Thursday, January 31, 2013

Thursday Morning Superhero

The big news in the world of comics this week brought a smile to my face.  Mind MGMT by Matt Kindt has been picked up by Fox with Ridley Scott set to produce.  Add this to the fact that NBC ordered a Sixth Gun pilot and the rumblings of the Locke and Key movie trilogy has some momentum and I couldn't be happier.  Oh yeah, Matt Fraction is also donating his royalties from this week's heart-felt Hawkeye to Hurricane Sandy Relief.

Pick of the Week:

Sixth Gun #28 - Cullen Bunn knows how to keep you on the edge of your seat.  The scenes in this book between Becky, the Wendigo, and Drake are some of the most suspenseful pages I have read in recent memory.  Taking advantage of the medium, when I desperately wanted a page turn to bring some sort of resolution, I was whisked away to Gord and the rest of his rag tag group on their quest to find Beck and Drake.  The Sword of Abraham is in pursuit, but the strength of Asher Cobb and the magic that Gord possess keep them one step ahead.  Asher Cobb, who I initially didn't think much of, has really grown to be one of my favorite characters.  Bunn must be credited for the amount of empathy and compassion I feel for an undead mummy and his lost love.  I can't bring myself to rate them, but Sixth Gun, Locke and Key, and Mind MGMT are the three best comics on the market today.

Hawkeye #7 - Matt Fraction delivers an emotion issue that touches on the impact that Hurricane Sandy had on many individuals in New York and New Jersey.  The book opens with Clint helping out one of his tenants travel to Far Rockaway to save his father and some belongings.  The issue wraps up in Jersey as Kate is in a wedding that is disrupted.  When her gear is stolen from a drug store, the people of New Jersey come together and show the resilience of the northeast.  To top it off, Matt Fraction is donating his royalties to Hurricane Sandy relief.  Go buy this!!

The Rest:
Batman: The Dark Knight #16 -  It has been a while since I visited the Dark Knight, having focused on Detective Comics and Batman, but I am quite pleased with this issue.  The Mad Hatter is kidnapping dozens of people for an unknown reason and Batman is trying to get to the bottom of it.  Mix in that Bruce's current love interest may know his secret.  Nothing spectacular or wildly inventive, but Gregg Hurwitz spins a nice set-up for what looks like an enjoyable arc.

Superior Spider-Man #2 - I am still not sure how I feel about the whole Doc Oc inside Peter's body thing, but it has been an interesting journey.  In issue #2 we are treated to the plight of Doc trying to get together with Mary Jane.  We see Doc's strengths enhance how Spider-Man patrols the city, we see his attitude alter how Spider-Man is perceived in the city, and we ultimately see how Peter, as a memory, is really having a hard time seeing his life invaded by his greatest foe.  Still an intriguing concept, but still not sure how long I will keep reading.  I have enjoyed it thus far and it is definitely thinking outside the box which I appreciate.

The Masters of the Universe: The Origin of He-Man #1 - When I saw this book released this month I figured it was time for a trip down memory lane.  I was a He-Man fan as a youth and minus the live action movie, remember it fondly and even have a few toys that my son plays with.  This book, however, did not provide the nostalgic feel I hoped for.  It took too serious of a tone.  The art, akin to the style of Boris Vallejo, doesn't allow for the tongue-in-cheek humor that this series used to provide. This book left me disappointed.  Time to go play with my son's Mechaneck toy to cheer me up.
This comic felt nothing like the series from my youth

Wednesday, January 30, 2013

Downton Abbey - Now Available for the SNES!

This gem popped up on my twitter feed today. Couldn't resist posting.

Snack Pairing: Lay's Pepsi-Chicken Flavored Potato Chips

Lay's Pepsi-Chicken Flavored Potato Chips (USA/China)

Yes, you read that correctly: "Pepsi-Chicken" flavor. And as it happens, it's not as random as you might think--cola is used in China to caramelize soy-flavored chicken wings (in neighboring Korea it's often used as a "secret" ingredient in kalbi marinades). I haven't actually tried this snack, but was told it's "like barbeque flavor but with this sickly sweet, chemical aftertaste." Epic win for globalization.

Pairs withPrincess Mononoke, A.I. Artificial Intelligence or any other bit of nerdery that starts off carbonated only to devolve into a flat, sugary mess.

Tuesday, January 29, 2013

The Hidden Fortress is not the Death Star

I may have mentioned in previous posts (here and here, perhaps) that Star Wars has become all the rage in my house. (But not the prequels. Get off my lawn.) This seemed like a good opportunity, then, to finally watch The Hidden Fortress, the 1958 Akira Kurosawa movie that I've heard for years was the inspiration behind Star Wars, and report back.

It pains me to report that the Hidden Fortress is not the Death Star. I liked the idea that Akira Kurosawa, who I submit is the greatest director the movies have yet produced, had somehow made Star Wars, more or less fully formed, but with samurai. Fear of discovering that was not the case is probably what prevented me from seeing The Hidden Fortress until now. In the interviews I've seen, George Lucas freely admitted that there are connections between the two movies, but he downplayed them, saying only that there are princesses in both movies -- but they're very different -- and that the Kurosawa movie gave him the idea for C-3PO and R2-D2. But George is pulling our collective leg a little bit.

First of all, the princesses are quite similar. George says that Leia is "more of a stand-and-fight" princess than Kurosawa's Princess Yuki, but I found the differences to be cosmetic, and really more a product of the particular circumstances each woman found herself in. Yuki is pretty bad-ass, especially without access a blaster. I'd like to see Leia, in the middle of crossing enemy lines to re-establish her kingdom, trade her only means of transport to save one of her former subjects from a life of forced prostitution. What's really interesting with Princess Yuki, though, is how much she influenced Padme Amidala in the dreaded prequels. Sure, there's the bizarre geisha face paint, but in addition Yuki relies on a series of doubles and look-alikes to keep her safe, something that figures prominently into the first two prequels.

When it comes to Tahei and Matashichi, the two inspirations for R2 and 3PO, "similarity" definitely gives way to "quotation," as the whiny and constantly bickering pair are lifted almost directly out of Kurosawa's movie. Except for the part where they seriously consider raping the princess while she sleeps. Lucas wisely left that out.
Hidden Fortress, Star Wars
These two jackasses were reincarnated as fastidious robots.
Without the overwhelming greed and rape-eyes.
Where things get harder to parse is the Han Solo/Luke Skywalker origination. In my mind, Luke is the product of Lucas' Hero's Journey fascination, and not really derived from The Hidden Fortress. Han Solo, the swaggering, super-capable, roguish smuggler, though, can be traced straight back to Toshiro Mifune's General Rokurota Makabe.
Toshiro Mifune. Hidden Fortress, Star Wars
Han Solo's cool, but ain't nobody Mifune-cool.
The plots of the two films are not terribly similar, with The Hidden Fortress focusing on the efforts of a loyal General to safely transport his princess across enemy territory while two of their traveling companions constantly try to steal the gold reserves they are smuggling to help rebuild the kingdom. I take for granted you know the plot for Star Wars. But a simple comparison of the finished products doesn't tell the whole story. The original treatment for The Star Wars, which George Lucas actually sold to Fox in 1973, was a bizarre mashup of The Hidden Fortress and Peter Pan, where "General Skywalker" was tasked with transporting his princess across enemy space while two low-level bureaucrats tried to steal the spices they needed for money. Then, General Skywalker fell down a hole or something and found some kids, who he trained to be starship pilots, and save the princess. Really.

