Friday, December 10, 2010

Peter Cushing is Hammer Horror's Baron Frankenstein

Of all the characters at Hammer Horror studios, by far the most complex and interesting was Baron Frankenstein, played by Peter Cushing.

The Baron was the central character of all the Hammer Frankenstein movies, and his creature, the famous Frankenstein Monster, was practically an afterthought and didn't even appear in some of the Frankenstein movies. Hammer realized, correctly, that the man that
made the monster was more interesting than the monster himself. Peter Cushing's reptilian performance as a cold, cruel, ambitious man was the most chilling part, and he was brilliantly cast; by all accounts Peter Cushing was a really great guy in real life, but at least in the movies he always had a look in his eye that showed that he was a scary creep with a hard edge.

The most fascinating thing about the Peter Cushing Baron Frankenstein was, he could be a hero or a villain depending on the movie, yet the character never really changed. Depending on the movie, he could be a sympathetic genius visionary hounded, misunderstood and persecuted by superstitious, dimwitted and prejudiced little men and angry mobs who destroy anything they don't understand as he was in Evil of Frankenstein...or, he could be a coldblooded, ruthless and reptilian fiend that destroys anyone's lives and even commits murder to get what he wants, heartless and inhumane, the way he was in Frankenstein Must Be Destroyed.

There's something kind of likable, despite all his bad qualities, in an arrogant and sharp-tongued character like Baron Frankenstein that doesn't suffer fools or the superstitious gladly. He runs into all kinds of problems because he isn't charming or tolerant.

One of my favorite scenes features Baron Frankenstein overhearing a guy talking about how the former Baron Frankenstein was guilty of "ungodly experiments." His response?

"Pardon me, sir, but are you a doctor?"

"Ah, no sir."

" apologies. I thought you knew what you were talking about."

Likewise, Frankenstein, over and over, was legitimately wronged and his misfortunes, caused by prejudiced people that never leave him alone, have been exploited. In one scene, Baron Frankenstein returned to his villiage in Switzerland and was outraged to see the burgomaster of his former town (who rose to his current status for kicking Frankenstein out) wore a ring that originally belonged to him! And it got worse. When following the guy home, he discovered the burgomaster's entire house was filled with the Baron's furniture!

John Maddox Roberts

John Maddox Roberts may be one of my favorite historical novelists. When he wrote about Rome in his SPQR series, I always had the feeling that, of all the versions of Rome we've seen or experienced, that JMR's was the closest to how it really was: noir before its time, bustling with criminal cartels, prostitutes that knife-fight each other over turf, where even a Senator's life was cheap if he went into the wrong part of town at night, a place of pug-nosed gladiators, where the line between being a gangster/mob boss and being a politician was so thin, the two jobs were practically interchangeable. John Maddox Roberts's Rome was not a nice place to live, but it was cool.

And best of all, JMR always had sense of humor about things. This was in great contrast to many other stories about antiquity that take themselves way, way too seriously. In general, Sword & Sandal and Roman epics are dead serious, with dead being the operative phrase.

JMR also wrote some speculative (what-if) history with his book "King of the Wood," and it's a real relief to read an alternate history that somehow doesn't involve the Nazis. In "King of the Wood," the Vikings reached America, but this time they came to stay. The northern kingdom, from Canada and so on, was Treeland, whereas the southern kingdom was Thorsheim, founded by pagans fleeing religious persecution.

It doesn't surprise me that John Maddox Roberts wrote Conan novels, because the main hero of "King of the Wood" was basically a Conan-type hero that did Conan-type things. A noble from Treeland, he was cast out from his country for the crime of kin-slaying, becoming a "Wolf's Head." The hero is pretty boring, although there is one sequence where he trips balls-out on hallucinogenic drugs that is all the more entertaining because I can imagine it happening to Conan.

Along the way, he encounters the inhabitants of the Americas, including the Aztecs, who are presented, as usual, as a profoundly sick society fascinated by imagery of stillborn babies and human sacrifices in retch-inducing industrial quantities. From what I understand of history this is not that far off the mark.

The book is overall entertaining and chock full of alternate historical goodies in a world that Roberts obviously thought through, but if it is guilty of anything, it's guilty of taking a bit to get to the point. The Mongols are the heavies of the book, and they don't show up until two-thirds of it are done. To JMR's credit, the Mongols are scarier here than anywhere else: imperious, commanding, tactical geniuses in hordes of tremendous size that dwarf lesser armies, with advanced technology for the age and brute's great to see the Mongols as history's most frightening villains, a real world hyperpower, as opposed to the goonish cartoon barbarians seen elsewhere.

Monday, December 6, 2010

Steve Englehart writer profile in 1973 issue of "Vampirella"

Now this was an interesting find: in Vampirella Magazine #22, there's a writer profile on arguably comics's greatest genius, "Stainless" Steve Englehart, in 1973, the very height of his early career.

As an Englehart-aficionado, this hagiography doesn't tell me anything I don't already know (except for the fact that Englehart, along with Marvel-horror guys like Don Glut and Marv Wolfman worked on the Warren Publications Vampirella mag), but other people may find the story surprising: Stainless started off in comics while in the army, after meeting Neal Adams and becoming an inker for him, and then becoming an assistant editor and then scripter.

Warren Publications always had the brassiest comics reporting; they were always pull no punches and raw, and tell a counter-story to the 'official events.' They always, always published letters with strong and dissenting points of view, even ones that make the company look bad. They published letters that said that Vampirella and her sexpot ways was pretty much for male chauvanists; they published letters arguing that Vampirella was lame because of her science fiction elements. In short, Vampirella letters pages were the liveliest and argumentative I have ever seen ever published, and they have never entirely been replaced.

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

The New Shadow, Tolkien's Lord of the Rings Sequel

For those that love "Lord of the Rings," I was fascinated and intrigued to hear about Tolkien writing...and abandoning...a sequel to his most famous work, set in a time when only Men live on Middle Earth during the era of the Unified Kingdom ruled by Aragorn's descendants.

Because there was very little wonder left, the work, "The New Shadow," was crushingly dreary and dark, but in a fascinating way like a good chiller book. The story fragment, set in a time when Goblins and Orcs are legends, features a fighting man in Gondor that discovers remnants of a Satan worshipping cult, of humans that behave like Orcs and cut down trees for no reason (which in Tolkien's world, is quite possibly the most dickish deed possible).

The thing that strikes me the most as interesting about the New Shadow is how similar it is to Conan the Barbarian. Bear with me here. The main character is a solid, regular fighting man whose primary virtues are his simple honesty, traditionalism, and fighting prowess. He lives in a complacent era, with rulers that are merely competent administrators. Most impressively of all, the main villains are frightening Satanic cults dedicated to the worship of scary pre-human societies.

All in all, I'm sorry Tolkien abandoned his Lord of the Rings sequel after 16 pages. It would have been a great insight into an era of Middle Earth that was phenomenally underdeveloped and been a great middle ground between the mythic pessimism and tragedy of the Silmarillion, and the realism and grit of the Lord of the Rings.

Tolkien's reasons for abandoning the New Shadow strike me as incredibly harebrained. According to Tolkien, the reason he gave up was because he felt the sense of wonder that existed in Middle Earth no longer existed come the Age of Men, and because without Sauron there wasn't a single source of evil in the world that transcended the possibility for human evil. For the first point, the very curiosity that many people have about events after Lord of the Rings ends shows there's obviously some creative potential there even without Elves and Wizards.

The second point is enormously wrongheaded. The worst part of Lord of the Rings was a central villain who was inaccessible, remote and entirely in the background with inhuman "Evil with a Capital E" motives. How much stronger that book series would have been with an ever-present "Doctor Doom" type villain with an actual personality and comprehensible human motives.

Also, the idea that all evil has to have a single source and that evil is a unified force is one of the greatest errors in conservative and Christian thinking. One of my all-time favorite examples of this phenomena is the Tea Party's current unification of high-level bankers with socialism, and the inability to tell the difference between fascism and communism. How a banker can be a socialist defies my understanding, but there it is. It reminds me also of the evangelical protestant view that pornography, radical feminism and the coarsening of our culture are ultimately the doing of a conspiracy headed by Satan himself. Again, the idea that feminists and pornographers both do the bidding of a single Master requires mental gymnastics I'm not capable of.

