Thursday, December 31, 2009

Either I Post It Here, Or I Start Hitting People With Baseball Bats

OK, listen up, people, because I'm only going to say this once.

If you think that entertainment has gotten too violent, remember that the most popular public spectacle was once watching a dog and a bear try to kill each other.

If you think that civility has vanished from American culture, remember that insults used to be settled with an exchange of gunfire from twenty paces.

If you think that politics has gotten more polarized, remember that there was a point in American history where one Senator beat another into unconsciousness. On the Senate floor.

If you think that the Fifties were an era of shiny optimism, remember that one of its most prominent poets described the time with the phrase, "I have seen the best minds of my generation destroyed by madness," and that lynching wasn't prosecuted.

If you think that everything got better in the Sixties, remember that Kennedy started Vietnam.

If you seriously think that the Great Depression was some kind of noble, decent era in American history...why do you think they called it "The Great Depression"?

If you think that athletes are no longer the great role models they once were for our nation's youth, remember that Mickey Mantle drank like a fish, Ty Cobb was a racist, and the White Sox took money to throw a World Series in 1919.

If you think that people are getting dumber, remember that people used to think you could cure infirmity by cutting someone open and pouring out their blood by the cupful.

If you think that people have become sinful and immoral, remember that prostitution was legal in America until around the start of World War I, and that the President's mistress published a memoir of their extramarital affair in 1928.

If you think that people used to be more patriotic, remember the CIVIL WAR.

If you think that somehow the world used to be a better, happier, cheerier, more joyful place than it once was, and that it's getting worse, and the decline of civilization is just around the corner...you just don't know enough history. Until you do, learn more and talk less.

Tuesday, December 29, 2009

A Modest Comics Proposal

Let's all eat comics!

No. Wait. Wrong kind of modest proposal. Let me start over.

Everyone talks about how comics are insular, and how they've become insular and self-referential and can't find a new audience. (OK, I've been talking about it. But I've been talking a lot about it, and that has to count for something, right?) We have a few things to rectify this, like "Free Comics Day" (although I think Marvel would do better by giving those free comics away at the movies the weekend "Iron Man 2" opens, but that's just me) or the "Ten Cent Adventures" comics aimed at "new readers" (although again, "new readers" in this case translates to "existing comics fans who don't read this particular book, because we don't promote this nearly enough outside of comics stores.")

Which is, ultimately, the problem. Comics don't get promoted enough outside of comics stores. They have a huge, devoted fanbase who is absolutely passionate about the hobby, they have the kind of brand recognition that just about any other company in the world would kill for (well, the Big Two do, but due to the crazy economics of the comics industry, the Big Two subsidizes the hobby by keeping comics stores solvent, so they're the most relevant economically.) And yet, their promotions never really click.

So here's what we do. We go viral. Once a year, DC and/or Marvel has a "Share the Love" month. Every comic that month a) tells an entirely self-contained story that explains the premise of the book for someone who's never read a comic before, b) contains information on how to find a comic book store, how to subscribe to a comic, and how to find comics (and specifically that company) online, and c) is half-price. And then they ask retailers to stock twice as many copies, and ask fans to buy two copies of that comic and give one to a friend who they think would like it.

Now obviously, it's not actually going to double sales every year. Not everyone will go along with the idea, either at the retail or the fan level, and not everyone who gets a free comic will actually become a regular reader of that title. But it's a promotion that works at the word-of-mouth level, the only place that comics still have any kind of hope in hell of getting through to people; it's a promotion that harnesses the passion and energy of the fans, which is better than any marketing tactic; and it's a promotion that's pretty cheap to do. One half-price book a year isn't a major dent in the company's bottom line, and it's really no cost to the retailer or the consumer at all if they go along. They've already budgeted that money for a comic, and now they get two. One to keep, one to share.

It's pretty modest in scope, but it might have some pretty big results.

(And if you don't like the free comic, you can always eat it. No, wait...)

Friday, December 25, 2009

Heretical Thought of the Day

Lance Parkin, in his retrospective on Doctor Who that appeared in "Time, Unincorporated" from Mad Norwegian Press, said that the Fifth Doctor was "subtle, restrained [and] sweet" as opposed to the "brash, exuberant, nasty" Sixth Doctor. With all due respect to Lance, and to the millions of other Doctor Who fans who share this view...you're all wrong. Peter Davison is subtle, restrained and sweet. The Fifth Doctor is rude, condescending, and temperamental. You just don't notice because he's being played by Peter Davison, who could murder puppies in the street and still have passers-by saying, "Awwwwww..."

Seriously, go back and actually watch any Davison story. Pay attention to what he says and does. He shouts, he blusters, he snaps, he's constantly berating his companions; he's doing to Tegan the exact same thing that the Sixth Doctor does to Peri, only Peri always looks like she's about to cry whenever he does it. (By the same token, the silly throwaway short "A Fix With Sontarans" shows that the Sixth Doctor, paired with Tegan, becomes half of a great comedy double act. There is a parallel universe where Janet Fielding decided to stick it out for one more season, and it's awesome.)

This isn't meant to be a slight on Davison; he consciously modeled his character on Hartnell, and did a magnificent job of using his natural charisma (see point A, above, about puppy-killing) to make the Doctor sympathetic even while he was spiky and temperamental. But please, Doctor Who fandom, stop saying that he was the "nice" one. He was just as big of a jerk as Colin Baker, but Baker wasn't as good at hiding it.

Tuesday, December 22, 2009

Things That Will Make You Go "Huh"

James Cameron's "Avatar": Humans come to a distant alien planet after years of hypersleep in order to mine the planet for its natural resources. The native inhabitants violently resist the incursion of their home, and despite their confidence and superior technology, the humans are ultimately beaten back and must flee.

James Cameron's "Aliens": Humans come to a distant alien planet after years of hypersleep in order to mine the planet for its natural resources. The native inhabitants violently resist the incursion of their home, and despite their confidence and superior technology, the humans are ultimately beaten back and must flee.

For extreme amusement, imagine Sigourney Weaver switching roles between the two movies.

Friday, December 18, 2009

Lesser-Known Movie Adaptations

Many of the younger science-fiction and fantasy fans out there really don't understand just how good they've had it. They've seen so many top-notch, high-budget, meticulously faithful adaptations of the great works of sci-fi and fantasy that they don't even realize that there was an era where something like "I Am Legend" or "I, Robot" was an exception, not the rule. Back in the bad old days, the source material was just grist for the Hollywood mill, and the finished adaptation was barely even recognizable as the classic book it started out as. So in order to remind you younger fans of this shameful era, here are a few of the lesser-known adaptations of popular sci-fi and fantasy classics.

Brewster's Silmarillions: Montgomery Brewster is left one million dollars by his eccentric uncle, Melkor, but he must spend it all in one year in order to be granted his true legacy, the three legendary Silmaril jewels of the Elven Kingdom. Can he spend the money fast enough? Will the elven host of the Noldor kill him and take back the Silmarils which they see as theirs by right? Will he find true love, or will the First Age of Middle-Earth end before he gets the girl? This wacky 80s comedy attempted to answer those questions, but despite a solid performance by Richard Pryor, it failed.

The Forever War of the Roses: This Danny DeVito-helmed adaptation of Joe Haldeman's classic science-fiction novel jettisoned most of the book to focus on the angle of the relationship between William Mandella and Marygay Potter. The result, a black comedy about a couple that no longer love each other but have difficulty obtaining a divorce due to frequent changes in the divorce laws (frequent, that is, to them--they experience a year in subjective time for every century that passes, due to their frequent use of near-lightspeed travel) turned out to be confusing and alienating to average audiences. It did, however, get good reviews from many critics.

The Sexy Beast That Shouted Love At The Heart Of The World: By now, even if you haven't seen this film, most of you have probably heard of Harlan Ellison's infamous response at learning that his short story about alien beings poisoning the Earth with madness had somehow been turned into a crime caper starring Ray Winstone and Ben Kingsley. The negative publicity did nothing to harm the film, though, which took in $8 million at the box office and gave Kingsley an Oscar nomination for Best Supporting Actor.

Brian's Song Of Ice And Fire: It was, perhaps, insanely ambitious to attempt to realize George R.R. Martin's entire saga about the war of succession to the Iron Throne of Westeros as a two-hour long made-for-television movie, but to make the eventual winner a terminally-ill football player was definitely one step too far. Despite the sentimentality of the story, fans of the original were enraged, and the story's signature line, "I love Brian Piccolo...and I will see him on the Iron Throne," became a by-word for B-movie schmaltz.

The Colour of Money: Without the budget or the special-effects technology to depict Terry Pratchett's sprawling Discworld novel, this film adaptation centered the action entirely in Ankh-Morpork, with Paul Newman portraying Rincewind as a retired pool hustler who goes back into action when Twoflower, a skilled but naive player from the Agatean Empire (played by Tom Cruise) comes to town hoping to score some quick cash. Rincewind takes Twoflower under his wing, but the personality clashes between them form the bulk of the film's story.

Tuesday, December 15, 2009

Insane Comics Moments, Part Seven

Sometimes, you can find some real surprises when you go back and read the classic comics of the Silver Age. For example, I'd been familiar with the X-Men villain Sauron for ages, but I'd always assumed that his name had something to do with the fact that he was a sort of weird not-quite-mutant dinosaur vampire type thing. (He was scratched by pterodactyls in the Savage Land, and that woke his latent mutant abilities...I guess...and so he became an energy-draining hypnotizing pterodactyl-man.)

(The above was not the insane bit, I promise.)

But as I say, I'd always assumed that he was named "Sauron" because he was some sort of dinosaur...or possibly, in a bit of a stretch, because his wings allowed him to soar through the air and he was a lousy speller or something. But no, when I got into "Essential Classic X-Men, Volume Three", and finally read his origin for the first time, I found the true reason for his name.

He was a huge "Lord of the Rings" fan before he was scratched, you see, and when he started to mutate, he felt himself growing more evil. "In fact," he shouts, "I am now so evil that I shall name my new self after the most evil character in all of fantasy literature...Sauron!"

No, I'm not kidding. That really happened.

The really sad part is I actually see guys like this all the time, running around in MMOs. You sign into "City of Heroes" the day after they introduce dual blades as a fighting style, and suddenly you're surrounded by guys named things like "Drizzzt" with three "Z"s. Presumably like them, Sauron's true arch-nemesis is Copyright Infringement Lawsuit Man, with his dreaded ultimate weapon, the Cease and Desist!

(And of course, TSR circa 1981 is saying, "Wait, they went after us but they missed this?")

