athelind: (DRAGON!)
In the year or so that I've had my primary Tumblr account (http://athelind.tumblr.com/), I have made good use of it: I've expanded my horizons into a wide range of blogs covering a wide range of interests. I follow blogs focused on art, comics, politics, science, comics, movies, science fiction, comics, diversity, activism, and comics.

I like a good deal of what I find there. I reblog a good deal of what I find there.

I generate very little original content, however, and what I do generate is either buried in a long chain of posts and commentary that ultimately leads to someone else ... or is buried even deeper amidst the dozens of entries I deem worthy of passing on.

athelind.tumblr.com/ is a pretty good reflection of what I like, but not really of what I think.

With this in mind, I have started a second Tumblr: Athelind Speaks (http://grauph.tumblr.com/).

This is where I intend to post MY thoughts, the essays on art, comics, politics, science, comics, movies, science fiction, comics, diversity, activism, and comics that used to fill the virtual pages of my LiveJournal (http://athelind.livejournal.com). I will cross-post said Original Content to that self-same LJ (I paid for a Lifetime Subscription, and by gum, I'm going to get my lifetime's worth). I will not use the GRAUPH account to follow other Tumblrs or reblog anything but the most relevant references.

So, here we go. New Year, New Blog.


athelind: (benjy)
Last week, Your Obedient Serpent let slip the single nerdiest thing he has ever said, or, in all probability, ever will say. Those who have spared even a cursory glance at this journal will understand that this is a high bar indeed.

I compared the Cutie Mark Crusaders to the Forever People.

This, dear readers, is a transcendent moment of nerdity. For one brief, shining moment, I achieved Nerdvana.

Ah, but I can tell by your expressions that this bon mot was sufficiently inbred as to be incomprehensible to any but my fellow Nerdisattvas.

As I have noted in the past, there is a tendency for fans of Jack Kirby's Fourth World Saga to neglect the Forever People, a series about a band of youthful, colorfully-garbed "gods" of New Genesis who can only be described as "Space Hippies". While the Fourth World as a whole is a product of its time, it's the Forever People who are the most dated. They're earnest. They're optimistic. They're corny. "Serious" readers find them embarrassing, and prefer to ignore them or sweep them under the rug, preferring even Kirby's work on Superman's Pal, Jimmy Olsen to this gaudy gang of star-born striplings. Alas, some of those "serious" readers include comic professionals who attempted to continue the King's Magnum Opus.

This is unfortunate, because it is in the pages of the Forever People that Jack clearly spells out, over and over, the key concept of the epic, the Anti-Life Equation -- a MacGuffin that those "serious" readers insist that the King "never really explained". Those embarrassing space hippies are the ones who most often directly confront the Big Bad of the Fourth World, Darkseid, and encounter not one but two individuals who actually wield the Equation itself.

By the same token, there is a tendency amongst Bronies (the Periphery Demographic that helped to catapult My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic from a thirty-minute toy commercial to a global phenomenon) to dismiss, ignore, or just roll their eyes at the episodes centering around a group of secondary characters dubbed "The Cutie Mark Crusaders". The Crusaders are younger than the main cast (a.k.a. the "Mane Six"), being portrayed as schoolchildren. Originally, they were planned as a spin-off aimed at an even younger audience, and, well ... they're earnest. They're optimistic. They're corny.1

It is also in the Crusader-centric episodes that writing staff clearly spells out the key concept of the "Cutie Mark", the mystic brand that adorns the hindquarters of each adult pony. A Cutie Mark appears when a pony finds her True Calling, the vocation or avocation that that will bring her the most fulfillment in life. The Crusaders, last in their age group to achieve this milestone, are determined to do everything they can to hurry the process along.

The puberty metaphors are not accidental, but are, ultimately, incidental. The Cutie Mark is more than just a metaphor; the magic of Equestria may not be rigorous enough to satisfy Sanderson's First Law2, but the Marks and Callings nevertheless play an important role in its operation -- particularly in Season 5, currently underway as of this writing.

More than one Brony rolled over a few Saturdays ago, went back to sleep when they remembered that a CMC episode was scheduled for the day -- and discovered upon awakening that they'd missed one of the Big Episodes of the Season. Given the themes of Season 5, I would not be surprised if Apple Bloom, Scootaloo, and Sweetie Bell turn out to be major players in resolving the crisis in the forthcoming season finale.

Is there a point to all this? Probably not, other than an amusing confluence of easily-dismissed side characters in obscure pop culture.

On the Other Claw, perhaps there is. Perhaps it's worth taking a second glance at the overlooked and unappreciated side characters in the media we all so adore. Perhaps there are more works where the real themes and key concepts are explored by the side-characters, since, after all, the protagonists and antagonists are busy protagonizing and antagonizing. Perhaps, in many works, all that foreground action is just a carrier wave, and it's the Big Bears and the Apple Blooms, the Merrys and Pippins, the Neville Longbottoms and the Etta Candys who really embody the signal.


1 There is also an unfortunate tendency for the earlier CMC episodes to hinge heavily on Cringe Comedy, though this thankfully diminishes as the seasons progress.
2 Did I just invoke Sanderson on top of Kirby and MLP? Trifecta!!
athelind: (WARNING: TV Tropes)
I watched the first episode of The Muppets last night.

First impressions: where the classic Muppet Show had backstage wackiness, The Muppets, thus far, has backstage wangstiness.

This is not to say I’m not interested to see where they take it. They haven’t lost me yet. They’re just patterning themselves on sitcoms that I already don’t watch, and, well, it’s hard to parody shows that are already parodies. I'm not going to whinge about dragging "children's icons" into the morass of "adult humor"; I am well aware that the Muppets have always relied on multi-level appeal and getting crap past the radar.

In their quest to make the characters more "sophisticated", however, they seem to have thrown out the subtlety and slyness that really was sophisticated. Worse, they've taken characters who used to be lovable because of their flaws and are busily making them unlikable despite their virtues.

