Thursday, May 28, 2009

From the Comic Book Urban Dictionary

chutzpah (huts-paw): noun. Taking three comics that were so drastically overhyped that just about every comics fan in the world at the time bought a copy, and so drastically overprinted that even now, sixteen years later, they're still available in discount bins at comics stores all over the United States, reprinting them with ten pages of additional material, calling the whole thing "X-Men Forever Alpha", and charging eight bucks for it.

Monday, May 25, 2009

Who Doesn't Want To Be A Superhero?

Not that I've ever seen the show, but I do know about Stan Lee's surreal reality series wherein people try their best to act like real-life superheroes and convince Stan that they've got the chops to save the world (or, at least, get their own comic book where they pretend to save the world.) But really, on thinking about it, is there a single superhero out there you'd actually want to be?

Sure, having the powers would be neat. I'd love to have Batman's martial arts skills, his deductive genius, his neat gadgets. But you know what I wouldn't love? Getting shot at every night, and never being able to get past the tragic deaths of my parents at an early age. Sure, it sounds awesome to be Superman, until you remember that his whole species was wiped out the day he was born (wow, that's got to be one downer of a birthday celebration. "Happy birthday to me, happy birthday to me, happy birthday to the lone survivor of a cosmic genocide, happy birthday to me!") And let's not even start to get into what it might be like to be Spider-Man. Even Aquaman has a sucky life, and he doesn't even have the awesome powers to make up for it! (Although, to be brutally honest, it would be kind of sweet to be able to swim without needing to hold your breath, and talk to the dolphins and hang out with giant squids and stuff.)

On thinking about it, I'm actually hard-pressed to name a single superhero I'd actually want to be, and you'd think that'd be a no-brainer fanboy question. Being a superhero seems to come with a free, non-returnable gift of death, misery, pain, and suffering for you and your loved ones, with the added bonus of no actual financial gain out of the deal (pretty much all of the billionaire playboys started out as billionaires before becoming superheroes.) Even the guys who are living the good life are just one new creative team away from becoming the next Penance (so-named because...well, because just appending "Dark" to the front of a character's name to indicate how mature and bad-ass they are wouldn't come back into vogue for another couple of years.)

So remember, denizens of the Marvel and DC Universes. When you look up and see superheroes flying overhead, and dream of sharing that grand and glorious life...thank your lucky stars you're not actually doing it. Because the best-case scenario is that you only die once.

Friday, May 22, 2009

The First Precept: A Deleted Scene From "Glimpse of the Abyss"

When I wrote my sections of "Glimpse of the Abyss", it was my third time working with editor Will Hindmarch. We had a discussion about the tone of the book before I started writing, in which he expressed some concern that my previous work on the Feng Shui gaming line had been a little too comedic. (Personally, I still feel that when your writing assignment involves cyborg monkeys with names like "Orango Tank" and "Furious George", you can only get so dark, but I understood his concerns.)

So as a result, I made a conscious effort to write pieces that were a little darker, and a little more horrific. However, Will wound up leaving Atlas before the project was completed, and a few of the bits wound up being cut. One, in particular, I quite liked--the entry was on an order of nuns called the Sisters of Mercy, who believed that since the afterlife was better than this world, it was their duty to usher as many souls into it as possible before they had to suffer too much from the misery of day-to-day existence. The fiction section that showed their indoctrination was cut, though--possibly due to space issues instead of tone issues, I really can't say. I'm well aware that a lot of considerations go into taking a rough draft and turning it into a finished book, and I don't second-guess my editors. But I did think the piece was worth sharing here. So, enjoy!

Um...just as a slight was written as something dark and creepy. If you're not into that kind of thing, there's nothing wrong with waiting for Monday, when I will no doubt post another terrible pun.

The First Precept

Mother Amanita Virosa, the 78th Mother Superior of the Sisters of Mercy and the thirty-fifth to bear that name, kept her eyes firmly fixed on her charges. Her arm moved up and down with a mechanical pistoning gesture, lashing out again and again with the whip, but she ignored the girl she was beating in all other respects. The lesson she was teaching that girl would be remembered through a thousand scars. The others learned through the wisdom she imparted.

