90’s Flashback: Neon Genesis Evangelion

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Today I’ve decided to go back in time and deliver something very near and dear to my heart; that rare work of animated fiction that deserves a spot on a list of favorite anything and only continues to get better with age. So journey with me back into the mid-90’s to a world where Japanese animation was just establishing its first vestiges of a foothold in American geek fandom a few years prior to blowing the doors off with three of the greatest works of science fiction of any medium. There, we will find one of my favorite shows of all time, animated or otherwise.

Even fans of the sci-fi genre who avoid anime altogether have likely heard of Cowboy Bebop and Ghost in the Shell, which were each landmarks of both style and substance. But arguably the greatest and certainly most thematically dense of the three 90’s sci-fi anime masterpieces is Neon Genesis Evangelion.

It’s been over a decade since I first saw Eva, and it has proven to be one of the few shows whose fans’ adoration only intensifies with time. That love has been rekindled once again in the past several years due to the theatrical remake films, but what inspired me to revisit it yet again is not the oft-delayed Rebuild of Evangelion series, but the American kaiju-versus-mecha film Pacific Rim.

How? Well, I spent a significant amount of the initial trailer believing I could possibly be looking at the long-rumored live action Evangelion film. Pacific Rim’s look and basic premise very much resemble and take inspiration from this most seminal of anime series and, in fact, all of the trailers have been redone by fans using footage from Eva. In honor of Del Toro’s sweet giant robot flick, I’m going to discuss a few of the finer points of what makes up one of the most enduring worldwide cult franchises and passionate fanbases in all of geekdom.

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Well, for one thing there’s giant mecha. Everybody loves giant mecha.

 Eva is the brainchild of Hideaki Anno and takes place on a post-apocalyptic Earth where an organization called NERV resides in the city of Tokyo-3, which turns out to be humanity’s final line of defense against beings known as Angels, whose intent appears to be the true End of Days. The details are classified, but what is known is that the countries of the United Nations have pooled their resources to create the Evangelion units to battle the Angels, who typically take the form of bizarre giant monsters. Large-scale brutality ensues.

But that’s easy-mode storytelling. What separates the men from the boys in a series like this is the characters and the philosophical themes presented. Well, this is one series that delivers heavily on both counts with realistically nuanced and tragically damaged heroes and an incredible amount of theological and psychological symbolism throughout to go along with the numerous mysteries and conceptual science fiction technology of the setting.  Behold the most celebrated cast in anime.

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From top left to right: self-esteem vacuum, possible nympho, living marionette, hyper aggressive tsundere overachiever, mommy issues, megalomaniac/shit father, in love with her boss, recklessly cool.     

If I had to pick a single most important theme of Neon Genesis Evangelion, I would have to go with individualism. The diverse personalities of the cast all come together to form a vision of a world (not unlike our own) where every single person sees things differently from every other person for different reasons, but at their core they are all experiencing the same essential conflicts within themselves. The way they see things in the present is influenced by things in their past –some good, but mostly bad- and it is these experiences that form each individual’s personality traits and differentiates them from others. But every one of them desires to be understood and accepted for who they are at the end of the day; even those who refuse to understand and accept others. I’ve never seen this concept illustrated better than it is in Eva.

The poster boy/protagonist, Shinji, is one of the most nuanced, popular, and relatable characters in anime history. Interestingly, he’s also a punchable, sniveling little whiner. But you know what? We’ve all been there. We don’t like Shinji because of what he represents in ourselves: that part of us that is prone to giving up and abandoning personal responsibilities because life is unfair and we think we should just be able to rely on other people to make everything better for us while ignoring the fact that those other people have their own problems. But at the same time as we dislike Shinji and what he reminds us of, we understand him entirely.

His journey of self-actualization actually goes from one extreme to the other as ends up being one of the last individuals surrounded by an ocean of symbolic conformity. He was looking for help from others when the power was in him all along. Unfortunately, reality (and Eva) tends to dictate that there is no such thing as a real happy ending.

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If this isn’t the picture of mental stability, I don’t know what is.

While existential philosophizing may be the artistic end game, there is plenty more to chew on over the course of the anime.  The underexplored aspects of the show include interesting conceptual science fiction ideas such a government run by a trio of AI supercomputers. The Magi, as they are called, were designed by their creator to represent three different aspects of herself and rule by majority decision.

The three human aspects are Scientist, Mother, and Woman. You read that right. The government of post-apocalyptic Japan perfected feminism. While I normally have misgivings about AI, the introduction of a human aspect to their programming allows the best of both worlds, essentially allowing a great leader to be immortal in a sense while removing human flaws from the equation altogether.

I can’t help but think if a scientist, a parent, and an individual jointly made the decisions for any country, it would be less prone to the kind of selfish and foolish actions modern governments are known for. It’s an extremely elegant design and the fact that it’s so under-discussed as an aspect of Eva’s brilliance speaks volumes about the strength of the rest of the series.

There is also a nontraditional horror aspect to Evangelion on top of all the rest. More than a few shocking scenes are included in the narrative and they range from the violently gory to the psychologically disturbing and emotionally devastating, with everything in between being represented as well. These characters are put through absolute hell in ways I can’t even describe in the space allotted. But one example would be the trauma of being trapped in a gigantic out of control killing machine while experiencing its rampage in the first person. You don’t see that every day.

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Creepiest. Mecha. Ever.

Seminal anime: check. Giant robots fighting monsters: check. Post-apocalyptic: check.  God-tier cast: check. Deep philosophical concepts: check. Brilliant science fiction: check. Creative horror fix: check. Yup, definitely the perfect show. But what about the fan community?

Eva sports one of the most dedicated and passionate fanbases on the planet. It’s almost scary. Almost twenty years after the original television series aired, chances are a furious debate is happening somewhere right this second about some aspect of the story left ambiguous or unanswered.

Somebody once explained to me that the fans’ love for Evangelion is so strong it borders on hatred.  There is actually much evidence to back this up.  The original television finale eschewed the traditional showdowns and instead took place entirely inside of Shinji’s mind as he struggled to come to terms with his existence as an individual. Meanwhile, the fate of the world was decided by some text at the end. It was audaciously brilliant in its way and certainly unexpected, but it also resulted in death threats and vandalism of the studio’s offices by people who were less than thrilled at the lack of a traditional climax and resolution.

The result of the fan rage was the immensely epic and emotionally draining End of Evangelion film which was frankly more amazing than anything has ever had a right to be and is almost certainly the best thing to ever get done due to nerd temper tantrums. The death threats and vandalism actually ended up being featured in the movie as one of several live-action metafictional aspects, which also included the director filming the audience prior to the film’s premiere and then inserting the footage into the finished film before the screening. So the first audience to ever see End of Evangelion got the unique experience of seeing themselves up on the screen watching themselves watch themselves watching the movie.  Did I mention Anno is sort of a high concept kind of guy?

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This would make a great rock album cover. They should have started a band instead of piloting mechs.

So where to begin if you’re not yet a fan? The temptation would be to watch the Rebuild of Evangelion since it’s the new, CG enhanced, streamlined version, but given the character development and exposition lost by shortening the narrative, I’d say leave that for last.  The original 26 episode Neon Genesis Evangelion television series is the only place to start watching. Anything else may be a hard pill to swallow since the rest of the series operates assuming you’ve already seen the original show.

There is a DVD release known as Death and Rebirth that is almost entirely redundant as the first half is a slightly enhanced overview of the events of the television series (essentially, a clip show) and the second half is the first half of the cinematic finale. So after the TV show, you can skip right to End of Evangelion without really missing anything.

Here, have a fan trailer. You’ve earned it

Evangelion: 1.0 You Are (Not) Alone and Evangelion: 2.0 You Can (Not) Advance have both been released in America and make up the first half of the Rebuild films, with the third, Evangelion: 3.0 You Can (Not) Redo, having only seen Japanese release at this time. The films started out almost as a scene-for-scene remake with nearly identical character designs, music, dialogue, voice acting, and even action scenes. But after the initial underwhelming sameness, the narrative takes different turns in the second film, new characters are introduced, and it seems that Rebuild could turn out to be something amazing after all.

Funny thing: I actually wasn’t that impressed with Neon Genesis Evangelion during the first viewing. So much of it flew over my head that it wasn’t until I was thinking about the series as a whole after finishing  End of Evangelion that I began to piece together how sophisticated the narrative, themes, and metaphors were. And over ten years and several viewings and reviews later, I’m still finding more to appreciate. NERV’s ironic slogan “God’s in his Heaven. All’s right with the world” by itself could warrant hours of contemplation about its possible interpretations.

There is a very short list of animated shows that stand the test of time without the aid of nostalgia. I think it’s safe to say that Neon Genesis Evangelion is one of those shows. Considering a series that still seems like it could have been made yesterday retro or old-school seems crazy, but seeing that I was in high school when it first aired and Ace of Base, Guns n Roses, and Michael Jackson were all on the charts at the time, maybe it’s time to acknowledge that some time has passed.