Seriously, if they want to take a cast of over-the-top archetypes who indulge in broad slapstick and introduce sophisticated, emotionally-intense story arcs that appeal to an adult audience, they’d be better served by following the lead of the current crop of Precious Cinnamon Roll cartoons, rather than stuff like 30 Rock or The Office.

If the Steven Universe writers had written the Kermit/Piggy break-up, it would have been heart-wrenching. It would have pulled you closer to both characters, rather than feeling alienated from them because of their pettiness.

I am going to give it a few more episodes to see where they take this.


athelind: (hoard potato)
Dungeons & Dragons is infamous for having a lot of minutiae that "nobody's ever going to use".

This is a long-standing tradition in the game: as a single example, Greyhawk, the first supplement to the original D&D rules, contained elaborate modifiers for comparing specific weapons to specific kinds of armor that almost every player dismissed as an unnecessary complication.

Blackmoor, the second supplement to the original D&D rules, had a whole section about "Underwater Adventures" that almost always gets lumped into this category. There are pages of underwater combat rules, the effects of casting spells underwater, pelagic and benthic monsters galore, and no small supply of aquatically-themed magic items.

Most players looked at all of this and immediately decided that they would never, ever, EVER venture underwater. The most obvious obstacle of Not Drowning was the matter of least concern, easily handled by spells, potions, or magic rings; the Monsters of the Deep were formidable, but no more so than those found in other, drier regimes.

No, it was the matter of sheer inconvenience.

The normal strategies and tactics of a typical band of adventurers would be severely curtailed in the Undersea World; the mainstay offensive spells, Fireball and Lightning Bolt, were ineffective or uncontrollable; heavy armor limited one's swimming mobility; swords, axes, and other weapons that relied upon swinging were severely penalized, in favor of stabbing and thrusting weapons like spears and (of course) tridents). Bows and slings were useless; the only viable ranged options were heavily-modified crossbows. A party from the surface had a choice between fighting in hobbles, or abandoning their precious arsenal of magical toys.

And for what? The same gold and jewels that every monster hoarded, with the added bonus of overspecialized magic items that were of very little use on dry land -- or in the underground corridors whence most characters in those ancient days spent the bulk of their careers.

All in all, it was deemed far too much trouble for too little reward. Not "risk", mind: D&D players have never minded taking crazy risks with their ultimately disposable, but they have always HATED being impaired, disadvantaged, or "nerfed". A Dungeon Master who dragged his players into an underwater adventure risked horrible retribution: I have heard stories that I hope are only an urban legend about a disgruntled gaming group that added anchovies to the DM's pizza, in order to "maintain the theme".

(Excuse me, I need a moment. Brrr.)

Alas, D&D is also infamous for failures of imagination.

There is a lot of underwater-themed material in Blackmoor -- more material than a DM might need to take a party of surface dwellers on one or two dips in a pond.¹ There's enough there to build an entire campaign around, a long-running game centered around aquatic adventures. If players hate getting dragged underwater once in a while, though, who'd want to pull their party under the waves on a regular basis?

Here's the thing: Blackmoor is also full of intelligent aquatic creatures, many of whom would be entirely viable player characters.

Why not have a whole party of aquatic characters?

Merfolk, Tritons, Locathah, the inevitable Sea Elves.

If memory serves, the section even includes underwater options for the various PC classes -- again, sections that "nobody would ever use" if they were only thinking in terms of surface dwellers descending to an especially damp dungeon.

Of course, since tabletop gaming never throws anything away (except THAC0), the vast bulk of this material was inherited by AD&D, D&D3/4/5, and Pathfinder. Despite this, in the forty years since TSR published that book, we've seen official, published D&D campaign worlds set in a Hollow World, on a dying world, in the Romulan Neutral Zone of Gods and Demons, and far more, but to my knowledge, neither the Lads in Lake Geneva nor their Coastal Successors have ever published a campaign setting based on the adventure potential of three-quarters of the surface of a typical Earth-like fantasy world.

Other than GURPS Atlantis, I don't know of any other game companies doing so, either for their own systems or during the turn of the century's explosion of third-party d20 products. The SFRPG Blue Planet might qualify if you're not too picky about that line between "high fantasy" and "hard science fiction".

I have never even heard of anyone running their own aquatic campaign. I've proposed such a thing myself a few times over the decades (including a superhero variation using Champions), but each time, it's been shot down in favor of more traditional game milieus. Did you really expect me to go a whole post without a single TV Tropes link?

I honestly don't understand this. Mermaids are perennial and iconic elements of fantasy and folklore -- more so than faux-Tolkien elves. The ocean is a beautiful and varied environment even before you start dropping fantasy magic and fish-people into it. The generation that turned this oddball hobby into an industry grew up on Captain Nemo, Aquaman cartoons, and The Undersea World of Jacques Cousteau.

I mean, I get why some of my other pet ideas have no traction in the gaming world; even I can see that playing a squad of inch-tall CMDF agents might have a limited appeal.

This one, though, seems like a natural.


athelind: (WARNING: TV Tropes)
Your Obedient Serpent quite enjoyed Ant-Man, particularly since it suggests that the hot mess that was Avengers: Age of Ultron is an outlier and not a harbinger that the grand experiment of the Marvel Cinematic Universe has finally followed Mr. Fonzarelli's motorcycle over the infamous elasmobranch. However, I must agree with Mr. Taylor's assessement that the core conceit that the Ant-Man technology changes SIZE but not MASS was handled with a distracting inconsistency.

I will note, for the moment, that said inconsistency was handled pretty much exactly as it is in the comic books.

DC's Alternate Company Equivalent, The Atom, possesses full control over both his size AND his density -- and, of course, this was spelled out in dialogue, editorial footnotes, or both, in every single one of Dr. Palmer's Silver Age adventures. However, Dr. Pym, Ms. Van Dyne, and their assorted successors have never explicitly been granted anything but size control -- and usually, they are portrayed as no stronger than their insect associates at those scales.

