Pluralistic: The art of Daniel Danger (23 July 2023)

Today's links

Daniel Danger's art print, 'To all who home to this happy place,' depicting a ruined Disneyland castle in a post-apocalyptic landscape with a statue of Walt and Mickey in the rubble.

The art of Daniel Danger (permalink)

There's this behavioral economics study that completely changed the way i thought about art, teaching, and critique: it's a 1993 study called "Introspecting about Reasons can Reduce Post-Choice Satisfaction" by Timothy D Wilson, Douglas J Lisle, Jonathan Schooler, Sara Hodges, Kristen Klaaren and Suzanne LaFleur:

The experimenters asked subjects to preference-rank some art posters; half the posters were cute cartoony posters, and the other half were fine art posters. One group of subjects assigned a simple numeric rank to the posters, and the other had to rank them and explain their ranking. Once they were done, they got to keep their posters.

There was a stark difference in the two groups' preferences: the group that had to explain their choices picked the cartoony images, while the group that basically got to point at their favorite and say, "Ooh, I like that!" chose the fine art posters.

Then, months later, the experimenters followed up and asked the subjects what they'd done with the poster they got to take home. The ones who'd had to explain their choices and had brought home cartoony images had thrown those posters away. The ones who didn't have to explain what they liked about their choice, who'd chosen fine art, had hung them up at home and kept them there.

The implication is that it's hard to explain what makes art good, and the better art is, the harder it is to put your finger on what makes it so good. More: the obvious, easy-to-articulate virtues of art are the less important virtues. Art's virtues are easy to spot and hard to explain.

The reason this stuck with me is that I learned to be a writer through writing workshops where we would go around in a circle and explain what we liked and didn't like about someone's story, and suggest ways to make it better. I started as a teenager in workshops organized by Judith Merril in Toronto, then through my high-school workshop (which Judy had actually founded a decade-plus earlier through a writer in the schools grant), and then at the Clarion workshop in 1992. I went on to teach many of these workshops: Clarion, Clarion West and Viable Paradise.

So I've spent a lot of time trying to explain what was and wasn't good about other peoples' art (and my own!), and how to make it better. There's a kind of checklist to help with this: when a story is falling short in some way, writers roll out these "rules" for what makes for good and bad prose. There are a bunch of these rulesets (think of Strunk & White's Elements of Style), including some genre-specific ones like the Turkey City Lexicon:

A few years ago, I was teaching on the Writing Excuses cruise and a student said something like, "Hey, I know all these rules for writing good stories, but I keep reading these stories I really like and they break the rules. When can I break the rules?"

There's a stock answer a writing teacher is supposed to give here: "Well, first you have to master the rules, then you can break them. You can't improvise a jazz solo without first learning your scales."

But in that moment, I thought back to the study with the posters and I had a revelation. These weren't "rules" at all – they were just things that are hard and therefore easy to screw up. No one really knows why a story isn't working, but they absolutely know when it doesn't, and so, like the experimental subject called upon to explain their preferences, they reach for simple answers: "there's too much exposition," or "you don't foreshadow the ending enough."

There are lots of amazing stories that are full of exposition (readers of mine will not be shocked to learn I hold this view). There are lots of twist endings that are incredible – and not despite coming out of left field, but because of it.

The thing is, if you can't say what's wrong, but you know something is wrong, it's perfectly reasonable to say, "Well, why don't you try to replace or polish the things that are hardest to do right. Whatever it is that isn't working here, chances are it's the thing that's hardest to make work":

But if I could change one thing about how we talk about writing and its "rules," it would be to draw this distinction, characterizing certain literary feats as easier to screw up than others, having the humility to admit that we just don't know what's wrong with a story, and then helping the writer create probabilistically ranked lists of the things they could tinker with to try and improve their execution.

Which is all a very, very long-winded way to explain why I bought a giant, gorgeous art-print at Comic-Con this weekend, even though I have nowhere to hang it and had sworn I would absolutely not buy any art at the con.

I was walking the floor, peeking into booths, when I happened on Daniel Danger's booth (#5034, if you're at the con today), and I was just fuckin' poleaxed by his work.

Daniel Danger's 'It stopped being about the panic,' depicting a ruined mansion interwoven with the skeletal branches of a tree, with a weeping statue and two human figures.

Now, see above. I can't tell you why I loved this work so much (and that's OK!), but boy oh boy did it speak to me. I just kind of stood there with my mouth open, slowly moving from print to print, admiring works like "It stopped being about the panic."

Daniel Danger's 'headlight in the path of,' depicting a ruined mall with a pair of stags standing at the top of the escalator.

