Sunday, January 29, 2012

The Limitations of Planning

When our Saturday night D&D gathering fell through, I threw the doors open to the idea just getting together anyhow, maybe to play a boardgame or the Wii, or perhaps to watch a movie.  A couple of players couldn't make it, but a couple of significant others came, as well as my sister.

The earliest arrivals finished watching an episode of Metal Evolution I had on PVR, and then most of us gathered around the big table to wait for the rest to arrive.  Some snacks were arranged, some wine was poured, and we had a significant head of conversational steam built up by the time the last person arrived.

More wine was poured, and a couple of Belgian ales, and we spent a little time getting caught up from the holidays.  Someone had recently needed to put down a beloved pet so there was some commiseration among the others, especially the other pet owners, and which spun the eight of us onto a wide variety of topics.

After an hour or so, and a bit more wine, and some liqueur made from wine and chocolate, I made the observation that if we were going to watch a movie, we'd have to start fairly soon if we wanted to finish close to midnight.  No one was willing to abandon the conversation, which suited me right down to the ground; you can watch a movie by yourself or with 300 strangers and it doesn't make a lot of difference to the experience, but having 8 friends who can talk about everything under the sun, and have the time and inclination to do so?  That's not something to be taken lightly, even though we all do it, and far too often.

A little more wine, and some cream puffs that materialized from the freezer, powered us through the rest of the evening, and into a not insignificant part of the morning.  I had a couple of 8-player games on deck, in case the dreaded conversational lull reared its ugly head, but it never did.  

We talked about parenting, and friends, and work, and college, and celebrations, and the upcoming Oscars, and books, and the past, and the future.  We didn't solve any problems, but we didn't create any either, so it would be difficult to say that anything was achieved using any objective measures.  In spite of this, I'm certain no one there would dispute the value of the time spent; the enrichment can be taken as an article of faith.

Despite my appreciation of the things taught to us by the thinkers of the East, I have always had a hard time stepping aside and just letting things happen.  My inclination is to have a plan, or a schedule, however loose or flexible it might be.  Last night was a rare opportunity to 'be here now', and I'm glad I could take advantage of it.  I'm gladder still for the assortment of tremendous people I have been fortunate enough to call my friends, some for decades, and others for much less time.  They are insightful, funny, and compassionate, and so often our plans to get together like this go awry, despite our best wishes and intentions.  

What is the fulcrum that an evening like this pivots upon?  The table?  The number of people?  The libations?  The large table?  I wouldn't chance the alchemy by removing any one of these elements.  The price was a fairly late night, and a disrupted schedule for Sunday, but I would pay it again without complaint, if I only knew where and when.

Sunday, January 22, 2012

Combative Correspondent: Dan Abnett's "Embedded"

Meeting Dan Abnett at Games Day 2005 in the U.K.

I've been a fan of Dan Abnett's writing for many years now, mostly through his excellent Warhammer 40,000 novels, like the Eisenhorn trilogy, or his excellent Gaunt's Ghosts series.  He is legendarily prolific, writing 2-4 full length 40K novels a years as well as occasional gaming background material and tons of monthly comics, including a long run on DC's Legions of Super-Heroes some time ago, and more recently, a successful re-vamp of the character Nova for Marvel.  Jokes about his having an army of clones in order to maintain his output are sure to continue to dog him now that he is branching away from the creations of others and on to his own original stories and settings.  I quite enjoyed his alt-history novel Triumff: Her Majesty's Hero, but more recently read Embedded and can recommend it most science-fiction readers who have an interest in either the military or the media.

In Embedded, we meet reporter Lex Falk, world-weary, cynical, plus tired, pasty and brittle from too much time in micro-gravity as he moves from hotspot to hotspot. Falk has come to Planet 86, still in the process of being colonized by rival political  factions and so new it doesn't even have a proper name, but there have been bombings and shootouts that have drawn him to the scene.  Pretty soon it becomes obvious that the Settlement Office Forces of the United Status might not be up against the run of the mill insurrectionists this time around, and there is a worry that the Cold War that has been simmering with the Bloc for decades may be about to turn hot, but no one will say why.