To be honest, I don't know why Fox bought that story. I wouldn't watch that for all the hairbrushes in Kashyyyk.

Monday, January 28, 2013

Scalzi, The Human Division Episode 3: We Only Need the Heads


In case you missed the first two reviews in this series, I thought The B-Team (episode 1) was awesome, and that it was pretty much everything a "pilot" should be. Walk the Plank (episode 2) was entertaining, but it was a bit of a let-down nonetheless. It established a couple major plot points but its experimental, teleplay-style form meant that it didn't quite work so well as a standalone episode. What's more, the absence of any of our central characters struck me as strange. Science fiction TV shows sometimes have non-sequiter episodes, for example when the security chief of a space station located in the midst of a burgeoning civil war takes some time off the impending crisis to solve a murder mystery and drink a bunch of space whiskey. But it's rare for a science fiction TV show to completely abandon the credited cast to focus on another group of humans altogether, and even rarer to see it happen immediately after the pilot.

We Only Need the Heads puts us back in touch with Harry Wilson, Hart Schmidt, Ambassador Abumwe and the rest. Abumwe has been given another assignment, this time to settle some outstanding trade and tourism issues as part of a broader peace deal between the Colonial Union and the Bula, a tough-nut alien species that has occasionally mixed it up with the Colonial Defense Forces. Seems pretty laid-back, right? Wrong. Unfortunately for Abumwe, some idiot humans have set up a wildcat colony on a planet claimed by the Bula and recognized as Bula territory by the big and scary alien consortium known as the Conclave.

The wildcat colony in question, as it happens, is the one we visited in Walk the Plank. CDF sends a ship to deal with it, and hopefully get the colonists off world before the Bula find out they are there. And Harry Wilson has been sent along in an advisory capacity (exactly why isn't explained). When the mission gets there, though, they find something something terrible, which could put the whole Colonial Union in a bit of a sticky situation...

So How Was It?

After the jarring interlude that was Walk the Plank, I'm happy to say that We Only Need the Heads works as a fully-formed follow-up to The B-Team. It's a well-paced and exciting episode, with engaging characters acting, for the most part, in believable ways. And, of course, the pages are positively dripping with the sarcasm and dark humor that made the Old Man's War books such a big deal in SF. That's generally a good thing, but as I observed with The B-Team, there's an occasional overabundance of smirk and snark. For example:

Wilson wandered toward the officers mess to get a cup of coffee. As he did so, he pinged his BrainPal's message queue and found there was a message there from Hart Schmidt. Wilson smiled and prepared for a delightful dose of Schmidt's special brand of wan neuroticism.


Wilson turned away from Lee and Jefferson's truly compelling discussion and wandered further into the hut.

I get what Scalzi is going for here, but let's be frank: no one thinks in these kinds of terms. Cynicism is a state of mind, and thus can take place internally, but sarcasm is a fundamentally performative act. To put it another way, it's not something you think, it's something you say, and doesn't make sense outside the context of social interaction.

And, for that matter, when was the last time you saw an email or facebook post and thought "ah, here's a delightful dose of this person's special brand of wan neuroticism?" It might seem nit-picky to fixate on a couple errant sentences, but these moments of overwriting can snap the bubble of suspended disbelief and catapult you back into a state of detachment from the text. (Now how's that for overwriting?) Thankfully, they are the exception rather than the rule, and for the most part Scalzi does a good job balancing seriousness and humor. I do wish he'd dial back a bit from time to time, though.

The second issue I had with We Only Need the Heads is more structural to the plotting of the episode. I apologize in advance if I get overly cryptic here, but Scalzi has strong opinions on spoilers, and I respect that--even if it does make my job a bit harder to do. So if you are very spoiler-sensitive, please skip past the colored text.

!Mild Spoilers Ahoy!

So Abumwe needs to drag out her negotiations with the Bula so Wilson and the CDF crew have enough time to extract the colonists and destroy evidence of the wildcat colony. Only, the CDF has withheld vital information about the colony from both the diplomats and the cleanup crew. Now, I understand that military complexes are inherently secretive--at times to a fault. I also understand that command does not entail competence. But withholding this information, at least from the soldiers tasked with dismantling the colony, pretty much ensures that the only way they could do their job effectively would be if they stumbled into that information by chance, which is exactly what happens. Maybe this will make more sense later on, but right now it looks suspiciously like a plot hole.

!Spoilers Ended!

I'm willing to give Scalzi the benefit of the doubt on this for the time being, and it bears repeating that We Only Need the Heads is a well-crafted and gripping episode that left me itching to push further into the book. Must...resist...tempation!



[Given that I'm doing one of these/chapter, I'm dispensing with the usual bonuses and penalties.] 

Saturday, January 26, 2013

Microreview [crime fiction]: The Seduction of the Innocent

The Meat

Apparently Max Allan Collins has been reading my dream journal again. A crime novel set in the shady comic publishing world of the fifties? Mobsters, beatniks, and two kinds of sexy nerds? Yes, I am interested.

Well, he didn’t get it exactly right: the love interest was a blonde, not a brunette.

Seduction of Innocent shares a certain quality with the paperback trash that it emulates: this is a novel to be enjoyed, quickly and preferably thoughtlessly. This isn’t Crime and Punishment, but then again I can’t ever get passed the old lady’s killing. So in that way Seduction of the Innocent is the exact opposite of an important piece of literature: I actually read and genuinely enjoyed it.

I don’t want to accuse Max Allan Collins of being a hack, but he is a skilled and prodigious hack. There are moments during which the book feels formulaic, many formulaic moments. The characters are more or less stock -- the tough guy investigator, the smart dame, Sal Mineo, the slutty dame -- and it reads at times like Collins was getting paid per word. But none of this bothered me much. Seduction of the Innocent was…I don’t know how to end this without using trite phrases like “page-turner,” “fun romp,” or “highly readable.”

Seduction of the Innocent is marked by careful plotting, sharp dialog, and a mastery of genre conventions -- even clichés and well-worn tropes are expertly wielded. Though the characters are hardly original, they’re engaging and appealing. Sometimes they're even funny. 

But then there’s the book’s denouement. Seduction of the Innocent is more roman de clef than roman noir. Though my tastes tend toward the hardboiled, I can appreciate a good murder mystery. Well, I have. But the mystery at the center of Seduction of the Innocent was not all that mysterious. I had it figured 75 pages before the denouement -- and I’m not the most attentive reader. Collins didn’t necessarily drop the ball. He simply used a rather contrived scenario to unmask the book’s murderer -- which was in stark contrast to Collins subtle manipulation of conventions throughout the novel.

Mention must be made of Terry Beatty's art. On it's own, it's good. As it's used in the book, it's good. I also just really like it when books have pictures.

Despite the criticisms leveled avove, I would recommend Seduction of the Innocent to fans of crime fiction, comic book history-lovers, and people who like to read books that entertain. If this doesn’t sound like you, why are you visiting this site? Oh...for the sci-fi.

