Friday, July 29, 2011

Ghost Story

It's been a while since I've done a good old-fashioned book review. I mean, there's been a good reason I quit doing them, but on occasion, I'll still read something that I really want to review. The latest Jim Butcher Dresden Files book (the 13th, not counting Side Jobs which is a novel-sized anthology of short stories and novellas) just came out earlier this week, though, and last night I just finished it.

Curiously, the book was supposed to have come out in April, but Butcher held back to polish it off. To, in his words, give us the book that we deserve, not the one we would have gotten if he'd kept to the original schedule. I can still see artifacts of this. This is a good book, but it's not really one of the strongest in the series (and coming after Changes, well, that makes it even more obvious, sadly.) It's a book that's big on high concept, and a bit weak on the other things that a novel needs. Y'know how sometimes in a long-running TV show where they'll "punt" and only film about half an episode, and then fill in the rest of the episode with flashbacks and footage from earlier in the show? It felt in some ways a little bit like that.

The high concept gets pride of place in this book. At the end of the last book, Dresden was shot by a sniper and fell off his boat into the waters of Lake Michigan, apparently dead. And the title of this book should be a big clue as to the high concept; Dresden is now a ghost, come back to Chicago after six months of being dead to wrap up some loose ends. It doesn't take too long before it appears something is hinky with his condition, and I'm sure it's no real spoiler of consequence to say that, in the words of Miracle Max, Dresden is only mostly dead. Curiously, Butcher didn't make that particular pop culture reference (although he otherwise did refer to The Princess Bride at least once. Maybe he's waiting for the next book. Or maybe he thought that this was too obvious even for him.)

This high concept naturally leads to a very different kind of book than the others. As a ghost, Harry can't use magic (at least not until he figures out how to do a few things.) He can't interact with people normally. He gets to see what six months of him being dead have done to people, and to the city and the supernatural world overall. And he's introduced to a whole bunch of all new ghostly type threats that he didn't know anything about as a living wizard, and had no real reason to anyway. A major villain from a past novel makes a substantial appearance here. A minor and mysterious yet significant character from the past makes a bit larger of an appearance here too.

I suppose the biggest problem I had with the book was the plot seemed to be disjointed and cobbled together out of disonant elements that Butcher had come up with but wasn't quite sure how to string together. Dresden was supposed to come back to solve his own murder, but in reality, that mostly got lost as the novel unrolled itself, to be finally touched on near the end in an almost deus ex machina fashion. The novel also spends some time in introspection. For the most part this isn't a bad thing, and some character development is always welcome, but in some cases, I felt like it was Butcher either stalling, or trying to prop up or bulk up a novel that just didn't quite have enough going on in it. We get treated to detailed flashbacks of things that happened prior to the novels opening. This is all well and good... except that it doesn't tell us anything that we didn't already know. Yeah, it's kind nice to "see" in more detail some of the Justin DuMorne business and the He Who Walks Behind business, but if it's not really going to add anything other than a special effects scene, it starts to feel a bit like padding rather than something that served any other narrative purpose.

And then Butcher, who always loves a good nerd-pop cultural reference or two, really went overboard this time. I like a few of them as much as anyone, but this time, it felt like not knowing what else to do on occasion, Butcher just threw in scenes or at least lines from every nerd movie, TV show, comic book or fantasy novel that he could. It really wasn't quite overboard until a major scene literally took place as a recreation of Star Trek.

And also curiously, the book ends rather abruptly without as much dénouement as I would have expected. Perhaps that's because it's meant to be set-up and teaser for the next book, in which we'll see more about what the new status quo is going to be like.

So, in all... it's not the worst book in the series (and even the worst book in the series is a far cry from a bad book) but it's not the best either. And coming off of a string of several particularly good ones--White Nights, Small Favor, Turn Coat and especially the mind-blowing Changes, the contrast of those with a merely "good but not great" entry into the series is a bit jarring, though.

Thursday, July 28, 2011


For those of you who followed this blog initially because you wanted to see setting related stuff: I'm sorry, I haven't posted anything like that in quite a while. During a conversation with my boss yesterday, I mentioned that with all the stuff I've had happen at work lately, I was feeling kinda beat down, and she concurred that she noticed that. This kind of mental exhaustion due to things going on completely outside of my setting design activities has left me with precious little energey left to spend on things like... well, setting design. Or novel writing. Both of which require more mental acuity than I'm left with after an exhausting day of work followed by an often exhausting evening at home until the kids go to bed. Which during the summer, quite frankly, isn't all that much earlier than I go to bed.

And I won't do any setting design today, either... or at least not in the this post. Better not box myself in just in case inspiration strikes later in the day, huh?

My library apparently did a rush job of processing Jim Butcher's Ghost Story, which was just released on Tuesday and was ready for me to pick up on Wednesday late morning (I had the first hold on it--although I think our library ordered three copies.) I actually didn't start it yesterday; in fact, I feel a little bit intimidated by it, because I know that once I start, it will probably grab me around the throat and not let go until I'm done. Most of the rest of the Dresden Files books have done so, anyway.

So... I can't talk about that until I finish it either. I said last time that I was done with superheroes for a while, and that's true. While I'm still getting some graphic novels and compilations from the library, I'm in some cases just skimming through them, and honestly not really "in the mood" anymore. Instead, I'll talk about the music I've been listening to.

Yeah, it's old music. Yeah, it's 80s music. A couple of years ago, curiously at about the same time, Duran Duran and Ultravox both released all new digital remasters of their "classic line-up" albums (which for both was in the first half of the 80s). For Ultravox, I bought all four double CD issues, which include the original UK track order, and then a second disk of remixes, b-sides, and live performances. I couldn't really care less about the live performances, but most of the rest of the stuff is pretty cool.

For Duran Duran, curiously, buying their three CD reissues doesn't give you everything from their classic years. The song "Is There Something I Should Know?" which was associated with the reissue of their first album in the US is actually available on the second disc of their third album (which chronologically is where it fits anyway), but "Wild Boys" and "View to a Kill" aren't available at all. So, for Duran Duran, I didn't rebuy the first three albums. I have old CDs of all three, which are the original UK line-ups and mixes of the songs, but really what you need for Duran Duran is the Greatest Hits CD or the multidisc The Singles: 81-85 collection. And Rio is one of the best albums ever made, so it needs to be picked up in its digital remaster 2-disc special edition version. Sadly, that kind of makes portions of the Greatest Hits CD obsolete. But collecting classic line-up Duran Duran just doesn't seem to be quite as "clean" as doing so for Ultravox.