Tuesday, November 9, 2010

The Chabad Lubavich and Creationism

As a college undergrad, I was a part of the FIU Chabad Lubavich chapter, and on a couple of weeks when my Mother was out of town, I even celebrated Passover with them. I've spent dozens of free Chabad dinners there at the Rabbi's house. I have nothing but good and pleasant memories about my association with that organization, and the friendships I made through the Chabad.

Though I currently have no religious beliefs, being Jewish is a part of who I am whether I like it or not and is something I can either fight and rebel against (unproductively) or embrace as a part of my identity. Besides, God must love us secular Jews. After all, He made so many.

As someone with a science and education background, however, it deeply troubles me that Chabad is the only remaining Hasidic group, indeed, the only remaining group of Judaism that still rejects evolutionary origin for life, and continues to endorse some really crackpot Young Earth theories (6,000 year old creationism).

I always found this ironic, because Judaism (including hard-assed, traditionalist Orthodox and Conservative Judaism!) have never had any compatibility problems between science and religious beliefs.

And what's more, the Jewish tradition has always endorsed an old earth anyway, and that time, to God, meant something totally different than it would to humans. In the 11th Century, Rabbi Moishe bin Asher used Kabbalah to divine that the earth was billions and billions of years old, and many midrashim have argued there were previous successive creations that were destroyed by God as unsuitable and incomplete. There have been other Medieval that claim that Adam was the last of a thousand prior generations, but he was significant in that he was the first to have the breath of God, a soul within him.

The primary voice for this rejection was one of the major figures in the history in the history of Judaism, the Rebbe Lubavich, who had enormous influence over the Chabad as its spiritual founder. Many believed the Rebbe was in fact, the Messiah (Moshiach), a view that is downright bizarre for the primary reason that he died! Well, I guess that answers that question! Along with Bar Kochba, Jacob Frank, Shabbetai Tzevi, and a certain Rabbi from the 1st century that shall remain nameless (wink, wink) the Rebbe died without fulfilling any of the Messianic prophecies.

This seems like an unfair non-sequitur since most Chabadniks didn't believe the Rebbe was Moshiach even when he was alive, but it is nonetheless relevant because the Rebbe was not a superman and he could be wrong and at times he said various misinformed things about the process of science and evolution. He once claimed that "evolution has not the slightest shred of evidence behind it," which even honest creationists must admit is untrue.

More importantly, I would not go to the Rebbe for advice on science. The divine nature of Torah is totally unfalsifiable and therefore outside any possible means of scientific investigation. The origins of human beings, however, are within the boundaries of the material world: things within the material world require materialist explanations.

The Rebbe believed that biological evolution eliminated the meaning and purpose of existence, if we were just an "accident," then who cares about moral responsibility? As a Chabad rabbi stated in this article:

"We have to be aware of the effects of our beliefs. If we believe that humans came about by accident, then life has no meaning. There can be no meaning to something that happens by chance. A random explosion or mutation cannot give us purpose. My life, your life and all human history has no real significance whatsoever. Whether I live a good life or one full of evil makes no difference. It is all a big accident anyway.

We only have purpose if we were created on purpose. Our lives only have meaning if we were created by a meaningful being. If we teach our children that they were created on purpose with a purpose, then they will know that more is expected from them than from an animal."

Whether something gives us meaning or purpose is irrelevant as to whether it is true or not. Whether something makes children behave themselves is irrelevant as to whether it is true or not (and there are many disobedient children from religious families and obedient children from non-religious families).

But more importantly, if human creation is what gives us purpose, why can't evolution give us a purpose? The fact is we're human, the first creature on earth able to make moral choices, and that ability alone implies duties and personal responsibilities. There does not need to be a contradiction between belief in a God and belief in what is revealed to us by science.

Friday, October 15, 2010

Fabian Nicieza and Erik Larsen's unused 1991 "X-Factor" proposal

In 1991, the X-Titles were up in the air, as all the books, with the exception of Larry Hama's Wolverine, lost their creative teams - including Chris Claremont, who wrote the X-Books since 1976, an incredible 15 years. On the other hand, the X-Men were at the height of their popularity: X-Men #1 sold 8.3 million copies, numbers not seen since the Golden Age. There was talk of movies (back in the day when no comic ever got a movie) and an animated series was on the way. So the X-Titles were not only superpopular but also looking for a new direction, a winning combination for really dynamic new proposals.

We all know how all of this ultimately turned out: X-Factor, which was originally a team book with the original five X-Men, which Peter David revamped with characters the X-Office wasn't using, as a government sponsored mutant superteam that received paychecks from Uncle Sam for fighting evil. It was great to see Alex Summers leading his own superteam, as well as old standby favorites like Quicksilver, Wolfsbane, and Polaris.

But it almost didn't happen if Bob Harras had instead gone with Fabian Nicieza and Erik Larsen's proposal for the team!

The above image was the only part of it. Notice that the only two characters to remain the same between the Nicieza proposal and the Peter David run were Havok and Polaris. People forget this, but in Uncanny #250, Lorna Dane lost her magnetic powers and gained tremendous size and superstrength in the Savage Land.

Incidentally, the Erik Larsen costume design for Havok and Pyro (yes, the proposal had Pyro reforming and becoming a good guy) are my favorite, which isn't that hard considering how Alex Summers has never had an interesting look.

Two characters in the proposal would later be used by Erik Larsen in other projects. The cyborg design was re-used by Larsen for the successful Super-Patriot series, and the cute but monstrous lizard girl became a part of Larsen's comic Freak Force. The girl dinosaur would have, as I understand, been a heretofore unseen member of the Morlocks that joined X-Factor.

All things considered, even though the proposal was rejected, things worked out fine. Erik Larsen would go on to found Image and become a multimillionaire, and Fabian Nicieza created with Mark Bagley "the super-team for the 90s," the New Warriors.

Thursday, October 14, 2010

Peter Cannon, Thunderbolt: Unleash the Powers of the Mind!

Did you ever see a character and say to yourself, "this guy is too cool for words. Why aren't they a bigger deal than they actually are?"

Two of my favorite DC characters were always in that category: the villainous Kobra and Pete Morisi's sixties hero, Peter Cannon, Thunderbolt.

First, check out the house ad up top for his first Post-Crisis series. Pretty groovy, eh?

One thing that always blew my mind about Thunderbolt was how he's the only superhero I can think of where his archenemy is a real historical person: Queen Evila, the Ancient Egyptian immortal sorceress, was outright stated to have been Hatshepsut II, who in real world history was the only female Pharaoh other than Cleopatra.

Peter Cannon, Thunderbolt has the extreme distinction of having his imitators and outright ripoffs be more famous than he is. First, there's Iron Fist, who Chris Claremont has flat-out said in every single interview given on the topic was a character "inspired" by Peter Cannon, Thunderbolt: their origins are the same, the American baby raised in Tibet after a plane crash. And everyone knows the role the Charleton heroes played in the creation of the Watchmen, with Dr. Manhattan as an expy for Captain Atom, Rorschach as the Question, and so forth....and Ozymandias was the inspiration and starting point for Ozymandias, with his tremendous speed, martial knowledge, and mystic obsessions.

The common "Marvel Zombie" attitude is that DC is staffed by old phogeys that are totally out of touch with popular culture. And every time I am inclined to think that's an unfair and undeserved stereotype DC does something that reminds me of how totally legitimate it is, by their total failure to cash in on the pop culture zeitgeist.

When Star Wars and Battlestar Galactica was a big deal, DC unveiled their sorry afterthought, Gerry Conway's Atari Force. Marvel, meanwhile, responded to the Star Wars craze by doing Star Wars comics. Then you have DC's years-too-late attempts to cash in on the Martial Arts craze, featuring a lily-white dude (I'm just saying!) named Richard Dragon.

A few recent failures to capture the imagination come to mind. For instance, Barry Allen was a police scientist years and years before the public fascination with scientific/forensic police work and had been dead for decades by the time of the CSI craze. Though in that case it's probably for the best that Barry stayed dead, if Barry was alive, he could have a lot of cachet to do something audiences like.

