Tuesday, December 16, 2014

Stupid Things You Realize About Yourself

I just realized that for years, I've gotten Right Said Fred (the band that sings 'I'm Too Sexy') with Drop Dead Fred (the Rik Mayall movie). Only one way, mind you--I never heard anyone talk about Drop Dead Fred and think that they were about to inform me that they were too sexy for various items of apparel. But whenever there is a discussion of Right Said Fred (which may possibly happen someday, and no this doesn't count) I immediately think of a movie that I've never actually seen because frankly it looked pretty dreadful.

I wish I could tell you that this had some deeper meaning, but sadly I'd be lying.

Thursday, November 13, 2014

Fantastic Four: Noir

I was recently thinking about all of the changes made to the Fantastic Four for the upcoming movie (and I'll probably be blogging about that soon, here or elsewhere). In specific, I was thinking about all the previous "reconceptualizations" of the FF we've seen over the years, from the Manga FF to the Elizabethan FF to the Zombie FF to...and I sort of mentally trailed off there, half-remembering that there'd been a 'Marvel Noir' line but unsure whether they'd actually done 'Fantastic Four Noir'.

So I went back and checked. And when I found out they didn't, well...

It's the 1950s. Sue Storm is a private investigator in Los Angeles barely keeping the rent paid and the bill collectors happy. Her kid brother Johnny sometimes helps her out with a case, usually when it involves driving too fast or thinking with his fists. But out of the blue one day, an old friend of hers named Ben Grimm turns up looking to cash in a favor.

They met during the war--Ben was a rock-solid pilot who flew infiltration missions for the OSS, and Sue was his cargo. She was an expert in stealth and infiltration, nicknamed "The Invisible Girl" for her ability to get in and out of secure facilities. The two of them had a romance, but it ended badly. Now he's here to ask her to spy on the United States government.

Ben, as it turns out, has gone on to bigger and better things; he's now a test pilot for the government's experimental space program. His old college buddy, Reed Richards, is designing the actual rocket with the help of a defector from Communist Eastern Europe, an egghead named Victor von Doom that also went to college with Reed and Ben. But Ben thinks that someone is trying to sabotage the rocket tests. He wants Sue to find the culprit before the first big space shot, three days away.

Sue and Johnny head out to the small town near the testing grounds, frequented by scientists and pilots alike due to its possession of the only bar within a hundred miles. There are a wide variety of scientists there, a boatload of eccentrics with nicknames like "The Mad Thinker" and "The Wizard", but all of them respect Reed "Mister Fantastic" Richards and Doctor Victor von Doom (who has made it icily clear that he considers nicknames obsequious and small-minded). Sue blends in with the eggheads, while Johnny gets to know the fighter jocks.

That night, someone tries to kill them both. The mystery assailant sets their hotel on fire; Johnny only survives because he has a fire-retardant suit he uses for drag racing, and he bursts through the flaming door to rescue Sue. The two of them realize someone must be on to them. The next morning, they quiz Ben to see if he confided his plans to anyone...and sure enough, he mentioned them to his good friend Reed.

Sue questions Reed, but the interrogation quickly turns into flirtation as the two discover a mutual attraction. She's quickly convinced that Reed's no Commie...this space-ship is the culmination of his life's work. He'd never sabotage it. But she also learns that he mentioned Ben's fears to his own colleague and good friend, Victor.

At this point, Sue is convinced that Victor isn't the defector he claims to be, but a spy. She tails him as he comes back to the testing grounds, late at night, and sneaks on board the experimental rocket ship. Just as she watches him making furtive modifications to the engine, she's hit from behind by an unknown assailant...

Sue recovers consciousness, tied up in the cargo hold of the ship. She sees the person who knocked her out--a Soviet spy she worked with during the war, back when the Russians were our allies. Ivan Kragoff, nicknamed "The Red Ghost", an infiltration expert every bit her equal. She realizes that Kragoff must be behind the sabotage attempts. Kragoff admits it, but isn't particularly worried about being caught...the launch is in less than ten minutes, and she won't tell anyone after the ship crashes and takes the cream of the crop of the American rocket program with it. As it turns out, Reed and Victor both have stowed away on the rocket out of a determination to see the results of their labors first-hand.

Just then, he's tackled from behind by Johnny. The two men struggle, accidentally knocking the cargo bay door shut in their fight. Johnny finally gets the upper hand and KOs the Ghost, but it's too late. The rocket is already lifting off. As it turns out, everyone's riding this rocket together.

As the rocket goes up, Johnny unties Sue. She figures out how to get through from the cargo bay to the crew section, slipping through areas of the ship that are already dangerously underpressurized. She makes it to the cockpit and tells Ben to abort the launch. Victor and Reed both insist they go on, but Reed pales when Sue informs him of the sabotage. The two scientists immediately pull on spacesuits and go out to make a risky attempt to repair the damage.

Ben struggles to control the ship--he knows he has to keep it as steady as a rock to prevent the two men from falling off. Reed and Victor quickly get into an argument about how to repair the damage, and Victor is forced to admit that he's made secret modifications to the engine of his own design, arrogantly convinced that he knew better than Reed about how to best make the rocket work. Just as he's about to tell Reed what needs to be done, the ship shakes, and Victor is thrown off.

Nonetheless, Reed manages to repair the engine, having to reach as far as he can to reset both ignition boosters manually. (GET IT?) The ship makes a safe landing, the Red Ghost is apprehended, and Sue offers to buy Reed a drink. Ben winds up going out drinking and bar-brawling with Johnny instead.

And somewhere in the Atlantic Ocean, a half-burned, half-shattered figure floats. He is determined not to die, not so long as Reed Richards and Ben Grimm live. If they'd only listened to him instead of wasting time with petty arguments. If they'd only followed his lead in repairing the engines. If they'd only held the ship steady like they were supposed to. But they failed him. Everyone failed him. And Victor von Doom will make them all pay...

Monday, November 10, 2014

A Bit of Race Catch-Up

We're now quite a way into the current season of the Amazing Race (Season 25, for those keeping track) and I have to say, this is one of my favorite seasons since I first started watching the Race. Amazingly enough, there are at least four teams I'm actively rooting for, out of the six remaining, and even the two teams I wouldn't mind overmuch seeing off (married dentists Misti and Jim, and dating wrestlers Brooke and Robbie) are entirely tolerable. Jim's only bad habit is his desire to let everyone know how awesome he is at the Race...oh yes and his wife who is definitely a person who exists in his immediate vicinity...but he's not a jerk to Misti, which puts him head and shoulders over the usual fillers of the "hypercompetitive Alpha-male jackass" slot in the program. And Brooke and Robbie, the fillers of the "nice but waaaaaay too intense" slot, at least are managing to be cheerful and funny for the most part, even if it's clear that Brooke's coping mechanism is to blither and moan about how impossible whatever the current challenge is.

And Adam and Bethany are adorable--he's so obviously besotted with her, and she is knocking it out of the park with each challenge. I don't want to say, "She's doing amazingly for someone with only one arm," because that would imply that she's not just doing amazingly well in general, but her success is all the more impressive when you remember that she is doing everything all the other competitors are doing just as well as they are, one-handed. I know she's incredibly evangelical in real life, but as long as she doesn't use it as an excuse for intolerance or bigotry (and based on what we've seen of her interactions with Tim and TeJay, it doesn't seem that she is) I'm happy to see them go as far as they can.

Tim and TeJay are an adorable couple, by the way; it takes a lot of courage to come out to your family, and to do it on national television is even more impressive. They do bicker a little, which is something I generally don't have much patience for, but it's pretty clear by now that it's just their mode of communication and they're very much in love. They could definitely win this and I'd be happy.

The cyclists, Kym and Alli, started off a bit too hyper for me but quickly grew in my affections. They're having a lot of fun, they're kind to each other and to the other Racers (apart from a little bit of drawing on dusty windshields) and they're competent and no-nonsense. That's exactly the kind of team I root for. No drama, just race hard and enjoy the experience.

And although I suspect they're not going to be in the final three, my favorite team is unquestionably Amy and Maya. They're both so freaking adorable that I want to invite them over for tabletop gaming just to watch them smile, they're both smart and competent (but with a recurring navigation problem that I think is going to bite them in the butt), and they're both smart and patient and low-drama to boot! The challenge where Maya made goat butter using her knowledge of food chemistry was just a stand-up-and-cheer moment, and I'm Team Wonka for as long as they're on the show. (And I'll root for them to come back in an All-Stars season, too.)

So yes, this is so far as close to a perfect season of the Race as I think I'm ever going to get. And even though I think we're heading towards an unfortunate Finish Line full of perfect teeth, I'm still digging the heck out of the current season. That's pretty good for twenty-five and counting.

Thursday, November 06, 2014

This May Only Amuse Me

I just had a male GamerGater accuse me of "mansplaining" to him for saying that I didn't think that "GamerGate" could be salvaged as a movement.

He said it was "the most discriminatory remark I've heard in the past 24 hours".

Surprisingly, he is not being greeted with sympathy and comfort for his bruised feelings.

Monday, November 03, 2014

We Need a Science-Fiction Holiday

One of the things I love about Halloween, the holiday now a long, sad 363 days away from now, is the way that it brings out the lover of scares in everyone. The holiday has gleefully expanded to the entire month of October, simply because everyone delights in letting out their creepy side to play. The candy and the trick-or-treating is only one night (usually) but the parties, the costumes, and especially the scary movies last all month long. We get scary movies on every single channel, all month long, a smorgasbord of the classics and the best of the new scares for horror junkies of all ages, shapes and sizes. People spend the whole month talking about their favorite scary movie (and usually referencing 'Scream' while they do so)--it's a month where everyone acts as though the twisted and perverse is normal and fun. What's not to love?

It does, though, make me wish that there was a similar day for science-fiction and fantasy. Not necessarily with the trick-or-treating, but a holiday that incorporates science fiction and fantasy in the same way that Halloween incorporates horror, in the same way that Thanksgiving incorporates insane amounts of food, and in the same way that Christmas incorporates joy and hope and sappiness to a degree you wouldn't tolerate any other month of the year. I want a holiday where we spend a whole month watching our favorite movies, dressing up as Jedi and wizards, and generally letting the other side of our inner child out to play.