Falk is offered the opportunity of piggybacking his consciousness onto the mind of an trooper heading out on a patrol that could provide the answers he's looking for.  When that soldier takes a mortal shot to the head, though, Falk has only his own experience to help both of them get back to safety so he can be extracted.  Along the way, more clues come to light, forcing him to makes some hard choices between his safety (and that of his host) and discovering the truth.

Abnett has earned the right to stand among some big names in military-sci-fi, like Davids Drake (Hammer's Slammers) and Weber (Honor Harrington), so once Falk's trooper grabs his weapon and jumps onto his troop transport for a ride into the Hard Place, you are heading into somewhat familiar, if unpredictable, territory.   Despite the chaos of the ensuing firefights and multiple types of high-tech lethality coming into play at any given moment, the reader can be assured of two things: 1) they are gonig to have a very clear idea of both what is going on and what is at stake, and 2) it will probably be surprising and unpleasant, which is certainly proper.

I was concerned that this story might feel like a transplanted 40K story with some cosmetic changes, but I needn't have worried.  Although some of the banter between troopers might be reminiscent of a Gaunt's Ghosts tale, the political backdrop and opposition forces set Planet 86 a good distance away from The Nightmare Future in both time and space.

More importantly though, everything leading up to Falk's remote experiences in the field, his description of a future human society (no aliens, unlike 40K) as they colonize the stars while states and corporations bicker with each other, feels both distinct and insightful.  There are elements of cyberpunk as well, with Falk's observances about changing corporate logos and the pecking order of the modern press pool really standing out.  When a colleague announces she has taken a sizable commission to fit herself with a 'ling chip' that prevents her from cursing, she describes it as being "freeking(TM) unsettling" to which Falk replies, "I was wondering how you made that sound at the end of the word like that."  Vaguely reminiscent of Max Headroom, but still.

After dealing with comic-book paragons and the embattled heroes of the 41st millennium, Lex Falk is probably Abnett's least sympathetic character, who, to his credit, is at least aware that he is a smug, occasionally charming dick.  His conflict over the right course of action, or even determining what it is he wants and why he wants it, sets the hook so that when we get dragged in to the action-heavy second half of the novel, we already feel at least as committed as he does: riding into a battlezone with an uncertain enemy and unclear objectives in the head of a soldier who actually has to admonish him to stop thinking so loud in order that he doesn't get them killed.

Embedded is a good read for fans of military science-fiction, those who like a gripping, action-oriented yarn, and for those who like to speculate about what the media of the future might be like.  It's unclear if we will return to Planet 86 or other interests of the United Status in future books, but at one point Falk looks over a children's book showing the history of space colonization, beginning with the first man on the moon, Virgil "Gus" Grissom, which might be a seed from which this slightly alt-future-history is wrought.  I wouldn't mind going back; like the Warhammer 40,000 universe, it is a great place to visit, but I certainly wouldn't want want to live there.

Monday, January 16, 2012

Early Morning Electronica

My Saturday morning routine as a child almost always involved getting up before anyone else in the house, getting a bowl of cereal, and plunking down in front of the TV to watch cartoons until they got chased off the air by sports or news programming, and then heading outside to play.

This schedule pre-dates our getting cable television, so sometimes the programming choices were pretty meager due to our only having three channels. Without that scarcity of choice, though, I might never have noticed that Rocket Robin Hood and Spider-Man fought the same villain one time.

If I got up too early for actual animated fare, I could at least get a little kid-oriented history lesson courtesy of either Professor Kitzel or Max the 2000 Year Old Mouse.  These programs used crudely animated framing devices at the opening and closing of the episode, and then narration accompanied panning across various paintings and drawings of historical events; not really my cup of tea, but sometimes this was the only alternative to The Farm Report.

On those rare occasions when I woke up even prior to Professor Kitzel, some stations wouldn't even have begun broadcasting yet, which seems almost unbelievably quaint in today's 24 hour, 500 channel, time-shifted, smart-TV universe.  Before beginning their programming day, CTV affiliates would broadcast a post-secondary lecture on their educational program, University of the Air.  During a recent bout of insomnia on the weekend, my internet perambulations led me to a YouTube video of the closing credits, which I believe to be indistinguishable from the opening credits.  In addition to being remarkably nostalgic, it got me to thinking: was this the first electronic music I ever heard?

