Thursday, October 27, 2011

Storytelling Engines: All-Star Comics

(or "The Sportsmaster? SRSLY?")

Looking at the 70s revival of 'All-Star Comics', it seems like a good idea. Much like the 80s revival of the Justice Society seemed like a good idea, or the 90s revival of the Justice Society, or the early 21st-century revival of the Justice Society, or the revival of the Justice Society that we're probably going to get in about five years when they've sorted out all the continuity fallout from 'Flashpoint' and have decided what the Justice Society is going to have been in the new DC Universe. After all, we're talking about iconic, classic heroes who've had a fan following for decades, being brought into the Modern Age with all-new adventures and all-new heroes joining them. How can you go wrong?

Actually, you can go wrong by assuming that just because a character is old, they're automatically classic and iconic. One of the big reasons that Julius Schwartz had as much freedom as he did to revamp the Silver Age versions of the JSA was because the franchises were so moribund; characters like Al Pratt and Alan Scott didn't really stir much of a memory in fans. Part of this, of course, was attributed to a general decline in interest in superheroes during the post-war era; with comics of so many other genres on the ascendancy, superheroes were considered to be kind of passe. (Looking at the newsstands of 1952 would come as an utter shock to a comics reader of today--between war comics, westerns, romances, true crime and horror comics, and sci-fi anthologies, the only heroes that could muscle their way onto the spinner racks were Batman, Superman and Wonder Woman.)

But was it really a case that superheroes were uninteresting, or was it a case of the genre not having many interesting superheroes? When you look at most of the titles that faded away, you'll notice that none of their revivals have had much success either. A Green Lantern who got their powers from a generic "magic lantern", and who owned a broadcasting company, does not have as many interesting and engaging story hooks as one who is a space cop who works for aliens and travels the universe and through time. And Alan Scott is one of the better Golden Age heroes. Al Pratt, the original Atom, is just kind of short and punches people. It's not a lot to hang your hat on.

The original Justice Society, indeed a lot of the original Golden Age characters, were the result of creators working out through trial-and-error what was interesting and what wasn't. We have been conditioned, as readers of modern comics who have seen plenty of love letters to the Golden Age, to see these as important and valuable simply because they were pioneers of the "superhero" genre, but really, a lot of them are hard to write for. It's hard to bring back villains like the Sportsmaster and make them relevant and menacing, or to make the Star-Spangled Kid seem like a sympathetic and interesting hero. The Silver Age versions of the characters can be seen as "second drafts" in that light, reworked to make it easier for writers to generate story ideas that will get the reader interested. Origins, rogues' galleries, day jobs, supporting casts...all of these need a serious rework on Golden Age characters simply to make them palatable to modern audiences.

And that's before you decide to treat their World War II adventures as canon, age them all into their fifties and sixties, and saddle them with the confusing "this all takes place in an alternate universe" scenario. Setting the whole thing in an alternate universe with a confusing backstory did more harm than most people realize; it's no coincidence that the most successful revamp of the JSA, the Geoff Johns run, took place post-Crisis. Batman will always have a more compelling origin than an adult Robin, Green Lantern will always have a more exciting reason to fight crime than his twin kids, and explaining why Superman has gray hair and can't fly is just one more thing that bogs down a story and prevents it from really getting started. The more continuity baggage your character has, the less time and energy you have to write new adventures for them.

None of which is to suggest that 'All-Star Comics' is bad. There's plenty of exciting adventures in there, and Power Girl and Huntress work effectively as a young, exciting, female version of the World's Finest in a universe that no longer has a Batman/Superman team. But the question should not be, "Why are these Justice Society relaunches so unsuccessful when they have such great characters?" It should be, "What is wrong with these characters that keeps them from working as a team and a series?" When you look at it that way, and then look at the elements of their storytelling engine, you quickly find the problems that keep the series from taking off. As long as the relaunches are determined to keep all of those elements, whether out of simple nostalgia or a belief that they're what readers are looking for, the Golden Age will forever stay a part of the past.

Wednesday, October 26, 2011

Self-Taught Superheroes, Part Fourteen

Bombs.

It was kind of at that moment that I remember it really sinking in for the first time, that the weirdness was all really real. It wasn't just that I was running around in a costume; real people had really been doing that for years. It wasn't even that I had actual honest-to-goodness superpowers. No, the moment where it fully sank in that the world had become something that we only used to see in movies or in comic books was when I heard Lord Raptor explain that he had an actual plan to hold the world's capitols for ransom by teleporting bombs into their national landmarks. It was like...I was about to say, "It was like finding out that James Bond was real," but that's not true. James Bond is easy to believe in. It was like finding out that the crazy guys he fights were all real, every single one of them. It was a weird, shivery feeling that I don't think has ever fully left me since that day.

