Tuesday, June 30, 2015

Welcome, our gay overlords!

Next step? I marry all of my students. And my fish.
I wasn't sure if I'd ever write about the whole gay marriage issue again. I used to write about it frequently during the dark times of California's unfortunate Prop 8. Man, was that really seven years ago when I was standing out in the rain with my wife and friends protesting it? It's hard to believe, but I remember what an awful feeling it was when it passed (which meant that gay people would be unable to get married). It meant that I lived in a state where the citizens voted to take rights away from people. Not a good feeling.

Of course, things got better as it was struck down as being unconstitutional by a federal judge. I think that some folks were hoping that we'd vote on it again, as polls showed that people were more and more in favor of marriage equality, especially young people who were just becoming old enough to vote. But there really wasn't all that much point to funding another campaign, was there? Especially when it started to look more and more likely that it was going to go to the Supreme Court of the United States.

For those of you living in Martian caves, that's exactly what happened, and now gay people have the right to get married throughout the entire country. It's fantastic news, unless you're my four year old. When I tried to talk to him about it, he eventually steered the conversation to honey bees. That's more interesting to him.

Oh, and of course there's all sorts of people complaining about what happened. I'm not going to dignify them by naming them or linking to what they said. You can find it if you want to bad enough. They're saying everything from how we're living in dark times to how this isn't a democracy anymore. (Hint - we're not a democracy. At least, not a pure democracy. Never have been.) Some of them, who are the same ones who love to talk about The Constitution, can't seem to understand that the whole idea of the Supreme Court is exactly what our Founding Fathers intended. (Of course, if the decision went their way, the rhetoric would be that what Jefferson & Company intended prevailed.) There's also the talk of the judges being "activists" which simply means that the judges didn't rule the way they wanted them to rule.

I don't think that I can go over all the reasons why all the arguments against marriage equality are wrong yet again. Some folks seem to think that it's going to open the doors for people having their religious freedom taken away and that churches will be forced to perform same sex weddings. Guess what? Churches already get to discriminate as to who they marry and who they don't. I can't sue the Mormon Church (to name one of many examples) if they don't want to marry me, a non-Mormon. I have to wonder if the people who put forward these arguments know how misleading they are and simply don't care because they know it will worry people.

There's also the whole bit of psychological projection where the anti crowd like to say that those who speak out for equality are being the bigots. I was once compared to the judges in the Salem Witch Trials. It's crazy because if I have my way, they get to keep living their lives exactly how they want to live them. If they win, there will be a group of people who will have less freedom than others.

How can you tell if you're being a bigot? When if your side wins, people are affected negatively. My position doesn't pass that particular test, so there ya go.

There's also some rhetoric coming from the Republican Presidential Race Clown Car of making this an issue in the upcoming election. (Seems like a mistake considering that polls show that the majority of Americans are in favor of the ruling.) One of the particularly nutty ones is suggesting that states ignore the law.

This just goes to show that while we've won a major victory for gay rights, there are still battles to be won in the hearts and minds of people. I figure that with more gay couples getting married and showing us that they're just as boring as everybody else, we'll slowly inch our way there. But as of this point, those who oppose same sex marriage need to ask themselves if it's worth battling this anymore. Give it a year. If it hasn't affected you by then, you'll know that it's time to just drop it and be happy for your gay friends and family.

Monday, June 29, 2015

Are video games art?

Years ago, the late Roger Ebert wrote that "Video Games Can Never Be Art". I wasn't playing a whole lot of video games back then, so I didn't really have a horse in that race. I could see where he was coming from, but I understood those who took him to task for his assertion as well. After all, even with the most basic video game like Pac Man, there is an art to the design of the characters and concepts. There's obviously a reason why some of them became more popular than others, and just as we can critique one novel as being "better" than another, we can do the same thing for video games. In other words, I leaned toward the "video games are art" camp.

I've been playing more video games in the past year though. One major reason is that my four-year-old son really took a liking to our old Wii games, especially anything to do with Mario. I went and bought the Wii U for Christmas, and once that was paid off, I went ahead and got the Playstation 4. (I already own the PS3, and I got the PS4 because I wanted the upcoming Rock Band 4 and Batman: Arkham Knight, neither of which would be available for PS3 or the Wii U.)

Roger Ebert
I bought the bundle that comes with The Last of Us: Remastered. I didn't know too much about the game, but I heard that it won a lot of awards. It was this experience that got me to thinking about the question as to whether video games were art or not, and I'll be damned if I deny that this game was a work of art.

I should probably say right now that if you haven't played the game, and you intend to do so, there will be some pretty major SPOILERS ahead. Read ahead at your own risk.

The Last of Us is a story-driven game which heads toward a pre-determined resolution. As the player, you take over during the action scenes as you try to get the protagonist, Joel, through his various trials and obstacles. The setup is your standard zombie apocalypse, plus a few twists on the monsters themselves, and the goal is to get a girl named Ellie across the country to a group called The Fireflies. Why do you need to get her across? Because she's been bit by one of the infected, and she hasn't turned. In other words, she holds the potential cure for the plague.


