Tuesday, September 24, 2013

My Top 10 Thoughts Regarding the End of Breaking Bad


10. With the end of Breaking Bad comes the likely end of my regular viewing of any television show. These days, most of what I watch is on a disc or on Netflix Digital.

Sure there's other stuff worth watching. Not much, but it's there. But nothing that's important enough to clear my schedule. I don't let shit get in the way of Breaking Bad. My DM wanted to schedule an 8-hour Pathfinder session on Sunday September 29th (the air date of the series finale) and I told him to shorten it or else he'd be short one dwarf barbarian. Who is, in turn, short.

9. I think it's interesting how much gushing sympathy we all feel for Jesse. I don't exclude myself from that. After Walt so easily surrendered his protege to the mercies of the neo-nazis, after his "confession" regarding Jane, all I could think was how badly I wanted Jesse to kill him.

How easily we forget what a motherfucker Jesse is. Here's a guy who ordered his dealers to infiltrate Jesse's own drug recovery group. A guy who originally seduced Andrea with the intention of getting her back on the blue. Jesse's been circling the drain ever since Todd killed that kid, but his greatest accomplishment during the whole series was proving he was capable of cooking the same quality meth - which, you know, turns people into addicts, kills them, and supports murderers - as his mentor. I won't lie, I still feel bad for Jesse, but he's in a very particular circle of hell right now and he put himself there.

8. Better Call Saul? Really? This is going to be a show? Yeah, no.

7. This show has given us more entertaining, more engaging, and more frighteningly human villains than we're ever likely to see on television. Consider the notion that at the end of all things BB, the people we're left with are the people who didn't come in until the end. Lydia and the nazis. No Gus, no Mike, no Tucco. No Mexican Terminator Twins. An officious, twitchy little liar, and a bunch of guys who - with the exception of Todd - we didn't even see until the second half of this season.

How does that work? Because they're just wonderful characters. It doesn't matter that they didn't come in until the end. She may not have a gun, but Lydia is doubtless one of the most cunning and manipulative crooks the show has seen. And Todd is the creepiest.

6. I do not understand the Skyler haters. They can all suck a bag of dicks for all I care. Anna Gunn is wonderful and I think I feel more sympathy toward Skyler than just about anyone on the show.

The Skyler hate is indicative of a lot of one-dimensional thinking. A surprising number of people seem to take Walt at face value; that he's done everything he's done just for his family, and hence Skyler is cockblocking him from providing as a father should.

The cooking hasn't been about the White family's future for a very long time. Sure, the cancer is what lit the spark, but eventually Walt found a part of himself too delicious to ignore. Walt found Heisenberg and in Heisenberg he found everything Walt was afraid to be. Heisenberg is why Walt cooks. Otherwise, he would've made himself a few hundred thousand and called it a day.

Skyler is no Carmella Soprano. She didn't marry into a crime family and just live in denial for years. She married a chemist. She married a high school teacher. She didn't sign up for this shit. Once Heisenberg was too powerful, she became a captive. I won't say she's free of guilt or hypocrisy, but she was backed into a corner in a way that Carmella never knew.

5. I have some predictions, but I can't pretend to know what's coming Sunday. I don't expect to be disappointed. But I will say this. I don't want Hamlet. I don't want The Departed. I don't want it to just be, "Hey it's the end! Kill everybody! WOO!!!!" But at this point I expect a lot more out of Vince Gilligan and I'm trusting we'll get it.

4. Is it just me, or is it so sad that not only did Hank and Gomey get it, but they're just in a ditch somewhere in the desert? They should be wrapped in blankets and put in boats and sailed down a river. Then some dude shoots their boats with arrows. On fire. Yeah.


Fucking A.

2. Next episode: Walt wakes up in the back of the car. His head starts hurting, he sits up, puts the gun to Mulder, and tells him, "Keep driving, jew!"


1. So, a few actual predictions regarding the final episode. A few weeks ago, I tweeted the following:

First of all, please forgive my "one large complain."

Second of all, considering how the last episode ended, I think my "complain" is about to be made moot.

It's surprising to consider, at this late date, how little we know about Walter's life before Skyler. We know absolutely nothing about what he was doing with Gray Matter. We don't know why he left Gretchen. We don't know what innovations he was driving. All we know is that he was a part of it, he left, and he regrets it.

I think we're going to find out what was going on. I think we're going to get a flashback. I wouldn't be surprised if whatever chemical breakthrough Walt heralded at Gray Matter has something to do with how he will eventually overcome the nazis.

I also wouldn't be surprised if Walt's vengeance reaches beyond the nazis, beyond Jesse, and reaches his old friends, Elliot and Gretchen Schwartz.

We'll see. Regardless, I'm sure I'll enjoy it. I'm sure I'll be talking about it for weeks afterward, if not longer. And I'm more sure of anything that I'll miss it.

Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Where I've Been Hiding

For those few who may be stopping by to visit the blog, I have an update. Well, not so much an update as news of potential for a future update.