A possible explanation of the Tiny/Heavy Paradox that plagues the movie occurred to me this morning. It's nonsense sci-fi technobabble, but no more than any other instance of Comic Book Physics, but it's sci-fi technobabble of impeccable pedigree.

Edward Elmer Smith, PhD, known to fans and friends alike as "Doc", was the author of the seminal Lensman saga, scribed back in the 1930s and 1940s. Lensman was the trope codifier for pretty much the entire genre of Space Opera, including Star Trek, Star Wars, and everything else of that nature, and had no small impact on another comic book franchise that didn't involve tiny people at all other than the occasional superintelligent alien virus.

A key piece of fictional science and technology in the Lensman saga is the conceit that later developments of relativistic theory divorced inertial mass from gravitational mass; in the epic, of course, this allowed for the faster-than-light velocities needed for star-spanning adventure.

I find myself wondering if this might prove the key to bringing some level of consistency to what the movie portrays: when Ant-Man is just standing, gravity only affects him as if he were the size and mass of an ant. When he falls, or hurtles into something, or socks someone in the jaw like a proper superhero, he has the momentum and kinetic energy of an 80-kilogram man, concentrated in the volume and surface area of one a mere centimeter tall.

(This works better if we discard the movie's explanation that the Pym Particle "reduces the distance between atoms" and return to the Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe's assertion that the mass of the shrunken person or object is "shunted into another dimension".)

It suggests that subtle variations in angle and trajectory could produce a wide range of "effective" mass and momentum. As just one example, he can match velocities with his formic steed because the ratio of his surface area to his gravitational mass allows him to control his descent, but if he jumps off, tucks in, and minimizes his surface area, he can hit that hapless mook with all the force of a full-grown man dropping a meter onto his back. (Ow.)

It's no less nonsense, but it might be the hand-wave that "fixes" the movie; I would have to watch it again with Bergenholm Physics in mind to see if it really does mesh with all the delightful, preposterous things we see on the screen except for that damned keychain.


athelind: (hoard potato)
Your Obedient Serpent would up binge-watching the entire second season of BoJack Horseman on Netflix yesterday.

(It was just that kind of day. Don't ask.)

As I watched, I found myself noting a weird parallel between that series and Cartoon Network's enormously popular Steven Universe.

At first glance, one's a fluffy kid's fantasy-adventure show full of goofball humor, and the other is a stock "adult" cartoon full of jokes about sex, drugs, and bodily functions.

But they're both, in the current parlance, "full of all the feels". They're emotionally complex stories of broken people working through the pain in their lives and trying to find meaning and strength.

The Crystal Gems of SU are emotionally scarred from an ancient war we only learn about gradually, and at least as wounded by the loss of Steven's mother.

Meanwhile, the titular Horseman is described by himself and others as "broken inside". He wants to be a better person, but he regularly makes the mistake of believing that he's GOTTEN there, that it's a GOAL and not a PROCESS. Every time he falls into the trap of thinking he's "fixed" himself ... he does something thoughtless and hurtful to the people who care about him.

(Your Obedient Serpent can relate to that. I suspect a lot of people over 40 can.)


athelind: (AAAAAA)
Tonight, [livejournal.com profile] thoughtsdriftby and I were watching the second-season finale to Fox's Sleepy Hollow On Demand -- and it cut off at 41 minutes of 55, right as the intensity was building to the big climax.

Here's the problem: Sleepy Hollow is something of a guilty pleasure. It's a quirky, high-concept show, with baroque, convoluted plotlines held together largely by the sheer charm and chemistry of the two leads, and it's largely been flailing around for the latter half of this season, trying to find its footing after the resolution of the main McGuffin of the original story arc. When you slam into a brick wall right as everything is about to be resolved to set up for next season's baroque, convoluted plotline ... all those twisty plot threads just kind of fall into a tangle, and you find yourself wondering why you were so caught up in such a ludicrous, cornball cheesefest.

I am hoping that most of this is being angry at Comcast. On an intellectual level, I would vaguely like to find out what happens to Ichabod and Abigail in those last ten minutes, and where they're going to leave them for summer break ... or leave them entirely, since the show's renewal status still seems to be up in the air. This has just delivered a solid hit on my emotional investment in the show.


athelind: (RPG: grognard)

WARNING:
This post links to
TVTROPES.ORG!




Yesterday, I found myself reading http://mythcreants.com/blog/blog-series/mastering-the-creeps/, and it reminded me of one of my quirks as a Game Master: as I've mentioned before, when I GM tabletop, it doesn't matter what genre the game is supposed to be ... there's about a 60% chance that it'll turn into a horror game.

It's not that I'm particularly fond of horror as an RPG genre. I just have a knack for it. When I'm GMing, at some point, I'll look at the players, smile wickedly behind my GM screen, and think, "oh, I just had an idea that might really wig them out."

You see, if you want to run a really effective horror game ... don't tell your players.

Over the span of three decades and change, I've done this in classic first edition AD&D, in a space opera game, and in two superhero games. Not a lot, I suppose ... until one notes that my stints behind the screen are rare and years apart.

The campaign that dove the most deeply into the horror rabbit hole was SUPPOSED to be a superhero game. I've alluded to this one before: the players were playing game versions of their real-life selves, and got super-powers when a UFO exploded near them.

I really intended -- I wanted -- to run a Fantastic Four-style campaign, using weird and amazing powers to explore bizarre phenomena and deal with off-beat threats.

However ...

The players were not primarily comic book fans.

What's more, this was the 1990s ... at the height of popularity of the X-Files.

Exacerbating matters, one of the players was, in real life, a Marine MP who had worked with FEMA at some point. I said, "UFO Crash", and he replied, "I'm not allowed to say whether or not FEMA has a plan to deal with this situation, but if they did* ..."

This was the metaphorical equivalent of reaching over, jerking the wheel, and sending the car into a spin. The whole party immediately slipped into Aaiiee Conspiracy Paranoia the Government Will Vivisect Us Mode, and I realized I had just lost control of the campaign.