Perhaps we could work something out with February? I know it already has Valentine's Day, but it's otherwise the worst month of the year. It could do with a little love. Maybe we could designate February 8th, the anniversary of the birth of Jules Verne, as "Imagination Day", and call it a day to celebrate the pioneers of the mind? After all, we create the future in our heads before we ever explore it in person, and I don't think we could have the wonders we do without people like Verne and his myriad successors showing us the possibilities (good and bad) of the future.

And on February 8th, we'll all dress up like our favorite sci-fi characters and make delicious chocolate steampunk gears for each other, and feast on cloned turkey and synthetic mashed potatoes. (That part's still a work in progress, but I think you get the idea.)

Thursday, October 30, 2014

My Latest 'Star Wars' Theory

Let's take a look at Owen Lars, shall we? Good old Uncle Owen, a nice old moisture farmer who raises his nephew and works the soil with nothing but his family and a few old droids. A kindly soul, one who doesn't want trouble and doesn't want to get involved in the wider affairs of the universe. The salt of the earth.

Except...well...admittedly, they never did delve too much into the economy of the 'Star Wars' universe, but doesn't it seem like a really stupid idea to farm for moisture on a desert planet with an extra sun? We know they've got interplanetary trade, because Han Solo runs cargo from one planet to another, so water could certainly be imported in quantity from a planet like Camino that's got it in abundance. Even if it isn't cost-effective to import water from another star system, there ought to be enough comets and similar water-bearing bodies that a space-faring civilization doesn't need to use condensation technology to get water.

And those droids...well, it's not like he's buying top-of-the-line equipment to help him with the harvest, is he? (Also, why is there a "harvest season"? Is there a monsoon period where water is easier to obtain?) In fact, he's buying stolen merchandise and is pretty comfortable with it. He doesn't even bat an eye when a bunch of strangers show up on his farm with merchandise that 'fell off a truck'. Perhaps that's not too surprising, given that he's within driving distance of the most notorious "hive of scum and villainy" in the galaxy. Good old Uncle Owen seems to be pretty sanguine about blatantly illegal activity in his backyard.

And would droids really be the best option? Sure, they don't need to be paid...but you have to buy them, service them, maintain them, and replace them (since as noted, it's not like Owen is buying quality merchandise). Hiring temporary labor just for the "harvest" seems like it would be a far more cost-effective model--but Owen doesn't seem to want anyone on his farm except Luke. In fact, he's also awful jumpy about Luke leaving the farm, especially when Luke mentions he wants to go to an Imperial flight academy. (Admittedly, Luke is planning on defecting to the Rebellion, but Owen may not know that.) Mind you, he's not nearly as jumpy about that as he is about a Jedi Knight taking interest in his farm.

So to sum up, Owen is living right next door to a group of crimelords, running a business whose model seems to be inherently and obviously flawed. He only works with close family members and robots, and doesn't like the idea of anyone in his family bringing the attention of current or former authorities onto his operations. It sounds pretty suspicious when you put it all together like that, doesn't it?

I'm going to go out on a limb here and suggest that Uncle Owen's moisture farm is a money laundering operation for the Hutts, a legitimate business whose operations serve as a front for the criminals of Tatooine to disburse their ill-gotten gains without attracting too much attention. Probably his paper business has a thriving workforce of dozens of people, from Boba Fett on down through to Greedo; even though none of them work a day on the farm, their tax records are scrupulously maintained. The farm probably shows a minor loss year in and year out, the sort of thing that you'd expect when you run a water farm in the middle of the desert. Not a huge loss, or tax agents might get suspicious (which is one of the reasons he only uses droids and family members), but not enough of a profit to get people interested in examining the books.

Keeping the staff down to family members and droids also avoids awkward questions, the kind of thing that leads to bodies being left in the desert for womp rats to eat. Given that, it's no surprise that Owen wants Luke to stay there, help out on the farm, and avoid any kind of involvement with the expansionist and bureaucratic Empire or the quixotic Jedi who Owen thankfully hasn't seen in years. Honestly, we only have circumstantial evidence to show that the murders at the Lars farm are the work of trigger-happy Stormtroopers and not, say, a couple of boys the Hutts sent round to deliver a message about what happens to people who don't do a good job of cooking the books.

That's how I want to remember Owen Lars. As a criminal conspirator in the Huttese crime families, eventually brought down by his own avarice a la 'Breaking Bad'. (And don't feel too sorry for Beru. She probably came up with the whole scam. Owen didn't seem smart enough to figure out all the angles on his own.) Luke doesn't know how lucky he was--if the Empire hadn't shown up, he'd probably have gotten some ricin in his next glass of blue milk for bringing Obi-Wan into things. Snitches get stitches, Luke!

Monday, October 27, 2014

Terrible, Terrible, Agonizingly Bad Joke of the Day

That's the last time I ever buy a homeopathic washing machine. Now every time I wash my clothes, they get dirtier.

Friday, October 24, 2014

Reviews: Changeless and Blameless

It took me a long while to get back to Gail Carriger's Parasol Protectorate series, but I've spent most of the intervening time recommending her first book, 'Soulless', to anyone who will stand still long enough. That may have been why I waited so long--sometimes, when you know that there's a sequel out there to a book you really love, you're almost afraid to go on to the next one for fear it won't live up to expectations. Luckily, despite a bit of a shaky patch around the end of 'Changeless' and the beginning of 'Blameless', the sequels more than live up to the original.

The series, for those of you who didn't take my earlier recommendation to heart, revolves around an urban-fantasy steampunk version of Victorian Britain where vampires and werewolves are a vital part of the expansion of the British Empire and Queen Victoria has trusted supernatural advisors. The main character, Alexia Tarabotti, is exactly the opposite of a supernatural figure--she's a preternatural, a person whose touch negates the supernatural. Werewolves revert to human, vampires lose their fangs, and ghosts simply...well, give up the ghost. As such, she has both tremendous power and tremendous influence, as well as some pretty tremendous enemies.

The first book covered only the basics of Carriger's alternate Britain, but the second book ('Changeless') starts to really dig into the details as first London, then Scotland falls victim to a mysterious event that duplicates Alexia's preternatural touch over a far wider radius. This creates a mystery that Alexia and her husband (Lord Maccon, a Scottish werewolf who decamped Scotland to head a London pack) have to solve, especially as it involves Lord Maccon's former pack. The mystery isn't tremendously perplexing--when Lord Maccon mentions that there's weird things in Egypt that can rob a supernatural creature of its abilities, and the pack mentions that oh hey, we went artifact-shopping in Egypt, everyone in as well as out of the novel can put two and two together. Fortunately, that's not all that's going on.

For starters, there's the whole "former pack" issue. A big chunk of the novel is taken up with the strained relationships between Lord Maccon and his ex-kin, and Carriger does an excellent job of spinning out the secrets and mysteries there. A further set of secrets and mysteries involves a new character, eccentric and clearly lesbian inventor Madame LeFoux, who is just a little bit too much of a suspect in the multiple attempts on Alexia's life in this novel to allow the reader to indulge in any of the mental slashy goodness involving her and Alexia that the author oh so clearly hopes you will.

Well, not much of it, anyway.

Unfortunately, 'Changeless' ends on a cliffhanger that more or less involves Lord Maccon grabbing the Idiot Ball with both hands and clutching it firmly for the first third of the next book. I'm trying to avoid spoilers, here, but suffice to say that something that is blatantly obvious to the reader regarding the effects a preternatural might have on a supernatural is willfully ignored so that Lord Maccon can get into a big fight with Alexia. (This wouldn't be so frustrating if their wonderful, charming, flirtatious, sex-positive relationship wasn't otherwise a highlight of the series, by the way.) Nonetheless, it does happen, and the fight prompts the events of the next book ('Blameless') as Alexia is forced into exile in Italy.

Which means that it's time for some worldbuilding! 'Blameless' focuses heavily on the reaction that the rest of Europe has to Britain's alliance with bloodsucking fiends from beyond the grave and slavering hairy beasts who hunt the night when the moon is full. Unsurprisingly, not many see it as a plus, especially the Catholic Church and the Knights Templar. Surprisingly, most of the characters aren't any better disposed towards a woman who fits into their cosmology only as a soulless minion of Satan, a weapon fit to be used against the supernatural but never to be treated as a human being. There's a lot of good material here, as Alexia finds out details of her Italian father's backstory and deals with the machinations of the church. Oh, and finds out that pesto was designed as a weapon against the undead.

Just describing the A plot doesn't do the book justice, though; there's a lot of good material involving the supporting cast's efforts to unravel the plot against Alexia's life (from the previous book) and knock the Idiot Ball out of Lord Maccon's hand. The supporting cast was good in the first two books, but 'Blameless' is really where they come into their own.

Honestly, describing any of the plots doesn't do the books justice. The highlight here is Carriger's prose, which is light and fluffy and witty and airy and utterly gorgeous in an "Oh, so this is what it would be like if P.G. Wodehouse wrote urban fantasy" sort of way. The books absolutely breeze by effortlessly, and I definitely came away from this book looking forward to 'Heartless'...and wishing that the book titles weren't so similar that I keep having to look up which book has which title. But that's a complaint for another day.

Monday, October 20, 2014

How I Think GamerGate Is Going to Play Out

How GamerGate Is Going to Play Out #GamerGate. Summing up quickly for those of you who don't know (or those of you who know and don't want to hear about it much more), #GamerGate is a group of 4Channers harassing prominent women in the gaming industry with rape and murder threats, while ineptly disguising it as a "movement" promoting greater ethics in game journalism. It's been a big thing in the gaming industry press over the last few months, on account of how it exposed an ugly seam of misogyny running through gaming culture that gamers have been trying very hard to pretend doesn't exist and in fact still are--every post on the subject on every blog, news site or twitter feed is met with a swarm of gamers insisting that the death and rape threats don't represent them, and they'll rape and kill you for saying so.

It is still ongoing--several women continue to receive death threats for speaking out against sexism and misogyny in gaming, a problem that again I will remind you gamers are saying does not exist while threatening to rape the people who point it out. And it shows no signs of stopping, at least not yet. Here's where I see it going over the next few months. (Please keep in mind that these are merely predictions, not necessarily hopes; there are a few things in here I'd love to see happen, and others I'd love to be wrong about. You can probably guess which are which.)