The second example I can think of is the current popularity of Avatar: the Last Airbender. I'm sure someone must know of the untapped potential here! My God, Peter Cannon could be DC's answer to Avatar! Avatar was a series about a hero raised by Tibetan monks that constantly reincarnates over and over. That's the same with Thunderbolt, also called Vranya (which is a real Indian word, incidentally).

Friday, October 8, 2010

The bad guys have a point

Hey, remember the evil Senator bad guy from the first X-Men movie? We're all supposed to view him as some ugly fascist type, but the thing is, he was mostly right.

"There's a girl in Illinois that can walk through walls. What's to stop her from going into a bank vault?"

I know he's supposed to be a bad guy, a cookie cutter fascist, but that's a pretty darn good point. Mutants can be dangerous and powerful and should be registered and controlled just like the government responsibly registers and controls firearms and explosives. I just don't get why this senator is supposed to be the bad guy of this movie. Jeez, they even went to the trouble to hire a guy that specializes in playing unlikeable assholes, Bruce Davidson, better known as the guy that abandoned Captain Picard when he was a Prisoner of War of the Cardassians.

Then you have the movie "I am Sam," the film that gave the world the ghoulish Dakota Fanning. It's supposed to be a feel-good airplane movie about how love triumphs, where a retarded man wants custody of his daughter. Now, no matter how much goodwill you might have toward a guy as charismatic as Sean Penn, the "bad guys" in the film are totally right: no responsible person could agree that a mentally challenged man shouldn't have full sole custody of a child.

Finally, we have the series True Blood, which a friend of mine lent to me on DVD. The movie explicitly compares vampires to the gays. That isn't in doubt; the show's metaphoric power comes from that. Because an artificial blood supplement has been invented, vampires don't have to feed on humans anymore, and they "come out of the coffin" (a pun that's typical of the show's ah, humor) and demand equal rights. The people that oppose Vampire rights on talk shows tend to be stiff religious types that mention the Good Lord a lot. Their point of view is predictably not that well developed. People that don't care for Vampires are usually (at the very least) unenlightened or downright ignorant.

The thing is, though, the bad guys are pretty much right and the comparison of Vampires to gays is pretty weak. A better comparison would be to registered sex offenders. How comfortable would you be with one in your neighborhood, especially if you have children? And for the same reason. Vampires have a biological, inarguable need for human blood. In the series, all Vampires have the ability to hypnotize others into doing their bidding.

And consider that the blood supplement was only invented two years before the show started. Unless a Vampire was only created after that two-year mark, and the overwhelming majority were not, that means that prior to two years, they had to get their blood from something. The reveal of Vampires should have been accompanied by the same scenario that occurred in former Communist and Fascist countries, where now that there's transparency, a corrupt judiciary and military could be prosecuted for past crimes.

Registered sex offenders are treated differently from other people for the following reasons:
  1. They have demonstrated by their actions to be a danger to society;
  2. They have drives and urges that make them a continuing danger even if they're incredibly conscientious.

Vampires in True Blood meet both of those criteria. If I lived near a Vampire, I'd want him to have a bright orange mailbox. So, yeah, you do your thing, Straw Man redneck godbotherer preacher that doesn't like Vampires!

Incidentally, the only thing I can remember about the show, the single image that stays in my head, is everyone saying "Sookie" with a breathy voice something like 30 times an episode. It reminds me of how the only concrete images I have of the X-Men cartoon from the 1990s was someone yelling "JEAAAAAAN!" every episode and Professor X screaming and fainting. It's sort of like how in Poltergeist III, it feels like someone yelled "Carol Ann!" 500 times, over and over, all through the film.

Wednesday, September 15, 2010

"Mysterious Cities of Gold" and the similarities to "Avatar"

The similarities between “Mysterious Cities of Gold” and the now extremely popular “Avatar: the Last Airbender” are downright shocking. Both are Western-produced shows with a single story from beginning to end, an Anime-inspired look that aired on Nickelodeon (20 years apart!) with three kid main characters, one of whom is a levelheaded girl, the other two are the last survivor of a vanished tribe and a Messiah figure with powers he doesn’t understand. The kid characters have access to an animalistic means of flight (the Golden Condor and Appa the flying bison, for instance) and the structure of the show has them in a different place every day, as the characters hide pursuit from both a conquering army and a complex, charismatic antihero. In both shows, the majority of the protagonists are non-Caucasians, and finally, both have a cute flying animal kept around for “comedy” and cuteness. Both the Messiantic lead boy and the tribal girl lead develop feelings for each other.

Because the charismatic antagonist pursuing the children became too likeable a character and his motives too complex, the solution to having a really effective antagonist was, a third of the way through both shows, to introduce a female enemy that’s absolutely vicious and rotten to the core: La Malinche in Mysterious Cities of Gold and Princess Azula on Avatar.

The reception to both shows was similar: both are very well-remembered fan favorites with a hardcore following made at a level of quality that stand head and shoulders above the often uninspired world of kids’ TV animation.

Obviously “Avatar” is a unique creation, but it might be interesting if that show was created because somebody remembered “Mysterious Cities of Gold” and tried to do it another time around.

Finally, and I say this hesitantly, it seems that both shows will receive a sequel in 2011…though the “Avatar” one is much further along.

Thursday, August 19, 2010

Sufism vs. New York

There are some issues that are not real controversies at all, but cultural flashpoints of conflict, where even discussing them does nothing but feed the drama-spiral.

I try to avoid these non-issues as much as possible…remember the hilarious flap and political capital burned over the ultimately private family issue of poor Terry Schiavo?

I’ve said time after time that one of the weaknesses of the political True Believer is the inability to pick their battles. In the interests of being bipartisan, this also includes a few big bugaboos of the left, too: for instance, the attempts to jail Auguste Pinochet when he was well into his eighties. There’s a certain point where so much energy has been invested that something becomes less about justice and more about petty, private emotional satisfaction.

Obviously the “mosque built near ground zero” is another example of a flashpoint emotional issue for culture warriors. The reason I’m saying anything at all is because the conflict is reported in a way that activates the rage-gland and several facts need to be taken into account. Yeah, I know, I’m feeding the drama fire and maybe that makes me a hypocrite…but nonetheless the entire conversation is disingenuous.

While I am a firm believer that every religion has to acknowledge and take responsibility for their extremists, the people building the Mosque/Community Center are Sufis, not any of the Sunni Wahabists responsible for the September 11th attacks! There have been entire articles in the press that fail to mention the denominational affiliation of the community center, which is laziness shocking for even reporters. The fact that the people building the community center are totally different than the attackers on September 11th has not been mentioned, and it is a crucial factor that should be a part of the discussion! Sufis are a totally different sect with distinct teachings and different practices…including the very famous and colorful “Whirling Dervishes.”

The conversation on whether it is appropriate for Muslims should build a “mosque” near the trade center remains totally misses the point…because the Sufis were not responsible for September 11th! This is an occasion where the question itself requires swallowing an outrageously untrue premise, like “do you still beat your wife?” In Edward Said’s crucial book Orientalism, he argued that the identity of “the Orient” and “the Middle East” is a totally artificial one imposed by Europeans on a diverse stew of cultures that don’t have a lot in common.

This reminds me a little of one of the most frightening moments in recent political memory…a moment that can be pointed to as the very moment that things went wrong in Iraq: according to Bob Woodward’s book “Plan of Attack,” it had to be explained to George W. Bush that there is more than one kind of Muslim.

Also, some perspective is called for on the location. The mental image is of the empty lot/nuclear impact crater from the September 11th Attacks, when the area is not what it was even in 2004, a developed area with plans. Indeed, the place is but is instead 3-4 blocks away, and in New York a “block,” even an uptown-downtown block, is much more than say, in Tarpon Springs, FL.

Finally, I’m alarmed at the obvious emotional manipulativeness of the issue and its shameless and totally transparent purpose of base-galvanization. It is virtually impossible to argue that this isn’t a manufactured controversy to sway far-right voters in the upcoming election. Here’s the thing about being manipulated: people that are dead sure they can’t be manipulated are the ideal mark for manipulators because they don't think all that closely about how such a thing could happen. For instance, the permits and permissions to build the mosque and community center were filed over a year ago. The fact that this is only an issue NOW is a question of timing…especially for the upcoming midterm elections. This is a political prop. If I were a Republican, I would not be comfortable or okay with gonzo issue handlers and their attempts to amp up my rage-glands to vote their way.