I didn't have much time to think about it, though, because Lord Raptor was still explaining his plan. "The teleport devices can travel to any point on Earth just as easily as they can tune in to other dimensions, you see." He gestured, and the soldier inside the force field with him refilled his drink. "We still haven't managed to sustain the portal effect--we're extending the duration almost every day, but it's a matter of meeting the power requirements--but a couple of seconds is long enough for a bomb to pass through, especially when we materialize it beneath the bomb and let gravity do the rest."

He took another slurp of his wine. It was bad enough to be harangued by a megalomaniac, but did he also have to be a sloppy eater? The energy barrier was spotted with little flecks of food. uGH. "And of course, there's absolutely no defense against an attack like that. No matter how much security you have, no matter how carefully you guard, we can just drop a bomb into the center of the Oval Office. Or 10 Downing Street, or the Kremlin, or..." He waggled the hand holding a chicken finger, letting a splash of barbecue sauce splatter onto the tablecloth. "You get the idea."

"And you'll do it if they don't pay up," Captain Light said. His whole body was taut, like he was barely constraining himself from just throwing caution to the winds and seeing how many soldiers, war machines, and robots he could take out before they brought him down. (Oh, yeah. Robots. Humanoid from the waist up, ten-legged spiders from the waist down. In the dream the legs weren't even metallic, they were actual hairy ugly spider legs. Not an arachnophobe, but ICK!)

"I have no interest in money," Lord Raptor said. "Only the things it purchases. And in this case, my goal is pure research. My payment will be in plutonium, molybdenum, exotic metals...you get the idea. The sort of thing that can power reactors, construct additional fusion generators, build larger portals that can transport regiments. Once I can sustain a portal long enough to fully explore my new domain, I will of course repay my debts. Think of this as a small business loan to an American entrepreneur."

"Can I instead think of it as a crazy guy planning to blow up the White House if America doesn't give in to his terrorist threats?" I asked, my face a picture of mock innocence. "Because I kind of am."

"I expected as much from you, dear girl," he said. I kicked the force field under the table. It hurt my foot, but I felt a lot better. "You're little more than a child, educated in a liberal school system to believe all that hippie socialist nonsense they spout. But I had hoped that Captain Light might understand that we do not live in an ideal world."

"Doesn't mean we have to give in to our worst impulses," Captain Light snarled. His fists glowed. I don't think he even noticed. "You're a thug, a madman, a terrorist and a warmonger. You make a scientific discovery that outmatches Einstein, you find a whole new universe, and all you can think of is how to strip-mine it. If you expected me to condone this madness, I'm happy to disappoint you."

"How unfortunate," Lord Raptor said. "Still, I believe we have a few holding cells left open. You can join our menial laborers and contribute to the effort in your own small way."

"Holding cells?" I said.

"Menial laborers?" Captain Light said. We looked at each other, both thinking the same thing.

"An unfortunate necessity," Lord Raptor said. "We have a need for menial labor, and my men have better things to do than haul and carry. We have conscripted a few individuals into service--they'll be compensated for their efforts when all this is said and done, but for the moment, the threat of force will have to suffice. Mostly people of the lower classes, those who won't be missed--"

"Except by me," the 'waiter' said, pulling out his sidearm and putting it to Lord Raptor's head.

TO BE CONTINUED...

Monday, October 24, 2011

Amazing Race 19 Recap, Week Three

And so, after last week's Double Elimination, we are once again at the Episode 3-appropriate nine teams, all of whom are in Indonesia with only an hour or so separating the first place team from the one that barely squeaked by last time. And since they're not leaving Indonesia for this round, there will be no airport bunching, so that hour-long head start is going to matter a lot.

But not at the beginning, right? Because they start off with a bicycle ride through the streets of Jogjakarta, which is almost certainly just going to be a simple time-waster filled with local color, cute scenes of Andy and Tommy popping wheelies, and no chance for anyone to gain or lose spots going into the Detour...right?

Oh. Guess not. Looks like Ernie lost a pedal on his bike and by the time it was fixed, they dropped all the way to eighth. Well, that should put a little urgency into things.