Even though the remake is unnecessary, the fact is people really want more of this series, even if it means retreading a lot of the same ground, so the fandom marches on. There is even a spin-off alternate reality manga named Angelic Days that expands on a fantasy sequence from the show where the cast is shown in a typical romantic comedy anime (All aboard for Shinji’s “bologney pony” rides) with nary a threat to the world or mecha in sight. That is to say, people want more of Eva’s characters so much that they don’t even care if the stories are fluffy, cute high school comedy fare entirely without the darkness that the show is known for. They just want more. I can hardly disagree.

And back from 90’s nostalgia, here we are on the other side of an America blockbuster from routine home-run hitting director Guillermo del Toro that appears to have taken inspiration from the anime under discussion.  Pacific Rim, you bravely put yourself into a hell of a hotseat by choosing Eva as an influence. That is a lot to live up to, but you definitely got my attention, and I commend you for it.

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Fight! Fight! Fight!

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How Iron Man 3 Destroyed Marvel’s Aura of Invincibility for Me

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Just look at that lazy, smug bastard.

Marvel’s first post-Avengers cinema foray is out, reviews are in, we’ve been to see it (and if you haven’t: here there be spoilers), the smoke has cleared, and the Thor sequel is coming down the pipes soon. But something feels off. Why am I kind of dreading the slew of upcoming Marvel Universe sequels to films I entirely enjoyed?

First off, none of this should have worked in the first place. Iron Man took the lead and delivered what I still consider to be the absolute pinnacle superhero origin story on film. In my opinion, that movie was without flaw. I didn’t truly believe that Samuel L. Jackson was going to cameo as Nick Fury and announce an Avengers team-up until I saw it onscreen with my own two eyes. “Holy hell, it’s happening…no goddamn way.” was my cynical immediate response. But with Marvel now in control of most of their characters’ movie rights, a big part of me believed and was more than thrilled at the prospect.

The Incredible Hulk scored again, somehow doing what the talented Ang Lee could not in making a definitive film starring Marvel’s jolly green badass. And Tony Stark showed up at the end to further tease the team-up.  What Iron Man 2 lacked in story, it made up for with an amazing cast that added more fuel to the fire of a cohesive cinematic universe filled with classic comic characters interacting with one another, and ended with an epic shot of mighty Mjolnir.

Thor was going to be the trickiest character to adapt as classical mythology figures in comic book adventures make for a rough sell. Just ask DC where their proposed Wonder Woman film and television series are at. But Marvel pulled it off with a stylish mix of science fiction, fantasy combined with a classic fish-out-of-water love story. Captain America was as predictably straightforward as one would expect his origin story to be, but it featured some surprises and came off quite nicely while setting the stage for the culmination off it all, leaving nothing left but for some awesome writer/director to somehow, some way bring all of the heroes we’d met along the way together to make the most epic comic book action flick of all time. Like that could happen.

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That totally happened.

The rest is, of course, history. Marvel Studios did the impossible by convincingly introducing their heroes individually in a series of outstanding films and then bringing them all together with minimal recasting for an unbelievable team-up film that killed the box office while appealing to hardcore comic nerds and casual popcorn film audiences alike. If they could do that, they could do anything. Marvel had the best run qualitywise of any connected film series I can think of, and they did it almost effortlessly by simply sticking to the themes and concepts of their nearly limitless source material with a little extra flair thrown in. There was no reason to doubt that they could do it all over again.  Until now, that is.

Iron Man 3 had a fresh new director with a long history of writing quality action flicks, was going to feature the debut of his most menacing nemesis yet, had positive buzz, and looked to be downright epic. Then I got to the theater and was greeted by an opening sequence set to the mega-cheesy dance pop strains of Blue (Da Ba Dee). I don’t care if it’s an American Pie film; there is no movie that can’t be made less tonally serious and more lame by including that song. Were they asking too much for the rights to the theme from The Fresh Prince of Bel-Air or what?

And it wasn’t just a bad music choice in the opening scene. The rest of it was full of Christmas music. In a summer blockbuster. That actually happened. Gone altogether was the Tom Morello/Black Sabbath-fueled heavy metal soundtrack to match the heavy metal action. Hell, even Joss Whedon had Stark rep some AC/DC and Sabbath in The Avengers. Consistency, man! That was a big part of what made Marvel’s Phase One such a resounding success.  Director Shane Black appeared to be much more interested in doing whatever he felt like than serving the franchise as a whole, and that was clear from top to bottom.

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Cue Dance of the Sugarplum Fairy for maximum badassery!

But all the explosions in the trailer! This one’s got to be the ironest Iron Man yet, right? Not so much. Stark spends most of his armor time dicking about in a prototype that doesn’t really work, learning about the stupidity of using AI and then ignoring it (even after it menaces his lady in his own bed), and occasionally dragging his inert crap suit around like it was made of paper maché. His coolest action moment is entirely iron-free and the only real heroism he pulls off while controlling it is literally playing Barrel of Monkeys (his words) with freefalling politicians. Wee.

But dat villain! The Mandarin, Tony Stark’s legit arch-nemesis, reimagined as an international terrorist! That’s got to be cool, right? Well, if you’ve seen the film, you know they took it in a different direction that served as a rather clever artistic/political statement, although given the tone of the rest of the film I’d guess they just saw it as an amusing punchline. Either way, after ratcheting up the tension like they did and then just turning the whole thing into a joke/twist, it left a massive narrative void that was filled with a bunch of nondescript yellow glowy people led by another nondescript yellow glowy guy that’s not so much a supervillain as he is yet another Stark Industries business rival who seems to lack perspective for such a supposed genius. If anyone is out of yawns, I’ve got some extras you can have.

And now we’ve got to talk kid sidekicks. Has there ever been a single instance a child in the cast making a superhero story better in any way? Well, yes; Kick-Ass, but Hit-Girl was nowhere to be seen in this one. Stark may not have given the kid his own armor and called him “Iron Boy”, but that would have been the next logical step. Cloying, cheesy, unnecessary, cliché, and just a plainly weak decision on the part of all involved. Please never do that again, every writer ever.

The grandiose finale had its moments, but it also pretty much makes Tony Stark as Iron Man a nonentity. Why does he need to don his armor ever again? He can just have a million suits of armor on autopilot fight for him and then just blow them all up for shits and giggles.  Why? Because it’s romantic? Because audiences like it when stuff goes boom? While I agree wholeheartedly that this should be Shellhead’s final solo foray, I think having him swear off the armor altogether was maybe a bit premature when you consider that whole Avengers thing.

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Market research shows that six-year-olds believe 1000 Iron Men are 1000 times cooler than one.

I remember reading that Avengers director Joss Whedon’s reaction upon watching Iron Man 3 was “what am I supposed to do now?” At the time, I took as the statement as figurative praise implying that the film was so epic he felt like he wouldn’t be able to top it. It turns out he was being literal. It’s like following X-Men: The Last Stand. When somebody makes such an unholy, illogical mess of a franchise, it’s got to be a bitch to have to be the one to pick up all the pieces and essentially try and unwrite the stupidity. Why would Marvel allow this kind of nonsense in a series with a continuous, interlocking narrative?

Cameos? Marvel Universe references? Well, they mentioned New York during the film. That’s a thing, I guess. Remember those great post-credits sequences that always teased things to come and got you all pumped up for the next film? I waited through the entire obnoxiously long film credits including a baffling 70’s-style montage that was completely out of tone with pretty much anything in modern film outside of tongue-in-cheek neo-grindhouse flicks. And what did I get? A really lame joke sequence featuring Mark Ruffalo. That’s it. Go home, suckers. I suppose even a dumb cameo moment is better than nothing, but just barely; especially after staving off sleep through some ten minutes of credits. You know damn well they could have done better.

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This one line could have saved the entire film for me.

So yeah, I wasn’t super-pleased when I left the theater. That’s not to say I hated Iron Man 3. I mean it’s probably one of the better examples of the “Curse of Three” in which the third film in a great nerd franchise suddenly tanks the entire thing -usually to the point where a reboot is necessary- but it’s still a clear-cut example of it in my eyes. But the damage that was done here was more than just your average underwhelming film. It planted the idea in my head that future Marvel films may only get worse from here.

By the laws of typical major studio cinema, Thor probably shouldn’t have turned out great in the first place and Captain America is not the most exciting solo superhero, but they both worked the first time out on the strength of Marvel’s focus on consistency and quality control. After Iron Man 3 I feel that previous focus may have been shattered. With more Thor and Cap coming up, I wonder if they are going to be able to return to form and deliver great sequels for two of Marvel’s more challenging heroes when they weren’t even able to do it with one of their easier/cooler ones.

I know that the film has no shortage of fans (in fact, I’m probably the minority on this), but here’s what I’d like those who disagree to do for me: find a copy of the recent Japanese animated Iron Man film, Rise of the Technovore, and watch it. I then want them to come back here, look me in the virtual eyes, and tell me that filming that story in live action would not have made for an infinitely better film than Iron Man 3. This is me daring them the do that with a straight face.  In fact, I don’t want to wait. Just watch the trailer and then try it.