The Math

Objective score: 6/10

Bonuses: +1 for the comic industry of the 50's; +1 for Terry Beatty's art; +1 for sexy nerds

Penalties: -1 for a disappointing ending; -1 for genre cliches (though they're used well)

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10

Friday, January 25, 2013

Violence in Games: Part I

The Numbers

8 out of the top 10 best-selling Xbox 360 titles are first- or third-person shooters. Their main goal is killing, be it human, alien horde, or the Covenant. And don't forget Skyrim, which can get pretty dark and violent even though you don't carry guns. The only non-violent video game on the list was Kinect Adventures, and it was #1. Sony PS3 did quite a bit better with only 4 overtly violent video games in their top 10 sellers. Gran Turismo and Little Big Planet helped make up some ground there. That said, 8 of the games from 11-20 were heavily violence-based. Call of Duty: Black Ops sold 16.4 million copies on Xbox and 3.3 million on PS3. At sixty bucks a pop, you're talking about well over a billion dollars in gross revenue. That's an incredible number and it's no wonder violent games continue to prosper despite all the school shootings, mass murders, murder suicides, and assaults we have in society today. This is the first in a three-part series where we at NoaF will examine the various aspects of this timely topic. 

Where do you fall on the spectrum? Is this art imitating life? Life imitating art? Do violent video games have a negative effect on our society as a whole or are they merely harmless entertainment? Let's find out!

The Obvious Target

Everybody's favorite whipping post when it comes to violence in games is Grand Theft Auto, so that seems like a good place to start the conversation. The reason is obvious to those who have played it. This game takes the worst in society and trumpets it. You can stand on top of a building and snipe dozens of police officers at a time. You can take seven hookers to the same spot, perform various sexual acts with them, then kill them and take your money back, leaving the bodies piled up (although they eventually disappear). You can walk into the emergency room and drop a grenade on the floor, killing dozens of patients, nurses, and doctors. These are all things I've done in various Grand Theft Auto games and it makes me a little embarrassed to admit it. I hope my mom isn't reading this. 

Violence in video games has come so far since the days of  Mortal Kombat that it seems almost silly that anyone ever made a fuss over it. More people play the Modern Warfare online series than ever learned how to rip Jax in half. They drop 16 players in a map together and your sole goal is to take the other guys out. I'm reminded of Colonel Troutman from First Blood saying, "In Vietnam his job was to dispose of enemy personnel. To kill! Period! Win by attrition."

I think we're all happy that our government really has people like that. Take the subject of Zero Dark Thirty. Was there any patriotic American that didn't take just a little bit of joy knowing a member of Seal Team Six put a round through Bin Laden's left eye? However, do we really want to program ourselves to think the same way as those highly trained killing machines? Look what it did for Rambo. He ended up bawling and being taken to prison. And what about the kids? 

Somebody think of the children! Oh, won't somebody please think of the children!

This is where the argument gets murky for me. On the one hand, games have a rating system. I'm 35 and I just had a Best Buy employee I.D. me to buy the new Devil May Cry. On the other hand, we all know there are "cool parents" out there, or ones that just don't care, that buy Mature rated 17+ games for their 12-year-olds. Through these "cool parents", 90% of children get to experience these types of games just by spending the night at a friend's. Their minds are still developing. What effect does such ultra-violence have on them at that age? Can they differentiate between reality and fantasy? To what extent? When presented in such a sleek, fun medium, games like Grand Theft Auto manage to make mass murder fun. I simply don't think it's something I would want my kids exposed to at an early age.

That said, I trust the rating system. The problem is that too many clerks and parents ignore it. If they aren't going to enforce it, then why have it at all? The real responsibility, as with most things child-related, lies with the parents. It's up to them to keep Mature games out of their children's hands. 

Freedom of Speech or the Downfall of Society?

I tend to lean toward freedom of speech, personally. We, as Americans, speak loudest with our wallets. We obviously like these types of games more than any other. We do take the risk of being de-sensitized to an extreme degree, but is it worth our freedom? They've tried to blame school shootings on violent video games, but that's just a scapegoat. Those people were mentally unstable to begin with. If it wasn't Modern Warfare that pushed them over the edge, something else would have. 

When it comes to limiting what media we can produce, it's a slippery slope. If you can't have violence in video games, then why is it allowed in movies? Is the extremely realistic torture scene in the aforementioned Zero Dark Thirty too much, as many people seem to think? What about Inglorious Basterds? Is beating in skulls with a bat or burning up a theater full of people crossing the line? Apparently not since it was rewarded with eight Academy Award nominations. This slope can lead us all the way down to classics like Hamlet, which is nothing but murder, suicide, and incest. Where does the censorship end? 

If we start limiting what programmers can do in games, then it follows that other media will suffer the same limitations eventually. It should be left up to personal choice and taste whether or not we, as a society, play these games. Games have been out-grossing Hollywood for years now and, like Hollywood, the majority of their money is made on violence. While the occasional creative game like Portal or Little Big Planet manages to make a splash without violence, the overwhelming majority use it as their main staple of gameplay. Like it or not, violence is a part of society. While most of us won't realistically experience it to the degree we see in games, we are constantly made aware of its presence via the news media. Tipper Gore's attack on Gangsta Rap didn't clean up the ghettos any more than stopping Modern Warfare games from being produced will stop school shootings. 

You are what you eat

All of that "freedom of speech" talk aside, I believe that what you take in, be it food, books, games, television, or movies, will have an effect on you. As you get older you become more able to differentiate between reality and fantasy, but that doesn't mean you can get away with taking in nothing but crap. While I enjoy a violent game as much as the next sicko gamer, I also enjoy a good Pixar flick, Portal 2, and even an occasional trip to church from time to time. The answer, as with most things in life, is moderation. Find a balance. Don't relegate yourself to one type of entertainment, especially the violent kind. While it won't turn you into a mass murderer, it can effect your overall outlook. 

Take care, and look for Part II of our discussion on violence in video games in the days ahead. 

Thursday, January 24, 2013

Thursday Morning Superhero

It is time for your weekly comic round-up featuring an old school Uncanny Avengers, a new arc of Matt Kindt's brilliant Mind MGMT, and Deadpool battling former presidents.  Add to the mix of great books that NBC ordered a pilot for the Sixth Gun and it is a good day for us comic book readers.

Pick of the Week:
Mind MGMT #7 - If you have not hopped aboard one of the must stunning books from 2012 now is a great time to do so.  When we last visited the world of Henry Lyme and Mind Management, Henry had just erased her memory and set Meru, his only hope for redemption, free.  Issue #7 picks up with Meru trying to piece things together from a series of vague and foggy memories.  It all begins with a letter that  is delivered to her on a Sunday.  As she tracks down the mysterious origin of this letter, we meet another Mind Management agent, Brinks.  His is an ad man that has the skill of sending death letters, yet somehow Meru has escaped that fate and traced the letter back to him.  We also learn of the Eraser, who I am guessing is Julianne who we learn bits and pieces of in the side margin throughout the book.  Henry is reunited with Meru towards the end and the two of them embark on a mission to seek other agents to help them in their cause to take down Mind Management.  In this book we are treated to Julianne's side story in the margin and a mini-comic below each page on how the assassination letters are constructed.  I am sure there are numerous easter eggs and hidden clues I missed, but will be happy to re-read this book to see what other clues I can find.  This is without question one of the top 3 ongoing series on the market today.