Saturday, December 12, 2009

The Missed Opportunity of "Infinite Crisis"

This is, of course, a very different thing from "The Mistakes Of 'Infinite Crisis'", because I don't know if Blogger has a posting-size limit, and I don't want to find out the hard way.

But for those of you who don't follow comics overmuch, "Infinite Crisis" was a sequel to "Crisis On Infinite Earths", which was designed to do a bunch of harsh, necessary things to DC continuity and then never be mentioned again, ever. Basically, a bunch of the characters from "Crisis On Infinite Earths" who were never supposed to be seen or heard from again because their backstories were too complicated and unwieldy for any but the most hardened DC fanboys to follow turned back up because DC realized, "Hey, that's pretty much all we've got left of our audience!"

And they then proceeded to make a big, universe-altering machine that recreated reality like it was before the original Crisis, because there was so much cool stuff back then, and it was a shame that it was chucked out, and wouldn't it be cool if we brought back the Multiverse, and it's so lame that Batman's parents' killer was never found, and Power Girl really should be the Earth-2 Supergirl, and...and basically, it was the most spectacularly meta-textual story since Grant Morrison's "Animal Man" run. But to make a long story short ("too late!") it ended with the DC history being revised again (third time in twenty years.)

The key thing they did was bring back the Multiverse, which I've likened in the past to having an operation to put someone's appendix back in. Because ultimately, the Multiverse was there as a mechanism to get characters from different DC continuities to team up. When the writer wanted Captain Marvel and Superman to meet, but it was established that there was no Superman in Captain Marvel's world and vice versa, well...Multiverse! All is good. But the original Crisis made the difficult, painful, but ultimately necessary adjustments to DC's history to establish that no, all of these people are in one history, and it had two great waves of super-heroes. There was a Golden Age Flash, and he inspired the Silver Age Flash, and he inspired the Modern Age Flash. No Multiverses needed anymore. (In other words, the new Earth-2 has...all the same heroes as on Earth-1. Only, you know, they're...um, the same age, and...um, there's a new generation of heroes and Robin is now the new Batman, which is totally different from DC now because, um...look, just shut up! Earth-2 was cool when Geoff Johns was twelve, and it's still cool now!)

Which leads us to the great missed opportunity in DC's "Infinite Crisis". Because they're revamping DC's history yet again, right? And meanwhile, over in the Wildstorm universe (which started out as part of Image but was bought by DC, lock stock and every single marketable character), they're rebooting that whole universe from square one (Captain Atom and Void accidentally blew it up. Oops!) So what do they do?

They make the Wildstorm universe Earth-50. So now, if the Teen Titans want to team up with Gen-13, all they need to do is find a convenient dimensional portal to a parallel Earth, see, and then they can meet up and have a several-panel long explanation of the physics of alternate timestreams before they get their adventure started, which will have to involve dimension-crossing villains as well, of course, and...

Why, oh sweet suffering baby Jesus why didn't they just take the opportunity to make the Wildstorm universe part of the DC universe? They own the characters, they're revising both continuities at the exact same freaking time, and if fifty years of pre-Crisis continuity should have taught them anything, it's that having your marketable characters stuck in different fictional universes is a royal pain in the ass that you should correct sooner rather than later, because the longer you let it go on the more irritating it is to fix!

**pants like Animal after a rampage***

But they didn't, and the defining ramification of "Infinite Crisis" remains that it gave us "Countdown: Arena". Which is alone enough to make comics fans everywhere wish it hadn't happened.

Wednesday, December 09, 2009

Weighing In On The Great Blofeld Controversy!

(Please, James Bond fans, tell me that there is a Great Blofeld Controversy! I'd hate to think that you were the only sub-group of fandom that didn't have a hotly debated, never-settled question to bicker over during the long winter nights.)

For those of you who aren't James Bond fans (or just in case there is no Great Blofeld Controversy and I need to start it) please, let me explain. Ernst Stavro Blofeld is widely considered to be James Bond's arch-nemesis, despite the fact that in all of the movies where the two met each other face to face, the same pair of actors never played Bond and Blofeld. (In fact, the only actor to play Blofeld twice was the uncredited voice actor who played the part in his first two appearances, "From Russia With Love" and "Thunderball".)

Bizarrely, although Bond's changes in actor are never given an in-story explanation (apart from George Lazenby's aside to the camera, "This never happened to the other fellow," at the start of "On Her Majesty's Secret Service") Blofeld's constant transformations are explained away as the result of plastic surgery for one reason or another. Not only does he change his face to avoid the law, he also uses doubles that have been surgically altered to resemble him as surrogates and decoys.

Which leads to the question, "How can we be sure that Blofeld is really Blofeld every time?" Sure, it'd be nice to assume that anyone saying he's Blofeld is actually Blofeld unless proven otherwise (like the two doubles killed in "Diamonds Are Forever") but this isn't actually the theory that fits the facts best. Let's go through his appearances and see.

In the twenty-two "canonical" Bond films, Blofeld appears six times. The first two, "From Russia With Love" and "Thunderball", never show his face. Instead, his only signifying feature is his pet cat, which he strokes while ordering his sub-ordinates around in an emotionless tone. Here, he appears humorless, ruthless, and precisely calculating in every detail of his complex plans.

In his third appearance, "You Only Live Twice", he is played by Donald Pleasance, and finally meets Bond face to face. He's bald, short, and has a dueling scar down his right eye and cheek. This Blofeld is consistent with his previous two appearances, and there's really no reason to assume it isn't the genuine article.

The next film, "On His Majesty's Secret Service", has Blofeld played by Telly Savalas. He's lost the scar and made a few other minor changes (actually, Savalas is the best physical fit for Blofeld in the books, although Fleming's original character wasn't bald.) The changes are explained away as plastic surgery necessary to fit in with the physical appearance of the Bleauchamp family line; Blofeld plans to claim the title and estates, and needs to make sure he looks like a Bleauchamp. (Also, it's worth mentioning that this movie provides the clearest--though still very weak--evidence that Bond's appearance is supposed to be changing with the change in actors. Bond plans to infiltrate Blofeld's lair disguised as a genealogist, but he doesn't change his appearance at all, despite having met Blofeld face to face. Clearly, we're meant to assume that Blofeld will be looking for Sean Connery.) This Blofeld is a little more wry and sardonic, but not inconsistent with his previous appearances. But most notably, he suffers a serious neck injury escaping from Bond via bobsled...when we last see him, he's being driven away from a crime while wearing a neck brace.

Then we get "Diamonds Are Forever". In this movie, Blofeld is played by Charles Gray, and he's got his hair back, he's taller, and his mannerisms, speech patterns, and modus operandi have all changed. In fact, he's almost a camp version of his former self; whereas the Blofeld of the earlier movies was almost like a living computer of crime, this Blofeld admits that he "doesn't understand all the science" of his current scheme, and is quite garrulously chatty with Bond. (Which is actually one of the best moments of the film. "What's your plan this time, Blofeld?" "Oh, you know that as soon as I'm ready to explain it, James, you'll be the first to know. But it's late, I'm tired, and I've got lots to do. Can I show you out?" "What's this?" "It's a lift, James. It goes down.") This Blofeld is also the first to openly use doubles on screen. He seemingly perishes in an explosion at the film's conclusion.

Finally, in the opening to "For Your Eyes Only", we see a mysterious bald man in a wheelchair wearing a neck brace, stroking a pet white cat and planning an elaborate death for Bond. His face is never seen, but he bears a vicious and personal grudge against Bond, and strikes at him at a place and time that holds great personal significance between the two men. It's pretty clear that this is once again Bond's arch-nemesis, Ernst Stavro Blofeld. Bond dispatches him by dropping him into an open smokestack.

So what's the controversy? Simply that I don't think the Blofeld in "Diamonds Are Forever" was really Blofeld. He doesn't act like Blofeld, he doesn't look like Blofeld, he doesn't talk like Blofeld, he admits to having plastic surgery-altered doubles wandering around, and most importantly, when we next see Blofeld, he looks the same as he did at the end of "On Her Majesty's Secret Service". Occam's Razor tells us that the simplest solution is most often correct. So either Blofeld recovered from his broken neck with miraculous speed, altered his whole appearance with plastic surgery, dreamed up an elaborate scheme involving lasers from space, executed it in a way that was nothing like his usual M.O., then got injured in a way that removed his hair and left him with another broken neck...or he hid out while recuperating, and had a trusted lieutenant act in his stead to throw Bond off the scent. Which makes more sense?

Either way, it seems pretty likely he didn't survive the fall into the smokestack. So for now, it's kind of a moot point, unless they decide to revive the character for the "rebooted" Bond 23. (Which isn't likely, because there are niggling rights issues related to the curious status of "Thunderball" as a co-owned production. It's the same weirdness that led to Sean Connery returning as Bond in "Never Say Never Again".) But I at least hope to find out whether anyone but me actually cares.

Thursday, December 03, 2009

Time To Give Tolkien Fans Aneurysms

You know what I've always wanted to write? A version of "Lord of the Rings", as told from the perspective of the orcs.

Because that's got to be fascinating stuff. You figure the orcs are all hanging out in Mordor, disaffected and unhappy with their lot (let's face it, they live in the arse-end of the most hideous part of the world, while the elves and humans get to live in freaking tourism ads made real)...and then all of a sudden, Sauron comes back. Not as a physical being, just as this sort of vague, whispering corruption that says to the orcs, "I can give you more..."

And that sounds awesome. Sauron's talking about crushing the hoity-toity elves, giving them real lands where they can raise their children tall and proud, letting them run free in the beauteous lands of Middle-Earth...all of the orcish leaders are telling everyone it's a great idea. They're making big speeches about the destiny of the orcish race finally having arrived, promising great things...

But it doesn't escape everyone's notice that in practice, this amounts to vast numbers of orcs being funneled directly into the path of a freaking human wood-chipper named Aragorn and his two buddies, who make jokes about their orc-slaying competition. And so some of the orcs start to say, "Hey, whoa, wait a second. Mordor sucks, but at least it doesn't involve me being spitted on a lance by the Riders of Rohan."

Needless to say, that's when things get nasty. You get orcish secret police, mutiny, dissent, coups, counter-coups, and behind it all, the voice of Sauron, always whispering, always searching, always plotting...I think it could be a lot of fun as a story.

I mentioned it to an actual Tolkien fan once. Turns out there are, um...issues with the idea, canonically speaking.

Tuesday, December 01, 2009

Storytelling Engines: DC Comics Presents

(or "Too Good?")

At first glance...and, to be honest, at last glance, "DC Comics Presents" seems to be one of those truly excellent storytelling engines. It's another team-up book, one of a long line of "Popular Hero X Teams Up With A Different Hero Every Month" books; this time, it's Superman who gets the regular spot in the line-up, teaming up with a rotating list of DC heroes from the famous to the obscure.