And sure enough, it did. Not for Andy/Tommy and Laurence/Zac, who had a strong lead going into the Detour and made almost no mistakes as they went through the motions of feeding and watering a sheep(note the "almost", there; Andy and Tommy didn't fill up their grass bag all the way the first time, which gave Laurence and Zac a chance to catch up, while Laurence and Zac didn't read their clue all the way through and used extra buckets to fill the water trough faster, which will be significant later on.)

But the other teams had to move like crazy to get through the Detour. Lisa/Kaylani and the Doublemint Twins both decided to plant rice seedlings, while everyone else loaded themselves up with a pair of sheep and ran for it. They came out of the Detour in a very close pack...and then Marcus and Amani got there. This was kind of a theme of the episode, right up until the very end.

But before that end, there was a Road Block to get through, and this was the "brutal counting challenge" I mentioned last week. One member of each team had to climb to the top of an absolutely gorgeous Buddhist temple and walk around it counting statues of the Buddha...and recognizing, from the minimal hints given in the actual clue, that you had to not just count the statues but recognize that each one had a distinct hand position and you had to mimic that position when giving the count to the judges. The total number of statues was 69, but you actually had to give the judge a count of "17, 17, 17 and 18" while doing hand gestures. (No, not like that! Respectful and reverent hand gestures that the Buddha would make!)

Tommy and Laurence decided to work together, on the grounds that they got there at about the same time and get along well and are both nice guys and it's easier to do with two people counting. Have I mentioned how much more I enjoy the Race when it's got intelligent, competent, nice teams doing sensible things instead of starting pointless drama? They got the right answer on the first try, but it took them one more go before they figured out that they had to do the gestures. They sprinted off at the same time...but Andy and Tommy had to go pay their cabbie first, because they told him to wait. This was a) unbelievably significant for later, and b) why Laurence and Zac got to the mat first.

Only to get the Dreaded However from Phil. In this case, Phil finally mentioned that they misread their clue and incurred a 15-minute penalty. Not bad, but it was the difference between a comfortable second place and a trip to Dubai. (Andy and Tommy, by the way, were very sweet and apologetic to the other team when they checked in first.)

This left seven teams struggling to avoid last place. In theory, despite straggling in just as Andy and Tommy were leaving, Marcus and Amani should have had a huge advantage because Tommy just straight up told them the answer. Unfortunately, by this point in the Race, Marcus and Amani were already tired and frazzled enough that they just straight up forgot what Tommy told them by the time they got to the clue box, leaving them in the same boat as everyone else.

What followed was shot after shot of people wandering around, trying to figure out which statues they should be counting, how many there were, and how to report them to the judges. Numbers like 423, 201, and 68 got tossed around, but ultimately the teams had to pool their resources and work in groups to figure it out. Bill didn't join in, but he also figured it out on his own and got out of there before the other six teams. The Ernie/Marie/Jeremy/Justin axis figured it out not long afterwards, and bringing up the rear (but not by much) was Lisa and Marcus. After a pretty well-designed leg with clever challenges that actually force the Racers to think, it was still very close coming towards the Pit Stop.

Which is where that taxi thing came into play. Amani/Marcus and the Silence gained a huge lead in the final run to the Pit Stop because (ironically enough) their taxi drivers were so lousy that they figured they'd be better off getting a whole new driver if they had to go anywhere else. (In the case of the Silence, their taxi actually broke down about a half-mile from the Road Block and they had to hoof it.) Everyone else lost ground to one degree or another, which was why Bill got out of the Road Block in third but he and Cathi came in 7th, and why the Doublemint Twins dropped from the middle of the pack down to 8th, and why Lisa and Kaylani got eliminated.

All around, an exciting, close episode, and I'm looking forward to next week's Thailand leg!

Friday, October 14, 2011

Cheap Joke of the Day

Pundit A: "The biggest problem Herman Cain has right now is that his economic plan is nothing but a collection of catchphrases and buzzwords disguising an incoherent disaster of an idea that will bankrupt the country, plunge the economy into another Great Depression, and cause the deaths of hundreds of thousands through the hardships of poverty and starvation, all while siphoning money to the pockets of the ultra-rich."

Pundit B: "I thought his problem was that he had trouble distinguishing himself from the rest of the Republican field."

Pundit A: "Po-tay-to, Po-tah-to..."