1) #GamerGate is going to be replaced with a new cover story. The hashtag "#GamerGate", coined by not at all crazy person Adam Baldwin, was the attempt to legitimize the harassment of women in the gaming industry by pretending it wasn't about "hating women for having and using ladyparts without permission", it was about "journalistic ethics". This basically meant that they weren't angry with women for sleeping with men, they were angry with women for sleeping with men who were journalists. Nobody has been fooled except for the #GamerGaters, who continue to argue that they're a totally legitimate grassroots movement and not sexist at all despite the fact that there are chatlogs of people saying, "If we could just convince people that we're a legitimate grassroots movement, it'll deprive these women of their support base and we can drive them to suicide!" (Believe me, I wish I was using hyperbole instead of merely paraphrasing.) #GamerGate, as a "brand", is irrevocably tainted with misogyny and hate.

So they're going to need a new cover story. I suspect that within the next few months or so, we'll see an entirely new grassroots movement spring up, this one with a different set of faces in front of it and a different name. They'll try to keep this one more legitimate, maybe put some token condemnations of the harassment and a few token protests out there of actual bad industry practices (such as big developers paying for YouTube videos while putting clauses in the contracts stating that they can't disparage the game or show any bugs in the game), and generally clean up their act a little bit...but ultimately, it'll just be plausible deniability for gamers who want to pretend that misogyny isn't a problem for them. Expect to see a lot of posts like, "Oh, no, that's not us! We're Gamers for a Responsible Industry! You can't blame the actions of a few #GamerGaters on us!" While, of course, using a fake account to post more rape threats.

2) The threats will get worse before they get better. I don't think this will escalate to actual violence. I think these are inherently cowardly people--not just in the pejorative sense, but in the sense that they're fundamentally nerdy assholes, and a big part of the "nerd" social identity is the belief that while you lack the ability to hold your own in a physical confrontation, you're smart enough to get your revenge in various untraceable and more permanently damaging ways. The stereotype is of the jock who beats up the nerd, and comes home to find his homework assignment deleted from his hard drive and replaced by embarrassing pictures of him kissing his dog. I think the people who are involved in this harrassment campaign have bought into the idea that they're better off finding other ways to hurt people besides violence.

But the problem for them is, they're losing even in their chosen arena. They are losing the rhetorical war, becoming increasingly isolated from their own sub-culture and treated as horrible people and not the righteous defenders of geekdom that they imagine themselves to be. The women they're threatening aren't going away like they'd hoped. The glorious revenge that they imagined from all those 80s teen movies is not happening. And like all trolls, their only choice is to escalate. So I do think that we'll see more threats, and maybe some threats that skirt closer to the line of actual violence. Ticking packages, envelopes with mysterious powders...the sort of thing that makes people believe they're in imminent danger, rather than impending danger. Which leads to...

3) Some people are going to wind up in jail over this. In the past, threats delivered over the Internet have generally been viewed by society as less "real" than threats delivered over the phone or through the mail or in person. The Internet has been seen by law enforcement agencies as some sort of a weird playground for weird people, ultimately harmless and disconnected from reality. However, this has been changing lately. Recent high-profile cyberstalking and cyber-harassment campaigns have slowly been bringing lawmakers around to the idea that this is just another form of communication, and threatening to kill someone over Twitter isn't that much different from leaving a threat over someone's voicemail.

Which leaves one main difference between the Internet and reality: It's actually much harder to avoid leaving a trail that leads back to you when harassing someone on the Internet. The reality of it is, America has become a police state to a not-inconsiderable extent, and the privacy protections we are supposed to enjoy in our communication have become more of a privilege than a right. Telecommunications companies are all too happy to give over their records to law enforcement officials, and communications that were once transient and impermanent now leave records everywhere. And while that's generally a bad thing in principle, it is going to mean that justice is going to be served in this particular instance. The people who are leaving these threats are, I think, going to find out to their shock and dismay that what you say on the Internet can land you in jail in real life.

Now, some of them no doubt think of themselves as 7334 hackers with mad skillz who can evade the governmental cyberdragnet...and probably for about one in ten who think that, it's actually true and not a boast that they'll profoundly regret. But the thing is, the FBI (who now has all the chatlogs gathered by Zoe Quinn regarding her harassment, as well as several of the threats sent to Anita Sarkeesian) uses their own form of "hacking". They don't use social engineering to gain passwords; they use it to gain confessions. Hacker A might have covered their cybertrail pretty well, but they have a friend in Hacker B who isn't so careful. And Hacker B will flip on Hacker A to avoid jail time. I think that actually, quite a number of people will be seeing men with badges in their not-too-distant future. Which is why...

4) Eventually, this will die down. I don't think it will ever go away--there are still people trying to roll back Social Security, and that's older than most of its current recipients. It's hard to really imagine that the same people who are filled with the kind of hate that made them do what they're doing now will just calm down and walk away. But I think they will realize that they have to limit the expressions of their hatred or face consequences. I think that this will keep them from using threats to try to force women into line or out of their hobby. And I think that without those threats, what power they have will eventually fade away and be spent. And frankly, good riddance.

Friday, October 17, 2014

Things I Share With You: Welcome to Night Vale

During my extensive hiatus from blogging, one of the things that was making me happy was "Welcome to Night Vale", which I binge-listened to over the course of the last couple months' commutes. For those of you unfamiliar with the cult series and its basic concept, it's a podcast that purports to be the local radio show for a small town called Night Vale out in the desert...um, somewhere. Somewhere very difficult to enter, and possibly even more difficult to leave. A place where the strange and inexplicable are ordinary and everyday, and reported on by friendly broadcaster Cecil to all his listeners.

Cecil reports on local news, like the opening of the new state-of-the-art Dog Park ("dogs are not allowed in the Dog Park...people are not allowed in the Dog Park") or the PTA meeting which was interrupted by an infestation of pteranodons; he covers traffic, explaining to people that the signs which once displayed "either a graphic photo of a run-over pedestrian, indicating you should wait, or time-lapse photography of flowers wilting, indicating that it is safe to cross" now read, terrifyingly enough, the stark and chilling word "WALK". He delivers the Community Calendar, which contains such tidbits as the information that this Thursday, the Night Vale Public Library will become unknowable and everyone will forget it exists for two hours. And he delivers ads from sponsors, such as Outback Steakhouse ("Outback Steakhouse: Do as thou wilt shall be the whole of the law.") In short, he's a full-service small-town radio host, in a small town whose inhabitants just happen to include a literal five-headed dragon, a glowing cloud that rains small dead animals, and The Faceless Old Woman Who Secretly Lives In Your Home.

It's brilliant, hilarious, deadpan dark humor, and it's also quite poetic and deep at times. There's a lot of hidden depths that are gradually revealed, and mysteries that are unraveled...or not. That's the thing about a series like this. Answers may be provided, but they are never guaranteed. Oh, and the voice acting is fantastic, starting with Cecil Baldwin as the voice of Cecil and going through guest stars such as Jackson Publick and Mara Wilson and Wil Wheaton. It's very much worth a listen. I highly recommend it if your sense of humor is as twisted and as warped as mine.

Monday, October 13, 2014

Back from the Missing

So where have I been? I suppose I've been off being terribly, terribly angry.

Let's face it, the past few months have not been good to those of us who believe that human beings are...not even "fundamentally good", but simply not horrible whenever they think they can get away with it. A group of people on 4Chan decided to destroy a woman's life more or less just because they could, and have spent the last several weeks insisting that they're actually ethical humanists standing on a point of journalistic principle despite being caught in private chats saying, "You know, people get a lot less mad at us when we lie and say we're actually ethical humanists standing on a point of journalistic principle. Let's do that." The woman they've been harassing still can't go back to her house. People are now insisting that her continued complaints about this are a plea for attention.

Meanwhile, one professional football player was finally disciplined for a brutal physical assault on his wife. Not, I want to stress, because the NFL finally realized that they had a moral and ethical duty to take a stand and make it clear that there is some degree of horrific and evil viciousness that they simply won't tolerate. No, it was primarily because they realized they were getting bad press over it all. The worst thing about the whole Ray Rice debacle wasn't even the attack, as terrible as it was. It was that the NFL attempted to exploit it for positive publicity.

And of course, we also had Adrian Peterson, insisting that he couldn't be a child abuser because he didn't intend what he did to be abuse. This is not a train of logic that generally holds weight--you can't say, for example, that you're not a murderer because you really intended to stop hitting the other person before they died--but Peterson continues to stick with it to a degree that suggests to me a deep and profound mental immaturity. I have gotten to the point where I really don't think he comprehends, on a fundamental level, that he's in real grown-up trouble. And once again, his employers defended him to the hilt as long as it looked like it wouldn't cost him anything, only to be utterly shocked and disgusted by his actions when it became commercially expedient to do so. These are not things that reinforce my faith in humanity.

And it's also election season, which is never a good time to have any kind of faith in the human race. The Republicans have settled on their strategy of blatant racism and sexism, lying and fear-mongering, and a healthy dollop of vote suppression in an attempt to cling to the last vestiges of power that they have. It's a strategy that's dooming them in the long-term, but given the sheer ineptitude with which they pursue the act of governance, it feels like we may be perilously close to the point at which there will be no "long term" for them to fail in. Pestilence, Famine and War have all made their appearances in the past few months, and the Republican response is to say, "Yes, but the other side wants to give the immigrants YOUR jobs!"

Oh, and then there's the continuing terrible-ness of Ferguson, which has died down because the police have finally figured out that the media leaves when you stop actively tear-gassing peaceful protestors, but which has never shown any signs of a resolution that doesn't involve a white man getting away with murdering an unarmed black man. That's not cheerful either.

Oh, yes. And the guy from 'Duck Dynasty' keeps opening his mouth and saying things. And he's still gainfully employed, and hasn't been hit by a meteor. In fact, karmic justice seems to be in remarkably short supply these days, and it's hart not to notice it. And that makes me angry, and being angry without being able to do anything about it leaves me frustrated and in no real mood to blog.

