Wednesday, May 30, 2012

Lies My Teacher Told Me

Lies My Teacher Told Me by James Loewen is a book that's got a lot of attention in the last few years.  Honestly, I should have titled this post "Lies James Loewen Told Me" instead.  Needless to say, I was less than impressed with the book.  In fact, I gave up on it at around 1/3 of the way through in disgust.

Loewen's main contention is that the history that we are taught as part of our standard education is little more than propoganda and indoctrination, and is in fact grossly misrepresentative.  He also contends that it's incredibly boring, which contributes to numerous cited studies that show students hate history.  Me personally (and I suspect many in the gamer community in general)--I find history fascinating and always have.  While there's a lot of history out there, and therefore it is unreasonable to expect anyone to be familiar with the particulars of every aspect of history out there, I found Loewen's critiques of history as presented rather facile.  More damningly, he's guilty of exactly the same practice that he condemns; of replacing one propogandist mythology with another, and of spreading lies and deceits just as outrageous as those he condemns.

But let me back up a bit.  I don't disagree with some of his basic principles.  History as taught in junior high and high school in America is boring, and it is full of a number of holes.  Some of those are deliberate and undramatic--Loewen seems unable to grasp the notion that a history of the American nation should focus on the founders of the American nation and not other peoples who were nearby or ancillary to that focus--and curricula should be revised accordingly.  Textbooks do have a number of errors, many of them perpetuated (probably) in an attempt to avoid painting an unflattering image of iconic American heroes.  But if truth is the gold standard all historians should approve of seeking, Loewen's book is no better than the textbooks he so smugly and contemptibly condemns.

Not to attempt an ad hominem attack on Loewen himself, but a little context is nice.  Loewen is not a historian.  He's a sociologist who specializes in minority studies.  This becomes quite evident as his rather obvious agenda in publishing this book mirrors this background.  He co-authored a textbook in the late 70s that focused on American history as a racial interests as its main focus.  When it was not approved by the Mississippi State Education Board as a textbook for use in their public schools, he sued (and won, sadly).  The bizarre interpretation of the American Library Association is that this is a landmark First Amendment case which guarantees our "right to read freely."  Exactly how they got to this conclusion is a bit mysterious to me; nobody was stopping Loewen from publishing the book, or anyone from reading it.  The First Amendment guarantees your right to say something, but it doesn't guarantee that an audience will be provided for you.

Anyway, I read a number of the chapters, and the introduction.  To illustrate my point, I'm mostly going to pull from the chapter on Columbus.  However, I found similar problems in the other chapters; in fact, to some degree, they became more exacerbated as I continued rather than less.  First of all, Loewen takes on the notion that everyone believed the earth was flat before Columbus (which is patently false; nobody with any knowledge or authority believed that).  So far so good.  Loewen then takes extreme exception to the notion that Columbus "discovered" America.  Why do history textbooks not talk about the west African discoveries of America, or the Phnoenician discoveries of America?  He then goes into full-on rant mode for several pages about the Eurocentrism, inherent racism, "insensitivity" and oppression of the American education system, which is "unwilling" to accept the concept of a black discovery--instead of a white discovery--of America.

What Loewen doesn't tell you, rather artlessly, is that there is absolutely no credible evidence whatsoever to believe that either the Mali or Phoenician discoveries of America actually happened.  They are fringe theories based on wild speculation that no mainstream scholar takes seriously.  They are arguably more palatable than the idea of looking for Atlantis, or believing that the lost colony of Roanake was lost when its inhabitants were taken into spaceships by aliens--but not by much.  James Loewen would have us replace a largely true, albeit white-washed, version of history with one that's completely fabricated, and he complains that our institutional textbooks lie to us?  To what purpose?  Obviously--especially when placed in the context of his professional background--to spin us a completely different propoganda mythology based on the value of diversity, recognizing the accomplishments of "people of color" (even if they're completely made up).

