Transnational Geek

Author M. H. Boroson shares his geeky passions: Buffy the Vampire Slayer, spirit magic kung fu movies, the ethics of cultural appropriation, Chinese American literature and history, The Dresden Files, Daoist magic, strong female characters, Asian monsters, spirit world depictions, traditional Chinese foods, race, class, gender, and culture.

Wednesday, December 12, 2012


In the 90s, when I found BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, it was a revelation.  Here was a show that could make me jump and laugh and weep, all in a single episode.  It was a story of an unlikely hero, and it was the story of a reluctant hero, and it was the story of people coming into their own by facing their responsibilities and fighting their personal demons.  It was an awesome mess of fun, humor, drama, action, and Shakespearean tragedy.

When it ended, it left a gap that nothing else seemed to fill.  Joss Whedon's subsequent creations -- Firefly, Dollhouse, The Avengers -- do not explore the same territory.  But other shows, books, and movies fill a lot of that need. 

Here are some of my favorites -- TWENTY of them, in fact.  Often inspired, frequently challenging, all of these novels, movies, and series are ones that I have loved in much the same way I loved BUFFY, and I believe you'll feel the same way.




The tv series VERONICA MARS is often mentioned as a recommendation for Buffy fans, but it's not just that it's a show about a blonde teenager; Veronica Mars is solid storytelling. 

In some alternate universe, a universe without Buffy, Veronica Mars is far and away my favorite tv heroine. Not so much a fighter as a detective, Veronica is a teenage outsider on a quest to understand her world -- a world that won't make sense until she solves the murder of her best friend, Lilly. Using her intelligence and skills learned from her private investigator father, Veronica solves crimes in a film noir version of high school, in a town where class struggle and racial tension are always simmering.

That first season is as close as I have seen to television perfection. Sure, some mysteries-of-the-week are flimsy, but sharp dialogue, interesting characters, a father-daughter relationship for the ages, and the flawlessly unfolding mystery of who killed Lilly Kane make for simply staggering amounts of awesome.

The series declined, season by season. If the latter two seasons had been even close to the quality of the first, VM would likely have eclipsed Buffy for me. And that's saying something.


Veronica Mars is a strong female protagonist with a sassy sense of humor.  The TV show blends genres, builds suspense, and has more-than-adequate emotional payoffs. 


This show is not afraid to explore the challenges of racial struggle and class differences.  Its noir-style, hard-boiled mysteries never stop turning up the corruption and conspiracy, and struggling to solve the mysteries and uproot the injustice we have a protagonist with the resourcefulness to come out on top, the sense of humor to keep you chuckling, and the heart to break yours.


Joss called Veronica Mars the "Best. Show. Ever. Seriously, I've never gotten more wrapped up in a show I wasn't making, and maybe even more than those [...] These guys know what they're doing on a level that intimidates me. It's the Harry Potter of shows."



NOT the tv show, but the books.

I've always loved reading, but before I read The Dresden Files, I had no idea -- NO IDEA -- how much fun a book can be.  Whenever I read one of these books, I make sure no one can see me, because it would ruin my Man-of-Mystery image if anyone saw me with such a gigantic, dopey grin.  But I can't help it -- these books are just THAT much fun.

For Buffy fans, probably the easiest way to understand the basic setup is, what if Xander were a wizard/private eye, saving the world from vampires, Faerie Queens, demons, ghosts, and other wizards?  Imagine the kind-hearted goofball as protagonist, and you'll have a little sense of who Harry Dresden is.

Then add in an endearing cast of characters, clever mysteries, terrifying monsters, a hero who's totally not in the same weight-class as his enemies but manages to engage in desperate acts of badassery, and you might have a sense of Just. How. Good. this series is.

The first couple of books are fast, enjoyable reads, but about four or five books in, something just clicks, and there's no going back.  One moment you'll be tense, and a moment later you'll be pumping your fist in the air at an astonishing act of whup-ass.  You'll find yourself staying up all night to finish the riveting story, and then you'll be startled at how quickly you've burned through all fourteen goddamned books and now you're ready to gnaw at your fists because you just can't wait for the next installment of superfun.


