Thursday, August 30, 2007

Word to the Wise

Thursday already? Oh, jeez, didn't have anything planned, and there've been power outages this week and the boss is on vacation, um...

OK, I'll tell you what. I'm just going to use this week as an opportunity to tell you a little secret. Friday, September 14th, on the Sci-Fi channel, they're airing 'Blink' at 8 PM Eastern time. It's a "Doctor Who" episode, but you don't need to be a Doctor Who fan, you don't need to have seen any previous episodes, you don't need to know anything about this season's story arc, you really can just watch this totally stand-alone. And you should. Because this is, setting aside my inherent bias for Doctor Who, a genuinely great piece of science-fiction storytelling. It's one hour of your Friday night, and trust me, you'll absolutely love it. I won't spoil a word of its plot, but it is so bloody brilliant...

(Oh, and then go bit-torrent all six episodes of 'Jekyll', by the same writer. Damn, that series is good.)

Thursday, August 23, 2007

Insane Comics Moments, Part Four

Y'know, when I write these, I've been picking on the Silver Age of comics, pointing out how they sometimes got so far ahead of plot logic in an effort to write an exciting story, they wound up writing something just plain crazy. Back then, comics were just an ephemeral entertainment medium for kids, and nobody took it too seriously, so crazy stuff slipped by without being questioned.

Today, we're going to look at the so-called "Copper Age" of comics, and ask, "So...what's your excuse now?"

Exhibit A for the Prosecution is: Teen Iron Man. That's right, every comics fan just simultaneously winced in pain, because this is the story of how Marvel decided that Tony Stark was too hard to get behind as a character. Iron Man needed a sales boost, an alcoholic bi-polar control freak with a heart condition didn't seem as relevant as it did in the 1960s, so what was to be done?

The answer, of course, was obvious to any editor in the 1990s--kill him off. Or, more accurately, turn him evil, then kill him off. (This was, of course, the default response to any title that needed a sales boost in the 1990s, which is why 'The Death of Jughead' sold 2.7 million copies.) Marvel did a big "event" storyline in its Avengers books in which it was revealed that Tony was being brainwashed by Kang, dictator of the year 5000. His attempts to resist the brainwashing were what caused his alcoholism (sure, Tony. My uncle tried the same line.) But now it had fully taken hold, and he was helping to destroy the Avengers from within and crush all opposition to his rule. (Sort of like Bob Harras. *Rimshot*)

Obviously, there was only one man to stop a genius like Tony Stark--Reed Richards!, obviously, there were only two men to stop a genius like Tony Stark--Reed Richards and Victor von Doom!, obviously, there were only five men to stop a genius like Tony Stark--Reed Richards, Victor von Doom, Henry Pym, Bruce Banner, and Professor Charles Xavier!, obviously, there were actually something like twenty men and sixteen women to stop a genius like Tony Stark, including but not limited to She-Hulk, Jean Grey, the Beast, Doctor Strange, Dracula, and Magneto, but the Avengers decided to borrow a time machine, travel back a decade or two, and grab a younger version of Tony Stark out of the past and pit him against his older, more experienced, savvier self. Who was also wearing a suit of far-more-technologically-advanced power armor that young Tony hadn't even dreamed of yet, let alone invented. And who'd been brainwashed into being a ruthless killer.

The fight went about as well as you'd expect--young Tony took a repulsor blast to the chest, and wound up on the brink of death within about the first fifteen seconds. Luckily this jumpstarted old Tony's conscience, and he sacrificed his life stopping Kang's scheme. The Avengers nursed young Tony back to health (save for the fact that he now had to wear a giant metal corset non-stop or he'd die instantly of heart failure), and suggested that he join the Avengers in the present day rather than return to his native time and live a long, healthy life. (Presumably, this didn't create a time paradox because young Tony came from a different reality than old Tony. On the other hand, that world no longer has an Iron Man and never did, which presumably means a wide variety of horrific things for the human race. Then again, they were spared "Civil War".)

