Friday, December 22, 2017

12 Step Movie Response: Star Wars: The Last Jedi

So, Wonder Wife lobbied hard enough that we went to see the new Star Wars movie last night; as I have mentioned before, I am not a hardcore fan. But here goes.

1. It seems pretty clear that the last film tried to hit some sort of emotional reset button. I have to agree with some reviewers that The Last Jedi seems to be aiming to clear away much of the clutter of the past and move the franchise forward. As I don't have as much of an investment in the canon as a lot of fans do, that part doesn't matter much to me. Just judging the movie on its own, as an adventure flick, I just found it so-so.

2. Will Shetterly wrote a comprehensive (warning: and totally spoilery!) analysis of some of the writing problems with the film; I saw many of the same issues and can add a few of my own regarding portrayals of strategy, military discipline,  and so on. The biggest flaw for me is that while much of the film takes place in three different locales simultaneously, and the passage of time is critical, the events seem out of synch even more egregiously than usual.

3. Visually, the movie is pretty stunning; besides the usual blowy-uppy stuff and recreation of WW2 style combat logistics, there are great landscapes and wonderful critters to look at, as well as a diversity of alien and artificial life forms.

4. And speaking of diversity, it is great to see more visible diversity in the human cast as well, not just in race and gender but also in age and body type. Heroic figures don't all need to be popped out of the same action figure mold.

5. And speaking of critters, there seemed to be a real mindfulness regarding animals embedded in the film: some not-totally-subtle messages about animal cruelty and such. Wonder Wife was of course thrilled by this sensibility.

6. As for the major characters: I still love Rey, but she seemed a little more petulant than she needed to be and doesn't get a big enough set piece to really shine.

7. Finn is still developing as a character and hasn't quite found firm footing in this film. I like the idea of his being like a Spirit-esque hero: getting the crap knocked out of him a lot and being dragged out of wreckage by women, but fighting on nonetheless.

8. Kylo Ren moved the dial a little bit from emo to menacing in this episode... but still not enough.

9. Nice final appearances of Luke and Leia, considering the series had already all but left their characters behind. (When is Chewbacca gonna get some real love?)

10. I know Poe is supposed to be a headstrong hotshot, and he obviously has both skills and physical courage, but he was really quite the jerk otherwise, if you ask ask me. I really want to like Rose, and in many ways I do, but the next movie is going to have cash that check.

11. The movie included a couple of star turns in minor roles: I expect this from Marvel superhero movies, but not Star Wars. I think these parts could have been exploited a lot more.

12. We got a nice dig at the 1% in the middle of the flick.

That's it. Not really a review, since you're going to see it or not anyway. Wonder Wife loved it.

Sunday, December 17, 2017

5 x 5 Movie Review: Thor: Ragnarok

1. So, why can Marvel Studios churn out competent, entertaining superhero movies seemingly at will, while DC Entertainment gets caught in so much Sturm und Drang every time it puts out one of its overwrought productions? With the exception of the excellent Wonder Woman, which I think shows the best potential of being a tent-pole of any film that DC has produced,  all their movies seem just terribly... fraught. Thor: Ragnarok, on the other hand, is everything one would want from a film in this genre: fun characters, fantastical action, visual thrills, a little humor, and some heroism at its core.

2. Like many films these days, the CGI stuff got a little too big for my taste: my favorite Marvel movie is still Ant-Man, in part because the stake were so relatively small. But given that this movie focuses on a epic chapter in the history of Asgard, I guess it can be forgiven for being huge. And truth be told, for all that it was an apocalyptic tale, there were a lot of small bits as well - Thor with Dr. Strange, with Odin, with Hulk, with Valkyrie, and of course, with Loki.

3. I gotta give credit for diversity. We're starting to see worlds on screen inhabited by people who more resemble those in the world we live in, and that's great.

4. I'm going to say it: Stan Lee's cameos are getting tiresome.

5. Many years ago, I read an article in a fan magazine - Amazing Heroes or A Comics Reader or something like that - in which a writer asserted that many of Jack Kirby's visuals would never work anywhere but on the comics page. He said that certainly in live action, and even in animation, some of the King's costume designs were just too much for reality, as wonderful and beautiful as the looked on the page. He gave Hela's headdress as an example of this notion.

He was wrong.

Sunday, November 19, 2017

A superabundance of bunny

So, as I related over on Epicurus, I got a couple of Usagi Yojimbo phonebooks on the occasion of my last birthday.

