Tuesday, July 31, 2012

Infographic: The Cost of Being Batman

Last week, Complex Art & Design posted a series of infographics breaking down the estimated costs of all of the gadgets/vehicles/weapons/doo-dads Batman employs to keep Gothamites safe. Check out their site for more detailed analysis, but here's the graphic:

WE RANK 'EM: A Song of Ice and Fire

George R. R. Martin breathed new life into fantasy fiction when he released A Game of Thrones in 1996. Though it built upon the successes of previous series, most notably Tad Williams' Memory, Sorrow and Thorn, Game of Thrones offered a depth and sophistication near unheard of in the genre. Now, 16 years and 5 books later, the Song of Ice and Fire series is a bona fide sensation. Through the excellent HBO adaptation, it is also introducing whole new audiences to modern fantasy fiction.

Yet it goes without saying that GRRM's worst is still better than most people's best, and not a single one of these 5 books is bad. But like any series (Robert Jordan, I'm looking at you), there are better and worse entries. We rank all five, and invite you to disagree as vociferously as you see fit!

5. A Dance with Dragons

Wait--GRRM's latest can't be the weakest link in the series, can it? It can. Essentially, book #5 serves as a cautionary tale about the dangers of growing too big for editors. Sure, it's a fun read, but whether its Danaerys pondering an uninteresting slate of marriage proposals, Jon Snow spending his entire narrative discussing housing options for wildlings, or new character Quentyn Martell doing something pointless, Dance with Dragons is too long, too slow and too dull. Tyrion, admittedly, is as great as ever, and the Theon narrative is as gripping as it is icky. Still, someone should have chopped 300+ pages off this sucker.

4. A Feast for Crows

Choosing the better half of the 2,000+ page "in between" novel better known as Feast for Crows/Dance with Dragons was difficult, but Feast for Crows sneaks past the #5 slot. Why? Because as much as the book meanders without much purpose, some interesting things do happen in King's Landing. Seeing things from Cersei's perspective is a lot of fun too--she's thankfully unrehabilitated, and just as petty and cruel as you imagined. Plus I really dug the "Faith Militant" storyline and wonder how GRRM will position this crusader-like force in the coming epic war between humanity and the Others. Beyond that, though, Feast for Crows suffers from the same problems as Dance with Dragons.
3. A Game of Thrones

Okay, now we're talking! The book that started it all is a tightly constructed web of intrigue, romance and deceit and a full-blown tragedy in the Shakespearean or classical Greek sense of the term. A book of this quality would be the penultimate achievement in just about any other fantasy series, yet here it only manages a #3 ranking. Why? Because Game of Thrones is largely a set-up for something bigger, grander and far, far darker. It does, however, do an impressive job introducing an enormously complicated world without resorting to tiresome exposition or jarring info dumps, and in Ned Stark offers one of the classic characters of modern fantasy.

2. A Storm of Swords

The conclusion to A Song of Ice and Fire's first narrative arc is immensely gratifying, and only misses the top spot by a hair. It's hard to talk about what happens without ruining it for those who still (for one strange reason or another) haven't read the series, but suffice to say this is edge-of-your-seat, seat-of-your-pants type stuff, the kind of book you'll gladly and frequently trade sleep for, and the rare type you'll find just as exciting the second time as the first. There's very little to complain about, even for the most die-hard and implacable of nerds, as there's an almost endless parade of memorable scenes and affecting character development. Brilliant stuff.
1. A Clash of Kings

It was difficult deciding which book deserved the top slot, and as mentioned above, Clash of Kings wins out by a hair. The reasoning is simple: it's GRRM's Empire Strikes Back: a virtually flawless, tightly-packed arrangement of gripping and deeply-affecting scenes. Whether it's Arya's epic journey from King's Landing, Melissandre's shadow baby, Danaerys' encounter with the warlocks of Qarth or the Fist of the First Men, there's rarely a dull moment. The best narrative belongs to diminutive Tyrion, as he plays "the game" masterfully, outfoxing one opponent and then the next, culminating in the epic Battle of the Blackwater, which could possibly be the greatest scene in all fantasy fiction. Ever.

Monday, July 30, 2012

Microreview [book]: The Dragon's Path

The Dragon's Path by Daniel Abraham [Orbit 2011]

The Meat

Epic fantasy seems to be undergoing a renaissance these days. This can largely be attributed to two things: the phenomenal success of HBO’s GAME OF THRONES adaptation, and the way it has made fantasy cool for people who previously thought it was all elves, hobbits and 30-sided dice; and to a new generation of writers pushing the envelope of what can be done within the genre. It’s not just George R. R. Martin either, though he is undoubtedly fantasy’s biggest name and most influential living writer. Rather, despite a history of hackwork, Tolkein ripoffs and D&D tie-ins that have fueled perceptions of fantasy as among the lowest of the lowbrow, today there are a great number of authors producing well-written, serious and challenging work within the genre.With THE DRAGON’S PATH, author Daniel Abraham can take his place next to GRRM, Steven Erickson, Brandon Sanderson, KJ Parker and other luminaries of contemporary epic fantasy.

The first installment in a 5-book series, THE DRAGON’S PATH largely follows four characters--mercenary captain Marcus Wester, bank ward Cithin, bookish and unlikely war hero Geder Paliako and noble scion Dawson Kalliam--as they navigate events surrounding the invasion and occupation of the city of Vanai by the Empire of Antea.

There’s a lot to recommend in THE DRAGON’S PATH. To begin, it’s a really fun story, presented in crisp, engaging prose, and full of memorable moments. The narrative voices--perhaps the single most important ingredient to a novel--constitute a particular strong point. Geder, Dawson, Marcus and Cithrin are all fully realized, complex characters who act and speak like real human beings. You can easy relate to them and understand their general motivations, but--like real human beings--they often make key decisions in an arbitrary, ad hoc fashion that can be surprising, but feels very authentic. This leads to the conclusion that some of the narrators, at least, are not exactly “good guys.” Yet they’re not quite anti-heroes or villains you “love to hate” either. Rather, they’re people who you come to know and trust, only to find out that they value things we modern types tend to find abhorrent. It’s like an inverse of the way GRRM redeems Jaime Lannister, and is just as compelling.

 On that note, I’m generally a big fan of the way Abraham approaches issues of morality. He’s been one of the most vocal critics of fantasy’s “gritty” and “brutal” turn, at least when grittiness and brutality are mistaken for historical accuracy, so I was curious to see how he would treat the issue. Turns out THE DRAGON’S PATH is plenty gritty, featuring, among other things, one of the most horrible atrocities I’ve encountered in epic fantasy. Yet he presents the event without reveling in the blood and gore--a fact that, somehow, makes it feel more disquieting, and leads you to reevaluate a lot of the assumptions you’d made up to that point. This is a novel that makes you really think about what you believe in and how much of that you should chalk up to the context of time and place in which you are situated.