“Little Sister Eluria has the privilege today of learning the First Precept.” Mother Virosa spoke in a sing-song, rhythmic cadence with the smack of leather against flesh serving to keep time. “And the First Precept is thus: Life Is Suffering.” Eluria hadn’t done anything wrong. She just happened to be the one that the Elder Sisters picked out of the class today. Now they held her in place in an implacable grip as the whip lashed into her flesh.

“And since Life Is Suffering, it follows that all those who live cannot escape it.” The other Little Sisters watched in absolute silence. One started to turn her face away as a particularly hard blow landed, but caught herself. The punishment for living was a whipping. The punishments for actual wrong-doing were far more terrible. “We cannot escape suffering through our skill, nor through our strength, nor through virtue or wickedness. The only way to escape from suffering is to die.”

Tiny trickles of blood now worked their way over the welts in Eluria’s flesh. “Death is the only escape from the pain of existence. Death is the only blessing that grants us release from the suffering we must endure. Death, blessed death, wonderful death…” The whip was wet with blood now. “Death is the only mercy the Creator has granted to us. And the instinct to survive is his greatest curse.”

The Mother Superior stayed her arm. Eluria flinched nonetheless, her body now conditioned to expect the blows, and the rest of the class tensed in the unexpected silence. Mother Amanita walked around the two Elder Sisters and stood in front of Eluria, still facing the class. The Little Sisters could not see Eluria’s face, only the mass of torn and bloody skin that made up her back. But they all saw Mother Amanita grasp Eluria’s chin firmly and lift her head up to meet her gaze.

“Does it hurt, Eluria?” The Mother Superior’s voice was calm and neutral. Eluria, by contrast, was barely able to gasp out a “Yes!” through choked sobs of pain.

“Does it hurt, Eluria?” Again, the neutral voice, no more emotional than asking the time in Peoria. Again, the choked and gasping confirmation.

“The pain will continue, Eluria. I will continue. There is no escape, Eluria. You know that, don’t you?” Eluria tried to nod, but the Mother Superior’s grasp held her head in place. Eventually, she gasped out another yes.

“Then I will ask you The Question, Eluria. Do you want to die?” One Little Sister had pressed her fingernails into her palm so tightly that she’d drawn blood, so intent was she on not looking away. She didn’t notice. Eluria’s response was barely audible. “We didn’t hear that, dear,” Amanita said. “Do you want to die?”

Eluria’s response was a scream this time. “YES!”

The two Elder Sisters let go of her arms at the same time as the Mother Superior let go of her chin, and Eluria crashed to the flagstones. “Remember this moment, Eluria,” the Mother Superior said, looking down at her. “The Creator has delayed his Mercy to you, that you might grant it to others. You are the bringer of blessings to all human-kind, that someday you may receive it yourself.” She looked up at the class once more. “Thus it has been since the Beginning of our Order, and thus shall it always be.”

Wednesday, May 20, 2009

Worth Mentioning (A Minor Shameless Plug)

Just a brief post today, because they can't all be Shakespeare (yes, you in the back there, stop laughing or leave the room.) It did occur to me that some folks who read this blog might also play 'City of Heroes', given that I have, you know, mentioned 'City of Heroes' several times and made a semi-regular feature out of describing my characters' biographies. And as many/some/a few of you know, 'City of Heroes' has recently added a feature where people can design their own story arcs that anyone can play, complete with custom villains!

So I thought I'd mention, for the benefit of those who do play 'City of Heroes', that I've got up two arcs. The first is "The Alternate Armor Assaults" (sorry, I don't know my Arc ID numbers off the top of my head--I'll edit the post when I get a chance to find them out, but in the meanwhile you should be able to find them by searching the titles.) It's designed for heroes in at least their 20s, and is about Positron (one of the major heroes in Paragon City) needing your help. See, like all good technological heroes, he's designed a whole bunch of specialized armors--almost as if he had a toy line to worry about--and someone's managed to sneak past his security systems and steal them! So you have to recover his Gladiator Armor, his Volcano Armor, his Dynamo Armor and his Chrononaut Armor, all while trying to figure out who's behind the theft and capture them.