And Superman really is the best possible hero for that slot in some ways; after all, we've seen anti-social heroes like Batman and Spider-Man in team-up books, and gruff-but-loveable curmudgeons like the Thing take the spotlight as well. Always, any storytelling engine built around the team-up as its central concept has to find answers to the question, "Why is this hero teaming up with someone else?" And really, nobody has an easier answer to that than Superman. He's the quintessential hero's hero, the guy who everyone can count on and who's always happy to help. When he sees the Metal Men duking it out with Chemo, you can bet he'll swoop in to lend a hand. When the Flash investigates a mysterious spacecraft outside of a small Midwestern town, you can figure that Superman's already on the case too. There are a fairly limited number of plot hooks to get two super-heroes to team up, and Superman is an easy fit on almost all of them.

That's right, almost. Because there's one classic way of getting two heroes to cross paths in a team-up book that doesn't fit Superman, and that's at cross-purposes. (See how clever that was? Oh, I amaze myself sometimes.) When you have a hero like Spider-Man, who's fundamentally decent but misunderstood, or a hero like Batman, who's fundamentally decent but spiky and intense, you can legitimately solve the story problem of "how does he meet this week's guest star?" by having this week's guest star blame him for the acts of this week's villain, and watching the sparks fly. (Super-hero fights are a little like catfights. They're tacky and cliche, but a lot more people love watching them than are willing to admit it.)

But Superman? He's way too nice for that sort of thing. They try it in the opening story-arc, pitting him against the Flash in a race through time (not against time, through it--this is the Bronze Age, where casual time travel was a monthly thing at DC) to catch up to an alien time traveler who was trying to change history. Supposedly, the two heroes were on opposing sides...but all Superman needed to do was explain his point of view, and the Flash said, "How can I help?" It's not exactly the source of tension and plot complications that a writer needs to find on a monthly basis.

Of course, there is always the old standby, mind control, and sure enough, Superman does wind up mixing it up with a few heroes while under the influence of villains like Killer Frost. But for the most part, while having a goody-goody like Superman opens up a lot of options for a team-up book like "DC Comics Presents", his very niceness closes one off.

Saturday, November 28, 2009

Disquieting Geek Thought of the Day

A while back (perhaps a year or so ago) I read a book called "The Card", about the history of the world's most expensive baseball card (a T206 Honus Wagner card, made between 1909 and 1911 and worth hundreds of thousands of dollars.) The book discussed in detail questions about the card's authenticity (some suspect the card might have been doctored to make it look more pristine) and about the authenticity of baseball cards in general (there's no way to prove provenance in the hobby, and historically, the cards have been low-quality and easy to manufacture...and hence, easy to fake.)

This led me to the book "Card Sharks", which discusses how that exact problem (forgery and fraud of a product with no trail of provenance) led to the creation of the Upper Deck company, which makes cards that are higher-quality and harder to forge...and how some people suspect that Upper Deck themselves has been "forging" their own cards by creating a larger number of cards than advertised, and quietly disposing of the extras on the secondary market. (In other words, you tell people that "only 1,000 of these cards will ever be made!" Then you print 2,000 and sell the extra thousand to collectors on eBay for ten grand each, knowing that the odds of anyone actually being able to piece together a definitive picture of who's got which cards are so low as to be non-existent.)

And then recently, I read "The Billionaire's Vinegar", which is all about the world of wine collecting, and how (again) there's no such thing as a trail of definitive provenance and no ability to definitively prove the age of a bottle of wine (the best they can do is prove it came from before World War II, because nuclear testing has deposited microscopic amounts of radioactive material all over the planet since then. Cheery thought, hmm?) So again, forgery and fraud are rampant, because there is no way to prove what the definite article is.

And this combined with some thoughts of mine about sports memorabilia (where it's well-known that fake signatures circulate on baseballs, bats, jerseys, et cetera, because there is...all together now...no trail of provenance for most of those items. Yes, a lot of modern signed products come with a "Certificate of Authenticity". But, well, Upper Deck proves that those are only as helpful as the people they come from...always assuming they're not forged, too.) And I've come to a conclusion.

There have to be fake comic books out there. It's just a given. You've got a hobby with no means of establishing a definitive trail of provenance (comics are passed from collector to collector, and collectors routinely buy from other collectors with no way of guaranteeing that the comic originally came from the company.) You've got a product that is easily forged (the printing process on older comics was cheap and easy, by design.) And you've got an economic incentive to forge. (Amazing Spider-Man #1 sells for upwards of $40,000...that's a pretty big reward for forgery.) Sure, there are "authentication services"...but go read those three books, and you'll get a pretty good idea of just how asymetrical the war is between forgers and authenticators, and just how likely it is that the forgers are winning at any given time. (For those of you who don't have the time or money to read them, I'll just say that the answer to both questions is "very".)

So in other words, if you're a comic collector, particularly a big-time comic collector...odds are, at least one of your showpiece comics is a fake. And you'll never know which. Fun thought, huh?

Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Why Goldfinger Works

About five seconds prior to writing these words, I had literally no idea what I wanted to write. I knew I had to write something, because this blog entry is already a day late and while I sometimes nudge the goodwill of my select readership ("select" sounds better than "tiny"), I have no wish to actually push it and no excuses not to blog. But seriously, I had nothing. I cast my eyes around frantically, looking for inspiration...

And decided to write about James Bond, on account of the empty DVD cases in my room. I'm watching the whole series from the beginning, up through "Die Another Day", and in some cases, it's my first coherent viewing of the movie (I watched them as a kid, but when you're six, all James Bond movies blur together into "sexy woman, explosion, fight scene, chase scene, sexy woman.") And in the case of "Goldfinger", what struck me is how curiously unimportant the plot actually is next to the clash of personalities between Auric Goldfinger and James Bond.

They do say that the perfect recipe for a story is two people who don't like each other stuck in the same room, and "Goldfinger" is basically nothing more than an epic pissing match between two people who have taken an instant and inexplicable dislike to each other. Bond's first action, when assigned to watch Goldfinger unobtrusively, is to steal his girlfriend and make him lose at gin rummy. Goldfinger's response? Have his manservant kill the girl with Bond in the same room, just to prove he can.

At that point, it's on. The actual plot, a scheme to irradiate Fort Knox's gold supply, doesn't even turn up until more than three-quarters of the way through the movie. Most of it is just Bond and Goldfinger, getting in each others' way and stepping on each others' toes, like a Bugs Bunny/Daffy Duck cartoon with more slinky babes. And it all works for the same reason that a good Bugs and Daffy cartoon works--Sean Connery has that same mischievous smile of someone who knows he's probably going just a little too far in ticking the other person off, but just can't help himself, while Gert Frobe has a wonderfully pop-eyed, frustrated expression on his face every time Bond outwits him. Bizarrely, I think this is the only Bond movie that could be made into a series.

There's a lot not to like about the film as well, of course; like all Bond movies from this era, it's eye-blisteringly sexist and misogynist when viewed through modern eyes (the big climactic plot twist seems to be that after he rapes Pussy Galore, she suddenly decides that she likes him so much she betrays Goldfinger for him.) But that central personality clash that powers the movie is so strong that it became the template for the series--Bond, and a villain just as larger-than-life, locked in a hatred so epic that it transcends whatever schemes the villain has planned and becomes a force all its own. When it works, that's a pretty marvelous way to make a movie.

Thursday, November 19, 2009

Pet Peeve of the Day

OK, I still must be at least a tiny little bit sick, because my brain just stopped dead to consider how funny the word "Peeve" looked, and wonder if it was somehow etymologically related to "reeve", and now I'm trying to remember what the heck a "reeve" actually is, but I'm too lazy to wiki it...

Anyhow, my pet irritation of the day: Science-fiction authors who insist they aren't science-fiction authors. Of course, the grand champion of them all is Kurt Vonnegut, but there are a few others (Margaret Atwood comes to mind, and even Harlan Ellison preferred to be called an author of "speculative fiction".) But let's face it, Vonnegut provides the perfect example of the author who says, "No, no, my work isn't science fiction. My work is literature."

Kurt Vonnegut's work has time travel, dystopian governments, spaceships, and ray-guns. While science fiction is a hard-to-define, mutable genre label, I think it's pretty safe to say that once you have aliens from Mars invading Earth in their rocket ships, you have written some science fiction. There are really only two reasons you would say anything else, and neither reflects well upon the author.

Reason Number One: "My stories just use the trappings of science fiction to tell deep, meaningful stories about the human condition. They aren't really sci-fi." (This is the one they usually say out loud.) Of course, the big problem with this statement is that everyone writing in the science fiction genre can say it. Nobody actually writes about rocket ships and ray-guns because they really believe them to be up-and-coming future developments in the field of transportation and weaponry, and want to describe them in detail. They use them because science fiction is a genre that speaks in the language of allegory far more potently than any real-world story ever could, and so can describe its symbolism in larger-than-life terms. So to say that your work is different from science fiction because it's intelligent and allegorical is both ignorant and arrogant. It betrays your lack of knowledge of other intelligent writers in the genre, and places you on a self-constructed pedestal; you're so much better than other sci-fi writers that you don't even think you should be in the same genre as them. (Presumably the next step would be to claim that you don't write books, you construct memetic paradigms or somesuch.)

Reason Number Two: "Science fiction isn't taken seriously as literature, and if I admit that I write sci-fi, all of the literary critics will dismiss me as trash and I will lose all of my intellectual cachet." (This is the one they really mean when they give Reason Number One.) This is actually something of a self-fulfilling prophecy. Since all of the great science fiction writers take pains to explain how their science fiction novels aren't really science fiction, it makes it hard for fans to convince people that sci-fi is a genre capable of producing respectable literature. If some of the "literary" sci-fi writers would use their intellectual credibility to argue for the credibility of science fiction as a genre, it might change some opinions...but unfortunately, they take the path of least resistance, preferring to escape the sci-fi ghetto instead of opening it up and bringing people in. So we're in the circumstance we're in today, where twenty-nine of the top thirty box office films of all time are sci-fi or fantasy movies, but people still say that science fiction is a niche genre.

Which is why this remains such a pet peeve of mine...ah. Back-formation of "peevish", as opposed to "reeve", which was a sort of medieval superintendant. So no, not related at all. I hope this has given you some closure.

Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Short Thought For The Day

I'm currently kind of sidelined with H1N1 (I know, it's the virus everyone's talking about. I feel like such a name-dropper.) This is why the blog's been a little quiet. But I did have a thought, and I figured I should write it down before I take some more Tylenol Cold and Flu and it goes away.