Of course, what would a discussion of epic fantasy be without some attention to the all-important dimension of world building? In this domain, THE DRAGON’S PATH sports an uneven record. Abraham presents us with a world that was once ruled by dragons (yes, that’s right--ruled, as in governed). Humans were their subjects, yet these powerful beings played god much in the same way we do with dogs, cats and horses, and from "firstblood" stock bred 12 additional “slave races” marked by prominent physical differences--the furry Kurtadam, the “chitinous” Timzinae, tusk-bearing Yemmu, and so on. The idea is really neat, and refreshing. Unfortunately, there’s a presentation problem. I'm a big believer in internalized world building over jarring info dumps, and see GRRM as the gold standard in this regard. But with a concept as complex as Abraham’s 13 races of humanity, it would have helped to either put a little more exposition early on, or perhaps introducethe various slave races gradually. I spent the first 200 pages continually trying to remember which was which, which was both distracting and annoying.

A second problem is that the book doesn’t give the reader a clear sense of geography: we get place names, but little idea of what fills the spaces between them, where they are in relation to one another, and what cultural and physical features differentiates them. For me, this is one of the most interesting aspects of epic fantasy, and a key reason why I’m attracted to the genre. The relative blankness of things was, to be frank, disappointing.

In the end, though, these issues did not put me off THE DRAGON’S PATH. And in some ways, its failings are a consequence of its strengths--the focus on characters and relationships and the book’s abiding intimacy. Despite not everything working out as well as it could have, I thoroughly enjoying myself while reading it, and strongly recommend it to anyone seeking a new fantasy series. Won't be long before I crack open the sequel...

The Math

Objective Quality: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for the subtlety and sensitivity that went into characterization; +1 for really getting under my skin and making me re-evaluate all kinds of assumptions I have about life, a rare thing to achieve in fantasy literature; +1 for the interesting and unique "13 races of humanity" concept

Penalties: -1 for the empty spaces; -1 for problems relating to the introduction of the slave races

Nerd Coefficient: 8/10 "well worth your time and attention"

[Read about our non-inflated scoring system, where anything above a 5 is more good than bad, here]

Saturday, July 28, 2012

How comics made me an atheist

My dear departed father could not have known what he had set in motion that day. All he did was bring was give his son his very first comic book. And had he known the consequences of his actions, he would probably never have given me that copy of Dreadstar #4. After all, he was a devout Catholic, he went to mass every weekend -- with or without his wife and kids. Little did he know that he wasn’t merely turning his son into a comic nerd, an obsessive collector and scholar of useless lore. He was setting the stage for unbelief.

That’s right, comics made me an atheist. Well, technically an agnostic. But that word is so weenie.

It didn’t happen right away. Suspension of disbelief isn’t something that kids bother with. What do the laws of physics, simple rationality, and giant plot holes matter? All I knew was that X-Men and Superman were awesome. Who cared that they made little sense? Sure Lois Lane should have recognized that Clark Kent without his glasses -- I’m sure at some point Clark had taken them off around the office -- but is there a single prepubescent kid who bother questioning such flights of fancy? When you spend two-thirds of your day immersed in fantasy, whether playing Thundercats during recess or reading Detective Comics in a tree, the thin line between belief and disbelief is no line at all. 

My parents sent me to Catholic school. Soon enough, belief became an all too important issue. Creation, the Immaculate Conception, the Holy Trinity, Transubstantiation, the Resurrection of the Dead: that’s a lot of consequential and scary stuff for a kid to absorb. But belief came easily.

My parents weren’t hardcore Catholics by any means. In retrospect, they were quite liberal. My mother always claimed that all religions were basically the same, but we were Catholic more as a cultural matter, i.e. Basque = Catholic. (And because other religions, in her view, sucked.) Her own religiosity involved decorating the house with rosaries and Virgin Mary figurines, as well as making us drink holy water from Lourdes when we got sick. My father, whose political views were steeped in French socialism, was always rather dismissive of anyone in authority, especially those “goddamn priests.” He was adamant that we not go to confession after our First Reconciliation. "Tell God you sins," he'd say, "not no goddamn priest." He did like our parish priest, because Father Mike talked about football and baseball during sermons. That’s probably why he went to mass every week, though he would later claim he had to “pray for his son who doesn’t believe in nothing.” 

But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.

Being a Catholic primed me in many ways for becoming a comic nerd: there was a whole universe of superpowered characters to obsess over and the eternal struggle of good vs. evil, not to mention objects to collect, all of which was mysterious and wondrous. I often felt sorry for my few Protestant friends, whose religion seemed hokey, unimaginative, and boring. We had legions of angels battling demons, saints with superpowers, sacred talismans and statues that cried blood. We had mystery, we had magic, in our religion. Beat that with your sola fide and lame-ass Christian rock.

By the time I was ten, I was devouring not only comics, but religious books as well. Not complex treaties on theology, but The Lives of Saints. In fact, I even had religious comics. Not the schlock that Jack Chick produced -- though I would become a fan of those in high school in an ironic manner -- but actual Marvel Comics biographies of Jesus and Pope John Paul II. The local library had books on angelogy and Jewish myths that augmented the Church-sanctioned tomes available to me at school and at St. Mary’s Catholic Supplies.

Soon, I was a learned believer. But I had yet to learn how to suspend disbelief.

My comic reading eventually involved systematizing Marvel's and DC's mythologies into my religious worldview. It was easy for the most part because Catholics get to believe in science -- and 99% of what I read was science based. Gamma rays, kryptonite, super serums. Like evolution, these were all perfectly compatible with the Catholic faith, which worked for me: X-Men were among my favorites. Magic was also readily absorbed, so I got to read Dr. Strange.

Granted, the Avengers counted a god among their founding members. But Thor didn’t matter: I never read the Avengers.

Then along came The Sandman. I was 12 years old and still a believer when I picked up Sandman Special: The Song of Orpheus at Waldenbooks. Though I don’t remember what caused me to buy it, the story was unlike anything that I had ever read. It was lyrical, magical, mesmerizing. Within a month, I had bought every issue I could get my hands on. Among them were the issues that comprised The Season of Mists.

Things changed for me after reading this storyline.

“The Song of Orpheus” didn’t affect me as profoundly as did The Season of Mists. Perhaps the D'Aulaires books on Greek and Norse mythology had prepared me for Orpheus's decent into Hades. But there was something deeply troubling about angels, Norse and Japanese gods, the personifications of order and chaos, and Dream conferencing together in hell -- the same hell I the priest talked about, the one that was real. What? There was only one God. How could Odin and angels -- God's angels -- exist within the same universe? How was I to come to terms with this scene, which I knew was awesome, into my religious worldview? 

Unless, maybe, just maybe, the Catholic faith itself was nothing but a set of myths like those of the Greeks and the Norse. Perhaps the Bible was nothing more than fiction -- and far less appealing fiction than Neil Gaiman’s masterpiece. 

Unable to suspend disbelief -- and unable to stop reading The Sandman -- I stopped believing. 

O.K. I think by this point in my life I was quite able to suspend disbelief. And, to be honest, I can’t quite remember why I felt the need to force Gaiman’s comic into the small spaces that Catholicism provided me. Maybe I was going through a unrelated and sincere crisis of faith and The Sandman allowed me to project my angst and questions into something more grounded, into something that truly mattered to me: comic books. Comics opened my mind and allowed me to discard all that which I had hitherto believed.