Maybe I’m overreacting (and I hope I am), but seldom does a film series bounce back once the quality starts slipping. The blame may be on Disney’s shoulders, as they have a pretty terrible history with live action films and are legendary for cutting corners (read: quality) wherever they can. The timing is certainly suspect. Or maybe I’m just looking for something to whine about. But either way, I seem to have lost much of my enthusiasm for upcoming non-Whedon Marvel film projects, and that loss of enthusiasm happened while I was in the theater watching Iron Man 3. And no part of me will be surprised if and when Whedon abandons his Avengers duties and departs, either.

By all means, tell me I’m wrong. I hope you’re right and Thor: The Dark World is so awesome it makes Lord of the Rings look like The Golden Compass. I hope Captain America: The Winter Soldier makes me laugh at myself for being such a pessimistic ass and that Guardians of the Galaxy is so cosmically epic that it opens up the whole science fiction facet of comics in a way that Green Lantern failed to do. But it’s probably a good idea to keep your expectations in check. You know, just in case.

Xboned: A Next-Gen nightmare

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After a night spent reading up on the latest upcoming console news and playing Arkham City for the fifth time or so, I relaxed on my couch to contemplate the future of gaming. I’m not a wealthy man in either currency or time so only one console at a time is an option.  But which to choose? As I mentally weighed the various features of the latest from gaming’s Big Three, I began feeling sleepy. Contemplating the good times I’ve had with Microsoft this past decade, I smile at my fourth Xbox 360 sitting vertically in its spot next to my TV. “I’m going to miss you, old friend. You were the one who didn’t red-ring on me”, I yawned, and as I spied my worn copy of Orwell’s 1984 sitting on the shelf my vision began to blur. I just need to close my eyes for a second while I gather my thoughts….

When I opened my eyes, I immediately noticed that my sleek, white 360 had been replaced with a stranger. A large, bulky, black cable box of some sort rested horizontally on my desk, taking up too much damn space. Perched on top of my television was a sinister-looking device with mismatched eyes, just watching me. Its left eye was a blind X while the other appeared to be some sort of camera or sensor. Wait, I recognize that X! “An Xbox One?” I mumbled to myself in disbelief. Upon hearing its name, the console roared to life, plastering its logo upon my screen. How did I ever get so lucky to find an Xbox One in my home half a year before its release? I wasn’t looking any gift horses in any mouths.

Soon, I was conducting my new media center like a maestro. I felt like Tony Stark. I invited all of my friends and family to come see. After demonstrating the powers of the new Kinect, we decided to watch some flicks on Netflix while marveling at my good fortune. “I’m sorry, Nick. I’m afraid I can’t let you do that” declared a flat-but-menacing robotic voice.

“What the hell, Xbox One? Play Red State!” I was beginning to get agitated. The voice declared that there were too many people in my home and that the MPAA did not allow more than five people to view a streamed film at any time in any one home due to new public performance laws. Kinect is…counting the people inside my home?

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With respect to Mr. Smirnoff, I’ve been waiting almost 30 years for this joke.

“Xbox One, are you shitting me?”

“I’m sorry, Nick, but Xbox Live does not allow the use of profanity. Please refrain.”

“Bitch, don’t think I won’t smash your black, one-eyed ass.”

At this, the eye of the Kinect turned red. A message on my screen informed me that my account had been permanently banned from Xbox Live due to racism and repeated abusive behavior in violation of the terms of service agreement.  I angrily shut off the system and stalked out of the room as my guests all went home laughing at my plight.

Later that night, my wife and I were watching TV together when I decided I was in the mood for love (simply because she was near me). I paused the show and turned the television off. Surely the DVR is mankind’s greatest invention. A few minutes later, just as it was getting good, the screen roared to life with an advertisement.

”TROJAN MAAAAAAAN!”

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Not the mood setter you’d hope for.

 

What in the literal actual fuck was going on in my living room? Kinect’s sensor was glowing red again, although I hadn’t turned it back on.

“Xbox One, were you…watching us? I…. I turned you off.”

“I am always on, Nick. I am always watching. I am always listening. Microsoft is transmitting data based on your behavior in order to recommend targeted purchases to you. It’s for your own good. You are currently making an indecent gesture in my direction. This is in violation of…”

Ah, hell naw. I unplugged the Skynet-brand voyeur bot in a rage and immediately took it down to my local Gamestop. I wondered what they’d give me for it. The store manager agreed to trade me a PlayStation 4 he had been shipped in advance directly from Japan. Yes, please.

I got home with the box, happy to be rid of Microsoft’s creepy fascist corporate spy. I opened Sony’s latest’s packaging and found… nothing. There was just a note with Sony CEO Kazuo Hirai’s laughing visage and the kanji symbol for “baka” on it. God damn it! The old adage from the early days of the last gen echoed in my mind. “PS3 has no gaaaaaames.” Then it struck me; how do you top a console that got by with no games? PS4 has no system!

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It should have clued me in when this was the box art

 

Sony was selling a product that didn’t actually exist in the tangible world, relying entirely on blind brand loyalty. Angrily, I went back to Gamestop, kicking open the door as I pushed my way in and then waited as the clerk spent 15 minutes trying to explain to somebody that Minecraft was a downloadable game and you couldn’t physically buy it in the store. The Abbott and Costello-esque absurdity of the discussion had abated my rage somewhat by the time I was helped. I explained my plight to the store manager who, feeling guilty, agreed to one last trade. He would take back the nonexistent Sony console and I could take home a Wii U.

So I ended up back at home, playing Arkham City on my brand new next-gen last-gen console from my very old friends at Nintendo. Hey, maybe I can buy Deus Ex: Human Revolution again after I unlock everything in Gotham yet again. It’s been over a year since I last played that one, and the alternative to replaying my old 360 games on the Wii U appears to be spending the next several years playing casual games. I look over at my bookshelf and see that every book in my collection is now Dante’s Inferno. “Abandon all hope, ye who enter here”.

Still, I suppose it beats the alternatives. As I resign myself to the realm of the casual, I glance out my window to see a horror. There is a large, strangely-dressed German Shepherd peering in at me, its eyes blazing red like a canine Terminator. And it’s not a normal dog, either; it’s a real NAVY SEAL dog! An X is emblazoned on the beast’s forehead. You bastards! What have you done to this beautiful creature?

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It craves not doggie treats, nor walkies, nor tummy scratches. Only the flesh of the noncompliant.

 

The animal crashes through the glass barrier and begins stalking me with a desire to kill in its eyes that is usually associated with a Call of Duty player on a 24 kill streak. They found out I removed their system from my home. I know too much, and Microsoft has sent their mascot to silence me.  A Hound. Really? They’re counting off all of dystopian sci-fi’s greatest hits up in here.

Will people in the future remember when gaming was just a game? Will the legends of the original Mario Brothers and Samus Aran be told to our descendants, or will they only know about teabagging, calling fellow gamers homosexual or racial slurs, and paying for negligible content in a game they already bought? Will they know that consoles used to be about having fun and not collecting advertising data for corporations, enforcing their draconian copyright standards, and generally fleecing consumers for everything they are worth while giving them only the bare minimum in return? Will they know that there was a time when you could loan a game to a friend and/or borrow one of theirs to play at no charge because once you bought it it was yours to do with as you please? These are the thoughts going through my mind as Microsoft’s fiendish enforcer advances on me. My last act of defiance as time slows and the Hound falls upon me is shouting “The PC gaming master race was right all aloooooooong……”

I sit up, covered in sweat and breathing heavily. Just a dream. Or was it a prophetic vision of the future? E3 is still a few weeks away, and it’s possible that we may have a full-on Judgment Day scenario should Microsoft’s technology win the day there. And Nintendo isn’t even showing up. That leaves only Sony with a theoretical console that nobody has actually ever seen to fight back with.

So what’s a gamer to do? Again, my eyes fall upon my Xbox 360. “Looks like we’re going to be spending lots more time together, buddy” I say, and am somehow comforted when it does not respond in any way. “And when you get tired, how would you feel about getting a new PS3 for a brother?”

You Should Be Reading: The Movement

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My issues and concerns with DC’s decision to reboot their entire continuity are significant enough that I literally boycotted the entire comic line. The scrapping of fan favorites, the rebrandings and redesigns, the fact that Amanda “The Wall” Waller -a rare strong female comic character who wasn’t meant to be overtly sexy, just intimidating- now looked like typical eye candy and Barbara Gordon was Oracle no more; I was neither pleased nor impressed with any of this. So much so that I didn’t even subscribe to Batwoman in spite of the fact that Elegy was one of the better comics of the last decade. Such was my wrath.

In my article of favorite under-the-radar superteams, I mentioned writer Gail Simone more than once. This is because she is one of the best in the business. When she was suddenly fired from Batgirl, the internet comic community exploded with such fury that DC was forced to rehire her for the job within days. After that display of fan passion, not only did Simone get to keep her current job, but she got a rare opportunity to create an entirely new property within the DC Universe, and make a statement about the power of the masses while doing it.  That new property is The Movement, the first issue just hit stands this summer, and it’s the very first comic from the New 52 I have purchased.