I could go on and on about this series - rightly called a saga in these collections. Whether we are speaking of art, or writing, or character designs, or historical accuracy, or ethical perspective, the Usagi stories are a treasure. Stan Sakai is masterful, and the consistent high quality of his work is nothing less than astonishing. I could read these every day; if you're looking for a way into graphic books, this epic story of a 16th century Japan populated by anthropomorphic animals is a lot more accessible than most of the current superhero stuff.

There's only one hurdle: Usagi has been around for so long, one wonders where to begin!

Getting these collections reminded me that I dd have some Usagi Yojimbo titles in my shortbox already:

  • I have a 2010 Number 1 from Dark Horse Publishing; it's actually a reprinting of the real Number 1 from 1995. I guess the #99 I have from 2006 is from that original series (apparently still going at #160 or so).
  • I also have a Number 1 from the color series by Mirage Publishing that began in 1993; actually, I go all the way to #9 (of 16) with that one.
  • I also have a 1992 Color Special (#3) from Fantagraphics. (This series ran to something like 40 issues.)

You see, Usagi has traveled from publisher to publisher, and starred in a few titles other than his own, and that makes collecting the oeuvre problematical  Since the slightly OCB completist in me really wants to start at the very beginning and read my way all the way through in one collection, this is an issue. The Saga phonebooks only compile the Dark Horse series; for the Fantagraphics works, I have to get a separate volume from 2005; and as far as I can tell, the Mirage stories have never been collected. What to do, what to do?

Well, I'll tell ya: just read 'em. Let go of the sequencing and drop in with whatever story you find - you can't go wrong.

Travel along with the rabbit ronin through an exquisitely realized landscape. Discover Japanese mythology and traditions; meet samurai and ninjas and constables and performers; learn about how swords were tested and soy sauce made. Enjoy out-of-canon stories like Space Usagi, a sci-fi extrapolation of the character, and Senso, the wonderful what-if-H.G.-Wells's-Martians-had-landed-in-a-16th-century-Japan-populated-by-anthropomorphic-animals story. Linger over the artwork, thrill to the battles, laugh a lot, and cry a little. It's good stuff. It's like Kurosawa. But with animals.

Sunday, October 22, 2017

Conning it old school

 My new hero, the best Captain Marvel I have ever seen.
So, a couple of newlywed pals came up from Seattle and joined wonder Wife and I at the Bellingham Comic Con, which is actually held outside of town at the Ferndale Events Center, so go figure.

This was the ninth year for the con, but I really felt like I was going back in time twenty or thirty years. While the con has grown from a sub-300-person gathering in a motel conference room to a respectably crowded event in a decent hall, it was still a comic convention.

 These are comics
Nowhere to be seen were huge displays for upcoming movies or television shows, or flashing monitors displaying video games, or even racks of D&D stuff. This place was clearly about comics. There were other fandoms represented in the vendors and the costume contest, to be sure, but comic books, comics shops, back issue dealers, and Artist's Alley had pride of place for sure.

Not my picture - kiped from Instagram - but it captures the flavor

Another kiped photo - but we did buy something from this artist, Pri.

Since it's a small con, there wasn't much in the way of panels or presentations: a trivia contest  and the mid-afternoon costume contest, both held in a room adjoining the main hall, were the only big events. In that sense, too, it mirrored the early days of cons, which were less about showpiece panels and more about fans gathering to trade and complete collections. (They did open the second room up for board gaming after the costume contest, so I guess that counts as an event.)

The costume contest was by turns adorable and a hoot. About a third of the entrants were kids, even one babe in arms, and we got to witness all the enthusiasm (slightly-too-husky Wolverine having a ball) and some nascent skills (on-target Megara looking great) without that slickness and professionalism that for me takes some of the joy out of cosplay at the bigger cons.

My second-favorite cosplayer - 
young Jyn Erso, having completed her walk, watches the other contestants.

Wonder Wife's cosplay selection - Wonder Woman!

The low-key nature of the event made it much more accessible as well. The posted hours were 10 am to 5 pm; we ended our stay at about half-past two and were totally satisfied, having each gotten some prize loot and my having spent a sufficient amount of time poring (and pawing) through discount boxes. Wonder Wife was well pleased with the manageable nature of the excursion.

We'll be back next year, for sure. Maybe even in costume.