Over the next few years my questioning turned into outright rebellion. In high school I discovered Nietzsche and Camus, which provided intellectual rationales for my godless worldview. My disbelief was now grounded in existential and philosophical concerns, in indentifying the simple logical consistencies and moral incongruities that apostates of all types have grappled with. And I felt liberated.

It began with comic books. Not personal tragedy, failed hopes, the experience of war. It was comic books that turned me into an unbeliever.

Sorry, aita.

Friday, July 27, 2012

Pay What You Want Music (for a good cause)

Contrary to popular opinion, and the rules of
reading printed English, They Might Be Giants
did not name their B-sides collection "Album Raises Bling."
For the next two weeks, nerd band extraordinaire They Might be Giants, and Rube Goldberg nerds extraordinaire (also band) OK GO, and also four other bands I'm less familiar with, are each offering up a release you can download for as much or little as you would care to at www.humblebundle.com.

This is a really cool platform. As a musician who has donated album proceeds to charities in the past (and just this week got involved with another charity project), I know that tackling something like this can be sticky for musicians and consumers, alike. Where is the money going? Who is it helping? Are the artists being compensated? Is the sponsoring organization taking a chunk? Lots of questions. The Humble Bundle program puts the answers to all of that in the consumer's hands. When you order the bundle -- all six albums -- you can designate exactly how much of your purchase goes to charity (and what portion goes to each charity), how much goes to the musicians (and what portion to which musicians), and how much (if any) goes to the Humble Bundlers. Pretty cool.

And yes, the TMBG album includes versions of "Particle Man" and "Istanbul (Not Constantinople)" -- for those of you who, like me, discovered this band in the Long, Long Ago via Tiny Toons.

Wednesday, July 25, 2012

Judging an E-book by its Cover

Hello from the tropics! Due to some weather issues, I'm away a couple days longer than expected, which on balance isn't a bad thing...just an inconvenience. So what have I been doing here, you ask? A lot of things, most of them non-nerdy, or at least not the right kind of nerdy. That said, I have been doing quite a bit of reading, and primarily in e-book form. Though I have read e-books before, this was the firt time I read several in a row (3, to be precise). The experience has been an interesting one.

Let me begin by saying I'm both a dyed-in-the-wool bibliophile (the kind that loathes spine-bending and doesn't even really like mass market paperbacks) and a technophile. So e-books had left me conflicted. Was I more excited about a new technology that would put more books at my fingertips faster, or scared about the way these newfangled things might reduce the market for my beloved print books and the stores that sell them?

Turns out I mostly liked my e-book-only experience. I read a lot, and read fast. My eyes weren't negatively impacted by the additional screen time, and I generally found it more convenient to travel with a single, light tablet than multiple books plus a laptop.

That said, something began to concern me. I had a conversation with my wife after finishing Sapkowski's THE LAST WISH that went like this:

"Well, that book was awesome."
"What book?"
"The one I just read."
"I have no idea what you read anymore."

The culprit, it turns out, was the lack of cover--or, to be more precise, the fact that the cover was not visible to someone else while I was reading. This led to some soul-searching on my part, and upon a visit to a local bookstore, the realization that, when buying print books, I am highly influenced by cover art and book design.

My question, then, is this: what happens when we no longer judge a book by its cover, or when the art and design of a book ceases to be as central to the book choosing process as it has been over the past many decades? Are we set free, or does some of the fun bleed out of book buying? Should we be happy or sad that we won't judge books by their covers anymore?

Guest Post: When This Baby Hits 88 Miles Per Hour...

The intrepid Dr. Newhouse-Bailey is on a perilous quest to win a Delorean from author Ernest Cline.

I finally broke down and bought Ready Player One by Ernest Cline (I know I should have done it earlier) when it was announced that he hid a code in the text to unlock the first of three gates in a competition for a Delorean (complete with Flux Capacitor). You can read about the contest here or watch the video below.
Pictured, from left to right:
Virtual Delorean, Pure Nerd Joy.

With the proper motivation, I made the purchase at my local comic book store and couldn’t have been happier. I was left with a text that pulled on my nostalgic heartstrings with nerdy pop-culture reference after nerdy pop-culture reference. Take those away, you are still left with a gripping tale that all should read. It is a text that once you begin reading, you will be hard-pressed to put it down.

This is not, however, a review of the book. Just buy it already.

The competition is a series of trials to clear three gates (just like the book!). Gunters (book reference) attempt to clear these tasks with the first to complete all three deemed the winner. Ernest took his Delorean to San Diego Comic Con and is currently wrapping up a book tour. You can read all about it at www.ernestcline.com.

Despite its appearance, this gate does not
lead to the secret hideout of David Lo Pan.
Or does it...?
After reading the book, I went through the text and decoded the first gate. When the first gate opened I was left with a downloadable Atari rom called “The Stacks”. Similar to “Pitfall”, I completed the game and found the Easter Egg that granted access to the second gate.

The second gate was a Sims-style game called “The Ultimate Collector.” It is a Facebook app in which you buy and sell wares from your local mall, garage sales, conventions, etc. There were dozens of quests to achieve including five from Ready Player One that would unlock a virtual Delorean to place at your garage sale.

This game quickly became the bane of my existence as I sorted through bins and bins of stuff searching for the right lunch box, video game and movie poster. I am proud to say I completed the task without spending any of my own money, but it was a chore.

Over 1,000 gunters (read the book already!) cleared the first gate and 290 have been verified for clearing the second gate. The deadline to complete the second gate is midnight on July 31. At that time the third gate will be open and the first to complete it will walk away with their very own Delorean. The way I figure it I have a better than 1:1,000 chance in winning the car. I doubt I will ever have odds this good again. Wish me luck!

Tuesday, July 24, 2012

Microreview [TV]: Breaking Bad S05E02

The Meat

So, the other nerds on this blog don't watch Breaking Bad. Seriously, they don't watch the best show ever. If I knew more about sci-fi I'd insult them for obsessing over the scientific merits of whatever it is that Doctor Who does or whether or not midi-chlorians...I don't even have enough familiarity with nerd lore to finish this sentence. My point is that The G and Vance should get themselves a hundred tacos for a hundred dollars and watch Breaking Bad form start to finish over a weekend. Next weekend. It's on Netflix, guys. Get to it. 

Episode 2 of the fifth season of Breaking Bad should have been the season opener. As I argued last week, the debut episode was a bit underwhelming and that the caper at its center wasn’t all that exciting. A good episode, yes. But, hardly enough payoff for those of us who’ve been eagerly awaiting the show's return since Gus got half his face blown off.

“Madrigal” did it for me. We got some new information that will likely have lasting implications, especially as Walt and Jesse take over their former employer's non-chicken empire. 

The fact that Walt and Jesse played a secondary role in episode 2 is probably the reason for it not being the season opener. Instead, the story focused more on Gus’s crew. Rather than the cast of narcos and gangbangers who’ve lurked in the background over Breaking Bad’s first four seasons, the criminal enterprise Gus built consisted of corrupt yuppies, business owners, and corporate shills -- and a few thugs. Plus one bad ass old man.