First, in my last post I expressed losing the desire to write about superheroes. That didn't last. In fact, the death of that particular promise felt a bit like providence. I was at my day job, thinking very seriously about whether or not I wanted to write about superheroes again, when I got an email from a guy named Max Delgado asking if I wanted to contribute something to his website. Max has a website called The Longbox Project. People send him essays about personal memories stirred up by a particular comic book. It's an awesome site, and you should expect something from me on that site by the end of the month. More importantly, the timing of Max's email convinced me writing about comics and superheroes is something I just don't think I can quit. As I told Max in my response, I don't believe in coincidence anymore.

Second, I've registered a domain name and am at the very beginning of building my own blog. While comics and superheroes and various geek stuff will inevitably be mentioned because they're important parts of my life, I don't intend for those things to become the focus.

Once the new site goes live, I'll provide a link to redirect anyone who cares to follow it.

Thursday, June 20, 2013

The Death of a Beautiful Impossibility

(This post contains SPOILERS regarding Man of Steel. I consider your ass informed.)

So, the irony here is that as much as the climax to Man of Steel felt like a betrayal, I have no criticisms to aim at Zack Snyder. He made a good movie. Stuff blew up. Stuff fell down. Lots of punching. People died and it made me sweaty-eyed. Good flick. And hey, as a usual hater of Zack Snyder's work, I was more grateful than you know that he spared us his trademark fast-forward-slow-mo-fast-forward-slow-mo crap. Why has no one tapped this man to direct a Flash movie?

No, what Zack Snyder did made perfect sense. When Superman broke Zod's neck it was certainly a shock. I was angry. I was stunned. Mark Waid's description of his reaction to the moment felt sickeningly familiar.

But you know what? Snyder didn't do anything wrong. He didn't do anything that the rest of the writers of the superhero genre in every medium haven't been doing for years now. And yeah, that includes Mark Waid.

What Zack Snyder did, without knowing it, was send up a flare to show us a bloodier landscape of once innocent heroes now turned ultraviolent. Zack Snyder was a messenger, one toward whom I should be genuinely thankful.

Zack Snyder drew from me the simple revelation that should have been obvious a long time ago. He punctuated it so that I finally heard it. Superheroes have changed, they're not changing back any time soon, and it's time for me to cash out.

A lot of Snyder's defenders point out that, upon killing Zod, Superman immediately reacts traumatically to the realization of what he's done. He regrets the killing. Snyder claims he meant for the killing to be the foundation upon which Superman builds his unwavering respect for life. Presumably, Zod is meant to be the first and last man to die at Superman's hands.

I don't buy this. Man of Steel screenwriter David S. Goyer, in the same article I linked in the previous paragraph, says it changed because the original plan to have Zod sucked into the Phantom Zone simply didn't feel satisfying:

"Killing Zod was a big change and Chris Nolan, originally, said there's no way you can do this...That was a change - orginally Zod got sucked into the Phantom Zone along with the others and I just felt it was unsatisfying and so did Zack...Originally Chris didn't even want to let us try to write it and I said, 'We think we can figure out a way that you'll buy it.'"

So the "This will be why Superman never kills again" explanation is not the reason Superman killed Zod; it's the justification Snyder and Goyer used to make the choice palatable.

Not to mention that I didn't read Superman's anguish at killing Zod to be about the fact that he killed just anyone, but that he killed a Kryptonian. Zod's dialogue in that final battle is all about Superman needing to choose between the new Krypton Zod envisions and Earth, and by killing Zod the choice is made clear. Superman chooses Earth and it hurts.

Regardless, at least there's a consequence to Superman killing someone.

Anyone see The Avengers?

How many aliens are killed battling the Avengers in the invasion of New York City? Hawkeye shoots them with arrows, Black Widow shoots them or hacks at them with knives, Thor electrocutes them, Hulk squashes them like bugs, and even Captain America - the guy who holds the same moral authority in Marvel that Superman holds in DC - throws guys off a helicarrier, and slices off alien's arms with his shield. And no one belts out a Vader-circa-episode-3 "Noooo!" because of that.

Sure, they're just aliens.

And so was Zod.

The changes in Marvel's heroes came by inches, and with no announcements and little controversy. It started with The Ultimates: the reimagining of the Avengers in the company's "Ultimate" line of comics, a line initially so successful there were rumors that the regular Marvel continuity would be scrapped in favor of the Ultimate one. The Hulk of the Ultimates was a cannibal, an attempted rapist, and a mass murderer. Hank Pym and The Wasp's marriage was rife with fistfights. Captain America was an action hero bully, no one knew if Thor was really a god or just a mentally disturbed male nurse, and did I mention that Hulk ate people? Like, all the time.

It took time, but eventually the brutality of The Ultimates was reflected in Marvel's other comics. It wasn't quite so bad, but if nothing else killing grew much more palatable to the heroes of Marvel's bullpen. In spite of years of stories that said the opposite, in the New Avengers: Illuminati one-shot, it was revealed that the Hulk had killed thousands of people over the years during his rampages. In the first issue of Ed Brubaker's extraordinary run on Captain America, the Avenger killed (possibly without meaning to) a couple of terrorists when they fell off a speeding train, and when the info was relayed to Cap, he didn't seem to care that much. When the Avengers were re-formed - a group that used to be the most Absolutely-NO-Killing group of Marvel - they recruited Wolverine, a guy who's killed more people than the War of 1812.