THE DRESDEN FILES is written in a first-person voice ("I crossed the street" instead of "he walked across the street"), and Harry Dresden's running commentary is often laugh-out-loud funny, with the same kind of sharp humor, pop-culture and geek-culture references, and wordplay we loved in BtVS.  And that's not all.

Remember how you came to love not just Buffy, but Xander, Willow, and Giles?  And Angel, Spike, Oz, and Tara?  THE DRESDEN FILES has a cast of characters like that.  They become people you care about and welcome into your home.  I don't want to give spoilers, so I won't talk about who the characters are, but I will say that I've come to cherish some of them in just the same way I adored seeing Willow, Xander, and Giles on my tv screen.

And yes, there's also a ton of fun action, and a really enjoyable supernatural universe, but it's the characters here, as in Buffy, who keep people tuning in.


I'm not ordinarily a fan of zombie movies, but what do you say about a film whose opening credits show a horde of walking corpses shambling along mindlessly, and presents them as indistinguishable from morning commuters on their way to work, before they've had their second cup of coffee?  This is a scene that contains more wit and insight than half a dozen Hollywood flicks rolled together -- and that's just the opening credits.
Shaun works retail, which makes him an unlikely hero.  But when the zombie apocalypse arrives, everyone has choices to make, and Shaun's not the kind of guy who'll let his friends, his mom, or his ex-girlfriend get their brains eaten by any old horde of the undead.  This is a movie with horror and desperation, but it's also a movie with wit, featuring a character with tenacity and heart.  I love this flick.

Why Buffy fans will like it

BtVS reinvented the vampire movie and the slasher flick.  It took the tropes of the predator and the defenseless nubile teenage girl and asked the question, what if the stereotypical victim could kick ass?  SHAUN OF THE DEAD does the same with the zombie movie.  The dead keep coming, and our unlikely hero has to find the inner strength and the resourcefulness to not only survive, but to protect the people he cares about.
Using the conventions of a film genre to tell a challenging story?  Check.
Unlikely hero?  Check.
Reluctant hero?  Check.
Wit?  Hell yeah check.
Likeable characters? Check.
Profound, terrifying, moving, important art?  Check.


SHAUN OF THE DEAD is "the movie that made me absolutely the most gleeful in the last year. ... That’s the kind of movie that makes me want to make movies. ... I met Simon Pegg backstage at a convention, we were about to go on, and I didn’t know who he was or what was going on, and I said 'Hey. Hi… I don’t where we’re meeting.' .... And then I saw the movie and I was like, 'Oh, you’re way cooler than me.'"

Joss Whedon's FRAY

Yes, it's a comic book.

"But," you say.

"Ug," you say.

"Er," you say.

"I don't read comic books," you say.

"Get over it," I say.

Joss Whedon wrote FRAY.  And it's about a Slayer, in the distant future.

Yes, my friends, it's part of the canonical literature of BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER.  And, in my opinion, it's better than anything else Joss Whedon has done that wasn't named Buffy.  I like Firefly, Angel, Dollhouse, and the Avengers, but I like FRAY better.

Joss has written other comics, like ASTONISHING X-MEN, SUGAR SHOCK, and THE RUNAWAYS, and for you, my friends, I've read them.  I've read them all.  But FRAY is different.  FRAY might be Whedon's most perfect creation. For FRAY, Joss Whedon took the mythology underlying BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, brought it into a dystopian future, and created a whole new cast of characters.  These characters -- allies and enemies -- are beautifully balanced to create fascinating conflict and generate fresh stories.

