Sounds good except I'm newly unemployed some money for a trip is not part of any upcoming budget unfortunately.

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    Replies
    1. Perfect excuse to make others pay for gas!

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