Tuesday, July 20, 2010

Some of the best superhero comic characters ever: Honorable Mentions

There are some characters that I didn't include on the list that I felt a little wrong about leaving off, so here they are listed under honorable mentions. Think of them, I guess, as 20-16 (15 always seemed like such an off number to me).


J. Jonah Jameson has the distinction of being the only supercharacter I would ever consider cosplaying as. How is it possible to dislike him, anyway?

What I find amazing about him is that he’s a loveable scene-stealing character despite being composed of nothing but bad qualities: a pompous, cigar-chomping cheapskate that hates spending money, a windbag in love with the sound of his own voice, he becomes absolutely insufferable when proven right, grinning horribly like a jackal. He has an irrational grudge against Spider-Man and jumps to sensationalist conclusions about him. He’s insufferable, treats his employees terribly, and is an egomaniac who can’t stand the idea of being wrong. Yet despite all that, he remains interesting because he’s fun to watch...and despite everything, one of Peter Parker's few real friends.

It’s amazing to me how beloved J. Jonah Jameson is when characters that are intentionally created to be liked are so hated by fans: Kitty Pryde, Danny Chase (a character who Wolfman to this day insists the fans “didn’t get”), Deathcry, Jolt and Vibe. One particularly amazing example is the Kristen Wells Superwoman: the contrast between the fanfare of her first appearance…and the fact that no one actually cared at all about her, even now, decades later…is downright darkly funny. Kristen Wells is the Jobriath of superheroes: a failure so colossal it was retroactive. I can’t get over how Wells was introduced as a cool, awesome and smart character with great powers and with triumphant “Braveheart”-esque dialogue who saves the day even over Superman and the Justice League, yet no one cares about her…and J. Jonah Jameson has spent decades embodying bullheaded stubbornness, blustery bravado, cheapness and some of the most base idiosyncrasies in human nature, and to date never demonstrated any cool superpower…yet he’s one of the most famous and loved comics characters ever.

The thing that makes Spider-Man arguably the most popular superhero of all time is that 1) he has the greatest group of enemies in comics, and 2) he’s got the most interesting supporting cast. Sometimes I’m troubled by books like X-Men where nobody anywhere is ever really “normal.”

BEST STORY: As a character, we’ve followed JJ up and down, and even cheered at his marriage: I always loved Amazing Spider-Man Annual #18. My personal favorite J. Jonah Jameson moments were ones where, with no one around, he could break down, lose the bluster, and admit to himself what he really feels. One of my favorites was where Jameson admitted part of the reason that he persecuted Spider-Man was because he was jealous of him, his powers and heroism. In Untold Tales of Spider-Man #2, J. Jonah found himself saying while alone in his office, “Me – a respected pillar of the community, a wealthy, successful businessman…if Spider Man’s a hero what does that make me? Nah…he can’t be a hero. He’s got to have a secret agenda, a hidden motive...”

WORST STORY: I never really accepted how Frank Miller, in his Daredevil run, tried to turn JJ into a well-meaning, honorable man with great journalistic integrity who goes after Spider-Man out of a sincere belief he’s bad for society and actually worries children might imitate his feats. Huh?


Here’s the amazing thing about the Taskmaster: he’s instantly recognizable and “fully-formed” in his very first appearance. Very few villains and foes are so instantly recognizable from the outset, but Dave Michelinie knew who he was from the very beginning: a trainer for supervillain henchmen, the Taskmaster fills a never considered role in the ecosystem of a hero world. He’s different from other villains in that he’s interested in making his power pay off: he was perfectly okay with running away when he was presented with superior force and he had no real desire to confront superheroes unless they forced his hand.

The Taskmaster didn’t have grandiloquent soliloquoys. He was from the Bronx and talked like a regular guy instead of Will Ferrell as “Megamind,” quick with the quips: he was like an evil Spider-Man, an approachable regular guy instead of a ponderous Doctor Doom. One of the great realizations of Stan Lee is that heroes are more interesting if they talk without the whole “Great Neptune! I’ve got to act fast!” jazz. Tragically, that approach never really stuck for the villains, who were always written as giant cornballs.

Finally, it should be said that the Taskmaster has a great and distinctive power. Part of the reason I compiled this list is to answer with real examples the unpleasant claims of extremely cynical and bitter comics fans, who believe that real character growth and development in superhero comics is impossible, death is never permanent, nothing new is ever created, and change only lasts until the next big crossover. One claim that is demonstratably untrue is the idea that no new powers have been created, and the Taskmaster is proof, with his ability of “photographic reflexes,” able to perfectly duplicate any physical move he ever saw, from martial arts, lasso use, archery, athletics…whatever. Lots of people like him just because his power and costume are so darn cool.

BEST STORY: As mentioned, the Taskmaster’s debut in Avengers #196, where he comes on the scene with everything that would later be recognizable about him: his gruff Bronx way of speaking, his super-flunky training academies, his photographic reflexes power, his mercenarial ethos. Not since the Borg showed up has there been a successful debut story.

WORST STORY: None, thus far. But he’s getting close to being overused. Something cool stops being cool with overuse, Marvel writers!


The thing that I love about the Trapster is that he’s a guy with a dubious gimmick, glue guns and a versatile series of traps – and he started his career with the most terrible name ever, Paste-Pot-Pete, something he has never really been able to entirely live down. But despite that, he’s utterly and absolutely convinced that he is hot shit. He’s got this cocky swagger utterly disproportionate to his actual ability. When a guy as scary as the Thing knocked into him, his response was “hey, who do you think YOU’RE shovin’?”

It’s not so much that he has a goofy name and a goofy gimmick: heck, name me one Gene Colan creation, from the Matador, Stilt-Man, to the Fabulous Frog-Man, who didn’t have a terrible name and an incredibly uninspired concept. No, the interest in the Trapster comes from how he tries to live that terrible original name down by overreacting, by trying to be a big man. He’s interesting for the same reason people are so fixated on Shatner’s toupee. Lots of big stars wear pieces and are open about it. Nobody cares about Sean Connery being bald because he doesn’t make a big thing out of hiding it, for example. He wears a rug for showbiz. But the reason Shatner’s piece fascinates is because of how hard he tries to deny it.

BEST STORY: Try FF #41 and #42, a story with the Trapster as a member of the Frightful Four. Group scenarios bring out the best in the Trapster because in groups, nobody really likes him. It should be said, in the interests of fairness, that despite his overreactive desire to show himself as macho and grandiose due to everyone laughing at him for his goofy name, in this story the Trapster is pretty darn ingenious when it comes to traps, from a vibra-dart that incapacitated the Wizard, paste guns that can hold a being as powerful as the Thing and Reed Richards, and so on.

WORST STORY: Any story where the function of the Trapster is to “job” and make a hero look good and the Trapster as incompetent – any villain could do this, after all. It should be said that despite his undeserved swagger, the Trapster is an ingenious trapmaker if you catch him on the right day.


The Piper started off as yet another gimmick villain for the Flash back in the DC Silver Age, an era that had occasional flashes of genius but is best thought of as sort of like the crazy old uncle at the family reunion nobody talks to, so it should come as no surprise that the Piper’s best stories came after the Silver Age, after 1987, when he became a good guy and a close confidante and trusted friend of Wally West who invented gadgets and gave Wally scientific aid, and even helped him out in cases; his presence made the book a lot stronger, especially since he became a protector of the homeless. The Piper was the first openly gay character at either Marvel or DC, and his reformation was totally sincere, one of the few DC villains to switch sides and become a hero.

BEST STORY: Flash #32-33. The Piper was a rich kid that was born deaf, who regained his hearing thanks to his wealthy parents. The Piper always had a very complicated relationship with them, so it was incredibly moving to see him reunite with parents that considered him a disappointment and failure. It was especially great to see our expectations reversed: the absentee rich Dad never there for him growing up actually turns out to be a pretty okay guy who accepts his son for who he is when he tries to earn their trust.