Thursday, October 13, 2011

An Entirely Unfair Partial Review Of 'And Another Thing'

I know. You're all probably thinking the same thing. "Why on earth would you even buy such a thing? 'Authorized sequels' to the works of famous dead authors tend to be on a par, in literary terms, with microwaved three-day old leftovers of gourmet meals. They are like finding out that the Lion's Tap is out of ground beef, so you decide to stop by McDonald's because you're really in the mood for burgers." (This is a reference that makes a lot more sense if you live in the Twin Cities.) "Why would you even bother reading one?"

The answer is, basically, that I really hated the ending of 'Mostly Harmless'. It was a bleak, morose read that even Douglas Adams said was not the place he wanted to leave the series, and it was only the fact that there was one deadline even the world's most famous procrastinator could not ignore that kept him from writing another book. A sequel to 'Mostly Harmless', even a sequel by someone who was decidedly not Douglas Adams (and really, apart from Douglas Adams and possibly Neil Gaiman, who is?) was superior to leaving the series where it ended.

And having gotten a bit over two-thirds of the way through the fully-authorized sequel, what do I think? Well, I'm not actually embarrassed to have bought it. But if I was Eoin Colfer, I think I might be embarrassed to have written it.

The real problem is the humor. Let's face it, Douglas Adams was known for creating brilliant, intricate, chinese puzzles of sentences that made his digressions so famous that everyone assumed he didn't create proper plots. (The actual truth is that he did create proper plots; it's just that his main characters made a point of not necessarily caring about them or even understanding them, so you had to read the novels several times to realize they had happened.) He was inventive, almost carelessly so, and his dialogue was full of strange and beautifully warped language.

And Colfer...Colfer is one of those people who thinks that it is tremendously funny to quote other people's jokes. He is the sort of person, in any conversation, who will try to crack you up by reciting Monty Python and never actually realizes he is the sort of person that XKCD made fun of. His attempts to pastiche Douglas Adams revolve around sly, winking little references to "forty-two" and ""Hotblack Desiato" and "tea" and the lines that Adams generally wrote a joke about and then moved on to writing new jokes about new things. He brings back characters as though this is generally more of a reunion special than an actual, proper book. And the plot, such as it is, mainly revolves around getting the characters out of the scrape they were in at the end of the last book and to what could reasonably be considered a happy ending. It is, suffice to say, not particularly ambitious.

And yet, I more or less expected exactly that. I didn't have high hopes for the book, I didn't really care if it would be any good--and that's not any kind of slight against Colfer, who I am given to understand is a very popular writer when he's not being asked to finish off someone else's story without the benefit of notes. So yes, it is unfair to complain about a book being bad when I didn't expect it to be good and haven't even finished it yet.

And yet, here I am doing it. This is why you couldn't pay me enough money to do an authorized sequel, because I know that there would be people out there like me waiting to write reviews like this about it.

Monday, October 10, 2011

Self-Taught Superheroes, Part Thirteen

Dreams are weird things. Even when they feel totally real, even when you're dreaming about something that really happened, things that make perfect sense and feel totally natural to you turn out to be utterly surreal when you wake up. You surface out of the dream wondering just what the heck was going on in your subconscious.

All that is by way of explaining that Lord Raptor didn't really serve us chilled monkey brains at dinner that day in his headquarters. There was also no course that involved slitting open a dead python stuffed with baby eels. We actually got chicken fingers and french fries, for the record. I guess Lord Raptor didn't trust us with the good silverware.

Actually, he didn't trust us, period. We sat next to him, one of us on each side, but his chair was separated by a shimmering curtain of pure force that I didn't think even Captain Light could bust. At least, not before the hundreds of armed soldiers charged us; we were at the grown-up's table, but this was a full-on mess hall for Lord Raptor's troops. I counted eight hundred men in all, not counting the kitchen staff. (Lord Raptor had a guy behind the force field with him, passing him food and drinks from a hatch in the wall. I'm not sure if it counts as paranoid when you have a guy who can punch a hole in the side of a battleship sitting next to you and glaring angrily.)

"You might not realize it," he said conversationally between bites of monkey brain, "but I'm actually something of a philanthropist." (No, I wasn't freaking dreaming that. He actually said that to us.) "I want to bring about a new Golden Age of prosperity for the American Empire. My men, my fortress...these are just sensible precautions, that's all."

"You're a petty thief with fancy toys," Captain Light replied. He wasn't eating, just sitting there with his arms folded and his face set in a stony glare. (I, um, kinda was eating. Hello, hyper-metabolism!) "Tell yourself whatever lies you like, that's never going to change."