But I don't think I can be angry forever. I don't think it's healthy for anyone to dwell on the injustices of the world for their whole lives, because it's been 10,000 years and they haven't gone away yet. Hoping that this is the week we get rid of them hasn't been a good strategy for me, so I'm going to set my anger aside for a while. This isn't to say I'm setting it down; I can't see a point where I give up. I can't see a time when I will agree with the bullies, or when I will stop believing that the slow arc of the universe is turning, in its wobbly and erratic way, towards justice. But I will try to keep in my mind the words of the late, wonderful Molly Ivins:

"So keep fightin' for freedom and justice, beloveds, but don't you forget to have fun doin' it. Lord, let your laughter ring forth. Be outrageous, ridicule the fraidy-cats, rejoice in all the oddities that freedom can produce."

And I'll try to blog more. Because the people who come here are special.

Wednesday, July 30, 2014

Elementary Suggestions for "Cutthroat Kitchen"

In the wake of the sad demise of "Sweet Genius" (I presume someone lawyered up after Chef Ron dropped one of their relatives into the pirahna tank for serving him NutraSweet, and he's gone into hiding), my new favorite cooking competition show is "Cutthroat Kitchen". It has the perfect deranged glee for someone of my dubious moral character; for those who haven't seen it, it takes the basic structure of "Chopped" (three rounds of competition, eliminating the worst chef each round) and adds the twist that chefs can sacrifice some of their potential winnings to sabotage the other contestants, during an auction-style preliminary before each round. The sabotages are designed by Alton Brown, the host of the show, and range from the irritating (take away your opponent's protein/starch, force your opponent to use a non-standard mixing vessel/heat source/tools) to the dementedly inspired (force your opponent to get all their ingredients for a birthday cake by opening gift-wrapped boxes, make your opponent cook breakfast in bed while lying in an actual bed, or the infamous "tiny kitchen" sabotage, which is pretty much what it sounds like).

The thing I like about this show, apart from the obvious humor value in watching someone try to cook while wearing a Chinese finger trap, is that there's game strategy involved on top of the cooking skills. A well-timed sabotage can derail even the best chef, and it's a lot of fun watching people try to figure out when to bid and when to risk getting stuck with something that can make their task a lot harder. (Oh, and it's also fun to watch the judges tasting each dish, since one of the rules is that the contestant can't tell the judge what they had to deal with. There are a lot of culinary buzzwords thrown around to disguise the fact that they had to make a sandwich with soggy bread and no meat.)

But that said, I think that some people could use a few tips. So, despite the fact that the crossover audience between "my blog" and "Cutthroat Kitchen contestants" is probably less than zero, here are my suggestions!

1. Remember that there are no winners in Rounds One and Two. "Cutthroat Kitchen", like "Chopped", is an elimination-based game. You aren't trying to make the best dish; you're trying to avoid making the worst dish. This is important in the first two rounds, where you have more than one person you can get in front of. Keep this in mind when bidding on and dishing out sabotages--a sabotage that affects two or three chefs isn't as big of a deal, because even if you get it, you're not any worse off than one or two other people. Likewise, as tempting as it is to stick it to the one person who's sabotage-free and getting an easy ride through to the next round, it's more important to look for the person who's already in the most trouble and hand them that metaphorical anchor. Your goal is to make one other person's task impossible, not to make everyone but yours hard.

2. Don't Splash Out Early If You Can Avoid It. One of the biggest factors that affects the final round is how much money is left on the table going into it. There are usually fewer sabotages at the end, but they tend to be game-changers, and having enough of a cash advantage that you can guarantee you won't get stuck with them is a pretty big deal. That means not shelling out ten grand in the first round for a sabotage, even if it's a really devastating one. Obviously, there are times you will have to break that rule--if a sabotage is a clear ticket to elimination, you're better off bidding on it in Round One than handing back all your money to Alton--but you really want to keep your powder dry for the final round if at all possible. (Especially because if the other person doesn't follow this rule, you'll be able to pick up the sabotages for cheap at the end, because they won't have the cash to gainsay you.)

3. Don't Get Cute. There is one thing I see on this show that always sends a chill of dread into the pit of my stomach (or a thrill up my spine, if it's a particularly irritating chef). It's when they decide to get "creative". The thing is, creativity is something that is forced on you by this show. The dishes are all traditional favorites with an obvious Platonic ideal form, and judges looking for that ideal. Every deviation is something they're marking off, and a lot of contestants have to deviate due to the sabotages. So given that, do not--and I mean do NOT--try to do your own personal "twist" on whatever the dish is. Don't decide to put blue cheese on your fish sandwich because it has such a unique flavor profile. Don't decide to splash cognac into your beef stroganoff because it's a variation on the dish that you champion at every opportunity. In short, do not mess around with a perfectly good recipe just because you want to be creative, because the judge is not looking for any more creativity than is absolutely necessitated by the format of the show.

4. Don't Panic In the Pantry. The other thing that always sends dread/thrills, delete where applicable, is watching someone run out of the pantry and say, "And then I realized I forgot the (sugar/mustard/pickles/salt/eggs/baking soda/other basic-but-essential ingredient)." Every time it happens, it's like those contestants gave their opponents a free sabotage good for them only. Keep the most important ingredients foremost in your head and make sure you get every single one. (And then, as Alton himself says, grab some sugar, flour and eggs, on the grounds that you can always make effective use of them.)

Keep all these things in mind...oh, and know how to cook and stuff...and you have a better chance of walking away a winner!

Saturday, July 26, 2014

How Wrong Is This?

I was reading a bit about Scientology today, on account of a Gawker network article about someone who went in to take their personality test just to see what the results were. (Spoilers: She's a terrible person and she needs Scientology's help badly.) And one of the more disturbing articles I read was about Sea Org, the cultiest wing of the Scientology cult. This is the one where you have to sign a billion-year contract to join, and you work a hundred hours a week in exchange for room, board, and a small stipend that in no way shape or form equates to even minimum wage, and crucially for purposes of this post, you can't have kids. If you want to stay with Sea Org--and oh hey guess what, these are the levels of Scientology you don't leave unless you want your life to become an unending hell of harassment--you get an abortion (or convince your partner to get one, delete as applicable).

Now I should say that I come to this as pro-choice, but it's pretty clear that this is not a situation where "choice" is involved. Women are being coerced into getting abortions, which is the exact opposite of the pro-choice position. It is, however, in line with what the pro-life movement thinks that the pro-choice movement believes. Which is where I had my idea. My wonderful, awful idea.

Why not forward articles about this practice to Randall Terry's Operation: Rescue? It seems like a match made in heaven. A paranoid, litigious, secretive cult duking it out with a judgmental, tenacious, self-righteous cult. Worst-case scenario, every hour and dollar they spend on each other is time and money they don't spend making the rest of the world miserable. Best-case scenario, either Scientology gets protested into irrelevancy or Operation: Rescue gets sued out of existence. I really can't see a downside here.

Which is probably what they said right before the beginning of 'The Stand', but...

Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Breaking the Silence

OK, I'll admit, posting's been pretty light lately, but I just have to get this off my chest.

So Rod Stewart is presenting us, the listening audience, with a hypothetical scenario that IF "[we] want [his] body" AND "[we] think [he's] sexy" THEN "come on sugar, let [him] know". This, by its very nature, presupposes alternative scenarios under which we might want Rod Stewart's body while not, in any way, finding him sexy. And Rod Stewart is advising us that, should such a set of circumstances arise, he in no way, shape or form wishes to be informed.

WHY? Setting aside whether this is a likely event, why is Rod Stewart so worried about it? Is he convinced that someone who wants his body without being sexually aroused by it is likely to have intimacy issues in other areas, and he's trying to avoid such a relationship? Does he generally want to steer clear of loveless sex, finding it to be joyless and mechanical? Or is he possibly hinting at other, darker implications to the phrase "want my body"? Could he have fears of black-market organ-traffickers targeting him for their sinister schemes, or perhaps warding off demonic possession through the use of up-tempo music? I can no longer stand not knowing. I need answers, and maybe one of you can help.

(And before anyone brings it up, yes, I'm aware that there's also a potentially-implied scenario under which the listener might find Rod Stewart sexy but not want his body. This seems pretty self-explanatory to me, so I won't discuss it further here.)

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

One Thing I Hope to See From "Daredevil"

I was thinking the other day about the "Daredevil" TV mini-series that Marvel's planning, and while I'm trying not to put too many expectations onto anything forthcoming (on account of how I enjoy being pleasantly surprised a lot more than I enjoy complaining that such-and-such wasn't like I hoped it would be), I did come up with one thing I'm really, really hoping they do in the upcoming show.

Specifically, I'm hoping to see some really innovative fight choreography. Because Daredevil is almost utterly unique in one aspect--he's just about the only superhero I can think of who has three-hundred-sixty degree perception. Unlike Captain America or the Black Widow, he doesn't actually need to see you to fight. I think that over his training with Stick, he would have developed a totally unique fighting style, one that involved lots of things like reverse sweep kicks and shots with the elbows at enemies behind him. It would almost have some similarities to drunken fighting, in the sense that it would work very well against large numbers of enemies by inverting their expectations--he'd actively encourage people to think he'd left himself open to an attack from behind, only to elbow them in the teeth when they left themselves open to his attack.

I think that if they get a really good fight choreographer and involve them in the conceptualization of the fight scenes--not just "make it look cool", but make the combat an extension of the character--it could wind up really looking like something special, something unlike any other superhero movie fight scenes we've ever seen. I do hope for that. Even if I'll probably wind up complaining that it really wasn't like I hoped it would be.

Monday, June 09, 2014

The One Reason I'm Glad Firefly Didn't Get a Second Season

My roommate had "Shindig" on yesterday (for those of you who don't remember Firefly episodes by title, it's the one where Mal and Kaylee go to the fancy party and Mal winds up getting into a swordfight over Inara). It's a pretty good episode, because any episode with Badger is a good episode and Mal gets in a great line towards the end ("Mercy is the mark of a great man...and I'm pretty good. Well, I'm alright.") But watching it reminded me of something that bothered me about Firefly, and something I suspect would only have bothered me more as the series went on if it had gone on.