Joel's character arc begins with him losing his teenage daughter when the plague begins. When he meets Ellie, he wants nothing to do with her. This makes sense, but the two eventually form a bond. When it comes time to letting the Fireflies extract a cure from her, it turns out that they also need to kill her. Joel isn't willing to lose her by this point, so he goes on a shooting rampage in order to rescue her, thus dooming the human race. It sounds like a monumentally horrible decision when you summarize it that quickly, but by the time you've gotten to the climax of the story, it's completely believable that he'd be unwilling to let go of her, even at the expense of humanity.

I've written before about some favorite movies of mine, two of which are The Bridge on the River Kwai and Taxi Driver. What both of these movies get you to do is to root for a guy that you probably shouldn't be rooting for. In "Bridge", Colonel Nicholson wins you over when he gets the best of the Japanese while being their prisoner. Eventually you realize that Nicholson's motivation is solely his obsession with rules, and he'd help out the enemy if it meant following them. With Travis Bickle in Taxi Driver, you feel for the guy because he's a bit of an outsider but seems to mean well. Then he takes his date to a porno, and you wonder why you're such a crappy judge of character. In both cases though, you stick with it because you found yourself liking them just enough to care about what happens.

The Last of Us does the same thing, only you don't only find yourself empathizing with a guy who's probably doing the wrong thing, it makes you a participant in his bad decisions. I remember sitting there at the end, wondering if I should keep shooting up all of these people, yet I continued anyway.

Would you doom humanity for the sake of this girl?
Every genre, whether it's movies, music, video games, novels, comic books, etc. has certain advantages and disadvantages. Comic books, for instance, invite the reader to be an active participant in setting the pace while reading the story. With video games, you have something that no other art form can do when it makes you an active participant in the decision of the characters. It's one thing to watch Travis Bickle shoot up a room full of people. It would have been something else if you were pulling the trigger, forcing his hand. With The Last of Us, I've had probably the most profound sense of moral ambiguity than I've ever had with any other art form.

It's this idea alone that makes it hard for me to even entertain the notion that video games are not art. I'm still kind of new to all of this, so I don't know if any other game comes close. However, the potential is there, and it's exciting.

Saturday, June 27, 2015

Read These Comics! - Boxers & Saints and a bit more

Last Wednesday, my local comic book store had a signing with Gene Luen Yang. He's the current writer on Superman and has done numerous creator-owned projects like American Born Chinese and today's specific recommendation, Boxers & Saints. It was a great opportunity to meet him, and he was really gracious to everybody who showed up for the signing. I got a chance to talk with him a little bit about the historical and mythological subject matter that his work deals with, and that sort of a thing is always a plus when it comes to signings.

I was intrigued by Boxers & Saints when I first heard about it, but it took a while for me to finally pick it up. What finally prompted me was when he was announced as the new Superman writer, as I have been picking up that title anyway. The thing that got my attention about this particular work though was that it covered a little piece of history that most folks don't know about - The Boxer Rebellion.

I first learned about it when I worked for Military.com, and I was writing brief text summaries of the various military engagements that involved the United States. It's still there, and I'm fairly certain that's the text that I wrote for it. In a nutshell, it was a war where a secret Chinese society, with the awesome name of The Society of the Righteous and Harmonious Fists, declared war on Western and Japanese influences in their country and attacked not just the foreigners but Chinese converts to Christianity. Eventually it would come to an end when an international coalition, including the United States, eliminated the "Boxers" as the society came to be known. (One disadvantage of the Boxers? They believed that bullets couldn't harm them. Turns out they were wrong.)

Lang's comic is actually two graphic novels, the first one titled Boxers and the second one Saints. The two just go together and you can usually find them sold in one slipcase. The first one tells the side from one of the Boxers and the other from a Chinese convert to Christianity. When I told Gene Yang about how I really liked that technique, he told me that it was due to his ambivalence about who the "good guy" was. Personally, I think that any honest telling of a war story will find it hard to create such clear-cut distinctions.

But just like any good war story in particular or good story in general, the appeal is in creating sympathy for both characters, even when you feel that they're making bad choices. The thing is, I can completely get why those Boxers wanted to do what they wanted to do. Who the hell were all those foreigners coming in and imposing their will on the Chinese? And what was up with this foreign religion and its complete disrespect of all their gods and customs? They basically reacted the way anybody else would, although they took on a violent solution, fueled by religious fervor.

At the same time, I can sympathize why some of the Chinese would convert over to the new religion of Christianity. I'm no Christian myself, but the religion definitely has an appeal compared to a lot of others, whether you think it's for good reasons or not. And more importantly, nobody wants to be persecuted for their beliefs, whether they're the traditional ones or newer, foreign ones.

One thing I also got to tell Mr. Yang was that I really loved how he incorporated Chinese mythology into the stories without making it feel like a textbook lesson. References to the gods are seamlessly blended into the overall story that both serves the theme and informs the reader. The same thing happens in Saints although with a lesson about Joan of Arc.

