Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Of Names, Talking Trees, and Anthropomorphic Animals

As mentioned before, I participate in a "supposed-to-be monthly" Friday game night. Over the course of the past few years, we've played D&D 3.5, Pathfinder, Cthulhu (of both d20 and Savage Worlds varieties), Warhammer 40K RPG, OSRIC, and Labyrinth Lord.

These games, being on Friday nights after a long week at work, tend to be a little more about just talking about work and every day life versus buckling down and getting straight to playing. We do end up playing, but we have at least a good hour or even two of hanging out and hoisting a pint or two before we take out the dice.

One of the topics that comes up often during the first few hours of hanging out is current TV and movies. For those of us who enjoy the genres of fantasy, science-fiction, and comic books, this is a great time to be alive with the veritable litany of shows and movies right now, especially with Marvel's success at the box office and DC aiming to follow suit with its TV series and recently announced slate of upcoming silver screen adaptations.

It's this Marvel versus DC thing I want to talk about in today's post, but not in the way you might think. It all leads to a bigger point, which is "Why do people think some things are cool, while other things that are almost exactly the same are considered stupid?"

Marvel is sitting pretty right now in the world, not just among self-labeled geeks but also as a pop culture fixture in general. The highest grossing movie this year was Guardians of the Galaxy (which I don't think most people ever saw coming) and that's followed by Captain America: Winter Soldier. It's safe to say that, at least this year, they own Hollywood. Marvel's properties have entered the pop culture lexicon with most people knowing the names of characters that 10 years ago wouldn't have registered with the average American.

"Hawkeye? You mean the guy from M.A.S.H.?" *

This guy is stupid?
By virtue of their success, many ideas that people may have scoffed at before have somehow become "cool." But, interestingly, the lesser known properties from Marvel don't necessarily carry that same cache. The upcoming movie, Ant Man, is a perfect example of this. It's got a pretty big name cast with Evangeline Lilly, Paul Rudd, and Michael Douglas just for starters. It's a story based on a long-standing member of the Avengers and a character who has been around for decades. Among people following the production of the movie, there is some concern due to the multitude of director, cast, and script changes that have occurred during production, and that's understandable. But, to the average person, even those who are fans of Marvel movies, Ant Man isn't something they can get behind.

To quote a friend in my game group (and I'm going to be picking on him a lot as we continue, so hopefully he's got a good sense of humor about this), "Ant Man? ANT MAN? That's stupid."

Just so I understand, Spider-Man is cool, but Ant Man is not.

Is Ant Man not cool because you can't conceive of who he is or what he does, and therefore that's stupid? Is it just that the name seems stupid? Try to imagine that you had no idea who Spider-Man was. You're starting with a blank slate with no idea of his powers or his costume or his origin. Would hearing the name "Spider-Man" make you think the guy is cool, or stupid? Now think about Ant Man again.

But this guy is cool? Really? Have you seen
this movie? It's all about context, folks.
This same friend has been keen to point out to me on several occasions that DC's heroes have stupid names, and cracks up every time I bring up the character Elongated Man. I imagine quite a few of you out there might not even know who Elongated Man is because he's currently not part of the New 52. You might even be chuckling like Beavis or Butthead right now because you think the guy's name is funny. But, as I've said on many occasions, it's not really about the character's powers or his or her name, it's about how the creative team make stories featuring that character. A bad writer can turn a so-called cool character like Batman into a caricature of himself. We've all seen that happen before. You need look no further than the awful Joel Schumacher Batman films (the terrible Batman Forever and the even worse Batman & Robin). So, does a name make a character inherently stupid? Have a read of Brad Meltzer's Identity Crisis (with an open mind) and then tell me if you still think Elongated Man is stupid. I'm not arguing that his name couldn't have been better chosen. I'm saying that the character himself is not stupid, nor are the stories in which he appears, just based on what his name is.

My friend, however, doesn't see it that way.