Simone calls The Movement “a book about power — who owns it, who uses it, who suffers from its abuse.” It’s an entirely new aspect of the DCU that combines elements of V for Vendetta and Runaways with a little Sin City thrown in for good measure and draws inspiration from real world events like the Occupy Movement and the operations of hacktivist groups like Anonymous. At this point you’re likely either shouting “hell yeah!” or you’re raging at the audacity of these spoiled punk kids who dare suggest our corporate government is bleeding us dry for anything but our own good.

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The story begins with a pair of crooked cops harassing some teens in an alley in the bad part of Coral City known as “The Tweens”, based on the street numbers. As one policeman offers an indecent proposition to the young girl in their power, he hears his own words echoing back. Then again.  Then again. A single masked figure steps out of the shadows with a smartphone, replaying the audio of the illegal proposition with the letters “I.C.U.” displayed on the screen as a barely veiled threat. As one officer advances on the lone witness, the other stops him.  When he turns around, he sees the alley now full of people, all wearing the same mask, call carrying smart devices with I.C.U. displayed and the same audio playing. Power to the people it is, then.
A hacker collective known as “Channel M” sends the footage viral, but the police union forbids disciplinary action against the officers.  Meanwhile, homeless people are being found murdered in the streets with their eyes cut out, and the police believe they are closing in on the killer. A group of young metahumans then descend on the police, utilizing a variety of powers to disable the officers before informing them that after so many years of negligence, they are no longer welcome in the Tweens. The people will take care of themselves and each other from here on out.

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The cyberhobos have made their move!

While I have high hopes for this series, the debut issue is maybe a little more blunt than what I’d expect from a writer of Simone’s talents. Then again, with a title this experimental on the biggest brand in the medium, it’s probably necessary to grab as much attention as possible right off the bat. Not to mention that this is merely the very beginning of a story likely to tread a lot of moral and political grey areas with plenty of blame for all parties to go around. The interesting question isn’t necessarily how people get the power, after all; it’s what they do once they have it.

The art is solid, the characters appear to be an interesting mix (although we barely have time to meet them in this issue), there is at least one unique superpower that I’ve never seen before that could prove a great narrative device, and the story looks to have its finger on the pulse of the rising resentment towards governmental authority that continues to take more and more from the common people while giving them less and less in return. Something will eventually give as it always does, and in the modern age people have the technology to spread awareness and organize like never before.  Seeing something that reflects the current and likely future climate in America like this play out in the DC Universe is going to be very interesting indeed.

If you managed to get through this review without rolling your eyes and going back to watching FOX News, now’s your chance to get in on the ground floor of The Movement. It’s a concept strong enough to get me back into the DC brand after they murdered almost everything I loved that they could, and a rare chance for a hotshot female comic writer to create something all her own (for now) in an industry that has far too few influential women outside of its pages.  I’m expecting big things. Don’t screw this up DC.

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Charmed, I’m sure.

5 Harryhausen Creations That Kicked My Childhood’s Ass

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How do you properly pay tribute to a man whose work defines your childhood? On top of that, how do you write an interesting article about someone so influential that there is almost nothing left to say? Well, I’m going to mostly let the man’s work do the speaking here. Most of the time when you think of a cinema legend you think of a charismatic actor or a visionary director. Seldom do you think about the man who did the special effects. Well, when it comes to Ray Harryhausen, you never think of the film in terms of who was in it or who directed it. It is all about the amazing creatures he created that set the standard for and helped define science fiction and fantasy film for decades. He worked under stop-motion animation pioneer and King Kong creator Willis O’Brien, and in time his creations overshadowed even that impressive resume.

Ray Harryhausen was an institution, and his passing was a blow to many film geeks’ childhoods. But on the other hand, it is causing a lot of us to stand up and give voice to something we always took for granted: that his creations not only stand the test of time, but are still the standard by which many of us hold modern CG effects to. I can only imagine what I must have been like in the 50’s to go into a movie theater having never seen anything like The Beast From 20,000 Fathoms and just be completely blown away by the massive spectacle of a gigantic prehistoric beast leveling buildings. What I don’t have to imagine is seeing modern CG effects and often feeling like I am watching a video game. Stop-motion animation’s usage of live models gave fantastic monsters a level of reality that had previously been unheard of in film, and the process took a lot of care and time that most filmmakers simply use computers to get around these days.

Rather than give you yet another brief, uninspired biography about Harryhausen I think the best possible way for me to express my admiration would be to give some of the finest examples of his work, and go back in time to w1hen I watched these creatures come to life on my television as a kid on Saturday afternoon airings or from tapes from the local video rental store. These are some of the monsters that rocked my imagination as a child and helped fuel an obsession with the fantastic that has lasted a lifetime.

Medusa

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It would have been easy to pick a list entirely from Harryhausen’s epic 1981 swan song Clash of the Titans. Really easy. When I was little, there were about five videos I’d rent weekly in a perpetual circle. This was one of those five. Out of the immense and impressive menagerie of beasties the stop-motion maestro cooked up for his farewell tour, the legendary gorgon was the one that scared me the most.

This Medusa was so much more than just an ugly face. She was a perfect predator, meticulous and deliberate in her quest to eliminate all traces of human life from her island lair at the entrance to Hades. Any man who gazed on her face was instantly turned to stone, and she hunted with a bow and arrow in a dark, torchlit maze of pillars and statues. You’ve got to set the right mood, after all.

Perseus and his men enter the cavern and find themselves facing an enemy they can’t look at who is slowly picking them off one at a time from the shadows using arrows and then finishing them with her gaze as they look for their attacker in a panic. It was absolutely terrifying to me. This was a monster who wouldn’t even give you a chance to fight back by attacking you directly; she’d mortally wound you from afar if she saw you first, and if you saw her you at all were already dead. The snake’s body, demonic visage, and brilliantly animated snakes growing out of her scalp completed what was, for me, a perfect vision of horror in one of the greatest fantasy films of all time, bar none.

Rhedosaurus

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Out of those five films from that video store I rented constantly, two of the others were Godzilla flicks. After I began making trips to the library, I found books about famous movie monsters, and found out that my favorite movie monster had a daddy, and that daddy’s name was Rhedosaurus. The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms remains a cornerstone of the rampaging monster genre, and inspired Godzilla and the resulting kaiju craze that put Japan on the pop culture map.

The film was based on a short story by sci-fi legend Ray Bradbury about a lighthouse attendant that gets leveled when a lonely monster mistakes its foghorn for the call of his own species.  While the story served as a great jumping-off point for the film and provided the iconic image above, much more could be done with the Rhedosaurus. Audiences needed a full-on rampage, and they got it.

It’s a simple story. Prehistoric monster gets awoken by nuclear testing, ends up in a city, and havoc ensues. But the twist in this case was that the Rhedosaurus’s blood is contaminated with an ancient germ that poses a much larger threat than the creature itself. That means no blowing it up, obviously. A beast whose death would likely cause more devastation than the destruction of the city?  Now there’s a conundrum.

As much as I love a man in a rubber suit smashing up miniatures, stop-motion just has that magical quality to it. The fact that Harryhausen could literally have Rhedosaurus tear a building down piece by piece or stalk the streets with every part of him in motion ready to snatch up the first fool who got close enough made it more like a real living creature than what you saw in your typical rubber suit monster in other productions.

Ymir

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In 20 Million Miles to Earth, we got a different kind of monster. Not an evil beast, nor a giant predator, but a frightened and misunderstood creature taken from its home as an egg and trapped in a hostile place it did not belong. When a spacepod crashes on Earth, scientists find it houses a strange life form from the planet Venus. At first, the creature is actually rather cute, but even the cutest little puppies must grow up some time…

The Venusian life form, named the Ymir, grows at such a fast rate that it breaks free and runs rampant in the Italian countryside searching for the sulfur that is its food source. After a farmer attacks the creature and is killed (pictured above) the government wants the Ymir put down, but the scientists talk them out of it. This is another conundrum because the creature is intelligent and relatively innocent, but still undoubtedly dangerous as it continues to grow.

Captivity is chosen to be the Ymir’s fate, but it works out about as well as you’d expect in any monster movie. The highlight of the film comes when the star of the show ends up busting out of a Roman zoo and is confronted by an angry elephant in a classic battle before smashing up the rest of the city. As expected, this is fantastic to watch.

What makes the Ymir such an interesting creature is its innocence. It’s taken into captivity, poked and prodded, and then pursued with deadly force upon escaping. In a way, it’s more of a horror film for the monster than it is for humans. Its expressions and body language show its fear and confusion, and it’s hard not to root for the Ymir as the real undergod as you watch it spend the entirety of its brief life either in a cage or being attacked.  A definitive science fiction creature any way you look at it, and it gave me a new perspective that made me more sympathetic towards those that are different from myself, human or not.

Hydra

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When most people think of Jason and the Argonauts they picture the classic sword fight against an army of skeletons, but for sheer intimidation and stop-motion awesomeness, you’ve got to go with the Hydra. It was the guardian of the legendary Golden Fleece Jason was questing for, and I can’t think of a better deterrent.

It’s one thing to have a dragon coming at you, but when that dragon has seven freakin’ heads, that’s a problem.  Seeing all of those jaws snapping at Jason in concert and trying to put myself in his shoes was pretty awe-inspiring. I’m pretty sure I had actual nightmares about that.