The reason that the Christmas season seems to start earlier and earlier each year is because Thanksgiving just isn't an exciting enough holiday to command people's attention. Sure, we all enjoy it, but it's got no charisma. Nobody spends the three weeks between Halloween and Thanksgiving eagerly anticipating the blessed day and all it brings...it's a feast and an occasion to get together, and since that happens a lot around Christmas anyway (how many Christmas parties do you go to weeks before Christmas?) it's easy to let Thanksgiving just blend into the general "holiday atmosphere" around Christmas. Pilgrims just aren't compelling enough to separate it from Christmas, so it just becomes sort of a waypost on the way to the even better holiday to come.

What does this mean? Only that Christmas Creep isn't going to ever get any earlier than November 1st, despite some people's worries, because Halloween's got the muscle to hold its spot and command attention. Nobody's going to get out the Christmas lights when they can decorate their house with skulls and spiderwebs. (Now Halloween, that could wind up creeping back a bit. It already commands all of October, but I could see it engulfing September without too much trouble. What does September have going for it, anyway? Labor Day? Ooh, yeah, color me interested.)

Your comments will tell me whether this is insightful, or whether I should really just lie down for a while and let the medication do its job.

Monday, November 09, 2009

Fun Games With Old Comics

The old "Official Handbook to the Marvel Universe" used to list all sorts of information about every single Marvel character, good or bad. And when I say "all sorts", I mean all--they listed every single bit of trivia they could find, no matter how irrelevant. Height, weight, eye color...

And oddly enough, they listed "Profession" for every single Marvel character. All of them. This leads to a fun mental game you can play if you get a hold of back issues of the OHttMU--picture the guy who makes business cards for Marvel comics characters.

"Yeah, make mine 'Criminal'. No, make that 'Professional Criminal'--I wouldn't want anyone to think I'm an amateur or something."

"Doom's order shall read, 'Ruler of Latveria'. Can you have those ready in time for the embassy ball tomorrow?"

"Just put 'God'. The Odinson would like that embossed, too, please."

"Um, let's see. 'Professional photographer', of course, and...hmm. 'Superhero' is probably too much of a giveaway, and I've already had to make a deal with Satan once to hide my secret identity. How about 'Adventurer'? With any luck, they'll just think I'm one of those D&D geeks who still lives with his aunt."

"How about 'World Conqueror'? What do you mean, 'You haven't conquered anything yet'? No, no, fine. Put 'Would-Be World Conqueror'. You are so going to be in trouble when I conquer the world, buddy..."

Friday, November 06, 2009

Games Past: Grave Robbers From Outer Space

I won't call Z-Man Games' "Grave Robbers From Outer Space" the best game ever. I won't call it the smartest, the best-designed, or even the most entertaining (since I firmly believe that entertainment comes always from the players, never from the game. There is no game so dull that you can't enjoy playing it with good friends, and no game so fun that a rules-lawyering, hyper-competitive jackass can't wreck it.) But it certainly is the funniest.

For those of you who've never played it (or its various stand-alone, fully compatible sequels) "Grave Robbers From Outer Space" puts you into the role of a B-movie (or perhaps Z-movie) producer, casting your own horror movie. You put Cast Members into play (like The Old Priest, the Small-Town Policeman, or any number of teenage stereotypes) at various Locations (like the Cabin in the Woods, the Cemetary, the Back Seat of the Car)...then your opponents "help" out your movie by playing various Monsters into your film to bump off the cast, one by one. Whoever winds up with the most surviving cast members when the credits roll is the winner. (There's actually a "Credits" card.)

The hilarity comes when you start getting into the various card combinations. When you actually have the Old Priest and the Spunky Young Kid together in the Back Seat of the Car, and suddenly they're attacked by a werewolf, well...let's just say it's possible to laugh so hard you shoot pop out your nose at some of the way these games play out. (When we first played the game, at the GenCon where it debuted, we were asked by hotel staff to kick out anyone who wasn't a paying guest and confiscate the liquor. This was particularly amusing, as it was only four of us and we were all stone-cold sober.)

And the stand-alone sequels add a lot to the fun. Each one takes on a different genre, like 70s kung-fu flicks, giant monster movies, or sword-and-sorcery epics, and so the mix-and-matching can produce some genuinely awesome results. "My Sorority Girl uses her Bullwhip and Preying Mantis technique to stop your Horde of Orcs!" That sort of thing.

Oh, and the best part is that every card has a word on the bottom, just a random B-movie title type of word like "Evil", "Invasion", "Blood", et cetera. At the start of the game, you draw six random cards and turn the six random words into the title of the movie you're making. Any game that starts out with you deciding that this round will be called, "Blood Beasts of the Forbidden Temple of Doctor Hate!" has to be officially considered awesome.

Unlike some of the other games I might mention in this series, "Grave Robbers From Outer Space" is still being produced by Z-Man Games, along with all of its spin-offs and sequels. Z-Man is a great company, "Grave Robbers" is a great game, and I've talked games with owner Zev Shlasinger enough to be able to say that he's a genuinely nice guy. (And no, he didn't pay me to say that. We share a common love of the Shadowfist game, but we've never been in business together.) So this one is well worth tracking down, if you enjoy giggling like crazy with a group of friends. And really, who doesn't?

Monday, November 02, 2009

Storytelling Engines: Sub-Mariner

(or "Ix-Nay On The Estroying-Day The Urface-Say Orld-Way!")

When Stan Lee and Jack Kirby created the Fantastic Four, arguably one of the world's greatest comics magazines (for evidence to this effect, see "Fantastic Four: The World's Greatest Comics Magazine!", Lee, Stan and Kirby, Jack) they made a conscious effort to tie in the modern Marvel Universe to the Golden Age Timely/Atlas universe. It makes sense from a sales stand-point (kids might have heard about the Timely heroes from their parents, and be curious) and from a writing stand-point (the more characters you can throw in, the better the chances are that one of them will spark a story idea.) And since there was a new Human Torch in town, and since one of the old Torch's sparring partners was the Sub-Mariner, it's no surprise that Subby turned up pretty quick.

Of course, when you've already got four protagonists in the book, a new character works much better as an antagonist. So in no time flat, a rationale was worked up to explain why the Sub-Mariner (a good guy in World War II, albeit a spiky, arrogant one) became a bad guy in the modern world (he was ticked off because nuclear tests destroyed Atlantis while he was off being an amnesiac homeless guy.) And before you can say, "Hey, where'd you even get a giant bipedal whale from, anyway?" He was off to conquer the surface world.

But something kind of strange happened along the way to Namor's becoming a big-time super-villain. He became kind of, well...cool. Popular. Readers responded to his tortured nobility, his romantic gestures towards Sue Storm, and his habit of betraying the bad guys when they crossed his code of honor. He was sort of the Angel/Wolverine/Dinobot of his day, and as with so many anti-heroes and noble villains, he wound up getting his own book.

Well, his own back-up feature. There, his adventures focused on a long-term, epic struggle with his own warlord Krang for control of the undersea kingdom of Atlantis (and when I say "epic", I mean "epic". Namor's quest to regain his throne and defeat Krang lasted eighteen issues, practically a lifetime in an era where the average story was an issue long, tops.) It introduced all sorts of supporting characters, from his Grand Vizier to his lady love, Dorma, and most of his primary antagonists--Byrrah, Krang, and Attuma.

But the key change came when he finally graduated to his own series. There, he discovers that it wasn't nuclear testing that devastated Atlantis after all--it was an evil psychic named Destiny. (No, not the frail old lady who spent most of her free time writing books that Chris Claremont would use as plot devices years later. Different Destiny.) Why the big shift?

Because for all that Namor's tortured anti-hero schtick is integral to his character, he needs to be sympathetic to attract readers. And a hero constantly trying to destroy New York City and crush the hated Americans for their crimes against his people is, well, kind of a tough sell. (Imagine trying to sell "The Bombastic Bin Laden!" as a comic, and you'll get the idea pretty quick.) So he needed to be softened just that tiny little bit, much like years later, other hero/villains like Rogue and the White Queen would be softened in the same way. Still gritty enough to keep their edge, but not actively evil anymore.

And ever since, Namor's trajectory between "loveable jerk" and "outright villain" has pretty much followed an easily chartable path, depending on whether or not he has his own series. When he's a protagonist in a book that needs to sell, he loses his hatred of the surface world and becomes a good guy. When he's needed as a villain, suddenly the surface world must pay! (John Byrne even worked this into continuity in the 90s "Namor" series, explaining that he's got a bi-polar disorder due to his hybrid condition.) It's an interesting "dual role" for a character who is a reliable second-tier cast member in the Marvel Universe, providing him with versatility...perhaps at the expense of his ability to truly carry a book for a long run, but he makes up for it by giving writers on other series a fun, fan-favorite villain to bring in whenever they need one.

Thursday, October 29, 2009

The Diamond Pillar: A Fable

Once upon a time, a group of very wise men built a city underground. They excavated a vast cavern where before, there was nothing but stone, and said, "In this place shall we build Paradise." And they knew that because the city was so deep underground, that at any moment, the pressure of the earth overhead could cause the roof of the city to collapse in and bury its inhabitants, so they reinforced the roof with an enormous diamond pillar, right in the very center of the town square. (They were very clever men who knew how to balance it properly so that it wouldn't crack or shatter under the weight. Don't quibble about details, here.)

And so many came to the city over the years, and the decades, and the centuries, and though some people fought and bickered and grew angry (because they were people, after all) they all lived securely and safely under the earth, with the diamond pillar holding everything upright and stable. Children became parents, parents became grand-parents, the founders of the city passed into history and then into legend, and still the pillar supported their creation.

Until one day, some of the inhabitants of the city said to themselves, "That pillar is made out of pure diamond; surely, nobody will miss it if I chip out a little piece for myself. Even the tiniest little piece of that pillar will make me wealthy beyond my wildest dreams, after all, and I don't see what damage a little chip will do." Because even in a city that was Paradise, some people always wanted more than they had.

And so those people went to others, and said, "Why is it that the greatest part of our wealth should be wasted simply sitting there in the center of town? Surely there are better things it could be used for, aren't there?"

And some people said, "It is not wasted! It holds up the roof over our heads, and keeps the city safe and intact by its very presence! Surely you would not wish for the rock to collapse upon us?"

And they responded, "This city has stood for time immemorial, and it shall always stand, because we are just and great and the people believe in us. I simply cannot imagine that taking away some of that pillar will make that great of a difference." For these were people who had lived all their lives and all their father's fathers' lives in a city where the roof did not collapse, and they could not believe that roofs just fell down all of a sudden. (And they also did not believe in using contractions.)

