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.