Specifically, it was the interactions between Mal and Inara. This episode had it worse than others, because it was a very Mal/Inara-centric episode, but it was there any time the series focused on these two characters. Namely, Mal had absolutely no respect for Inara as a person, despite the fact that he really wanted to sleep with her, and he treated her terribly. Really terribly. All the time. And the series wanted me to think it was cute.

"Shindig" had a perfect example. After Mal decked Atherton Wing, Inara's escort for the evening, he was put into quarters until the duel. Inara met him there and told him, in no uncertain terms, that his "defense" of her "honor" was unasked for and unwanted...and then proceeded to try to teach him the basics of surviving a swordfight anyway, because she wasn't mad enough at him to want to see him dead over it.

Mal's response: "They teach you that in whore academy?"

Inara's response: "You have a strange sense of nobility, Captain. You'll lay a man out for implying I'm a whore, but you keep calling me one to my face."

Mal's response: "I might not show respect to your job, but he didn't respect you. That's the difference. Inara, he doesn't even see you."

Now the problem here is obvious: Mal's line of reasoning was obvious self-justifying BS. Inara has never been portrayed as stupid, nor has she been portrayed as limited in her options through circumstance. She is never portrayed as being coerced into the role of Companion, either. (Which may be worth discussing another time, but for the moment, let's put "Companions can always choose their partners and are well-respected and never suffer social stigma for their work" deep down in the same Well of Uncomfortable Truths as "For a universe that's supposed to be half-Chinese, Firefly sure doesn't have any Asians.") Everything about the character suggests that her current lifestyle is an informed, intelligent choice. For Mal to say, "I don't respect your job, but I respect you," is patently and self-evidently false, because it implies that he doesn't respect her decisions or her ability to make them, but that this shouldn't in any way be taken as an insult. Which, pull the other one, it's got bells on.

The scene still works, primarily because both of the actors play it smarter than the script. But when you look for it, this kind of thing pops up all the time in the series. In "Out of Gas", when we see the characters' first meeting, one of Inara's baseline conditions for renting the shuttle is that he not come in uninvited. Every time Mal burst in on her, it wasn't a wacky neighbor intrusion like Kramer on Seinfeld. It was a deliberate violation of her explicitly-stated boundaries. That's not "cute", that's creepy and stalkerish.

Mal was possessive, he was controlling--he might not have been sleeping with her, but he was damn well going to carp and moan and complain and passive-aggressively punish her every time she slept with anyone else. He didn't respect her boundaries, he didn't respect her choices, and frankly, given that actions speak louder than words, he didn't respect her. And Inara knew it.

And the series was clearly trying to portray this as "cute", and bringing these two together as a couple. And call me crazy if you will, but I don't think that the showrunners were going to bring the two of them together by having Mal realize that he was not only out of touch with his culture's views on sex work, but that he was also being a possessive jerk who needed to grow up and respect Inara's boundaries, right to make decisions about her body, and decision-making abilities. No, I think it was more likely that Inara was going, at some point, to realize that her sex work was Hurting The Man She Loved and give it up in favor of heteronormative monogamy and slut-shaming. (As a message sent by the series, that is. I don't think that was going to be her new career path.)

It would have been a disaster. It would have retroactively made Inara stupid and Mal cruel, tossing out two interesting characters solely for the sake of a lousy OTP between two people who were, as they were then-currently written, disastrously bad for each other. It was much better to have her leave the way she said she was going to, so that at least Mal could stew in his entitled manchild BS for an undetermined period of time. So in that respect, as much as I loved the series, I'm glad Firefly was cancelled.

(And I'm also not sad about losing Tim Minear's planned episode where Inara kills a bunch of Reavers by tricking them into gang-raping her poisoned vagina. But that's another day's rant.)

Wednesday, June 04, 2014

Thank You for Telling Me This

Here. Read this, accept it, internalize it. Believe it and try to be the kind of person who would stand with the person who wrote it. If you want to play Devil's Advocate with it, explain that #NotAllFans are like that, or suggest that maybe she's exaggerating because "you know how those people are about political correctness"...read it again and look for yourself in it.

And Ms. Jemisin...your comments are closed, quite sensibly under the circumstances, so I can't thank you for writing that speech on your blog. So I'll do it here. Thank you so much.

Sunday, June 01, 2014

Brief Blogging Catch-Up

I just wanted to say that for those of you who'd kind of given up on seeing new updates on "Madman With A Box (Without a Box)", my Doctor Who blog (linked in the linkroll on the left), I've revived it a bit lately in the wake of CONsole Room 2014. I'm trying to at least repost something every weekday, since one of the initial goals was to collect all my varied and various writings about Doctor Who in one place; since I've got over 200 reviews and articles on the Doctor Who Ratings Guide page alone, that's enough material to at least put something up there every day for the better part of a year.

I'm also posting intermittently about the classic series, because I'm trying to watch the whole thing in order for the first time. During the con, I got into a discussion with Robert Smith? and Lars Pearson, and they were frankly amazed that someone could be in a position where they had read every single Doctor Who novel and still not have seen some episodes of the classic series. So I'm doing that now, albeit not on any particular kind of schedule or with any great urgency (as there are still plenty of extant stories I don't have on DVD, and I can't just splash out for the missing ones all at once). Look for posts with the tag "pilgrimage" to see what I think of Doctor Who from the beginning.

As for "Undead for Life", well...not sure when I'll get back to that. I've realized lately that one of the big things that kills my drive for writing is promising my audience that I'm going to embark a large project--I get nervous about disappointing them, which sets me on edge, which ruins my focus, which makes it hard to finish, which makes it a self-fulfilling prophecy and makes me even more tense the next time. So I'm going to avoid any public pronouncements about anything big until it's done. (Hmm. This also explains why I can't ever get into NaNoWriMo.) This isn't to say that "Undead for Life" is permanently dead; it'd be kind of odd if it was. Just that it's not going to update regularly.

And of course, I'm also continuing to write on MGK's blog. I'm assuming that if I put my foot wrong, he'll tell me.

Monday, May 26, 2014

David Goyer, Craig Mazin and She-Hulk

For those of you who haven't heard, David Goyer (screenwriter on movies such as the Blade trilogy, Man of Steel, and the upcoming Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice: The Overextended Title: Seriously, We Can't Stop With the Colons: We're Starting to Sound Like Rikti) recently did an appearance on a podcast called "Scriptnotes", where he and host Craig Mazin discussed She-Hulk. The Mary-Sue summarizes it here.

In all fairness, Craig Mazin did apologize. In the other, harsher kind of fairness, he waited until it was perfectly obvious he was never going to get any peace until he did so, and he gave a lazy, weasel non-pology where he explained that he didn't think She-Hulk was a slut when he said, "The real name for She-Hulk was Slut-Hulk," he was just pointing out all the sexism inherent in the character that only he can see, and which he admits in the podcast "worked on" him! Seriously, I've seen multiplexes with less projection than this guy. But again, in all fairness, he did apologize. So he's actually ahead of Goyer on this.

Now, in fairness to Goyer...because I'm a big believer in fairness in all its many forms...his statement that She-Hulk was "a giant green porn star that only the Hulk could f**k" does have some background to it. Mark Millar wrote a comic where the two characters had an incestuous relationship that resulted in children, because of course he did, and John Byrne wrote some comics where She-Hulk lost her clothing a lot more than was strictly plausible in the course of a superhero's daily activities, and certainly more often than male superheroes do in the general run of events. There was a Dan Slott run where She-Hulk was kicked out of the Avengers Mansion for bringing home too many drunken hook-ups...if you were someone who wasn't a comics fan and who was given a random stack of She-Hulk comics to research the character, I don't think it's unreasonable to suggest that you might form a conclusion that she has not always been well-treated by her creators. And pointing out that those creators were mostly men and tended to sexualize her, well...again, not unfair.

But Goyer went much further than that. He reduced the character to nothing more than a male sex fantasy, which is something that suggests to me that he's at the very least wanting to have his cake and eat it too. (Which is something that Mazin can also be accused of.) He wants to point out that the character is a sexualized caricature, but he isn't at all interested in making the effort at a redemptive reading (which isn't even that hard, given that she's also a trial lawyer who argued in front of the Supreme Court while being an Avenger and a member of the FF. Competency is pretty thick on the ground with Jennifer Walters, here.) Instead, he seems to be suggesting that it's okay if he sexualizes and reduces She-Hulk to a caricature, because it's no different from what anyone else was already doing.

And more than that, it seems to point to a deeper unwillingness to engage with the characters. Later in the podcast, Goyer spent an inordinate amount of time making fun of the Martian Manhunter as "stupid", which isn't in and of itself offensive--let's face it, DC has spent a lot of time and effort trying to transform the Martian Manhunter into an A-list character, and they've never succeeded--but it is illuminative. Goyer isn't interested in working at this stuff. He simply doesn't care enough about superheroes to give them more than a surface examination, and write his scripts based on that. And based on his comments about She-Hulk, he at the very least expects to be given a pass on not bothering to challenge the sexism of others beyond commenting on it, assuming he's not adding a healthy dollop himself.

This could be a problem, given that he's currently working on a script that features Wonder Woman. And that's directed by Zack Snyder. And that's inspired by Frank Miller. I mean, at this point if you added in Dave Sim and Mark Millar, you could form some sort of Misogynist Voltron out of the people working on this movie, and it's set to define Wonder Woman for a whole generation of fans that have already pretty much given up on comics as a medium for delivering superhero stories. This worries me. I'll admit, I'd already written off SvB:TDoJ:INWATA (the last initials stand for "I'm Not Writing All That Again") due to the Snyder/Miller thing, but it does sadden me that DC has hitched their star to a bunch of jackasses and sent it chasing Marvel. I like DC. I want to like their movies.

But they have to make some good ones first.

Thursday, May 22, 2014

Thoughts on the Recent Amazing Race Season

It looks like we had another Amazing Race. This was another "All-Star" season, where they brought back fan favorites from previous seasons to give them another shot at the race around the world for a million dollars. This season actually had plenty of sympathetic teams, two of which actually made it to the finals. So that part was nice (even if I wish they'd stop bringing back Jet and Cord, the homophobic cowboys).