More recently, a Doc-Ock controlled Spider-Man shot a man in the head. And unlike Superman at the end of Man of Steel, Marvel's "superior" Spider-Man was not in a situation in which he had little choice. The villain, Massacre, was defeated and on his knees. Spider-Man's justification for the murder is that eventually Massacre would live up to his namesake again and again and again until someone killed him.

That Spider-Man kills Massacre is not particularly surprising. After all, Peter Parker's body is possessed by a supervillain. What's noteworthy is the reaction of The Avengers.

Weeks after the murder, the team calls him in for questioning. They are not as concerned with the murder, however, as they are with their correct suspicions that Spider-Man is being controlled by someone else. There is a brief battle between Spidey and the rest of the team. They eventually subdue him and run their tests. They can find no evidence that Spidey's will has been usurped, so they apologize and let him go.

In the past if an Avenger had killed someone, even accidentally, a court-martial-like proceeding would have convened. Expulsion from the team was a very real possibility. But for an Avenger who had shot a kneeling, defeated enemy in the head? Forget expulsion from the team. That asshole would have been frozen in ice and shot into space.

Now, killing in Marvel comics isn't even much of a big deal. Even though one recent storyline in Hawkeye was about the attempt to retrieve a video tape that contained doctored footage of Hawkeye killing a man, he has no problem piercing a few throats while saving Spider-Man from thugs in the first issue of Age of Ultron.  In an early issue of Savage Wolverine, Shanna the She-Devil accidentally kills a peaceful tribesman. The scene is meant to be funny. It's treated like slapstick. Teenage heroes are killing and dying every issue of Avengers Arena, Marvel's new Hunger Games clone. And in Indestructible Hulk #3, written by Mark Waid, Maria Hill shows someone a photo - again in a scene meant to be humorous - of the Hulk ripping a skrull soldier in half.

And of course all of the Marvel movies have given us killer heroes. Iron Man leaves one of his former captors to the mercies of an angry mob in Iron Man. In the more recent Iron Man 3 he brags "I'm gonna kill you first," to a gunman. In one of Incredible Hulk's deleted scenes, we see that most of the special ops soldiers who go after Bruce Banner in the beginning of the film are in body bags. As a friend pointed out while we debated Man of Steel's ending, one could convincingly argue that Batman, in spite of his "but I don't have to save you" line, does kill Ra's al Ghul at the end of Batman Begins. And of course, the bad guy body count of The Avengers is massive.

So, I guess what I'm trying to say here, is that, yes, Superman's killing of Zod was a betrayal. But, to use another recent pop culture shocker as metaphor, the Red Wedding was going on long before Man of Steel. Zack Snyder's knife was just one more in a crowd of knives. It's been going on for years and we're all a bunch of assholes for being surprised.

This is the direction in which superheroes are headed. It's the direction in which they have been heading for years, and I don't think there's any going back.

And that's why enough is enough. It's time for me to focus my energies on other things.

I have spent some years thinking and writing about superheroes. I made my way through college writing academic papers about them. For some time, I had hoped to eventually make a living writing about superhero comics, movies, and films. Man of Steel was a wake-up call. I don't love this genre anymore. At least, I don't love what it's become or what it will eventually become.

Understand, I have no moral problems with superheroes killing. I love violence in entertainment. My favorite superhero comic is still Watchmen, and my favorite comic regardless of genre is Lone Wolf & Cub, which features a protagonist who's hacked up more samurai and ninjas than that silly ass Logan-san ever did.

But for me, superheroes are all about one thing: life. Life is ultimately what concerns the superhero. It's why the term "crime-fighter" is so incomplete. Bruce Wayne does not become Batman because a mugger shatters his mother's pearl necklace. Peter Parker doesn't become Spider-Man because the man who shot his uncle also stole his uncle's car. Superman doesn't dole out parking tickets and Daredevil couldn't give two shits about crooked car salesman unless they start killing people.

For me, the thing that is so wonderful and heartbreaking about superheroes is that they dedicate themselves to a beautiful impossibility: that no one will ever again fall victim to violence. No one, anywhere, anywhen. And for those same guardians of life to take lives does not seem like truth to me. It is a lie. It is a betrayal.

That's why I feel nothing but absolute distaste for the works of Mark Millar; including Kick-Ass, Wanted, and the first two volumes of The Ultimates. I don't doubt his talent, but I am revolted by his vision. Judging by his body of work, Mark Millar looks at superheroes and sees nothing but sadistic bullies, and so he writes fiction that revels in the dark glee of that sadism. And that's fine. I make no moral judgments about Millar or anyone who enjoys his work. But to me it is the absolute antithesis of the superhero and I want no part of it.

Unfortunately, the writers of superhero fiction seem to feel differently.

It seems nothing but a waste for me to continue writing about superheroes, or following their stories quite as much. I don't have the enthusiasm for it. I don't care. I don't want to define myself anymore by my interest in the genre, and I have a heavy heart about it but it feels right.

That doesn't mean I won't watch superhero movies or read superhero comics. I still have graphic novels in my Amazon Wish List. The first expansion to Legendary: A Marvel Deck Building Game is on its way to my house as we speak, as is Batman: The Gotham City Strategy Game.