WORST STORY: Mark Waid is a little like DC’s version of Jim Starlin: a guy that hates all continuity that isn’t his. Thus it comes as no surprise that he quickly wrote out nearly all of the interesting supporting cast that Wally West acquired, who made his book great to read: Chester P. Runk, Frances Kane, and the Pied Piper. The Francis Kane character assassination was especially terrible: Magenta was many things, but a psychotic girlfriend out to murder the Flash? Somehow in the face of all that, Waid allowed the Piper to slip through the cracks and be forgotten. Also, don’t get me started on the whole “he was actually mindwiped by the Top to be a good guy” nonsense. I view it as cowardly of them to undo all the incredible character development. And for what? For just another Silver Age gimmick Flash baddie? Aren’t there enough of those?


Like the Piper or Magneto, the Enchantress started out as a stock villain: a femme fatale whose master plan involved getting the hero laid, and a member of the original Masters of Evil. She later on became someone far more interesting than a scheming seductress. She was smart and selfish, and she pursued Thor because real feelings were actually shared between them. Out of enlightened self-interest and opportunism she could be persuaded to join the side of the angels for brief periods.

BEST STORIES: There are so many. One of my favorites was Thor #362. Believing the Enchantress would never love him, the Executioner decided to lose himself in a noble cause and died valiantly defending Asgard from Surtur. To everyone’s astonishment, on hearing the news, the Enchantress was visibly and truly grief-stricken.

WORST STORY: Just like Magneto, prior to a certain point when they figured out who the character was, most of the stories seemed to be about a totally different person. After seeing how interesting Walt Simonson, Shooter and others could make the character interesting, it’s hard to read her prior appearances.

Coming Soon: 5-1!

Sunday, July 4, 2010

Agents of Atlas: Wha...huh?

I can't recommend enough "Agents of Atlas," a miniseries from 2007 that took the incredible promise offered by the "it may or may not have happened" issue of What-If featuring a 1950s grouping of Avengers.

The book has a "put the band back together" vibe, with a plot that begins with M-11, a 1950s robot with a natural murderous streak that is truly intimidating and terrifying. My favorite member is probably everybody's favorite member, Gorilla Man, a hideous man turned into an ape that is given a family and friendship by FBI agent Jimmy Woo despite his appearance, a talking ape who has a smartalecky, swaggering sense of humor and gets all the best lines in the book. Gorilla Man plays the role that Hawkeye usually plays to the Avengers: as the one "regular guy" the reader is meant to sympathize with on a team full of gods, robots and weirdoes.

Obviously by now, the big surprise is blown: Namora is resurrected. It's common for team books to bring a character back to life in the first issue, like Jean Grey in X-FACTOR #1.

Namora is written with astounding grandiosity, as a living legend - which I find astounding. The book convinces you how cool and competent she really is.

There's one weird scene, though, where Venus uses her powers to make everyone experience a moment of sheer contentment where they would most wish to be. And Namora imagines...well, this:


I was totally astounded that something like that would actually be published. It's like publishing a comic where Batman and Robin kiss. Yes, it fills you with horror beyond reason, but also relief as well: you don't have to hold in anymore all of the bright blue jokes you constantly think and keep internalized.

However...and here's the interesting part. Namora isn't actually her real name, but she adopted it to honor Namor. She is Namor's cousin, however...she is a cousin by marriage. There is actually no blood relation between Namora and Namor, so technically the above scene actually is okay. Amazingly enough.

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

A digital watch in a Western

I had an interesting conversation a while ago with a friend, where we saw together a godawful vampire movie set in the Old West, Bloodrayne 2: Deliverance. It was sheer masochism on my part: I heard Ewe Boll was bad, but I wanted to see how bad.

I don’t think I’ll be surprising anyone by saying that it was in fact, as bad as everybody says.

For example, in one scene, there’s an extra that quite visibly is wearing a digital watch. A digital watch in the Old West! The guy wasn’t even hidden in the background, either: he was front and center and the watch was unmistakable.

Something about that error just pissed me off even more than ordinary goofs, because it was the kind of sloppy mistake that’s made when the people making a film just don’t care.

A friend of mine that watched the film with me was baffled by how much the watch thing got to me and laughed it off. “So what, baby? It’s a movie about vampires, and you’re on about a digital watch being unrealistic?”

That comment totally took me totally off guard. Implicit in it is the idea that as something is a vampire movie, a crass error made in it is somehow less of a crass error.

That comment is also symptomatic of a mentality that science fiction and fantasy fans frequently suffer from: underestimating the importance of suspension of disbelief. Suspension of disbelief is like trust: it can be broken, and it is hard to regain when lost. Like trust, suspension of disbelief is never just “given” away, and must be earned. The more we are convinced of the reality of a story, the more we’re emotionally involved. The more we’re emotionally envolved, the more moving and entertaining a novel or movie experience is.

1. If an error is unacceptable in any other type of fiction, it shouldn’t be acceptable in science fiction or fantasy, either. SF and Fantasy shouldn’t be treated differently from any other genre, or held up to different standards than any other genre. No one should ever say “he acts that way because it’s science fiction.” Characterization is just as important in SF (and for that matter, action/adventure) as it is in regular fiction.

2. Science fiction and fantasy have an even greater obligation to be “realistic” than so-called “realistic” genres. In “plausible” espionage fiction, legal thrillers, or detective stories, suspension of disbelief is easier because the story could happen. SF has to work harder because it features elements not present in everyday life. For another example, in superhero comics, just because characters wear costumes and fire proton beams doesn't mean they're exempt from the responsibility of plausibility.

3. Science fiction and fantasy work according to rules and those rules are just as important as the rules of the real world. If having a watch in a Western is sloppy and takes a person out of the reality of the film, then having multiple versions of Atlantis existing simultaneously with totally different properties (as happened in DC during the sixties) is every bit as bad.

For a somewhat more contentious example, having Yoda fight with a lightsaber, as he did in the prequels, is a mistake every bit as bad as the digital watch, because Yoda was never shown as having a laser sword all through his appearances in the original movies, never trained Luke Skywalker in the use of a lightsaber (all those other things were more important) and as Yoda was a wise, spiritual teacher that taught the Force as something wondrous and beyond the physical, having Yoda fight with a lightsaber contradicts the very essence of the character. Just because Yoda is a fictional character and a fictional alien in a fictional galaxy doesn’t change the fact that going against his nature is a very, very real error.

Tuesday, June 22, 2010

An inconvenient historical truth

"Ok who's ready for a new federal law? How 'bout this: "No one may run for President of the United States after previously only being elected to a state legislature and U.S. Senate with no chief executive experience."

How a federal law will change the Constitution I don't know, but that law would have disqualified Washington, Adams (both John and John Quincy), Jefferson, Madison, Monroe...and even in modern times: Truman, Eisenhower, Kennedy, Johnson, Nixon, Ford, and George W. Bush.

Okay, we get it, Republicans: you don't like Barry. But this petty temper tantrum against American history has to stop.

This is why, honest-to-goodness, I'm not actually worried about 2012 in the least. The best they've got is the recycling of an old line from the 2008 McCain campaign. After all, the only thing that McCain really had going for him over Barack Obama was that he had a resume.

Saturday, June 5, 2010

Cary Bates's "True Believers"

When it was announced that Cary Bates, one of my personal heroes, was going to do a miniseries for Marvel called “True Believers,” I wanted to check it out.

Bates has always been an idol of mine and I’ve always thought of him as THE Superman writer…but in general it always seemed like Superman was his most unusual work, the odd one out. One of the central themes running through his work, from his introduction of the Illuminati in Gargoyles to his work in the New Universe to his paradigm shifting and sensational work with Captain Atom…was the idea of secrets, of conspiracies, of powerful people keeping things hidden. Bates’s work is fundamentally anti-authority and anti-control. A series like “True Believers” sounded like something up his alley.

What’s more, when I read the pitch to “True Believers” I liked it right away, because I always appreciate anyone who tries to write and think of the superteam in a new way. For instance, I appreciate the effort and intent behind Busiek’s DC book “Power Company,” where the hero team was treated like a law or business firm, with members as Partners and Associate Partners, hired on commission.