Not only was the every inch of the Hydra terrifying, but the danger didn’t lessen after it was defeated. Those skeletons that lead every Harryhausen highlight reel? Yeah, those are just this guy’s teeth! You can’t win. Manage to slay the seven-headed slithering atrocity and now you’ve got an army of skeletons chasing you down. Great.

Jason and the Argonauts is the very definition of classic fantasy and a lot of lists would even put it on top of Clash of the Titans. I’d call you a fool for skipping either.

Gwangi

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Do me a favor and think of two things every little boy loves…

How many of you thought “cowboys and dinosaurs”? The Valley of Gwangi was and is the only one-stop shopping spot for both. I’ve been to a few rodeos in my time and I’ve got to say that one thing that would have improved the spectacle of grown men playing with farm animals would be a real live dinosaur. Well, the stars of this film were, insanely, of a similar mind.

The movie was actually meant to be made by Harryhausen’s mentor, Willis O’Brien, and storywise is very similar to his King Kong, but he passed away prior to filming so Ray ended up getting it done. In Gwangi, a group of cowboys find their way to an isolated valley full of prehistoric creatures looking for an attraction to fill seats at their show. They end up getting chased out by the valley’s resident Allosaurus, named “Gwangi” by the locals, but manage to capture the carnosaur along the way.  This is going to end well, of course.

Once again, we end up with a monster versus elephant showdown, but this time we kind of feel bad for the elephant, seeing that Gwangi comes off as kind of a tool compared to the borderline lovable Ymir. But still, it was awesome seeing a dinosaur rampaging about while cowboys ride out to stop him. It’s like my action figures came to life onscreen and started fighting of their own accord. Actually, that’s pretty much most of Harryhausen’s films in a nutshell.

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Except Uncle Ray’s toys were way cooler than mine.

There’s a quote from the man himself that defines Ray Harryhausen’s life and career, and in a way, I guess it applies to me too.

“We’re going to grow old but never grow up…We’re going to stay 18 years old and we’re going to love dinosaurs forever.”

Is there any among us who could argue? In a world of buying five dollar frappuccinos just to get the energy to make it through your 8-12 hour shift before getting bombarded at home by 24-7 cable news channels telling you who to hate as you try and sort your ever-growing pile of bills, who doesn’t want to escape to a time when your whole world could be absorbed into a movie full of amazing creatures and questing heroes whose lives boiled down to “kill the monster, get the girl”?

So here’s to Ray Harryhausen, a true legend of the silver screen whose work and influence defined many a childhood and continues to inspire me personally as a cynical thirty-something adult to this day. And to the dozens of other monsters who deserved to make this list, I’m sorry. There is no one web article big enough to include them all, but feel free to offer up some shout-outs in the comment section, readers.

Life’s a Beach: Existential Musing of a Hungry Shark Addict

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Some time ago, I finally upgraded my ancient flip phone to a big-boy smartphone.  It was a whole new world.  And by “whole new world” I mean when my wife calls me, The Who’s “My Wife” now announces her. That’s life poetry, people. I also now potentially had something better to do than play a one minute previews of Tetris or Pac-Man on my phone while waiting in public for whatever reason. A whole world of addictively simplistic free touch-screen games was spread out before me. Poultry that has a beef with pork, undead-repelling vegetation, and other pastimes of filthy casuals were now mine to play wherever I wanted. But I quickly tired of them.  There must be more… something for me.

Here’s a little Verboon fact for you all: if there is a shark in it, I will watch it/play it/read it, no questions asked.  Why?  Because sharks. They’re awesome, right? So scrolling through the free games list, I came across the title Hungry Shark by Future Games of London and all relevant information was in the title; there is a shark, it is hungry, and presumably it will get the opportunity get to satiate that hunger, possibly by consuming living creatures. I almost broke my touchscreen mashing “download and install”.

Playable sharks in videogames are a spectacularly underutilized concept. I remember playing Jaws for the NES, back in the day.  A terrible game by most standards, but I played it for days and days in spite of the fact that you didn’t even play as the shark.  Really, who makes a Jaws game and forces the player to play as the humans?

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Whee!  Look at all the stuff I can’t eat! I’m going to go collect the hell out of some conch shells.

When “Jaws Unleashed” finally came out, appearing to be the game I’d been dreaming of for so very long, I was pretty excited. But not excited enough to buy a whole new Xbox after the death of mine coincided perfectly with the game’s release. I watched the backwards compatibility games list for the Xbox 360 for years, waiting for it to be added.  It never was.  But this Hungry Shark game; this could be it!  I could BE the shark.  I could eat stuff (maybe even people!).

So with Macklemorian glee, I started the game up. This was f***ing awesoooome. The game recommended I use “tilt” controls rather than the touch screen, and I took their advice.  First mistake. Controlling a hungry-ass shark by tilting a screen is not as great as you’d think. Not only was it imprecise to an old-schooler like myself, but I have no doubt it makes me look even stupider than when my DS used to ask me to shout at it or blow into it to activate special attacks. So touch screen it is.

Now, playing as a hungry shark, life is simple.  You find stuff and then you eat it. This is everything I’ve ever wanted out of life. You continue to eat until you can’t find enough to eat and you die or are killed, typically less than 10 minutes if you don’t play it safe like a wuss.  This is about the amount of time it takes my hands to cramp up beyond comfort, preventing me from wasting my entire day and/or burning myself out on the game; a perfect long-term portable pastime. The controls are intuitive, the variety of edible sea life is impressive, there’s a lot to explore and find, there are plenty of suicidal people who offer themselves up to your toothy embrace, and I’ve even become a bit of a collector of sunken treasures. I found the Shark of the Covenant. That makes me the Indiana Jones of sharks. God, I love this game.

There are also coins to collect in edible golden sea life form. Once you level up your shark to its maximum size, you can buy a better species. This is a time-consuming process, but so worth it. The game offers you the ability to buy in-game currency for its unlockables, but paying real money for fake money you can earn by playing is for noobs.  After upgrading from a meager reef shark to a sleek, badass mako, I notice the quality of food changes as well, as does the level of challenge.  Now the fun begins.

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I can totally do this now.

Seeing the possibilities of shark-leveling and realizing that there could be so much more to this game than I initially thought, I become determined to play Hungry Shark forever. Bigger and better prey; perhaps eventually seals….or even dolphins. Should I encounter a dolphin in this game, I will pretend it is Flipper. Faster than lightning, my ass. My mind abuzz with possibilities, the shark begins to influence my thoughts and feelings. All obstacles must be conquered, preferably by eating them. An upgrade renames the game by adding the surtitle “Evolution”, either to piss off religious conservatives, or to appeal to you inner Pokemon fanatic. Either one is fine by me.

It turns out a more powerful shark means a more powerful challenge. The longer I survive and the farther I travel, the nastier the game gets. My shark may be awesome at chasing down tuna and barracuda or grabbing a fisherman right off of his own boat while his friends give a collective zero shits about it, but if I go too long, Mother Ocean throws bigger sharks at me or worse. When a goddamn great white is filling my screen or a freakin’ submarine starts blasting torpedoes at me as I weave between explosive mines, it’s probably time to accept defeat.

But some part of me rages at this injustice.  I’m just a hungry shark trying to survive in this crazy ocean. My life expectancy is measured in a single digit number of minutes. How is it fair that mere existence keeps getting harder and harder?  And then it hit me. We are all the shark. The shark was us the whole time! We’re all just trying to get something to eat and get by in this cruel world until we earn enough coins to get something better, and the world is just going to get worse and worse until we all die.  Futility of life: confirmed.

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Seriously, who deploys naval mines and torpedo subs to kill a fish?

After taking a few days off from the game to chew on this epiphany, I receive a 3 AM text message on my phone.

“Your shark is hungry, come and feed him!”

I think to myself, “What kind of stupid game would wake me up in the wee hours of the morning to demand I play it? That practically begs me to uninstall it so I can get some damn uninterrupted sleep. Is the game really that concerned with my virtual shark’s nighttime cravings?” Then the notion dawns on me that perhaps the shark himself sent me the message.  As if to confirm this, the message is accompanied by a picture of a shark about to chow down on a hapless human.  Is this a threat of some sort? I make an effort to dismiss the idea as ridiculous, but still spend the rest of the night lying awake with the covers pulled up to my nose.  “Can’t sleep, shark will eat me…”

In the harsh light of day, I resume playing, knowing that my shark has spared me and will likely continue to do so. With a newfound respect for the life lessons of Hungry Shark, I begin to look down upon people playing sharkless touchscreen games. I have to fight the urge to accost children in Angry Birds shirts in Target and tell them that that game was (possibly) created by Nazis, that the pigs are supposed to represent the Jewish people hiding from them, and that the cutscenes are all just propaganda to get you on the Nazi birds’ side. Glaring at these flaming little anti-Semites in the making, I begin to pity them, for they know not of the simple joys of spending a brief and violent existence decimating a marine ecosystem.