So I did what my race car driver father taught me to do in a literal spin:

I turned in the direction of the spin and stepped on the gas.**

So, they all had Powers and Abilities Far Beyond Those of Mortal Men ... and they all wanted to lie low, go back to their lives, pretend it never happened, and try to keep the Gummint from ever finding out who was there at the crash site.

I could have doubled down on superhero tropes, and set up a big, public situation where Only They Could Save The Day ... but I had a sneaking suspicion, somehow, that this wouldn't goad them into action. I realized that, despite everyone signing on to play a superhero game, they didn't want to be superheroes.

They wanted a Paranoid Conspiracy with the Government Out To Get Them.

So I gave it to them.

I took the exact same power set that one of the PCs had: Teleportation, and a global scale ESP that manifested as erratic visions, a "teleport destination sense", and the ability to pinpoint technobabble "anomalies" that included other people sharing their power source ... and I gave that template to an implacable sociopath that the Shadowy Government Conspiracy had kept under lock, key, and power damper until they needed him to find the PCs.

([livejournal.com profile] kolchis gave me the invaluable suggestion of looking to Dean R. Koontz's gallery of empowered sociopaths for inspiration.)

He slipped his leash almost immediately, and started stalking them.

I gave them a few initial hints ... and then, when they'd all gathered at a restaurant to talk about the weird shit that had been happening to them individually, the Marine MP didn't show up ...

... and as they were sitting there, right outside the window where they're sitting, a body slammed into a car from a significant height, shattering the windows, denting the hood, and making the alarms go off.

The body looked just like the missing party member.

The PARTY'S clairvoyant was able to tell that, even though there wasn't a mark on the corpse ... the heart was missing.

I then shifted to where the missing party member actually was ... in an alley, with the water from a recent rain dripping off a fire escape ... drip ... drip ... drip ...

And he wasn't alone.

I shifted back to the alley, where the party realized that the body before them wasn't really their associate -- the build was wrong, the height was wrong -- but someone else whose face had been ... sculpted, somehow.

Back in the alley ...

(... drip ... drip ... drip ...)

There was a figure who was always JUST out of our missing party member's line of sight. Any time he'd turn, there'd be a voice behind him, or off to one side, or above him, patiently explaining that, after his "translation", nobody else was really visible to his new senses. He came to understand that he was the only real thing in a world of shadows; he could see souls, you see, and nobody else had one ...

(... drip ... drip ... drip ...)

... until he sensed the PCs ... being born.

After two decades, I don't remember all the details of the encounter, or why, but it was something along the lines of, "go back to your friends ... and let them know ... I am a jealous god. And I am coming for them."

And then, as the session ended, I queued up Blue Oyster Cult's "Don't Fear the Reaper."


*They did. It is no longer classified. Fnord.
**This works. It's saved my life twice, once in a '71 Chevy van, once in a '97 Ford Aspire.
athelind: (Beware My Power)
I am home sick today, my third round with a stomach bug in a four-week span, so let's talk Superhero Movies.

Recently, Time Warner announced that they were ramping up their slate of DC Comics-based movies in a desperate attempt to play catch-up to Disney’s unprecedented success with the Marvel Cinematic Universe:

  • Batman v Superman: Dawn of Justice (2016)
  • Suicide Squad (2016)
  • Wonder Woman (2017)
  • Justice League Part One (2017)
  • The Flash (2018)
  • Aquaman (2018)
  • Shazam (2019)
  • Justice League Part Two (2019)
  • Cyborg (2020)
  • Green Lantern (2020)


Needless to say, this prompted some discussion ‘mongst my social circle … and some eye-rolling that followed the last entry on that four-year, ten-movie extravaganza: Green Lantern.

Long-time readers will recall that GL was once Your Obedient Serpent’s very favorite superhero, but even he will admit that the last attempt at translating the Emerald Gladiator to the big screen was, to be generous ... unimpressive. Nevertheless, while its descent into mediocrity was the end result of bad creative choices, one should not fall into the trap of assuming that the first of those bad choices was "let's make a Green Lantern movie!"

The first and biggest Bad Choice was to cram far too many elements into the first movie, all from different periods of the comic, without really giving any of it a proper build-up.

The second Bad Choice was Hal Jordan.

Okay, let me rephrase that. No, I am not Happy Hal's biggest fan; of all the different characters who've worn the ring and claimed the title, I'd have to say that there were three or four ... thousand ... I like more than Hal Jordan. And if the movie had actually given us Hal Jordan instead of Stock Character #438, I'd have been middlin' pleased.

Look, here's the Secret Magic Ingredient that Marvel Studios stumbled across that turned their movies into both critical and box-office successes: superhero movies need distinctive characters and strong character arcs.

The character arc in the Green Lantern movie? "Look, the slacker screwing up his life gets a magic ring, straightens out, and turns his life around, proving that he's not such a screw-up after all." No surprises there: that's about as trite and unimaginative as Hollywood gets these days.

It's also not Hal Jordan.1

Please note that I am not saying "oh, they aren't faithful to the character, so this movie sucks." I'm also aware that they've been trying to shoehorn "reckless maverick who's always in trouble" into Hal's backstory since they did Emerald Dawn back in '89, but that's never really clicked.

I AM saying that Hal Jordan's character arc in the comics is a lot more compelling and unusual than the story of Yet Another Man-Child Growing Up.

When we first meet Hal in 1959, he's got it all. He's a test-pilot, competent, confident and successful in a career that demands highly-honed skills and steady nerves. He's fearless, not reckless: having him on the Ferris Aircraft payroll is an asset. He's a jet-setting ladies' man who has his sights set on the woman who runs the company, and lives a life of martinis and tuxedos that James Bond would envy.

The magic ring that falls from the sky doesn't straighten out his screwed-up life; quite the contrary. It gives him amazing power and opens the entire Cosmos up to him ... but little by little, it sends his personal and professional lives into a tailspin. The responsibilities of protecting Sector 2814 as a member of both the Corps and the Justice League take more and more of his time from his life on Earth. By the mid-'70s, he's gone from a high-prestige test pilot to someone who can't hold a steady job, his resume including such gems as travelling salesman for a toy company.