After finishing both volumes, you're left with that same feeling of ambivalence that the author described to me, and all that death and war seems like such a waste. That might be a common theme for war stories, but it's really the only honest one.

I don't know if I'll get a chance to write about it, but if you like this particular work, then I also highly recommend American Born Chinese. It's mostly autobiographical, and anybody who has ever felt like an outsider can relate to it. (But probably more if you're of Chinese descent, no doubt.) Just like Boxers & Saints, it also incorporates a good deal of Chinese mythology while not feeling didactic.

As for his first issue of Superman? It looks like it's off to a good start. I don't know if it was his plan or not, but the story picks up on recent events where Kal El not only has a new power where he essentially flares like a star (only to lose his powers for about a day until they recharge) but he also has had his secret identity revealed to the world. In other words, no more Clark Kent. Not sure how they'll put this genie back in the bottle, but I think that there are definitely some interesting possibilities if he's gotta be Superman 24 hours a day. Gene Luen Yang has showed that he can tell a good story with his own characters, so I trust him to do the same with the Man of Steel.

You can probably guess which guy has the last name of "Johnson" and which one has the last name of "Yang".

Thursday, June 25, 2015

My first (Thinking) Atheist event

Last night I attended a presentation by Seth Andrews, host of The Thinking Atheist podcast. It was hosted by The Atheist Community of San Jose.  He was promoting his book, Sacred Cows: A Lighthearted Look at Belief and Tradition around the World. During the presentation, he went over various bizarre beliefs like snake handling, "Sabbath mode" appliances, and some odd Bulgarian thing involving spinning some poor dog around. It was a pretty funny and informative speech, and at the end he got a bit more personal and talked about his personal difficulties involving his family's unwillingness to accept that he no longer shares their beliefs.

For those who aren't familiar with his podcast or videos, I recommend them. Seth's story is an interesting one, as he used to be a DJ for a Christian radio station in Oklahoma. Eventually he found himself seriously questioning his faith, and then he started creating videos on Youtube under his "The Thinking Atheist" banner. (Seth always insists that he's not The Thinking Atheist, and that the logo and name are supposed to symbolize how we should always be thinking, exploring, and questioning what we believe.) For some time, he remained anonymous, but he eventually came out and revealed his true identity at a Freethought convention.

Seth on the left, me on the right.
I've never been to any kind of organize atheist event before. I've never really seen the need to, and I'll admit that for some time after admitting my atheism to myself, I would kind of scoff at the idea. After all, I didn't like going to church when I was a believer. Why would I want to submit myself to something similar when I no longer had the fear that I was making some deity angry? Eventually, I came around and realized that this attitude was a bit of a privilege on my part, as I didn't lose a ton of friends when I came out as an atheist, and I wasn't disowned by my family members. Not everybody is as lucky as me, and for those folks, atheist gatherings offer a chance for them to be with people who embrace them for who they are. So, while I'm still not personally big on atheist gatherings, I'm glad that they exist.

Got a copy of the book, and got it signed.
I will also say that I'm glad that I attended this one. I've been a big fan of Seth's for some time now, ever since I saw his "The Story of Suzie" video.

Lately, I've been steering away from atheist books and podcasts for the most part, as I've had my fill for the most part. Still, I continue listening to his podcast. For one, it's really professional. He keeps each episode to about an hour and there's no blathering on about pointless things. Sure, sometimes he digresses and talks about his dog or things like that, but he keeps things moving along at a brisk pace. Also, he has a really positive vibe about his show. I realize that the video up above might make you think differently, but his show is never about calling people stupid or implying that believers are "mentally ill" or other such nonsensical things that some atheists are wont to say.

I'm on the left, toward the back.
Another thing that was really cool about last night's presentation is that I got an old friend to come along with me, and he brought his two kids. The two of them have had their fill of church experiences, as their mother (my friend is divorced from her) takes them on Sundays - and one of the ones she's gone to was pretty rabidly fundamentalist from my understanding. It was great to have them along so they could see a positive face for nonbelievers outside of just their father. Seth also took the time to talk to everybody before and after the show, and he had a great message for them: 1) take care of each other, and 2) keep looking for answers and the truth no matter what it might be. (Those weren't his exact words, but that was the gist.)

No, I didn't take my son. He's only four, and I doubt he would have appreciated it. (My wife would have, but she was unable to attend.) Considering he's not going to be exposed to a whole lot of religion, it's not a high priority for me to take him to things like this. I suppose that if he was older and expressed interest, I'd be happy to, but I have no interest in pushing him one way or the other. I'll be honest about my beliefs, and I'll encourage critical thinking, but I'm not looking to do some sort of equivalent to what the faithful do.

Part of me wishes that some of my faithful friends could have come along, as they probably would have enjoyed it far more than they would expect. Plus, it's always good to show a good side of atheism considering that so many people are given the message that we're horrible. I mean, yeah, we did sacrifice and eat a baby when everything was wrapped up, but lots of groups do that.