This brings me to Guardians of the Galaxy again. My friend is, when push comes to shove, a Marvel fan. He likes Batman but the rest of the DC Universe isn't for him. His son digs Marvel heroes, and Marvel has admitted done a much better job than DC of bringing their heroes to the masses through the big screen. So, earlier this summer during game night, I asked the group, "Who's seen Guardians of the Galaxy yet?" At the time, no one else in the group had seen it.

"No way. I'm not seeing that. It's so stupid - it's got a talking raccoon in it."

"But.. wait, what? You're not seeing it because it has a talking raccoon? I asked. "Do you even know what it's about? It's just a fun, slightly goofy, popcorn summer action adventure. It's along the same line of the Avengers movie. You liked that one, right?"

"Dude, it has a talking raccoon. Oh, and a stupid talking tree, too. I'm out."

"I don't understand this hatred for the raccoon. They even explain in the film why he is like he is..." I started to say.

"Doesn't matter. I don't do anthropomorphic animals. They're just stupid."

This conversation went on for a while with other members of the group jumping in, but my friend was adamant that talking trees and animals are just stupid.

"Hey, do you like Lord of the Rings?" another friend asked.

"Yes," said my talking tree hating friend.

"That has talking trees in it. Treebeard is a significant character in that series."

My friend stood for a second, not saying anything.

"And what about the Chronicles of Narnia? Do you like those?" we asked.

My friend answered slowly... hesitantly. "Yes."

"Dude, that series is full of talking animals. So, what's this deal with you saying anthropomorphic animals are stupid?"

My friend was quiet for a second, and then finally said, "Good point. Good point." A short pause later, he then proudly announced, "It's a conceit of the genre." He stood there matter-of-factly with a smug look on his face, arms crossed on his chest.

"What? What the Hell does that mean?"

"It means it's a conceit of the genre," he said, just repeating what he'd already said as thought that were the only explanation needed. "Talking trees and animals are part of fantasy literature.  They don't belong in a comic book movie."

"Says who?" I asked, rather loudly. This guy really knows how to push my buttons and I realize that he does it partly just to get a reaction. He's also keenly aware that during this entire discussion I've been knocking back some Imperial Pale Ales with ABVs approaching 9.5 - 10%.

"They don't belong in comic book movies. It's just stupid."

"But this is a space fantasy. You don't even know what the movie is about. So Wookies are okay in Star Wars but a race of intelligent plant-based life in Guardians of the Galaxy is stupid?"

"Yep, exactly. It doesn't make sense."

This whole argument we were having continued for some time, and neither one of us was going to see the other point-of-view. It's very reminiscent of the science-fantasy laser-sharking argument, about which I've blogged before. Some people seem to have a very narrow, limited view of what fantasy, science-fiction, and now comic books should be. Fantasy is dwarves and elves, and I guess, talking trees and animals. Science fiction is starships and lasers and alien races that in no way resemble talking versions of earth flora or fauna. Never the twain shall meet.

And now we have a limited definition of a comic book movie, which apparently should not include any fantasy or science-fiction elements to it, but rather should only feature costumed heroes with cool names that are not based on funny words or tiny insects, and they should be limited in scope to talking place in Manhattan.

What are you thoughts about all this? Was Guardians of the Galaxy stupid because it featured an outer space setting with a talking tree and raccoon? Is Ant Man stupid because he's named after a small insect? Is Elongated Man stupid just because his name makes an easy joke for a pubescent juvenile male?

* Look it up, kids. It was a great show I grew up watching with my dad.

Hanging: Home office (laptop)
Drinking: Tap water (Pasadena's finest)
Listening: "Police on my Back" by the Clash

Sunday, October 12, 2014

This Week in Comics

I don't normally post on the weekends, as I mainly spend that time with my wife and daughter, as well as trying as much as possible to get some gaming in with friends. However, it's been a bit since I last posted, and I had a thought about a new semi-ongoing thing to post about, giving my impressions of the previous week's comics that I picked up.