Years later, when we got cable and PBS, I stumbled across the intro to Doctor Who, and although I never cared for the program that much, I always enjoyed the theme song.  I wonder if it made me hearken back to those carefree 6-year-old mornings, and the allure of a computerized future (along with The Starlost)?

I can't imagine having heard any synthesizer-based music prior to this trippy, hypnotic opening, with the possible exception of "Popcorn" by Hot Butter (1972), which I remember learning the bunny-hop to in grade 8 gym class, but I don't know when I might have first heard it.  As it sits, I wish I had the programmer-fu to turn that credit sequence into a screen saver for my PC.

Does anyone else remember University of the Air, or was I the only kid up that early?

Saturday, January 14, 2012

Selling Secrets: The Deadliest Man Alive

The comic books of my childhood scratched a lot of itches.  They provided an escape from the humdrum world I felt I existed in (rarely a damsel in distress, never a dinosaur attack), and showed idealized, almost mythological characters struggling to bring about justice.  Some of these characters, like Spider-Man and Superman, did this with the aid of spectacular powers and abilities, while others, like Batman or Green Arrow, through the application of will and skill alone.

I think I had a typical childhood insofar as there were ebbs and flows in the number and quality of friends I had and the popularity or infamy or anonymity I enjoyed.  There were times I was picked on, especially in elementary school, and bigger or meaner kids that I took care to avoid, but never to the point where I would consider myself bullied.  I could see others who were, though, and this was never a pleasant experience, even as a spectator; this is the price for an excess of empathy, a condition I am certain I have passed on to my daughters.  What better medium than comics to teach a young person to hunger for justice, and to present this notion that fairness requires dedication and work and sacrifice from everyone, not just those with capes or utility belts.

Still, comics taught a lot of us to wish; to wish for the things that might give us the means to put these playground oppressors in their place, and not just in the stories and art, but in the advertisements as well.  Everyone is familiar with the legendary Charles Atlas ad "The Insult That Made a Man Out of Mac!", wherein our protagonist, tired of having sand literally kicked into his face, "gambles a stamp" for a book on body-building, and some time later ends up at the beach with the body of Adonis and the ability to apply some bare-knuckle comeuppance to his persecutor.  (And as glad as I am to see that lout get his just desserts, I hope Mac ended up with someone more supportive than that snide cow who says  "Don't let it bother you little boy", but that's a whole other issue.)

Not nearly as prolific or carrying the same pop-cultural heft of the ubiquitous Atlas ad are the infamous "Deadliest Man Alive" ads of Count Dante's 'Black Dragon Fighting Society':

Sure, it's corny now, but when I was 9 years old, seeing the exotic name of the Chinese 'Death Touch' written in that chop suey typeface was like stepping into another world.

I'm not sure how legible it is in this photo, but the ad luridly discusses maiming, mutilating, disfiguring, paralyzing and crippling techniques, and how one can not only learn these once-forbidden 77 poison finger techniques, but that Count Dante was backing this claim up with a $10,000 guarantee!

Now, my 4th grade worldview in no way prepared me to question these claims, but even I thought it was a little questionable for this kind of knowledge to be thrown about hither and yon through the medium of comic-book advertising.  I remember thinking, A poison finger?  How would you control that?  Can you turn it off?  What if you used it by accident?  What if I couldn't touch my mom and dad any more, like King Midas?  What if bad guys learn it?  Can you defend against it?  Who the heck teaches that course?

In the end, I declined the responsibility and didn't order the book, or join the Black Dragon Fighting Society, despite the fact that I was fairly certain that very few people at Willow Park Elementary would mess with anyone who had that cool patch on their jacket.  I continued to see Count Dante in my comic books from time to time, apparently after a significant image consult, makeover and hairstyle change, but I remained confident I had made the right choice, and feel that way still.  Dim mak sounds like a real burden to me.

Martial arts and warrior culture in comics, books and films have always held a fascination for me, from Bruce Lee to Iron Fist to Remo Williams and through to the Jedi I discovered just before 5th grade, and on to Ogami Itto and his son Daigoro in the Lone Wolf & Cub manga series from Japan.  It turns out that 1970s North America turned out something almost as intriguing in real life, though, and the infamous Count Dante was a part of it.