I take that back; with the capability of buying individual songs as mp3 downloads from Amazon, you can do it that way, I suppose. Create your own CDs almost. That way you can add the crucial non-album hits as needed, and just make sure that they're in there.

Because they were released at about the same time originally, and digitally remastered at about the same time, and because I bought them at the same time, and because they were both New Romantic hitsters (in the UK, anyway) at about the same time, I've always kind of associated Duran Duran classic line-up and Ultravox classic line-up together. And there's a lot of good reasons for doing so. But they also had a number of significant differences.

First, Duran Duran managed to find the key to cracking into the American market and became big hit monsters over on our side of the Atlantic as well as in the UK and Germany. Ultravox never did, and although they had releases here, they were very obscure. When I first heard of Ultravox several years after the fact, well... it was when I first heard of them. During their heyday, they were strictly a European thing. Given that they had some pretty nifty music videos of their own, I'm not quite sure why that is, but it remains so anyway.

Ultravox also wasn't nearly so imagey as Duran Duran. During Duran Duran's peak, they were as much about style and being teen idols as anything else; which I think kind of irked and annoyed them, but there it was. Before the megahits started rolling out, I think Duran Duran figured they'd be a niche art-rocker type band, and they envisioned themselves being much more serious rather than gracing the covers of teen heart throb magazines. This, however, was exactly where Ultravox did remain. Maybe it's because the band members were a little older, maybe its because they weren't quite as "cute", maybe it's because they didn't dress nearly as flamboyently, or maybe it's because their music was just a bit darker and more serious in tone sometimes, but Ultravox remained what Duran Duran initially envisioned for themselves.

Tuesday, July 26, 2011

Superhero mania is ebbing

Now that the Captain America movie has come this weekend, I've seen it twice already (once with my wife, and once again with the boys) and I finished pretty much all of the graphic novels I had checked out, I find that my superhero mania is ebbing again. I still have a few graphic novels coming in via the library--interlibrary loan, or just stuff I've got on hold, and I'll probably read them as they come in. I also finished the Avengers season one on Netflix, and I'm not sure that I'm interested in watching any other superhero cartoons at the moment, even if I could find any that I haven't already seen.

Meanwhile, I got an Amazon giftcard from work for something I did there, and while I haven't actually finished using it, one of the first things I thought of to order was the latest paperback release of the latest Dresden Files book--in anticipation of the genuinely new book that's due still this week--and the last three omnibus collections of UDON's Street Fighter comic book. I've had the first three for a long time, and the last three have proven a bit elusive at comic book shops when I've looked. This also gets me up to date on the Dresden Files, at least for the time being, which is good. I stopped my re-read recently before starting Proven Guilty, which was always the most difficult one for me. I'm, in fact, half tempted to skip over it and just start reading White Nights and beyond. With any luck, I can finish the last five books or so that I have left on my re-read before the copy of Ghost Story which the library has acquired is completely through cataloging, but if so, I really need to drop everything else and get busy on that.

Eisenhorn, which was spoken of so highly, continues to elude me in terms of being a book that I am thrilled to be reading. Every so often I'll plod through another chapter or two, but at the rate I'm going, it's going to be quite a while before I finish it still. And after I finish Eisenhorn, the graphic novels I've still got to wrap up, and the Dresden Files books that I need to wrap up, I'm looking at a clean slate in terms of what to read. I have no idea what I'm going to have a look at next. Maybe I'll finally grab my copy of The Lies of Locke Lamora and read that? It's another one that was spoken of so highly, but which I've failed to find the motivation to start yet.

Thursday, July 21, 2011

Ultimate Spiderman

In my final (for the time being) Spider-man related post, I finished last night reading the last two (so far) collected Ultimate Spidermans. These two are called, respectively, The World According to Peter Parker and Chameleon. It's a little odd to me, knowing as we do now, that when these were written, the whole "Death of Spiderman" angle was probably already in the planning stages, and that in many ways, this leads up to it.

These are actually the collections of the post-Ultimatum comics, so the Ultimate U is a bit different. There's a 6-month gap where some unexplained stuff apparently happens, but mostly it's just an excuse for a bit of a relaunch. Here's the stuff that is atypical for what you expect from Spiderman comics:

1) Spiderman is recognized as a hero. During Ultimatum, J. Jonah has a change of heart and lauds Spiderman as a hero, and throughout these books, Spiderman gets friendly waves and kudos from the cops, girls ask him for his autograph and accidentally let slip that they think he's hot, etc.

2) The number of people who know that Peter Parker is Spiderman seems to be going through the roof. Aunt May knows. Gwen and MJ know. Other teenaged superheroes know. The principle of the school seems to figure it out, although he later retracts his suspicions and says that he doesn't care anyway. Heck, at the end of this arc, even JJJ figures it out!

3) Aunt May's house has become a halfway house for teenaged superheroes with no place to go. Although she's not a superhero herself, the cloned Gwen Stacy moves in first. Johnny Storm (the Human Torch) moves in. After not being able to crash at neighbor Kitty Pryde (Shadowcat)'s place, Bobby Drake (Iceman) moves in. Rick Jones, who's the Watcher's Chosen One, lives across the street or next door or something, and the three live-in superhero boys all go help him figure stuff out. Johnny Storm falls madly in love with Jessica Drew, who in this version is a clone of Peter Parker himself, which naturally kinda creeps Peter out a bit. Aunt May really thrives in this environment; instead of being the kinda insular and saddish elderly woman she was earlier in the series, she's now a vibrant, happy, nurturing mother figure to a whole gaggle of teenagers; good kids trying to do the right thing in a crazy world where they have super powers.