But I don't think quite as much of money will go into this interest, nor as much time. I think all the little (mostly Hulk-related) comic book knick-knacks are going to get stored in a box somewhere.

I suspect it's a good thing this happened. I have wanted to focus more on literary interests and pursuits for a while now, but distraction is a hard habit to shake.

I find it regrettable that superhero fiction is becoming generic action-adventure. Fast and the Furious with a superhero overlay. Bad Boys II with tights. But I'm not going to beat my head against inevitability. Life is too short.

Enjoy the blood. I'm going to go read a book.

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Kill, superhero! Kill!

It's only been in the last few months that I've returned to reading superhero single issues as they're released, and my tastes proved shamefully one-sided. I dipped my toes into the new 52 and found very little to my taste, while I've been more impressed than I could have imagined with Marvel NOW!

One thing I'm not happy with is how the notion of superheroes killing criminals has clearly become more acceptable over the years particularly, it seems, in Marvel.

Now the example pictured above is a special case and, in fact, isn't entirely what I'm talking about. That's Doc Ock in Spider-Man's body about to blow away the amoral villain Massacre in Superior Spider-Man #5 (and I'm enjoying that title way more than I thought I would when I first learned of the concept). Ock/Spidey killing someone isn't particularly surprising, but what I found interesting was part of the fallout in Superior Spider-Man #6.

It wasn't all that long ago that it wouldn't have even been a question whether or not a superhero who killed someone would stay in the Avengers. An Avenger who had killed would, at the very least, be subjected to a court-martial-type deal overseen by his/her teammates. In the case of Ock/Spidey here, who shot a man after he had already been defeated and could have easily been restrained? He wouldn't stand a chance.

For my most recent Extra Medium column over at Popdose, I wrote "The Top 10 Worst and Best Things About The Avengers" (I really do need to get another one out). Under "worst" I talked about how I didn't like seeing the superheroes in the flick killing people. Of course, they're justified. They're fighting a war and for most of the movie, they're on the losing side. Or at least the side with the biggest disadvantages.

What bothers me more is that there's killing without any discussion of killing. It's casual. When I was younger if a superhero killed someone, or even seriously considered killing someone, it would consume them. It would impact them for years. When Captain America shot and killed a terrorist during Mark Gruenwald's classic run, it was one of the many events that ultimately led to Steve Rogers being temporarily stripped of his title, costume, and shield by the US government. More importantly, it was a kidney shot to Cap's soul.

Now, it doesn't seem to bother anyone much. Sometimes it's even just something mentioned in passing. Hawkeye pierces a few throats while rescuing Spider-Man in Age of Ultron #1. In a scene meant to be - at least in part - humorous, Maria Hill shows a man photos of the Hulk ripping a skrull in half in Indesructible Hulk #3. Shanna the She-Devil accidentally kills a Savage Lands tribesman who was attempting to peacefully communicate in Savage Wolverine #3, the scene is treated like slapstick, and when the justifiably enraged tribal warriors attack Shanna and Wolverine, they have no problem using more lethal force in retaliation.

I don't want to start a debate. I think the ship sailed a long time ago unfortunately. But I do want to say two things.

First, ultimately, life is what is of primary concern to the superhero. That's why the term "crime-fighter" has always been incomplete. Bruce Wayne doesn't become Batman because Joe Chill broke his mother's necklace. Peter Parker doesn't become Spider-Man because that crook he let walk got away with too much dough. Superman doesn't dole out parking tickets and Dardevil doesn't give a crap out used car salesmen unless they start killing people. Superheroes care about life, plain and simple. They don't just face death. They wrestle it. And I think to allow characters whose primary enemy is death itself to dole it out is a betrayal of the very concept of the superhero.

Second, earlier this evening I watched part 2 of the animated adaptation of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, and it was this that inspired this post.

See, what impressed me the most about the adaptation of DKR is the raw power of the source material. The story is almost 30 years old, and along with Watchmen it's suffered many copycats over the years. In spite of all the dark, violent, and edgy superhero comics that came out between the release of the original DKR series decades ago and its more recent adaptation, it remains absolutely goddamn brutal. You will wince when you watch scenes like Batman's bone crushing battles with the Mutant Leader, or his final dance with the Joker.

Yet, in spite of how brutal it is, in spite of how dark and violent, in spite of how its originality and innovation radically changed the landscape of superhero comics; in one of the first scenes of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns, Part 2 Batman saves a liquor store owner from a bunch of thugs and when he sees the shop owner about to kill one of the thugs, he turns on him and says, "Pull that trigger, and I'll be back for you."

So if you're going to tell me that superheroes need to kill in order to be believable, interesting, or modern, save your breath. Because DKR gave us a superhero darker, edgier, a million times more brutal, and certainly more interesting than anything that ever went in or out of Avengers tower, and even he wouldn't cross that line.

Sunday, March 17, 2013

Avengers Arena, reviewing ethos, and hypocrisy (that would be mine)

I was surfing a little bit and found myself at Johanna Draper Carlson's blog. While scrolling through her posts, I followed a link to a column by KC Carlson in which the columnist talks about  his likes and dislikes from Marvel NOW!