In all seriousness though, I'm glad that Seth took some questions at the end, and even better, he was asked, "What do you think the best reasons are for why there is no God?" He took the time to explain that he would never word it that way. Most atheists, like myself, don't take some sort of dogmatic position like theists do when they claim with certainty that a God exists. Most of us don't take the other extreme, as we have no way of knowing that. The best that we can say is that we find the argument for the existence of one to be totally unconvincing. If given evidence, we'll change our minds. But that evidence hasn't appeared, and when it does, it comes in the form of anecdotes, specious reasoning, and appeals to emotion - in other words, not actual evidence.

So, would I attend another event like this? Sure. I had a good time, and if I did, I'd want to bring along some people with me - especially my wife, but maybe even an open-minded theist friend as well. If you're an atheist, especially one who has lost out on friends and family members as a result, then you definitely gotta check out Seth's website and podcast. He always refers to his fans as a community and family, and I don't think that's too far off. Here's hoping Seth will find his way out to California again.

Wednesday, June 24, 2015

Spider-Man re-re-booting

Yesterday, Marvel announced the name of the next actor to play Spider-Man. Looks like it's gonna be Tom Holland, and while I don't know much about him, the rumors were true that they were going for a younger actor to play the character than they did the last two times. From my understanding, they're looking to keep in high school for a bit longer than the last two versions, so getting a younger guy is good for that. (I looked him up - he was born in 1996, so he's under 20.

Considering that Spider-Man is probably my favorite comic book character, I have some thoughts about this. I'll start off with the bad, since I have much more good to say about it.

Another reboot? - I know that most die-hard fans know exactly why things are going this way. And for that reason, many of us are probably ready to look past it and get over it. However, for the average movie goer or for the fans who don't pay as much attention, the refrain of "Another reboot?" is going to be the reaction whenever this new Spider-Man is talked about. That's going to be a mark against it, although it doesn't personally bother me.

For those who don't know, this is the reason why, put as simply as possible:

1. Before Marvel had their own movie studio, Sony had the rights to do Spider-Man movies. (It's even more complicated than this, but that's a good starting point.)  
2. After Sam Raimi and Toby Maguire passed on making a fourth Spider-Man movie, Sony needed to either make a new movie with a new creative team or the rights would revert back to Marvel, which by this time had a movie studio. 
3. Sony went with director Mark Webb and Andrew Garfield. For me, their biggest mistake was in rebooting it. They must have figured that rebooting Batman and James Bond worked so well, so why not reboot Spider-Man even though the character didn't have nearly as long of a film history? As far as I'm concerned, they could have just put a new actor in the webs and continued to tell stories and the audience would have been just fine with it. They've been fine with that in the past. 
4. Even though rebooting was probably a mistake, part of what vindicated The Amazing Spider-Man was that the first film was actually pretty good. In some ways, it improved on the previous origin story. Or maybe it just seemed good because the third Spider-Man film stunk on wheels. Either way, The Amazing Spider-Man 2 didn't live up to the promise of the previous installment, and Sony realized that they were in trouble. 
5. Marvel, with its successes (all of the various Avengers movies and Guardians of the Galaxy) has some serious pull, and while Sony didn't want to give up the cash cow that is Spider-Man, they agreed to a special deal allowing the character to be part of the greater Marvel cinematic universe. Perhaps they could have just kept going with Andrew Garfield, who did a fine job, but that franchise had created a mess, and getting a fresh start seems to be the way to go.

The Marvel Cinematic Universe might be getting a bit crowded. - One of the problems with the last Avengers movie is that there was a lot of characters in there. Hopefully adding another major character won't add to that problem.

Okay, that's really all the bad I have to say about it. Here's what's good:

Reboot? Yes. Origin? No. - Everything I've read indicates that they are NOT going to be doing another origin story. That's good. We don't need to see it again this soon. They can simply flash back to it like they did The Hulk's origin when they rebooted that franchise. (That was a smart decision to reboot, by the way.)

Gradual introduction - Looks like he's going to be making his first appearance not in his own film but in the upcoming Captain America: Civil War. I hear that it's not going to be a big role, and fans of the original comic book series will probably be disappointed if they're expecting the characters role to be the same in the movie. Still, it's good to see him be a part of it all, and this way the audience can get to know and like him before giving him his own film.

They got a young guy - It's not like Sean Connery in Diamonds are Forever (or worse: Never Say Never Again) but Maguire and Garfield started off a bit older than they should have been to play this part. Part of the character's original appeal is his youth.

Marvel has more say - Sony has been able to produce a few good films with the character, but Marvel's track record is better. I'm expecting them to look to the comic books for inspiration when it comes to new storylines, and hopefully his solo films will borrow from some popular stories (like Kraven's Last Hunt) instead of just doing another formulaic villain du jour.

Looks like some bad ideas are being abandoned. - Sony was trying to turn the Web Head into a franchise after seeing Marvel Studios's success. The problem is that there really isn't enough there to do that. Still, they were going to try with films based on The Black Cat, Venom, and The Sinister Six. I can maybe see something good being done with the first idea, but a Sinister Six movie? Really? Yeah, 'cause that's what people want to see - a movie with all of a hero's villains but without the hero. (And yes, I know that Suicide Squad is based on a similar idea. However, that one has some history with the comics and the concept doesn't depend on anybody knowing anything more than it's a bunch of bad guys who have to do something good.)