The second arc, "Get Real!", is designed for a team of high-level villains (let me stress that, a team--the first mission features a giant monster. You cannot solo this arc, or at the very least I wouldn't recommend trying.) It's about the Television (the best contact in the game, seriously), which is suffering from a little problem--with so much reality television on TV, the boundaries between Television and reality are breaking down completely. How do you solve this problem? How does any supervillain solve a problem? With violence against society!

I'm working on a third arc (you can't have more than three at a time, at least not without a near-deus ex machina happening), featuring a mass invasion of Paragon City by an alliance of all its villains, but that's still in progress. In the meantime, feel free to leave feedback on the arcs in the comments section here, or in the game!

Thursday, May 14, 2009

My Civic-Minded Mind At Work

So I was thinking about this a while ago, and I meant to post about it, but then I think I got irritated by Captain America #600 and I kind of forgot. It's an idea for our improving our nation's increasingly decrepit system of roads, and it's the sort of thing that would be a) cheap, b) possibly implemented on a grassroots scale, and c) a neat use of our nation's ultimate resource, its geeks.

My idea is to build a little widget that could be attached to any car, probably somewhere around the wheels or axles (below the shocks.) The widget would have a GPS sensor, a simple shock sensor, and a little transmitter in it that continually sent that data out. Then, little "collection stations" dotted alongside the road would pick up that information and collect it, collate it, and sort it. The net result? You would have a real-time map of how bumpy every single inch of every road in America is. The car sensor would notice how much it was getting jarred around at any one spot, and send that info to the station, which would turn it into a map. This means that anyone who needs to know what roads are in most urgent need of repair doesn't need to drive around and look at them, or wait for someone to call the highway department and complain about a big pothole; they'd know instantly, just by looking at the map, where our highway dollars are most needed. The only drawback I see would be in trying to convince people that no, it can't be used by the men in the black helicopters to track your car and raise your taxes/take your guns away/arrest you for smoking dope, and honestly, it'd probably be pretty safe to make voluntary anyway.

I think the widget would be cheap and easy to build, the sort of thing any hobbyist could do--not me, of course, because I can barely figure out how string works. But for someone tech-savvy, I'm sure it would be a snap. Anyone reading this know whether I'm right, or just blowing smoke?

Monday, May 11, 2009

How I'd Design DC Universe Online

As I'm sure a lot of you probably know (this blog does talk about comics a lot, after all), DC Comics is coming out with their very own super-hero Massively Multiplayer Online game, DC Universe Online. It's a great idea in a lot of ways; there are a heck of a lot of comics fans who love the DC Universe enough to want to live there, and bringing out a DC-themed MMO will give them that exact opportunity.

But as I mentioned once or twice before, I think it suffers from a pretty fundamental flaw--when I'm playing a DC-themed game, I don't want to be "the guy who hangs out with Superman"--that's Jimmy Olsen, and even though he got super powers every five issues or so, he still wasn't cool. I want to be playing Superman, or Batman, or Captain Marvel, or one of the actual heroes of the DC Universe. And in the DC MMO, those are all NPCs you interact with.

"But John," I hear you say, "that's an unrealistic goal for an MMO. You can't have a game with hundreds of players online at the same time, all wanting to play the DC super-heroes! How would they even decide who gets to be who?"

This is the casual brilliance of my concept. (Hey, I let you call me by my first name, you can let me indulge my ego for a bit.) My version of "DC Universe Online" would be an entirely instance-based game. The main area of the game would be essentially a giant lobby, where you can meet other players, chat with them, and find other players to join you.

Each character takes the role of a "guardian angel", an intangible being that inspires heroes at key moments to do their best and better than their best. In the "lobby", you're in your true form (an avatar that's customizable to the player's desire.) When you form up a team and enter an instance--each instance would be a story arc that you go through, set in various DCU locations and using different DC villains and plots--you select a hero that you're "inhabiting" at that time, and become that hero.

Naturally, you wouldn't start out with every hero. That wouldn't give you much incentive to keep playing, now would it? You'd start with a selection of five or six heroes--nobody too lame, of course, because wouldn't it suck if you started with nothing but a selection of Substitute Legionnaires? You'd get enough heroes that you'd always have a choice when joining a team, but not necessarily an unlimited one. Then, as you progressed through the game, you'd unlock different heroes by doing different instances, completing in-game tasks, et cetera et cetera. Some heroes would be unlocked later because they're powerful--even a bare-bones version of Superman is going to be scary tough when compared to the Ted Kord Blue Beetle--others get unlocked later because they're obscure and only their dedicated fans want them. (Yes, I would work long and hard to be able to unlock and play Tommy Monaghan.)