What struck me the most was what he wrote about Avengers Arena, a comic in which a bunch of younger heroes from titles like Runaways and Avengers Academy are transported to an island by the X-Men villain Arcade and told to fight to the death:

I’ve already dropped Avengers Arena, after giving it five issues (four too many). I will award it Most Tasteless Title of this year, however, as it’s a comic book snuff film, with a bunch of B- and Z-level characters brought together just to be killed off issue by issue. I imagine that younger readers who like first-person-shooter games and other death-happy fare will quite like this. As an older person who’s had to deal with the consequences of real-life deaths, I find this whole genre most offensive. And sad, now that my favorite comic book franchise has succumbed to it.
Carlson's reaction didn't surprise me. I felt similarly when I first learned the concept behind the book. But as I gave it a chance, I grew to like it, and found myself feeling similarly to Robot 6's Carla Hoffman. As Hoffman says, the premise of Avengers Arena "feels cheap," but the title ends up being more than just "a comic book snuff film." It has great characterization, powerful and emotional moments that have nothing to do with violence, and on a personal note it's reinvigorated my interest in Marvel's teen hero books.

Now let's forget the fact that the issue at which Carlson apparently gave up on the title (Avengers Arena #5) doesn't actually feature any character deaths. And let's forget about the fact that if he thinks this is the most tasteless title of the year, he needs to check out the new Deadpool, or Marvel's 156th Thunderbolts reboot, or that widely publicized DC event culminating with possibly the most recognizable child superhero in the world being riddled with more bullets than Al Pacino at the end of Scarface and skewered by a giant goddamned sword.

But this: "I imagine that younger readers who like first-person-shooter games and other death-happy fare will quite like this. As an older person who's had to deal with the consequences of real-life deaths, I find this whole genre most offensive." This is not what I expect from a reviewer. This is what I expect from an angry Facebook user. This is not a valid criticism of the content of a comic or the creativity and artistry of its creators. This is taking the easy road. This is saying that something you don't like isn't good because you're superior to the people who enjoy it. This is making things personal.

And what bothers me more than anything is that I know I've done it myself a shit-ton of times. I know I'm catapulting huge boulders inside a glass castle if I trash KC Carlson for doing it. No BS, I've seriously considered going through my blog's reviews and eliminating anything I judge to be "making things personal." The only reason I haven't done it is because I don't know if I'm more of an ass leaving stuff like that up, or hiding it so no one calls me out on it.

I don't know, I think I started this wanting to thrash a reviewer over a couple of sentences that rubbed me the wrong way, and realized I clearly had nowhere to go because I was being a hypocrite. I genuinely don't think what Carlson wrote is a really fair review, but again I don't think I'm innocent of it either. I've been writing reviews of comics for over a decade, and I know without checking that there's no way I haven't crossed a similar line. Maybe it's about time I take a step back and think about whether or not I should have a more defined ethos towards my own reviewing.

P.S. For the record I have dealt with real-life consequences of death. Yeah, I like some first-person-shooters. But, you know, so does Kevin Spacey's character in House of Cards. And that guy's practically Vice President. So, yeah. Check, and mate (not really).

Friday, March 01, 2013

Crisis on Infinite Bed & Breakfasts

Last weekend my girlfriend and I had a wonderful time in the Berkshires. We couldn't afford a long vacation or one spent very far away, so we opted for an overnight trip.

Because it was its final weekend, we decided to make a visit to the Alex Ross exhibit, Heroes and Villains: The Comic Book Art of AlexRoss, at the Norman Rockwell Museum in Stockbridge, Massachussetts. Other than the art Ross created as a boy, there wasn't much at the Ross exhibition I hadn't seen already in one form or another. But the art from Ross's childhood - including a Justice League made from construction paper and scotch tape and a recreation of the Peanuts characters all as DC heroes -was worth the price of admission all on its own.

After the museum we drove to Lee to check into the Federal House Inn. It was my first stay in a genuine B & B. Our room was the Crabtree Room. It had a television that looked like it could've been someone's desktop monitor 5 minutes before they brought it into the room, a toasty gas fireplace, floors dangerously slippery to anyone barefoot or in socks, a four poster bed we practically needed a stepladder to climb into, and a stand-up shower with the most perfect water pressure. I defiantly declared to my girlfriend that I would shower both at night and in the morning. Caring about it seemed a challenging prospect to her. In the evening there was wine and cheese on the first floor; and for breakfast we were served a tasty fruit salad, stuffed french toast, and maple flavored bacon for which I would fight any man.

Of the images familiar to me at the Alex Ross exhibit, one of the most striking to behold on a museum wall was the cover for the more recent editions of DC's Crisis on Infinite Earths. And it was fun to listen to the commentary from museum visitors who knew a little bit about the comics, but not quite enough. I bit my tongue as three women looking at the picture argued about whether or not one of the twin Supermen was Bizarro.

For some reason, the fact that Crisis was the first of the big superhero crossover events inspired me to begin designing my own Bed & Breakfast. Just as The Federal House had different names for all their rooms, the fusion of the B & B and Ross Exhibit experiences inspired me to mentally construct a bed & breakfast with rooms named and themed after major Marvel and DC events.