4) Although Peter's persecution complex is an important part of the mythos of Spiderman, writer Brian Michael Bendis did something rather clever when he subtley hinted at the fact that just because teenagers feel that way doesn't really make it true. Spiderman himself is going through a phase of public adulation. Parker's got lots of great friends who really admire and look up to him. Maybe it's because his book, but he's kinda the ringleader of a group of four superheroes and their three or so "normal" best friends who seem to spend almost every moment (when not fighting their respective villains, and even then sometimes) together. Heck, three hot chicks are constantly stumbling over each other in their attempts to throw themselves at Parker's feet. Yeah, he still has to deal with protecting his secret identity, finding excuses to run out of class and fight supervillains, and deal with a minimum wage job at a fast food joint in the mall food court. But all in all, Peter Parker actually has a great life. Just in time for the lead-in to... The Death of Spiderman of course. Coincidental? I doubt it.

The art by LaFuente is interesting. I prefer Bagley's work, which graced well over 100 issues of the series already, but LaFuente's kinda cartoonish approach actually works quite well for what is a quite light-hearted teen drama kind of thing. It reminds me vaguely of the Teen Titans cartoon from a few years ago, both in terms of tone and look--but of course, I like these characters better, and I think they're also better written. Quite frankly, the snappy, witty, and often hilarious dialogue and the all too believable teen drama is more interesting here than the battles with supervillains, in many cases--although since one of the supervillains in question is the Chameleon (here a brother/sister team) who kidnap Peter and take his place, robbing stuff as Spiderman, etc. until stopped by Spidey's superhero pals Human Torch and Iceman--that creates a bunch of drama too. Is this a good magazine to read? Of course, it depends on how much you like teenage soap opera with superheroes for characters, instead of action and science fiction yahoo, but personally I found it made the characters seem very real and very likeable, and I'm going to miss the Parker household subbing as a kind of suburban mini Avenger's mansion when it inevitably comes to an end.

Wednesday, July 20, 2011

RIP Ultimate Spider-man

Well, it's official. Peter Parker is dead. The Ultimate universe version of him, anyway, which was always my favorite. I've done a little bit of work looking around to see what the Internet speculation is as to his replacement. A few comments:

1) Curiously, there was a somewhat forced and contrived story in the "regular" Spiderman continuity that ditched his marriage to MJ via a time-traveling reality altering Faustian deal kinda thingy. Marvel said this is that Peter as a bachelor again opens up more possibilities for different kinds of stories. Specifically... the exact same kinds of stories, in many ways, that Ultimate Spiderman could already tell. So... they killed Ultimate Peter Parker. Hopefully that's because there's a plan behind Ultimate Spiderman that'll blow all the fans away, but what an odd thing. It's almost as if the Amazing Spiderman folks were jealous of the success of Ultimate Spiderman, and wanted to crash his party, meaning that Ultimate Spiderman had to find a new playground to run around in. Weird and paranoid? Possibly.

2) Lots of folks talk about Ben Reilly becoming an Ultimate version of the Scarlet Spider. Clearly, including Ben Reilly at all, in the role that they did, was more of an in-joke than anything else. Having him don the Spider-threads at this point would seem stupid beyond belief. I think that sounds very unlikely, yet it seems to be a popular speculation by fans. Probably because they can't think outside the box enough to think of anything other than a rehash of the 90's Clone Saga. Blegh.

3) The Peter Parker clone with the Scorpion tail graft up his spinal cord is another popular one, just because hey, he's the only male Peter Parker clone left. That doesn't make him a good candidate, though.

4) Ultimate Jessica Drew is another popular one, but I'm convinced that the new Spiderman will remain a Spiderman and not a Spiderwoman in drag. I do hope that she steps up and plays a more prominent role in the stories as they continue to evolve, though. I like Ultimate Jessica Drew a lot.

5) My own personal theory: somehow there's going to be an Ultimate Miguel O'Hara! He's a reasonably popular character and variant of the Spider-man archetype, and I think letting him have a run in the suit, with a suitably appropriate backstory, and a suitably different take on what it means to be Spiderman, would be fun. I think the thing Bendis needs to avoid is making this new Spiderman try to slip too much into Peter's role; he needs to be an all new Spiderman, with his own set of friends and whatnot.

6) And of course, the more cynical and jaded of us comic book fans don't really believe that Ultimate Peter Parker is dead for good anyway. Although to give the "Death of Spiderman" story sufficient gravitas he's gotta stay dead for a little while, at the same time, Spiderman who's someone other than Peter Parker just doesn't seem right in the long-term.

7) Maybe they're will be four replacement Spidermen; a cyborg Spiderman, an alien Spiderman, Spiderboy and a black guy in an armored Spider-suit... Nah.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Superhero mania

As we get to within a few days of the release of the last of four superhero movies for this current summer blockbuster season--and perhaps oddly, the one I've been anticipating the most--I'm going to continue talking briefly about superheroes and comic books. I still find it odd--the social neoteny that has made comic books into mainstream entertainment fare that isn't even targetted at kids at all anymore--but I'm definately one of the neotenous folks who refuses to grow up and quit caring about superheroes and comic books. Or dinosaurs, for that matter. Or Dungeons & Dragons.

I think my interest was re-sparked after watching Thor and even more especially after watching X-Men: First Class earlier this summer. And of course, I've been excited about the upcoming Captain America for quite a long time. I wasn't always a big fan of the character of Cap. In fact, in the past I found him tiring and boring. Perhaps it was Marc Millar's approach to Cap (and all the rest of the Avengers for that matter--in The Ultimates) that changed my mind, but for whatever reason, the character has been growing on me for years.

But most recently, I've read all kinds of comic book compilations, and Cap has only been a player in a few of them. I've long ago lost track of how many of these trade paperbacks I've read already, or how many I've got from the library or the store now waiting to be read, but it'll be over fifty that I've gone through in the last month or two. Some of them will have been relatively slim compilations of only 4-5 comics, like Daredevil Noir for example, while others of them will be massive hardcovers with about twenty issues worth of material in them, like War of Kings. When I'm done, I'll be pretty darn up to date with all kinds of things going on in the Marvel World--including the standard Marvel U, the Ultimate Universe, and even several alternate universes. And I will also have read I think almost all of the Noir compilations, which have been kinda fun. What can I say, I've long been a Marvel guy, and while I've occasionally dipped my toes in the Distinguished Competitor's pool, I've never found the water quite to my liking for reasons that I'm not even sure I can easily put into words. They just didn't click with me, for whatever reason.

