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 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.

Monday, January 06, 2014

Bad Advice

'Bad Advice' is a notionally-syndicated column that dispenses with any worries you might have about the reliability of getting advice from random people who got a newspaper advice column based on dubious credentials instead of going to a professional therapist, doctor or lawyer. 'Bad Advice' is guaranteed to give only useless and inaccurate advice that you can feel free to utterly disregard. 'Bad Advice' makes no warranty as to the efficaciousness of its advice, other than to suggest you not follow it. 'Bad Advice' is written by a guy on the Internet with no credentials whatsoever.

Dear Bad Advice:
I'm a 28-year-old woman with a fantastic job, a wonderful boyfriend and many friends whom I love dearly. I'm the only one without a child.
Maybe I don't understand because I'm not a parent myself, but all my friends can talk about is children. Whereas before, we were interested in each other's lives, I feel like my concerns and accomplishments are being brushed off. An example: I was excited to meet up with a pal to talk about my promotion, but the hour-long dinner was spent mostly teaching her child how to walk between the tables of the restaurant.

I enjoy hearing about my friends and their families, but I feel they are no longer interested in me. Am I expecting too much because we're at different points in our lives, or am I a bad friend? I'm growing resentful, and I don't like it. Any words of wisdom? -- STILL RELEVANT IN MASSACHUSETTS

Dear Relevant,
The key here is to understand that you'll never be able to relate to your friends ever again until you can talk about what it's like to be a mother. Since you're presumably not interested in going off the Pill without telling your boyfriend (although it's not too late!) then the next step is to get inventive. Specifically, the next step is to invent a child. You can find plenty of pics on the Internet (make sure they're all of the same kid, though--that's a rookie mistake) and a book of baby names is less than twenty bucks. That's a lot cheaper than an obstetrician!

Most of the time, that should be enough. Make up a few stories about how precious and adorable your kid is--first word, first steps, gosh-aint-they-cute-at-that-age, you probably know the drill from your friends' stories. Just regurgitate it all back at them; they'll be so thrilled to find out their kid is "normal" they won't even notice that your kid has all the same weird habits theirs does. If they want playdates or some other crazy crap, tell them little Insert Name Here has the flu. Worst case scenario, you can probably rent a homeless kid from a shelter for less than ten bucks an hour if you ask around anonymously.

Dear Bad Advice,
I am 25 years old and have had an obsession with vacuuming for many years. I usually vacuum three times a day, seven days a week.

Whenever I feel stressed or nervous, I start my vacuum. I also feel anxious when I have company and the floors don't have those neat vacuum tracks. I can't stand to have any dirt or mess on the floor. The strange thing is that I am not as meticulous in other areas. It doesn't bother me if my closets or drawers are a mess.

Do you know what could be causing this strange behavior? It is driving my family and me nuts. --Vacuum-Crazed in South Carolina

Dear Vacuum-Crazed,
I think the clear problem is those bastards at Dyson. They're constantly advertising about how good their vacuum cleaners are, and about how important it is to have a vacuum cleaner designed by aliens or whatever the heck it is they keep claiming. Their stupid commercials are on the air twenty-four/seven on every single channel; it's no wonder you're going out of your ever-living mind with paranoia.

The clear answer is to retain a lawyer and sue the Dyson Company for all they're worth. Don't listen to the first guy who tells you that you have no case, or even the second. Keep going until you find some shyster who promises you a seven-figure payout, minimum. Go to every media outlet until you find one willing to print your incoherent screed against Mister Dyson and he's forced to counter-sue you for slander. Become known on the Internet as "Vacuum Woman" and try to get your own reality show. Don't stop until you've made them all pay. Every last one of them.

Dear Bad Advice,
My friend Emily dated Andy a few years ago. They broke up spectacularly. Emily has always said that Andy was the most controlling and insecure boyfriend she has ever had, which always surprised me because that does not come across at all when I interact with him.

Andy and I have gotten close over the years and have recently been on a few dates. Emily has totally moved on and is fine with it, but it really bugs me that I feel like I'm waiting for these negative traits to suddenly appear. Is this something I should talk to him about, or do I just discount Emily's opinion until given a reason to do otherwise? -- D.C.

Dear D.C.,
Dump Andy. Emily sounds like she's got a lot more going on upstairs.

Got a question for 'Bad Advice'? Leave it in the comments, and we'll answer it in a future installment!

Saturday, January 04, 2014

Yes! I Can Finally Feel Superior To Someone!

I don't talk much about my day job on this blog, primarily because we deal with a lot of proprietary information (housing industry, not medical industry, but similar principles) and I don't want to get into the habit of blabbing because it's easier to draw that boundary early than navigate fiddly ethical issues later. But the long and short of it is that I do technical support for home appraisers who are delivering reports on the value of homes. I regularly deal with people who have less technical expertise than I do...which is scary, quite frankly, because my knowledge of computers is woeful. I am not certified, I have no education on Microsoft and/or Apple products, and the only reason I'm able to do my job is that the software we use is proprietary and we had on-the-job training. When people's computer problems start getting away from our system and into the general, I have to basically tell them to find someone who knows what they're doing.

Except the other day, when I got someone calling to complain about how bad our servers were. "I've been trying to connect for the last half-hour now, and it gets all the way through to the end. Then it just freezes up for about fifteen minutes and finally tells me it's 'unable to connect to server'."