He spent a good chunk of the mid-'80s having resigned from the Corps, trying to figure out what had happened to his life, wandering around as a drifter trying to figure out just who Hal Jordan was apart from being Green Lantern.

And yet he keeps going back.2

Now, that's a character arc that we haven't really seen on the big screen. In the Spider-Man movies, Peter Parker can't hold a steady job because because of his extracurricular activities, but it hasn't really dragged him down -- at worst, it's held him back. In the Iron Man series, we watched Tony Stark go from a reckless genius billionaire playboy asshole who didn't give a damn about anything to ... um ... a reckless genius billionaire playboy asshole who really does want to do the right thing, mostly. By the end of Nolan's Dark Knight trilogy, Bruce Wayne is a battered, broken semi-invalid, but really, he was always a broken man: his body just caught up with his soul.

So far, we haven't had a superhero movie where the "Guy Who Has It All" finds his true calling ... and loses "it all" because of it.

As much as I can see the potential of a good Hal Jordon movie, though, I think they could get a lot more mileage out of John Stewart. Really, as much as it pains the Silver Age Stagnation Squad to see it, John is familiar to a lot more people than Hal, thanks to his headlining role in three brilliant seasons of Justice League and Justice League Unlimited.

I would love to see a movie that really took advantage of John's two primary background elements: he's a Marine Sniper who became an Architect. Seems like writers who eagerly adopt the Marine backstory (first introduced in the above-mentioned animated series) completely ignore the Architect (the vocation he's pursued in the comics almost since the beginning), but that dissonance between Warrior and Builder has a LOT of untapped potential.

John was the protagonist of Green Lantern: MOSAIC, a brilliant, surreal early '90s series by Gerard Jones that DC shows no interest in reprinting or even acknowledging. At one point, Jones scripts him a scene -- almost a soliloquy -- that manages to reconcile Warrior and Builder as two aspects of the same principle:

"What I do," John says, "is redistribute violence."

After this this startling proclamation, he clarifies: the job of an architect is to balance all the forces acting on a structure, and redirect them to make it stronger instead of tearing it apart.

That's John Stewart, particularly when Jones writes him: he's intelligent. He's erudite. He's philosophical.

John Stewart is the Warrior Poet.

We've had a lot of "smart" superheroes on the big screen ... we haven't really had an intellectual up there.

I will also note that John has another quality that is important for entirely different reasons: he's African-American.

And yes, dammit, that's important. Ask my friend [livejournal.com profile] kolchis, a school teacher who does a lot of substitute work in a lot of different areas, about the black kids who immediately zero in on the Green Lantern keychain the middle-aged white guy carries.

Rest assured it's not because they're Ryan Reynolds fans.

No matter how hard they try to push him as one of their Iconic Characters, Cyborg is the odd man out in that slate of movies. Sure, he's been around for more than thirty years now, but when push comes to shove, he's a Teen Titan. When they try to shoehorn him into the Justice League, it feels like they're desperate to dig up just one character in their roster who isn't Upper/Middle Class White Guy Man.

Do I think they should leave him out? Hell, no! I want to see Victor Stone up there on the screen with John Stewart. I want to see Dwayne "the Rock" Johnson playing Captain Marvel Shazam instead of Black Adam, and Billy Batson played by a kid with an equally-diverse heritage.

Representation and diversity is not tokenism.


1 "It's Kyle Rayner." "YOU SHUT UP. JUST SHUT UP."
2 This is directly related to why I am one of the few people who thought that Emerald Twilight was perfectly in character and was the logical culmination of three decades of storytelling ... but that is a story for another time.
athelind: (WARNING: TV Tropes)
Time Warner has owned DC outright for years, and, of course, Disney owns Marvel. The House of Mouse is doing their best to bring the sum total of the House That Jack Built into the Marvel Cinematic Universe. Sony and Fox are clinging to their respective Marvel licenses, because it's clear that Disney Wants Them Back.

So what do you do if you're a studio that wants to cash in on the booming market for comic book movies?

You aim for the indies, of course.

Evidently, a couple of indie movie studios have optioned Jim Starlin's vintage '80s space epic, Dreadstar.

Let us, for a moment, set aside the differences between "a superhero movie" (based on a particular genre) and "a comic book movie" (based on a particular medium). There have been some excellent and successful "comic book movies" that have nothing to do with superheroes, but it is evident that the Motley Fool isn't thinking of works like From Hell or A History of Violence. He's looking at Dreadstar, with its fancifully-named hero with extraordinary powers, and putting it in the same category as Iron Man or Thor ... or, possibly, with Guardians of the Galaxy, which is a more apt comparison.

Now, I love Starlin's work (so long as he keeps his hands off of Kirby's Fourth World). I loved the Metamorphosis Odyssey in high school, in which Vanth Dreadstar first appeared1. It was a sweeping, beautifully-illustrated epic (whose initial chapters appeared, appropriately enough, in Epic Illustrated, Marvel's stab at a high-end outlet for creator-owned works aimed at an older demographic), and it was unlike anything else in comics at the time.

And there's the rub: it was unlike anything else in comics, thirty years ago.

It's a star-spanning epic about a ragtag bunch of misfits who fight to liberate a galaxy an evil empire with vaguely-defined preternatural forces on each side.

There weren't many comic books like that at the time -- though that same basic structure pops up in the original 1969 Guardians of the Galaxy, the Bill Mantlo-scripted Micronauts, and much of Starlin's own work at Marvel. Once you sweep your gaze across other media, though, it looks, shall we say, increasingly familiar -- all the more when you include the works of the following three decades.

There are a lot of distinctive elements to Starlin's magnum opus, but, aside from the lush, painted visuals of the opening chapters, I doubt they'll translate successfully to the big screen. It's a thoughtful, philosophical work that happens to have the surface gloss of an action-packed space opera, but the movie industry, by and large, is terrible at making those distinctions.