Wednesday, October 18, 2017

Yabba-dabba-do read this

So, as part of its series of adaptations of Hanna-Barbera properties, DC produced 12 issues of The Flintstones over the past two years; all 12 have been released in two trade paperbacks. I am not going to review this two-volume collection in detail, not even a 5 x 5; I am just going to say that you should read this. If you buy, read, or collect comics and graphic books, get these on your next trip to the local comic shop. If you don't, go to the library and borrow the collection or have them order it from another library. If you know me in RL, ask me to borrow it and I will lend it to you. It's just that good.

Here's one excerpt: Fred is directing a rescue mission for someone trapped in an accident at the Slate Quarry; Mr. Slate wants to call it off because it's costing him money.

 (Edited in format to better display the money quote.)

The series addresses materialism and consumer culture, politics and media, science and religion, gender roles and sexual preferences, and parenting and friendship, as well as hipsters and the ethics of using sentient creatures as appliances. The writing is smart and funny and the art is beautiful and clear. This is comics done well, but it's more than that: if you are human being alive in the 21st century in the USA, you should read this two-volume book.

Seriously. Just go find it and read it.

Wednesday, October 11, 2017

(Re) action figures

So, Wonder Wife and I were cruising the Value Village the other day, and I encountered two items that demanded some kind of response, so here they are.

The first was this little playset:

Okay, let's put aside the casual stereotyping and anime-style artwork for a second and look at a few details.

I long ago stopped expecting a toy like this to have much historical accuracy, but who in Sam Hill is this?

I'm not even sure what country this guy is from - he looks like a storybook prince or a Gilbert and Sullivan supernumerary.

And what's up with this?

I am pretty sure 16th century Native Americans in what is now Virginia did not wear Kaiser Bill mustaches.

And finally, the package trumpets these accoutrements:


I'm not sure how swords, an axe, a carbine, and a serrated machete are safety weapons. For that matter, what are safety weapons anyway?

A few paces down the aisle from this confusing collection, I came across this cellophaned woman:

I'm not sure what caught my eye, since she's a fairly mundane figure and I don't recognize the character, but a closer inspection of her right hand revealed this somewhat disturbing sight:

It seems a giantess is carrying this dude around, and he's digging it. I think I ran across that website once.

As they say, Value Village - Discover Your Treasures Today.

Sunday, March 5, 2017

Science Fiction by Gaslight: Episode 4

Title: "The Tilting Island"
Author: Thomas J. Vivian and  Grena J. Bennett
Published in: Everybody's Magazine September 1909

Category: Catastrophes

Summary: A reporter and a professor traverse Manhattan during the island's destruction by a massive earthquake event.

Unlikely coincidence: A Geology professor who has made a fifteen-year study of Manhattan and the fault lines under it being on a streetcar at the scene of the first fissure.

Protagonists: "[A] stout, Teutonic gentleman - Heinrich Herman" and "Jimmie Dalton, Harlem Departments man for the Chronicle". Presumably both white male.

Casual racism?: Ethnic stereotypes abound; Irish cops speak with a thick brogue; a crowd is described as "A great Hun, charging... Russian and Pole and Italian tumbled after". Nothing pernicious, but a bit insensitive to modern ears. Oddly, though the story begins in Harlem, no black characters make appearance.

The Science: The 125th Street Fault, a real geological feature of Manhattan Island, which is thought to have been responsible for several small earthquakes in the recorded history of New York. The specific result of a major shift in the fault line described in the story - the tilting of the entire island into the sea - is highly speculative.

Reader's notes: This story provides the most compelling picture of humanity in the book so far;  even the minor characters seem to have sort of inner life or backstory. The protagonists make a nice odd-couple/buddy team, and although they take no direct action to affect the course of the catastrophe, they do have a strong connection to the eventual outcome and experience significant agency in their travel down the island from Harlem to Union Square.

In that aspect, the story is somewhat structurally similar to The Thames Valley Catastrophe, but unlike my experience reading that story, I was quite familiar with the geography and could easily make sense of the journey. Although the author made no admonition to do so, I once again made a map if the characters' route through the fires and chaos of tilting Manhattan:

The place names have changed just a bit, but the path was easy to plot; the characters take some detours at West 57th Street that I did not record, partly for ease and partly because the authors were a bit unclear or erroneous in that section. It was fun to move through The City again.

Grade: A-. With a little more personal conflict, this would make a nice TV movie.

Sunday, February 26, 2017

Science Fiction by Gaslight: Episode 3

Title: "A Corner in Lightning"
Author: George Griffith
Published in: Pearson's Magazine March 1898

Category: Catastrophes

Summary: To get even richer, a wealthy businessman implements a scheme to control all electricity on Earth, with disastrous consequences.