To get a bit more into the details of his Columbus revisionism, he also dismisses the notion that Columbus believed to his death that he had discovered some new more easterly Indies (rather than really discovering the New World as we know it) or that he died in poverty, unappreciated for his accomplishments.  Actually, the former is true; Columbus did not recognize exactly what he had discovered, or the scope of what he had found, and died believing that he had discovered some portion of "the Indies."  And, late in his life, Columbus was arrested, dragged in chains back from Hispaniola to Spain, stripped of his privileges, and his descendants had to sue the Crown of Castile and Leon for restitution of what had been contractually promised to Columbus--which were never really restored.  Again; the "institutional" account is missing a lot of details and is significantly white-washed (the reason Columbus was arrested--or at least the justification for it--was his tyranny as governer of the islands and the shocking barbarity to which he subjected the Arawaks and other indians)... but it's actually more or less correct.  Loewen's revisionist history, on the other hand, is a complete lie, designed to deflate any white historical figure and replace them with mythical "diversity" heroes.

I could go on, but I'm going to let that one example stand in for the remainder of the book--or at least as much of it as I read.  The next two chapters, which I did read, had plenty more of that--what Loewen complained about as "false" actually wasn't, although it was missing in significant details, many of which, granted, are less than flattering to the characters that they portray.  Loewen conveniently leaves out any unsavory details about native life, however (where is his discussion on cannibalism?) or anything else related to "minority" groups; who's "exclusion" he calls dangerous, insensitive, deceptive, and Eurocentric.  And, as I mentioned, he somehow missed the whole point of American history--that it should focus on the history of the American nation, and those who built it.  So, while his greater point has some merit, once you get past that greater point (which you could get by reading the book jacket and otherwise not cracking it open at all) everything else about the book goes immediately to problematic.

Curiously, I'm not having an easy time finding any other criticism of the book; a Google search shows mostly glowing reviews by people who apparently don't know enough about history to know any better.  (Granted, I didn't do a very in depth attempt to seek out such criticism either.)  To me, that's the real danger of this book.  By presenting itself as a voice for truth crying in the wilderness, Loewen proceeds to create the impression that he's combating a dangerous re-education or propoganda attempt that's been foisted on us by implicit conspiracy.  In reality, he's doing nothing of the kind, he's trying to create a new mythology that isn't any more valid than the one it replaces (and in many cases, is arguably considerably less valid, especially his going on and on about the discovery of America by Africans) but which supports his attempted propoganda and his agenda and his world view.  It would be nice to believe that by publishing his book, he'll convince students to actually go and find out the truth for themselves rather than simply accept his version as better than that provided by their history textbooks, but honestly--I'm way too cynical to believe that that's likely to be true.  A little questioning of authority, a little independent research, and James Loewen's claims are revealed to be a mythology.  A "minority mythology" in which the villains are all white, and the heroes are now Squanto, the Caribs, the West Africans, Metacomet and others.

As an aside, I was also amused that in the introduction to the second edition, Loewen expresses amusement that he's been called a socialist by some readers.  Then, in the original introduction, we immediately read of his admiration of Helen Keller--not for overcoming her handicap of being deaf and blind, but as a social radical who praised the Soviet revolution (and the Nazis!), supported the overthrow of the capitalist system, and who has a legacy of opposition to the language rights of the deaf in America today, since she opposed the American Sign language vitriolically.  Not only does Loewen not actually provide all of this detail, he seems to express surprise and even some resentment that some in America might find that distasteful.  No wonder one comes to the conclusion that you have socialist sympathies, Loewen!  I thought your hope was to teach your readers to think?

Thursday, May 24, 2012

"Short" list of hikes to take

Because my gaming attention has mostly been focused on the ongoing Star Wars game that I'm in, I haven't thought of any new input on the DARK•HERITAGE setting yet.  Honestly, I'm not even quite sure where I'm interested in developing.  I think I need to go back and look at some of the Simashki and western Baal Hamazi stuff I was working on when I thought I was going to have an online game, and post it as blog posts.

But in the meantime, since the season is upon us, here's my "short list" of desired places to hike.  You may think to yourself that this list isn't really very short.  You'd be right.  But there are a number of places I'd love to see which are not yet on this list.  And some of these I already know for sure I will be able to do this summer.  Starting hopefully next summer, I can start ticking off much larger chunks of the list at a time.