When it started about ten or eleven years ago, I was a huge fan of the Ultimate Marvel line. If you're not in the loop, I don't want to explain the conceit behind the Ultimate Marvel Universe, so I'll just point you to the Wikipedia article on it. It's not very long. Ultimate Spiderman in particular was a big hit, selling in bigger numbers than the "regular" Spiderman in many cases, and making superstars out of the creative team behind it: Brian Michael Bendis as writer and Mark Bagley--who had the longest writer/artist team-up in Marvel's entire history; well over a hundred consecutive issues.

As much as I've loved the Ultimate Universe over the years, I have to say that getting caught up with it has left me with some reservations. Jeph Loeb write the controversial Ultimates 3 and Ultimatum stories, which essentially "blew up" the universe; killing off so many well-known characters (especially from the X-franchise) as to render future Ultimate X-books unrecognizable. Granted, the finality of comic book death is so flimsy that comic book death has even been coined as a phrase, but the magnitude of deaths here was just overwhelming and it doesn't seem likely that many of these characters will be making reappearances any time soon. And while I've come to trust Bendis' writing on Spiderman, I haven't loved every step he's taken, and the current storyline, complete with spoilers in the title, "The Death of Spider-man" is one that I'm intensely skeptical about.

I attached, for kicks and grins, a promotional artwork of the "new" Spiderman that will be part of August's Ultimate Rebirth line of comics. But unlike other reboot attempts, this one maintains continuity with the past Ultimate universe. That Spiderman there isn't Peter Parker... coz he's dead.

An attempt to do Ben Reilly all over again? Hope not. While I liked the concept of Ben Reilly well enough, I didn't--and apparently neither did many of the Spider-man fans--like the idea of him replacing Peter Parker. Having the Scarlet Spider feature as another character in his own mag, or as a member of some team, or something, would have been fine. In fact, a great way to develop the character. Honestly, I hope Ultimate does that with Jessica Drew. But I'm really skeptical about someone other than Peter actually being Spiderman in the Ultimate Comics line.

I'll probably check it out. I admit to being intensely curious, actually, about what they do. But I honestly hope that eventually what they do is find some way that isn't hoaky to bring Peter back, or reboot the series and do it again, or something.

Monday, July 18, 2011

Trip report #3

After arriving in Helena, we drove into Glacier itself, where we stayed at the lodge on MacDonald Lake for two days, and then stayed at the Glacier Park Lodge on the eastern side of the park a night as well. Although we didn't actually stay in the Many Glacier Lodge, we went there, and poked around the area there, which was actually one of my favorite and most scenic sections of park, as well as nearby St. Mary's.

Because of all the rain and snowfall, even in late June we weren't able to go all the way across the park, across Logan Pass, the Going to the Sun Road, and the Logan Pass visitor's center. The center portion of the road was buried in over eight feet of snow, although I never did hear definitively if it was snowpack, or avalanche fall that covered the road, or both. But regardless, we still had plenty to do for three days. Not enough--I'd love to go back and see more of the "American Swiss Alps"--but enough for me to really enjoy my time there. We did several hikes, including the Trail of the Cedars, the Avalanche Gorge, some other falls, and a few others. We couldn't go to Avalanche Lake because the trail had been washed out by spring floods, and we couldn't do two other waterfalls because trails were closed due to "bear danger." We later asked a ranger what that meant exactly, and he said that a deer carcass had been found on the trail. Because they don't move them, there was about a 100% change (his estimate, not mine) that the carcass would be scavanged by bears, or mountain lions, or some other dangerous animal that hikers probably don't want to have a face-to-face run-in with, so we weren't able to do them.

We also spent some time horseback riding in neighboring Kootenai National Forest, and rafted on a river that is the border between the national park and the Flathead National Forest. The river rafting was interesting. Because the water levels were so high, many of the rapids were effectively "smoothed out" meaning that much of the ride was actually really tame. My mom probably appreciated that, because she was pretty traumatized by the concept of going in the first place.

The scenery in Glacier is absolutely magnificent. I've spent some time in spectacular mountain ranges before; in Rocky Mountain National Park, in the High Uintahs National Recreation Area, up around Mt. Ranier and neighboring peaks in Canada. I'll no doubt do so again, because I love mountains. But Glacier was probably my favorite to date. Absolutely brilliant scenery. I wish the climate had cooperated with us just a bit more, though. While all the rain and snow made for a very lush, green experience, it also meant we couldn't see everything I would have liked. I'll definately have to come back, and I want to make sure I do it before I'm too old to enjoy it. My parents are already kind of on that verge; they don't really enjoy the hikes as much, and after they do them, they're beat.

Thursday, July 14, 2011

Movies I've just seen

I used to have a rule that for every post, I'd try to have an image to "spruce it up" a bit. Because Blogger has been messing up the white space when I add images, you may possibly have noticed that I've mostly stopped doing that. Trying to get the text to format correctly around them isn't worth it anymore. Anyway...

I just watched Indonesian martial arts movie Merantau last night. I've actually had this on my saved queue at Netflix for months, maybe even over a year. And on a whim I looked at the detail of it, and although you can't get it via DVD, it's available to stream. So, without further ado, I added it to my queue and watched it after the kids went to bed.

I'll get to the plot in a moment, since plot isn't really all that important, robust, or explored in these kinds of movies. This movie had basically two modes: exploration of mood and, well, martial arts stereotypes. It reminded me in many ways of Ong Bak. However, unlike that movie, it doesn't really have any interesting stunts except the fights. Ong Bak gave us the strange tree-climbing opening scene, a great chase scene through the streets, and the wonderfully choreographed tuk-tuk chase, in addition, of course, to great martial arts. It also gave us some comic relief in the form of Humlae and Muek, the two comic scam artists who the main character falls in with. Merantau offers none of these advantages, but at the same time, there's a lot of wonderfully evocative images and music that set perhaps a more intriguing mood for some of its more quiet times.