Enter Mike Ehrmantraut, Gus’s head of security, lieutenant, cleaner, and consummate professional. The man is preternaturally emotionless, except when it comes to Walt, whom he refers to as a “time bomb.” But in many ways he is similar to Walt -- at least the old Walt. Episode 2 shows that, like our hero, Mike may be doing this all for his family. He’s also loyal to “his guys,” the network of criminals and corrupt businessmen who ran Gus’s operation -- well, all of them except Walt. When Lydia -- the Yuppie liason between the German company Madrigal and the meth manufactures -- suggests that Mike whack off the eleven individuals who might cut a deal with the DEA, he refuses. He trusts his guys, he’s vetted them all, and he knows they won’t flip. When one of his crew takes Lydia's offer and tries to lure Mike into a trap, Mike takes it in stride, the pro that he is. He turns the tables and not only survives, but sets a trap for Lydia.

Unfortunately for Mike, the trap requires that he accept Walt’s offer to build a new organization producing and distributing meth. He’s now in business with a man he loathes and the man whom he fears will bring him down. Eventually.

Walt has become truly loathsome. First we have him covering his ass, planting a fake ricin-containing cigarette in Jesse’s apartment to not only convince Jesse of his innocence in poisoning Brock, but, more importantly, to bring Jesse back under his thumb, to manipulate his erstwhile partner's guilt as a means for securing his loyalty. This stands in marked contrast to Walt’s behavior in Season 2, when he puts himself between Jesse and Tuco's M-16. And it serves as a perhaps too obvious foil to Mike's code of honor.

As if this weren’t enough, the episode ends with Walt crawling into bed with his terrified wife. Skyler’s fear of her own husband has left her in a catatonic state. During the episode's last scene Walt tries to reassure her that what she’s done -- crippling Ted Beneke -- is OK, because she did for her family. But, since he’s trying to get some while persuading her of this, we’re disgusted. Walt has become an undeniably shitty man.

And that is the genius of Vince Gilligan and his team of writers. They’ve developed the series' main character, but in directions we didn’t expect. What other show is willing to force their viewers to hate the hero?

I still kind of want to see him win. But I'll enjoy watching him fall.

The Math

Objective score: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for being almost all about Mike; +1 for not relying on stereotypical criminals 

Penalties: -1 for being better than the season opener

Nerd coefficient: 8/10 "Well worth your time and attention." 

[See explanation of our non-inflated scores here.]

Monday, July 23, 2012

Guest Post: Inside "Pottermore"

Raighne Davidson's nerd specialties are Harry Potter (naturally), The X Files, Star Trek, 50s sci-fi, and Sherlock Holmes (retro nerdery!). She recently undertook a voyage through Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone on Pottermore, the new online interactive Harry Potter destination, and reports back.

First of all, Pottermore looks beautiful. Really beautiful. The colors are rich (and I’m on a laptop with a regular screen, nothing fancy), the texture is deep, and the illustrations pop off the screen. Please don’t crucify me for this, but I love these visuals so much more than Mary GrandPre’s original book illustrations. They are a beautiful, velvety representation of the world of the books – you just want to crawl inside them and stay there.
Platform 9 3/4: Your gateway to murder, persecution, and terror! Exciting!
Here’s how Pottermore works: you go through the standard sign up/confirmation email/log back in stuff, but when it comes to choosing your screen name, you get offered these wonky compound non-words with numbers as your only options. Part of me understands why this is (there will be no SnapeLove69 or OneEyedMoonyPants14 on this site!) but receiving the odd pairings and having that be it, no ability to change or request more options, eh, well, let’s just say that is my least favorite part of the whole experience.

You start off, quite properly enough, in Chapter 1 of Sorcerer’s Stone. Everybody wants to just sign up and get sorted into their house at Hogwarts, but hold onto that Thestral, fanboy, all in good time. You read about Privet Drive and you see Hagrid in the sky on his flying motorcycle delivering Baby Harry while Professors Dumbledore and McGonagall wait on the street. As you move through the chapters, you visually hit all the high points: setting the snake loose at the zoo, receiving the Hogwarts letter, moving to the shack in the middle of the sea, the arrival of Hagrid. Once Hagrid joins you, however, the experience becomes much more involved. He takes you to Diagon Alley where you visit Gringott’s and receive your wizard gold. You then have to purchase all the items on your school list before you can proceed. This includes your wand, of course, and even though you can’t hold it in your hand, you do think your little mouse pointer has been chosen by this particular wand to be yours and yours alone.

After a quick trip on the Hogwarts Express, you arrive at the castle to be sorted (which is what everybody is waiting for). In a nutshell, you answer several questions that I think used to be a personality quiz in a magazine somewhere. And there are more of them than I expected. After the fourth or fifth one, I thought, wow, this is thorough. At the end, the Sorting Hat thinks awhile and pronounces your house. I know the Hat is supposed to take your choice into account, but it doesn’t ask here. I was sorted correctly. I will not tell you where. Let’s just say I know I ended up where I belong.

Once classes begin, the interactivity continues. You learn spells and can duel to win house points. You can brew potions (which can sometimes be difficult), also to win house points. At the end of the year, all of the collective house points are totaled and a House Cup is awarded and the Great Hall is decorated appropriately. Let’s just say I was very happy with the colors in the Hall at the end of last term...

Inside Pottermore, JK Rowling explains how she transfigured Matthew Lewis
from bumbling pre-teen into Clive Owen, Jr. 
The "more" in "Pottermore" refers to the fact that J.K. Rowling has added new information about the world of Harry Potter that you can unlock as you move through the chapters. This is, hands-down, my favorite part of Pottermore. Digging deeper and learning more background on the people and things you love in this world is so fascinating. Rowling also includes some info that is utterly unique, like the list of ‘The Original Forty.’ It’s her original list of forty student names from Harry’s year. We only see the names themselves, but in Rowling’s notebook, there are also notations of their parents and which house they were sorted into. There are also extended descriptions and backgrounds on characters themselves. I loved reading about Professor McGonagall – from the development of her name, to the struggles of her mother, to the men she loved – I read it all and still wanted more.

I think that statement right there is the reason everything to do with Harry Potter has been so utterly successful. I still want more. A single experience is not enough. We read the books and then we want the movie. We see the movie and we want to read the books again. We experience the books in a new way as part of an interactive website and want to move to a castle in Scotland that is Unplottable. Then we catch ourselves telling our children things like, “No, the proper way to mount a broom for flying is like this...”

We, the collective fans of all things Potter, wanted more. So JKR provided. Pottermore. I will keep coming back. For more. Always.