And some people said, "We think you must be very greedy people, to covet the wealth of this town so."

And they said, "Not at all! We do not simply covet this wealth for ourselves!" (Although they did.) "We simply wish to make sure that everyone gets a share of the value they put into making this city the great place that it is! By taking the diamonds out of the pillar and putting them in your hands, we will give you the freedom to spend that wealth the way you think wisest!" (While all the while, they were dreaming dreams and scheming schemes to cheat and connive the diamonds out of the hands of others, so that they might have them all.)

And the debate went on for a long while, but these men were single-minded in their greed, while others had other concerns. And so every day, they talked and talked and talked about chipping away at the pillar, while every day a few of the others who opposed them gave up or were distracted or were swayed by their agreements or simply grew old and died (for these greedy men were so single-minded that they passed on their greed to their children.) Until eventually, they managed to convince lots of people that yes, their greed was not a vice, but the virtue of "self-interest", and their carelessness was not folly, but "liberty". And so, with some trepidation, they chipped away a bit at the pillar and collected the fragments of diamond.

And nothing happened.

As is not surprising; it was a very, very big pillar, and a very, very small chip. But when nothing happened, people eased their opposition further. After all, one chip meant nothing next to such a big pillar. The roof did not fall. Things seemed to go on as normal, except that the people who got the pieces of diamond became very, very rich. (But somehow, never quite rich enough.)

And so they chipped away again. And again, and again, each time gleeful at the seemingly limitless wealth that the pillar provided and the seeming lack of consequences to their acts. Fewer and fewer people worried about the roof now, and those who did were derided as foolish and "out of touch". Town criers talked about the "new wisdom" of the diamond-cutters, and how they had discovered a "new paradigm" of "leaner, more efficient pillars."

And then one day, one of the greedy men was chipping out another piece of the pillar...and a rock the size of a football cracked loose from the ceiling and crushed his skull like a grape. Suddenly, the whole town was filled with panic. More stones came loose, and soon every townsperson was looking up at the ceiling anxiously every day. In great haste, they called for an architect.

With one look, the architect surmised the problem. "The pillar is no longer strong and stable," he said. "We must return the diamonds we took out, or we will all surely perish." (He was a really good architect who knew how to glue diamonds together really well. Don't quibble about details, here.)

But the remaining greedy men were very, very greedy, and no wiser now than they'd ever been. "This is simply a natural correction in the weight distribution of the roof! It is in no way the result of our diamond mining! These sorts of things have probably happened before, and the roof has survived. We are surely in no danger."

"No," said the architect simply. "We must replace the diamonds, or we will all die." (He stopped using 'perish', because it was too important to mince words now.) Even as he spoke, more chunks fell out of the ceiling, injuring some, killing others.

And the greedy men found an architect of their own, and told him what words to say. He said that he had an alternate plan, one which involved taking more diamonds out of the pillar in a very clever way that would make it sturdier. He said this new plan would make them safer and richer. But some townspeople noticed that the greedy men were slipping a few chips of diamond into his pocket every time he spoke.

They said, "We are tired of being endangered! We see now that you simply wanted diamonds, that you cared nothing for our safety! Even now, you care more about your diamonds than about our lives!"

And the greedy men said, "No! Not at all! This is not about the diamonds!" (Although it was.) "This is not about us!" (Although it was.) "This is about you! Think about it! If he wishes to take diamonds from us, what might he take from you? We must stand together, here, against his unwarranted taxation, or surely he will render us all poor!"

And some agreed with the greedy men...while some wondered what kind of men would rank "poor" as below "dead" in a list of ills...and still others decided it was none of their concern, just another argument in a long line of many. The roof would no doubt stand, because it had always stood. The architect must be wrong, because the consequences of his being right would be unthinkable. The city could not fall. It was Paradise, was it not?

Nobody knows what happened to the city. Some say it fell, its people crushed as the pillar finally collapsed. Others say the pillar was restored, and it lives still, deep below ground. Still others say that the greedy men were right, and the city survived without the diamond pillar...but there are always those who wish for free diamonds, and who will believe that the roof cannot collapse.

Tuesday, October 27, 2009

Storytelling Engines: Warlord

(or "The Kitchen Sink Must Show Up In Issue #29")

At first, when reading Mike Grell's classic series, "Warlord"...oh, let's all be honest. At first, when reading Mike Grell's classic series, "Warlord", we all ooh and ahh at the spectacular art. Arguably, the black-and-white reprints are even better than the original color issues of the series; color is almost a distraction from Grell's crisp, clean, gorgeous lines. But once we start actually paying attention to the story, it seems a little...well, cliched. It's got a hero who winds up finding a hidden "hollow world" at the center of the Earth, with living dinosaurs and barbarian tribes, and sorcerers, and secret Atlantean technologies, and time moves differently in different parts of the world (allowing for him to be gone a few months inside Skartaris, but years and years outside) and, and...

And then you start to notice that what seems to be a lack of originality at first is, in fact, a calculated effect. Grell isn't just being lazy, he's deliberately trying to evoke the tropes and themes of an entire genre of adventure stories. He includes elements of "John Carter, Warlord of Mars", bits and pieces of "Tarzan", chunks of "Buck Rogers" and "Flash Gordon"...the series actually tries to create a sense of familiarity, like a painter deliberately aging one of his works to make it look like one of the Old Masters. The intent isn't forgery, but an attempt to create a novel work that fits, stylistically, with a different era.

And because Grell is trying to evoke as much of the atmosphere of those old adventure stories as possible, he has a huge advantage in setting up his storytelling engine; anything that doesn't directly contradict a previous storytelling element is fair game for inclusion. So when he's stuck for a plot, he can have Travis Morgan relive his previous incarnations (a la Alan Quatermass) or bring in creatures of dark magic from pre-human Earth (a la Conan.) He's got a veritable cornucopia of ideas to draw on, and the more he piles on the old pulp tropes, the more authentically "pulpy" it seems. After all, those guys weren't averse to sharing ideas back and forth themselves. Perhaps if Lovecraft, Howard, or Burroughs were alive today, you might see a few references to Skartaris in their stories.

How well did this genre pastiche work? Well, it ran 133 issues; pretty good work, for a series that steadfastly refused to tie in with DC continuity for much of its run. Even now, it's fondly remembered; while a Bruce Jones reboot fared poorly, Mike Grell himself is returning to the series he created and seems to be getting positive press for it. And with decades of pulp (and pulp-inspired) stories out there, it's doubtful he'll run out of inspiration anytime soon.

Thursday, October 22, 2009

Games Past: Battletech TCG

Something that doesn't really get a lot of play on this blog is my deep and abiding affection for games. Card games, board games...sure, I've mentioned RPGs and "City of Heroes", but I don't think I've talked much about my love of "Grave Robbers From Outer Space" (a game that almost got us kicked out of a hotel room, once.) Some of this has to do with the aforementioned "City of Heroes", which has been the addiction of choice of our gaming group for quite some time now, but I'm hoping to rectify that a bit over the next year...and I think it starts in my attitude. So I think I'm going to add a new, intermittent feature where I discuss games--good games, bad games, games no longer being published and games I just haven't played in a while. Games Past.

Today, I'm going to talk about Battletech. Not the miniatures game, although I've taken a few spins around the hexfield...no, this was the trading card game by Wizards of the Coast that they launched in 1996. This was Richard Garfield's third game, after he'd struck gold with Magic and struck out with NetRunner (which was a good game, but got, um, lost in the shuffle as competitors to Magic flooded the market.) It had a great property as its inspiration, one of the classics, and a strong fanbase. How did it do?

Very good, at first. The mechanic of the game felt different to Magic, but not so different that you couldn't relate to it. Instead of an abstract "life meter" that you attacked, your mechs romped around the playing field attacking actual targets--other mechs, Command cards (like assembly lines that put out mechs, or important characters from the Battletech universe) or your opponent's deck, where every point of damage dealt was a card chucked into the Scrapheap. (No, literally, that was what they called the discard pile.) Defeat came when you had to draw a card and couldn't--which would happen in 27 turns, if you took no damage, or two, if your opponent got out a few Masakaris or Mad Cats and started going to town on you.

Game balance was solid--the different factions all got plenty of useful, playable cards, with the Clans getting big, nasty, stompy Mechs but the Inner Sphere getting cheaper, durable Mechs and some seasoned pilots. The mechanics of combat were understandable, but provided depth, and let's face it, giant robots have a lot of appeal. (It also had plenty of dice-rolling, a big draw for just about any game. You could have a whole lot of fun creating a "missile Mech deck" and rolling big handfuls of six-siders for damage.) It was hours of fun for myself and my friends (I still have my cards, up in the Big Closet of Games), and we really looked forward to each expansion.

But the expansions were the big problem. Because if you're a fan of the minis game, and a fan of trading card games in general, you're probably anticipating the tough part. Every expansion to the card game needed to feature a lot of new Mechs. Mechs were the bread and butter to the game, the all-purpose attacker and defender. Unlike Magic, where you had instants and sorceries to destroy permanents in play, Battletech was all about taking your Mechs over and stomping whatever you didn't like into a greasy spot on the ground. Mechs were the lifeblood of the game, and an expansion without lots of new Mechs would wreck the game balance and design. The miniatures game was the same way, of course. FASA needed to sell new figurines just as much as WotC needed to sell new cards. But the schedule for miniatures releases was maybe three or four a month. The schedule for new expansions was a full new set every three months, with perhaps 40-50 Mechs in it. Clearly, something had to give.

And that something was "Arsenal", the set that destroyed the Battletech TCG. It introduced "Vehicles", which were a fairly sizeable part of the minis game (Mechs were still kings of the battlefield, of course, but mixed-forces groups could be devastatingly effective) but which had not featured significantly into the TCG until then. Arsenal changed all that, introducing loads of new vehicles that fought like Mechs, but were significantly cheaper to build and came with a built-in downside. Whenever they took damage, there was a one-in-six chance they'd go kaboom.

The problems with this were twofold. One, they were all significantly undercosted. That "one-in-six chance" turned out to be a much smaller downside in actual play than in playtesting. Which was a problem, but it wasn't The Problem. The Problem was that they'd just introduced a whole new card type, four expansions into the game. So a card like "Temporary Cease-Fire", which "removed all Mechs from combat", now had a glaring weakness when someone with an all-vehicle deck used it against someone with a mixed-forces or Mech-heavy deck. In fact, vehicles turned out to have lots of rules loopholes, since they could attack like Mechs or block like Mechs but weren't Mechs.

No problem, WotC says. We'll issue a new ruling: All cards that say "Mechs" actually mean, "Mechs and Vehicles".