"Thief?" Lord Raptor actually smiled behind his helmet, his eyes twinkling with mirth. "Definitely. Petty? Anything but." I had a weird flash of insight, a sudden understanding of why all those supervillains in the comics and the Bond movies talked at heroes instead of just killing them. He was a total narcissist; in his head, this was just the first act in some kind of mental script that ended with us giving in and admiring his genius. He wanted validation, and we were a means to that end.

"My Exploratory Corps--the men you see around us--do you really think they would remain so committed to simple looting and plunder?" His arms swept out as if to encompass all of his mercenaries in a giant hug. "No, they are true patriots to a man. Patriots who want their fair share of the prosperity they bring to the United States, of course, but that's part of the American Dream."

"Let me guess," I snarked. "You're going to take over the world? Enslave the lesser races, subdue the indigenous peoples, and strip-mine the natural resources of all the piddling countries out there that have the nerve not to speak English?"

"Oh, my dear girl, you wound me!" he replied. "My new America will merely be the first among equals. Once my new technology has been perfected, a whole new frontier will open for the human race. A frontier filled with vaster and more exotic resources than the human race has dreamt of in all its vistas of exploration."

"Oh," I said. "So your men aren't in this for the looting and plundering. They're in it for the noble harvesting of the resources of a vast new frontier. And I suppose this exotic new frontier has, perhaps, a few natives already living there before you discovered it?"

"To be honest," he said, "I'm not entirely sure. We've only been able to sustain the dimensional portal for a few seconds at a time, not long enough to send a team through. We need more capital and resources before we can begin to truly explore. That's why we--"

"Loot and plunder," Captain Light said. "But you don't enjoy it." He and I exchanged a glance. If the force field hadn't been between us, I would totally have high-fived him.

"No, it's a regrettable necessity that takes us towards a greater good," Lord Raptor said. "Much like the bombs I have at the ready, should Washington decide not to fund my plans."

TO BE CONTINUED...

Saturday, October 08, 2011

Amazing Race 19 Recap, Week Two

After a non-elimination leg last week, this week gives us the ominous Double Elimination on the Amazing Race. They spelled it out last week for the losing couple, and this week they make it clear to everyone; coming in 10th is just as bad as coming in 11th. This ups the stress level a little for everyone as they head to Indonesia, and we get plenty of reaction shots of people whimpering and panicking and generally saying, "Wow, this sucks!" (Maybe these people are a little under-ambitious, given how many of them seem to be worried about not coming in 9th.)

There's a lot of airport bickering, which is genuinely unfortunate; Justin and Jennifer have the kind of sibling relationship generally described in a Eugene O'Neill play, and we're stuck watching it. We get a long, brutally whiny sequence between the two of them, and then they blessedly go off to sulk at each other while we fly to Jogjakarta!

After that, we get what looks like a genuinely terrifying taxi ride to the Road Block (seriously, there are countries where you take your life in your hands when you get into a moving vehicle, and Indonesia looks like one of them. The taxi drivers looked like the only laws they obeyed were the laws of physics, and then only reluctantly.) Bill and Cathi, last week's last-place finishers, got a cute little Speed Bump where they had to untangle some climbing ropes, and then everyone went spelunking. (Personally, I think "spelunking" is a better term for throwing heavy rocks into deep bodies of water. Spelunk! Spelunk!)

The Road Block was decent enough--the Racers had to rappel down into a hollow lava tube, retrieve a ceremonial mask and dagger, and return--but it's really not the sort of thing that gave the later Racers a chance to catch up or the early Racers a chance to fall behind. It was more or less just a straightforward, "What order did you get here?" challenge. But the Detour...

Okay, the Detour wasn't that exciting either. It was a split between one of the Race's fairly blah "try to get money out of strangers" challenges, which I've never been a big fan of (something to do with the fact that people from an affluent nation who are also trying to win obscene sums of money are also begging for cash from people who probably can't spare it)...and another "try to get money out of strangers" challenge. Meaning that no matter which Detour they chose, we had to see people doing stuff nobody wanted to try to wheedle change out of strangers who had better uses for the money. If I wanted to see that, I'd go to New York. (Rimshot.)

But after the Detour, that's when the Race went from the mediocre to the absolutely sublime. Because when the Racers collected their cash, they had to go to an orphanage and turn it in to get their next clue. That's awesome in and of itself. The Race has done a few things like this lately, where the Racers actually have to do something constructive and decent for the people of the country they're in, and I can't approve enough. And what happened next was even better.