Sunday, July 22, 2012

Brief Comment on the 'Dark Knight' Massacre

It seems appropriate to say something brief about recent events in Aurora, Colorado. I would say that such things are beyond comprehension, but sadly they have become too commonplace for that. Making matters worse, this tragedy touches directly upon our community, taking place at the premiere of a high-profile superhero movie, and enacted by a man who--in his demented, murderous psychosis--apparently could no longer see the boundaries between art and life. This is not the only, or even most important, part of the story. But it is there, and on that note, I'd like to share this thoughtful and thought-provoking article from the New York Times:
Nolan’s films are not the great art that some of their admirers imagine them to be, but they are effective dramatizations of the Way We Fear Now. Their villains are inscrutable, protean, appearing from nowhere to terrorize, seeking no higher end than chaos, no higher thrill than fear. Their hero fights, not for truth, justice and the American Way, but for a more basic form of civilizational order: He knows his society — his Gotham, our America — is decadent and corrupt in many ways, but he also knows that the alternatives are almost infinitely worse. The great allure of the superhero, of course, is that he has the tools necessary not only to fight the more elemental forms of evil, but also to pre-empt them: to sweep down, cape flying, whenever ordinary law enforcement fails to anticipate or reckon with a threat. Indeed, for all the famous grittiness and violence in the Batman movies, very few innocents perish on screen.
Not so in real life. RIP to all the victims.

Friday, July 20, 2012

Guest Post: The Con Away from the Con

Dr. Michael Newhouse-Bailey brings Nerds of a Feather our first actual boots-on-the-ground reportage in this wrap-up of Comic Con 2012. The good doctor's nerd specialties are comics, anime, and the Simpsons. Also, even though he's a little out-of-practice, he can still embarrass you on the tennis court. Take my word for it. - Ed.

It is the time of year where I weed through a giant bag of stuff to sort out what I want to keep, what my family gets and what I mail out to my friends. I am talking of course about San Diego Comic Con.

The author, with sad Yo Gabbite.
My favorite thing about Comic Con is that everyone attends for different reasons. While this year marks the final installment of the Twilight films, the SDCC had the Twi-hards, the fanboys, the fangirls, the comic collectors, the toy collectors, the autograph seekers and more. If you are passionate about anything, you will fit in and can have a great time among the 140,000 plus people. I attended for the fourth consecutive year and had another great time with my brother and my friends.

Through both on- and off-site events I was able to gain insight into some true creative geniuses. Whether it was the King of the Con, Joss Whedon, at the Nerd HQ (a little about that later) or Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez discussing their comic Locke and Key, this type of access usually isn’t granted for a fan. I learned how Joss builds human connections between the viewer and the character and that Joe enjoys seeing his characters have flaws and make mistakes. 

Observe: a Fringe hat.
See what I did there?
I was fortunate enough to witness the Community panel, the Firefly 10th anniversary panel (which we linked to here - Ed.), and the Fringe panel. Two of the three previously mentioned panels included tears and all felt like a huge thank you to the fans from our favorite shows. The sheer emotion that is felt on stage by the actors, the swag and the exclusive clips (at least until later that night) led to a great time. My favorite item of swag had to be the Fringe hat that had all of Hall H ready to “observe” the final season.

Enough about my personal experience, what about SDCC as a whole? This year there was even a greater trend to move the fans away from the Convention Center. Highlighted by Zachary Levi’s Nerd HQ, you couldn’t walk around the Gaslamp without bumping into something Comic Con related.

I hope Yvette Strahovski's
The Nerd HQ is the brainchild of Zachary Levi of Chuck fame, and brings some of the biggest names from the Con into an intimate setting and a no holds barred Q & A. In addition, there were game demos, raffles, merch, a photo booth and just all around good times. Through photo ops, donations and the conversations, the Nerd HQ raised $140,000 to Operation Smile. Conversations included Twilight, Dr. Who, Joss Whedon, and Nathan Fillion to name a few. In only its second year, this has become one of my favorite things about attending SDCC.

What surprised me the most was The Walking Dead Escape, an obstacle course through PetCo Park infested with zombies. Four of our group braved the wandering herd and climbed, ducked, crawled and jumped over obstacles as we tried to make it through without getting infected. It was a little pricey, but in hindsight, is one of my top moments of the Con this year.

Twitter proved valuable once again. We were able to locate some Django outlaws and get our merch tokens, compete in a bat signal search to win an advanced screening of The Dark Knight Rises (I won a limited edition Mondo poster in the contest!) and be entertained through the nerd panic that fellow con-goers feel as they wait in a line they are sure will never end, wonder about what exclusives are left, or brag about a celebrity encounter.

As I look back on another successful year I can’t help but feel tired. My kids think it was worth it because I returned with prizes, but I think it was worth it as it is the opportunity to spend time with my friends in mobs of sweaty people. Pre-sale for next year, only open to 2012 attendees, begins next month so if the internet gods are kind, I will be attending for a fifth time in 2013.

Time for the coveted announcement of the first annual Newhouse awards!

Best Panel
Firefly 10th Anniversary – even though I am not a huge Firefly fan (I know I shouldn’t admit this, I like the show, I just don’t think it’s the greatest thing ever), the panel was really heartfelt. The look on the faces of the actors when they saw the 4,000 plus giving them a standing ovation was worth it alone.
Fringe/Locke and Key – Fringe was also really heart felt and full of humor. Joshua Jackson yelled thank you at the end and the cast took a bow as they prepare to wrap up the series.
Locke and Key may be the best book published right now. Joe Hill and Gabriel Rodriguez are hitting on all cylinders as this book prepares for the final chapter.

Mondo Dark Knight trilogy poster.
Best Swag
Fringe Hat – The theme of the panel and the upcoming season are they are coming. They referring to the observers. If you attended in Hall H then you got your very own observer hat.
Mondo Dark Knight Poster – If you have ever tried to purchase a Mondo poster online you know they sell out in no time at all. I was extremely lucky to win this poster and can’t wait to put it on my wall.

Best Fan Access
Nerd HQ – Zachary Levi has done it again. Seats to conversations are limited to around 240 and fans can ask whatever their heart desires. Add in random celebrity sightings at the HQ (I saw Larry King!) and you have an amazing off-site experience

Best Off-Site
Zombies: Big baseball fans.
Who knew?
Tie: The Walking Dead Escape and Nerd HQ – I already have mentioned the Nerd HQ a lot (I really like it and they raised $140,000 for Operation Smile, so sue me!), but the Walking Dead Escape was great. They used the makeup team from the show to ensure the zombies looked great and the course was a mix of fear, humor and was a good challenge to complete. If you were infected you could choose to be “shot” and left with a bullet hole tattoo on your forehead. You were really immersed from start to finish.

Best Exclusive Footage
Community – they showed a fan made clip that showed how much the cast of Community is appreciative of their fans and the bond that the two share. It was great feeling like a part of their family.
Wreck-it Ralph – They showed around 9 minutes of the movie and I couldn’t be more excited. I feel this movie was made for me and my son.

Thursday, July 19, 2012

Comic Con from afar

It's that time of year when I can hardly keep up with my Reader feed because it's filled with awesome announcements on all things nerdy -- must be ComiCon! There is a LOT to report, but here are a few things I'm freakin' out about: 

Inline image 2

AVATAR: THE LEGEND OF KORRA, the sequel series to Avatar: The Last Airbender, was renewed for a second season, which means there are 40 more episodes to look forward to!! Tor has some great ideas about what it'd be fun to see in the future, but the really good stuff are these sneaky pixx from the Korra panel at ComiCon, showing new outfits, new characters, new locations, and new creatures. 