The threat that our hero faces is perhaps more serious than that in Ong Bak, but then again, the crimelord stuck in a wheelchair, speaking through an electrolarynx and smoking cigarettes through the hole in his neck is really quite classic and brilliant. And his scheme of running off with the Buddha's statue's head and selling it to art collectors overseas isn't perhaps as compelling as the villains in Merantau, who are kidnapping, raping, killing, and selling Indonesian girls overseas.

The villains are played by Mads Koudal and Laurent Buson, a Danish and French actor respectively, who speak in English (as opposed to most of the rest of the film, which is subtitled.) In a curious reversal of yellow peril, I've noticed in many of these Asian martial arts films, but extremely pronounced in this one, white people are portrayed as nothing more than ruthless predators who's only role is to exploit the local population. And the solution, in both Ong Bak and Merantau, is a hero with a strong, traditional, rural upbringing, who comes to the big city (Bangkok and Jakarta respectively, from the two movies), reluctantly gets involved, and then basically kicks everybody's butt. The poor local girl, seduced by the pleasures of urban life, needs to be rescued but at the end finds herself enjoying the virtuous country living in the village where the main hero comes from.

Despite finding it a bit annoying to be on the receiving end of a reverse yellow peril propoganda film, and that nobody seems to think that there's anything wrong with that (although admitedly, that could be because the film is pretty obscure) let's face it; the reason we watch these movies is for the martial arts. Here, they went out of their way to showcase a new style of local martial arts tradition, silat, which was fun to watch because I haven't seen much of it in other martial arts movies. It's pretty fast, it's pretty brutal, and it's pretty impressive in many of the same ways that the new Thai movies are these days... here, see for yourself, here's the trailer.

However, the movie doesn't really stand out. In fact, it felt like it was trying to ride the coat-tails of the Thai movie industry by being, essentially, the exact same kind of movie that they're putting out.

Granted, that isn't necessarily a bad thing. I thought Ong Bak was a really fun movie that left my jaw on the floor more than once at some of the wild and crazy stunts, had a vastly entertaining sidekick and villain, and heck, Tony Jaa wasn't too terrible as a leading man, as long as they didn't spend too much time trying to get him to act. But after seeing half a dozen or more Thai stunt/martial arts movies now, as well as a long tradition of Hong Kong movies before that, Merantau doesn't feel particularly innovative or special. It's a good movie for watching some martial arts, and it's got a few other well-done features, but at the end of the day, it's essentially forgettable.

Other than Merantau, I've also been watching a lot of newer superhero animation. Most of these shows are meant for kids, and they appear on networks like Cartoon Network or Disney XD. And heck, my younger two boys in particular love them (aged 7 and 9.) I've also been impressed, however, with the sophistication of the shows compared to what I used to watch when I was their age. When I was about that same age, I was also watching a lot of superhero cartoons--but these were largely syndicated re-runs of the old 1960's animated shows, or slightly more modern early 80s animation. And frankly, these are quite stupid. Even my kids think that they're crude and lame, which indicates that the drive for more sophistication has percolated down to them as well. I suspect that this is in part because of folks who get older, but who refuse to "grow up" (like me) and keep in touch with what's going on in the world of superheroes entertainment. Not only are the movies big, hugely successful blockbusters, but the animation is actually pretty good, with clever writing and good stories. And although aimed at children's audiences, it's clearly also got a secondary target of grown-up superhero fans, and it attempts to be smart enough and good enough to keep them entertained and satisfied as well.

I've watched some of these before, including the Spectacular Spiderman animated show, which was sadly cancelled before it should have been after two seasons, Wolverine and the X-men, another show which was pretty successful but which somehow couldn't get its stuff together to get funding for a second season. I've also watched most of the direct to DVD Marvel animation, including some Avengers stuff that was loosely based on the Ultimates comic book title, some Hulk stuff (vs. Thor, vs. Wolverine, and Planet Hulk), an Iron Man, and even a Dr. Strange cartoon... and probably a few others that I can't remember off-hand. These were, in fact, rated PG-13 in many cases, and were more explicitly targeted at older and more sophisticated audiences.

Most recently, I've actually been watching Young Justice, which is kinda sorta a Teen Titans for the 2010s, and Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes which is, well, it's the Avengers. It retells in abbreviated and animated form some of the classic stories of the storied superhero group. I've been enjoying both well enough to continue watching, and it has made me curious and thoughtful about the entire notion of adults watching cartoons. I know a lot of people who read this blog are probably already familiar with that notion, since anime-watchers are also common amongst science fiction fans and gamers and whatnot--although I am not one myself. What's more curious to me is that the market is clearly adapting. Heck, it wasn't that long ago that comic books themselves were seen as fundamentally a kid's type of entertainment. And before that, so were many of the pulp magazines. Yet all of those same venues--animation, comic books, and pulp-type stories--are gaining in prestige and are clearly targeting older and more sophisticated audiences, while at the same time retaining a lot of the same traits that made them popular with children in the first place. I'm not sure exactly what's driving this strange social/entertainment neoteny, but it's curious nonetheless.

Monday, July 11, 2011

Continuing superheroes

Well, I said earlier that I'd picked up a metric boat-load of comic books in trade compilation format. (Metric boat load is an infrequently used yet quite handy unit of measure.) I finished the entire run of Annihilation, a Marvel Cosmic story featuring the relatively forgotten heroes Nova, Starlord, Quasar, and other characters like Annihilus, Drax the Destroyer, the Super-Skrull and Thanos. Interesting and universe changing miniseries. Heck; the skrulls are really on the ropes following this series.

I also read the first collected book from the New Avengers--the one that broke all the rules and put non-team player Spiderman and difficult team-player Wolverine on the Avengers--moves that probably really had some fans in conniptions. I quite liked it. Can't wait for volume 2 to show up from ILL, actually. And, I read New X-Men volume 1 too. Don't know why both the X-men and the Avengers are new but they are. New X-Men, under writer Grant Morrison, did some really interesting and new things. Great stories.

Sadly, comics are as much a visual medium as as a literary one, and sadly much of the artwork for X-men is terrible. Near the end of the third volume, I'll be enjoying Marc Silvestri's return to the mag (I got to know the X-men during his original run; to me, he's the iconic X-men artist, and one of the best comic book artists in the biz. He's actually gotten a lot better in the last twenty years or so. Not that that's surprising, or anything.)