So, this Spider-Man fan feels like things are looking up for his favorite Wall Crawler. Hopefully Marvel will continue its track record, and maybe we'll see them do something fresh and interesting while still being true to his comic book origins.

Monday, June 22, 2015

Comics teach morality

I remember watching a documentary on comic books years ago, and one of the creators that they interviewed (I want to say it was Harlan Ellison, but nobody get mad at me if he never said anything of the sort.) made a statement about how kids get their morality from comic books. I thought that this was a strange thing to say, but the more I thought about it, the more it resonated. In fact, I think that I'm definitely an example of that idea, and I'm not sure that I would have the same moral center that I do if it weren't for all those superheroes.

Before I continue, let's make one thing clear. The biggest influence on my morality was my parents. No doubt the society in which I was raised played a big part as well. Oh, and I think that Star Wars might have had something to do with it as well. Still, I was raised with Bible stories, and I can definitely say that my morals never came from that particular book of myths nearly as much as the modern myths published by Marvel and DC Comics.

I could probably come up with several examples of this, but the one that resonates with me more than any is what I learned from reading comics with The Punisher. For those who are unfamiliar with the character, he's not exactly a "superhero" as he not only doesn't have powers, but he uses guns and kills every villain who gets in his way. He doesn't bother tying them up and leaving them for the law. His solution is a bit more permanent.

I was first introduced to the character back when I was in seventh grade, in issue 285 of The Amazing Spider-Man. It was the middle of the "Gang War" storyline, where various mobsters and their supervillain henchmen were battling it out. To make matters worse, here comes this dude with a bazooka and all kinds of guns, ready to put a quick end to it by blowing every last one of them to smithereens. Instead of thanking the guy for his speedy resolution, Spider-Man tries to stop him, likening his methods to putting out a forest fire with a flamethrower.

I was intrigued with The Punisher, and I followed his adventures into his own solo series. I understood that his kind of justice would never work in real life, but there was a visceral thrill in watching a guy take matters into his own hands and cutting through the corrupt justice system. In other words, his methods do work, but they only work in a fantasy world.

Still, the stories that always resonated the most with me were the ones where he was put into direct conflict with one of the more traditional superheroes, usually Daredevil. There was one crossover where the two of them punched each other over the fate of a guy who was poisoning over-the-counter drugs. It was a fun issue with a lot of great "tough guy" lines from The Punisher. I remember it by heart when the killer protested that he had "rights" to only get the response, "You've got rights. You've got the right to go splat when you hit the pavement. You have the right to bleed into the gutter."

Before The Punisher could toss the guy off the roof though, Daredevil stepped in and the two had it out. There was also a brief exchange of ideas. Of course, it's hardly a deep analysis of the moral issue of what methods we should take in dealing with society's criminals. However, it illustrated what made guys like Daredevil and Spider-Man less miserable people than The Punisher. They understood that you don't get to be the good guy when you don't hold yourself to a higher standard than the bad guy.

How does this continue to affect me? Well, I'm the kind of guy who cares about what's true and what isn't. There are many things that I speak out against, and usually my biggest complaint is with the lies that people tell. I often say things along the line of, "If you have to lie to make your point, maybe you don't have a point that's worth making."

And I find myself getting even more upset when people whom I see as being on "my side" of various issues engaging in the act of lying to further a cause that I believe in. One of the most egregious examples of this, as I've noted before, is the movie Zeitgeist. I still see my fellow nonbelievers cite this movie as an example of how to debunk Christianity. (I think that Bill Maher's Religulous repeated a lot of the inaccuracies that the film noted as well.) I also really need to stop seeing the whole "The Jesus story is a ripoff of the Horus myth!" meme going around Facebook.

The point is, I think that my side has a strong enough case on its own. No need to repeat nonsense. But when you point that out to some folks, they don't seem to care if they're repeating something that's untrue. Just like The Punisher, the ends justifies the means, and it doesn't matter so long as it's a "win" for their side. I have such a hard time with that because one of my major issues with religion is that I think that it's dishonest. You can't fight dishonesty by engaging in more of it.

I could list other examples of this happening with other issues. Thankfully, I can find lots of other folks who feel the same as I do. (Notice that the link I provided that debunks Zeitgeist is from an atheist website?) Still, I feel too often that for too many it's more important how you line up with the tribe and if you can score points against the other side whether honestly or not.

This is also why I scratched my head in disbelief when I heard people defend things like the Patriot Act and government overreach after 9/11. I actually heard somebody say that we need to make some sacrifices in order to "preserve our way of life". So, we need to sacrifice our way of life to preserve our way of life? How the hell does that make sense?

Is it possible that I would have this same regard (maybe even obsession) for intellectual honesty and fairness if I had never read comic books? Perhaps. But I gotta admit, I often think about Daredevil and The Punisher fighting on a rooftop when these sorts of issues come up.