Again, I don't want to give spoilers here.  In a dystopian future, Melaka Fray is a Slayer who makes her living as a petty thief in the squalid slums of Haddyn.  But for some reason, Mel only received some of the gifts of the Slayer line -- she has the strength and speed, but not the dreams, and not the knowledge.  The Watchers' Council has fallen into disarray, and the forces of darkness are rising once again. To understand her power, Mel may have to seek the guidance of demons -- but her opponents may be more than she expects.
FRAY is a carefully crafted storyline from start to finish, with some of those unexpected turns that will have you shouting "DAMN YOU JOSS WHEDON!" Fray was only an eight-issue limited series, but it was tight, rewarding, and emotional in all the right ways. It's a crime that nobody has bought the film rights.

French cover.


This is a series of novels by a husband-wife team who write under the pseudonym Ilona Andrews. Kate Daniels is the heroine of this fascinating series set in a future where magic has been returning. Now magic and technology work in alternating waves; for a few days magic will work and technology won't, and then for a few days technology will work and magic won't. Society has been crumbling under the pressures of this bizarre occurrence.

And mythical beasts have been making their presence known. There are shapeshifters, who live by complex social dynamics, and there are vampires, which are unlike any vampires you've seen before. The vampires in this world are strong, fast, and mindless, "piloted" by telepathic riders known only as the People. The People have mysterious goals of their own.

But that's okay, because our heroine, Kate Daniels, has mysteries of her own, too. She has powers she keeps hidden, even in this madcap world. She fights with a sword called Slayer, which gives off smoke when she's angry. She's a badass who can stand her own in a world of badasses, and the series will see her grow from an outsider suspicious of everyone into a confident woman who has made a place for herself and developed trusted allies.

The cast of characters here is just wonderful. You'll find minor characters like a medic who's a were-badger, and his love for honey drives him to serve sickeningly sweet iced tea. There's romance here without being needy or obtrusive, and then there's a villain -- the immortal Roland -- casting a long shadow over the entire series.


Transnational Geek's Strong Recommendations are movies and tv shows that rank just below the Top Recommendations.  In some cases, they're amazing works that differ too substantially from Buffy to be a clear recommendation to Buffy fans, and in other cases they're works that share similarities with Buffy but maybe lack a little inspiration.


Raunchy, juvenile, and hilarious, TODD AND THE BOOK OF PURE EVIL was a tongue-in-cheek heavy metal horror fantasy.  Its humor could be gross or stupid, but it was often laugh-out-loud funny, some of the funniest shit around.  With its supernatural high school storylines, its embedded mythology, some brilliant twists, some surprising moments of heartfelt depth, and a musical episode, TODD AND THE BOOK OF PURE EVIL was one of my guiltiest and most pleasurable of guilty pleasures.

Why isn't it one of TRANSNATIONAL GEEK's TOP RECOMMENDATIONS?  Well, some people won't get past its juvenility.  If you can, you'll love it.


Patricia Briggs’ MERCY THOMPSON is one of the most vivid, enduring figures in contemporary urban fantasy fiction. In this series, she shapeshifts into a coyote, while those around her tend to be vampires and werewolves – physically much stronger.  For her to establish her place and defend her boundaries, it takes social intelligence and carefully applied uses of her limited power. She contends with werewolf pack dynamics, vampire society, and faerie clans. And she’s an auto mechanic specializing in high-end cars.  This series is brilliant, witty, and frequently insightful.

Why isn't it one of TRANSNATIONAL GEEK's TOP RECOMMENDATIONS?  There are elements of extreme victimization in the series, which make it less empowering than The Buffster.


Showrunner Russell T. Davies launched this reinvented sci-fi series in 2005.  Davies has said in interviews that BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER was one of his inspirations for the show.  DOCTOR WHO clearly shares some of BUFFY's strengths: it has a kinetic style of direction, energetic storytelling and a pervasive sense of fun with occasional touches of tragedy.  Some truly memorable images, such as the Vashta Narada, the Weeping Angels, and the Silence.

Why isn't it one of TRANSNATIONAL GEEK's TOP RECOMMENDATIONS?  DOCTOR WHO is fun, and sometimes heartwrenching, but it's just not as deep as BUFFY.  Still, if you're looking for an energetic show with some feeling of BUFFY-ness to it, and you don't mind the fundamental fluffy-ness, you'll enjoy DOCTOR WHO.