You see, there was a little sign next to the grateful orphans who all cheered and clapped at the friendly Americans handing them money. And what it said was, in essence, "Don't stop with the money you collected on the Detour; give all the cash in your possession to the orphanage before you leave." The orphans still gave the clue that led to the Pit Stop, mind you. You could still leave without reading the sign and you would know where to go. But when you got to the Pit Stop, Phil would (and did, several times) tell you to go back and give until it hurts.

And so, the actual question of who would get eliminated was determined not by luck or even physical skill, but by attention to detail and careful reading skills. Several of my favorite teams became even bigger favorites by stopping to read the sign like any good team should, and I got a little bit of a schadenfreude charge out of seeing a couple of my less-favorite teams get the "However" from Phil. (When Lisa and Kaylani showed up, Phil reversed it by saying, "You got here tenth...however...a whole bunch of other teams failed to read the sign you read, so you came in 3rd." The response, "I hate you so much right now.")

In the end, irritatingly gimmicky Survivor survivors Ethan and Jenna came in 10th, and adorable but out of their depth gay couple Ron and Bill came in 11th. Both are now gone, and short of seeing Justin and Jennifer get the boot, there's really not a whole lot that could improve my mood. Most of the remaining teams are nice, lots of them are interesting, and there's a lot of people I can root for here. I'm looking forward to this Sunday's episode!

(Which, from the looks of things, will involve an utterly brutal counting challenge. I always love these!)

Thursday, October 06, 2011

If Arthur Dent Was In 'The Dark Knight' Instead of Harvey Dent

"Mister Dent?"
"Hello? Yes" said Arthur.
"Some factual information for you. Have you any idea how much protection that coin would offer if I just let this building blow up?"
"How much?" said Arthur.
"None at all."

"All right," said Bruce. "How would you react if I said that I'm not a dissipated old-money playboy at all, but actually a brutal street-hardened vigilante who dispenses justice at night in the alleys of Gotham?"
"I don't know," Arthur said, taking a pull of beer. "Why, do you think it's the sort of think you're likely to say?"

"You barbarians!" he yelled. "I'll sue Commissioner Gordon for every penny he's got! I'll have him hung, drawn and quartered! And whipped! And boiled until...until...until he's had enough."
Batman was running after him very fast. Very very fast.
"And then I will do it again!" yelled Arthur. "And when I've finished, I will take all the little bits, and I will jump on them!"

"So this is it," said Arthur, "we are going to die."
"Yes," said Rachel, "except...no! Wait a minute!" She suddenly lunged across the chamber at something behind Arthur's line of vision. "What's this switch?" she cried.
"What? Where?" cried Arthur, twisting round.
"No, I was only fooling," said Rachel, "we are going to die after all."

Arthur blinked at the walkie-talkie and felt he was missing something important. Suddenly he realized what it was.
"Is there any tea in this warehouse?" he asked.

"Look," said Arthur, "would it save you a lot of time if I just gave up and went mad now?"

Tuesday, October 04, 2011

Self-Taught Superheroes, Part Twelve

I will remember my first sight of him until the day I die. He gleamed as though he was lit by sunshine wherever he stood, as if he stood in a slightly brighter world than the rest of us. His hands glowed with that same summer light, but even stronger; when he fights, sometimes it's hard to actually see his fists beneath the aura they project. His costume was a mix of bright, vivid red and rich blue, with the scales of justice emblazoned in pure white on his chest. (And okay, not that I'm really into him because he's way older than me and it'd be creepy if he actually wanted to date a sixteen year-old girl, but he's a total hottie.) And somehow that silver headband with the sculpted wings looked just right on his head.

I should stress, for the benefit of everyone who might be forgetting that I was dreaming about that day, that the Groucho Marx glasses and big fake cigar are not part of his actual ensemble. (Adam, on the other hand...)

The two of us stared at each other for what felt like forever. Probably more for me than for him. Finally, he spoke. "Hi," he said. "I'm Captain Light."

"I know," I said. "Um, I mean, I saw the picture of you in the Herald. The one where you stopped the bank robbery. It was kind of blurry, but um...not hard to miss." I paused, wondering what to say to the hero who'd inspired me. "Oh, right. I'm Hummingbird." I waved a little. "Hi."

"Hi," he said again. He smiled shyly. I suddenly realized that he wasn't sure what to say either. It kind of crashed in on me in that moment that the big famous superhero that inspired me to fight crime, the man whose name was synonymous in the newspapers with "heroic", hadn't even been doing this for a full year yet. He didn't really know much more about what he was doing than I did. It was a little like going up in a plane for your first flying lesson and finding out that your teacher had just gotten his pilot's license last week.