Deadpool #4 - The duo of Brian Posehn and Gerry Duggan continue the fun filled adventure that is Deadpool killing zombie former presidents.  Through a combination of history, violence, gore, witty one-liners, and loads of references, this series keeps a smile of my face from cover to cover.  My favorite reference was when Kennedy was referred to as Quimby, and Posehn made his pressnce known with a shout out to Pantera's "Five Minutes Alone" for a montage in which Deadpool killed multiple D-list presidents and a shout out to former Mr. Show co-star Scott Auckerman (no idea he was skilled in training ultimate fighters).  The concept of this book alone warrants its purchase (Deadpool vs. Zombie Presidents), but the witty writing, the clever references, and the sheer insanity that are packed into these pages make it a series that I can't get enough of.

The Rest:
Uncanny Avengers #3 - In the last issue we learned that Red Skull has somehow fused the telepathic abilities of the deceased Professor X with his own mind.  In this issue, which feels like a classic Silver Age book, we learn what would happen if someone with ill intentions possessed the power the Professor X had.  The terror that Red Skull releases is gruesome and we are left wondering how the Uncanny Avengers can ever save the day!

Young Avengers #1 - Let me preface this by saying I entered this issue with zero knowledge of the Young Avengers.   As a blank slate who was reading a book that was generating a fair amount of buzz, I must say that I enjoyed it.  The characters felt real and the ability to develop them as much as they were developed in one issue speaks volumes to the writing of Kieron Gillen.  This book was subtitled Style > Substance, but, in a book that was filled with style, I will have to disagree.  I look forward to seeing where this title goes.

Deadpool Killustrated #1 - "The progenitors will write you straight back into continuity if they get half a chance."  This is the premise behind the latest Deadpool series from Cullen Bunn.  After killing the entire Marvel universe, Deadpool is left wondering how he can truly free himself is to kill the metaverse, the classics, the inspirations to all of the superheros.  If he can eliminate the original source of their existence, he can be set free. Rather than read all of the classics to determine which one was the inspiration for each character, Deadpool would rather dive in head first and kill them all.  First on the table, Don Quixote and Moby Dick.  I must say that it was quite enjoyable to see Don Quixote, the white whale, and Ishmael get taken down by the Merc with the mouth.  Finally a comic that should be necessary reading in every high school literature class.  Thanks Mr. Bunn!

Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Interview with RiffTrax writer Sean Thomason


No one did more to raise the profile of terrible and obscure old movies than the crew at Mystery Science Theater 3000, and their current venture, which has broadened its scope to include current Hollywood blockbusters, is called RiffTrax. Behind the funny is a small crew of writers, including Sean Thomason. Sean recently e-sat down with Nerds of a Feather to talk cult movies.

NF: For anybody out there who's not familiar, can you give us a little background on what RiffTrax is and where it came from?

ST: The basic idea is, we make movies funny. A movie plays, and a trio of comedians -- Mike Nelson, Kevin Murphy, and Bill Corbett -- chime in with jokes, riffs, and/or hilarious lines from T.S. Eliot's The Waste Land (usually not that). If the concept sounds similar to Mystery Science Theater 3000 (MST3K), that's because RiffTrax was created by Mike, former host and head writer of that show, and Kevin and Bill voiced the robots. Mike had always had the idea that it would be fun to riff major studio movies of the sort MST3K didn't have access to, and finally, with the internet and mp3s, the technology was there to do it easily. So we do big blockbuster flicks, like the Star Wars prequels or Transformers (pardon, I have to spit on the ground in disgust every time I mention that movie) with an mp3 track that people can download and easily sync up to the DVD at home. We also do older, cheesy Z-grade type movies. Since those are public domain, we're able to provide the video along with the jokes in one downloadable file.

NF: And you guys are doing two special programs in theaters this week and next. Can you talk a little about those?

ST: Yes! These are actually encore presentations of our two most popular live shows to date, Manos: The Hands of Fate, and Plan 9 from Outer Space. They're arguably two of the worst movies of all time, and perfect fodder for us. The way these shows work is that, through a company called Fathom, our guys perform a live riff of a movie in one theater and have it beamed to over 500 movie theaters nationwide. We throw in some bizarre short films and a few other surprises as well. MST3K fans might remember Manos from the show, but we revisited it and wrote a completely new script. Which was fun for me, since I watched that episode back when it originally aired. I think it was a special kind of torture for the other guys to have to return to that movie. That was a lot of fun for me, because I enjoy other people's suffering.

Here's a link to info and tickets for both of these shows, airing one night only on January 24th (Manos) and 31st (Plan 9).
RiffTrax Live

NF: How does the RiffTrax process work? Where do the movie ideas come from, and how many of you are involved in getting these things up on their feet? Do you work in a writer's room environment, or slave away in joyless little cages churning out jokes?

ST: It's basically Thunderdome, but with more flamethrowers and creepy little dudes riding on our backs. But on the days we aren't fighting to the death, we're looking for movies. The ideas generally come from one of us writers -- Mike, Kevin, Bill, myself, or Conor Lastowka -- and then we'll screen it to see if it might work, looking for funny moments and general things that we could dig into. Sometimes we get great suggestions from fans, too, which is nice because we're pretty lazy. It takes a lot of screening to find something that works, because we have pretty specific yet hard-to-define needs. It's very much a "you know it when you see it" thing. Once we find something good, we go off and do the bulk of the actual writing on our own, then bring it all together and make it work as a whole. So it's really a combination of the writer's room thing and the joyless little cage thing you mentioned. And Thunderdome.

NF: One of my favorite things about RiffTrax is that the delivery method and technology you mentioned make it possible to take on not just the public domain films that MST3K was known for, but also the big blockbusters. Do you prefer working on one kind of movie versus the other?

ST: That's a good question, and it really does vary case by case. But on the whole, I enjoy working on the old movies more. With those you're more often dealing with a hilarious level of ineptitude, movies so strange and naively crafted that sometimes it feels like they must've been made by aliens, or ambitious raccoons. The big blockbusters are fun too, but since the craft and production values are obviously much better, the jokes tend to be about the weak story logic and lazy cliches they rely on. Like characters yelling "MOVE, MOVE, MOVE!" or "Talk to me, people." That said, I grew up on superhero comics and Star Wars, so it's fun when I get to dig into that knowledge for a nerdy obscure reference while we're riffing something like Thor. Of course then the other guys call me a geek and make me wedgie myself, but it's worth it.
Twilight: Breaking Dawn Part I RiffTrax

NF: I want to come back to the question of terrible movies. I did a series over the summer probing the question of what is the worst movie ever made, and of course Plan 9 and Manos figured large in those discussions. What do you think makes the difference between an awesomely bad movie and just an irredeemable rotten egg of movie stink?

ST: It's so hard to define, and it's one of those things we're looking for when we screen stuff. You want movies that are bad, but not so bad they actually crumple your soul and make you wish you had never seen them. You still want the movies to be fun in some demented way. I think a big factor in that is what the filmmakers were going for. It's best when you can tell they really thought they were onto something, they were honestly trying to make something they thought was good, but just didn't know what the hell they were doing. I think Plan 9, Manos, and a more recent favorite of mine, Birdemic, all fall into that category. Nowadays "bad movies" and the whole ironic culture of it has become such a phenomenon that you get people making bad movies on purpose, and to me that's a cynical, unenjoyable exercise. If someone made something really awful on purpose, there's not much we can do with it, and I don't see the point.

NF: Do you generally enjoy movies regarded as terrible, apart from the ease with which they can be made fun of?