People then pointed out the logical inconsistencies of this, like hovertanks now being able to have their Hips Shattered, or jeeps being able to lash out with a Vicious Kick.

No problem, WotC says. We'll issue comprehensive errata for every card in print, so that all you'll have to do to figure out whether a card refers to "Mechs", "Vehicles" or "units" (Mechs and Vehicles) is to look it up on your handy print-out of changes to every single card in the game up until now, all five hundred or so! Or you can just buy the new edition of the game, coming out soon!

It's surprising how fast that can kill the enthusiasm of a fanbase.

The game limped along for another expansion or two, but eventually it had to be put to bed. You can probably still find a few packs floating around out there in online card stores, or perhaps by digging around in discount bins (or, of course, there's always eBay.) It's actually well worth doing, particularly if you abandon WotC's "official rulings" and just play the game as it was intended, with Mechs, missiles, and friends.

Of course, friends make every game better.

Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Storytelling Engines: Dollhouse

(or "So Why Is It About To Be Canceled, Anyway?")

So a while back, I made a post about how Fox had badly mishandled the publicity campaign for "Dollhouse", creating audience expectations that weren't fulfilled when the series went to air. This proved to be #2 on the list of Most Controversial Things I've Ever Said, ranking well behind "Marvel should go back to writing comics for kids because there's not a big enough market for comics for adults to sustain a major publisher" but significantly ahead of "Gee, '300' really sucked." There are some people who just do not like "Dollhouse" on the face of it, and can't imagine why anyone would like it. And apparently, judging from the ratings, there are enough of those people out there that it's hard to believe the series will get a third season. (Fox has, at least, pledged to show all of Season Two.) Why doesn't "Dollhouse" work for these people? Well, some of that is inherent in the set-up of the series.

Which...man, love it or hate it, you have to admit, it's ballsy. Really ballsy. The idea of a sinister, clandestine organization that kidnaps people and wipes their memories and identities is a pretty well-worn fictional trope, which is part of what the show has counted on. At every turn, as Eliza Dushku begins to remember the woman she once was, our collective familiarity with the tropes of science-fiction and action-adventure practically leaps out of our hindbrain and demands that she go on the run from faceless, sinister agents of the Conspiracy while trying to find the proof that will bring down the evil (yet suave and debonair) woman in charge. It's an idea so well-worn it's practically carved a groove in our skulls.

But that's not what "Dollhouse" does. "Dollhouse" doesn't treat the evil conspiracy as "faceless" or "sinister". (Well, maybe "sinister".) It's a show that asks the question, "What sort of actual human being could or would do that sort of thing to someone?" It's following the conspiracy as much as it's following Echo, taking the characters who would normally be two-dimensional bad guys and trying to make them into the main characters. This is a very risky choice. As I've commented in the past, in a long-running series, you don't have to make the protagonists "good", but you do have to make them "sympathetic", and this show has a lot of spiky, damaged people running the show. From Mr. Dominic, who's angry, humorless, and violent; to Topher, who's glib and callous about his treatment of human beings as lab rats; to Adelle, who is simultaneously worldly-wise, shockingly naive, idealistic and ruthless...these are a collection of messed-up people. Which they'd have to be, to do the sorts of things they do, but it's hard for an audience to sympathize with them. Even the three audience-identification characters (Echo, Boyd, and FBI agent Paul Ballard) each have their own tremendous flaws that led them to the Dollhouse in the first place. It's a show that constantly flirts with making you hate its characters.

That's unbelievably dangerous for a TV series. When the series' plots fail (and while "Dollhouse" has a great "go anywhere, do anything" premise in its concept of people who can become anyone for a few days at a time, every series is going to have dud plots now and again) you can always fall back on your characters, the good will they've built up and the chemistry between them to get people to continue to watch. Think of a show like "House", which is basically the same plot every week--it thrives because Hugh Laurie is electric, and the character he's playing is mesmerizing. You don't go back to see how he'll solve this week's case, you go back to see what he'll say and do while he solves it. "Dollhouse" almost dares you to care about its characters, and that's a tough sell.

And then Joss Whedon, as he sometimes does, pulled a game-changer out at the end of Season One. Not "Omega", for those of you who don't generally buy TV shows on DVD--there's an additional episode to the first season that never aired. This show, "Epitaph One", completely changes the focus of the show--instead of, "What sort of person would design a machine that can rewrite a person's mind?", it becomes "What are the consequences of the existence of a machine that can rewrite a person's mind?" It takes the show from the realm of a character study into that of speculative fiction, and does so with gripping intensity. In fact, it's arguable that this is going to make it even harder for Season Two to get a foothold, ratings-wise, because even the fans of "Dollhouse" are now split. While some want to keep watching the edgy, twitchy staff try to sort out their moralities, others would just like to skip ahead ten years and find out what happens to everyone. Can the show handle this balancing act successfully?

Probably not, judging by the ratings. But love it or hate it, you have to admit, this show is going to be memorable.

Thursday, October 15, 2009

Review: The Crazies

So I was looking through trailers today on "Rotten Tomatoes" (I love trailers. Absolutely adore them. There's just something so magnificent about a really good trailer, the way it distills down the essence of a movie into these sharp, smart, two-minute micro-movies. Seriously, I could watch a full hour of trailers, and in fact have.) And they had a trailer for a remake of "The Crazies". Which reminded me, naturally, of the original Romero film...and that reminded me that Halloween is coming up, and people might be looking for some horror films to watch that they haven't already seen. Little cult gems, that sort of thing. And "The Crazies" fits that bill perfectly. So let's talk about "The Crazies".

The premise is brilliantly simple. A contagious virus gets into the drinking water of a small town. The only symptom of the virus? Murderous insanity. As various townspeople go nuts and start killing people, the government arrives to try to control the situation. But (surprise, surprise) they're also the ones who developed the virus to begin with, so while they're trying to find a cure and quarantine the infected, they're also covering up a secret and trying to hide the evidence. The net result is a military occupation of the town, one which turns brutal with shocking speed.

What you quickly wind up with is four factions. Insane townspeople, townspeople who have a justifiable fear of the soldiers occupying their town and using lethal force indiscriminately, soldiers who aren't sure who's insane and who's just shooting at them, and soldiers who are succumbing to the virus due to inadequate bio-hazard precautions. And the brilliant thing is that there's no way of knowing which is which, and Romero rarely signposts it for you. (This looks to be a mistake on the remake's part--they're turning the victims of the virus into stereotypical zombies, hunting in packs and looking all "infected".)

So as the pressure ratchets up, you find yourself uncertain as to whether any given character's actions at any given moment are the result of the virus...or just the kind of very human response to a tense, angry situation we see all the time. When the town priest sets himself on fire, is he crazy? Or is he protesting the military's actions (a la the Buddhist monks in Vietnam)? Or is it crazy to protest like that? (And, of course, the unspoken question...aren't the people who created the virus the craziest ones of all?)

It's not a particularly cheerful movie; this is Romero at his most nihilistic, during the Vietnam era, suggesting that maybe insanity is endemic to the human condition and if we really were being driven mad, we might not notice the difference. But it's also clever, tense, and filled with some haunting and evocative imagery, and it has some good acting from the principals. I recommend it.

Tuesday, October 13, 2009

Storytelling Engines: Leverage

(or "Churn 'n Burn")

First, an apology for the day's delay--here I skip blogging last Monday to set up a Monday Storytelling Engines entry, then I don't post it until Tuesday! What can I say, long weekends always screw me up.

Now, on to a discussion of "Leverage". For those of you unfamiliar with the series, it uses the basic structure of the "caper" movie (a team of experts in various fields of criminal activity assembles for a crime that would normally be impossible, and then pulls it off due to their brilliance and gets away with the goods.) But "Leverage" has a twist--the crooks are all wealthy beyond their wildest dreams, and pull off their scams and capers against corporate crooks who use their power and money to ignore, flout, or occasionally change the law. The kind of people who should be in jail, but never will be.

This brilliantly taps into the zeitgeist of the post-Bush era, where it has become increasingly clear that Bush and his cronies used patriotism as a cover for some of the most egregious graft and corruption in the history of this country (and that's saying something.) Some episodes are even direct parallels; Castleman Security, the villains of "The Homecoming Job", are obviously meant to be Blackwater USA (parallels that became all the stronger after real-life Blackwater CEO Erik Prince became entangled in murder charges a few months after the episode aired.) There's a lot of general anger towards rich guys, big corporations, and the seemingly different code of justice for the wealthy and privileged in America, and that makes it all the more satisfying to root for the honest crooks.

So it's a strong concept for a series, especially now. But it does take a risk--apart from the five protagonists, they rarely use recurring characters at all. Likewise, there are very few ongoing sub-plots from episode to episode; each hour-long show tends to be one self-contained caper from beginning to end. They set up an entirely new crime with every episode, and pull it off by the end. This means they're churning through an enormous amount of storytelling material with each episode, with very few safety nets when they get stuck for an idea. This is, to say the least, a daunting prospect for a series that has to come up with a new plot every week (and one that hopes to have at least a 100-episode run, presumably. TV shows need a stronger storytelling engine than just about any other medium, simply due to the way that the profits come in on a series. If you last at least five seasons, you're going to be raking in dough. If not, you better hope for a strong DVD audience.)

So is "Leverage" doomed to run out of ideas by Season Three? Probably not, because while they take a big risk, they also have a strong advantage. They use real cons, heists, scams and capers as their inspiration (something showrunner John Rogers talks about from time to time on his excellent blog, Kung Fu Monkey.) And if there's anything you can count on in this world, it's that the human race never ceases trying to find new and inventive ways of cheating money out of one another. It's doubtful that "Leverage" will ever find a shortage of corrupt, greedy bastards to pastiche as their bad guys, and it's even more doubtful that they'll run out of clever, sneaky cons for the heroes to run on those bad guys. In short, they're relying on human nature to provide their stories for them, and as long as there are humans, they'll always have a ready supply of ideas.

But if the human race ever dies out, they'll probably be in trouble.

Thursday, October 08, 2009

Head To Head Cage Match Review!

In one corner, we have "Book of the Dead: The Complete History of Zombie Cinema", by Jamie Russell! Weighing in at 352 pages, this covers the entire history of the zombie film from its origins in Haitian folkore all the way up to 2005! And in the other corner, we have "Zombie Movies: The Ultimate Guide", by Glenn Kay! Also weighing in at 352 pages, this book reviews virtually every zombie movie made from "White Zombie" all the way up to 2008! But let's face it, fight fans--only one of these guides has what it takes to sit on your bookshelf! Let's look at the tape.