What's that about a "bare bones" Superman? Well, as you play the game, you get experience points that you store, and apply later to any character's abilities. So if you want to build up your Superman to truly unbelievable power levels, just pour all your XP into Superman. If you want to turn your Batman into a Grant Morrison-esque super-genius, pump him up with XP. If you think you'll have better luck finding a team if you're always playing someone nobody else wants to play, put all your XP into making the most bad-ass Elongated Man ever. Or spread them out. However you want to spend them, you can. (Naturally, as with most games, the more XP you've spent on advancing a particular skill or attribute, the more XP it takes to advance it further.)

So that way, everyone gets what they want. The guy who always wants to be Batman because he's the coolest always can be--sure, it means he's soloing a lot or takes a while finding a team, but Batman's a lone wolf anyway. The person who wants to get into lots of teams always has plenty of options--with the whole DC Universe available to them, there's bound to be someone they can play who's still fun. And hard-core DC fans will love figuring out how to unlock and play the various different "easter egg" characters, like Electric Superman and Turtle Boy. (And because of the vast numbers of unlockable characters, everyone will get to play their favorite super-hero. Firestorm might not get his own video game, but you could play him in my DCU Online.)

I know DC's going in a different direction. I hope their game will be good. But in my dreams, this is what DC Universe Online should be.

Thursday, May 07, 2009

An Ad You'd Never Want To See

Here at Pepsi, we've been very happy to find out that you all like new Pepsi Throwback just as much as we do. Replacing the corn syrup with pure cane sugar has been a major hit with lovers of Pepsi everywhere.

That's why we've decided to introduce a new product, Pepsi Throwup. That's right, we've replaced that corn syrup with pure ipecac syrup, for a rich, smooth, refreshing flavor that tastes just as good going down as it does coming back up. And best of all, Pepsi Throwup has no calories! In fact, if you drink it with a big meal, you might very well wind up getting thin quick. (Pepsi Throwup is not intended as a diet supplement.)

Pepsi Throwup. The taste so nice, you'll drink it twice.

And coming soon, Pepsi Flashback--with a full tab of LSD dissolved into every bottle!

Tuesday, May 05, 2009

Review: Quarantine

OK, so it's not exactly the most timely of reviews, but at least I feel like I don't have to worry too much about spoilers. "Quarantine", which has been out on DVD for a couple of months now, is a remake of the Spanish film "Rec". Both films share the same basic plot--a camera crew doing a ride-along with a team of firefighters winds up in an apartment building where one of the residents appears to have gone violently insane. As it turns out, she's suffering from a contagious disease that causes violent insanity--so contagious, in fact, that the authorities have sealed off the building with everyone still inside it.

It's an intense, claustrophobic, and utterly immersive experience. "Immersive" is the key word, there, because the premise feels so chillingly believable that you have almost no trouble accepting this as a documentary. The actors, pretty much without exception, behave like real people in front of a news camera instead of actors playing a part, and the special effects and stunts are all well-chosen to avoid being flashy and drawing attention to the cinematic nature of the experience. Even the script, for the most part, grounds the scenario in realistic discussions of terrorism and a genetically engineered strain of rabies instead of supernatural causes (or, as with "Rec", an attempt by a priest to isolate the cause of "demonic possession" that turns out to be a virus...go figure.) For most of the movie, you feel like what you're watching could very well be real.

Which, unfortunately, makes the Hollywood moments in the movie stand out that much more. The disease in "Quarantine" works, for the most part, because it acts like a real disease does; it has a predictable, measurable progression of symptoms from delirium through catatonia into uncontrollable violence. (Which isn't actually how rabies works, setting aside the fact that it apparently manages to move into the brain in an hour or so when actual rabies takes months, but how many people watching this are going to be familiar with the symptoms of rabies beyond the pop-culture version?) So when the last half-hour of the film hits, and the disease suddenly speeds up its progression from hours to minutes because the film-makers want to pep things up a bit for the big finale, it feels almost like they're cheating. (Likewise when one of the characters in the film supposedly has had the disease for weeks, but waits until someone else mentions that she must have been infected before suddenly going violent right that second.)