"I, um...I followed one of their planes here," he continued. "Normally I can't keep up with them, but this one had suffered some engine damage. Slowed it down just enough that I could stick with them. What about you?"

"I stowed away," I said. I tried to make it sound like an actual plan. "I was looking for their communications center, figured maybe I could bring the army down on them."

He nodded. "That's a really good idea," he said. "Better than mine. I was just figuring that if I found Lord Raptor himself and brought him in, then maybe the group would lose direction. Or something. I'm, um...I'm actually still figuring this whole thing out as I go." His eyes widened, painfully blue and earnest beneath his mask. "I just feel like if I have these powers, I should do something good with them, you know? Something to help people."

I nodded so fast my head blurred. "Yeah!" I said. "I mean, there are people out there getting powers practically every week, it seems like, and what do most of them do? They go out and rob banks, or beat up people who ticked them off, or just wreck stuff for fun. I don't get it."

"Not all of them," he said. "I've met a couple of people like you, really nice people who want to do something to make the world a better place. Like--" His fists suddenly surged with light. "Oh, right," he said. "Um, we should probably save this for later."

I turned around to see another dozen or so of Raptor's goons. They were all hugging the walls, probably because if they didn't they'd get stomped on. And looking at the thing that would do the hypothetical stomping, it would probably leave them pretty permanently unable to get up.

It stretched maybe twenty feet down the hallway, and looked like a giant mechanical lizard with eight legs. The "head" was actually a shielded canopy, with a human pilot in the cockpit. Twin shoulder-mounted cannons looked like they were a lot more lethal than the stun guns that the infantry was packing, and the "chest" had racks of missile launchers that I didn't want to think about. It's hard to dodge things like clouds of toxic gas or walls of expanding flame.

Captain Light didn't hesitate. He flew right past me and charged, hammering his fist straight into the cockpit of the mecha. (Oh, yeah. Anime as well as D&D.) There was a coruscating sunburst of light, and a sound like a jackhammer striking a gong...but the metal barely even dented. The mechanical beast wasn't even rocked backwards.

Loudspeakers clicked into life as the man in the cockpit spoke. "Lord Raptor requests the pleasure of your company for dinner," he said. The cannons swiveled to target us both. "Formal dress is not required."

TO BE CONTINUED...

Monday, October 03, 2011

Amazing Race 19 Recap, Week One

Oh, hey--the Amazing Race started again! Sorry, I really did mean to say something about this earlier, but there was a lot of blogging to do, and then there was a season finale to Doctor Who that was a lot of fun, and before I knew it the second episode had already aired. So let's at least try to catch up with events in the first leg so that we can get around to recapping the second leg before the third leg airs, okay?

Said first leg begins in California, in a very picturesque Buddhist temple near LA. We are introduced to the eleven teams...and since this is a big chunk of the episode as well as just generally important, since they're our "cast" this season, let's take a long look at them. In no particular order...

Laurence and Zac: This is already a favorite team of mine, as well as probably a favorite to win. The kid has already circumnavigated the globe in a sailboat; needless to say, "killer fatigue" is not going to be one of his big issues. The dad seems active enough to overcome his age differences, and they both seem relentlessly polite, quiet and nice. These are the kind of low-drama, high-competence teams favored in our household.

Ernie and Cindy: Oh, look. A dating team, one of whom describes themselves as a "control freak" and talks in self-deprecating terms about how they fight but love each other. Toss those on the pile with the rest, will you? Admittedly, they don't seem to be as spectacularly train-wrecky as some of the "bickering couples" we've seen on the Race, and I give Cindy major points for saying thank you to people in Chinese on this leg. But nothing has convinced me yet that they are going to be enjoyable to watch. They seem competent enough, though, and I suspect they'll be around for a while.

Jeremy and Sandy: Technically speaking, they are on the Race. All the evidence seems to suggest it. Their names are on the credits, they are listed in the Wikipedia entry for the season, the CBS website lists them as being in the show. However, I must admit I have no memory of them. Neither good nor bad. Their appearances made literally no impression on me. If the Silence were running the Amazing Race, this is what they would be like. (Minus the electrocutions, of course.)