The Crisis on Infinite Earths Room would be the largest room in the inn, having been constructed by knocking down walls from four adjoining rooms and merging them into one.

The Secret Invasion Room would be filled with ingeniously disguised furniture. All the necessaries of any home-away-from-home would be there, but you wouldn't know what it was. The lamp would actually turn out to be the bed. The TV would be the complimentary shampoo. The rug would be the envelope provided for cash tips. The toilet would just be a toilet because why be gross?

The Onslaught Room would be reserved for members of a very low-effort version of the Witness Protection Program. Upon the guests' entry to the room, friends and family will be notified of the guests' deaths. In fact, the guests' memories will be erased and they will be spirited away to a completely different land to start new lives. But with the same exact names for some reason.

The Secret Wars Room would not be a room anyone could reserve. Rather, the best and worst guests from other rooms would be secreted from their beds to the Secret Wars Room to battle for the privilege of naming the items on the breakfast menu.

The Civil War Room would be reserved for combative couples arriving a few months after their promised check-in date.

The Death in the Family Room would be indistinguishable from other rooms, other than that during your stay it would seem horribly important and impacting, but twenty years later you'd realize it really didn't make a difference.

The World War Hulk Room would just strut around and beat up other rooms.

The Our Worlds at War Room would be normal in almost every way, except you will be subjected to a constant voice-over lecturing you about World War II even though nothing you will doing will have anything to do with that.

The Fall of the Mutants Room would not even really be a room, but you'd play along anyway.

The Identity Crisis Room would be filled with fishnet stockings, bondage gear, and buckets for all the incredibly necessary vomit.

The Atlantis Attacks! Room would have the worst bathroom ever.

The Infinite Crisis Room would be stupid.

While coming up with these rooms, it occurred to me that even if I were serious, that my desire to run a B & B would start and end with making up names and themes for the rooms. Once I did that, I would lose all interest. In fact, I already have lost interest. Now I'm thinking about cheese.

I'm lying. Boobs. I'm thinking about boobs.

Sunday, February 17, 2013

Learning to Love Star Trek: The Next Generation, Part 4

Part 1
Part 2
Part 3

Quick Recap: I was all like,"TNG is crap!" Alan Doane was all like, "DUDE." And then he was all like, "Well what about these, douchenozzle?" And I was all like, "Okay, whatevs, I'll watch 'em."

At least, that's how the conversation was reported by the History Channel.

Oh, and by the way, Alan has started a new blog dedicated to Star Trek called Star Trek Galaxy. Check it out!

"In Theory"
Season 4, Episode 25
Directed by Patrick Stewart

When Lt. Jenna D'Sora breaks up with her boyfriend, she finds a possible replacement in her superior officer, the self-aware android Data. Intrigued by the notion of pursuing a romantic relationship and convinced it's an important stepping stone in his goal to achieve humanity, Data does his best to emulate a human partner.

It surprised me how much I enjoyed "In Theory." Data's attempts at being a genuine boyfriend are often pretty funny, though the story pulls the rug out from under you in the end. Contrary to the usual course of these sorts of Data-as-tin-man episodes, the boundaries between Data and humanity are made perfectly clear. There is no smirking hint of hope that, just maybe, Data will realize his dream or that maybe in some small way he already has. "In Theory" ends with little ambiguity. This guy is a toaster oven. Deal with it.

It's these Data-wants-to-be-human episodes that often bother me more than just about anything else in Star Trek: The Next Generation and the other Trek series.

First, I doubt there's still anything new left to say about this robot wanting to not be a robot. Data's story was tweaked a little bit and copied not once but twice in Star Trek: Voyager with both The Doctor and his more attractive sequel, Seven of Nine. When someone finally found a way to do something interesting with Data in Star Trek: Generations - by giving him emotions coupled with the emotional stability of a toddler - it was quickly undone in Star Trek: First Contact by giving Data the ability to turn his emotions on and off with a little bend of his neck.

Second, one of the things I enjoy most about Star Trek is the ingenuity its creators show in making such outlandish stories relevant to real people, and I don't see how the question of whether or not an android can force himself into becoming a real person is relevant to me. I know some people are genuinely worried about machines becoming more like real people, but I tend to see them as conspiracy theorists who are trying to come off as intellectuals because they saw Terminator.

Third and finally, it's frustrating to me how the people around Data react to his lack of humanity. And in fact, while I enjoyed it, "In Theory" is a wonderful example. Lt. D'Sora constantly lectures Data about how humans do this and how humans do that. Throughout the series, different members of the crew complain to Data about how little he knows of what it's like to be human. This bugs me on two levels: A) It seems like an easy way for the writers of TNG to come off as deep, i.e. explaining what it's like to be human to a toaster oven will always impress the toaster oven B) How long have these idiots hung out with Data? Why are they still surprised and angry about the toaster oven being a toaster oven?

That's why it's the ending of "In Theory" that really made it for me. His cold, obliviously uncaring reaction to his relationship with D'Sora ending was perfect. It was disarming, disturbing, and it was exactly what it should have been.