There’s no way to put this delicately, but when you’re dealing with a writer from a previous generation, there’s a concern that they’d write a very ho-hum book that doesn’t speak to modern times – Chris Claremont, for instance, is a great writer but he just keeps on doing the same old thing over and over. Bates heads that critique off by writing a very “current” book that doesn’t have the heroes fighting Nazi Robot Submarines, but instead talks about things in our culture: it talks about pirate signals, computers, information warfare, and the power of “alternative media” like blogs and the moral questions they bring up. One of the annoying problems with adventure fiction in general is its fundamental conservatism and that goes triple for superhero comics, where tropes like the chieftain’s Beautiful Daughter and the Evil Asian Genius are still recycled even after the entire world abandoned them. As a result, except for the occasional genius like Steve Englehart, comics are often irrelevant and don’t speak to the world around them. I actually have no idea why this book wasn’t that successful.

This book is a totally adult book…adult in the sense that it is mature and deals with adult problems and there are no kids or wisecracking robots. If anything, I’d say the audience for this is much higher than the teenagers that usually read comics; it could be an adult drama. This totally dispels the idea that Bates can’t write a “modern” book – heck, this stuff makes even currently “hot” guys like Mark Millar look downright juvenile. It's interesting that a guy that was famous as a writer in the seventies can be more hip and relevant than anyone else working today.

The one problem that I anticipated this book having turned out to not be a problem: the idea that the heroes would be presented uncritically and sanctimoniously as heroic rebels standing up to power. The book heads that off by having characters bring up some of the big questions about alternative blogging: nobody controls it or is held accountable, and revealing the business of other people is a pretty slimy, voyeuristic business. Likewise, the fact that the heroine sees herself as constantly “in the right” and with tons of righteous indignation is actually presented as a problem.

“Kick-Ass” is a movie about technology, and how it changes us and turns us into voyeurs, and there’s something about that that has a sickening effect on the human spirit. This book, too, is about how technology changes people.

Likewise, even though it’s a new team, Bates actually shows a real understanding of how to set a book in the Marvel Universe and how to use the Marvel Universe…something that, say, Gravity and Runaways didn’t, where the fact both books were set in the MU was something of an afterthought.

One thing kept me from liking the book, though. It spent so much of its brief run arguing for what the book is about, the idea of the book – heroes as counterculture information warriors that seek the truth and oppose the powerful – that it forgets to slow down and characterize the heroes and give them personalities. By the third issue I couldn’t think of a single word to describe any of the characters. The idea of the book is not as interesting as whether we like these characters or not. For that reason, I would not recommend it. Characterization is indicational, told not shown, with personality traits as informed attributes learned with characters saying “I am all about righteous indignation” or “weird how of all of us, Ozzie would turn out to be the calm, rational zen guy.”

To a certain extent, this is actually little alright with the supporting cast heroes, because the book isn’t about them, so if they’re a little underdeveloped it’s to be expected. The book is actually mislabeled a team book when really it’s about one character – Payback. I expect it started out as a pitch for a solo hero book, and somewhere down the line Bates grudgingly changed it to a team book, but kept the focus on Payback. And some credit is deserved for giving Payback powers that not only tie into the Marvel Universe’s lore (she has a variant, mutated version of one of the spider-symbiotes), but give her a power-suite that is genuinely unique. I always disliked the idea of “Energy” Superman, but I thought his electromagnetic powers were a very exciting idea.

Only one of the characters is downright unlikeable to me: Ozzie Tanaka. We’re introduced to him in one of the most alienating ways possible. He “field-tested” an experimental SHIELD weapon in an massive multiplayer online game with anonymous strangers. This shocking lack of secrecy came off as downright childishly immature, but the book actually expects us to sympathize with HIM as a counter culture rebel and SHIELD as a bunch of authoritarians for kicking him out over a security breach that huge! Instead of a rebel nonconformist, which is what Bates probably intended, he came off as an unreliable, childish person.

As great as Payback’s origin was, the team's weaponized wi-fi character had an underwhelming one: he wore an experimental tinfoil hat that was hit by alien lightning. Yes, really. And the “best” part for an origin this goofy and inappropriate in a book like this is that it was all done with a totally straight face.

Another problem is the absence of a strong villain. Denny O’Neil once gave the advice that if you can only do one, forget your hero and concentrate on your villain. The thing that made the first few issues of Young Avengers so readable is that they didn’t spend all their time with the “new” heroes: the initial story arc was first and foremost about Kang the Conqueror. This book doesn’t give us a villain.

Finally, the ending of the book was a little flat, because it involved a revelation that an organization in the Marvel Universe that has a reputation as dishonest and conspiracy-prone…might actually be involved in dishonesty and a conspiracy! (Shock!) Considering all the dirty tricks pulled in Civil War, the revelation is not only anticlimactic but also something that is entirely expected. What's more, the person behind everything is someone that when they're first and briefly introduced you distrust them immediately.

Thursday, June 3, 2010

If you want to know what palpable evil looks like, check this out

This guy believes that Uganda's anti-homosexuality laws are both Christian and "more American than America."

Note that nowhere does he go into what it is the law actually says. According to the Uganda anti-homosexual law:

  • Any free speech or anyone that rallies in defense of homosexuality is punished with 5-7 years in prison;
  • Anyone that knows anyone that is homosexual and does not report it within 24 hours receives up to 3 years in prison, including friends and family;
  • A conviction of homosexuality receives a life sentence in prison;
  • It redefines homosexuality to include "any touching with homosexual intent;"
  • Provides the death penalty for any homosexual that engages in relationships with anyone under 18 or the disabled;
  • Creates an extradition provision, meaning that any Ugandan convicted of homosexuality living abroad can be returned to Uganda to face trial. This includes non-citizens, so an American that speaks out on gay rights can be extradited to face trial in Uganda.

Whatever a person's feelings on homosexuality, it is obvious the law is monstrously inhuman. To defend it - in the sanctimonious name of Americanism, Christianity and Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. is a perversion of the American spirit and the Christian ethos of compassion.

The great evil of this video is made possible by the belief that morality is determined by authority instead of by reason and examination. Why is homosexuality wrong? Because the Founding Fathers and the Bible don't like it. Nowhere is the natural follow-up question asked...why is it that the Founding Fathers and the Bible didn't like the gay?

What's more, the culty veneration surrounding the Founding Fathers has gone entirely too far. Sure, George Washington didn't like gay sex, but he also didn't believe in women voting and owned slaves. He was a man of his time who believed in many just and unjust things alike. Central to an understanding of history is a sense of moral progress: the notion that as a civilization moves forward our moral understanding increases and immoral practices fall by the wayside (prohibition of mixed-race marriages, slavery, colonialism, child labor, etc.).

Also, I am particularly ticked off by various distorted and untrue things mentioned in his video. For example, his mention of King Mwanga made me very curious about the history of Uganda, and so I decided to look him up. Turns out he had seventeen wives, and the 22 Catholic Martyrs died....not for refusing his gay advances but for their religious beliefs (Mwana was anti-Catholic and the martyrs refused to renounce their faith on pain of death).

His mention of how liberals believe in multiculturalism offends me at a personal level, because there are many occasions where those on the left have spoken against attitudes that should be changed in other cultures. Feminists are always the first to speak out against machismo and anti-female sentiment in Latino, Middle Eastern and Asian cultures, for example, and against the horrific practice of female genital mutilation. Just because a culture believes something is moral does not mean it is or that it is worthy of being defended, or that it is immune to attack.

Finally, his mention of Pastor Rick Warren brings up the role that American evangelicals (even so called moderate evangelicals) played as enablers of this horrific and savage law, and the subsequent cowardice and desire to distance themselves from the savage history their influence helped create. Rick Warren's book, the "Purpose-Driven Life" is read widely in Uganda; according to one Ugandan, almost every Pastor in the country had a copy inside the book. Rick Warren, in Uganda gave many anti-homosexual comments. In other words, he had a great influence.

Here's another example: non-licensed "therapist" Richard Cohen's book, which claims homosexuality can be cured (something no true psychologist believes), is widely quoted by Ugandans. He was brought to task by Rachel Maddow here for producing junk science that Ugandans take seriously.