ST: I do, thankfully, otherwise I don't think I'd last very long at this. I spend more of my time watching terrible movies than good ones. Even back in high school, my best friend and I would go to the video store and rent the crappiest-looking horror movie we could find. Part of that seed was probably planted by watching MST3K, which is kind of a weird "the circle is now complete" thing. But also I think it's that a really terrible movie can surprise you more than a slick, conventional film. When you're watching something that's totally off the rails, made by people who don't really know how you're "supposed" to make a movie, you get all these odd little moments that you don't get with normal films. And they can grow on you, too. Admittedly, I may have Stockholm Syndrome with it, but at this point I genuinely love watching Birdemic. Every scene is hilarious to me, and there's always some new madness to discover. I feel the same way about Santa and the Ice Cream Bunny, which is such a spectacular mess it barely even counts as a movie.

NF: MST3K was directly responsible for saving some of these movies -- like Manos -- from the ash heap of history. I'm a giant nerd and think these movies are intrinsically valuable, but I'd love to hear a perspective from inside the brain-trust that's both saving them and (justifiably) ridiculing them. Do you think these movies are valuable, and if so why?

ST: Mike and I have talked about this, and we both feel like it's one of the cooler things about this whole project. We get to find and sort of curate these weird cultural artifacts that are mostly forgotten. Sure we're picking on them, but we're also showing them to a wider audience than they would've found otherwise. I think there's a value to them -- maybe not the same value as a classic film like Casablanca or, y'know, Beyond Thunderdome -- but it's still an expression and a record of what people at a certain time and place were thinking, what was going on in pop culture at the time, that you can see in whatever they were trying to accomplish. Plus a lot of them have women in skimpy outfits, and there's no denying the value of that.

NF: Word. But to totally shift gears here, you guys know the folks over at Stone Brewing Company, and I want to mention this because you worked on something that I think is wonderful and not enough people have seen. I know you know what I'm talking about, so can you give us some background about that?

ST: Beer! Beer is a big part of San Diego culture, and we're all craft beer fans. My fellow writer Conor is especially into the whole scene (this is my sly way of calling him a drunk). Our friends at Stone show RiffTrax stuff at their brewery in the summer, and one time Conor and I were there and saw this video they had made with local brewers, celebrating the greatness of craft beer as a movement, taking on the big guys like Budweiser. We totally agree with the sentiment and I love local beer, but we felt like the video was maybe a little...serious, considering we're talking about beer here. So we decided to make our own funny version. We were a little nervous this might destroy our relationship with the guys at Stone, but luckily they dug it and posted it on their own site. It got passed around a lot, and I've even been recognized a couple times by waiters at local restaurants. No free beers yet, though. HINT.

(FYI - Sean is the guy with the *bleeping* mouth on him and the survival knife in the following video: - ed.)

NF: On that note, what would you say that a) your favorite beer is, and b) your favorite nickname for beer? I'm partial to barley pop, but that's just me.

ST: My favorite beer is probably Alpine Duet, an IPA. Alpine is a local brewery and it isn't widely available, but it's fantastic. Ballast Point is another great brewery here, and their Sculpin IPA is hard to beat. Plus it's named after a really ugly-ass fish. My favorite nickname for beer is probably Hungry Hungry Hoppos. See, because it's a pun on "hops"? Okay I just made that up, but now it's my favorite.

Tuesday, January 22, 2013

Snack Pairing of the Month - Jan

People who drink wine like to talk about "pairings," by which they mean matching wines to specific foods. For example, a crisp, dry Sauvingnon Blanc is supposed to match well with seafood, while a big, earthy Syrah/Shiraz, it is argued, works best alongside something rich and meaty like steak or stew. You can be an utterly cantankerous, ornery and obsessive nerd about wine and wine pairings, and this is 100% socially acceptable. Wine nerds even get a fancy-pants name: oenophiles.

Regular nerds don't drink a lot of wine, at least not while they're engaged in nerdery. But they do eat a lot of salty snack foods! Yet, to my knowledge, no scholar of nerdly pursuits has, to date, attempted to pair specific salty snacks to specific nerdy occasions. That time has come, my friends. Given that nerdery has, like wine and haute cuisine, shed its parochial roots to become a truly global phenomenon, so too should snackery. So without further ado, I present to you your most refined snack pairing of the month!

Salt Licorice (Sweden/Finland)

Nordic types like their licorice, and they like it salty, though technically it's not salt you're's ammonium chloride, which you may recognize as an ingredient in cough syrup. But that's not enough for these thrill-seeking vikings of taste: sometimes their salty licorice is also covered in ammonium chloride powder! I grew up with the stuff, but it's an acquired taste for the uninitiated--a friend once described it to me as "freaky weird." That's an understatement. 

Pairs with: Moody Scandinavian films like Let the Right One InHour of the Wolf or Valhalla Rising. Moody Scandinavian books like Karin Tidbeck's Jagannath. And basically anything with vikings, trolls or Moomins.

Monday, January 21, 2013

Scalzi, The Human Division Episode 2: Walk the Plank

Last week I reviewed the first "episode" in John Scalzi's serialized novel The Human Division. I liked it. A lot. In fact, I liked it so much that, in the days after finishing it, I had to resist the incessant urge to just keep going. But that would have made it impossible to assess how well the serialized format of the novel works, so I didn't.

As those days separating the finishing of The B-Team and the starting of Walk the Plank unfolded, I began to have some doubts. You see, I'm the type of person who reads in small doses, but everyday. I'm not used to taking a multiple day pause in-between chapters of a book, and it soon became apparent that I couldn't quite remember everything that had happened in The B-Team. Never fear, I thought, the fact that The Human Division was conceived of as a sort of prose television series surely meant that there'd be a "last week on The Human Division" style synopsis at the beginning, right? Wrong.

However, as I dove into Walk the Plank, most of the important stuff came back to me. There's a mystery from The B-Team that wasn't resolved (and if you haven't read it, I won't spoil it for you), but for the most part, the first episode serves as a set up--Wilson, Schmidt, Abumwe and the crew of the Clarke, having shown their mettle in one crisis, have been chosen as a "fire team" for future crises. Why? Not only because they're good at it, but also because they'd also make convenient fall guys if it all went to pot.

Walk the Plank leaves our heroes for the moment, and instead focuses on strange happenings at a wildcat colony (i.e. a private, unsanctioned settlement). It's written like an audio transcript, which is presumably what it is supposed to be. It also looks like a teleplay, and knowing Scalzi's penchant for self-referential meta-humor, this resemblance was probably not coincidental.

Does it work? To a degree, the answer is "yes." The narrative is easy enough to follow and, if my interpretation is correct, helps set up a couple central plot points. Plus Scalzi has a gift for dialogue. There are two mysteries--one that concerns the colonists and another that feels like a clue to the broader mystery presented in The B-Team. It's nicely done, and I admire Scalzi's restrained approach to revealing the book's central mystery. Plus I'm curious to see how the wildcat colony will figure into the main narrative as the book unfolds.

On the other hand, I'm not sure how much the teleplay format adds that the conventional prose narration utilized in The B-Team (and the rest of the OMW series) couldn't have done as well or better. Teleplays, after all, are written for actors we see with our eyes, located on sets or locations we also see with our eyes. Absent those critical ingredients, there's an unfortunate featureless-ness to Walk the Plank.