Justin and Jennifer: Hate hate hate die die die shutupshutupshutupshutup! But enough about their dialogue for the entire first episode, what do I think of these two? (Rimshot.) Seriously, they cannot exit the Race fast enough for my tastes. They are whiny, they are in perpetual bicker mode from Second One, and they actually act, in interviews, as though this is endearing behavior. Elimination is too good for them.

Ethan and Jenna: This season's token "stunt couple", they are both winners of Survivor and he is also a cancer survivor to boot! Presumably, they also are searching the world for the hook-handed man who kidnapped their infant daughter to induct her into their ninja clan, unknowing that she is actually the last heir to Narnia. Oh, and despite all that they're still remarkably boring.

Andy and Tommy: Apart from the fact that I keep expecting the bearded one to break into "The Rainbow Connection" at any second, these two actually seem like nice guys. They also seem like they're dumb as posts, the pair of them, but appearances can be deceptive...and athleticism and a positive attitude can carry you past a lot of challenges in this series.

Kaylani and Lisa: Why is it, whenever there are two women on this show that start right out by telling everyone how they're not stupid and lots of people think they're stupid but they're really a lot smarter than they look and sound, that it immediately makes them come off as dumb? I wish I knew, and I'm worried that it might be me. In any event, they are this season's Pretty Women Who Will Show Everyone That Pretty Women Are Competent. (They are not off to a great start in this episode, but more on that later.)

Liz and Marie: Unfortunately for them, they have already been nicknamed the Doublemint Twins in our household and they don't seem likely to be able to do anything to shake that nickname. They also don't seem likely to last very long; they're young, they don't seem to have a whole lot of reserves of patience, and they don't have the life experience to teach them how to deal with stress.

Bill and Cathi: They seem nice. Boy do they seem nice. They seem like they would instantly make friends with all the other Racers, the kind of friendships that last well beyond the Race. Even years later, I see them as the type that are still sending out Christmas cards to Liz and Marie and cooing over Jeremy and Sandy's baby (who may be named Melody and may not be theirs)...and all those connections will be forged on the strength of about three episodes, because that's how long I give them.

Amani and Marcus: This season's Overcompetitive Guy and Supportive Wife, Marcus seems to at least be one of the nice Overcompetitive Guys who runs around and makes grunting noises, as opposed to one of the Overcompetitive Guys who trash-talks everyone else and pouts whenever anything goes wrong. Still better in small doses, though.

Ron and Bill: They seem like the "sweet gay couple" version of Bill and Cathi. Really nice, very friendly, definitely the kind of people you can root for...but you can just tell after about five minutes that they're going to go out early. Very, very sweet though.

So after all these characters are introduced, they all begin racing! The first challenge is to find an umbrella with letters on it that complete a word puzzle involving the teams' first destination. I like the idea, but unfortunately it's yet another Race puzzle with a brute force solution, and most of the teams simply sprint back and forth between Phil and the umbrella stand until they find the one they're looking for. The last team, Kaylani and Lisa, add injury to injury by getting a Hazard for being in last. (Hate this. Bad Race design to penalize the team that's already furthest behind. But given that Kaylani and Lisa manage to screw themselves far worse than the Race designers could even dream of, heck with it.)

Which is what happens next, as Kaylani and Lisa lose one of their passports at the first gas station. Much drama ensues--and for the record, this does not feel like a "bickering team" thing to me. This feels like, "We are completely and totally FUBARed and we haven't even hit the first airport and I am very upset." I think that anyone who thinks they would handle this well hasn't gone through it.

Luckily, a random stranger finds the passport, discovers from Twitter that the women with camera crews following them around are probably on the Amazing Race, and drives it to the airport on their behalf. I am not saying they wouldn't do this for the 62-year-old couple, but it probably didn't hurt that they were astonishingly beautiful women.

From there, we all just skip to the chase and get to Taiwan, where there's a beautifully designed puzzle that tests everyone's mental abilities. No brute force solutions, just a simple case of listening and repeating a key phrase. This is the kind of simple, yet sublime challenge that I love about the Race when it happens.

...of course, Bill and Cathi are four hours behind everyone else because they can't find the clue that leads them to the Road Block, but that too is part of the Race. They wander around for ages while everyone else does the challenge (and the subsequent relatively simple Dragon Boat race afterwards), nothing but Amazing Editing ever suggests that they even come close to seeing another team, and honestly, they are the luckiest recipients of a non-elimination leg ever.

And next week, which is now last week, we get a double-elimination leg to make up for the non-elimination leg! I wholeheartedly approve. Talk to you about it before Week Three!