Protagonist: White male, about thirty, who is "one of the richest men in London", with a wife and child.

The Science: Electric fluid, a real idea, now discounted. Early researchers into electricity (such as Benjamin Franklin) posited the existence of this substance, which made possible all discernible electrical phenomena, both natural and artificial. Like aether and phlogiston, it doesn't really exist; in the story, it does.

Reader's notes: The casual capitalism that drives the story forward is telling: the scientist who verifies the theory abrogates any ethical responsibility for his participation and even the protagonist's wife thinks that the idea is 'wicked". (All she does is threaten to move to Australia for the duration of the experiment, but only makes it to Nice.) None of this sow the project down in the slightest. The story lacks strong conflict; as the ill-considered industrial adventurism interferes not only with telegraph and power transmission, but also with the weather and human health, the circumstances just happen to people, with no opportunity for response or action. While it is an interesting exercise in the origination of disaster, it lacks the interpersonal dynamics that give the disaster epics their life.

Grade: C. There is a Dramatic Irony in the comeuppance.

Saturday, February 25, 2017

Science Fiction by Gaslight: Episode 2

Title: "The Doom of London"
Author: Robert Barr
Published in: The Idler November 1892

Category: Catastrophes

Summary: A London office worker struggles to survive a lethal fog with the aid of an American inventor's new device.

Protagonist: White male "confidential clerk to the house of Fulton, Brixton, & Co".

The Science: Killer fog, a real thing. One killed 4,000 Londoners in 1952. Liquid oxygen breathing apparatus, another real thing. Current models for people with respiratory problems last on the order of 10 hours; the one in the story works even better.

Reader's notes: Not a very good story. Once again written from the perspective of the protagonist's old age as he recalls the even of many years before,  but there's no sense of engagement or investments. The eight-page story has seven section headings and much of it reads like a textbook rather than a narrative, especially but not exclusively when providing the scientific exposition. The protagonist succeeds more because of luck than wit or will.

Grade: D+. The plus comes from a passing evocation of Cratchit or Bartleby in the office scenes that was diverting in its juxtaposition.

Wednesday, February 22, 2017

Science Fiction by Gaslight: Episode 1

Title: "The Thames Valley Catastrophe"
Author: Grant Allen
Published in: The Strand Magazine December1897

Category: Catastrophes (duh)

Summary: A Londoner on a cycling vacation races home to secure the safety of his family as a huge basalt lava flow from a "fissure-eruption" fills the Thames River Valley, devastating villages and threatening the British capital.

Protagonist: White male "Government servant of the second grade" with a wife and two children.

The Science: Fissure eruptions, a real thing that occurs in Iceland and Hawaii. This one is much larger than those in human memory, though not as large as some speculated (in the story) to have occurred in America. (Because everything is big in America.)

Unlikely Coincidence: The protagonist (and the reader) learning about fissure eruptions from a chance meeting with a vacationing geologist the night before one occurs.

Nice touch: The story's conceit is that it is a personal eyewitness narrative appended to the official "Blue Book" report on the catastrophe some years after it happened.

Reader's notes: Most of the story comprises an extended chase scene through the English countryside, hero versus lava, and in order to make sense of it and understand the urgency, the reader really needs to be familiar with the place names and the geography. In fact, the narrator at one point advises parenthetically to "follow my route on a good map of the period". So I did.

The blue line from Cookham to Hampstead via Stoke Poges, Uxbridge, and Harrow shows the route the hero cycles; these villages are in the hills that form the northern lip of the Thames Valley.  The lava follows the floor of the river valley itself, from Cookham to Maidenhead, Slough, and beyond, roughly along the same route of the M4 highway. It is by keeping to the hills that the hero survives to write his addendum, while the people in the valley villages perish. What gives the story an especial chill is that the disaster is not discernible from the hills and the protagonist cannot dissuade people from heading into the valley and placing themselves in harm's way. Spooky stuff -- if you have the geography in your head.

The protagonist covers the 30 odd miles in 90 minutes - not a bad rate for hilly terrain!

Grade: a solid B

Monday, February 20, 2017

Science Fiction by Gaslight: Preview Episode

So, in a recent post on Epicurus in Exile, I mentioned rediscovering the book Science Fiction by Gaslight: A History and Anthology of Science Fiction in the Popular Magazines, 1891-1911, edited and with an Introduction by Sam Moskowitz. It is my intention to not only re-read the book, hoping to recapture at least some of the excitement of my youth, but to share a quick "book report" on each of its 26 marvelous tales with you.