Long-time readers know that I go to my local comic shop, Collector's Paradise in Pasadena, every Wednesday with my daughter after I pick her up from school. Here's a look at the things I picked up and my thoughts on them so far.

My goal with these posts is, as with all of my comics-related posts, to try to expose you all to the world of comics out there and how they might be different than what you might think. I also tend to try to bring them back around to tabletop role-playing games and discuss things that you can steal from various different books that could make some cool scenarios for your games.

As a reminder, every Wednesday after I get home from my shop, I tweet out which books I picked up that week. This week's tweets were:

Rather than talk about each one individually, I'm going to group them a bit.

Haven't Read Yet
Here's an easy category - of the books I picked up this week, I still haven't read Batman Eternal, Superman/Wonder Woman, or Astro City.

DC's Earth 2 Titles (Earth 2, Earth 2: World's End, Worlds' Finest, and New 52: Futures End)
Earth 2, an alternate earth in the DC Universe, has exploded lately. Prior to DC's "New 52" reboot, Earth 2 was the home of the old Golden Age heroes that were created just prior to, or during, World War 2. So, it was home to the "original" Superman and Batman, as well as the original Flash (Jay Garrick, the guy who wore the helmet inspired by the Roman God Mercury), the original Green Lantern (Alan Scott, whose powers were actually more magical and who wasn't part of the Green Lantern Corps), and the original Wonder Woman (who was ret-conned to be Hipolyta, Diana's mother).

With the New 52 relaunch, those characters don't exist any longer in mainstream DC continuity. Instead, DC launched a book called Earth 2 which tells the stories of an alternate Earth in which the "Trinity" of Batman, Superman, and Wonder Woman all died a few years ago, giving their lives to protect their planet from an invasion by Darkseid. In the wake of their sacrifice, a new generation of heroes was born, including alternative versions of the Green Lantern and the Flash, as well as brand new heroes that don't exist on the main DC Earth, such as Hawkgirl, Red Tornado, Sandman, Red Arrow, and some others. There's also a new Batman prowling around, and another Kryptonian taking the place of the more familiar Clark Kent version.

Earth 2 has consistently been among DC's better books after the New 52 reboot, and it's mainly because the authors (firstly James Robinson and most recently Tom Taylor) have been given a bit more liberty to create their world from scratch without having to try to fit into any pre-existing continuity.

There was a "bridge" book of sorts, Worlds' Finest, which told the tale of two of Earth 2's minor "sidekick" heroes (Supergirl, the cousin of Superman; and Robin, the daughter of Bruce Wayne and Selina Kyle). Both girls see their mentors die during the Darkseid invasion and shortly after are accidentally teleported over to the main DC Earth, where they've spent the past 27 issues pretty much not interacting with any of the main Earth heroes at all. They've just ducked under the radar and tried to figure out a way to get home. This book has been a bit of a disappointment, as it was ripe for some great stories featuring Supergirl (who takes the moniker of Power Girl on the main Earth) and Robin (who takes the moniker of Huntress) interacting with their doubles on this world as well as the doppelgangers of their Earth 2 mentors, etc.

The issue of Worlds' Finest from this past week features a shift in the storyline moving forward, focusing on the original Batman and Superman of Earth 2 and telling their "secret origin" of sorts. The creative team try to do some things to make the origins different and original, but ultimately Batman always has to deal with the death of his parents and Kal-El always has to be the "last son" of Krypton, and that's what we get here.

The other two books in the Earth 2 line are both weeklies. One of them, Earth 2: World's End, is brand new this past week. It's a massively oversized issue, which is quite a bargain at $2.99, but it's mainly full of a recap of sorts, summarizing the past two years of the title. It's a good one to pick up if you haven't ready any Earth 2 stuff before and are interested in that world but don't relish the thought of reading through 26 issues to "catch up."