Young Iron Man became the headliner in the Iron Man comics for about seven issues, by which point it became clear that this was one of the biggest blunders in Marvel's long history (and yes, I include 'Street Poet Ray'.) Teen Tony flew into the 'Heroes Reborn' universe, and when he came back out a year later, he was classic Tony again, nobody ever asked why, and the Teen Iron Man era died without even a small, pathetic whimper.

Fun Fact: Marvel is two years away and counting from needing to throw everyone into the 'Heroes Reborn' universe again!

Thursday, August 16, 2007

Sometimes I Am Too Ethical

I spotted a new business venture from the folks at the International Star Registry yesterday--apparently, they're now selling plush toys to kids that come with a free star of their choice. Now, I suppose this is better than their usual transaction, in that the kids come away with an actual plush toy out of the deal, but it still reminds me that there's a business out there charging fifty bucks to name a star after you--said naming occurring only in their own personal books that they keep themselves.

But it occurred to me--isn't this what conservatives talk about the invisible hand of the free market for? If there's a business essentially operating on the razor edge of mail fraud, using deceptive advertising practices to bilk people out of large sums of money, isn't it the job of capitalism to undercut them and pass the savings on to you, the consumer? I could be that person. I have the sales pitch all figured out. My business (my father suggested "Big Bob's Discount Star Registry" as a name) would register you a star for half the price, that's right half the price of the International Star Registry. Heck, I'd even give bulk discounts. Buy five stars, and the sixth star is free! Buy ten stars, and get your own cloud of dark matter at no extra charge! And every star registration is guaranteed to be every bit as legitimate as the International Star Registry's or double your money back!

But I just can't sucker people out of their money like that. Clearly, something is wrong with my capitalistic instincts.

Thursday, August 09, 2007

Nor Is He Out Of It

Something surprised me today. I found myself sorry for Barry Bonds.

This isn't something I thought would happen anytime soon. The man is arrogant, to the point where you could legitimately call him cruel. He's unquestionably a cheat, and he has tainted two of the most significant records in Major League baseball by taking illegal steroids in order to inflate his home run totals. Not only has he not shown remorse for this, he continues to refuse to admit it, even in the face of a perjury investigation and a mountain of evidence of his own guilt.

And then I caught myself thinking, "But whether he admits it or not, he'll always know."

I thought about what that must be like. To have finally gotten so furious at the cheaters and juicers that you decided to join them, to have the most prestigious records in the history of the sport as a result...and to know that they're not really yours. To have to know, every time you hit a home run, that it's not your natural skill and talent, that it's not something you can be proud of the same way you were proud of your home runs before you started juicing, to have caged yourself so thoroughly in lies that your triumphs have turned to ashes in your mouth and be trapped by that knowledge...

Barry Bonds will always know he cheated. I'd hate to have to live with that. And yeah, I do feel sorry for him, having to live with that. I still don't like him, but I can pity him, even if I suspect he doesn't want that.

Wednesday, August 08, 2007

New Who Review

I did some catching up on my Doctor Who reading over the last week or so, and thus have insights and opinions (well, mostly opinions) on the latest batch or two of Doctor Who novels, as follows:

The Nightmare of Black Island: By this point, just Mike Tucker's name on the spine of a Doctor Who book fills my soul with existential dread, the sort of feeling a comic book fan gets when they see "Art by Rob Liefeld" or a movie fan gets when they see "Directed by Uwe Boll". So it's pretty safe to say that a big chunk of my enjoyment of this book came from plain and simple lowered expectations.

But that said, it's not bad. Freed from a need to be "literary", Tucker can just concentrate on writing an enjoyable action-horror mystery featuring the Doctor and Rose, and include plenty of spooky monsters, evil aliens, and mysterious mansions. It's nothing but an entertaining run-around, but after getting several non-entertaining run-arounds from Tucker, it's a serious step up. (And I did get a chuckle from the "guard duck" bit. But maybe I was just in a goofy mood.)