Then there's the length. At 90+ pages, The B-Team was the equivalent of a super-meaty two-hour premiere. That's a little much to expect from a typical episode, but the 24-page Walk the Plank feels like a jarring transition from from feature to sitcom-length. A small quibble, perhaps, but it did leave me wondering if I'd been sent all the pages (I was).

That said, I'm still very much on board and excited for Episode 3. The Human Division is shaping up nicely, and I'm keen to get back to Wilson, Schmidt and the rest of the gang.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 7/10

Bonuses: +1 for the sharp dialogue; +1 for the way Scalzi is revealing the central mystery, piece by piece.

Penalties: -1 for the teleplay format, which didn't really do it for me; -1 for being too short.

Nerd Coefficient: 7/10.

Saturday, January 19, 2013

Microreview [anthology]: Staten Island Noir

Staten Island Noir
Edited by Patricia Smith
Akashic Books

The Meat

Allow me to cover my ass at the outset: I have never been to State Island. In fact, I can’t imagine any reason why I would ever in my life visit the place. But like all of New York, I know something about it without actually knowing the place. And from what I can tell, it’s a bit like the Valley, maybe even like my hometown Bakersfield. It’s beyond the city proper, unaffected by the speed and schemes of urban life, a few years’ behind—maybe a decade. It’s a world apart. Seemingly desolate and probably so. And apparently it’s a pretty crappy place to be a crook.

Staten Island Noir, part of Akashic Books’ Noir series, is a rather enjoyable anthology of crime fiction set in…you know where. I am not a huge fan of anthologies. I prefer collections of works by a single author. Risk is minimized, you have an idea from the first few stories whether or not the rest are worth reading. But an anthology is rife with danger. Let’s say I hate the first three stories. How do I know that the rest won’t suck?

Fortunately, State Island Noir didn’t suck. In fact, I enjoyed nearly every entry. This isn’t necessarily a ringing endorsement: I may have liked the collection due largely to lowered expectations. And though I found it highly readable, roughly half of the stories were not exactly memorable.

There were, however, some real gems in this collection that deserve mention. My personal favorite was Binnie Kirshenbaum’s “Assistant Professor Lodge,” not merely for its academic setting—it is a wonderfully subtle murder story with the best ending of any story in the collection—but I liked mainly it because of its academic setting. In “…spy verse spy..”, Todd Craig creates a very Wire-esque urban backdrop for his wonderfully constructed old-hood-seeking-revenge tale. Linda Nieves-Powell gets the unsettling award for her nuanced treatment of love, race, and murder in “The Fly-Ass Puerto Rican Girl from the Stapleton Projects.” And Ted Anthony’s entry about an incompetent hitman, “A User’s Guide to Keeping Your Kills Fresh,” and Ashley Dotson’s punk rock Nancy Drew story, “Teenage Wasteland” are both dark comedic tales centering on the Fresh Kills dump—the only Staten Island landmark that I remember after reading through the book. Which leads me to a criticism...

The anthology’s only real failing is that it left me with little impression of what Staten Island is like. In other words, many of these stories could have taken place in the San Fernando Valley and, other than more time spent in cars, little would have changed. Perhaps the themes the collection does evoke—marginality, isolation, desperation—are not specific to Staten Island per se but rather shared by suburbs and outskirts throughout the country.

Or maybe it’s because I know nothing about Staten Island.

One final quibble—and it’s not altogether insignificant, though it may be a touch petty. I don’t understand why Eddie Joyce’s “Before it Hardens” was included in this volume. While it isn’t a bad story—and I actually identified with the summertime travails of our teenage protagonist—there’s no crime. I kept waiting for someone to get killed. When no one did, I was sorely disappointed.

Let us not end with a complaint. Instead, we’ll praise Staten Island Noir for its diversity. The stories in this collection are told from a broad range of perspectives, in terms of race and of gender in particular. Noir is too often a white man’s world.

The Math

Objective Score: 7/10

Penalties: -1 for the non-crime entry; -1 because I don't think I learned anything about Staten Island

Bonuses: +1 for diversity

Nerd coefficient: 6/10

Friday, January 18, 2013

The Elder Scrolls: Past, Present, and Future

The Best RPG Saga Ever?

My first introduction to the Elder Scrolls universe came with Morrowind, and I was less-than-enamored. I didn't actually play it until after Microsoft released the Xbox 360, so it was a bit dated at the time. That couldn't have helped my impression. There were no fast travel options as the two most recent iterations have had. You had to either pay close attention or take written notes if you wanted to complete quests because towns weren't instantly visible on the map. If you took a phone call or stopped paying attention even for a few seconds, you could miss a detail that would have you wandering blindly through the wilderness for hours looking for a certain tree or castle. Suffice it to say I didn't make it very far into Elder Scrolls III. 

Then Came Oblivion

I'll be honest. I probably didn't give Morrowind its proper due because I borrowed it from a friend to play after I had already purchased Oblivion. I just wanted to see what the prequel was like before diving into the massive world of Cyrodiil. With the addition of a fast travel option, this game was much more playable to ADHD gamers like myself who aren't used to investing over 100 hours in a single game. Players can (and I did) spend hours touring the countryside picking flowers, collecting pelts, and generally living out a wizards and warriors fantasy without ever having to actually complete a single quest. That said, I eventually completed every quest in the game including all of the downloadable content. I have friends that refused to join the assassin's or thieves guilds because they were too attached to the characters they had created and refused to let them "turn to the dark side" but the completionist in me just couldn't let those quests go.  

Oh, those wretched Oblivion Gates! Even though they yielded priceless artifacts that could turn a regular sword into a magical weapon of unbelievable power, they really got old, didn't they? The idea was good: travelling to another dimension to battle and close the gates that were releasing hordes of demons upon Cyrodiil. There were just so damn many of them! If the game had had half the number of gates, I think it would have worked much better for all involved. As it is, they became more of a chore than a joy by the time you'd cleared out many of them. I have to say I massively preferred the dragons in Skyrim to the gates in Oblivion. The battles didn't take an hour, the music was fantastic, and let's face it, fighting dragons is just cool!

Winter Is Coming

Finally, we come to it. In my humble opinion, the best of the Elder Scrolls games. Skyrim is a massive, beautiful, dangerous world that is teeming with life throughout its beautiful mix of environments. Where Oblivion had a Tolkien-like feel to the world, Skyrim shares its soul with Martin's Winterfell and the Wall to its north. While I played Oblivion as a tank, choosing the soldier's life and a sword over spells and magic cloaks, in Skyrim I went all-out mage, a decision I ended up being very happy with in the end. Early on in the game it presented certain physical limitations, but by the time I reached level 40 I barely had to fight at all since my re-animated minions handled all the rough stuff for me. With two Draemora at my side, I only had to take part in the bigger battles where boss-level enemies were involved. 

Elder Scrolls Online

A few weeks ago I wrote about the five games I'm most excited about in the coming year. This one was at the top of my list, which is strange because as I've said before, MMORPGs are not really my thing. It was a popular post and made me decide to take this week to delve further into the saga as I experienced it. The upcoming Elder Scrolls Online will contain not only brand new destinations, but many of the old ones from the three previous games, as well. 