New 52: Futures End is another weekly which on issue #23. It tells a tale 5 years in the future with a time-traveling Batman from even further in the future (Terry McGinnis, for those of you who used to watch the old Batman Beyond animated series) and a sort of "what if?" type storyline of how things will turn out if certain current events aren't corrected. It's fun to see what happens to our favorite heroes five years down the line, but there are a lot of storylines in this one and sometimes reading this weekly book can be a bit frustrating, as you might go two or three weeks without the creative team touching on one particular story thread. It also has a huge cast of characters, because it has to deal with the entirety of the DC universe, including all of the characters from Earth 2, who in this future tale have all been transported to the main DC earth (which is why I filed this under the "Earth 2" heading).

Should You Read It? As I mentioned - Earth 2 itself has been among DC's better offerings since the New 52 reboot, but due to all of the interconnections right now with all of these other titles it could be a bit daunting to jump into. You're probably better off grabbing the trade collections of the earlier stories if you want to read about Earth 2. I wouldn't really recommend Worlds' Finest at all, but since it's changing direction I'm not sure going forward what I'll think of it. Both of the weekly series are "events" and not really necessary. New 52: Futures End is a fun, alternate future type book but at this point if you haven't been reading it, I'd just wait for the trade collection.

The Bat Family
This week had two big changes among the Batman family of titles.

Dealing with the easiest one first, Batman #35 just features a new story arc and an over-sized issue (that unfortunately also comes with an over-priced $4.99 price tag). Scott Snyder (writer) and Greg Capullo (pencils) have been handling Batman since the launch of the New 52 and they are one of the only creative teams that's been consistent since the re-launch. This is a perfect "jumping on" issue if you haven't been reading Batman (although I'd suggest you go back and start with the "Court of Owls" story from the first trade collection, just because it's so good). Comic geeks are always known to have arguments of "which superhero would win in a fight..." and most hard-core geeks will say the answer is "Batman" because he always plans ahead and has spent most of his "down time" figuring out how he would take down each member of the Justice League if it ever comes to that. If that thought of seeing how Batman might accomplish such a feat sounds intriguing to you, read this issue.

The other big change to the Bat family this week was a sad one for me, and is resulting in me removing a title from my pull-list. This is the second time in the past two weeks that a change in creative team has caused me to do this. The first time was with Green Arrow #35, which I disliked so much after the new creative team came on board that I pulled it from my list.

Batgirl #35 is actually a worse offender than Green Arrow, to me. Fan favorite author Gail Simone, who has defined Barbara Gordon as Batgirl since the New 52 reboot, has left the title and in her place is a brand new team of younger writers who have completely changed the tone of the book, seemingly by trying to make it more modern and "hip" which apparently means having it read like a series of social media posts. They've also put Barbara, one of DC's strongest and smartest superheroes and a female role-model, into a new college environment where she makes bad choices such as passing out from a drunken stupor after a party at her new apartment and as a result having her laptop stolen. There's just so much wrong with this entire scenario - starting with Barbara forgetting her training and drinking so much that she passes out and has no memory of the previous evening, so being so short-sited that she never thought to back-up the contents of her laptop on a cloud-based server so that she'd never lose her data. The new creative team tries so hard to bring this title into the new age of computers and constant social interaction but forget basic things like how modern society backs up their data. It's just sloppy writing and editing. Furthermore, all of the constant references to social media don't serve to make the title seem fresh and new, but rather serve only to ensure that in two or three years it's going to look very dated.

Here's a page from the issue, courtesy of Bleeding Cool. This is definitely not a "role-model" hero that girls today are looking for in a comic.

Should You Read It? If you haven't been reading Batman, this is a great issue to jump into (although as mentioned it does have a higher price-tag). I'd stay far away from Batgirl, but I do have to put that in the context of me being an older man with a young 5-year-old daughter. I do suspect that a younger, older teenaged girl might actually respond to the title, but I'm not convinced that Barbara makes a good role-model any longer.