I liked the mix of teams, for the most part, and I liked that most of them played the race smart and avoided a lot of drama. The obvious exception was Brendon and Rachel, who did pretty well on the former but not on the latter. They were much better than last time, when they seemed to be a sort of Zach-and-Flo minus the competency, but even so, Rachel's insistence that they were racing on behalf of her tragically empty womb grated. (No, seriously. She'd made a deal with Brendon that if they won, he had to impregnate her. Because that isn't creepy.)

Actually, more needs to be said about that. It's creepy, but it's not just creepy that Rachel made that deal. It's creepy...creepier, in fact...that Brendon agreed to it. Because you could see it in his face every time she talked about it, which was a lot--he doesn't want kids right now. He may not want kids ever. But he really doesn't want to have that conversation with Rachel. So he's putting up practical obstacles in her way so that he doesn't have to discuss the emotional divide between them on the subject, which is really unfair to her and clearly driving her towards big dramatic gestures in an effort to get those practical obstacles out of the way (and if there's one thing you don't want to do, it's to encourage Rachel's tendency to dramatic gestures).

Other than that, I thought their "heel" elements were overplayed by the series. Eventual winners Dave and Connor made a huge hairy deal out of the fact that the Brenchels U-Turned them, which...um, RACE? Competitive competition in which each team tries to come in first? I understand not being happy, but seriously, people. This is like getting pissy with your friends when they hit you with a "SORRY" card.

All that aside, I thought there were some good challenges this season; the bamboo raft-building exercise made for some great television, and the drink-mixing detour was fascinatingly brutal. And I think that every team should have to go through Rome and participate in remote-control chariot races. (And they should also have to race bunnies in the Netherlands, but that's another story.) Even so, it felt like a lot of the legs lacked tension, probably due to the foregone conclusion of Margie and Luke's elimination falling right between two non-elimination legs. (Mallory and Bopper's leg felt a bit like a foregone conclusion, too, but that at least had some tension to it.)

The lack of tension extended a bit to the finish line--not that skydiving to the mat wasn't AWESOME, but I was really good with either Dave and Connor or Caroline and Jennifer winning, and Brendon and Rachel were clearly out of the running for first no matter how they Amazing Edited things. So it didn't pack as much oomph. Still, the finish was great because the finish to the Amazing Race is almost always great. Seeing all the teams gather together and share the joy of having experienced the Race, win or lose, is something you don't get in Survivor or Big Brother. It's what'll definitely bring me back for another season.

But please no cowboys next time?

Sunday, May 18, 2014

Storytelling Engines Announcement!

For those of you who missed the CONsole Room convention this weekend in Minneapolis (which I'll excuse this time, but 2015 is just around the corner!) we had a very wonderful convention. ATB Publishing was there, talking about their forthcoming projects now that they've sorted out their reorganization and are ready to follow up their debut project, the really wonderful 'Outside In'. (Which I participated in!) And the publisher himself, Arnold T. Blumberg, announced one particular project that I've been waiting to say something about for a while now--they will be bringing out a compilation of my Storytelling Engines columns!

This will include every single one of the comic-related Storytelling Engines, revised and expanded to include the feedback I got from my readers. In addition, there will be about a dozen brand-new columns exclusive to the book, including such topics as the "Hard-Traveling Heroes" era of Green Lantern, the Adams/O'Neal era of Batman, Solomon Kane, Amethyst, the Marvel Cineverse, and more! And while I'm certainly proud of my original columns, I think that they benefited greatly from a chance to revisit them, polish them, and in at least a few cases incorporate material that simply wasn't available to me when I posted them those many years ago. (Spider-Woman, for example, got an examination of the Claremont and Nocenti runs in the back half of her series, which wasn't collected when I first wrote the piece.)

So if you've liked my Storytelling Engines, I hope you'll be interested in picking up this volume when it's released. There's no official date yet, and I hope everyone understands that small press publishing doesn't exist in the same linear relationship to time that the rest of us do (which reminds me, 'Rip Hunter, Time Master' is going to be in there) but I also hope you'll watch this space for further announcements as we get closer to finalizing the release. I'm really very proud of this book, and I hope that you'll all enjoy it.

Monday, May 12, 2014

Insane Comics Moments, Part Nine

You know...after you spend long enough reading Silver and Bronze Age comics, eventually you get kind of jaded. I mean, there are only so many ways that Red Kryptonite can make Superman act goofy, and eventually you just get used to cruising through the story with your brain on auto-pilot and waiting for the wacky twist at the end. Not that it's boring, but I'm just saying that after a while you do get to feeling like there's nothing they can do to surprise you anymore.

And then something like "World's Finest #189-190" happens.

This two-parter by Cary Bates, respectively known as "The Man With Superman's Heart" and "The Final Revenge of Luthor", opens with a dying Superman plummeting to Earth like a meteor and taking out a child's playground. (For those of you who are proponents of the Superdickery theory of Superman's behavior, this is an entirely fitting final act.) You may think that this is an imaginary story, one of the many "What if Superman died?" tales that DC published over the years, but nope. This is entirely in continuity. Superman's corpse is lying there on the ground, his killer (a space alien named "Motan") boasts of offing the Man of Steel, and Superman's last will and testament is to have the United Nations use a Kryptonite laser to carve him up and donate his organs to worthy people around the world so that they can have his superpowers.

And of course, that's not crazy enough. No siree. Not while there are supervillains out there. Batman has refused to accept Superman's heart, stating that he's unworthy to have a Kryptonian heart beating in his human chest...and also, what exactly would it do for him? I mean, that's one of the few things that hasn't been mentioned in connection with his bizarre profusion of Silver Age abilities, at least not unless there's something we don't know about his super-ventriloquism. But anyway, Batman is trying to find worthy donors, while also dealing with the Gang of Four. (Um, not the disciples of Chairman Mao who instigated the Cultural Revolution. This is a gang of criminals who were so well-organized and cunning that they gave Superman fits even while he was alive, and are going on an unprecedented crime spree now that he's dead.)

But Luthor decides that now's the time to up the ante on creepy supervillainy, so he breaks into the UN building, steals Superman's organs, and auctions them off to the highest bidder. So, um...for those of you complaining about how comics have gotten too "dark" lately, it's 1969 and we've got a story about Lex Luthor's black-market organ harvesting of the Man of Steel.

The Gang of Four use their ill-gotten gains to buy Superman's organs (all except for the heart, which Luthor keeps for himself in the hopes that someday he will figure out a way to perform a heart transplant on himself and become immortal) and immediately embark on a SUPER-crime spree, with each of them having one set of Kryptonian body parts to aid in their wilding. One gets super-strength from Superman's fists, another gets super-breath from his lungs, a third gets heat vision and x-ray vision from his eyes, and the last gets super-hearing from Superman's ears. (He hangs around with the eyes guy a lot, on the not unreasonable basis that having super-hearing by itself doesn't really do much against being punched in the face by Batman.)

Batman is totally outclassed by the new supervillains, but he nonetheless announces that he's got a secret weapon against them and challenges them to a showdown at noon. (I know what you're thinking, but the weapon isn't Kryptonite, despite it being a really obvious choice that existed in quantity in the DC Universe at the time.) The villains show up, immediately realize that Batman didn't pack Kryptonite like a sensible person would, and start kicking his butt...

Until suddenly their super-organs fail. Blinded, deafened, paralyzed, and suffering from catastrophic lung collapse, they pose much less threat to Batman. In fact, he's getting ready to save the guy whose lungs stopped working when Luthor shows up and stops him. Turns out Luthor has figured out what Batman knew all along...Superman's not really dead, and the organs are synthetic. Supes shows up, whipping off his "Motan" disguise to deliver the required exposition--remember how much trouble the Gang of Four was giving him? Well, his solution to the problem turns out to have been to trick them into buying defective black-market body parts and permanently disfiguring/crippling themselves. HEROISM!

Batman and Superman haul the survivors off to jail, and lament the tragic demise of the one criminal who learned that the wages of sin are death...and also that Superman will straight up trick you into ripping your own lungs out if you cross him...and the two-parter comes to a close. And frankly, there's just not much they can do to top that one.

Monday, May 05, 2014

The LucasFilm Sale: How It All Went Down



LUCASARTS EXECUTIVE: Hello, sir. You said you had some big news for me?

LUCAS: Very big. I think this could be the biggest thing for this company since 1999.

EXEC: You mean...we're...?

LUCAS: Exactly.

EXEC: Episode Seven?

LUCAS: Huh? Oh, that. Um, yeah, I have a few ideas I've been tossing around. No, I've been thinking about new revenue streams for the company. I mean, the movies have always sold well, but eventually we hit saturation on that. People have the originals, they have the Special Editions, they have them on video and DVD and Blu-Ray, and they've all seen them in the theater a couple dozen times on top of that. It's the ancillary revenue streams that keep us in dough, you know that.

EXEC: Um, but Episode Seven would be a new film. They'd want to see that.

LUCAS: But you have to spend money making it, first! Millions of dollars scouting locations, hiring actors, putting them into mo-cap suits so that you don't actually have to see them on-screen when you're done...arranging all those pixels into fake aliens costs money, you know. And when you're all finished, what do people do? Complain that you didn't do it right and decide not to see it another sixteen times! No, if we're going to do this, we have to make sure it's profitable before the first ticket sold. Like 'Phantom Menace'. That's where my idea comes in.

EXEC: More merchandising, sir? I'm really not sure there's anywhere else to go with that. We've sold 'Star Wars' action figures, 'Star Wars' video games, 'Star Wars' tissues, 'Star Wars' muffin tins...we sold that candy that made you french-kiss Jar Jar Binks! I don't think we can really put the logo on anything else, not unless you're willing to sell 'Star Wars' toilet paper.

LUCAS: Hmm. Actually, write that one down. But no, I was thinking along the lines of advertising tie-ins.

EXEC: Kids' meals, drink cups, that sort of thing? I mean, I'm sure we can round some up, no problem, but--

LUCAS: You're not thinking big enough. Ever watch any sports?

EXEC: Well, um...yes, but--

LUCAS: Not me. Never really had the interest. Not enough CGI. But one of my kids had on a basketball game last night, and do you know where those guys play? Staples Center.

EXEC: ...um...

LUCAS: "STAPLES" Center! Don't you get it? The guys at Staples paid big bucks just to get a building named after them! I looked it up! It's like, millions of dollars! And I was thinking.