Prior to Bruce Lee and Enter the Dragon really bringing the oriental fighting arts into the mainstream of western culture, the early adopters were desperate to display the supremacy of their school or style.  One way of doing this was to publicly challenge those who made similar claims to public or private combat, or failing that, to damage the gym or dojo (for karate schools) where rival classes were taught.  One thing led to another, and once the media got wind of this, the term "Dojo Wars" was coined.

I mostly know of the Dojo Wars through a (Canadian-made, of all things) board game I played in high school called  "The Original Bruce Lee Martial Arts Game", wherein you worked to prove the superiority of your system by taking on all comers, including not only your fellow players, but Bruce Lee himself.  Although the Dojo Wars are never mentioned by name, cards like "Street Fight", and "Go to Nearest Enemy Dojo" made the comparison easy to draw.  In the end, the greatest enemy turned out to be the hospital, where injured players had to wait for a favorable roll of the dice in order to re-enter the game.

The Wikipedia entry on Count Dante is a fascinating read that includes a number of revelations, such as the fact that he is actually an Irish-American who claimed to be descended from Spanish aristocracy (despite his assuming an Italian surname), and that in addition to being a legitimate martial artist, was also an occasional hairstylist (Aha! That explains the later picture...)  In 1965 he was arrested while attaching dynamite caps to a rival dojo in Chicago, and in 1970, he and some of his students rumbled with members of the Green Dragon dojo, an altercation which actually resulted in the death of one of his friends.  There is a film by Floyd Webb called The Search for Count Dante that I believe I will have to track down one of these days.  On the other hand, there are a couple of perfectly good film adaptations of The Count of Monte Cristo, and they both have a Count Edmund Dant├ęs in them, so that might be better.  (Plus Webb's film is still a work in progress he is trying to get funding for.)

At any rate, stumbling across the original advertisement while reading "Deadly Hands of Kung Fu" (featuring not only Shang Chi and Iron Fist, but also multi-racial martial arts super-team The Sons of the Tiger), brought a vivid rush of memories about the big kids avoided at recess, and the quest for some sort of equalizer.  In the intervening years, I've tried to be conciliatory when I can and courageous when I have to be, and hope that enough other bystanders will recognize the legitimacy of my position to keep me from getting sand kicked into my face.  A poison finger?  What if I scratch myself?

Tuesday, January 10, 2012

Morbid Plans

Despite an appreciation for the macabre and a history of 'whistling in the graveyard', I don't think of myself as a particularly morbid person.  That said, it has ocurred to me that I have perhaps spent more time than the average person thinking about my own funeral arrangements.

Years ago (good grief, two decades, actually), my roommate and chum Rob played me the Alan Parsons Project song "Old and Wise", and mentioned in passing that it was something he expected to be played at his funeral.  Certainly the lyrics seem appropriate: 
And to those I leave behindI want you all to knowYou've always shared my darkest hoursI'll miss you when I go

Since then I occasionally find myself drawn into thinking about the playlist and other details for my own final arrangements, and I am reminded of it every time I see a funeral in the movies or on TV.  Last night, Fenya and I caught the first few minutes to The Right Stuff, which features a funeral for a test pilot who crashed trying to break the sound barrier.  At his graveside, a somber man with a deep voice sings a version of "Eternal Father, Strong to Save" that changes the chorus from "Eternal Father, hear our plea/ for those in peril on the sea" to "hear our prayer/for those in peril in the air", which I thought was a very neat touch, but what is most memorable about the scene for me is the fly-by and "missing man" formation, and I pointed it out to Fenya.
"What's that about?" she asked.

"It's a tradition to show respect for a fallen pilot; the normal formation is for four planes, so they deliberately leave a gap for that pilot's plane to signify that he is missed.  Sometimes they start out with a full formation and have one plane pull off in a steep vertical climb, like he's going to heaven or some such.  Cool, huh?"

Fenya nodded.  "It is actually, yeah.  Is that what you want done at your funeral?"

I laughed.  "That's very sweet of you to ask, but I'm no pilot honey; there's no squadron for me to be the missing man from." I reflected for a moment,and then said, "Well, unless you want to set up a mobile or something with some model planes or spaceships or what-have-you...maybe some could do that if you wanted."