Ang Lee's award-winning CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON explores gender, power, and culture by telling the story of a young swordswoman who steals a famous sword belonging to a master swordsman.  With breathtaking cinematography, beautiful scenery, dreamlike, balletic kung fu, and some thrilling action scenes, Crouching Tiger is a complex, deep, and thought-provoking tale.

Why isn't it one of TRANSNATIONAL GEEK's TOP RECOMMENDATIONS?  It's a great movie, but it has a completely different feel from Buffy.  There is no pop culture, no laugh-out-loud humor, and no monsters.  However, there is profundity, feminism, beauty, and tragedy.


MR. VAMPIRE is a kung fu/vampire movie starring the late, great Lam Ching Ying as a Taoist priest who fights monsters. I love this movie for its humor and its action, its giddy energy, its cast of characters, and its well-thought-out gags.   You might love it for its fresh cultural perspectives on monster-fighting: instead of sunlight, beheadings, crosses, holy water, and stakes through the heart, you'll see yellow paper talismans, swords made of coins, chicken blood, and sticky rice used as tools of magic.

Why isn't it one of TRANSNATIONAL GEEK's TOP RECOMMENDATIONS?  The movie was made on an extremely low budget, and many of its effects appear campy.  It doesn't have the tragic depth of BUFFY, but still, if you're looking for a thrilling, fun, funny movie, MR. VAMPIRE may hit the spot.


GINGER SNAPS is a coming-of-age film where a teenage girl becomes a werewolf, and her lycanthropy is a metaphor for girls undergoing puberty: their bodies change in ways they may not understand, and the lunar cycle becomes a force in their lives.  It's got witty dialogue, a pair of clever outsider sisters, some cool werewolf-driven horror, and some actual emotional depth.

Why isn't it one of TRANSNATIONAL GEEK's TOP RECOMMENDATIONS?  I'm... not sure?  I've only seen it once, and I don't feel comfortable giving it a top recommendation based on a single viewing.


There's a graphic novel called TALES OF THE VAMPIRES, with short comics by a number of different authors.  But there's a framing story around the rest; Joss Whedon wrote it, and it's great.  A little girl in the 19th Century is being trained to become a Watcher, but things are not what they seem in this superb little gem of a story that ties into the lives of our Scooby Gang.

Why isn't it one of TRANSNATIONAL GEEK's TOP RECOMMENDATIONS?  Well, it's not available by itself.  To read the story, you have to flip through a lot of mediocre stories. 




Quentin Tarantino's KILL BILL might be lacking a little depth, but boy does it make up for it in sizzle. Influenced by Shaw Brothers swordplay flicks, Blaxploitation movies, and Japanese "pinky violence" sleaze, Tarantino crafted a flashy, colorful tribute to some of the most energetic cinema in the world. A female assassin seeks revenge on the leader of a team of female assassins, and she'll kill anyone who gets in her way. Like a roller-coaster of beautifully choreographed scenes, some serene, some violent, KILL BILL slashes its way into funtown.



This is a one-shot, single-issue comic book, featuring scantily clad superheroine/vampire Vampirella, and a really excellent parody of Buffy and her gang.  The author (whose name I intend to edit in) really caught the pulse of what made BUFFY great, and he filled his comic with sharp dialogue and insightful humor.  Click the pic to the left to get a sense of what I mean -- but don't be confused, the Buffy parody is a redhead, and the takeoffs of Willow and Cordelia are both blonde.






JUNO's a movie about a teenage girl who gets pregnant and decides she wants to give birth and give the baby up to a couple who can't have kids.  Juno herself is a lovable weirdo, and this movie is loaded with zinging, pop-cultural dialogue you'll have to hear to believe.

Why isn't it one of TRANSNATIONAL GEEK's TOP RECOMMENDATIONS?  Somehow I didn't get a sense that the movie really took the issues of teen pregnancy seriously.  It all feels too easy.