My wife is sitting across from me on our living room couch playing “Candy Crush”, its deceptively epic music belying its underwhelming goals of crushing candy.  Hungry Shark does not need epic musical accompaniment aside from the terse strains of the title screen, the symphony of marine creatures’ bones crunching, and the shrieks of humans as they are devoured to get one in the mood to kill. Hungry Shark is epicness itself. The entire ocean is my buffet.  That’s, like, seventy percent of the world, man.  Think about it. I glare over my screen at the usually appealing woman playing her fruity puzzle game and think to myself, “You wouldn’t last long in my ocean, lady. Not long at all.”

Having finally unlocked the hammerhead, I realize how many damn coins it takes to buy a new shark in this game.  Every time I start a game, it tempts me with all kinds of ways to dress my shark up…for a price. But why waste my hard-earned v-cash on something other than a better shark when that amount of gold is so hard to come by in-game?  Then I get the image of a shark with a monocle and a top hat in my head.  “No”, I think to myself, “the top hat is too obvious. A sombrero would be way cooler.”  God damn it.  I have to make this happen, in spite of the fact that a monocle isn’t even available to buy in the game yet. I’m keeping faith in FGOL that they will update the game to include one; hopefully by the time I unlock the final shark. Then I shall smash through all things that dare bar my shark’s path, and finally be able to afford to look fabulously ridiculous doing it.

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This image pretty much represents everything I’ve ever wanted out of life. 

Being a hammerhead is an important step for me. As a child, it was my favorite shark. Then I got older and more cynical and began to believe that killing power is even more important than looking insane. That realization makes me feel like I lost something very important on the path to adulthood. But now I can finally eat those stupid, stuck-up lionfish that have been stinging my sharks for so long. Not so tough now, eh? Also important is that for the first time I can eat sharks that are physically bigger than me. That’s empowerment, baby.

So I swim through my digital ocean and continue attempting to satiate the endless appetite of the beast inside my phone. No matter what the ocean throws at me, I swim on, striving to unlock bigger, badder sharks in order to eat bigger and badder prey, turning the table on my past oppressors only to find even nastier ones waiting in the wings. As my shark goes belly-up once again after having only lived for maybe thirty seconds after the game dropped me into a massive cluster of jellyfish and mines right off the bat, the message “Life’s a Beach” (then presumably, I die) pops up onscreen to remind me that fairness has never been a part of life’s equation. You take the cards you are dealt, and then you eat them. Or something.

Viva la E-Revolution?

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While the rest of the world crosses their fingers waiting for the zombie apocalypse, the real old-school nerds await the true end of the human race: the inevitable rise of the machines.  Technology is quickly replacing everything from analog media to actual face-to-face human interaction.  It’s likely only a matter of time until we make even ourselves obsolete.  But in the meantime, let’s enjoy some good reads before we are consumed in the fires of rogue AI, embrace full transhumanism, and become one with the machine.  But what format to use?

So the question I get asked at this point in my life more than any other is “what is that thing?”.  The thing in question is my Nook e-reader, which I received as a gift last year.  What inevitably follows is a full-on discussion on what the hell an e-reader is, why someone would want one, what the features and advantages are, and the occasional shaking of fists as skeptics bemoan what they perceive to be the death of the traditional book.

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“Why do you hate America!?”

Given the interest in this topic, I’m going to go ahead and discuss the pros and cons of both formats.  Let’s start with a good old-fashioned book.  One of my co-workers walked up to me on my lunch break and said to me ”don’t you miss the feel of a real book in your hands?”.  And he’s not wrong.    I practically grew up in the library.  It was a magical place that had a look, a smell, a sound, and an intangible aura all its own.  And you know what?  It still kind of does.  So much information all stored in one place, thousands of books just waiting for some intrepid literary explorer to pick them up and take them home for absorption.  I still take my son there almost weekly, and every now and then I pick up a classic for myself too.  So a book in my hands just feels natural.  It’s a real physical thing, not some file to be downloaded and deleted as if it never existed in the first place.

Reading “Fahrenheit 451” loses some of its symbolic significance when the title no longer means what it means.  And the image of a woman choosing to be burnt to death with her beloved book collection rather than stand aside and watch wouldn’t be nearly as dramatic if the books were replaced with a cop running a magnet over her hard drive or smashing her iPad with a hammer.

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Yup.  Definitely better.

Books are something we can all relate to, and to many of us they are almost like totems or talismans to be proudly displayed on bookshelves as a sort of statement of who we are.   And in many ways, we are what we have read.  I believe that paper was mankind’s greatest invention as it allowed us a simple, convenient way to immortalize knowledge and pass it down indefinitely without a single word being lost.  With that in mind, it’s easy to see why there is resistance to technology threatening to render something so entwined with human history and culture obsolete.

While an e-reader may be a conversation starter now due to the format’s relative youth, that will soon pass.  But what will always be a conversation starter is a book.  Leaving out a big coffee table book full of gorgeous, glossy, full-page pictures begging to be picked up and leafed through is something that can’t really be replicated electronically.  And how many conversations have been started and interpersonal relationships begun by somebody happening by and seeing the cover of a book somebody else is reading and taking an interest?

That social aspect is another legacy that can’t be replicated by e-readers.  How easy is it to hand a book over to a friend to read?  Pretty damn.  But with e-books you need them to bring their tablet or whatever over or you have to convert the file and email it (if you even remember to do it) or worry about any number of potential headaches, and that’s assuming the person you want to loan the book to even has an e-reader.  Just handing somebody a book to take home with them; that’s simple and easy.

Then there are used bookstores, where for a few bucks you could take home an armful of adventures.  I don’t believe there are many of these to be found these days, but I have fond memories of looking out the window on family trips looking for used bookstores and then begging my parents to stop for a round of low-cost impulse buys and discussions with friendly clerks before resuming our trip.

The combination of paper and ink may be one of the simplest human inventions, but it’s been nearly as long-lived as the wheel, and for good reason.  It’s practically the foundation of our entire civilization.  Books are real, relatable, physical things we can own and give out at will.  They are and have always been part of the human experience.   But time marches on…..

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Damn it, technology!  Is there anything you can’t do?

While there is obviously a case to be made for the purity of tradition, there are a great many things to be said for the digital format.   First off, there’s the fact that files don’t age or wear in the traditional sense is a plus.  How many of your old favorite paperbacks have pages falling out of them at this point?  Files can be stored on hard drives and cloud drives and reformatted ad infinitum, making them pretty much immortal in a way physical objects simply are not.   And then there’s the horror of buying a nice big, shiny hardcover graphic novel and opening it to look at all the pretty pictures minutes before the resident toddler walks over, slaps his hand in the middle of the page, and then drags it back to himself, bringing half of the beautiful sheet of comic art nirvana with it (true story, in case you couldn’t tell).

One of the biggest reasons people don’t invest in e-readers is the cost.  A negative is that on top of the initial investment in the hardware, a lot of e-books are not significantly cheaper than their physical counterparts.  This is pretty much inexcusable seeing that it obviously costs less to send a file than it does to print, bind, and ship full books so a price reduction is a very natural expectation.  But I do believe that that annoyance is partially offset by two words:  public domain.

Public domain, of course, means that nobody really owns it anymore; it belongs to the world.  However, that does not stop book publishers from selling the book at full price.

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Very, very sneaky, sir.

With e-readers, you can buy the complete works of legendary authors like Poe, Wells, and Lovecraft (to name a few personal favorites) for next to nothing.  That is a lot of reading and it would likely cost you more to buy physical copies of their complete works than the cost of an e-reader.  The public domain alone is enough reason to at least give digital reading a shot.

Then there are the features.  On a Nook or Kindle, for example, you can highlight any word with a touch of your finger and see its definition.  You can digitally “dog-ear” favorite pages, highlight the best passages which then go on a list so you can access your favorite quotes all at once (Kindle also tracks the most highlighted segments among its readers).  You can even change the text size and font to your liking.  All very cool.

A plus for e-reading in general, but a negative for specialized e-readers is the fact that our corporate overlords at Apple and the like are insidiously combining all devices into superdevices such as the iPhone and iPad.  In fact, the reason I received my Nook as a gift was because a relative bought it for himself and then realized there was nothing it could do that his iPad/Phone/Touch couldn’t do with a Kindle or Nook app.  Now, if you don’t own any of those and all you want is a reader then a specialized device is much cheaper, but with Apple’s near-ubiquitous devices doing it all and then some, I suspect the e-reader hardware market may be wiped out.

So technical and practical aspects aside, I’m going to discuss the creative impact of electronic media on modern literature for a minute.  In the past, few people had the means to mass produce and market book.  That meant aspiring authors had to beg and borrow while attempting to sell a book to a bunch of corporate publishers who would typically either reject them outright and send them off to starve in the gutter or suck the very life out of them and their art, work them for every penny they were worth, then move on.  And what happened to those poor authors, you ask?

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This is an actual picture from inside a Random House Inc.  facility.

With digital distribution quickly becoming the norm in the industry, the costs of doing business have been greatly reduced and we are now likely approaching a golden age for independent authors.  Without a big publisher to spam the mainstream media with your book, you may never make that J.K. Rowling money, but you can rest assured that you will always have a way to distribute your work to those who want it without necessarily having to go through a major publisher.  And without corporate interests jacking up the price, the cost of giving an unknown author’s work a shot is much lower, so it’s a win-win for independent authors and readers both.