A traditional tactic of the Right is to enable and empower crazies and then run away from the Frankenstein they created. The textbook example would be the McCain campaign, who featured staffers and used innuendoes that Obama was a stealth Muslim plant with the middle name "Hussein." It was a perfect strategy: McCain stays classy and's just staffers on the campaign that McCain hired that bring up the Muslim and birth certificate rumors. It's a real crying shame that McCain, towards the end, got desperate and fought dirty.

Tuesday, June 1, 2010

Israel: Threat or Menace?

Well, the J. Jonah Jamesons of the world are at it again, wondering if Israel is a threat or menace after the latest encounter with a Gaza Flotilla. Supposedly the ships were there to give humanitarian aid to the people of Gaza, which is great, except that plenty of access already exists, provided by Egypt and Israel....too bad that both Israel and Egypt are both dedicated enemies of the terrorist organization Hamas, guys who dislike Israel for obvious reasons and Egypt because of its secular, non-theocratic Muslim government.

The fine folks that put the flotilla together were not exactly your friends of humanity. The people that organized the flotilla were the Turkish organization Insani Yardim Vakfi, who have extensive and copious links to not only Hamas, but the Muslim Brotherhood and Al-Queda. Heck, one of their activists, Izza Shahin, was arrested for providing hundreds of thousands of dollars to Hamas directly. When you have an organization that is known as a supplier of anti-Israel terrorists, you have an absolute commitment to getting them to stop sending weaponry and other devices....especially when they're going in a circle around the traditional aid route.

Israel's response was rational and cautious. It warned the flotilla that if they wanted to deposit aid, they could dock at Ashdod and do it from there. Even so, the flotilla refused to turn back even after being warned the commandos would respond with force if necessary. Even so, when commandos hit the deck on the ships, they were attacked by firearms, firebombs, and there is even video footage of one of them going overboard. It was a lousy situation to be sure, but one that that was entirely the creation of the Insani Yardim Vakfi and the freighter passengers.

Monday, May 31, 2010

Julian Perez vs. the Fifties

If the fifties were a planet, it would be a papier-mache crust over a core of vacuum.


Now, I'm unlikely to ever win an award for totally understanding women any time soon, but it occurs to me that fiction aimed at women usually has the heroine as a scrappy underdog, like Julia Roberts in Pretty Woman, or a spunky ordinary girl, like Anne of Green Gables or Pippi Longstocking. The idea of setting a series around the premise that the heroine is the loveliest creature in existence sounds unbelievably alienating.

I have no idea what the target audience is for this. The women thing was a guess because of the comic's mostly relationship humor and the fact it's set inside of a fashion magazine, but like I said, this doesn't sound like a concept that would be appealing to women. It's not for guys either, the way that say, the jungle girls or Bill Ward's Torchy Todd are, because Venus is hardly a jack-off fantasy for American GIs drawn in loving and horny detail. And I fail to see how kids would find the love, jealousy and working-girl comedy at all appealing.

I mean, I always hated stories where characters have only sympathetic flaws, like a sweet or nice girl that has a stutter or is in a wheelchair, where the flaw is used in a very cheap way to get us on the side of a character....but this is worse, because the problem she faces aren't problems in the conventional sense.

Worst of all, the "villain" of the story has a point. Venus has no qualifications and she comes in off the street and is promoted to the editor position of a beauty magazine. I'd hate her too, especially if I worked my duff off to get where I was.

One of the weirdest parts about Venus is that, as a book written by Stan Lee, towards the end the book undergoes a metamorphosis from office humor and becomes a dress rehearsal for Silver Age Thor. Like Silver Age Thor, the stories were centered around an immortal that had a forbidden love for a mortal earthling of modern times, a figure that nobody really believed was actually a god. And in both series, there was a haughty Big Kahuna god that didn't like the main character messing around and insisted they return. And finally, both have a main villain named Loki - and in both versions, he's a demonic god of evil that has horns (though in the case of Venus, he's drawn identical to the Devil).

Captain Science

I read this one as soon as I could because I am a huge fan of Wally Wood. Unlike "THUNDER Agents," here though it seems like Wood is just phoning it in for a paycheck.

One of the frustrating things about being a comics fan sometimes is that as everybody's such an insanely nitpicky nerd, and somebody somewhere is a hardcore fan of say, Donald Glut's "Dagar the Invincible" and "Tragg and the Sky Gods," it's very rare and ridiculously difficult to have a new revelation or a new insight, especially into really storied characters where everything that can be discovered about them has been discovered.

Here's something that I don't think any aficionados of classic comics have ever pointed out before: the similarities between the origin of the Silver Age Green Lantern (who debuted in 1959) and Wally Wood's Captain Science (who debuted in 1951).

Both heroes have their origin start off with a bald alien with an unusual skin color that crash-lands in the New Mexico desert. Before they die, the aliens give the hero an item of power. In the case of Captain Science, the alien's teaching machines give him all sorts of knowledge of scientific fact unknown to earth.

The Yellow Claw

Sorry to say the obvious here...but Good God, that was racist!

The revival of the Yellow Claw in modern Marvel Comics, including a really memorable story by Englehart (take a shot!) and a few other great ones including a tale where he actually killed the Mandarin (and he was really dead, too, though he came back to life when he placed his mind in his rings and some poor sap tried them on) made me very curious about the character and his 1950s origins.

The first issue with the Yellow Claw were well-plotted, atmospheric thrillers with extraordinary art. It definitely had strengths as a concept, though it was extremely derivative. Every panel looked like an extremely elaborate Chinese restaurant placemat. The next three stories were more or less Challengers of the Unknown stories: centered around a single weird occurrence, like a whole building where gravity reversed itself.

Hero System (Champions) 6th Edition Review

Champions, aka the Hero System, is my favorite tabletop role-playing game of all time, and so I grabbed the new edition, updated my running game to use it, and never looked back. Other superhero games are great, but none seemed as worthwhile as Champions. A majority of my long-lasting RPGs have been Champions games.

Like a lot of things I like, the Hero System is neither beginner or newbie-friendly...but while it looks difficult, the rules have such internal consistency that it's possible to understand how several rules work if you understand one. Character creation is infinitely customizable; there's never a danger of two characters looking alike.

My typical reaction to most of the changes in 6TH Edition was, “well, it’s about damn time!”

One thing that I’ve yet to see receive any praise as long, long overdue was the system for Long-Term END Loss. This is one of those so-called “Optional” rules, like the Dive for Cover maneuver, that in my experience, are ultimately not-so-optional because they fill a need and can be used almost every story. If a hero flies to South America, how tired are they by the time they get there? How exhausted are they by the cross over the desert? I have no idea why a system with this utility took this long to add.

What I find most impressive, and kind of creepy, is that an overwhelming number of the changes made are things that I personally used in my game on a haphazard basis. For instance, I used something quite similar to the Long-Term END Loss system for a while, and speaking of perfect timing…the very day before I got the book, a player asked if he could get an “all or nothing” limit on his Increased Density. At the time, I ruled that unless it was a huge amount, all or nothing is a -0 limitation. Imagine my shock to see that very ruling, with my exact language, in print! It was things like this that led me to believe this is a revision done by people that actually play the game.

The distinction between the Barrier and Entangle struck me as genius, since it was always unclear to me where Entangle’s ability to create barriers ended and Force Wall began. Further, the solution to Absorption – to list it as points to absorb instead of rolled dice – was exactly the kind of elegant, outside the box solution I hoped to see more of in this revision.

Another definite improvement was the unlocking of characteristics. On the plus side, the unlocking of characteristics means that combat doesn’t stop for 2 minutes while everybody figures out how their SPD is lowered by a Drained DEX. This is actually genius, since Drain DEX and CON are the single most common Drains. In addition to speeding things up, the unlocking allows greater character customizability. When I saw this change, the first character I immediately thought of was Marvel Comics’ the Thing: a guy that is big and rocky and slow, but who is very skilled and experienced at scraps and fighting. He’d definitely have a low-DEX and a high OCV.

This actually reduces the importance of super-crucial attributes like CON and DEX, which depending on their value, can make a character playable or unplayable. The single most common mistake that beginning players make is to have a low CON, which means every attribute derived from that stat is pretty low too.