Marvel Studios has tapped into an exceptional range of industry professionals who have an affinity for comic book superheroes, and have a gift for looking at half a century or more of comics and seeing just which elements will make a movie that is both entertaining and successful.

Not everyone in the industry has that Marvel Studios knack. That's why there have been so many mediocre superhero movies, and so many missteps.

In this particular case, there's a tendency to look at a property that was a successful, well-regarded comic book and assume that it's because of something distinctive and interesting about the character.

Sometimes, the only distinctive, interesting element about the character is that he was in a comic book. Once you move him out of that medium ... it's hard to distinguish him from other, similar characters.

I call this The Punisher Effect.

Frank "the Punisher" Castle is a Spider-Man villain from the 1970s who is a direct and shameless ripoff of Mack "the Executioner" Bolan, the protagonist of a long-running series of cheesy "men's novels" from that decade, published by the same company that publishes the infamous Harlequin Romances. Their origins are identical: Viet Nam veterans who carry on a vendetta against organized crime after their families are caught in the crossfire of a mob hit.

The Punisher became enormously popular in the Iron Age of Comics, the late '80s through the '90s and into the current century. He's been brought to the screen three times, in 1989, 2004, and 2008; all three movies bombed, and none of them snagged the brass ring of a sequel, much less a long-running franchise to match his comic book counterpart or paperback "inspiration".

Why hasn't this character ever really clicked on the big screen, even with his devoted following?

Well, why is he successful in the comics? Because in the Marvel universe, he's the only guy "fighting the mob with the weapons of war." He's different. He's unusual. He's interesting.

On the big screen, he's routine. Frank Castle is a blandly generic action movie protagonist, indistinguishable from any number of other characters played by Charles Bronson, Clint Eastwood, Sylvester Stallone, Chuck Norris, Steven Seagal, or Jean Claude Van Damme.

The only interesting thing about the Punisher is that he is a comic book character. Take that big fish out of his small pond, and he gasps for oxygen. Throw him in a bigger pond ... and he's just another fish.

As much as I would like to think that there's more substance to Vanth Dreadstar, Syzygy Darklock and their companions ... I am honestly not convinced.

When Marvel Studios says, "Hey, everyone! Here's a raccoon with a machine gun! Just roll with it!" ... we're going to roll with it, in no small part because they've earned that trust with almost a dozen excellent movies based on unlikely and historically-difficult source material. They can throw yet another ragtag bunch of misfits in space into the market, and we are intrigued and amused by the audacity, and eager to see how it ties into the larger saga.

If they weren't tied into that bigger story, though ... and Vanth and company are not ... well, that's a really big pond.



1Technically, the whole span of Vanth Dreadstar stories, including the comic to bear his name, are just chapters in The Metamorphosis Odyssey.
athelind: (hoard potato)
This morning, [livejournal.com profile] leonard_arlotte said:

So I've seen commercials for Tomorrow People, but ain't watched it. I am left with a nagging question.

What's the difference between this show and Alphas?

I did see the commercial and think, "Oh look, another show about pretty people with super powers" ...



That's a pretty glib dismissal ... but it's not wrong.

I watched the first episode, and really, the big difference between the two shows is that I didn't want to immediately smack everybody in Alphas, protagonist and antagonist alike.

The big conflict in this show is "OH NOES NORMALS HATE US BECAUSE WE'RE BEAUTIFUL WE HAVE POWERS!!1!"

... just like every other Pretty People With Powers series in the last decade. Heroes, the 4400, Alphas ... even the X-Movies. Show after show after show, and it's all Maintaining the Masquerade so the Mundanes don't Molest the Metahumans. The protagonists only deal with two kinds of adversaries: Dark Conspiracies Who Want To Herd Them All Into Labs and/or "Cure" Them, and Bad People With Powers That Have The Exact Same Origin As Ours.

Assuming you can tell the protagonists from the antagonists, of course.

Moreover ... every single one of these shows characterizes the Pretty People With Powers as "The Next Evolutionary Step" that will "Drive Humanity To Extinction". It's not always just the paranoid norms who think so, either.*

I, for one, am bored with this. It's ... metahuman masturbation, is what it is. All the conflict centers around The Powers, and if you take The Powers away (as several interchangeable adversaries want to do), all the conflict vanishes.

It's like they think viewers aren't smart enough to handle a world that has more than one crazy thing going on at a time.

The sad part is that The Tomorrow People is a remake of a classic BBC series from the 1970s, the era that gave us Blake's 7, and Pertwee and Baker as Doctor Who.**

By contrast, take a look at what they threw at the original 1970s version of Tomorrow People. Aliens! Robots! Alien Robots!

Think the new series is going to touch that subplot where the Tomorrow People are in touch with the "Galactic Federation", who shepherd developing telepathic races as they "break out"?

I don't.

And that's a pity.


* To give Alphas its due, Professor X Dr. Rosen at least paid lip service to the idea that the Alphas were just exceptional humans at the skinny end of the bell curve ... but he was about the only person in the show who did, and even he didn't seem to buy it completely.
** Don't get pedantic with me. That's how they're listed in the credits.
athelind: (Sci Fi)
The Threepenny Space Opera: An Introduction

WARNING! TV TROPES!

This is the first in a series of posts under the head of The Threepenny Space Opera, in which Your Obedient Serpent bandies about ideas and concepts for science fiction RPG settings. These are primarily Notes To Myself, and the different concepts may or may not be compatible with each other in a single milieu.

I have been in a Star Wars Saga Edition game for the last four years, and, while I enjoy it a great deal, I confess that I enjoy it in spite of the setting, not because of it. It is hardly an original insight to assert that the Lucasian setting isn't "really" science fiction, but rather, fantasy with a thin veneer of technology; it has some truth to it, but that doesn't curtail my ability to enjoy a rip-roaring laser-adorned Hero's Journey.