Season 5, Episode 2
Directed by Winrich Kolbe

Sometimes the universal translator just isn't enough.

(Honestly since it's a device I've never seen and - after watching quite a few episodes of Star Trek and its various spin-offs, as well as all of the Trek films - am completely ignorant of where it's supposed to be located, it's a surprise the thing doesn't prove inadequate more often).

Such is the case when the Enterprise meets with a Tamarian ship in orbit of the planet El-Adrel. While Picard and his crew can understand individual words from the Tamarians, their phrases seem like absolute nonsense. Likewise, the seemingly well-meaning Tamarians can't make heads or tails of Picard's words. The Tamarians shock the Enterprise crew by transporting their captain, Dathon, to the surface along with Picard while the Tamarian ship projects an energy field around the planet that prevents the Enterprise from beaming her captain back to safety.

On the planet, Dathon invites Picard to what Picard believes is a violent duel. Dathon offers a knife to Picard which the federation captain steadfastly refuses. After a creature of shimmering, lightning-like energy attacks the pair, Picard begins to unravel what's going on. He realizes the Tamarian language revolves around story and metaphor. When Dathon offers Picard a torch to help him start a campfire, for example, rather than saying, "Take this," or something similar, the Tamarian says, "Temba, his arms wide," with Temba presumably being a figure in Tamarian myth or legend. Likewise, when Dathon first offers Picard the knife (and many times after) he says, "Darmok and Jalad at Tanagra." With Dathon's help, Picard concludes that there is a story in Tamarian legend of two hunters - Darmok and Jalad - who travel to the island of Tanagra and battle a beast. Dathon's intent, Picard realizes, was for the two captains to do the same and bring their cultures closer as a result.

Unfortunately, by the time Picard gets a clue, Dathon is already mortally wounded. Aboard the Enterprise, Data and Troi work to solve the riddle of the Tamarian tongue while Riker exhausts every avenue to rescue Picard; wanting desperately to avoid combat with the Tamarian ship. Eventually Data and Troi come to the same conclusions as Picard about the Tamarian tongue, but since they don't know the stories upon which the Tamarian language is based, there's still no way to communicate. Feeling backed into a corner, Riker eventually attacks the Tamarian ship; hoping only to damage it enough to take out the energy field and beam Picard back to the Enterprise. They beam Picard aboard who, with his newly acquired understanding of the Tamarian tongue, manages to placate the Tamarians and relate the news of their captain's death.

I enjoyed "Darmok" quite a bit. The idea of a race communicating completely through metaphor is fascinating and innovative. And overall it's refreshing to see the crew of the Enterprise deal with a breakdown in communication, especially since I've always felt ambivalent about the notion of the universal translator. On one hand you could certainly argue it may be a somewhat lame device, but a necessary one for the stories Star Trek's creators tell. On the other, I can't help but wonder if the franchise's stories wouldn't be much more interesting if the language barrier were intact.

One thing about the premise can't help but bother me. I really don't want it to bother me, and instantly recognize it as the kind of problem I might sigh at if someone else mentioned it, but it's there and I can't deny it. The Tamarians seem unable to understand words unless they're used in reference to their stories. For example, they may understand the phrase, "Temba, his arms wide," but if you were to use the word "his" or "arms" or "wide" in another context, they'd be confused. If that's the case, if their language is composed completely of metaphor, then how were they ever able to tell the stories to one another in the first place? How could they ever learn the stories that make the foundation of their tongue unless they had some understanding of the words outside the context of their stories to begin with?

I guess it could be a chicken-or-the-egg type deal, in which case I wouldn't necessarily call it a weakness. Real life is full of paradox. It's just something that needles at me a bit whenever I watch it.

"Cause and Effect"
Season 5, Episode 18
Directed by Jonathan Frakes

The Enterprise is caught in a time-loop. The same things keep happening. During a poker game, Dr. Crusher is called away to help Geordi in sick bay. Later that night she's disturbed in bed by a cacophony of muffled, ghostly voices. She tells Picard and the other officers about this during a senior staff meeting the following day and reveals there were other reports of Enterprise crew members hearing the same voices. The staff is called away from the meeting because of the discovery of a space-time anomaly. The anomaly takes out the ship's main power and another federation ship appears from the anomaly on a collision course with Enterprise. Since her thrusters won't respond, Riker suggests decompressing the main shuttle bay to move Enterprise out of the unidentified ship's path. Data suggests they shove the other ship away with a tractor beam. Picard goes with Data's advice and the unnamed ship hits Enterprise anyway. Picard has just enough time to order all hands to abandon ship before the ship explodes.

And then it all happens again. And again. And again.


Somehow, you're not bored. That's what most impressed me about the episode. Each trip around the loop starts right from the beginning; from the customary shot of the Enterprise slowly cruising through space and Picard's dictation of the log. But in spite of watching the same scenes play out repeatedly, it doesn't get stale. Throughout the episode I thought it was a testament to how much a different camera angle can change a story. Without those different angles, "Cause and Effect" would've seemed like little more than a broken VHS tape. Instead, it's an interesting, suspenseful episode.

And as a cherry-on-top, Kelsey Grammer shows up as the time-lost captain of the other unnamed federation ship. Not that I'm a huge fan or anything, but it's just kind of cool. The episode ends with a "Hey look! Frasier!"