The Art of Destruction: By this point, Stephen Cole seems to understand exactly what his strengths are as a writer, and plays to them well in this book. He's got a gift for pacing, filling each chapter with plenty of incident and action and keeping the plot moving by continually upping the ante of threats and menaces until you've got erupting volcanoes, two alien factions fighting the last battle of an interstellar war, and human rebels with guns running around on top of all that. With all that going around, minor deficiencies in characterization and's not that they're not noticeable, it's that you're done with the book before you have time to think about them.

Special mention should go to the Wurm, by the way, for managing to be interesting aliens despite their stupid name and one-note "Hi, we're EEEVIL!" characterization. By actually basing them on worm biology, Cole creates interesting details from their ship construction, to their weaponry, right down to the second-in-command getting chopped in half and still surviving for a good long while. (Name's still stupid, though.)

The Price of Paradise: There are things I liked about this book, and nothing I could say I really disliked...but on the whole, it's sort of weak tea. Nothing bad about the flavor you get, but you really wish there was more of it. The characters are sympathetic, but not particularly personable; the monsters are interesting, but not particularly scary; the central twist is clever, but in a fairly predictable way. It's not bad, and I can pretty much guarantee you won't come away disliking it, but at the same time, I just can't see anyone claiming this as their favorite Doctor Who book.

Sting of the Zygons: Ahh, there's nothing quite like a good old-fashioned shapeshifting monster run-around. Only, of course, since this is a Stephen Cole book, it's a good old-fashioned shapeshifting monster run-around with the volume turned up to eleven. You're prevented from spotting the Zygons (the classic parlor game, "Spot The Zygon" is, of course, fun for the whole family) by the sheer number of clues you get; and, of course, they're all true. Pick a random character, any random character, and odds are pretty good that they'll wind up metamorphosizing into an evil orange sucker-face at some point in the book. And yet, that's half its charm. Towards the end, it feels like Cole is practically in on the joke, as the Zygon revelations get bigger, more dramatic, and at times quite clever.

(Although the Zygon plan seems to be from the Ten Little Aliens Memorial School of Ridiculously Overcomplicated Plots, involving clandestinely ordered heavy moving equipment, Frenchmen with guns concealed in their camera cases, Skarasen signalling devices, surreptitious telegraph messages, and the crowned heads of Europe gathering for a state funeral with minimal security present. The Doctor does almost as much to facilitate their evil scheme as he does to thwart it.)

The Last Dodo: I hate to admit it, but Jacqueline Rayner has me thoroughly charmed as an author. I admit that the people who complain about her plotting frequently have a point, and I know that some people don't like her style, but to me, it's like having that friend who can always make you laugh telling you a Doctor Who story. Regardless of the actual story, I'm always laughing by the end. So I can forgive her pretty much anything...

Except, sad to say, that I happen to fall rather firmly on the side of those people who "think they're doing good", as Rayner puts it during the one paragraph that's not unequivocally negative about zoos. I think that a well-run zoo is the best friend an animal can have, the best friend a species can have, indeed the best friend an ecosystem can have, and find it extremely disappointing that Rayner puts the Doctor firmly on the side of "Zoos are just jails for animals." This attitude is a bit of a pet peeve of mine, and I'm highly underwhelmed at the way Rayner wrote it into the mouth of my favorite fictional character.

Other than that, though, fun book.

Wooden Heart: I enjoyed this one, even as I couldn't help but feel like I'd heard some of this before. "A mysterious spaceship with a virtual-reality village inside it whose inhabitants believe themselves to be real" feels like the starting point for every third New Adventure, and it continues to be a well-worn trope of the novels. Still, Martin Day gets bonus points for sincerity--he feels like he means it when he writes about the struggles of the virtual people to deal with the collapse of their world, and that always carries a book even when cleverness fails.

The characterization is good here, as it is in pretty much all the new series novels; Martha in particular is more palatable than she is in the TV series, even if she is a bit less recognizable as Martha Jones. This is because her most irritating trait is also her defining one, as far as the TV series goes; in the books, she spends much less of her time mooning over the Doctor like a lovesick schoolgirl, which makes her a more sympathetic character. (It's more than a little depressing that her defining trait in the TV show is "mooning over the Doctor like a lovesick schoolgirl." What a waste.)