These books, movies, and tv shows all have something really good going on, but they all also have reasons I hesitate to recommend them.


This high-school vampire tv series is at its best when it explores the history of the town, Mystic Falls, and its social structure and class dynamics.  Loaded with clever twists and turns that keep me tuning in, THE VAMPIRE DIARIES lacks a moral center and gets bogged down in soap-opera melodrama.


I do love this series of books about a bad-ass tattooed guy who hunts monsters.  A little bit of angel blood in his veins gives him a boost, but his primary weapon is a gun.  The author, James R. Tuck, can seriously WRITE, but his soliloquys rhapsodizing over his guns can grow a little tedious.  Still, this series has some pulse-pounding action, superb prose, and some deeper moments.





This trilogy of books by Suzanne Collins features one of the most well-fleshed-out of all the strong female protagonists.  It will draw you in and keep you turning the pages.  But the trilogy peters out -- the whole storyline winds up not adding up to very much -- and on second reading, the overwhelming feeling of the book is brutality.


I'm only recommending a specific number of these graphic novels.  Buffy fans might get a kick out of #2: THE ORIGIN, #3: VIVA LAS VEGAS, #4: DAWN AND HOOPY THE BEAR, #5: SLAYER, INTERRUPTED, and #7: A STAKE TO THE HEART.  These were written by Scott Lobdell and Fabien Nicieza, and together they form a kind of prequel to BUFFY the tv show.  #2 retells Buffy's origin story, incorporating elements of Joss Whedon's script that were cut from the movie.  I really think Buffy fans will enjoy getting to see more of Buffy's life before she came to Sunnydale: her trip to Las Vegas, her parents finding her diary, her parents' divorce, and more.

#10: RING OF FIRE, was written by Doug Petrie, a writer of the tv show.  Petrie wrote the season 5 episode, Fool For Love, where Spike's back-story is explored.   RING OF FIRE was originally supposed to be an episode in BUFFY's second season, where Angel is a bad guy, but it had to be cut due to the special effects budget.

These comics are not brilliant storytelling, but they really do have something to offer to the devoted Buffy fan.


This Thai action film stars international martial arts sensation Jija (aka Jeeja) Yanin, who is breathtaking to see in action.  Jija Yanin is an expert in tae kwon do and muay thai fighting styles, and she leaps and kicks her way through this movie with astonishing kinetic energy -- without the assistance of wires, without CGI, and without a stunt double. The movie's storyline is flimsy and it takes too long to get where it's going, but holy goddamn is it amazing to watch this young woman in action.


And this concludes our presentation.  I hope you enjoyed it, and if you think there's something I'm missing, please let me know in the comments!

Tuesday, December 4, 2012

Joss Whedon on Writing, Part 1

I'm a fan of Joss Whedon.  With BUFFY THE VAMPIRE SLAYER, Whedon found a way to instill genre fiction with Shakespearean tragedy and comedy, and still make it a fine example of genre fiction; it's full of pathos and ass-kicking.  This series of posts will compile Joss Whedon's writing advice, distilled from dozens of interviews, DVD commentaries, essays, and web posts.

The first installment is JOSS WHEDON'S TOP 10 WRITING TIPS, reprinted from here.