Still, those moments that pull you out of the illusion remain few and far between for the first hour or so of the film, and the movie creates a wonderful study of escalating fear and paranoia. There's also some nice thematic work going on, tapping into the zeitgeist of 2008 America as the fear of terrorist threats slowly gave way to the worry that our government was using that fear as licence to do whatever they wanted. (Notice the way that all the authority figures, whether wielding guns and tasers or wearing hazmat suits, are constantly afraid of the guy with the camera. Even when they're not necessarily doing anything wrong, they're uncomfortable with the idea of there being a record of their actions.)

I think it's well worth seeing--the film's internal logic doesn't always hold up the way you'd like it to (although it makes a lot more sense if you assume that the CDC representative is lying or was lied to--sealing off the building the way they do suggests that they're only interested in containing the virus, not studying it, something they'd only do if they knew what they were up against. Oh, and you kind of have to assume that Yuri's lying when he says he hasn't seen his tenant for weeks, and that it's a red herring because if he'd been infected with the virus for weeks, he'd be dead...and even if he wasn't, he couldn't feed all of his pets.) But the direction and acting masterfully cover the seams in the script--and as noticeable as those seams are at times, the film is still a lot more logical than "28 Days Later".

Sunday, May 03, 2009

Free Marvel! Free DC!

So yesterday was Free Comic Book Day (and of course, that's why I held off my post until today. I had to discuss that memorable annual event. It had nothing to do with goofing off, watching horror movies and playing 'City of Heroes' until all hours of the morning, nosiree.) Obviously, both Marvel and DC had free comic books available, and equally obviously, both Marvel and DC were plugging their particular "big events" (Dark Reign and Darkest Night, respectively. Because sticking "Dark" in front of something and calling it good isn't just for Image anymore.)

How did they fare, respectively? Marvel scores a bit lower on branding. They didn't do a whole lot to make it clear to new readers that if they wanted to find out how the battle between the renegade Avengers and Norman Osborn's Dark Avengers played out, they could do so by reading Dark Reign. But they scored a lot of points in a lot of other ways; the story was complete, with a beginning, a middle and an end. It had quite a bit of action, even though it does remain dialogue-heavy (which is Bendis' style, of course; I just don't think it fits a series like the Avengers very well.) It gave enough exposition that a new reader could figure out what was going on and why there were evil versions of the Avengers running around, while not getting bogged down in explanations of who the new Cap is and why Wolverine has a son (and why Marvel isn't utterly ashamed of that fact, which will take a few years to explain all on its own.) And the Sentry wasn't in it very much. (I tend to consider the quality of comics to be inversely proportional to the amount of time the Sentry is in them.)

DC, on the other hand, branded their comic very well, making it clear that this is all about the Blackest Night event, complete with a little dossier at the end on the various Lantern factions and a checklist of upcoming Blackest Night tie-ins (and a personal message from Geoff Johns that basically amounts to, "This won't suck as bad as 'Final Crisis', I promise!") But it fails on the key grounds of "not being two guys standing around and talking for the entire issue, because Geoff Johns has a total man-crush on Silver Age DC characters and thinks there's nothing so interesting as two or more of them standing around talking about their inter-personal relationships." In theory, this is a book designed to attract new readers, people who have either never picked up a comic before, or at least not picked up one in years. The story should immediately engage their interest and excitement, and Barry Allen and Hal Jordan standing in a cemetary recapping things just isn't the way to do it--especially not with a "twist ending" that shows a bunch of headstones of the civilian identies of second and third-tier DC characters and hints they're going to rise. You know why? Because only a long-term fan even knows who Ronnie Raymond is, that's why. It's a comic made for long-term fans, marketed and given away to new ones. Catastrophic marketing fail.

The art, however, is very pretty.

So if you were to ask the average new reader which event they were looking forward to, I'd guess "Dark Reign", assuming they figured out that they should be looking forward to "Dark Reign". But we shall see...