And finally, I read Wolverine Noir. Wolverine doesn't have any superpowers in this version of the story. He's just a guy with some martial arts training, some funky weapons that look like claws, and a tendency to go into a kind of black-out rage where he guts people who are causing him extreme distress. But it was an interesting take on the whole Wolverine: Origins story, told as the perfect noir tale, including having Logan be a detective, and having a dangerous dame (Mariko, in fact) walk in his door causing trouble. Brilliant take on the noir genre and applying it to a well-known character was an interesting thing to do. But it felt more like Sin City than like the X-men. On purpose, no doubt.

Thursday, July 07, 2011

Trip Log #2

I've long been a huge fan of the desert; particularly the American southwestern deserts. There are actually a lot of different American southwestern deserts; the Mojave, the Sonoran, the Chihuahuan, the Great Basin, etc., all defined by different types of plants the flourish there, mostly. Which in turn are defined by how high, how hot, and exactly how dry the deserts really are. So anyway, on the second part of our trip, we stopped in Moab, Utah. Curiously, I also just discovered that the new John Carter movie, which isn't due out for about nine more months, but which finished shooting already, did a number of location shots right here nearby, in Grant, Wayne, and Kane counties, as well as all around Lake Powell. One of the defining and most interesting and most fondly remembered episodes of my teenage years was a "survivalist" hike I took with my church youth group for a week out in Glen Canyon National Recreation Area on the shores of Lake Powell.

Moab is the "gateway to the canyonlands", it says, and that's not a bad call. Both Canyonlands National Park and Arches National Park are right there. In fact, you can't continue driving up northwards towards Provo and Salt Lake from Moab without passing literally within a couple of hundred yards of the Arches visitor center. Because my brother had previously reported that Arches was kind of a small park where you could see much of what there was to see in a few hours, mostly all off a main road, we decided to do that. We got there very early in the morning; before the visitor center or even the gate was open, so we just drove in. While this was really nice in terms of having some cooler temperatures for much of our exploration of the park, it meant that we struggled to take good pictures for a few hours either because the shadows were too long and ubiquitous, or later because the sunlight was too harsh and bright.

While we drove all across the main road and saw the sites "from the road" we only got out three times; once for the Park Avenue hike, once for Balanced Rock, which isn't so much a hike as it is just walk around this big ole rock, and then we did the Delicate Arch hike, which was a three mile round trip, including several hundred feet of ascension, most of it over a short distance on a bare slickrock surface. It was hot and reasonably hard work for older and tireder sorts of folks like me, so you can imagine it was even moreso for my folks. Although it was a really cool hike, and we're all glad we did it, we kind of lost our appetite for doing any more that day. But what an incredible place Arches is. I wish we could have explored more, included the Devil's Garden and the Double Arch trail, but we not only ran out of time, but it was getting really hot and really crowded. I even started picking up a tinge of heat exhaustion, I think, an artifact of my continued out of shapeness compared to when I used to do this kind of stuff as a teenager.

Despite the smallness of the park, I still felt like I need to go back, because we didn't really explore it like I'd have liked to. Sounds perfect for a spring or fall trip, actually. Maybe I can go with the kids sometime on our Spring Break in April. Besides subbing in for the surface of Mars in the upcoming John Carter movie, several locations within Arches were also locations used in Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, including the cave that teenaged Boy Scout Indiana Jones comes running out of saying, "Everybody's lost but me." Curiously, it's not even actually a cave, it's just a hollow in the rock wall that's on its way towards becoming an arch someday. And also curiously, it's right beside the main entrance road into the park.

From Arches we continued on up north. We ended up spending the night in Centerville, UT, a city along the interstate north of Salt Lake; considered a suburb of the Ogden area, with my aunt and uncle, who've lived in that same house for over thirty years now. I've been to Utah many times. In fact, I was born there, but moved as an infant or toddler, and have only been back as a visitor since, but since many members of our extended family have always lived there, it was a popular location for summer vacations. And in the many, many years I've been to Utah, I've never, ever seen it so green as it was this trip. Green, rolling fields of grass dotted the hillsides and presented an almost bizarre contrast with the sagebrush growing beside it. Utah (and most of the American northwest, for that matter) has had tons of rain and snow. My uncle even told me that campsites up in the Wasatch front were still buried under 12 feet of snow in some cases. This was in stark contrast to our west Texas experience, but we saw evidence of it all through the rest of our trip--swollen rivers, lakes who's shoreline trees were underwater, closed roads due to flooding or avalanches, or just plain still buried under unusually dense mountain snowpack.

We also stopped in Idaho Falls for a little while to do some minor sightseeing, but our more interesting stop was in Bannack, MT. Bannack at one time was the territorial capital of Montana, but it withered gradually, and became a ghost town. It was later converted to a kind of state park, although it's still mostly abandoned; there is a ranger station, a couple of staff, and at any given time, maybe two or three families at most wandering over several acres of abandoned and rotting old cowboy buildings, including a hotel, a saloon, several houses, a school, a Masonic temple, corrals, a jail, and a few hundred yards past town, a gallows.

I actually found old Bannack to be an interesting stop. True; once you've seen a few rotting old empty cowboy houses, you've probably seen enough, but just wandering through the single street, or through the overgrown town, or walking out to the gallows and sitting there in solitude thinking of the men who hanged there in days gone by was an interesting experience.

Curiously, when I started heading back from the gallows, a grandpa and two or three 13 or so year old grand-daughters were walking out that way, and the girls were freaking out. There's a sign at the visitors center that warns to watch out for rattlesnakes, and they thought that the sound of crickets in the grass were rattlesnakes. After correcting them as gently as I could without laughing at them too much, I went on my way.

We made it all the way to Helena that night, driving through several national forests. Sadly, southern Montana has been hard hit by pine beetle infestations, and depressingly high amounts of trees are either dead or dying all around Helena, and both into and out of the area. As we got further north the next day, pine beetle damage was noticeably less severe.

