I Get a Sidekick Out of You

Debate

I’m going to interrupt the Sticks and Stones posts for a friendly debate with writer Olivia Rutigliano, whose ranking of 45 detective sidekicks in CrimeReads has stirred some online response this week. I consider anyone who CAN rank 45 sidekicks to be a spirit- cousin of the highest order. I just want to reply to her, to try to respond Creatively to her Creative look at a lot of other people’s Creativity. Detective stories have been my jam for a long time. Also, I’ve been grading final papers all week in an apartment where I spend 22 hours a day, so here this is.

I agreed with, or was at least charmed by, some of her choices. Some provided recommendations for new characters to explore, so Huzzah. Some I was neutral about, or slightly above neutral: I don’t care about Batman’s Robin that much, but Burt Ward rescues Great Danes, so yeah, on the list is fine. And then some of her choices made me want to lean in and do that gesture Holmes is doing in Sidney Paget’s drawing up there.

So here are major points I feel like making, and it’s MY blog, in no particular order.

Yes, Dr. Watson should be #1. He defined the character of the sidekick. But Poe’s Dupin’s Nameless Narrator, who came first, was the creation of the detective sidekick. The Origin, the Source, the Big Bang. He should be #2. Don’t piss off Poe or Poe people. We have some odd ideas in our heads.

I’ve seen a lot of good-natured backlash over Rex Stout’s Archie Goodwin being #31, and rightly so. He is #3, for all time. Not my opinion, a Fact. There is no other narrator, no other voice, no other character but my #1 and #2 who should be above him, and there never will be. Don’t bother to argue because you are wrong.

I love that Dr. David Q. Dawson made her list. For the deprived, he is the sidekick to Basil of Baker Street in Disney’s The Great Mouse Detective, a film far superior to the exciting-as-a-saltine book it’s based on. One of the best ideas in children’s literature that falls flat the minute the plot begins. But the film is delightful, and Vincent Price plays the villain. O.R.’s words are one of my favorite descriptions of a sidekick ever: “clearly smart…but he mostly stands around scratching his head and looking cuddly.” Perfectly good job description for a human sidekick as well as a mouse in a waistcoat.

If Indiana Jones’s Sullah is on the list, then James West’s Artemus Gordon should be on the list. Their being partners may disqualify Arty as a sidekick, but I don’t care. If Dragnet’s Bill Gannon is on the list, then where is Steve Keller?? I mean,  are you kidding? (That I despise Jack Webb and everything he did has no bearing on this comment. None.) Streets of San Francisco simply wins.

O.R., I agree that DS Hathaway’s hair can leave something to be desired. But you are aware that Laurence Fox comes from an acting dynasty so large and powerful they may have their own country? If you get extradition papers…I’m just saying.

S.S. Van Dine??? How can you be an iconic sidekick when a) you never speak  b) your detective only speaks to you in his apartment c) no other character acknowledges your presence? The greatest non-entity in the genre. If he’s here representing that era and Inspector Queen is not, then there’s a problem. Ellery‘s father took on the role of supportive Watson AND annoyed cop dealing with private detective. He’s double to Van Dine’s zero.

Psst…#45, DS Bacchus, is what she says: immature, sexist, corruptible. But I want to stand up for the writers and actor, because O.R.’s take on him is a little shallow, in an Archie Goodwin at #31 kind of way. Bacchus can read the emotional atmosphere in a room in direct, intuitive ways that George Gently, who is rigidly principled and dogmatically focused, cannot. It makes them complementary, and it will make him a good cop when he grows the hell up. There’s a reason Gently doesn’t think he’s wasting his time. The bloke is often irritating, but I don’t want the Creativity here underrated.