Kay's "ultimate guide" does, in fact, have some ultimate-ness going for it. He covers loads of obscure zombie movies from all over the world, including Hong Kong and Japanese zombie cinema, Italian and French zombie movies, and even some TV shows with zombie episodes (albeit some more thoroughly than others.) But unfortunately, he doesn't seem to like any of them. His introduction says that unlike certain other pretentious guides (a not-too-veiled attack on Russell's book, which came out first), he's not afraid to have a few laughs at the cheesier of the films. But the "laughs" mostly take the form of pointing to low-budget film after low-budget film and saying, "Hey, doesn't this one suck too?" He gives Romero a free pass (citing film after film for "cheesy zombie makeup", but ignoring the slapped-on gray paint in "Dawn of the Dead"), but anything else that isn't a major release (or something he watched as a kid--certain 80s films get far more love than they probably deserve) is something to look down one's nose at. I'm not saying that a film like "Hell of the Living Dead" is an instant classic, but if you can't find joy in quirky, low-budget films, you probably shouldn't be writing a zombie movie guide.

Plus, he's oddly slapdash about his criteria for a zombie movie. The "Evil Dead" trilogy is put in the back of the book, because they're not "real" zombies, just victims of demonic possession (I got news for ya, Glenn. Henrietta was buried in a cellar for two weeks before the start of "Evil Dead II". If she wasn't a zombie at first, she sure as heck is one now.) But "28 Days Later", with its decidedly not dead undead, is put in the main guide. Similar inconsistencies plague the whole book. (Plus, he gives "Slither" a bad review. This is not only a sign of his lack of taste in zombie movies, but also a sign that he secretly hates babies and kittens.)

On the other side, Russell's "Book of the Dead" suffers just a tiny bit from being dated--it ends right around the point of "Shaun of the Dead", which was really when the recent wave of zombie horror kicked off, and so there are a lot of fun recent movies it omits (like "Quarantine", "Slither", "Diary of the Dead", et cetera.) But it more than makes up for this by being just as comprehensive about the period it does cover as Kay's guide, if not more so, and by covering the entire history of the zombie in cinema instead of simply covering each of its movies piecemeal. The shot-on-video trend in zombie cinema is covered in depth, along with the way that different landmark zombie movies (such as "Night of the Living Dead", "Return of the Living Dead", "The Evil Dead") transformed the genre. Yes, he does get into the symbolism of the zombie, an act which some might see as "pretentious". Others of us like to think of it as "intelligent". Best of all, he has passion for the zombie film--silly low-budget movies like "City of the Living Dead", "The House By the Cemetary", or "Zombi 2" are held up and examined for their good bits as well as their bad. He's not indiscriminate, but he's no snob, either.

Ultimately, I think if you can only afford one, go with Russell's "Book of the Dead". If you can afford both...then buy Russell's book, and save your money to go buy some of the DVDs he recommends. You won't really be missing anything if you skip Kay's book. It may be "ultimate", but it's not actually much fun.

Monday, October 05, 2009

Heist, Part Sixteen

The grand finale! Sorry for the delay, I'm trying to resynchronize posting for another round of Storytelling Engines.

Corvus, Winter explains, was in her employ all along. She hadn’t imagined that the Doctor would have chosen him for this little enterprise, but since he had, it meant that she knew everything he was doing even as he did it. She didn’t have the criminal resources to steal the Key, but the Doctor did…and now that he’s brought it to her, she will use the Doomforge Fleet to make herself Empress of the Galaxy. The Doctor tries to convince her to stop, using every weapon in his arsenal of rhetoric to try to sway her from inserting the Key, but it’s of no use. In fact, one of his casual mentions gives her an idea on how to dispose of them creatively—she bundles Ace, the Doctor, and Amanda into an escape pod, now that they’re no longer of use to her. Although the fleet won’t shoot at its own escape pods while on stand-by mode, they can rest assured that her first test of the destructive capabilities of the Doomforge Fleet will be to order the flagship to reduce the pod to atoms. She launches the pod and proceeds to the deck to bring her goals to fruition.

Inside the pod, with only minimal engine power and no weapons, Ace angrily wonders why the Doctor could possibly have brought Corvus in on this to begin with. What help could he possibly have given them that they couldn’t have gotten from someone who wasn’t an utter slimebag? The Doctor sighs, in an ‘Isn’t it obvious?’ sort of way. “He was devious, treacherous, and certain to sell us out to Baroness Winter at the first opportunity. That’s exactly what I needed for this particular enterprise.” He rummages through his pockets and pulls out a cricket ball, smashing it against the hull of the escape pod to reveal the Key inside it.

At that moment, the Baroness places her Key into the control socket. The Key, which the Doctor created and switched with the one Amanda stole, transmits a self-destruct code to the entire Doomforge Fleet. From their escape pod, the Doctor, Ace, and Amanda watch as the entire fleet annihilates itself…and, not incidentally, the unfortunate Corvus and the Baroness.

The Doctor goes on to explain that he knew that the Baroness had uncovered the truth about the Key. He knew that unless he forced her hand, she’d be able to steal it herself in less than a year, and that with it in her possession, she would be an unstoppable force for chaos and destruction. By stealing it himself, and switching out the Key with a duplicate he’d made that ordered the fleet to self-destruct, he’d eliminated the threat of the Doomforge Fleet forever.

Amanda is almost awe-struck. “You mean you arranged all that—you knew how Corvus would react—you knew how the Baroness would think, you tricked her into putting us into the escape pod…all this was your plan?” The Doctor nods. “You’d have made an amazing criminal,” she says, half in admiration and half in disgust. “I think I already have,” the Doctor says, watching the last echoes of the destruction of the intelligent ships, and the deaths of the people he’d tricked into ending their own lives.

Ace, unaffected by it all, points out that they’re stuck in a small escape pod with very little chance of reaching civilization—not less the point that the civilization they’d reach has warrants out for their collective arrest. The Doctor smiles and pulls out a pocket watch; and right on time, Eileen O’Donnell, the only pilot in the galaxy capable of outmaneuvering the Doomforge drones, spots the pod and arrives to pick them up. This time, it seems, the Doctor really has thought of everything.

Monday, September 28, 2009

The Topping Problem

No, this does not refer to my somewhat guarded attitude to 'The Devil Goblins From Neptune'. (Yes, I have things up on the Internet other places than here. Don't worry. What you and I have is special.) No, this is more about a problem that happens in comics, something related to my issues with metastory (which I have ranted about in the past.) Specifically, it's the tendency of comics writers...and probably editors too...to want to write the "ultimate" story.

Actually, the Ultimate universe is a good place to start. "Ultimatum" is, by all accounts, an over-the-top, Grand Guignol, Ragnarok-style finale to the Ultimate universe. (I have no direct, first-hand observations of this, because I no longer buy comics that I think I'll really, really hate.) It features dozens of deaths of major characters, a bloody finale to the rivalries between Professor X and Magneto and Doctor Doom and the FF, tidal waves crushing New York, and generally is a sort of be-all-and-end all super-hero epic.

Except that a few months later, they're publishing "Ultimate Comics: Spider-Man" and "Ultimate Comics: Avengers". You see the problem. In an industry that relies upon the income generated from long-term fan loyalty, and specifically on long-running series that have stable, devoted fanbases, you can't do a "be-all-and-end-all" story because you have to follow it up next month.

This problem started all the way back with the original "event", 'Crisis on Infinite Earths'. At the time, Marv Wolfman and the DC editorial team didn't think of this as an "event" comic (although they were pretty quick to capitalize on the sales excitement it generated.) They thought of it as a painful, necessary one-time adjustment to the fifty-year-old DC universe that would set it up for fifty years of new stories. But once fans got to see a thousand universes perishing, a battle between every super-hero and every super-villain ranging over five Earths at once, and a titanic struggle at the dawn of time for the fate of the multiverse, it was hard not to want something more...and more crucially, once writers read 'Crisis', they had a natural instinct to try to top it.

But the nasty part about trying to go out and top the last "event" story every time is twofold. First, it means that you're constantly having to top the last event story. The amount of shocking, not-to-be-missed, amazing once-in-a-lifetime developments you need for each story keeps going up and up and up, and it's easy to lose the thread of an actual story in the need to outdo the last one. (It's like the Spinal Tap joke. "Our crossover goes to eleven.")

And then the next crossover will have to outdo yours. When you title a story, "Final Crisis", you're creating the expectation among the fans that this is the ultimate, the untoppable, the literally final crisis that ever there is. When the actual story turns out to just be, "Darkseid takes over the world, Superman stops him and fixes everything, be sure to pick up next month's comic for more exciting adventures!" ...well, it's anti-climactic. That's the issue in a nutshell with "ultimate" stories. Everything after that is anti-climactic.

In the end, and I do keep hammering on about this but I think it's the core truth of everything that's gone wrong with the comic book industry, the emphasis has to be not on "important" but on "good". At every level, fans, writers, artists, editors, and all the way up to editors-in-chief, there needs to be less of an emphasis on, "You must not miss this shocking change to the status quo!" and more of an emphasis on, "You'll really get your money's worth in terms of enjoyment if you buy this comic!" Because there is a law of diminishing returns to shock and awe, and for many people, comics hit that point over a decade ago. And with every passing year, more and more fans become too jaded to care about the big events. But nobody ever becomes too jaded to care about good stories told well.

Friday, September 25, 2009

Fun Fact!

"You know, in certain older civilized cultures, when men failed as entirely as you have, they would throw themselves on their swords," from the movie 'Serenity', is a great thing to say to someone right after they tell a joke that bombs.

"You are a sad, strange little man and you have my pity," from 'Toy Story', also works, but is gender-specific.

Insane Comics Moments, Part Six

So I'm now reading "Showcase Presents Supergirl, Volume Two", and if there's anything that a vast collection of black-and-white reprints of Silver Age comics has taught me, it's that the Superman titles are second only to the Wonder Woman titles in terms of sheer, wall-to-wall insanity. Case in point: The first meeting between Lex Luthor and Supergirl.

Luthor finds out about Supergirl's existence the same way everyone else does; Superman breaks into every TV show in the world for a special broadcast saying, "Hey, everyone! I've got a cousin!" (If I had a machine that let me interrupt every single TV signal in the world, I'd probably use it all the time to talk about my personal life, too. I'd be all, like, "Hey, world. Kinda had a sucky day at work. Could use some hugs." It'd be awesome.) On hearing about this, Luthor immediately suspects that this is a trick of some sort on Superman's part. He breaks out of prison (fun science fact! Combining mouthwash, aspirin, orange juice, and some old radio parts will make a fool-proof invisibility formula that works whenever a siren goes off!) and goes to defeat what he assumes is a robot Supergirl.