"Okay," she said, agreeably.

A few moments later I said, "You know what?  Call Island Mike and have him bring two of his Catachan Valkyries, that makes three with my Valhallan one, the missing man can be from that formation.  He'd be down with that, I figure."

"All right," she acquiesced.
With that detail I hope to have struck the proper balance between somber remembrance and ironic whimsy, which makes me feel a bit better about the whole affair.  For years now I've made it clear that Fenya is to sing Danny Boy at my funeral, and I expect there to be not a dry eye in the house.  (In fact, when I mentioned this to Island Mike years ago, he said he wells up pretty much every time he hears that song anyways, but would appreciate it if he doesn't hear it in this context too soon; a point which we happen to be in total accord upon.)

Other than that, my only real request is that there be something closely approximating an Irish wake; I know I won't be there to appreciate it, but there's a certain amount of "in death as it was in life" that is to expected at these sorts of functions, and it's also a good way to assure lots of people turn out.

Sunday, January 8, 2012

Comic TV: Young Justice

Coming home from Leduc Junior High School in my early teens, I would often stop in at a magazine and smoke shop on main street.  I'd chat up the owner, and on days when shipments arrived, I would help him put new comics on the racks, which gave me a comprehensive overview of everything new in that week's four-colour treasure.

One week I stumbled across the first issue of a new series, and intrigued by the cover art (and the chance to get in on the ground floor), I gambled 50 cents and took it home.  It turned out to be a good decision, and I bought the next 50 or 60 issues of The New Teen Titans, almost all of them written by Marv Wolfman and drawn by George Perez.

While a lot of people decry mainstream superhero comics as being about nothing but 'tights and fights', Wolfman's scripts focused a lot on the characters themselves, dealing with themes of acceptance, bigotry, belonging, and family, similar to what Chris Claremont was doing at Marvel with his all new, all different X-Men.  Sure the fights were always there, but the real compulsion was coming back to see how Wonder Girl handled her desire to find her birth parents, or if Cyborg could be reconciled with his father.

Most interesting of all was Robin, learning how to become a team leader instead of always following "Batman and...", gradually gaining confidence in himself and in his experience, and defining what differentiate. from his mentor.  To find such depth in a character introduced four decades earlier to 'lighten up' the Batman comics with his gaudy costume and brutal puns was a real treat.

Over the Christmas break, I had the opportunity to watch a few episodes of Young Justice, an animated adventure series set in the DC Universe.  Robin is a member of the team, but at 13, is one of the youngest members, despite having the most experience.  He's joined by Kid Flash, Aqualad, Miss Martian, and eventually Superboy and Artemis, and set up to be the 'covert' arm of the Justice League.

Like the Teen Titans comics I grew up with, the portrayal of Robin is pretty well done, especially for a half-hour cartoon.  His skillset has been upgraded to include a high degree of tech and hacking skills, and his personality vacillates between a consummate professional and an adolescent boy.  In place of the terrible puns of the 40s and 50s, YJ's Robin has an appreciation for other wordplay, like wondering why people are usually overwhelmed, rarely underwhelmed, but never just whelmed, or this exchange with Green Arrow's (alleged) niece, Artemis:
Artemis: What do we do now? Robin: We save them. That's how it works.Artemis: Maybe that's how it's supposed to work, but those robots already took out our four super-powered friends.Robin: You seem distraught.Artemis: M'gann is dying. We have no powers and I'm down to my last arrow. Of course I'm distraught!Robin: Well, get traught or get dead.Artemis: How can you be so calm?Robin: Practice. I've been doing this since I was 9.
The other characters are fairly well-rounded too, with Miss Martian's insecurities about fitting in with both her new team and an Earth school, and Superboy's hot temper distancing him from his ersatz father figure, who simply does not know what to do about him.  Of course, with all teenaged characters, it would be unrealistic if there weren't some pairing up, so "Shippers" will find that itch scratched as well.

Young Justice is the first animated DC program in twenty years not to be cast by Andrea Romano, but the talent is still there.  I'm not familiar with those portraying the team themselves, but there are a lot of familiar voices in the Justice League, like Bruce Greenwood (Batman), Phil Lamarr (Aquaman), Alan Tudyk (Green Arrow), and even Rob Lowe in one episode as Captain Marvel.