“Joss Whedon is most famous for creating Buffy the Vampire Slayer, its spin-off Angel and the short-lived but much-loved Firefly series. But the writer and director has also worked unseen as a script doctor on movies ranging from Speed to Toy Story. Here, he shares his tips on the art of screenwriting.
Actually finishing it is what I’m gonna put in as step one. You may laugh at this, but it’s true. I have so many friends who have written two-thirds of a screenplay, and then re-written it for about three years. Finishing a screenplay is first of all truly difficult, and secondly really liberating. Even if it’s not perfect, even if you know you’re gonna have to go back into it, type to the end. You have to have a little closure.
Structure means knowing where you’re going ; making sure you don’t meander about. Some great films have been made by meandering people, like Terrence Malick and Robert Altman, but it’s not as well done today and I don’t recommend it. I’m a structure nut. I actually make charts. Where are the jokes ? The thrills ? The romance ? Who knows what, and when ? You need these things to happen at the right times, and that’s what you build your structure around : the way you want your audience to feel. Charts, graphs, coloured pens, anything that means you don’t go in blind is useful.
This really should be number one. Even if you’re writing a Die Hard rip-off, have something to say about Die Hard rip-offs. The number of movies that are not about what they purport to be about is staggering. It’s rare, especially in genres, to find a movie with an idea and not just, ‘This’ll lead to many fine set-pieces’. The Island evolves into a car-chase movie, and the moments of joy are when they have clone moments and you say, ‘What does it feel like to be those guys?’
Everybody has a perspective. Everybody in your scene, including the thug flanking your bad guy, has a reason. They have their own voice, their own identity, their own history. If anyone speaks in such a way that they’re just setting up the next person’s lines, then you don’t get dialogue : you get soundbites. Not everybody has to be funny ; not everybody has to be cute ; not everybody has to be delightful, and not everybody has to speak, but if you don’t know who everybody is and why they’re there, why they’re feeling what they’re feeling and why they’re doing what they’re doing, then you’re in trouble.
Here’s one trick that I learned early on. If something isn’t working, if you have a story that you’ve built and it’s blocked and you can’t figure it out, take your favourite scene, or your very best idea or set-piece, and cut it. It’s brutal, but sometimes inevitable. That thing may find its way back in, but cutting it is usually an enormously freeing exercise.
When I’ve been hired as a script doctor, it’s usually because someone else can’t get it through to the next level. It’s true that writers are replaced when executives don’t know what else to do, and that’s terrible, but the fact of the matter is that for most of the screenplays I’ve worked on, I’ve been needed, whether or not I’ve been allowed to do anything good. Often someone’s just got locked, they’ve ossified, they’re so stuck in their heads that they can’t see the people around them. It’s very important to know when to stick to your guns, but it’s also very important to listen to absolutely everybody. The stupidest person in the room might have the best idea.
You have one goal : to connect with your audience. Therefore, you must track what your audience is feeling at all times. One of the biggest problems I face when watching other people’s movies is I’ll say, ‘This part confuses me’, or whatever, and they’ll say, ‘What I’m intending to say is this’, and they’ll go on about their intentions. None of this has anything to do with my experience as an audience member. Think in terms of what audiences think. They go to the theatre, and they either notice that their butts are numb, or they don’t. If you’re doing your job right, they don’t. People think of studio test screenings as terrible, and that’s because a lot of studios are pretty stupid about it. They panic and re-shoot, or they go, ‘Gee, Brazil can’t have an unhappy ending,’ and that’s the horror story. But it can make a lot of sense.
Write the movie as much as you can. If something is lush and extensive, you can describe it glowingly ; if something isn’t that important, just get past it tersely. Let the read feel like the movie; it does a lot of the work for you, for the director, and for the executives who go, ‘What will this be like when we put it on its feet?’
Having given the advice about listening, I have to give the opposite advice, because ultimately the best work comes when somebody’s fucked the system ; done the unexpected and let their own personal voice into the machine that is moviemaking. Choose your battles. You wouldn’t get Paul Thomas Anderson, or Wes Anderson, or any of these guys if all moviemaking was completely cookie-cutter. But the process drives you in that direction ; it’s a homogenising process, and you have to fight that a bit. There was a point while we were making Firefly when I asked the network not to pick it up: they’d started talking about a different show.
The first penny I ever earned, I saved. Then I made sure that I never had to take a job just because I needed to. I still needed jobs of course, but I was able to take ones that I loved. When I say that includes Waterworld, people scratch their heads, but it’s a wonderful idea for a movie. Anything can be good. Even Last Action Hero could’ve been good. There’s an idea somewhere in almost any movie : if you can find something that you love, then you can do it. If you can’t, it doesn’t matter how skillful you are: that’s called whoring.”