Since I still haven't sorted out my own pictures of the trip yet, I found another one of an ancient abandoned car in Bannack. I actually got a picture of my dad sitting in the driver's seat--or, well, in the driver's seat area. I don't think the actual driver's seat survived. Imagine this same scene, except with all the yellow grass bright green.

Wednesday, July 06, 2011

Superheroes continue

Last night, I went to the public library with my kids and came back with I think... 17 different trade paperbacks of comic books? This includes the entire Grant Morrison run of The New X-Men, and while Grant Morrison seems to be certifiably crazy on a personal level, he's also (apparently; I'll let you know after I've read it) a brilliant superhero writer who's turned two sagging flagship lines, once for DC and once Marvel, back into superstar status when it came to sales and critical acclaim. I also picked up the entire Annihilation series, in three hefty books--the Cosmic Marvel event that preceded War of Kings, which I talked about a few weeks ago. I also picked up a bunch of Secret Invasion books (six of them, I believe, although the last two of the main series I still have on hold--I've got the first two of the main series, plus the tie-ins from New Avengers and Mighty Avengers) and finally, I picked up most of the rest of the Ultimates that I don't already have. Still waiting on the Ultimates 3: Who Killed the Scarlet Witch? but I've got the rest of it, meaning that I likely won't buy them after all.

This gigantic pile of trade paperbacks was actually somewhat of a challenge to carry, but I don't anticipate it will turn into too much of a challenge to read. I can blast through trade paperbacks relatively quickly since there's so much art on each page. I'll give mini-reviews; or at least impressions, of all the stuff I'm reading as I finish it. Meanwhile, the superhero movie that I've been most excited about this summer is still to come: Captain America. Hopefully it will live up to my admittedly fairly high expectations. Plus; what a great tagline in the trailer: Heroes are made in America. I love that. Too bad they couldn't time the release for July 4th weekend.

Tuesday, July 05, 2011

National parks and superheroes

I recently made a list of all of the 58 national parks in the United States, and determined that I've only been to 9 of them. And of those 9, two probably shouldn't count, as I didn't spend enough time there to really say that I explored them in any depth. I basically drove in, looked around at a sight or two, and then left. The nine that I've seen are Arches, Big Bend, Black Canyon of the Gunnison, Carlsbad Caverns, Glacier, Grand Canyon, Rocky Mountain, Theodore Roosevelt, and Yosemite.

I've also had "close encounters" with about nine or ten more; where I've driven right by the park and looked at a lot of scenery in the same area, but never actually entered the park itself.

Clearly, I've got a lot of work to do to see the rest of them. *sigh*

Meanwhile, my temporary infatuation with superheroes, an infatuation that may flare at times, but which never completely goes away, continues. I read some recentish Hulk stuff recently, including some stuff with the Red Hulk, World War Hulk, Planet Hulk, Fall of the Hulks, etc. I finished watching Wolverine and the X-men, a show that very sadly will only get the one season. I started watching X-Men: Evolution via streaming Netflix. And, of course, the new Captain America movie is due in less than three weeks. Saw a new trailer for it at Transformers 3 and I continue to be excited about that movie. So, when I've got free time, I sometimes stop and think about the Marvel Universe, my own personal favorite superhero stable, and by far the one I'm the most familiar with.

Although I don't keep up to date exactly, one thing that's an interesting development for comic book likers (as opposed to comic book lovers) is that shortly after a story arc is done in the magazines themselves, they're collected in a trade paperback, or other omnibus type collection, and released in regular bookstores to relative success. Also; public libraries have been picking up these collections as well. Between my own public library and interlibrary loan, I've found I can read an awful lot of slightly older, but still not that old comic book stories in a great format without spending any money whatsoever. Consequently, I'm reading more comic books now than I am when I was actually collecting several titles regularly. Oh, the irony.

Of course, I also find that my library collections come with inherent holes, and I have to either accept that I can't read those stories, or break down and buy them if I can get them cheap enough. But still, I'm finding that I'm more up to date about what's going on in comics than ever before, having read all kinds of stories--although I tend to lag at least a year or two behind "current events." But what with Wikipedia, I can even stay in the loop there with new developments.

One that I think is interesting is Marvel's recent re-branding, "The Heroic Age." After the better part of an entire decade being given over to very dark storylines and characters (Civil War, Dark Reign, Secret Invasion, Seige, etc.) Marvel wants to get back, at least somewhat, to the lighter, more swashbuckling superheroic feel of the Silver Age... presumably with the more sophisticated storytelling and art developments that have happened since. Not a bad idea.

Not sure exactly what I personally think of it, as I liked the dark stuff well enough (although I still have yet to read several of those storylines).

And the X-books are also having yet another alternative reality event, Age of X. Look, Days of Future Past is considered a classic and was quite interesting. Age of Apocalypse was also well done, well recieved, and quite an interesting idea. Other than that... the X-books are simply way too fond of alternate realities, time traveling paradoxes, time traveling characters in general, and other such weirdness. Not only that, I'm still not sure that I like the consequences of the House of M alternative reality, which had huge effects on the "regular" comic book reality. Those effects will probably all mostly be undone (well, except for things like the death of Unus, the Untouchable... nobody'll miss him) but it'll be years before it happens.

Trip Log #1

Busy holiday weekend, so I didn't get any updates done like I hoped, nor have I gathered all my pictures together. But, as the time since I got back starts to linger, I figgered I better get an update done quick before details of the trip start to escape.

Our first day was uneventful; my daughter and I had one-way flights out to Lubbock, in west Texas. The flights were on Southwest, which is an unusual airline in lots of ways, not least of which because their M.O. seems to be to make a series of milk runs or puddle jumps, if you will. My daughter and I were in no fewer than five airports, on four flights before we arrived, and it took all day.

The next two days were mostly made up of hanging out with family that we don't see often enough; my folks, and two of my brothers and their families. We did, however, make an attempt to go to the natural history museum on Texas Tech's site only to discover that they are closed on Mondays. As a plan B, we went to the National Ranching Heritage center, which was pretty fun. There are close to fifty buildings which were relocated, and in some cases restored, on site, from various ranches around Texas, New Mexico and even further afield in some cases. It also has a big steam engine, which is always one of my favorite things to see. I'll double check when I finish gathering all my pictures, but I think it was a big Baldwin 2-4-4-2 Mallet. Although I also believe 2-4-4-2's were rare in the US. Maybe it was a 2-4-4-0? I'll check later.