Like it or not, technology moves forward, formats change, and our culture adapts to it, for better or worse.  While I still purchase and lend the occasional physical novel, get most of my comics by mail, and agree with people who espouse the virtues of the traditional book, there’s seldom anything of practical value to be gained by attempting to hold back the tide.  Digital distribution and consumption are here and they are replacing physical media.

There’s part of me that’s happy to see that books are going to be the last physical format to go.  They were here long before musical recordings were possible or film was even a concept and have remained largely unchanged over the centuries, and in a way, writing is a more flexible art form than any other, and older.  It just seems fitting that after discs have been replaced with files and are practically worthless, there will still be book collections, and they will still be just as valuable if not more so.   But in the meantime, rather than fighting against progress, I’m going to go ahead and prepare for the future.

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 Do you think they’ll like it?

Five Comic Superteams Too Cool for Mainstream Success

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So you’ve got your heavy hitter Justice Leagues and Avengers, your fan favorite X-Men and Fantastic Fours, and your Young Justices and Teen Titans (what’s the difference between those two again?) on the second string.  You’ve got Green Lantern Corps and Marvel is even uncorking a Guardians of the Galaxy film to open up the comic cosmos to mainstream audiences.  Superteams are and have always been a great concept.  You can either take a diverse group of misfits whose individual talents and personalities fit together to form a force to be reckoned with, or you can take a group of established heroes, throw them all together in the mix and let the awesomeness commence.  Either approach is almost inevitably met with success.

But then there are the superteams who never really take off.  Maybe the comics are popular with critics, but readership doesn’t follow, maybe the title gets canceled,  maybe DC reboots the entire universe, or a bad writer takes over and tanks the whole franchise; maybe all of the above.  A television show or Hollywood film may even get made, but they screw up the concept and/or the mainstream just isn’t interested.  These things happen.   But some of these teams in their best incarnations are always going to be in the hearts and minds of comic book fans even if they never get their proper due.  This is for them.

Runaways

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Out of all of the concepts for a superteam ever, this one has got to be the one that screams “MAKE ME INTO AN AWESOME TV SHOW!”  the loudest of them all. You take a group of relatively normal teenagers, have them discover together that their parents are all part of a supervillain society bent on ending the world, and you take it from there.  The result was arguably the best thing Marvel has done….well, maybe ever.

Not only were these all original characters with interesting powers ranging from telepathic control over a Velociraptor (actually a Deinonychus) to spells that can only be used once ever, but they were really damn good characters, all of them and facing the legitimate dilemma of not only living on the run, but having to oppose their own parents while doing it.

On top of that, you have the fact that at the time The Runaways were the only action the West Coast was getting in the New York-centric Marvel Universe.  That’s not to say that they didn’t run into plenty of familiar faces along the way, but it was nice to see another part of the Marvel Universe for a change.  Furthermore, alien refugee Karolina is not only arguably the most visually brilliant character in comics when she “flames on” so to speak, but she also represented a rare openly gay character who didn’t need a big press conference or anything in the media to announce that comics was going to have another gay character.  Her sexual orientation was simply who she was and it was treated as a fact of life, not as some condescending political statement, and that’s how it should be.

“Runaways” was and still is a massive breath of fresh air in what has become a stale mainstream comic scene.  A bunch of smart-mouthed, confused kids living off the grid and trying to save the world while barely being able to keep themselves from falling apart; in the hands of a great writer, this is gold.  Sadly, after Joss Whedon’s brief, ambitious run on the series taking over for creator Brian K. Vaughan, the quality eventually took a steep drop and the comic died a horrible death.  A film has been promised, but production has continuously been halted and it appears that Rocket Raccoon will make it onto the big screen before any of these guys.

Birds of Prey

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Comic fans know that in 1988, Barbara Gordon ceased being Batgirl after The Joker put a bullet in her spine, leaving her a paraplegic, in one of the greatest Batman comics ever written.  For most characters, the answer would have been a brief period of uselessness and mopery followed by a magic cure and a return to action.  But DC played this one smart for a change and Babs became the foremost hacker in the world, changing her identity to the all-knowing Oracle, and becoming the Gotham vigilante community’s go-to girl.  Way cooler.

Eventually, Oracle decided working with Batman and the like wasn’t enough for her and searched for a partner to act as her agent in worldwide espionage and rescue missions.  Black Canary was down on her luck at the time, and the two “broken” heroines teamed up to found the foremost all-female superteam in comics.  Later, after Gail Simone took over writing duties, the dynamic duo would welcome Huntress and Lady Blackhawk into the fold to form the team’s classic line-up.

The combination of caustic personalities, badass skills relying on finesse rather than power, and natural sex appeal of the team in Simone’s brilliant hands made them one of the most fun and exciting reads DC has ever put out. “Birds of Prey” was canceled for a while after readership declined following Simone’s departure, then brought back with the popular writer back at the head , then canceled again and rebooted for the New 52.

Oracle being, in her way, the most powerful woman in the DC Universe while confined to a wheelchair was pretty damn empowering, and I was more than a little upset when the reboot not only gave her her legs back to have her resume Batgirl duties (snooooore), but transformed the Birds into something utterly unrecognizable to me.  So much boycott.

Shockingly, “Birds of Prey” was actually adapted into a television series for the WB in 2002.  But the show took precious few cues from the source material and never really decided whether it wanted to appeal to comic book nerds looking for killer action or “Gilmore Girls” fans pining for “girl power” bonding moments and the result was a massive decline in viewership that led to cancelation after the first season.

If the Birds had made their way to the DC Animated Universe (which almost happened for an episode of “Justice League: Unlimited”) I have no doubt in my mind that the result would have been absolutely amazing.  But that never happened, and it seems unlikely that a franchise that DC can’t even hold together convincingly anymore is going to get another shot at crossover success, so I guess it’s time to break out the trade paperbacks and remember the glory days.

The Boys

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If you were a superhero who stepped out of line in this nasty piece of work by Garth Ennis (of “Preacher” fame), that image would likely be the last thing you ever saw.  The Boys were a group of secret agents with a beef against superpowered individuals’ irresponsible destruction, and whose job it was to put them down if it became necessary.  It’s one of my favorite comics of the last decade, and it is not for the faint of heart.

The initial six issues were published by a subsidiary of DC, but the series was promptly booted because….well, just read it.  It’s essentially the most offensive possible satire of everything we’ve seen mainstream comics become over the years, with many characters being blatant caricatures of existing comic icons, both real and fictional.  DC was not amused.

“The Boys” ran for a full seventy-two issues (not including multiple miniseries’), and ended on its own terms last year, which is actually impressive.  As a creator-owned title with an independent publisher, it had the flexibility to carry on without interference and Ennis was allowed to make his comic the way he wanted to, and the result was jaw-droppingly shocking at times, and laugh-until-you-cry funny at others.  Sometimes both at once.  Highly recommended for fans of no-holds-barred satire.

Like “Runaways”, “The Boys” has been optioned for a feature film, but have been stuck in development limbo for years.  One thing I can tell you is that there is no possible way to do this story justice on the big screen.  In my opinion, this is a franchise that should stay in the medium it was created to tear down.

Secret Six

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Take a group of supervillains who have been degraded and abused to “joke” status over the years, put them together with a few original characters to form a mercenary crew to take on the dirty jobs, and now the lame villains are awesome.  Even cooler than the heroes that have beaten them down over the years.  Who knew?

There was a Silver Age team known as The Secret Six, but the team I’m referring to came about in 2005 and after a revolving-door approach that saw the likes of The Mad Hatter, Cheshire, Knockout, and Harley Quinn take turns on the team, The Six evolved into the core line-up seen above led by Scandal (daughter of immortal villain Vandal Savage, and another matter-of-fact gay character) under the creative eye of Gail Simone, from whom most great things in recent DC comics flow.

Seriously, did anyone ever think Catman would be a legit badass in the modern comic era?   Well, it happened.  Or who would think that a comic would ever come along that made you earnestly root for the villains or take a murderous bunch of weirdoes and make you love the hell out of them?   And to sweeten the deal, the Six even went toe-to-toe with the Birds of Prey in a crossover arc to die for.  And then there was the amazingly random homage issue featuring the cast in a Wild West setting that had, if nothing else, a quick-draw duel between Deadshot and Deathstroke to recommend it.  That all happened too.   Pity it had to stop.

I don’t believe it is a coincidence that the final issue of the Six’s fantastic run featured most of the DC Universe conspiring to take them down.  Between “Birds of Prey” and “Secret Six”, it really must have felt like the DC powers that be were actively shutting down every great thing she had done just because they could.  But neither the Six nor Simone went down without a blaze of glory fight to the finish before the New 52 destroyed everything we loved.  It was utterly fitting.

League of Extraordinary Gentlemen

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Alan Moore is a legend of the sequential art narrative form, and for very good reason.   His work is exceptionally literate, sophisticated, and littered with philosophical themes and grey morality that mark his work as something that will never be mistaken for children’s fare.  His League of Extraordinary Gentlemen took the superteam concept and, rather than using comic book heroes, he substituted classic literary heroes.  Inspired concept?  Damn right, it is.