It is set 1,000 years before the events of Skyrim. The amount of customization found in the previous games makes me salivate knowing that they're going to blow them all away with this one. One thing that will be interesting to see is the combat system. In previous Elder Scrolls games, you could essentially pause battle while you chose a spell or weapon. With MMORPGs that's impossible since everything must happen in real time. The aiming system in previous Elder Scrolls wasn't exactly Rainbow Six Vegas, which could present some problems to the spray-and-prayers among us. Rather than having multiple servers, they plan to hold the entire thing on one "mega-server" that will host the players in the world, I guess. At least that's what it sounds like from what I've read, although it's a bit hard for me to imagine there's a CPU powerful enough to handle the number of players this game is going to generate without some sort of issues arising, at least around the launch. 

I Can't Wait!

They haven't even announced a release date yet, which probably means Christmas, dangit! Even so, my excitement level for this game couldn't be higher. I don't play every RPG that comes along and I rarely pick up an MMORPG, but the completeness and care that has gone into the Elder Scrolls series has won me over. Anything Bethesda does with this series is going to have me doing backflips in anticipation. Until they come up short, I'll be first in line to try anything they make. I look forward to playing alongside many of you in the following year. 

Thursday, January 17, 2013

Thursday Morning Superhero

If you haven't jumped on either the Saga or the Scott Snyder bandwagon then I don't know if I can really consider you a friend.  I am a small voice out of many that have championed both dynamic duos who have crafted such lovely tales.  Brian K. Vaughan and Fiona Staples for Saga and Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo for Batman.  Happy Thursday everyone.

Pick of the Week: Saga #9 by Brian K. Vaughan
In an issue that doesn't feature Marko or Alana, Vaughan added layers of depth to his world and some key characters that will most likely prove to be quite important as this tale of star crossed lovers continues to unfold.

I for one was quite pleased that this issue focused primarily on The Will and his moral obligation he feels to save the sex slave from Sextillion.  A character who started out as a freelance bounty hunter with a cat that is a walking lie detector, The Will has transformed throughout this series to be an increasingly complex character.  He growth continued in this issue as he deals with heartbreak, and his conflict with his moral code and what he does.

The Will partners with an unlikely partner, Marko's ex-fiance Gwendolyn, and the two quickly realize that despite their differences, it will be mutually beneficial for them to team up.  In what made both The Will and me incredibly happy, the slave girl was freed from the arm of Sextillion and is in the custody of The Will and Gwendolyn.

I am going to stop there in hopes that I don't spoil too much and you finally cave and pick up this book that I and many others have been urging you to do so.  Fiona Staples remains one of my favorite artists and I am tempted to rip out and frame any panel featuring The Stalk.  The combination of Vaughan's characters and the ability for Staples to be both whimsical and incredibly violent in the same panel has this book poised to be remembered fondly for years to come.

Runner-up: Batman #16 by Scott Snyder
If you were wondering how Scott Snyder would follow up the amazing Court of Owls arc, rest assured that the Death of the Family arc is equally as stunning and shocking.  While I love Snyder, he is often outdone by the art from Greg Capullo.  His take on the Dark Knight sets a tone for the book that is dark, but human.  It has a certain realism to it and his ability to show tortured expressions is uncanny.  Capullo's Joker is one of the most terrifying villains that have ever been inked.

In this issue Batman is still coming to grips with the events that concluded issue #15 and is pursuing Joker who has taken over Arkham.  Joker is a sick, sadistic individual who has laid down quite the gauntlet for Batman.

The lengths that Joker goes to in order to torment Batman are present throughout this issue and we are once again reminded why he is Batman's primary foe.  In an issue that features the majority of the main Batman villains, we are left with and unconscious Batman with a mysterious dish placed on his lap.  It doesn't look well for Batman, but that is typically the case throughout 90% of Snyder's run.

The rest:
Hoax Hunters #6 - This is only the second issue of Hoax Hunters that I have read but the concept of using a reality show to debunk urban legends that Michael Moreci and Steve Seeley created is not only fun, but is growing as it develops its cast of characters more with each issue.  A slow start to this book, but an ending that is horrifying and will have me back next month.

Daredevil #22 - Superior Spider-man makes an appearance and Matt Murdock suspects something is off with Spidey.  Mark Waid brings back Stiltman for the second time in his run, but it looks like some of Doc Oc's old pals are selling off his goods as Stiltman was quite upgraded.  Felt more like a standalone issue, but a fun one at that.

Captain America #3 - It pains me to say that I can't get on board with Rick Remender's Captain America.  Cap is one of my all time favorites, but what is happening in Dimension Z with the Phrox just does nothing for me.  Some interesting twists, but I will wait for Steve to return to his own dimension.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Microreview [book]: Red Seas Under Red Skies by Scott Lynch

The Meat

Red Seas Under Red Skies is Scott Lynch's second fantasy novel recounting the tale of the Gentlemen Bastards, Locke Lamora and his gang of witty thieves. His first installment of the series, The Lies of Locke Lamora, was a brilliant debut. Featuring witty dialogue, fantastic world building, a gang of complex characters you love to hate (or hate to love?), and a crisp and clear story of a con gone bad, Lies had all the makings of a perfect story. In fact, it was a bit too perfect, at least too perfect to serve as the debut of a broader series. The disastrously failed con had left the Gentlemen Bastards in ruins, with most of its members laying dead. Only Locke Lamora and Jean Tannen survived the tragic events in Camorr (they triumphed over the Karthain Bondsmage and the Grey King), but they were forced to go on the run. With many of my favorite characters gone and only Locke and Jean left alive, I did not see how Scott Lynch could continue the story arc and keep it as compelling as Lies. So I started Red Seas Under Red Skies with a good deal of trepidation.

Perhaps recognizing that he needed to regain a sense of tension, Lynch begins Red Seas with a cliffhanger: Jean betrays Locke on the pier of Tal Verrar. The rest of the book, which takes the reader back two years earlier, explains the path that led Jean to double-cross his best friend. This betrayal takes place against the backdrop of yet another impossible plan hatched by Locke and Jean. They plan to rob the Sinspire, an exclusive, thief-proof gambling den notorious for executing cheaters and thieves. Locke's newly hatched plan is complicated, however, by its entanglement in the factional politics of Tal Verrar, which revolved around three political poles: the Archon, the head of the military forces;  Requin, the infamous owner of the Sinspire said to possess a huge personal fortune; and the Priori, the political leaders of Tal Verrar. Just as Locke and Jean prepare their great heist on the Sinspire, they find themselves ensnared in the schemes of the Archon, who saw Locke as a useful pawn in his struggle for power against the Priori. The journey to the Sinspire heist thus takes the reader on an adventure through Tal Verrar and a delightful side journey where Locke and do their best to con a pirate crew into thinking they were, in fact, seasoned pirates. It is only shortly after their return from sea that Locke finds himself betrayed by his best friend.  

The resolution to his betrayal, however, left me utterly disappointed and angry that I even picked up the book to begin with. This cliffhanger was the biggest misstep of Red Seas.  


Jean, of course, did not betray Locke. He simply pretended to do so in order to save Locke. Granted, this resolution to the cliffhanger should have been obvious. But Lynch peppered the book with references to Jean's growing disillusionment with Locke that would make his ultimate betrayal more believable (albeit not that believable). After resolving the betrayal cliffhanger in less than a page, I wondered why I had even read the past few hundred pages. This was, in short, a major structural misstep.   


Furthermore, the book ends rather abruptly and implausibly. An anonymous threat is suddenly revealed, and Locke and Jean make use of their collective wits, attempting to navigate the dangers of Tal Verrar and to pull off their heist of the Sinspire at the same time.