Now I love love Korra just the way she is, and I know she's a different Avatar in a different time in a different show, but I'm really looking forward to more flashbacks of Aang, Sokka, Katara and Toph, mostly because I didn't really think they got the characters right when we so briefly saw them. Sure, they've grown up, but why was Aang so serious, even if he is the Avatar? Same for Sokka! "Goofball" is, like, the first thing you'd say to describe them, and stripping the humor from those two characters was pretty much the worst thing about the Avatar: The Last Airbender movie. (Maybe I'll just see if there are any grown-up fanfic-- oh, yeah, of course, here it is. And for good measure, here's the grown-up grown-up stuff.)

(FYI, if you're into Katara/Aang as your OTP, it's called KATAANG -- which I discovered by googling "ktang," one of the sounds that Rick Jones's wristbands make when struck together to call Captain Marvel from the Negative Zone. I was looking for a graphic for this post about comics and language, but instead found a bunch of incredible KatAang fanart, like THIS. You're welcome.)

(Also -- I just learned this a couple of days ago and it blew my mind -- Katara in Avatar: The Last Airbender is voiced by Mae Whitman, the chick that played Ann on Arrested Development (and Roxy in Scott Pilgrim vs. the World). Her? Really?!)

I'm also definitely hoping for more past-life Avatar awesomeness. So far, we've really know the stories of Korra, Aang, Kyoshi, and Roku. 

But the ten-year FIREFLY REUNION is all we really care about, right? So grab your Jayne hat, your tiny plastic dinosaurs and box of tissues, because here it is in all its glory:

Jose Molina, Tim Minear, Alan Tudyk, Nathan Fillion, Summer Glau, Sean Maher, Adam Baldwin and god himself, Joss Whedon all ended crying. My boyfriend Nathan Fillion summed it all up rather well: 
“When Firefly died, I thought it was the worst thing that could possibly happen. What I realize now, looking over this room, is that the worst thing that could have happened is if it had stayed dead.”
Robert Downey Jr with Iron Men!
But what I love most about Comic Con is -- well, first maybe I should tell you I'm kind of a dork. My favorite thing about Comic Con is, of course, the COSPLAY. (#nerdalert I've done a little myself... see Billy & Phoebe. They're from books you've probably never heard of. #latfh But you should!) My favorites are exclaimed!

  • Here you'll find GENDERSWAPPED Geordie, Indie, Avengers, Han & Leia, Rocketeer, Tin Tin, and a really really ridiculously good-looking lady Wolvie (!).
  • Here you'll find KIDS as Amidala, Hawkye, Flash, Dalek (!), Finn & Jake (!), Edward Scissorhands, and Sakura & Chung Li (!).
  • Here you'll find the Engineer from Prometheus (!), Henry Jones, LSP, Carmen Sandiego, FemShep (Mass Effect).
  • Here you'll find Nausicaa (!), Princess Mononoke, Ghostbusters, Batman & Bane, Scott Pilgrim & Ramona Flowers, Rorschach, Mary Poppins, Duffman, Bilbo Baggins, Disney princesses, Xena, Spy vs. Spy, Earthworm Jim, Sailor Moon, Silver Surfer (!), Arthur & the Tick, and Darth Vader grilling up Jar-Jar Binks' head.
  • Here you'll find Galactus (!), hipster!princesses, regular princesses, hipster!Zelda characters, Futurama, Jem (!), MegaMan, April O'Neil and one of the TMNT, an Oompa Loompa, and zombies zombies zombies.

Wednesday, July 18, 2012

WE RANK 'EM: The Harry Potter Movies

My wife is working up a guest post on Pottermore, the online Harry Potter experience, which got me thinking about the films again, which I was consistently a fan of. The pressure on the filmmakers to "get it right" (whatever that means) was tremendous, knowing that every change to the source material would be scrutinized and obsessed over to no end, and if they blew it, they stood the chance of ruining the lives of two dozen children (the actors) for no good reason. It's hard to make even one good movie, but in the end, the filmmakers behind this franchise made 7 (or 8, depending on how you count) good ones over 10 years. I cannot think of a more ambitious and successfully executed cinematic undertaking in the history of the medium. Really.

That said, I have now ranked the movies. This list is correct. If you say otherwise, prepare yourself for a wizard duel. (FYI - Spoilers abound below)

8. Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban (Rotten Tomatoes: 91%)
I refuse to drink the Kool-Aid on this one, and I will not apologize for it. Look, Children of Men is great, but you can almost literally see Alfonso Cuaron poking his head out of the corner of every single frame of Prisoner of Azkaban saying "Look! I directed that! See?!?" The talking shrunken head on the Knight Bus is ridiculous, the repeated through-the-mirror shots are pointless, and the clock pendulum that swings through the main entrance of Hogwarts (because there's going to be a twist about time travel!) is embarrassing, heavy-handed symbolism of the worst kind.

7. Harry Potter and the Philosopher's/Sorcerer's Stone (Rotten Tomatoes: 80%)
The first film in the series presented the biggest risk, and the studio made a conservative choice in going with Chris Columbus in the director's chair. A lot of people criticized the decision, thinking the adaptation was too "safe." Whatever. This film delivered quality entertainment and established enough goodwill for the filmmakers that they had earned the audience's trust by the time they had to make riskier decisions later in the franchise, from choosing directors to cutting major story elements.

6. Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince (Rotten Tomatoes: 84%)
There are a number of wonderful moments in this movie, from the introduction of Slughorn to Ron's victorious homecoming to the Gryffindor common room after winning the Quidditch match, but on the whole, the story in this film is a very slow burn to its this-changes-everything climax.

5. Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets (Rotten Tomatoes: 83%)
This movie is too long (the longest of the series), and the slow pace (the actors take forever to react and respond, which is a directorial issue) is a problem, but it introduces Dobby, one of the best characters in the series, and Kenneth Branagh's Gilderoy Lockhart is pure fun. But for the life of me, I can never figure out why the whole school is so excited to get Hagrid back at the end. Oh well.

4. Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix (Rotten Tomatoes: 78%)
My only explanation for this film having this lowest critical rating of the franchise is that -- owing to the source material -- it's the most grim and oppressive entry in the series. But this film marks the point where it could be argued the filmmakers became better stewards of the franchise than J.K. Rowling, herself. Harry is so angry and petulant in the book that it was hard for me to take him in large doses, but his anger and confusion seem to be handled far more deftly in the movie. For the first time I found myself enjoying the movie adaptation more than the Harry Potter book it was based on. The death of Sirius is handled with far more grace and plays much more meaningfully onscreen than on the page due to a couple of important choices the filmmakers made, and the Dumbledore/Voldemort battle in the Ministry is just freakin' cool.

3. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part I (Rotten Tomatoes: 79%)
There are two important deaths in this film, and the ways in which they're handled in my mind utterly eclipse the source material. By this point in the books, JK Rowling could see the finish line, and (has admitted that) she started hating some of the characters, so in the books, Hedwig's and Dobby's deaths seemed spiteful and cavalier. Onscreen, they are made meaningful because they are not simply deaths, but sacrifices, which Harry will have to make of himself in the last film. That's just good writing. And the end of the film justifies splitting the final book in two, giving the franchise its end-of-Empire-Strikes-Back-oh-my-God-everyone-is-screwed moment.

2. Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire (Rotten Tomatoes: 88%)
This is probably my favorite book in the series, and marked the first time when Steve Kloves had to cut more than he kept in an effort to get the thing onscreen. Even on my first viewing, I thought his choices were elegant and inspired. Also, Mike Newell's direction of the actors in the Yule Ball sequence and Harry's return from the graveyard brought out arguably the best performances of the series, especially from Daniel Radcliffe, until the final film.

1. Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows, Part II (Rotten Tomatoes: 96%)
By any standard I can think of, this is the clear crowning achievement of the franchise, and was utterly robbed by the old men running the AMPAS. It packs the greatest emotional wallop of the franchise, and gives the struggle between Harry and Voldemort the pay-off it (and the audience) deserved, and which J.K. Rowling didn't give us in the dashed-off finale of the 7th book. Snape's death makes my wife sob, sob, sob, and for some reason it always manages to get an eyelash or big speck of dirt or something in my eye, too. Must be that.

Tuesday, July 17, 2012

Microreview [film]: The Black Death

The Meat

Did you like GAME OF THRONES? Did you like it so much you'll watch a remake of THE WICKER MAN that takes place around the time of the Inquisition and stars both Ned Stark and Melissandre? Because that's pretty much how I felt when I (finally) finished season 2 and saw this come up on my Netflix instant queue.

The nicest thing I can say about THE BLACK DEATH is that it's not terrible, and features some cool fighting sequences. Otherwise it's a pretty boring take on a film I've already seen and didn't love. Bad Christians yadda yadda nice villagers yadda yadda now they're bad villagers and nice Christians yadda yadda who cares?

The Math

Objective quality: 5/10

Bonuses: +1 for Melissadre is a very attractive woman

Penalties: -1 for she looks better as a redhead

Cult film coefficient: 5/10

Monday, July 16, 2012

Microreview [TV]: Breaking Bad, S05e01

The Meat

How couldn’t I have had high expectations? Breaking Bad had already proven itself as the most compelling show on TV before everyone’s favorite high-school-science-teacher-turned-meth-manufacturer, Walter White, became a truly bad motherf*cker last season. You all remember what happened to Gus. Where do you go from there?

Breaking Bad is smart. There’s no need to get more violent, to go beyond what we've seen before. The show’s most brutal violence takes place in conversation, is manifested in cold stares and sharp words. The show will take it slow, pile on the tension. No need for blood and guts to take things one step further.

The again, Walt got an M-60.

The first episode of the final season, "Live Free or Die," opened with a future Walter White celebrating his 52nd birthday at, where else, a Denny’s. He’s disheveled, his hair grown out, he's sporting an unkempt beard and a New Hampshire ID. A man enters the restaurant, catching Walt’s eye. Walt follows him to the bathroom. Money and car keys are exchanged. Walt asked if there’s a manual. The man replies that he’s printed something off of the internet. “Good luck, I guess” the man tells Walt.

Walt’s just bought a car with an M-60 in the trunk. This is going to be a good season.

But, that’s the future. The show quickly jumps back to the immediate aftermath of Gus’s death. Mike is pissed, Skyler is scared, Jesse is loyal, and Walt…well, Walt’s bad. Not all bad, but bad enough. But he’s not only bad, he’s convinced himself that he. Killing Gus and scaring Skyler has made the man confident. Much more confident than future Walt sitting alone at Denny’s. My guess is that this confidence will not serve Walt well.

I hate to say it, but "Live Free or Die" was a bit of a disappointment. Just a bit, though. Much of the episode felt more appropriate as a mid-season throwaway than as the opener. There was a lot of logistical work, i.e. the magnets, which didn’t really feel all that dramatic. Yes, Walter, Jesse, and Mike would’ve been sent up the river had their magnet trick not worked. But, compared with taking out Gus in last season’s finale, it seemed a little thin. 

Don't get me wrong, it was still cool. 

The strength of this episode -- as of the show itself -- lies the acting. In particular, Anna Gunn as Skyler White shined in the opener. Her interaction with Ted Beneke, whom we assumed had been killed after being visited by hired goons last season, was brilliant in its subtlety. Skyler had spent most of the episode afraid -- afraid of Walt, afraid of Ted telling the cops about how he ended up in the hospital. But, when it becomes apparent that it's Ted who is afraid of Skyler, she gets a taste of the power that has pushed her husband to the dark side. If Skyler continues on this path, the series would certainly be throwing us a curve ball -- which is why we love Breaking Bad in the first place.

But I come back in the end to the beginning: What’s Walt doing with an M-60? Who’s he going to war with? Because this is a weapon for war. If he needs to take out Mike or Jesse -- or even Saul -- a simple handgun would suffice. But Walt is clearly intending to do some real, Frank Castle damage. The season opener gave us no real hints concerning whom or what Walt needs to shoot, but this is one of the strengths of the show: it revels in screwing with its audience, with taking turns we don't expect. There’s no reason to guess, to hypothesize. This isn’t Lost. This is the best show on TV, despite the relatively weak opener.

That’s right, I said it. The best show on TV. Ever. Better than The Wire. I’ve committed white liberal academic blasphemy by making this statement. But I tell it like it is, kids. Best show ever.

The Math

Objective Score: 6/10

Bonuses: +1 for the M-60 in the trunk; +1 for the science references (string theory, the God particle, magnets!) 

Penalties: -1 for the caper-centric plot as an opener

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10

CONVERSATION: Big Summer Comic Events V


Philippe, you're right to point out that superhero deaths are (mostly) meaningless, and I'd say this is even more problematic in the DC Universe than the Marvel Universe. Why? Well, to begin, DC pioneered the "kill him off/bring him back" marketing campaign with the DEATH OF SUPERMAN back in 1992. So we can blame them for that. But that's not really what I'm getting at here.

"It will be Batman's turn in 20 years"
No, the reason why death is even less meaningful in the DCU than the Marvel Universe stems from the fact that, for a time, there were actual deaths in the DCU, and they actually seemed to matter. Ted Kord, Superboy, Maxwell Lord, Elongated Man, Human Bomb, Kal-L (Superman of Earth 2) and a host of minor characters died during INFINITE CRISIS and the (much better) 52 alone. And not only did they stay dead, but characters still living seemed genuinely, profoundly impacted by these deaths. I did, however, begin to grow concerned when at the end of FINAL CRISIS, DC killed off Batman in an almost exact facsimile of the way Marvel killed off Captain America just a year earlier.

Those fears turned out to be well-founded when, in 2009, DC brought all the dead back as killer zombie Black Lanterns in the hugely disappointing BLACKEST NIGHT. This the the moment when the wheels fell of that iteration of the DCU.