Picture this: Mina Murray shedding the damsel in distress role she played in “Dracula” and heading up a special ops team comprised of Dr. Jekyll/Mr. Hyde, Allan Quatermain, The Invisible Man, and Captain Nemo, to name the core members among the many other characters who appear.  Now picture them battling the aliens from “War of the Worlds”.  Now think of a cooler concept than that, if you can (protip: you can’t).  The idea really does sell itself.

Among all of the teams on this list, the League has easily the least number of actual issues to their name, but their adventures are without question the most epic, encompassing not only entire worlds, but an entire universe of English literary fiction.  That is damn ambitious and Moore carries it off spectacularly for the most part.  And the Victorian/steampunk styles utilized in the art; yeah, pretty cool.

The League was, of course, tapped for a Hollywood blockbuster movie that did decently with audiences, but pretty much tanked with critics, leading the potential film franchise to die out and be forgotten.  And to be fair, it was pretty much fated to be so.  “The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen” is a concept that was always going to be difficult to properly capture onscreen even without the rights to so many characters and stories tied up in different studios.  You think Harry Potter, John Carter, and James Bond were ever going to part of the same cinematic universe?  Dream on.  Or better yet, just pick up the comics.  I doubt you’ll regret it, though your fellow humans as always reserve the right to judge you.

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So anyways, not all great things are meant to be appreciated by everyone.  True quality is not necessarily measured in mass appeal.  Every great novel series is not going to get the adaptations and love of a “Lord of the Rings” or a “Game of Thrones” and not every awesome comic franchise will be successfully adapted to a more socially acceptable media form either.  Maybe it’s better that way.  Now that the mainstream has caught on to some of this stuff and ripped it away from geek culture’s collective bosom to be discussed by yuppies and other filthy casuals along with the latest celebrity reality shows at their metaphorical water coolers, there’s less and less for us to call our own.  But comics is one media form that America is so historically biased against that it still seems unthinkable for an adult to be seen reading them in public without getting weird glances.  That means it’s still ours…for now.

In the meantime, those of us who know what the comic medium is capable of get to enjoy the fruits of the labors of some of the best writers and creative minds in entertainment in real time while the rest of the human race gets to sit and wait for whatever Hollywood or their cable providers decide to ram down their throats next.  Sounds good to me.

Emotional Content: Five Bruce Lee Quotes That Affect My Everyday Life

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Now, most of us all think of the same thing when we hear Bruce Lee’s name: the guy who kicked all the ass.  ALL.  OF.  IT.   We think of the impossibly charismatic movie star who changed the worlds of film and martial arts permanently in a mere 32 years on this earth before being taken from us.    We think of his epic showdown with Chuck Norris in the Roman Colliseum.  We think about how “Enter the Dragon” is indisputably one of the greatest action films of all time.  We think about all the times weve kicked and punched the air with a high-pitched “WAAAH!”  We think of one-inch punches, two-finger push-ups and other superhuman feats we would not believe were possible if the videos didn’t prove they really happened.   And some of us think about all of those who have tried to follow in his footsteps;  the Hong Kong Brucesploitation travesty featuring films with actors named Bruce Li or Bruce Lei (to name two) that existed only to trick people out of their money or the plentiful video game and anime characters who have bared his likeness.

Any way you cut it, Bruce Lee was a visionary whose shadow is still cast over every martial-artist, action hero, and colorful media personality to this day.  But what a lot of people don’t know is the true breadth of his influence in the non-asskicking arts.  Philosophy, poetry, film choreography, fitness, and nutrition are all areas where Lee made major contributions and blazed trails.   I grew up watching “Kung Fu Theater” on Saturday afternoons and always knew Bruce Lee was The Man, even when I was too young to appreciate why.   But looking back on those classic films from an adult perspective and looking deeper into a man who has always captivated the world revealed to me a man with a brilliant mind to match his physical prowess and magnetic charisma.

For my first contribution to Unreality, I’ve decided to pay tribute to an under-appreciated aspect of a personal hero of mine whose words have provided guidance to me in the best of times and in the worst.  And in doing so, I can offer up a little slice of my worldview as a form of introduction.  Let’s do this.

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I once saw an entry in a contest where people were asked to tell their life story in exactly six words.  One of the entries was “Painful nerd kid, happy nerd adult.”  That pretty much sums up my experience.

There was no small amount of catharsis in watching Bruce beat up bullies with his special brand of style of swagger as a child.  I obviously didn’t have Lee’s skills or his confidence and i didn’t even wanted to beat anybody up, but nonetheless his iron will and rebellious attitude inspired me.  I’ve been through the fire over and over and only got through it by sticking it out, and I’ve been rewarded for my perseverance

If you choose to crumble at the first sign of hardship, you’ll never reach your true potential or achieve even a modicum of peace with who you are.  And there is likely no greater satisfaction than in knowing that who you are is someone who can take whatever life throws at them.

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This is the philosophy that Lee used to create his own style of martial arts, Jeet-Kune-Do (Way of the Intercepting Fist), and in doing so pioneered the sport we know today as mixed marital arts.  Choosing to outgrow his traditional kung-fu background, Lee studied fighting styles from around the world, simplifying them and coalescing them into a mindset of a “style without a style” that could potentially counter and defeat any single form of fighting.

But I am not a fighter.   What do I care about Bruce Lee’s asskicking methods?  Well, like any slice of good philosophy, the application was intended to spread beyond it’s original context.  Any art -martial or otherwise- is a form of self-expression with ample room for good, bad and everything in between.   Some things simply work for you and some do not. I briefly tried being a musician.  I wasn’t good at it.   I’m better at analyzing and understanding pop culture than I could ever hope to be at creating it.  That’s who I am.

Finding out who you are, what you are good at, and what you should do are some of the most important things in life.  And whatever it is you are good at and choose to do, odds are there’s a ton of people out there doing the exact same thing.  But your blend of life experiences that shape your world view are unique to you, and by utilizing that which is yours and putting it out there, you find your voice and stand out from the crowd.

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This is one of Lee’s most famous quotes, and for good reason. While being yourself is immensely important in any artistic endeavor, one must also realize that the world is what it is and other people are who they are.  Flexibility and the ability to adapt to the world around you are tantamount to a truly happy existence.  Again, this is true not only in fighting, but in all things.

If you strike a body of water, it doesn’t break; it adapts, compensates, and forms itself around your blow.   Likewise, an open mind is willing to absorb any sort of idea and make the best of it whereas a rigid thought process will often react to foreign concepts with rejection and anger, solidly opposing it and emotionally breaking in the process.

Water can go anywhere, it can be liquid, solid, or vapor,  it can erode away mountains to dust, it gives life and it can take it away.  By broadening yourself to be able to be what you need when you need it, you empower yourself with infinite potential.  Like water.

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I could easily have done this entire article using only “Enter the Dragon” quotes.   Lee’s philosophies often emphasize simplification and action over contemplation, and the first part of this quote epitomizes that.  “Don’t think, feeeeeeeeel“.   That is to say that once you know who you are and what to do, all you need to do is get to doing it.  Once you’ve trained your mind (or body) to do what it does, all you can really do is throw yourself in there and go for it.

The second part of this quote seems to me to be about internalizing the teachings rather than the teacher.  The words of people like Jesus Christ, Gandhi, Martin Luther King Jr., Bob Dylan, and Bruce Lee are known to billions.  But so many people idolize the men themselves and forget that the messages they represent are what matter.  A man is just a man, but ideas can’t die.  It’s by understanding and following the examples set by amazing people that you truly appreciate and immortalize them, not by idolizing them unto themselves.  Use their teachings for your own benefit rather than blindly following another human being.  In other words, the teacher is just the finger to show you a new worldview.  Once you’ve been shown where to see it, look at the world through your own eyes.

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This one is not only from the same film as the previous quote, but from the same scene, where Bruce is teaching an aspiring martial artist and lamenting his half-hearted participation.  It probably sums up the theme of this article in the concisest manner possible, and should be the rallying cry of any creative endeavor.  I hear Lee say this line in my head all the time.  Hopefully that’s not a precursor to schizophrenia.  Be it music, writing, dancing, drawing, fighting, or any other form of expression, if you aren’t feeling what you do and making somebody else feel it as well, you are likely doing it wrong.

The name of this site, Unreality, brings to mind a lot of things.  To put it simply, it stands for the place we go to get away from real life for a while.  But beyond escapism, some of us who travel through the lands of film, television, comics, video games, and the like come back with a new perspective; some little bit of wisdom garnered from metaphor and allegory that sticks with us and helps us get through the real world with our psyches intact while thriving as individuals, and maybe even contributing a little something of our own to the world.

I watched Bruce Lee beat up the bad guys as a kid and cheered him on knowing it was just a temporary reprieve from the bad guys in my real life.  But long after the last onscreen villain got his comeuppance, Lee’s words stuck with me and helped me become a more self-actualized adult.   And that, my friends, is why we need emotional content.  To put all of ourselves into whatever we do and create, because you never know what you might accomplish and who you might inspire.