I love the Age of Steam. That's part of the reason my model railroading was one of the great hobbies that I never quite had, but why I'm still fascinated with the hobby nonetheless. It's also part of the reason why the steampunk aesthetic was one that I quite enjoyed, and why I went through a prolonged phase where steampunk sensibilities were very much a part of DARK•HERITAGE, and why I never completely let them all go, even as I pulled back from that aesthetic quite a bit.

The Ranching Heritage center also had all kinds of kinda neat Old West stuff. A lot of what they had was ranchers shacks, old ranch houses, cookhouses, corralls and stuff like that, and frankly, after seeing half a dozen ranch houses, I'd seen enough to last me for a while. I also liked the thirty or so odd unique life-sized bronze statues of longhorns running in a herd up front. Longhorns (the Texas variety, not the similarly named English breed of cow) are an unusual breed in many ways. Optimized for survival, they are tough survivors; their calves can stand up and run sooner than any other breed, they can survive on much more marginal pasture than most other breeds, and they're pretty self-sufficient. Sometimes too much so; ranchers sometimes struggle when pregnant cows go to give birth and "disappear" for a time because they go off into hiding. However, their beef is somewhat tough and stringy, compared to other beef cattle. In fact by the 1920s, Longhorns as a breed were nearly extinct, because nobody had any real reason to raise them compared to the Herefords or Anguses, and they were in fact revived as much for the nostalgia and links to Texas history than for any other reason. In the past, great herds of longhorns, a hybrid breed of US and Mexican descent, roamed wild, and in the days when land and cattle were there pretty much for the taking by any enterprising fella who could stand the risk and hardship, they were common. And in the wake of beef shortages after the Civil War, longhorns from west Texas rode the Goodnight-Loving trail up north where they filled the slaughterhouses in Chicago and were sent further east.

Another curious fact about Texas, and much of the American southwest in fact is that it has been undergoing historic drought and heat conditions lately. My folks said that they haven't had any measureable rain since October. Granted, Lubbock is a fairly xeric place at the best of times, but this is ridiculous. Fields were dying and red or tan in color, grass was sere and yellow, wildfires are a significant danger across much of the region lately (in fact, Fort Davis, which I visited on my last trip to Texas a couple of years ago, had fires that threatened the observatory, which I stopped at; and apparently you can't even get to Carlsbad Caverns National Park because of wildfires.) Not to get too far ahead of myself, but this is in stark contrast to the more northerly parts of the American west. Heck; we had to alter our route home though North Dakota, because we would have driven through Minot, which is underwater.

Anyway, after staying in west Texas for a few days, we loaded up the car and undertook the very first leg of our extended road trip, which got us to Moab, Utah. We spent a fair amount of time in Texas and New Mexico still, crossing the Llano Estacado, crossed through a small corner of Colorado up by Cortez, and then went in to Utah via a number of smaller, and little-trafficked roads. Curiously, we went right by the entrance to Mesa Verde National Park, but didn't have time to stop, sadly. Colorado was also quite green this time of year--at least this year--but as we crossed back into Utah, we got to the very typical Four Corners American southwest terrain; the kind of stuff that western movies like The Searchers were famous for using as locations.

We turned in early. We had earlier determined that Moab was "the gateway to the canyonlands", being the only significant town of any size that was near Canyonlands and Arches National Parks; Moab was essentially located between the two of them, actually, and they were already really close to each other. Canyonlands was a little too big to digest, but we thought we could spend a morning making a significant dent in sites to see in Arches before hitting the road again and being on our way further north.

Friday, July 01, 2011

Logging in briefly

As the title says, I'm merely logging in briefly to say that I'm back. I didn't actually say that I was going anywhere, but I just spent the better part of two weeks exploring much of the American west with my daughter and my parents. I flew out to west Texas where my folks live two weeks ago, then we drove up north, past Mesa Verde and Canyonlands National Parks, through Arches, which we explored a bit, and then on up to Glacier National Park, which was ostensibly our destination. After a few days of hiking, horseback riding, and white water rafting (which honestly wasn't all that white, because the rivers were all so high that the rapids were somewhat smoothed out--but more on that in another post) we left and drove some more, this time through Montana, North Dakota, Minnesota, Wisconsin and then home to southeast Michigan. On the way we stopped briefly at Theodore Roosevelt National Park, one that I hadn't thought to see until I inspected our route and realized that we could at least pop in and have a brief look.

Because school is out, my wife's work has wound down for the season (and she may not go back in the fall--still TBD) my schedule has somewhat freed up for a while. And the trip out west, the terrain of which I've always loved and which was somewhat responsible for inspiring DARK•HERITAGE in the first place, has gotten me somewhat jazzed about getting back into it again. Sadly, my woefully untimely attempt to run the game has run out of steam, since I went the better part of two months just barely able to eke out one session, where I punted and adapted a Dungeon Magazine dungeoncrawl just to have something to do. Both our return to Rise of the Runelords for one more module, and then the subsequent Star Wars game are both in the planning stages for a July 9th start. But, honestly what I'd rather get involved with is continuing to update this blog with setting details, and get back to work on my novel, which has languished untouched for months. Frankly, even when I had time to work on it, which wasn't frequently, I lacked energy. I felt mentally exhausted in the evenings this last several months, and doing something like writing just wasn't in the cards. Doing something more brainless, like streaming something from Netflix, or playing Street Fighter I could manage. But I have high hopes that things have changed in my life, and if nothing else I'm energized and excited about DARK•HERITAGE all over again.

Before that, though, I'll type up a trip report of sorts. It will be interesting to me, at least, even if to no one else, to put my experience into writing before all the details of it get jumbled and lost in my mind. The next two, three or possibly even four posts will be some details of what we did, complete with pictures. But first... I have to dive into the mountain of emails and voicemails and open orders that I need to deal with here at work. So... probably not much will happen today. Which is why I posted this brief update, in case anyone stumbles across this blog and wonders why it's been so quiet for so long.