"The Inner Light"
Season 5, Episode 25
Directed by Peter Lauritson

Moments after the crew discovers an unidentified probe, Captain Picard collapses on the bridge.  Less than a half hour later, he's lived a lifetime.

After Picard falls unconscious on the bridge of the Enterprise, he wakes up in a humble, unfamiliar home. A woman called Eline claims he's her husband, calls him Kamin and says he's recovering from an illness. Initially, Picard clearly thinks the woman is behind something nefarious. His only concern is to find out where he is, who's behind his transportation away from his ship, and how to get back. Shortly after a cut back to the Enterprise, we return to the planet - Kataan (fellow board game geeks, calm down) - and some years have passed. And they keep passing. Eventually, Picard all but forgets the Enterprise. He learns to play the flute, has two children with Eline, and studies the planet Kataan, which he's convinced is dying. He is an old, forgetful man when his time on Kataan ends. Eline has died and his daughter has given him a grandchild. His daughter brings him out to watch the launch of the same probe Picard's ship encountered so many years ago; or what seemed like so many years ago to Picard. As Picard waits to watch the probe launch, dead friends and loved ones appear to him and finally reveal what's been happening. The people of Kataan died a millenia ago. Knowing their end was coming, they launched a probe that would keep the memory of their culture alive. While Picard has felt the passage of years, in reality his world is one the probe created in his mind.

Once Picard revives on the bridge of the Enterprise, he's like a newborn or an amnesiac. He has to think to remember the names of his crew members and the ship seems like a dream.

Of the TNG episodes on Alan's list that I hadn't seen before I started writing "Learning to Love Star Trek: The Next Generation," without contest "The Inner Light" has proven my favorite.

It is more terribly and wonderfully bittersweet than any Star Trek episode has a right to be. Its power lay in something far too rare in the franchise: a focus on emotion and the human experience rather than examining the social, the political and/or morality. I'm not saying those things have no place in Trek. Clearly, the bold and powerful statements the franchise has made are an important part of the Star Trek legacy, but I think too often the notion of making the characters feel like real people who experience real things is forgotten.

Half way through "The Inner Light," I was convinced that ultimately a global warming message was forthcoming, but that wasn't the case. There's no preaching or heavy-handed messages. In fact, it's made clear the people of Kataan were not responsible for their demise and that there was nothing they could do to change their fate. The episode isn't about melting ice caps or endangered species; it's about Jean-Luc Picard finding the kind of life being captain of the Enterprise denied him. It's about appreciating life, no matter where it takes you. And the last few minutes will break your heart. After the probe frees Picard from his virtual other-life, it deactivates. The crew retrieves the probe and later Riker brings Picard what was found within. You will know what it is before you see it, and it will break your heart.

To be continued...

Sunday, January 06, 2013

Help Peter David

I'm fighting a bit of a cold, but decided I needed to get on the computer to try to help someone who's fighting something a hell of a lot bigger.

Peter David (or PAD as many of his fans know him) was the first person to make me realize comic books had writers; which is to say he was the first comic book writer whose work so impressed me that I was curious enough to find out his name. He wrote Incredible Hulk for 12 years - longer, as far as I know, than any writer has stayed on Incredible Hulk and much longer than most writers have stayed on any single title, especially these days - and impacted my creative life profoundly. He's written for shows like Babylon 5, novels for Star Trek, and for a while there he wrote pretty much every novelization of every Marvel movie. More recently, he's been writing Marvel's X-Factor. He is not only a wonderful writer but a man of admirable integrity who has a history of publicly thumbing his nose at the higher-ups when he thinks they're heads are up their asses.

PAD suffered a stroke recently and his wife Kathleen posted on his blog to let folks know how they can help. They have health insurance but there are significant charges their insurance simply won't cover, and apparently this is compounded by the fact that the stroke occurred at the end of the year.

Kathleen is asking folks to check out PAD's e-books available through ComicMix. The e-books available include The Camelot Papers, Pulling up Stakes Part 1 & 2, Darkness of the Light and Heights of the Depths. Buying these books is the most immediate way to help PAD, as his percentage of the money is higher and it gets to him quickly.

I don't have as much experience with PAD's prose work and I haven't read any of these books, but I did read his first two Sir Apropos of Nothing novels and both were hilarious, awesome reads. He has a sensibility and sense of humor not unlike Joss Whedon. Any fans of Buffy or Firefly would do well to check him out.

You can also buy some of his graphic novel collections through sites like Amazon and Barnes & Noble. Kathleen says this does help but, "that is very long term and isn't much per books but it does help especially the Marvel graphic novels he has written."

I am going to use this as an opportunity to spend money on graphic novels and books guilt-free, and I suggest you do the same.

If you're curious, I've written some reviews of PAD's Hulk work, my favorite being my piece of his historic final issue of Incredible Hulk. You can find the links below.

The Endless Finale: Peter David's Final Issue of Incredible Hulk

Hulk Visionaries: Peter David Vol. 1
Hulk Visionaries: Peter David Vol. 2
Hulk Visionaries: Peter David Vol. 3