Sunday, June 21, 2015

Cal Shakes - Twelfth Night

I enjoyed yesterday's performance of Twelfth Night at Cal Shakes. The performances were solid, the staging was effective, the costumes were traditional yet creative. I also liked how they took some creative liberties (having the characters dressed in Renaissance attire while pulling out their cell phones for various reasons). I think that if I knew this play backward and forward like I do some of Shakespeare's other works (Hamlet, Macbeth, Romeo and Juliet, Much Ado About Nothing, Merchant of Venice) I'd really love it.

Unfortunately, I don't know this one that well, and I didn't take the time to really familiarize myself with it like I usually do when I see a performance of a play that I don't know. I basically did a quick crash-course an hour before I left, reading a summary of the first two acts and an analysis of the major characters. I figured that I'd be in good shape even though I knew that things could potentially get confusing because like a lot of the other comedies, this one involves mistaken identities. I figured there was a good chance that at least one actor would play multiple roles, and I was probably going to have to pay close attention to know when the actor was one character versus another. I also figured that since this was a comedy, I'd have an easier time figuring out what's going on, as they tend to be filled with more prose than poetry as opposed to his tragedies.

I don't want to say that I was totally confused throughout the whole thing, but I did find myself probably exhausting more mental energy trying to discern who was who than I was just simply sitting back and letting myself enjoy it. One other thing, and I'm not sure if this had anything to do with it one way or the other, was that all of the parts (minus the jester) were performed by women. With some of them, their attire and makeup made it transparent that they were men. With a few others, I might not have known if I hadn't read that character analysis.

Don't get me wrong. The whole play deals with issues of gender swapping, and it's definitely an appropriate casting choice, especially considering that in Shakespeare's time, it would have been all men (and boys) playing the parts. I just might have appreciated that particular decision more if I was more familiar with this play.

I really found myself feeling good as the story was being resolved, and I found Malvolio's ominous line about wanting to get revenge to be a pretty dark way to end a silly comedy. (But that's Shakespeare for you. Even Much Ado About Nothing has a bit of a sad note for Don Pedro, as he's a main character left without a mate.)

I probably won't get to see this particular group of actors do this play again, but I will eagerly see other stagings (and film versions?) of this play.

Friday, June 19, 2015

What's in a genre?

I remember one time when I was a kid hearing a family member talk about how dumb superheroes were because they were "so fake". I found this to be pretty perplexing. No, it's not because I was somehow under the impression that superheroes were realistic. It was odd because it was safe to say that they weren't even trying to be realistic. That's kind of the point of fantasy (superheroes being a subgenre of that) isn't it? To get away from reality? Right?

Doubly confounding was that this particular family member was also a fan of comics. Of course, comics don't all feature superheroes. In fact, there are some out there that actually are pretty realistic as they deal with real-life issues and/or historical events. However, this person was a fan of some of the old comic strips like Flash Gordon, Tarzan, and Prince Valiant. Umm...those are somehow more realistic than superheroes? Sure, none of them have superpowers, but the fantasy world of Flash is one that couldn't possibly exist. A baby raised by apes would be a dead baby. As for Valiant, yeah it takes place in historical times, but if you played a drinking game where you took a shot every time you came across an anachronism, they'd be pumping your stomach before you finished the first volume of collected strips.

If you want realism, that's fine. Fantasy isn't for everyone. But to disparage one type as being "fake" and then go for another? I don't understand that at all.

I was reminded of this little exchange when I read what director William Friedkin had to say about the current crop of superhero movies. “Films used to be rooted in gravity, They were about real people doing real things. Today, cinema in America is all about Batman, Superman, Iron Man, Avengers, the Hunger Games: all kinds of stuff that I have no interest in seeing at all.”

Pretty much an average day for me.
If you haven't heard of Friedkin, then maybe you've heard of his most famous movie which was the epitome of "real people doing real things". It goes by the name The Exorcist. You know, that movie where the devil possesses a little girl and makes her head spin around. The kind of stuff you deal with every day.

His statement is preposterous for a few reasons, the most obvious one being that his most famous film hardly matches the description of the sort of thing he prefers. Also, while there are certainly more superhero movies out now than a couple of decades ago, there are other movies out there that have nothing to do with them. All you have to do is pay attention and you'll find them.

This also gets me to thinking that I'm not sure if it's even accurate to lump all superhero movies into one genre. After all, isn't part of the fun of The Avengers that you get to see a bunch of different genres smashed together? I mean, is Captain America: The Winter Soldier really the same genre as Thor: The Dark World? The first one has more in common with spy thrillers and the second is more pure fantasy. And let's not get started on Guardians of the Galaxy. Is that even a superhero movie at all? Do these all get lumped together just because they all debuted in comic books? Isn't that kinda like lumping Fight Club and To Kill a Mockingbird into the same category because they both originated in novels?

Rooted in gravity
The thing is, the whole genre of "superheroes" is really a combination of pre-existing genres, and some of them emphasize different elements than others. The Dark Knight only shares a guy in a mask as the common factor with Green Lantern. (Never mind the quality of the latter film; that's not the point.)