If forced to pick a side when the line is drawn between Romanticism and Enlightenment, however, Your Obedient Serpent falls squarely in the latter camp.1 There are elements of Classic Space Opera that are Very Important To Your Obedient Serpent, and they can only be shoehorned into the Galaxy Far Far Away with great effort -- and are entirely absent from, say, Dark Heresy and many of the other starfaring settings offered to the RPG community.

I am rambling, which is nothing new. Let me therefore invoke that tool of PowerPoint abusers worldwide, and proffer a Bullet List:

  • I want a vision of a hopeful, optimistic future. Cautionary tales are an important part of the science fiction estate, but they aren't, contrary to Post-Modern thought, more "mature" or "sophisticated" or "valid". When all the visions of the future are dystopian, when the only message from tomorrow is "Beware", then where will we find the hope and inspiration to drive us forward?

  • I want to Explore Strange New Worlds. Even Star Trek: the Next Generation fell short on this one, keeping NCC-1701-D largely within the borders of the Federation, boldly staying where everyone had gone before; the movies, of course, abandon the notion of "exploration" entirely.

  • I want to Save the Day with SCIENCE!! I want a setting and a system where the Vulcan manning the sensors contributes as much to the adventure as the Dashing Space Pilot.

  • And on that note, I want a game that doesn't shy away from starships and space combat, while making sure that ALL the player characters can take active roles when the Space Pirates drop out of Netherspace, or the Negative Space Wedgie looms on the main screen. I want a game that's not afraid of starmaps, and where travel between the worlds is an opportunity, not an obstacle (or a quick screen-wipe).


There will be more forthcoming.


1 In the topsy-turvy backwards world of Literary Jargon, I am an unrealistic dreamer because I reject Romanticism.

athelind: (WARNING: TV Tropes)
Recently, I've had several conversations with different people about franchise fiction, why it becomes popular, and why so many franchises develop followings and fandoms far out of proportion to their literary merit (at least as perceived by the arbiters of such intangibles).

Since it's been a while since this (or any other) topic has come up in this venue, let's review (and rename, and renumber) Snark's Athelind's Laws of Fanfic Transformative Works:

  1. Athelind's First Law of Transformative Works:

    • A sufficiently established franchise is indistinguishable from fanfic.

      • Corollary: Star Trek novels exist because Paramount realized they weren't getting a cut of the fanzine market (see TV Tropes: Running the Asylum).

  2. Athelind's Second Law of Transformative Works:

    • The popularity of franchise fiction rests not only in the stories that are told, but in the stories that could be told in the franchise's setting. The more fertile the ground for exploration, extrapolation and personal interpretation, the more enthusiastic and enduring the fandom.


Analysis:

Phineas & Ferb is a very good show, at least as good as My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic.  Both shows are smart, snappy, extol virtues of creativity, cooperation, diversity and enthusiasm without being pandering or insulting, and are packed full of Parental Bonus humor.  They have fluid, slick animation and simple, crisp, geometric character design (P&F's creative team have gone on record as saying that the distinctive designs of the cast were intended to make them easy for young fans to draw).

And yet, while Phineas & Ferb has a following, it doesn't have a fandom with the same level of ... devotion ... as the Bronies.*  I will note that it also doesn't really have a premise that lends itself gracefully to fan-made characters;  a neighborhood full of eccentric grade-schoolers with a penchant for Mad Science is entertaining to watch, but adding one more quirky personality to that particular mix isn't something that excites the imagination.  Sure, it would be a blast to be nine years old and live on the same block as the Flynn-Fletchers, but nobody fantasizes about being Elmyra to Pinkie and the Brain.**

This supports the Second Law: Given two shows of approximately equal quality, I submit that the factor that makes one attract a hard-core fandom is how readily one can inject one's self or one's own creations into its milieu.

Harry Potter, My Little Pony, Star Trek, superhero comics ... They're all setting with a "sandbox" quality to them.  They have or imply Loads and Loads of Characters, and lend themselves to letting you be one of those thousands.

People write Monk fanfics, but they don't drop personal alter-egos or original characters into the Monk milieu unless they're Mary Suing. I love Babylon 5, but it has a finite story arc all centered around a particular cadre of Important People. People don't make their own imaginary Earthforce vessels like they do Federation starships.

I think the two purest distillations of "Milieus You Can Become A Part Of" are Furry Fandom, which has actually dispensed with ANY central narrative or setting and revolves primarily around the fandom's own self-created personae more than any particular commercial work ... and superhero comics, where the entire process has long been a matter of dropping a creator's own ideas and alter-egos into the larger setting.


* It's hard to think of many fandoms as devout as the Bronies.  Not even the Beatles, and they were more popular than ... well, they were pretty popular.
** Almost nobody.


athelind: (Eye in the Pyramid)
In a superhero world, EVERY government organization has a clever acronym. The tax bureau, for example, is the Internal Revenue Investigation Service, or IRIS, and their logo is the All-Seeing Eye on the Great Seal.


athelind: (hoard potato)

One:

I've finally figured out my utter dis1 for DC's recent business model of resurrecting Silver Age characters who got killed off in the '80s and '90s because they couldn't sustain their own titles.

As I mentioned the other day, I don't like zombies.2

Certainly, remembering, as one example, the long, dragged, out "Trial of the Flash" that closed out Barry Allen's run months before he met his end in Crisis on Infinite Earths is not that far removed from having the fragrance of three-month-old sea lion carcasses waft unbidden through one's amygdala.3

At least when Marvel turns its colorfully-costumed characters into shambling undead mockeries, they're occasionally honest about it.


Two:

DC is releasing a series of prequels to Alan Moore and Dave Gibbons' classic graphic novel, Watchmen.

I reserve judgment on whether or not this is a bad move; really, I'm finding myself far too tickled by the outrage of the fandom (and Alan Moore) to really have many objections myself (and besides, one of them will have Darwyn Cooke art).

However, something occurred to me the other day:

Watchmen is older than most of the "old comics" it was based on were when it was published.