First, some background, not on my relationship to the book (which can be found in the cited post) but on the book itself and the editor.

Sam Moskowitz was a member of the ur-fandom of science fiction, serving in 1939 as the first chairman of what has since become Worldcon, home of the Hugo awards. Over the years, he became a professional and edited dozens of  SF anthologies - many of which I am sure I read as a youth - and even penned a few short stories himself. He was a noted (and relentless) chronicler and historian of science fiction, with several books on the subject to his credit, and was respected for factual accuracy and completeness if not always for nuance and judgment. Lord knows what Moskowitz would have done if he had lived in the age of the Internet.

His introduction supports the common response to Moskowitz's historiography: it comprises 35 pages of excruciating details of the business history, publishing dates, editorial staff, featured writers, and significant publication of those periodicals on both sides of the Atlantic that attempted at the turn of the last century to carve out a niche between the "better" magazines (at 25 cents per) and the penny dreadfuls (which were actually usually a nickel).

It was fascinating to learn that there were magazines like The Strand that sought to serve a slightly better-educated middle class reader, and that in addition to providing a home for the likes of Sherlock Holmes, these magazines also midwifed the science fiction genre. Jules Verne, H.G. Wells, H. Rider Haggard, and Conan Doyle himself were among the throngs of writers presenting stories of invention and speculation in these periodicals, and the burgeoning of the field is perhaps as exciting to learn about as it must have been to witness. Of course, Moskowitz's completist nature also requires us to learn that when the March 1899 issue of The Strand was published in the U.S., a six-page non-fiction piece on the British Parliament was replaced by a short naval story called "The Loading of the Convoy",  and that The Idler printed its text in a single column that ran across the whole page. Sometimes his reporting of history is little bit too detailed, and reading it can feel like trying to find the wheat among bushels of chaff.

Moskowitz's editing is a bit more deft than his history. The stories are dividing into categories such as Medical Miracles, Marvelous Inventions, Future War - even Man-Eating Plants gets its own section, as it was a pretty darn popular sub-genre back in the day.

So put on your smoking jacket and get comfortable: starting with the next episode of SFG, we'll dive into the stories themselves, beginning with the Catastrophes section and a story with the rather unambiguous title The Thames Valley Catastrophe.

We'll keep the gas lamp lit.

Wednesday, January 25, 2017

Happy crew

So, it's a little hard to be silly and trivial these days, what with impending totalitarianism and all that after the rise of Donny, but let's give it a go.

Wonder Wife and I stopped at the local Value Village last night, and as usual I checked out the bagged toys looking for D&D minis (as if I needed any more). I didn't find any, but I did find a bag that I thought would be good for a $3 diorama (remember those?) because it appeared to hold both Marvel and DC characters (and I could re-create JLAvengers or something). However, it instead contained an extensive collection of what appear to be slightly off-model DC character figures that were 2011 Mickey D happy meal prizes; some of them are pretty off-beat, as we shall see:


Nothing odd here, you'd expect to see him in any collection. This looks a lot like the Michael Keaton batsuit, so that's a little odd.


Here's another Batman in different suit, but it doesn't look like one of the specialty suits, for underwater or space or something. It just looks like the classic suit, but with mis-colored gloves, trunks, and boots. Need a little QC here, folks.


Batman needs a foe, I guess. Too bad they couldn't punch the flash out of the question-mark staff - it sort of just looks like a shovel.


This collection predates the CW show, and this is more the classic look anyway. But boy he's awfully beefy.


What kid wouldn't want to play with the embodiment of the Wrath of God?


This is kinda cool, what with his translucent legs and hair and power... blob... thingy, but it's so off-model I'm really just guessing.

Black Manta

Aquaman isn't here, but one of his arch-enemies is... with a strangely flattened head. And bendy arms?


I'm totally guessing here. But this Green Lantern villain is the only comic book character I know that could/might wear a baseball glove and a goalie's pad at the same time.

Y'know, now that I think about, these must have been issued during the run of the Batman - The Brave and The Bold cartoon on TV - that show was know for its stocky, square-jawed character designs and for its eclectic cast of guest stars drawn from all over DC comics. That makes sense.

Anyhow, that's what was in the bag, along with one other prize I might share separately. 

Just don't ask me why these guys are all posing in front of a pink castle. That's another story.