I just happen to love superheroes. I generally think that they work best in comic books, but with the advancements in special effects in the past couple of decades, they have successfully crossed over into motion pictures. I can understand it if somebody doesn't care for them, although I can't personally think of an entire genre that I completely write off (if we're to accept them as actually being a genre). Generally speaking, I don't like "chick flicks" but I thought that Bridesmaids was a hoot, and I'd be willing to give others a chance if they looked like they had good stories and dialogue.

But whatever, if you don't like superheroes, then they're easy to avoid. I just find myself not understanding some of the criticism. Why not just say that you don't find them appealing without having to make it seem like they're somehow a lower form of expression? You can tell an effective story in any genre.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

DC - A step in the right direction

It's been some time since I wrote about my thoughts on what's going on with DC Comics. I first wrote about it when they did the "New 52" relaunch back in 2011. A year later, I wrote a follow-up. That's nearly three years now. So, what happened?

I found myself getting kind of bored with a lot of the books, and I was picking up fewer and fewer titles. I was only reading the main Batman series (although I picked up Batman and Robin when Damien Wayne was brought back to life). I stopped reading Wonder Woman after the first few issues after Brian Azarello left. Also, I only made it through the first story arc of Green Lantern after Geoff Johns left. (I wasn't interested in another big crossover with all the other Lantern books. Plus, I really don't think that Billy Tan is a good choice for the art.)

I bought the first few issues of Convergence but couldn't muster up a reason to care about that particular crossover one way or the other. Supposedly it ended with Crisis on Infinite Earths never having happened? Yawn.

But now I'm starting to get a bit excited again because DC is doing two important things:

1. Not being slaves to continuity.
2. Letting the creators give their books a distinctive personality.

It's a bit too early to say that this is going to be a line-wide transformation, but the initial indicators are good. Batman by Scott Snyder and Greg Capullo has already put a definite signature on the character who has been reinvented a million times. Things really started to look up with the creative team of Brenden Fletcher and Babs Tarr on Batgirl. That series feels like an indie book, and while it definitely has ties to the overall Batman franchise, it's not a slave to it. It has its own thing going on and doesn't feel like simply an opportunity to print cash based on Bruce Wayne's popularity.

Some other promising signs include getting Gene Luen Yang as the writer over on Superman. One of these days soon, I'll have to write "Read These Comics!" entries on his Boxers & Saints and American Born Chinese. The new Black Canary series is unlike any other thing I've seen with Brenden Fletcher (him again!) and Annie Wu at the helm. Even Bryan Hitch's totally mainstream Justice League of America is something that proudly bears the hallmarks of its creator. Yeah, he's doing bread and butter, big-screen superhero stuff, but it's what he does best, and it's looking good so far.

As for continuity, co-publisher Dan Didio has stated that: “In this new era of storytelling, story will trump continuity as we continue to empower creators to tell the best stories in the industry”. This is a smart move. Look, I remember when I was a kid reading The Amazing Spider-Man (sorry to reference Marvel in a DC post, but I was reading Marvel first) and Peter Parker was warned by Matt Murdock (Daredevil) that the Kingpin was likely to be coming after him, as it was a brief tie-in to the "Born Again" story over in DD's own comic. It was neat to see that the adventures of these heroes all took place in a larger world, and what would happen in one series would affect what would happen in another.

The only problem is that continuity can be a burden. Perhaps it wouldn't be such a problem if the characters aged like real people, but they don't. Ultimately, the stories are going to start contradicting one another. Also, if Bryan Hitch has a really cool story for the Justice League, and it requires the use of the Hal Jordan Green Lantern, he shouldn't have to settle for a different one. DC can continue to do crossover, but each title really should be able to stand on its own and creator compromises should be kept to a minimum.

I'm not sure why DC is taking this path. Perhaps they realized that the hype of the New 52 was unsustainable? Perhaps they're trying to woo back fans like me, who like their superheroes but find some of the artistic freedoms over at publishers like Image Comics to be a bit more intriguing? Who knows, but let's hope it all sells well so they can keep experimenting and we can see all our favorite characters in some exciting new stories.

Wednesday, June 17, 2015

Read These Comics! - Giant Days

I'm not sure exactly why I picked up the first issue of Giant Days. I don't think that I'd fit into what one might describe as the target audience for this book aside from the fact that I simply love good comic books no matter what they're about. Apparently, it used to be a webcomic by writer/artist John Allison. The print edition is written by Allison and drawn by Lissa Treiman (an awesome talent if ever there was one). I never heard of it before, so it wasn't that which made me pick it up. Essentially the story is about a group of college girls in England and their relationship with each other. If you're familiar with Strangers in Paradise it's like that minus all of the darker moments and detours into crime/suspense. So, I'm sure that the creators were thinking that their main audience would consist of 41-year-old men.

What can I say? Good stories are good stories, and good comics are good comics. I'm guessing that it was Treiman's art that caught my attention and made me want to give this series a chance. That's probably true for the most part whenever I pick up a first issue of a new series. I care about the writing too, but it's harder to get a sense of that when you're just flipping through a book at the store. With that said, it's the story that's keeping me coming back for more, and it's also the reason why the latest issue was near the top of my stack when I sat down to read today's new releases. (They're up to issue four of six, by the way. If you can't get a hold of the back issues, I'm sure that a collected edition will soon follow when the entire series is released.)