EXEC: OK, maybe we should do a little less of that--

LUCAS: Naming rights! How many of those damned aliens do we stick in the background of each shot? Twenty? Thirty? And every freaking one has an action figure, its own novel tie-in, and something like three comic book series about them! And we've just been naming them after our friends and stupid inside jokes! All this time, we've had a frigging gold mine right under our noses, and we haven't touched it!

EXEC: I'll be honest, sir, this sounds--

LUCAS: Brilliant? Lucrative? Like the future of cinema? Here, I've drawn up designs for a few new characters. That's Wal-Martto, he's going to be a wacky alien sidekick who does all the bargaining for the heroes. This, this is Darth Verizon. He's going to be a villain, but a "cool" one. Over here is Starbuck, a new Rebel pilot who loves to fly with the kind of energy only a Chai Latte can give you. And...you're giving me a look. What's the look?

EXEC: Well, first off, Starbuck is already a pilot in another series.

LUCAS: I know! And they didn't charge a dime! Don't worry, I've got a product placement deal going with the BSG people. We'll get twice the money for the same character, and they'll get a free ad for their DVD boxsets. It's win-win...you're still giving me the look.

EXEC: It's just that...I mean, doesn't this kind of cheapen our franchise? I think the fans will see it as kind of, well...lame.

LUCAS: They didn't complain about Sio Bibble, Salacious Crumb or Elan Sleazebaggano. I think if we can get away with Elan Sleazebaggano, we can get away with Darth Verizon.

EXEC: ...OK. Look, George. How much would it cost to get you to not make this movie at all? Or any movies? Ever?

LUCAS: I dunno. Four billion dollars?

EXEC: Let me get Disney on the phone.

(Disclaimer: All kidding towards Lucas aside, I'll be honest; I really only did this because I wanted to get the name "Wal-Martto" down in print somewhere.)

Friday, April 11, 2014

A Sentence I Can Never Finish

I've had the opening line of a book in my head for years, never quite knowing where it connects to. Today, I'm sharing it with you, because it's such a good opening sentence that I want to share it with people despite not knowing what comes next.

"They say that a man who seeks revenge should begin by digging two graves. I dug three; but in fairness, two of them were very small."

I dunno, maybe it's my "For Sale: Baby shoes, never worn."

Tuesday, April 08, 2014

'The Winter Soldier' Was In Color, but the Morals Were Gloriously Black-and-White

Recently, I read a very nice review of 'Captain America: The Winter Soldier' at this blog(caution, contains spoilers for the film. Actually, so does this post.) It's a good review with some excellent points about the way that the film brings home the growing acceptance of constant surveillance and preemptive attacks, but there's one thing I have to disagree with it on. The reviewer suggests that the final figure arrived at by SHIELD/HYDRA in their quest to eliminate all the potential threats to global order is too high, and that it would have been a more interesting dilemma if there were only a couple dozen targets on the list.

I think this misunderstands the whole point of the film. It's not about an interesting moral dilemma. Allowing people to frame the question as a "moral dilemma" is, in no small part, what's gotten us into this mess, and it's telling that the villain attempts to do that even as the heroes are trying to stop him from murdering twelve million people. When the moral dilemmas are sliced thin enough, it's hard for anyone to know when exactly the line is crossed. Nobody's going to be the one to stand up and suggest that a single terrorist's life is worth more than a thousand innocents. Nobody's even going to be the one to suggest that one innocent life is worth more than a thousand. And at some point, the sunk cost fallacy kicks in, and saying "no" means that all those other deaths were meaningless because we still didn't make the world 'safe'. And each little atrocity justifies the next, slightly larger one.

'The Winter Soldier' cuts through all the justifications. The Insight Program is nothing more than the ultimate, logical extension of everything America has been doing for the last thirteen years. If you accept that it's okay to spy on people without evidence...if you accept that it's okay to attack terrorists before they attack us...if you accept that drone strikes are better because they don't put our soldiers in harm's way...then the ultimate extension of that is right there in front of you. And America supported it all the way. If A led to B, and B led to C, and C led to D, then this movie is saying, "Hey, I just found what Z looks like!" Moral ambiguity is exactly what's not needed here.

Captain America stands for something better. He stands for the ideals of America, not the debased realities we sometimes allow to overcome our better judgment. Yes, he would have stood up for a couple dozen people the same way he stands up for twelve million. But his point, as graphically made by the movie, is that once you become the kind of person who can kill a couple dozen people for 'all the right reasons'...it never stops there.

Thursday, March 06, 2014

Other Paul Ryan Plans to Help the Poor

RYAN: "The other day, I saw a young child in a wheelchair. The poor thing confided in me that he didn't want to be in a wheelchair; he wanted to walk, like the other kids. That's why I believe it's important to take away wheelchairs from poor children, because the Left doesn't understand how stigmatizing it is to them to have one..."

RYAN: "This old man was forced to get a pacemaker, possibly by liberals who don't understand that medical intervention might keep your heart beating, but it doesn't keep your heart warm. That's why I want to rip his still-beating heart out of his chest, because I understand that 'free pacemakers' only sustain physical life, not emotional support..."

RYAN: "Being forced to work a degrading, menial job in the janitorial services for minimum wage, well...that's no way to live. I understand that, unlike the godless liberals. That's why I want to repeal the minimum wage laws entirely, so this man doesn't have to work for minimum wage..."

RYAN: "Due to his mother's substandard health insurance, little Timmy here is having to watch his poor mommy die a slow death due to a preventable illness. The Left thinks they can make things better through 'better health insurance' and 'reforming the medical care system', but what does that mean? Consigning Jimmy to watch his mom die at a later date? No. That might be what those monsters in the Democratic Party want, but we conservatives are filled with boundless compassion. One quick, humane bullet between the eyes, and we can make sure that Jimmy never sees his mother die."

"And we can also probably spare some ammo to shoot his mom, too."

Monday, March 03, 2014

The Truth About Cats And...Um, More Cats

As you might have noticed, the blog's been a little quiet lately; I've been indulging in my traditional February habit of huddling in a tiny ball under the electric blanket and cursing the hellish cold, and wondering if spring will ever come or if some demented sorceress has cursed our land to the blight of eternal winter as some sort of messed-up Narnia tribute. That doesn't leave much time for writing.

But it's March now, and time to talk about cats. Specifically, it's time to talk to all the people who hate cats. "Ewww!" they say. "I hate cats! They're so aloof! They're not affectionate and demonstrative like dogs are!"

This is, and I speak from personal experience, a load of hooey. I have cats, and one of them literally sprints into the room as soon as I come through the door and launches herself in a spirited leap to land on my shoulder (yes, this is slightly unnerving) in order to headbutt the side of my face with repeated nuzzles. This could not be defined, by any stretch, as "aloof" behavior. If a person did this, you would not be saying, "Oh, Phyllis, you're so aloof!" You would be saying, "Agh, Phyllis, get off of me, you just broke my collarbone!"

This brings up the most important point about cats: They're small. Smaller than people, but more importantly smaller than most dogs. Even the biggest healthy domestic cat probably weighs in at about twenty pounds, whereas your basic "mutt" dog tips the scales at closer to fifty. Dogs get bred down, of course, but the general canine mentality is of a sizeable-to-large pack-bound predator.

A cat, on the other hand, is a prey animal as well as a predator. At five to twenty pounds, it has to treat larger animals as a potential threat. A fox, wolf, bear or other large animal can do a lot of damage to a cat, and being territorial animals instead of pack animals, they can't rely on safety in numbers. This is an important point in the psychology of the feline: Until you demonstrate otherwise, a cat considers you to be something that wants to eat it.

So most of the people who consider cats "aloof" are people who are interacting with a cat in the same way they interact with a dog, and expecting the same result. They walk into a room, they see the cat, and they race over to it with a big smile on their face! They pick the cat up and they snuggle it and they roughhouse with it and they...well, they probably don't get past the "roughhousing" part without getting some nasty scratches, because from the cat's point of view, a large animal has just walked into the room, bared its fangs, charged, and grabbed it. The cat assumes that its only chance of survival is to scratch and bite until the horrible monster lets it go, and then run like buggery and find someplace to hide until it goes away. The bleeding human blames this on the cat, and the cycle of "aloofness" continues.

In general, the best way to get a cat to be affectionate to you is to present yourself as non-threatening. Don't go to the cat. Take a quiet seat somewhere, relax, and let the cat come to you. If it's like most cats, this may not happen right away. Survival instincts are strong, and the cat that survives best is the cat that's cautious about new things. It may take a day or two for the cat to let its guard down and decide that you're not a potential cat-eating monster. (It might take even longer if the cat spent any time as a stray, or had a previous owner that abused it. Operant conditioning is harder to overcome than simple instinct.)

When it does approach you, don't go nuts on the petting right away. Let it settle in and get used to you. Once it's sure you're not a threat, you'll know...primarily because it'll flop down in your lap and start purring. That's the point when you'll understand why cat owners look at dog owners funny when they complain about "aloof" cats.

Sunday, February 02, 2014

Epic Fantasy Football Needs To Happen

Had this idea for a while now, but I need some help working out the details. The idea is that it's "fantasy football" mixed with fantasy gaming; you select a party of real-life football players, with the positions roughly corresponding to classes. (Wide receivers are rangers, quarterbacks are wizards, defensive players are thieves, running backs are fighters, et cetera.) Each week, you select a monster from a list of monsters ranging from "dire wolves" up through "dragons" to fight; the fantasy league points are translated into damage, and you kill the monster if you do enough damage to exceed its hit points.

Killing monsters gives you experience points, which you can then spend on magical items and class bonuses to modify your party's damage each week. This allows you to take on tougher monsters, which allows you to gain more experience, and so on. At the end of the season, whoever has the most impressive group of monster trophies wins.

I think it could work, but I don't know enough about fantasy football to be able to construct a workable baseline for weekly points scored, and that's needed in order to be able to build workable monsters for the party to kill. Anyone know more about fantasy football and want to help me out on this?