I want, finally, to put in a vote for Margot Lane, the sidekick and romantic partner of The Shadow on the old radio series. She was the only one who knew her fellow Lamont Cranston’s secret identity. Thus Margot had to be the Full-Spectrum Sidekick. If some action needed narrating, she had to freak out in fear and shriek to him about what was happening. (It was radio.) If cops needed fetching, she had to go embarrassingly jelly- kneed at mysterious footsteps overhead and scram. But who got the injured Shadow to the poisoned water tower, driving at NASCAR speeds in the snowy darkness? Margot. And who infiltrated the cannibal cult, pretending to be their evil leader, with only a cloak over her own clothes to disguise her, just because The Shadow needed it done? Yup. Now THAT is a sidekick. You go, Girl.

Thanks for your work, O.R. I’ve really enjoyed reading and writing about the best characters in the Greatest Genre There Is. I welcome more conversation from anyone! And if you want to grade some papers…

 

 

Pondering Creative Minds

pen and ink

At a New Year’s Eve get-together, some creative friends were enjoying the early evening hanging-around-the-kitchen-with-wine hour. Our host shared some stories about her and my former workplace, and before you click away, let me assure you it was creative gossip about two famous, influential writers.  They had both revealed to my friend something about how their creative minds worked in the daily world, and since I’m pondering that, no identities. But go ahead and guess, O fiction fans.

The organization we worked for provided short courses for adults in everything from languages to cooking to rollerblading, and it also hosted writers for appearances and workshop weekends. My friend’s job description put much of the logistics of these events on her shoulders. Let’s call the two visiting artists Creative Mind 1 and Creative Mind 2.

Full disclosure for blog justice: CM1 broke their contract without warning halfway through the weekend, and I am aware of later events in our fair city where CM1 made large, gratuitous difficulties for those who invited them. CM1 seems to have been nestled into a rarefied life by academia, where they operate undisturbed on strict routines that others of us might find monastic or stifling. The daily life seems designed to serve the Art. As the saying goes, you do you; I’m sure many artists work this way for successful results, and CM1 sure has those. (I only judge CM1 for how miserable they made my friend that weekend, as if their needs were the only ones of value. I settle for using the silly nickname we have called CM1 since then.)

CM1 told my friend that, flight delayed, they stood a long time in a long airport line. So they pulled out writing supplies and began notes for a new work. In the full experience of CM1 that weekend, my friend found this choice insular, as if they wrapped a layer of writing around themselves like plastic wrap in that unfortunate situation. That limbo moment was a chance to disengage from the world. That is how some artists get it done.

Again, disclosure: CM2 was friendly and obliging, and that counts for a lot when you’re coordinating a big event and are surrounded by responsibilities and drooling groupies.

CM2 was waiting to speak to an audience where our organization was then housed, a Gilded Age mansion in Boston, donated in the early 20th for that purpose. (I mean, it had a ballroom.) CM2 was waiting in a small, beautifully paneled room that had been the Gentleman’s study. They looked around and eagerly called my friend’s attention to the old wires bordering the glass inside the window frames. Recognizing it as a Gilded Age burglar alarm, CM2 was excited and exclaimed that it must be one of the earliest alarm systems, and how utterly cool. They were fascinated, and in this limbo moment, wholly engaged with a new thing to offer their attention. That’s how some artists get it done.

I would prefer a creative mind like CM2’s. I can be easily, even too, curious in any given moment and easily, even too, enthusiastic about new things to explore. I like CM2’s relationship with the world, although it can present challenges. Overload and scattering of attention does not always serve the work you want to do.

I’m also aware that I was doing exactly what CM1 did at the airport when I was drafting this piece, in the middle of an unpleasant, stressful period of waiting limbo of my own. Was I upholding my practice or retreating into it? When is being driven either inward or outward healthy and when not? What is the balance? How does objective success in one’s art, and one’s behavior to others, affect how we judge creative habits and what it means to have a Creative Mind?

There’s no conclusion here. I still find CM2’s mode richer, more appealing, and more natural to me. But I’m asking myself many questions about different forms of discipline, practice, routine, openness to the world as it comes, balance, and how best to support my well-being and creativity. Conversation welcome!