Granted, the above problems are balanced by the book's considerable strengths. Red Seas features fantastic world building, witty dialogue, lovable characters, and some of the most fantastic insults I have read in a long time. Further, the deepening friendship (bromance?) between Jean and Locke, the point of the book, is touching. In the end, Red Seas is a real page turner and a fun overall read. A good book, but one that does not come close to reaching the heights of The Lies of Locke Lamora.

The Math

Baseline Assessment: 6/10

Bonuses: +1 for witty dialogue, great characters, and a fun overall read (this book is a real page turner!); +1 for intelligent villains and interesting plot twists.

Penalties: -3 for the book's structure, which blew the Jean Tannen betrayal way out of proportion to its importance. It would have been more interesting and fulfilling without this tension-creating gimmick.

Nerd Coefficient: 5/10. "problematic, but has redeeming qualities"

Read about our scoring system, in which average is a 5/10, here.

Tuesday, January 15, 2013

Adventures in Indie Publishing with Dean Smith-Richard 1.13

Quality Control

Welcome back to Adventures in Indie Publishing, grab a drink and settle in, there's lots of good stuff ahead, including a look at indie comics (and one excellent one in particular), some notes on upcoming releases and reviews of work that is already out. But first, let's talk quality.

I touched on this last month, but a topic i wanted to explore in more depth is that of quality. If you take a look through the Kindle store (or its equivalent) you’ll see a dearth of quality from self- and indie-published authors. This is, to say the least, frustrating, and at most, turns people off to any and all self- and indie-published authors (is there some shorthand for this? Henceforth “indie” also refers to self-published authors). While hardly fair, it’s impossible to blame the reader who is paying for a product that they expect to be of a certain quality.

In fact, that’s why big publishing houses are just that. They can afford to supply authors with high-quality editors, cover artists, designers, etc. With the indie crowd, these expenses are left up to the author. As with anything else, quality costs and before long the total can be several thousand dollars, and how does an aspiring indie author come up with that while trying to pay bills off their day job like anyone else (which probably isn’t paying them obscene amounts of money, otherwise they are far less likely to be dreaming of a writing career).

The old saying is “you can’t judge a book by its cover” and I think we all know that’s a filthy lie- if there’s any doubt, this tumblr should remove it. Would you buy one of those books if you picked it up in a store or saw it on your tablet? Probably not.

The same is true of editorial quality- if you read a sample of a book and it’s riddled with typos poor grammar and devoid of plot, are you going to purchase it? Again, it’s unlikely.

Sadly, at this point, there is still little in the way of regulation for indie books- they are, after all, independant. Reading reviews and checking out samples is your best bet for finding quality, so there can be some homework involved. Hopefully this column will help you find quality work.

As more quality works are released via indie methods (and mark my words, there will be), they will garner more ‘mainstream’ attention. Hopefully before long we reach the point where there is more focus from reviewers, websites and blogs on the fact that they are books rather than discriminating based on their publication and distribution methods.

You, dear reader, can help this happen. The instant rating and review ability that now exists online will help other readers find the diamonds in the rough. Simply rating books will help a lot, leaving a thoughtful review will do even more.

Note: If you are an author, I will have a couple posts this week on my blog on how to find quality, affordable editors, artists and formatters. I want to keep this post reader-centric, but don’t want to leave authors out in the cold either.

Enjoy a quality indie film:

R´ha [short movie] from Kaleb Lechowski on Vimeo.

Indie Comics & Five Questions With Devin Leigh Michaels

Another area where indie publishing is on the rise is the comic arena, and there is a wide range of quality work out there. Joe Caramagna’s The Further Travels of Wyatt Eyrp and David Winchester’s Wardenclyffe Horror have both seen successful Kickstarter campaigns recently, and a simple persual of the comics page on Kickstarter shows many promising upcoming comics.

Another successful Kickstarter was by Devin Michaels and her crew for their excellent Destiny’s Fate series. Devin brings some great perspective, as she interned at DC comics and as a former professional writing tutor, she has been published in America’s Got Stories and now is the writer of Destiny’s Fate.

Let’s pick her brain:

What's your synopsis of Destiny's Fate?

A time-traveling assassin returns home after seven years with the mission to kill the defenders of time—his parents.

Why did you decide to publish Destiny's Fate independently?

It was actually Noel Burns (from the seemingly defunct IC Geeks Publishing) who urged me to self-publish Destiny's Fate. I was working with my artist, Mau Vargas, on a few pages to post on my Web site, and Noel asked to see them. He liked what he saw and asked when we finally finished, would we be willing to give his company a shot at printing and distributing it. Mau and I decided to work on a series, and things progressed from there.

Who are your biggest influences in comics & writing?

My mom is a middle school English teacher, so she was the most influential person in my writing career. I knew very early in my life that I wanted to write for a living. I think I consciously made the decision when I was fourteen or fifteen, and she has supremely supportive. Author-wise, Chuck Dixon was an extremely major influence. He ran most of the Bat comics in the mid-90’s, and story arcs such as Legacy, Cataclysm, and No Man’s Land fueled my passion for comics. Geoff Johns was also another major influence. I enjoyed his version of the Teen Titans and eventually collected most of his Flash TPB, Stars and Stripes, Superman: Last Son, JSA and some of GL stuff. And Gail Simone has really made so much ground for women writers. My career goal, other than being an editor, is to be the first female regular writer on Batman, but only if Ms. Simone doesn’t beat me to it first.

Do you see the role of indie comics growing in the next few years, or will the traditional model still dominate? Why?

The traditional model will still dominate for many years to come, but independent comics will definitely begin to take more of the market share. Look at The Walking Dead. It has a successful TV show, merchandise, has advertisements on NYCC passes. Big names in comics like Gail Simone, Joe Caramagna, and Ryan Stegman have had successful Kickstarters (though Ryan’s was actually a resource book). Kickstarter’s second biggest funding group was comics last year, which proves that indies are getting out to the hands of readers. I hope that continues.

What's next for you?

I’m working on a potential anthology that will have two original stories and one side story for Destiny’s Fate. I’m hoping to bring the DF Crew (Mau, Rodrigo Tobias, and our new letterer Mike Stock) in for the short story and have new, fresh faces for the other two. I’m also working on my application for the Columbia Publishing Course, which I hope will help me get a new perspective on the publishing industry. I’m also writing various short stories and novellas.

You can grab the comic here and follow Devin on teh twitters as well.


If you want to see an example of quality from top to bottom out of an indie release, look no further than Wool by Hugh Howey, volume one of which is availble at that link for the excellent price of FREE. You can also enter to win the autographed omnibus over at TwistedSciFi (which, incidentally, covers a lot of indie scifi material). And if you want to follow my earlier advise, they also have a review of Wool.

Another new release that speaks to my soul is Adrift on the Sea of Rains by Ian Sales. It follows Vance (sadly, the not this one; no concerts on the moon), who is commander of a lunar base as the Cold War takes place on Earth, and ultimately leaves him and his men trapped on the moon.

Mike Wells has an excellent blog post of what it takes to be a successful self-published author.

...and that's about all for this month! 

Next month I’ll tackle another avenue- indie short story anthologies and journals. We’ll do Five Questions With Brian White of Fireside Magazine (issue three is out now and I just got my copy), and talk about some anthologies as well.