Sunday, January 26, 2014

And Doctor Voodoo Is the Sorcerer Supreme

Someday, I totally want to write a story where the Winter Soldier is drawn to an artificially-created Earth where all the superheroes are the edgy, alternative versions of themselves created to replace the real ones with anti-heroes. This world's Avengers are the USAgent, War Machine, Thunderstrike, the Red Hulk and the Scarlet Spider, and they're periodically joined in team-ups by Venom and the Red She-Hulk. They've just been waiting for the Winter soldier to join them on their perfect Earth, the ones where they're the real heroes...only, of course, there's a dark secret to its creation that they have to fight, because otherwise where's the conflict? But then at the end, their world is preserved as a running in-joke, a sort of Second Banana Heaven for superheroes.

And then a few years later, they can have a crossover with the Justice League, which is composed of Artemis, Azrael and the Eradicator...

Wednesday, January 15, 2014

Review: Buffy Season Eight

It's been a while since this originally came out, which means that I finally found copies that were sufficiently discounted that I could pick up the missing volumes and read the whole thing. And now that I finally caught up to the season behind the season that just finished, what do I think? (Oh, spoilers for a years-old comic book series ahead...)

The first thing I noticed is the same thing I noticed after Seasons Four, Five, Six and Seven: Joss Whedon has really had to reinvent the series a lot ever since Season Three ended. The central concept of 'Buffy', the idea that everything else grew out of, is that high school is hell. The series took the metaphor and made it literal, with the demons of adolescence transformed into actual demons and killed by a girl who grew into a woman. 'Graduation Day', where Buffy told the Watchers where to shove it and became an confident adult, was the culmination of everything that had gone before.

And without that central concept, the series has had to completely remake itself with a new core premise, time and time and time again. 'The Freshman', 'Buffy vs Dracula', 'Bargaining' and 'Lessons' all function as pilots for an entirely new series featuring the same characters (and some function better than others...) And likewise, Season Eight is a whole new, completely different series where Buffy runs a team of paramlitary Slayers that travel the world and fight evil monsters wherever they may go. It's the sort of epic, ambitious storyline that really could only be attempted in comics. Whatever else you might say about it, Whedon really tried to use the medium to its fullest extent.

Unfortunately, "whatever else you might say about it" is that it never really gels as a concept, and it's just not as much fun as the previous seasons, and it eventually devolves into a series of plot kludges designed to get us to the next reinvention of the series for Season Nine. (Which is, weirdly, what you can say about Seasons Seven, Six, Five, and arguably even Four.)

The first problem is that while there are some great moments to be had in making a big, globe-trotting epic with a Slayer cast of thousands, the concept really does get too far away from what made 'Buffy' good. The characters and their relationships get lost in the noise, and they feel like pale shadows of themselves in a lot of ways. Worse, the moments they do get all feel like rehashes of the stuff we've already seen; Buffy is still worried about getting her friends killed, Willow is still agonizing over magic abuse, and Xander is still trying to figure out what it's all about to be a grown-up. Oh, and Dawn is still metatextually complaining about her utter irrelevance to the story save as a replacement peril monkey for Willow now that she's competent, and Andrew is still nothing more than a vehicle for all the lazy "geek culture" jokes that the writers want to stick into the story. There were the same anchors that got hung around the characters' necks in Seasons Five through Seven, and they're still just as depressing and mopey as they once were. It'd be nice to change that up with a little, I dunno....joy? Just a titch? Reading comic books shouldn't make me want to cheer myself up by helping out at food shelters.

The second problem is that the whole thing doesn't really feel like it makes any sense. The identity of Twilight, while it's a pretty good reveal, never has legs because nobody seems to know why he's doing anything he's doing. There are no less than three conflicting explanations given in the final two books--either Angel is running a con on Buffy's enemies by tricking them into letting him lead them, or he's been possessed by a baby-universe-to-be called Twilight who wants to bootstrap itself into existence by tricking Angel and Buffy into sexing each other up in the longest, dullest sex sequence committed to paper (for which I don't blame Brad Meltzer one bit--he got the absofreakinglutely nightmare brief for his arc). Or he's secretly helping Whistler with some other even more devious plan that involves tricking Twilight into making Buffy and Angel sex it into being so that reasons.

And the ending...ugh. The last two books involve Giles suddenly remembering an ancient prophecy that came directly from his butt, a mystical artifact that's just all of a sudden the most important thing in the universe and everybody wants to do stuff and things to it for reasons (because corks and bottles and other metaphors--like letting the air out of a balloon!), a baby universe as a bad guy who's possessing Angel and making him do more things for other reasons and it's bad because of its badnessness, the return of the Master because why the heck not at this point, and finally Buffy just literally gets sick of all this garbage and breaks the plot device and goes home. And that works because reasons too.

The only thing that really felt like it actually gelled, happily enough, was the epilogue, where Buffy is now living in San Francisco and slaying vampires. That whole idea of a "vampire slayer", which had gotten utterly lost by the end of the tangled mess of gibberish that was Season Eight's final moments, feels like it at least was part of a process to get Buffy back to where she should be. And while I'm aware that it's almost certainly not going to be that simple, it did give me at least a little optimism that this could be a series I might be able to get into again someday unequivocally.

Thursday, January 09, 2014

Five Things That Really Surprised Me In DC's 'Showcase Presents' Collections

If I said that I was surprised at being considered "knowledgeable" about Marvel's history, that goes double for DC. I never even read DC Comics until I was in high school, having utterly rejected the output of the company as a child, based primarily on Superman #337, which made so little sense to my four-year-old self that I pretty much gave up on everything associated with the company. (If you don't know who Don-El and the Superman Emergency Squad are, the thing is sheerest gibberish.) It wasn't until my future brother-in-law told me that DC had really improved its output that I decided to take a flyer on their comics...and promptly ran headlong into 'Armageddon 2001', right after deciding that 'Hawk and Dove' was my new favourite comic. (DC Comics: Proudly crushing the dreams of its fanbase for over two decades.)

And yet, here I am, having read most of the Silver Age output of DC and a good chunk of the Bronze Age as well. What really surprised me about it? What do I want you to know? Well...

1) Some of their best material wasn't superhero stuff. Before Julius Schwartz kick-started the Silver Age by recreating most of their superhero properties with a sci-fi twist, DC was surviving the lull in interest in guys in funny outfits by publishing a wide variety of comics in a number of different genres. And even after the superhero genre took off, DC hedged their bets for several decades. They published war comics, westerns, horror and romance...and they produced a lot of brilliant, iconic material. House of Secrets and House of Mystery were both excellent, especially under Joe Orlando, and Joe Kubert's Sergeant Rock and Enemy Ace were both legitimate works of high art. Jonah Hex was such a brilliant, ahead-of-its-time western that it's a damn shame that it produced such a loud, stupid, anti-quality movie. And they even produced some good fantasy comics, like 'Warlord' and 'Amethyst', before it became apparent that the audience for comic books had diminished to superhero fans and nothing but. Changing audience tastes were as big a part of the problem for DC as anything else.

2) The Bronze Age was really rough on DC. One thing I've noticed about reading Marvel vs reading DC is that I look more and more forward to reading Marvel's books as they get into the Bronze Age (and even beyond, into the Eighties and Nineties)...but DC's superhero books got weaker and weaker as they went on. Part of it was the way they went deeper and deeper into their own over-complicated mythos; the aforementioned Superman #337, which involved a renegade member of the Superman Emergency Squad escaping Kandor and being attacked by a whole gaggle of supervillains who were all Superman in disguise, was a classic example. It also served as an example of the way that they got more and more obsessed with gimmick plots and bait-and-switch "twist endings"; every issue seemed to revolve around creating some impossible situation, then coming up with a contrived explanation for it all. (And all in twenty-two pages...DC took a long time to adapt to the concept of the "multi-parter", and it shows.) But mostly, and I think Chris Sims has also said this, DC was trying so hard to be Marvel that they forgot how to be DC. Marvel was "hip", it was "relevant", and it catered to teenagers and young adults...and so DC wrote all of their comics like they were going through a mid-life crisis, using the slang that all the teeners were into and chasing the hip trends. And there is nothing guaranteed to feel more awkward than watching someone in their forties try to act like a teenager. The Bronze Age was full of DC comics that were trying too hard, and it showed.

3) DC's second-tier heroes were second to nobody. That said, DC had some of the most fun back-ups and second-tier superhero titles in the business, especially in the early Silver Age. The Doom Patrol, the Metal Men, Metamorpho, the Elongated Man, Hawkman and Adam Strange were all great titles worth picking up and plowing through in a single sitting. Even supposedly ultra-lame characters like Aquaman had surprisingly great solo titles. They all floundered a bit in the Bronze Age, when DC wasn't sure what to do with themselves (actually, now that I think of it, Marvel floundered in the mid-Nineties the same way when faced with a challenge to their teen-cred from Image). But they had some great material in there.

4) DC did a better job of imitating Marvel when they used Marvel writers. Admittedly, there's not a lot of material from the Eighties in the 'Showcase Presents' series, primarily due to royalty issues, but the stuff they did put out shows that when Marvel writers crossed over to DC, they produced some fun material. Batman and the Outsiders, while not an instant classic, was a solid title with a lot of Eighties team book energy, while Booster Gold deserves a lot more credit than it got for trying something new and interesting with a character who wasn't your typical superhero. And although it doesn't have a black-and-white volume, the Teen Titans absolutely exploded in that era.

5) Comics in the Silver Age were freaking mental. Between the super-compressed storytelling that necessitated very sudden plot developments (one issue of Aquaman announced, in the span of one panel, that there was an ancient city filled with evil demons that only came into alignment with our universe once every thousand years, and this was one of those periods of alignment--this would have been about ten issues of foreshadowing and build-up in a modern comic, but Aquaman got it out of the way in less than half a page), the abrupt conclusions that returned everything to the status quo, and the assumption that they were writing for an audience of small children who accepted arbitrary rules to their stories much better than adults, DC wrote some of the craziest stuff you can imagine. Superdickery makes fun of it all, primarily because it does look pretty silly when you imagine it as part of the same line of comics that gave you 'Identity Crisis', 'The Dark Knight Returns' and 'Watchmen', but there's a certain perverse glory to it all if you just take it as an a priori assumption that it's not going to make a lick of sense and let it all flow over you. You really do have to read DC's Silver Age work differently than you do modern comics...most of the complaints from modern fans are from people who either can't or won't do exactly that.