Sunday, August 7, 2016

Uncanny Unmasked

Jeffro Johnson – [trump speak]great guy, very thoughtful, I’m a big fan of his, big fan [\trump speak] – posted a simple question on G+:  "What's missing on [this cover]?"
Have to judge it by something, and
the cover is all we got.
It may have been a rhetorical question, but it deserved a proper response.  If for nothing else, then for everyone sitting in the cheap seats.  My short story answer is available through the link, but it deserves a much longer response.

Long story short for those of you not interested in clicking that clickbait, the cover art on Uncanny Magazine is a long series of the editor firing up the Virtue Signal and shining it into the clouds.  The technical quality of the art they choose is generally very high, but the art direction is sadly lacking.  The purpose of a magazine cover is to sell potential readers on the contents, and for a collection of stories you might think that the cover should sell potential readers on the stories.  If so, it should present the sort of conflict and drama that one might expect from the stories within.  Here’s an example of a piece of art that does just that:

Action!  Conflict!  Drama!
You know, the sorts of things you find in...stories?
A wizard on the high seas burning sailors alive from inside an arcane construct.  You’ve got motion, conflict, wizardry.  You know what’s inside the magazine, and if you like action and drama, you’ll like this magazine.  You should give up your hard earned money in exchange for this magazine.
What’s on the tin tells you what’s in the tin.

The artwork used for Uncanny Magazine on the other hand is a long list of cool looking strong and independent women…just kind of standing around.  You know, looking cool.  As with Crisova, what’s on the tin tells you what’s in the tin.  Don’t expect stories with action, drama, or conflict.  Instead, expect to be shown really cool women who spend their time just being cool.
You can’t directly translate the writing maxim, “Show, don’t tell,” over to art, because art is a visual medium where “showing” is literally the only thing the artist can do; however, the underlying principle still applies.  An artist can’t just show the audience a character and expect the audience to understand that the character is a badass unless you show that character actually doing badass things.  The guys who make the moving pictures understand this intuitively – in our first introduction to Indiana Jones he disarms a man with a gun using a bullwhip.  We are shown that Indy is a badass before we even see his face.  Spielberg doesn’t tell us Indy is a badass by having him stand against a tree with a jaunty look in his eye, he shows us Indy is a badass by having him bitch slap a backstabbing coward in a badass way.

While the art used on the covers of Uncanny tends towards the “pretty cool”, it doesn’t tell a story and so it doesn’t sell a story.
That might seem like a mistake, but it’s only a mistake if you think the people producing Uncanny are trying to sell stories to people who like stories.

It’s not.
Uncanny is trying to sell an image to people who like images.

The image they are trying to sell is clear from the patter on art they use on the cover.  They are trying to sell the image of strong, cocky, and badass women who don’t need no stinking men around mansplaining things and manspreading all over the place.  The stories are just one of the mediums by which they seek to transfer that image to the buyer.  The cover, and presumably interior, artwork is another.

You stand there, girl.  You stand
there so HARD.
Note that this is not to say that strong, cocky, and badass women are impossible.  It’s just pointing out that Uncanny Magazine isn’t interested in the substance of women who are strong, cocky, and badass so much as they are interested in the image of women as such.  If they wanted substance the art wouldn’t tell us women are strong, it would show us women doing things that require strength.  The art wouldn’t tell us women are badass, it would show us women doing something badass.
As above, so below.

It’s a safe bet that the stories inside Uncanny reflect that same inability of the magazine’s producers to understand the concept.  It’s a safe bet to assume that the stories, such as they are, inside the magazine feature surficial women who we are reliably informed are strong, cocky, and badass who never quite get around to doing things that require strength, whose attitude of cockiness is not backed up by ability (and so comes off as sneering), and whose badass exploits fall far short of the mark.
That’s not to say that this is bad art.  It’s just to say that the art doesn’t sell the stories, it sells an image.  It sells the same sort of wish fulfillment to women that Playboy covers sell to men.  And that’s fine, so long as you understand what they are doing, and what they are selling.  If you want stories, look elsewhere.  If you want female wish fulfillment wrapped in a fantasy/sci-fi veneer, this is the magazine for you.

The obvious objection, that all stories are wish fulfillment and that Tarzan or Indy are just wish fulfillment for men and I sure am hungry got any more of those doughnuts, is stupid to the point that it’s aggravating just having to casually dismiss it.  For the benefit of those who don’t get the difference…the men wish they could do things, the women wish they could be things.  Stories are, by definition, about people who do things.  Uncanny is, by design, about people who are things.  Looked at that way…holy cow, Uncanny is literally objectifying women.  How’s that for a twist?
You can fulfill my wish any time, baby.
That little digression aside, and at risk of this essay meandering further astray, it’s worth pointing out that some of these are very well done works of art.  This piece of art in particular does a great job of selling women on the idea of being this character.  If the depth beneath the surface of this cover were about how to be this character, it would be a perfect piece of art to use.
Teaser alert!  It just so happens that there is a whole category of books for which this artwork is perfect, and we’ll delve into those in my next post.

It may be extremely unfair to spend a thousand words beating up on Uncanny Magazine over this issue, but Uncanny isn’t a lone actor here.  It’s just a current and recurrent data point within a much larger trend.  For at least the last decade the cover art for fiction in general has been moving this direction, and unfortunately the stories have followed the same trend.  Here’s a random sampling of magic girl covers.  It’s a nasty trend for those who enjoy stories, and those who enjoy stories need to be made aware of the trend, so that they don’t fall victim to the bait-and-switch tactic used by those who would use the wonderful medium of the written word to force deep stories out of the marketplace in favor of superficial character descriptions.

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