The switch from inches to meters was an interesting one, but I’m not sure what it really changes. It does make me wonder, though. When I game, I usually do it with maps. A combat without a map, for me, is absolutely unthinkable – combat, to my mind, needs maps in order to be clear. Is it a common experience for people in other groups to play without maps? Is that the reason for the change?

What I find interesting is that most critiques I have of the 6th Edition can also be applied to 5th. The reason is, I’m just disappointed that the new edition didn’t go far enough in solving very basic problems with the Hero System.

1. Hey goober…where are the superguys?

When are they going to stop pretending this isn’t mostly a superhero game?

The Hero System started out as Champions and is first and foremost about superhero gaming. I have no idea why this is even contentious at all. The assumption of superhero gaming is built into almost every element of the system: two different damage types, knockback, END costs for everything, the way only high ability scores impact skills, the unreal damage done by Martial Arts damage, the fundamental durability of living things, down to the very names of powers themselves, like “Telepathy,” and the fundamental notion of powers as something distinct from skills and characteristics. There are a million little examples, even in the current edition: for instance, the fact that Barriers are not assumed to be opaque unless otherwise stated, is a perfect example of thinking that is so idiosyncratically superheroic. De-emphasizing the game’s superhero roots so it’s trying to be GURPS is downright confusing from nearly every angle, especially since the game only really works as-is for superheroes and needs patching and optional rules for nearly everything else.

The Hero System is like Starbucks: sure, it’s great they offer salads and organic juices, but at the end of the day, their business is selling coffee. I figured if anything would cure the Hero System of this tragic delusion, it would be a giant push by a giant, superpopular MMORPG that even goes by the game’s original name of “Champions.” The people that prepared 6th Edition didn’t even change the name of the RPG back to Champions, so connection can be seen. Essentially, the people preparing 6th Edition squandered the highest visibility that Champions has ever received and ever will receive! With the push from the top-selling computer game that uses an abridged version of its mechanics, Champions could have been able to reach a wider audience than roleplaying games usually get. As the “Hero System,” it’s only bought by the usual suspects. EPIC FAIL.

2. Adjustment Powers.

The Achilles Heel of the system is and always has been Adjustment Powers. If anything called for a revision it would be them, and it’s interesting how the section on Adjustment Powers in 6th Edition bloated out to a whopping three times larger than any other power category. The worst is that a crucial element of how they work remains undefined: how many points are required to lower or raise a Power? How much does a single unit (damage point, etc.) cost in active points? I usually solve this with a house rule: record the cost of each individual unit. For instance, an 8d6 Blast with Armor-Piercing would cost 8 points (7.5 rounded up) to lower per damage class. This is something so crucial to quick resolution of how these powers work, but it’s not even on the character sheet!

3. Mental Powers.

One of the first lines that Hero System zealots will parrot at you as a strength of the game is how you buy game mechanics first, and define what something is afterward. And to the game’s credit, it does work that way…except, y’know, for Mental Powers, which are treated separately, on an island from nearly the entire rest of the system. They have different rules for perceptibility, line of sight, and competing rolls…all because they have a distinct and uniting special effect. They even use a totally different characteristic to determine hitting! And there are two different versions of a power depending on whether it is mental or not: Images or Mental Illusions. A more elegant system would have brought them together by now. Something like the “attack vs. EGO,” “Invisible Power Effects” and “No Range Modifier” power advantages from 5th Edition were a step in the right direction.

4. Movement Powers.

No matter how you slice it, movement powers in Champions are so distanced from any real-world measurement of speed, to the point where I’m not even sure what a movement value really means, even in comparative terms. With lots of supergames, it’s pretty clear. In DC Heroes, if you have 10 APs of Superspeed, you can move the distance of 10 APs per round (which has a real-world distance). In Mutants and Masterminds, a Speed of 4 indicates the ability to move at 250 miles per hour. To figure out something as crucial as real-world speed requires a calculation that isn’t even a part of the regular system. This is a really big problem because the distance a character can move in a given time is one of the few occasions where knowledge of a long-term result outside of combat is more important than in-combat, “on map” results. Finally, there are so many variables, noncombat multiples, SPD, and inches – sorry, meters – of movement that the characteristics are meaningless.

5. Create any hero! Except the ones that the rules don’t like.

It is a bug that is desperately spun as a feature that in the Hero System it’s really hard to instantly kill or transform anything despite the fact that tons of fictional characters and devices have these ability. This is an example of the system telling fiction and the players how the world works instead of the other way around. Don’t get me wrong. I’m a GM, I know some things just shouldn’t be available as gamebreakers. But even if something is too abusive or powerful to allow player characters to have, a way should exist to create it where it can exist under GM control. Another example of the rules making awkward a concept that is intellectually easy to grasp would be characters that are just plain immune to something. I hardly see how having a PC or NPC that is just plain immune to fire, radiation or electricity is so game-destroyingly broken that there is just no way to do it under the normal use of the character creation rules. The Immunity power in Mutants & Masterminds did this very classily and elegantly and didn’t require insane uses of active points.

6. As before, Mimics, Shapechangers and “photographic reflexes” characters remain awkward to represent.

I always thought one of the reasons that Shapechanger and Mimic character concepts were a base archetype in the main Mutants & Masterminds book was a direct diss to their greatest competition – that this game can create with such ludicrous ease what is so awkward and difficult in the Hero System. Sure, in Champions there is a way to have Muscle Mimics and Shapechangers, but still. In practice, “on the ground,” they’re downright unplayable, especially for new players, since it involves a VPP, and designing powers is not always possible off the cuff. Even the most fervent Hero System partisan must admit that character creation is not the quickest thing in the world to do. Because skills can’t be placed in VPPs, and for good reason, the Muscle Mimic or photographic reflexes character remains the one power set that Champions just can’t reproduce under normal circumstances. This is a direct example of the rules and system interfering in character concepts that are very common in fiction.

As a Champions GM, I had to discourage a new player – naively under the delusion the game can live up to its promise and do anything she imagined - from creating a power-mimic character. I hated to do it. I hated to tell a player “no,” especially to a character concept so very basic to comics…but better to do that, than having her spend 5-10 minutes every combat assigning and building points for new powers, while a more experienced player stood over her shoulder and helped her figure it out. Does that sound like fun to anybody else? I had an epiphany when I realized that a VPP is suggested as a solution for any area the system can’t do well. To those that say the VPP solution to mimics works just fine, I ask you this: when was the last time you saw a Mimic character in your Champions game?

7. Lots of people are math-illiterate. The question is, what are you going to do about it?

I’m a mathy sort of guy; I took Calculus I and II in college and I was a “mathlete” in High School. I have periodically worked as a math tutor. I’ve often been alarmed at a world where most people are math-illiterate and seemingly proud of it, where even counting change is difficult for many. I don’t find the very basic elementary school math the Hero System requires to really be a problem at all. However, a stock critique of the Hero System is that it requires a lot of number-crunching, and it is an absolutely undeniable fact that character creation does take longer in this game than others. This critique keeps on popping up over and over and over and over. If so many people keep on saying it, if so many people bring it up, shouldn’t the people that design the game take the hint, realize there may be a problem, and do something about it? Maybe do something so character creation doesn’t take so damn long? So adjustment powers have an effect that results in quicker resolution? So figuring out your character’s actual speed in a meaningful real-world measurement doesn’t require an unintuitive calculation? So it’s possible to play a mimic or shapechanger for anyone but advanced players?

At the end of the day, that’s the biggest problem I’ve got with the 6th Edition: because it can’t acknowledge there might be something to the critiques, it doesn’t feel the need to do anything about them. Tweaking the cost of adjustment powers and their adders doesn’t change the basic problems. It really feels like the people that wrote 6th Edition didn’t think there were any basic problems with the game. Hero System fanboys and advertising copy go on about how “any hero is possible,” but game designers should know better than to drink the Kool-Aid, and strive to repair the real deficiencies that exist. The original Champions was not handed down on golden plates by archangels. Basic, fundamental things about it can and should be fixed. That’s the review of the 6th Edition Hero System in a nutshell: it didn’t go far enough.