The animation is top-notch, drawing more from the world of Japanimation than the simpler lines of Bruce Timm's Batman/ Superman/Justice League work, which I am also a huge fan of.  There is definitely an emphasis on action, like all superhero cartoons, but the sequences never feel rote, and the relative inexperience of the team makes the battles feel engaging and challenging.

It's nice to find a broadcast show that the whole family can enjoy (even if Audrey refers to it as "that Little League show"), and if you have any sort of hankering for colourful, comics-inspired adventure, Young Justice is certainly worth checking out.

Monday, January 2, 2012

Model Behaviour

I love Christmas and almost everything associated with it, like the break from work, the Winter Solstice, egg nog in the dairy section, and so on.  Having said that though, it has become a season requiring disciplined scheduling to insure all hosting and visiting obligations are met, as well as church services, school concerts and the like.  After a year I would characterize as both rewarding and punishing, I feel like we could have perhaps used a smidgen more unstructured down time.  We had a little yesterday, as a couple of us are fighting colds or chest infections of some fashion or another, which made it totally acceptable to lay about downstairs watching episodes of Young Justice on the new television, and then play Nightmare Before Christmas Monopoly after supper.  Another day or two like this would be good for my soul.

It's not as though I don't enjoy hosting, far from it!  And it's not as though our guests weren't both loved and delightful company.  In fact, having my sister-in-law and her children over provided a great opportunity for me to do something cool with my nephew Mark.

Last Christmas, we gave Mark his first plastic model kit, a Revell 1/72 scale Sopwith Camel.  Mark has been building intricate Lego and MegaBloks kits for many years, with a heavy emphasis on aircraft and warships, and peaking with a 1400 piece USS Nimitz. 

I was probably a little younger than Mark when I started building plastic models, but one thing we both had in common was that our dads had no experience with them or any real inclination towards them.  It's a bit ironic actually, as Mark's dad is pretty handy mechanically, and my dad worked on or around aircraft during ten years in the RCAF and RCN, but there you go.  At any rate, since there was no one around to coach Mark, I told him to bring his Sopwith along when he visited us last spring, and I showed him how to put it together, and he did a very decent job for his first time out, certainly better than mine.

He brought it along last week, hoping we would have a chance to put some paint on it, and sure enough, we did.  My regular painting area was inaccessible so we deployed some newspaper on the kitchen table and brought up my paint station, brushes and paints.  He had brought along the ubiquitous orange Testors carousel, but when I told that I hadn't painted with those in about three decades, and am actually a little intimidated by them, he was willing to use my Citadel Colours and brushes.

It's been more than 4 years since I gave a painting lesson, something I used to do almost daily when I worked at Games Workshop, but it all came back quickly enough: caring for brushes, trying to keep paint off the ferrule, getting the paint to the right consistency, loading the brush properly, et cetera.  Mark has a lot of patience and was not at all timid about getting stuck in, and after I put the beginning strokes on the wings, he became fully engrossed.

He spent a couple of hours working at it in the afternoon, while i stayed at the table and alternated between surfing on my iPad, answering questions, consulting on colour choices and reclaiming paints from pots that had begun to dry out.  We took a break when Audrey's parents arrived for a visit and to take us out to Tony Roma's for supper, and After we returned, I showed him how to apply the waterside decals that came with the kit.  Perhaps an hour after that, he held it up and said, "Uncle Steve, I think I'm done."

If my first airplane model looked half as tidy as this, I would have been extremely proud, and I told Mark so.  While we didn't have time to get into any advanced techniques like shading or highlighting (although he did throw a little ink wash onto the pilot and drybrushed the engine), his painting was very neat, with few visible brushstrokes and no drips at all that I could see.  He had also done a very nice job with the decals, which add an awful lot to the visual appeal of the kit.
I hope Mark is encouraged enough by this first kit to do a few models on his own now.  Model building was a hobby I enjoyed a fair bit when I was younger, and led directly to wargaming and miniatures later in my life, and which I obviously have no intention of giving up any time soon.  Even if he doesn't go much further with it, building and painting a model with him was a wonderful way to spend some time with a great nephew.