Galaxies Far, Far Away
I've read two science-fiction titles this week - one of which, at first glance, might not seem like science-fiction.

First up is Black Science, which I've reviewed here before. This latest issue, #9, is definitely not a good jumping-on point if you haven't been reading the series. It will sadly just confuse you and might turn you away from what is an otherwise excellent series. However, the art along should be enough to at least give you pause - it's absolutely fantastic. This latest issue features a group of giant-size militaristic telepathic hive-mind millipedes. Just read that sentence again and tell me you're not the least bit curious. However, I would strongly suggest if you're interested in the title at all and haven't read it before, just pick up the first trade volume that collects the first six issues for only $9.99. You won't be sorry.

The second science-fiction title is Justice League United, which DC seems to be tweaking to perhaps capitalize on the popularity of Marvel's Guardians of the Galaxy movie. The cover even features the sub-title, "Gathering to Protect the Galaxy." JLU spun-out of the previous Justice League of America title. With the disbanding of that team, a few of its former members (Green Arrow, Hawkman, Martian Manhunter, and Stargirl) along with newcomers like Supergirl, Animal, Adam Strange, and a new Canadian girl hero named Equinox, have banded together to prevent a galactic catastrophe and save a genetically engineered child who was supposedly going to be the "bringer of peace" but is instead the embodiment of destruction (those of you who watch the TNT series Falling Skies may be sighing to yourself now, "Been there, done that"). The real selling point of this series, though, is that it's not afraid to have some fun. Comics, especially of the DC variety, have just gotten too serious and dark. JLU avoids that by having some fantastic banter between Green Arrow and Animal Man and showcasing the naivete of a young Stargirl, while also delving into the mysticism of the native inhabitants of Canada and bringing back one of DC's old Silver Age Buck Rogers type heroes, Adam Strange, and mixing that all up into a goofy, fun, and entertaining story. This past week featured issue #5, but there was also a #0 issue to launch the title, so I suspect it will be coming out in trade format soon if you want to catch up.

Should You Read It? Both of these titles are quite good, but they're very different. Black Science is kind of like pulp science-fiction but with a harder edge and no real "heroes." Read my review, linked above, to see if it's up your alley. Justice League United is a fun team-book of heroes that I really enjoy. It's authored by Jeff Lemire, who also wrote the most recent run on Green Arrow that I thought was one of the best comic books being published until the new creative team took over with issue #35. 

Scary Stuff
One of a myriad of new #1 issues that came out this week, Wytches is by Scott Snyder (the currently writer on Batman, noted above) and critically acclaimed artist, Jock (who previously teamed with Snyder on Batman: The Black Mirror, one of the best Batman stories ever told). With Wytches, Snyder brings a lot of his own personal experiences to the story, which takes place in rural Pennsylvania. These are not the pointy-hat and broomstick witches that we've all grown up with. Instead, Snyder and Jock instill a sense of fear, horror, and dread into the story that really is perfect considering the Halloween holiday that's fast approaching. This is a very moody and atmospheric book that would make perfect nighttime reading if you're trying to get your scare-on.

I did have a small issue with some of the overly sexually graphic dialogue. I'm no prude and it didn't bother me from that standpoint as much as it did from the fact that it was just completely unnecessary. Similarly to the new creative team on Batgirl, is seems like Snyder was trying too hard to try to be modern and relevant to a younger audience and instead it just comes across as trying too hard. The particular scene I'm talking about was just so over the top and and truly unnecessary in furthering the creepy mood of the tale that it served to actually pull me out of the story and question why it was there in the first place.

Should You Read It? There are a lot of great ideas in here, particularly for people running a horror-themed RPG or even if you're just looking for scary story around Halloween time. Beware of the graphic sexual content (written, not illustrated) if that kind of thing bothers you.

Hanging: home (laptop)
Drinking: Saranac Pumpkin Ale (2.5/5 stars)
Listening: "Ghost Riders in the Sky" by Marty Robbins
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