Bonus Coverage!

Made of Steel: Part of me dreaded the idea of encouraging Terrance Dicks to write an even smaller, thinner, less substantial book than he'd been doing for the book line up to now; after the last two or three books, I was worried that a less-substantial Dicks offering would be a pamphlet with "Go Watch The Five Doctors" written on it. But as it turns out, the Quick Reads series is ideally suited to Uncle Terry; he's a master at storytelling economy (a couple hundred Target novelizations will do that for you), and all that he really ditches when he slims down is padding and references to 'The Five Doctors', which he could probably stand to give a rest anyway. A light, fun read, exactly what the series demands.

Thursday, August 02, 2007


No, not the people who take care of your pet. "Groomers" is a temporary label (I'm open to suggestions for alternatives in the comments field) for those people who are the exact opposite of obnoxious people who insist on spoiling books, movies, et cetera for people who haven't seen/read them yet. (Obviously, this has been a bit in the public consciousness lately, due to 'Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows'.) And I'll admit, I'm starting to find them every bit as obnoxious as spoilers these days. (And I stress, I do find malicious spoilers very annoying. Telling people who don't want to know, just because you get a kick out of being a jerk, is cruel and there's no getting around it.)

By "exact opposite", I mean that while a spoiler wants to make sure everyone knows the twist to the film/book/whatever, whether they want to know ahead of time or not, the groomer has a fanatical obsession with making sure that nobody finds out the twist ahead of time, even if they don't care or actively want to find out early, because making sure they experience the "de-flowering" of learning the twist as the writer intended is absolutely vital to enjoying the experience.

Obviously, you're more likely to find grooming in the creative end of the spectrum, while spoilers tend to be consumers of entertainment. Some prominent and (relatively) recent examples would be J.K. Rowling's anger at book reviews of the seventh Harry Potter book, Peter David's (probably joking) attempt to relabel spoilers as "ruiners", DC's solicitation to retailers of two non-existent issues of the Flash in order to conceal the impending death of the character, Marvel's solicitation of false covers of comics to conceal the ending of 'Civil War' (and, some years previous, the return of Colossus)...heck, you could go on forever. (One more, which I think actually worked well, would be the spreading of misinformation about the upcoming 'Thunderbolts' comic in order to conceal the fact that the team was really the Masters of Evil. This, I think, was where the idea really took root for the comics industry.)

So when does a writer go overboard? When does a natural desire to allow the story to unfold at its own pace become a maddened quest to thwart the dreaded spoilers? For me, I'd say it's the point at which you become willing to mislead your own audience, when you decide to take the very important (to storytelling) art of misdirection outside of the story and into real life. It's one thing to plant a red herring in your story; fiction is by definition a lie, and that's only a problem if it's not a consistent one. But lying in real life isn't a good habit to get into, and it's certainly not a good thing to do when a) you're doing it in such a way that you will, by definition, be caught in a lie by anyone who reads your story, and b) you're doing it over something as trivial as whether a person knows your plot twist ahead of time. ('Thunderbolts' remains an exception to me, because I thought of it as a piece of performance art. You, the reader, were being put into the world of the Marvel public, believing the T-Bolts to be new, shining, untarnished heroes that had just come onto the scene. Finding out that they were the Masters of Evil was almost an audience participation moment, not just a plot twist.)

But ultimately, as I say, the plot twist is trivial--that's the truly important thing to keep in mind. If your story really is genuinely spoiled by spoilers, it probably wasn't very good in the first place. A good plot twist, an actual authentic amazing plot twist, is designed to be read twice--once when you don't know the secret, and again when you do. Being "spoiled" just moves you ahead to the second stage, it doesn't actually spoil it. If you've crafted a good story, that will stand up even years after everyone knows that 'Rosebud' is the sled. (Oh, sorry. That should have had spoilers.) If you're throwing a surprise party, while you don't want to lose the "surprise", you should remember that the important part is the "party".