"Well, ma'am," I replied, "we're not receiving reports of any server issues on our end. The problem could be with your connection. Are you having any other issues accessing the Internet?"

"Look, I really don't have a whole lot of time to mess with this, okay? Can I just email you a PDF of the file? I've got a baseball game to get to, and it's already started. I've been sitting here in the parking lot for the last half-hour trying to get this stupid thing to send, and it just won't go."

"'am, that could be your problem right there. These files are usually about five to ten megabytes of data. If you're trying to send it over a wireless connection--"

"It's the same connection I always have!"

"But what's your signal strength like?"

"I'm getting two bars of 3G."

Fortunately, once I explained to her that two bars of 3G wasn't really enough signal strength to send ten megs of data in a timely manner, she agreed to attend her baseball game and send the report when she got home. Nonetheless, I remain surprised at my job's ability to uncover people who make me look technically inclined. (Like the person I had to do a walkthrough for on "copy and paste"...but that's for another day.)

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Buffy Summers: Strong Female Character?

Back in the day on my guest posts for MightyGodKing, I discussed the ways that "strength" was such a nebulous quality that virtually any female character could be termed as a "strong female character" by someone who wanted to bandwagon feminism to some of that sweet, sweet progressive/liberal cash while still writing something unbelievably sexist. I tried to set out some criteria for an actual strongly- written female character, and I'll put down the quick and dirty version of my five points here, for those who don't want to wade through the original post or can't follow the link.

A genuinely strong female character should have these five qualities:

1) She should be active, not merely powerful. A genuinely strong female character should make her own decisions, and those decisions should drive the plot.

2)  She should be strong in a way that does not confirm gender stereotypes. A strong female character is not strong in the way women are allowed to be strong (femme fatale, mama grizzly, etc); she's strong in the way people are strong.

3) She should be allowed to explore a spectrum of sexuality outside of the virgin/whore dichotomy. An active sexual identity is fine, but it should not be presented as an object of male sexual fantasy.

4) She should not derive her power from a determination to avoid repeating a defining moment of victimization (particularly not sexual victimization). This isn't to say she can never have been hurt; only to say that she should not just be an ordinary woman who was hurt/brutalized/raped and swore, "Never again".

5) She should not be defined solely by her relationship with a male protagonist. Any character who is primarily motivated by her feelings for a man is being limited in some way.

I recently mentioned these on the feminism-in-pop-culture website and was told that I should blog about how this relates to popular characters and series. Since I'm already doing way more blogging than I can handle, I felt like a better avenue would be to do it when I was stuck for ideas on my own blog. Which is kind of a shaggy-dog way of saying, "How does Buffy Summers stack up against these criteria?"

Pretty well, I think. Obviously, seven seasons of television, two seasons of comics with a third on the way, and a movie will produce a number of off-model moments...that said, for the most part, Buffy fares successfully when judged by all five criteria. In terms of the first, the series pretty much defines itself through Buffy's conflicts with authority figures; she is supposed to be simply the latest Slayer, a tool used by the Watchers in their endless battles (and if there's a better symbolic encapsulation of the patriarchy than the Watchers, I can't think of it). But she refuses to accept a subordinate role in her relationship with Giles, even though she accepts his role as a mentor and teacher, and their power dynamic changes repeatedly over the course of the series. By Season Eight, she is the leader of a group of Slayers, and her decisions guide most of the major story arcs throughout the show's run.

Moving on to Item Number Two...obviously, Whedon's initial concept of the series was a deliberate inversion of gender roles. Buffy is specifically chosen as an example of a gender role that has no power in traditional narratives--the damsel in distress--and then is given the power to subvert that trope and rescue herself. In one sense, this is still a gender-normative role; Buffy is a stereotypical teenage girl, at least in the early seasons. But looking at the definition, she is not drawing her power from a gender-normative role; she is drawing her power despite it. Whedon is kicking against the damsel in distress cliché, entirely on purpose.

The third question is the easiest to answer. Does Buffy get to have sex? Yes. Is she portrayed as nothing but a sex object? Nope. Even though there are times when she has had sex and regretted it afterwards, it was not sex itself which was portrayed as negative but the situation in which she had it. (And in a series where pretty much every character is sexually active, it'd be absurd if none of them ever had a bad experience.) Whedon probably has the best record here that we're likely to see in this blog.

On to Item Number Four. Does Buffy derive her power from victimization? Nope. She derives her power from ancient magic. This isn't to say that she's never been helpless or victimized, but she's no Red Sonja. (Yes, Red Sonja is the poster child for this particular trope. I may well do an entry for her just to show it.)

And finally...what is Buffy's motivation? Is she doing it all for Angel? Or Spike? Or Riley? (Who was totally my favorite, by the way, and got a bum deal from the show.) No. Although she cares for them, and although she does do things to help them out over the course of the series, she is primarily defined by and motivated by her knowledge that she is the only person who can do what she does and that the world depends on her. It's a weighty burden that sometimes feels like a trap, but ultimately she decides to do it because it needs doing. Which brings us right back to the beginning: Buffy Summers makes decisions that drive the plot. At least in my books, Whedon has done a good job of writing a genuinely strong woman.