What, exactly does zombie Aquaman 
expect the humpback whale to do?!
With all the rebirths in BLACKEST NIGHT's aftermath, what had been one of the most interesting comics continuities in recent memory suddenly had nowhere else to go. Sales plummeted, sowing the seeds for 2011's comprehensive, universe-wide reboot. 


If I lament the death of DC's old continuity,* it's because, for a while, it gave us really compelling stories--including crossovers. True, they weren't all good--INFINITE CRISIS was, at best, so-so, COUNTDOWN was abominable, and FINAL CRISIS was near unreadable. But we also got three crossovers that were fantastic: IDENTITY CRISIS, 52 and the SINESTRO CORPS WAR.

The same is arguably true for Marvel. AVENGERS DISASSEMBLED is good. HOUSE OF M is really, really good. CIVIL WAR would have been good, had Mark Millar not gotten sick and had Marvel given him the 4 issues he needed to finish the story, rather than the 2 he got.

So...What Makes a "Good" Crossover? 

All haterade aside, I'm going to suggest that good crossovers are possible, that they do happen, and that we can actually identify a winning formula.

For the sake of argument, let's take a look a bunch of major crossovers published over the past decade. To begin, I'll create a "good" label for IDENTITY CRISIS, 52, SINESTRO CORPS WAR, AVENGERS DISASSEMBLED, HOUSE OF M and CIVIL WAR; and a "bad" label for INFINITE CRISIS, COUNTDOWN, FINAL CRISIS, BLACKEST NIGHT, WORLD WAR HULK and SECRET INVASION. That gives us 6 cases in each category. When you look at what made the good ones good, and the bad ones bad, a pattern starts to emerge:

  • 4/6 "good" crossovers focus only on a limited set of characters, whereas 4/6 "bad" crossovers are sprawling, universe-wide affairs
  • Only 2/6 "good" crossovers feature reality-menacing, evil supervillains, compared with 4/6 "bad" crossovers
  • In 5/6 "good" crossovers, you understand and sympathize with the eventual loser, whereas that's only true of 1/6 "bad" crossovers
  • 5/6 "good" crossovers center on the personal relationships and histories of the superheroes, compared with 3/6 "bad" crossovers

Taken together, we can conclude that the "ultimate" crossover is one that tightly focuses on a limited set of characters, eschews evil supervillains in favor of sympathetic and/or tragic figures, and centers drama on personal relationships rather than epic battles.

Incidentally, that description best fits IDENTITY CRISIS and HOUSE OF M, which I consider to be the most successful crossover events of the 12 mentioned above. Both have thrilling, well-paced plots, to be sure, but they play second fiddle to exploration of what makes these heroes truly human: their flaws, weaknesses, dreams and fears. They are about relationships, and about the deep stress all these heroes must be under. Neither features a villain, per se, but a tragic figure whose motivations are largely understandable. I go back to these two stories at least once a year, and think they are about as good as superhero writing gets.

Wanda struggles to hold it together
All that said, the formula is not the only path to success, or even a guarantee of it. SINESTRO CORPS WAR was awesome, despite the fact that it doesn't conform to our model. On the other side of the coin, WORLD WAR HULK does sort of conform to the model, and it's not awesome.

Plus then there's this: all but one of the "good" crossovers I mentioned above was published during the years 2004-2006. The bad ones generally come after that. What does that tell us? My guess would be that this wave of crossovers began with some creative people over at DC and Marvel pitching cool ideas for, you know, stories. But when these things blew up, the marketing folks probably decided it had to become an annual thing--something to get attention and improve the bottom line. Given the drop in comics readership over the past decade, I can sympathize, but if true, it was a short-term strategy that may have ultimately done more harm than good. It seems to me as if both readers and writers have crossover fatigue at the moment. Thankfully, we've got a break this summer. Sort of.

*Technically the pre-NEW 52 continuity only goes back to INFINITE CRISIS, but the reverberations of pre-crisis events were still felt post-crisis, so it makes sense to stretch it back further.

Friday, July 13, 2012

Turn off your brain: Suspension of disbelief is fun

Tor.com (one of my favorite sf/f publishers) has a lovely ode to Red Matter (remember, from 2009's Star Trek?), that magical, science-ish thing that makes the suspension of disbelief possible, a soft lullaby to that annoying thinky part of your brain, the Jedi wave of the hand that tells your cortex, "Move along, nothing to see here." (Which is why midi-chlorians were such a fantastically awful addition to Star Wars lore. Don't explain that shit; we were already on board. Why did you have to screw it up with half-assed pseudo-science?)
Call it whatever you'd like. Phlebotinum. Kryptonite. The X-Gene. Nanotechnology. Unobtanium.
 But they left out my favorite! Wonderflonium. (Do not bounce.)

In my house, anytime we start a new show or movie with a particularly noticeable or silly phlebotinum, we shout "JUST BUY IT!" (Every episode of Fringe.) Then everything is awesome. Or, if it's a particularly believable/well-constructed phlebotinum, there's a chorus of, "Yeah, yeah! I'm buying it, I'm buying it... Oh, I just bought it." (First viewing of Inception.)

Cognitive estrangement is a wonderful thing. If you're into SF/F, it's pretty essential to be able to shut out the absurdity if you're going to enjoy yourself at all. (Plus, magic makes kids more creative.) But when things actually start making sense? -- that's when science fiction can be really satisfying. 

Which is why I was astounded by the review of the Avengers movie written by Orson Scott Card, one of my absolute favorite authors, best know for Ender's Game, coincidentally published by Tor. The Enderverse is very comfortably based in the science of our real world (until it gets to the really theoretical, "out there" (... get it?) stuff in Children of the Mind). It's just enough science to buy it, but usually just little enough to avoid bothering science-minded people. Even his fantasy tends to be based in familiar scientific theory; his newish teen fantasy Pathfinder series is about manipulating the space-time continuum. I guess that's why he's so snobby.

I've written about my love-hate relationship with Card (a Mormon narcissist, however freakin' brilliant he may be), but this review just killed me. Really? In this movie of gods, scientific accidents, superfreaks, and aliens all together in the same universe (which you also point out as ridiculous), you are seriously going to bitch about the physics of the S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier, a totally canon piece of the Avengers comic legacy
This is where movies are today. There is no earthly reason why an aerial aircraft carrier should exist. Buoyancy keeps ships afloat. But without balloons, keeping a huge heavy airship aloft takes energy. Lots of it. 
Which burns fuel at a frightening rate. And the fuel would weigh so much that the aircraft carrier in The Avengers could not possibly carry enough fuel to lift itself.
Oh, WHO CARES. We all know IT WAS AWESOME. Get over it, man.

Oh, um... also, man, I'm really excited for your book Earth Unaware, yet another Enderverse novel about the first Formic war, coming out next Tuesday, July 17th. And I'm SUPER STOKED for the Ender's Game movie, slated for release in November 2013. I think I might have actually squealed with I found out that Harrison Ford was cast as Hyrum Graff. And Ben Kingsley as Mazer Rackham? GUH.

Here is a periodic table of imaginary elements, available for purchase as a poster