1disinterest/disappointment/distaste/disdain/disregard/dyspepsia ...
2I wanna shoo-oo-oo-oot the whole trend down!
3I have a dread suspicion that that storyline, which seemed to take forever at the time, might seem a masterpiece of snappy pacing compared to the "decompressed" storytelling of today's "decompressed".

athelind: (hoard potato)
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Unbreakable.

One: It was early enough in M. Night Shyamalan's career that his name wasn't yet synonymous with "twist ending".

Two: The best twist endings recast everything you've just seen in a different light, and ideally, it should make even more sense in the light of the twist. Shyamalan's The Sixth Sense did that, but Unbreakable did it even better -- when it hits, both viewer and protagonist are overwhelmed by the horrific implications of the revelation.

Three: The twist -- and I won't spoil it here, on the off chance that a reader of my journal hasn't seen it -- relies heavily on the tropes of the comic-book superhero genre. I am intimately familiar with those tropes; superhero comics are My Thing. Despite that, I did not see it coming. I was utterly gobsmacked.


athelind: (hoard potato)
It's Saturday morning.

I am sitting in front of the television with a big bowl of cereal, watching cartoons.

It's not all that different from a Saturday morning 40 years ago, except ...

  • Coffee!
  • Laptop computer. I mean, seriously. This thing wasn't even a concept in 1972.
  • Coffee.
  • Vastly superior cartoons. Avatar: the Legend of Korra, the Thundercats reboot, Green Lantern and Young Justice vs. ... well, this.


All in all ... Yeah, to heck with nostalgia this morning. More like relaxed contentment.


Did I mention coffee?
athelind: (hoard potato)
I am, in fact, keenly aware of the miscarriage of justice visited upon the creator of the Ghost Rider by the courts. In short: they've bankrupted a sick old man by ordering him to pay damages to Marvel/Disney, one of the largest multinational combines in the world.

I thought long and hard about seeing the movie after hearing about this, but finally came to a compromise:

I donated several times more than the ticket price directly to Mr. Friedrich.

That's a whole hell of a lot more effective than a boycott, by my assessment.

Other than that, Mrs. Lincoln, how was the show?

Well ... I'm very glad I watched Ghost Rider on FX last night before seeing Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance [SoV] today. It makes for good compare-and-contrast.

I liked SoV, but stylistically, it's a very different movie, and seeing the first one the night before really underscored that. It's filmed and set in Eastern Europe, and ... well, you know how SF/horror/Action films from Eastern Europe are frequently a little ... off-kilter?

It's like that.

The directors also gave us Crank, with Jason Statham, so if you cross that frenetic energy with Eastern European surrealism and just a touch of the framed, compositional, comic-panel style of the first movie, that should give you some idea of the style

It kinda works.

Nicholas Cage was also a lot more ... NICHOLAS CAGE in this one. As in, the directors showed him the Nick Cage Losing His Shit video on YouTube, and said, "THIS. We want to see THIS!" The Johnny Blaze of Ghost Rider was far more sedate and underplayed than this Johnny.

That's right. You heard me.

The set-up opens the movie, so it won't be much of a spoiler: Johnny's bravado at the end of the first movie hasn't worn well after five years of playing host to the Rider. He's pretty close to the edge through the whole movie, and you know how much Cage loves stepping over that edge.

The effects and camera work are excellent. The Rider looks far more dangerous than he did in the first movie, and far more like a burning, smoldering ghost than clean white bones wreathed in cozy fireplace flames.

The plot's a bit pro forma, but sometimes, all a movie needs is a thread to hang the eye candy together and an enthusiastic performance or two.

Summary:
If you liked Ghost Rider, you may or may not like Ghost Rider: Spirit of Vengeance. if you liked Ghost Rider, and also liked movies like the Resident Evil series and Priest, you're more likely to like this.

This is probably a Wait For DVD movie for most of Your Obedient Serpent's audience, unless you genuinely enjoy Nicholas Cage having the time of his life playing his favorite character and living up to all his stereotypes.


athelind: (Ommm)
Pee Wee Herman

is my Tyler Durden.



athelind: (Eye of the Dragon)
On a Google search of the phrase "Your Obedient Serpent", eight of the ten links on the first page are to my blogs, user profiles, or comments I've left elsewhere. Only one actually concerns the source I stole it from to which that phrase pays homage: Bob Clampett's Beany & Cecil cartoons of the '60s, in which Cecil caps off the end credits by declaring himself "Your Obedient Serpent".

I'm ... not entirely sure how I feel about that.

On the one claw, hooray! Trivial fame! A memorable phrase linked inextricably with me!

On the other ... where's the love for Unca Bob and his Seasick Sea Serpent?


athelind: (Eye of the Dragon)
It should come to no one's surprise that a great deal of what I read on the Internet, particularly on the Friends list of this very site, concerns dragons.

It should come as no further surprise that I greatly appreciate someone taking the time to present the following:



Credit: David Morgan-Mars
athelind: (hoard potato)
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What's Harry going to do now that the series is over?

After an ugly scandal involving accusations of identity theft from one Mr. Timothy Hunter, Harry will expatriate to Chicago and change his last name to "Dresden".


athelind: (hoard potato)
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What’s your favorite Tom Hanks movie or character, and why?

That poor guy. His career's been all downhill since he played Kip Wilson.



You know, I was joking when I started this post, but watching the opening credits reminded me just how much I liked that show, and what a great cast they had. And yes, a big part of its consistently-entertaining quality was the guy who would go on to become one of the big stars of the next three decade. His good humor, his improv chemistry with Scolari, and his ability, shared with Jimmy Stewart and Cary Grant, to maintain some level of gravitas in the most humbling, embarrassing situations all served him well both in this series and in his later career.

And I never thought of myself as a big Tom Hanks fan. I just enjoy his stuff -- but I enjoy it, I realize, pretty darned consistently, and have since the days when he and Peter Scholari answered every knock on the door with that distinctive falsetto "Who is it?"

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