I've been reading a lot of comics lately, which isn't a problem because I'm also really enjoying what I'm reading. However, I find myself reading a lot more creator-owned books, which means that I'm being introduced to a lot of new characters. In other words, I can't name the characters off the top of my head, as the superheroes of Marvel and DC Comics have filled up that particular bit of head space for learning the names of comic book characters. While I may not remember the names (but you can find out by looking at the image up above). I do remember each of them by their looks and personality types. Even though we're only on the fourth issue, they're all quite familiar to me by this point, and I can count on them to be true to their unique personalities.

What's also great about this series is that even though my head is cluttered with various characters, stories, and plotlines, I feel like I can easily get back into the swing of things with each issue. Pretty much every issue is self-contained, and I imagine that if you picked up the third issue, you'd be able to follow along just fine and not feel too lost. While I'm sure that this series will reward me even further when I sit down to read all of the issues in one sitting (which I very much plan to do) it's nice to be able to enjoy what's going on without having a very good recall.

All of this is, no doubt, an attribute of the writer, but let me gush about the art again. There is just so much life and personality to each one of these characters. The storytelling is always very clear, and it's never confusing as to what's going on from one panel to the next. Each character also has her own body language, and even if they all looked exactly the same, I could probably tell them apart based on that alone.

Perhaps I'm going too far, but I'd put the sense of timing and the fluidity of perceived motion up there with the likes of Bill Watterson (Calvin and Hobbes) and Carl Barks (Uncle Scrooge). I'm not sure whether John Allison describes in detail exactly how he wants everything laid out or whether Lissa Treiman makes those decisions, but either way it captures that special something that only can be done in comics.

I don't know what's next for this particular pair of creators. I wouldn't mind seeing more Giant Days. I also would be interested to see what else they can do, either together or apart.

Tuesday, June 16, 2015

Read These Comics! - The Infinity Revelation

I was originally thinking of doing another lengthy "Read These Comics!" entry, where I recommend several comics in one entry. Those tend to take a while, so I figured that I'd split it up a bit and write individual entries for specific titles. And that brings me to today's recommendation: Thanos: The Infinity Revelation.

While I generally try and recommend comics on my blog that I think would appeal to a broader audience than your average comic book fan like myself, this is definitely one for the Marvel fans. To be more specific, this is for fans of the "cosmic" stories involving Thanos, that bad guy who's been teased at the end of the Avengers movies.

Back when I was in high school, one of my favorite limited series was The Infinity Gauntlet. I recently reread it, and I was impressed by how well it all held up. The plot involved "The Mad Titan" Thanos getting a hold of the six infinity gems which essentially turned him into God. In an effort to impress his beloved mistress Death, he wipes out half of the life in the universe. Yet she begins to spurn him. He's finally able to serve her in a way that he thinks is worthy, but she begins to fear what he has become. To top it all off, you have a bunch of superheroes, cosmic beings, and the mysterious Adam Warlock getting together in an effort to stop him. That series was followed up by the disappointing Infinity War and Infinity Crusade.

Thanos has made many appearances over the last couple of decades, but now he's back in the hands of the man who created him (and the three aforementioned series) in the first of a series of graphic novels. (The second, The Infinity Revelation, has already come out. Maybe I'll write about it in another post.) Not only is Jim Starlin writing, but he's also providing the art. I'll admit that I was a bit hesitant to pick this up, but after flipping through it, I figured I'd give it a shot.

I found myself being really interested in the whole story, but when it was all over I remember thinking to myself, "I'm not entirely sure just what happened here." But this happens with a lot of things, and I wound up thinking about it a lot until I finally got around to rereading it. I think that I better understand the story now, but I still want to read it yet again to see what else I missed. I figure anything that makes me want to reread it is something good.

The plot is a bit difficult to explain, but basically Thanos becomes aware that there's something wrong with the universe, and the cosmic powers that control all creation have decided that he's the one who needs to fix it. You gotta be careful when you read this one, because there are actually two stories being told in two separate realities. About 99% of what happens in both of them is exactly the same thing, but if you pay attention to the details in the art, you can tell which one you're looking at. Sound confusing? It is. Kinda. Like I said, it made more sense on the second read. When everything is resolved, it doesn't seem like much has happened, and really this is all a setup for the next two parts of this trilogy. Anyway, like a lot of things I like, I can't quite explain what it is that I like so much about it.

One thing that's easy to explain though is Starlin's art. He wasn't drawing any of his own stories when I was reading them, but I've seen bits of it here and there. He always struck me as an above-average, competent artist. Inker Andy Smith is the perfect compliment to his clear lines and storytelling, and the colors by Frank D'Armata give everything just the right amount of weight.

Hopefully this entire trilogy will pay off, but I liked this one just fine on its own. If you're like me and loved the cosmic stuff from the early 90s, give this one a read.