Of course, she's not a robot (not that this would be out of the question in a Superman title; she actually has robot impersonators of her own) and Luthor realizes that she is, in fact, a woman with all of Superman's powers. He remains confident, though; Luthor says, "I'll use her feminine nature against her!" He pulls a bank robbery, using a shrinking beam to steal the entire bank (hey, Silver Age Luthor might have been crazy, but he had style!) and sets up a trap for when Supergirl shows up...one that will use her "feminine nature" against her.

Specifically, he has an accomplice waiting with a baby carriage, and when Supergirl shows up, they shove it down a hill and tell Supergirl that she's got enough time to save the baby or stop Luthor, but not both. As it turns out, the baby carriage actually has a midget with Kryptonite in it, but that's not the point. (As difficult as it is to avoid puzzling over, it's really not.) The point is, Luthor apparently believes that the big difference between a man with Superman's powers and a woman with Supergirl's powers, the "feminine nature" he's using against her, is that Supergirl will let Luthor escape to focus on rescuing the baby.

The clear implication is that Superman wouldn't. "Screw the helpless infant, Luthor! You've got a date with the judge!" That's right, Luthor clearly knew that only female super-heroes care about children's lives! Or just that Superman is a dick.

Anyhow, Supergirl escapes from the midget and actually saves Luthor's life in the process of capturing him (mainly, according to her, because Luthor's got a life sentence in prison to serve, and she's not going to let him get out of it by dying young. Which is actually a pretty impressively badass thing to do. It sort of feels like what Judge Dredd might do to a perp who's doing life.) Afterwards, Luthor resents her bitterly for saving him, thus cementing her position in the Superman family. And cementing this story's position in the canon of crazy Silver Age stories.

Thursday, September 24, 2009

Heist, Part Fifteen

This is the penultimate section, so for those of you who are looking forward to the end (for one reason or another) there's only one chapter to go!

On Tinaria, relationships among the gang get strained quickly as they hide out, evade the law, and prepare for the theft. Although Amanda prefers to work alone, she finds herself quickly befriending Eileen and Ace (even though none of them trust Corvus, and wonder why the Doctor involved him)—Vorimar, though, remains utterly terrified of all of them and hates being forced into what he sees as a criminal enterprise. He has no choice, however; the Doctor revealed his old identity, and the only way to avoid recapture and a life in prison is to go through with the theft, after which Corvus will set him up with a new life at the Doctor’s behest. He wants no part of the money that the theft will bring, and will consider being left alive to be a reward. Corvus, in turn, has problems re-establishing his criminal contacts. Everyone believes him to be a turncoat, since his capture was so well-known among the criminal community, and he quickly comes to blame the Doctor for his fall from grace. Joachim, meanwhile, deals with his nervousness through drugs and alcohol. And the Doctor? He’s busy running errands, making preparations, and constructing a duplicate Key that can pass close inspection—the plan is to substitute the fake Key for the real one to avoid alerting the authorities as to its true value. (It’ll also keep the Baroness from trying to snatch the Key away from them, since she won’t know it’s been stolen until they have the Fleet itself.) The duplicate Key is just as beautiful as the real one…a twelve-sided crystal roughly the size of a golf-ball, shimmering through all the colors of the rainbow as it waits to be inserted into the control deck of the Doomforge flagship.

The heist itself is brilliantly planned. First, Vorimar uses his unique powers to create a precisely localized electromagnetic pulse. The pulse crashes the museum’s electronic systems, while leaving the gang’s perfectly intact. Then, using equipment procured by Corvus, Joachim hacks into the remaining shielded systems of the museum and brings down the rest of the security…leaving the Doctor and Amanda to enter the museum and make the switch, while Eileen waits in the getaway hovercar.

Everything goes as planned at first, but then disaster strikes. Over-medicated and a little bit too drunk, Joachim makes a crucial error in judgement while navigating the network. He attempts to use the emergency cut-out the Doctor had Corvus obtain for him in order to escape the network, but it fails and security programs fry out his brain from the inside, killing him. The museum’s core security systems re-activate, bringing some of the detectors online…a fact not noticed until Amanda picks up the Key, triggering alarms everywhere. Panicked, they are forced to depart before the Doctor can plant the duplicate Key, which means that Winter will know they have it. Fortunately, the Doctor says as they reach Eileen and outrace the police to safety, Winter doesn’t know where they are.

After the theft, the Doctor mourns the death of Joachim. He examines the emergency cut-out, and discovers it was sabotaged; someone set Joachim up to die if he made a mistake. Amanda has an immediate suspect in Corvus, who helped the Doctor procure and set up the equipment, but can prove nothing—and the Doctor appears unwilling to accuse the blackmailer. Instead, he continues with the original plan, and apologetically releases Vorimar. He explains that Corvus has used his contacts to set up a new identity for the Dyna, and thanks him for his help. Vorimar scorns the Doctor’s thanks, but goes to his new home hoping to put this whole incident behind him. He finds three people there waiting for him, though. The first, a blonde woman with icy blue eyes, is Baroness Winter herself. The second is her personal bodyguard, a massive, heavily armed man. The third, of course, is Corvus. They’re there to tie up a few loose ends…

After a night of cautious celebration, the Doctor prepares his (now five-member) crew to go and claim their prize. They fly out to the sector of space where the Doomforge Fleet awaits, but as they approach the Doomforge Fleet, Baroness Winter uses her own ship’s transmats to beam the four of them to her and her retinue of jackbooted thugs. The Baroness hasn’t reached the perimeter of the Fleet’s territory yet, but unfortunately for Miss O’Donnell, their ship has. It’s unfortunate because the pilot’s compartment is scan-shielded, meaning she couldn’t come along, and without the Key on board, the Fleet has just released drone ships to kill her, just to clarify. Winter brought them all along because she doesn’t know who has the Key, and didn’t want to take chances. Fortunately, after a quick search (with the Doctor having his usual assortment of useless junk), she finds it on Amanda’s person, and the group docks with the Doomforge ship without incident.

Monday, September 21, 2009

The "Vote With Your Wallet" Fallacy

So I was thinking about writing about DragonCon (which I attended, as I plan to do next year) and the way that certain people feel like their passion for a particular actor, the distance they traveled to attend the con, or the money they paid to get in somehow gives them special rights over other attendees...but then I thought about it, and realized that trying to correct the behavior of the entire science-fiction fan community felt a bit like tilting at windmills. So instead, I'm going to rant about comics. This is also tilting at windmills, but is less likely to lead to me flailing about with blunt instruments next time I attend a convention.

Specifically, I'm going to rant about an oft-heard phrase that rears its ugly head every time a lazy, slapdash, poorly paced crossover filled with random deaths and random resurrections all to try to generate some sort of "shock" in the jaded comics readership. (*cough* 'Blackest Night' *cough*) (Although really, the biggest problem with 'Blackest Night' is that even by comics standards, it's hard to believe this crop of gruesome deaths will be permanent. This is Geoff Johns we're talking about, a man who has spent his entire career trying to bring back every single Silver Age character and a good 47% of the Golden Age heroes. He is not going to kill off Hawkman, not after he lobbied for the better part of a decade to bring him back. No, 'Blackest Night' is going to end with loads and loads and loads of miraculous resurrections, which makes it pretty hard to care about the endless gore-porn sequences that have substituted for plot so far.)

But what do people always say after a rant like that? (A rant which is, of course, purely for demonstration purposes.) "Vote with your wallet! If you stop buying that stuff, they'll stop publishing it!"

The problem is, people have been voting with their wallets since the mid-1990s. The end result of over a decade of voting with their wallets? 'Blackest Night'.

The logic is simple and inexorable. Comics are, with a few extremely rare exceptions, only sold in comics stores. This means that comics only sell to active, engaged enthusiasts of the medium. If you're not a comics fan, the chances that you will wind up buying a comic as an impulse purchase is as next to nil as makes no nevermind.

So if you vote with your wallet--if you decide not to buy comics anymore because you think they've become grotesque exercises in padding, short-term shock value, dreary and unpleasant characters doing ugly and unlikeable things, and destroying everything that was once fun about the superhero genre in order to show the guys who used to make fun of the writer in high school that comics are too for grown-ups! (...again, for example...) then you're no longer going to the comics stores. You are no longer engaged with the comics community. You are, to all intents and purposes, invisible to comics.

And vice versa. Let's say, for example, that Marvel says, "Gee! We've gotten a lot of letters from readers saying that they're giving up on our comics because they're nothing but Norman Osborn being evil and the Hood beating up women! Let's try to publish some fun, positive, engaging comics for those readers, filled with all the things they missed about comics over the years!" Those readers will never see them. Because they have walked away from the industry. They're not going to wander into a comic store every week for ten years, hoping each time that this will be the week that someone finally publishes something decent again. They're going to move on with their lives. (A few will, of course, discover some of the good indie comics out there and stay active within the hobby enough to know about Marvel's new series, and maybe some of those few will go back and pick it up. But "a few" is not a readership base.)

So Marvel now publishes its new, fun comic...and it doesn't sell. It sells even worse than the crappy misogynist dialogue-fest that their hot writer of the week is working on, where nothing can't be solved by long sequences of characters sitting around the table and having halting, paused-filled conversations and actual fight scenes happen about once every three years. (Again, hypothetically.) What does Marvel do then? They shrug, they look at their remaining fanbase, and they say, "Hey, this is what the audience wants right now. They're voting with their wallets. So let's give it to them...only, since there are so few of them, let's raise the prices to the maximum they're willing to pay without screaming, and have every comic cross over into every other comic so they have to buy them all."

It's a vicious circle. The comics audience has become self-selecting, with any potential new fans totally locked off from getting into the hobby, and the remaining fans utterly contemptuous of anything that smacks of "kiddified" stories. The only solution is to aggressively market new and different books to new and different audiences...but that requires capital that nobody's willing to expend on publishing comics, not without some tangible evidence that it'll produce returns. (Which they won't get, because every time someone looks up the sales records on fun, upbeat books like 'Blue Beetle', they get "canceled after thirty issues." That kind of thing isn't an inducement to executives to go and spend more money.)

And of course, the worst part is that DC and Marvel are the bread and butter of the modern comics store. For all that people encourage buying indie comics as a way to vote with their wallets, if DC and Marvel (possibly even just Marvel) got out of the publishing business and decided to focus on their movies and videogames, it would be an utter apocalypse for the comics industry. All the other companies combined do not sell enough copies to keep a comics store in business. And without comics stores, indie publishers have very few places to sell their stuff. So voting with your wallets...might actually mean buying DC and Marvel books you hate just to keep the store you like in business.

The business model of the comics industry would drive Warren Buffett mad.