On the surface, this is moody, post-apocalyptic stuff, heavily influenced by classic monster/haunter tropes, but it's shot through with hope and renewal and the sense of something beautiful growing out of the ashes of something that has toppled. There's real "(Nothing But) Flowers" energy in "Headlight in the path of":

Daniel Danger's 'We are no longer able to protect you,' depicting a ruined factory with a coming-apart sign reading 'We can no longer protect you forever,' and a statue of a sword-bearing angel.

Danger isn't just a very talented artist, he's also an extremely talented craftsman. As a recovering pre-press geek, I was (nearly) as impressed by the wild use of spot color and foils as I was by the art, like in "We are no longer able to protect you":

Daniel Danger's 'made of smoke and chains,' depicting a ruined landscape with a pair of derelict subway trains at the foot of a hill on whose peak is a rotting mansion. A pair of human figures, holding hands, are approaching the mansion.

Danger himself calls this work "weird sad hyper-detailed artwork of dreamy buildings of ghosts and trees," which is a very apt description of this work, as you can see in "Made of smoke and chains":

So I looked at this stuff and sternly reminded myself that there was no way I was going to buy any art at the con. Then I walked away. I got about two aisles over when I realized I had to go back and ask permission to take some pictures so I could put a little link to Danger in my blog's linkdump, which he graciously permitted:

Daniel Danger's art print, 'To all who home to this happy place,' depicting a ruined Disneyland castle in a post-apocalyptic landscape with a statue of Walt and Mickey in the rubble.

But then I got all the way ass over to the other ass end of the convention center and I realized I had to go back and buy one of these prints. Which I did, "To all who come to this happy place," because fuckin' wow:

This was unequivocally the best thing I saw at this year's SDCC, but I also got some very good news while there, namely, that Emil Ferris's long, long-awaited My Favorite Thing Is Monsters Vol 2 is finally on the schedule from Fantagraphics:

It's coming out in April, which gives you plenty of time to read volume one, which I called, "a haunting diary of a young girl as a dazzling graphic novel":

If you are or were a monster kid or a haunter, this is your goddamned must-read of the summer. It's a fully queered, stunning memoir for anyone whose erotic imagination intersected with Famous Monsters of Filmland.

(Also, if you're that kind of person and you're in the region, you should know about Midsummer Scream, a giant haunter show in Long Beach; I'll be there on Sunday, July 30, for a panel about the Ghost Post, the legendary Haunted Mansion puzzle-boxes I helped make:

Now Favorite Thing book two was the best news, but the best experience was watching Felicia Day get her Inkpot Award and give a moving speech:

And then learning that Raina Telgemeier also got an Inkpot; I love Raina's work so much:

A photo of me with Chuck Tingle, who wears a pink bag over his head on which he has written 'Love is Real.'

To cap yesterday off, I also ran into Chuck Tingle, which is as fine a capstone to a successful con as anyone could ask for:

Hey look at this (permalink)

A Wayback Machine banner.

This day in history (permalink)

#20yrsago AnarchistU: Toronto free school

#15yrsago XKCD role-players reenact “I Love the World” strip

#15yrsago Racist cop uses UK Terrorism Act to detain mixed-race family and take away their disabled child

#15yrsago MPAA wants to randomly break your home theater depending on which channel you’re watching

#15yrsago China’s neo-con nationalist youngsters go online

#15yrsago CNN reporter says bad things about the TSA, gets hassled every time he flies

#15yrsago Why is the TSA taking out nipple rings and pantsing amputees?

#10yrsago UK Internet censorship plan no less stupid than it was last year

#10yrsago Get ready for the big bang as 3D printing patents expire

#10yrsago Some phones can be pwned by sending two SMS messages to them

#10yrsago Woo with a body-count: measles epidemic follows anti-vax scare

#10yrsago Legally binding “buzz-off” letters for debt collectors

#10yrsago Footage of Haunted Mansion’s Hatbox Ghost finally surfaces after 44 years

#5yrsago Florida youth voter registration up 41% since Parkland shooting

#5yrsago Google DRM for Email can be disabled by ticking a few boxes in Firefox

#5yrsago Greedy landlords create a mass-extinction event in Burbank’s indie paradise

#5yrsago Disgraced charter school exec pleads guilty to criminal money laundering, resigns from LA school board

#5yrsago As Chinese P2P lending bubble bursts, “investors” mob Chinese sports-stadiums used as temporary processing centers

#5yrsago Important victory in Public Resource’s tireless fight to make the law free for everyone

Colophon (permalink)

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