You may also notice (most likely not) that many of the places listed are places where I've already been.  Either I didn't see everything I wanted to last time, or I want to bring more of the family to experience it with me, or I just liked it so much I want to do it again.  I don't think I'm going to find I'm the kind of person who hikes a place once and never cares to see it again, always looking to move on to the next thing.

Places in italics are places I hope to actually visit within the next calendar year (give or take a few months.)  Some of them are already planned.  I've also purposefully left off places that are unsuitable for day hikes.  If I need to pack a tent and spend a few nights on the trail to get there, they're not on the short list.  If I added a number of wilderness areas that I really want to hike but which will take several days to due justice, I can easily add 50% more to this list, and that's still my "short list."  My western trip italics list is surely way too ambitious; I won't be able to do more than half (if that) of the suggested sites.

Glacier National Park
Grand Tetons National Park
Yellowstone National Park
Big Bend National Park
Guadalupe Mountains National Park
Black Canyon of the Gunnison National Park
Mount Ranier National Park
Arches National Park
Fisher Towers
Timpanogos Wilderness Area
Colorado National Monument
Goblin Valley State Park
Little Wild Horse Canyon
Scott's Bluff National Monument
Badlands National Park
Devil's Tower National Monument
Yosemite National Park
Muir Woods National Monument
Kings Canyon/Sequoia National Parks
Provo Canyon/Bridal Veil Falls
Great Smoky Mountains National Park
Hocking Hills State Park
Tahquamenon Falls State Park
Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore
Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore

Wednesday, May 23, 2012

Catching up...

Because I've been guilty of dereliction of duty to this blog the last few weeks, here's an update on a number of things as penance.

1. It looks like I've been reading Abraham Lincoln: Vampire Hunter for weeks now.  Actually, I've been done with it for the better part of two weeks.  It's a difficult book, in many ways.  The format is not as easy or "fun" to follow as a novel.  Trying to fit a secret history fiction within well-documented historical reality is often difficult, and requires a lot of sacrifices to pacing, tension, and other things that novel writers (and readers!) take for granted.

Perhaps my biggest disappointment with the book, though, was where the author doesn't bother following through with well-documented historical reality.  For instance, why does Abraham Lincoln have this contemptible relationship with his father, who's rewritten to be a shiftless layabout?  Because I had recently read Ben Shapiro's Primetime Propoganda, it was easy for me to see a typical liberal writer/artist position in which fathers represent authority, authority is automatically bad of any stripe, therefore history must be rewritten to have Abraham Lincoln conform to the liberal ideal of a "hero."  Granted, if I hadn't just read Shapiro's book, I might not have made that connection.  But I was still seriously disheartened by the characterization of Lincoln himself as fairly distermperate, emotionally damaged, frequently depressed to the point of being suicidal, frequently petty in his relationships with others, and other character flaws.  Also, he's rewritten as a life-long crusader against slavery--when it's well documented that Lincoln would have been willing to preserve the institution if it could save the Union, which was really his first priority. Not that flaws are a bad thing, but completely invented flaws in a historical figure... much harder to swallow.

Although the core conceit is, of course, that Abraham Lincoln himself was the vampire hunter, in fact it the book would have been better if it had focused on a different protagonist; someone fictional in whom discrepancies of character from that which is well-known and well-documented would have been much less jarring.

I had greatly anticipated the movie.  Since I found the book itself to be relatively mediocre--and the book's author is also a co-writer of the movie's screenplay--I find my expectations significantly lowered.  It might still be fun.  Heck; this is a concept that lends itself better to the film medium than it does to the rather odd book that we got anyway.

I ended up buying the book; I'll be donating it to the library here in the near future.

2. I've also been reading this Harry Connelly Twenty Palaces series, which a friend has lent me, considering that the book sounded "right up my alley."  In truth, I am quite enjoying it, but I'm somewhat disheartened to learn that the series has been cancelled after three books (I'm about halfway through the second one right now) and left in a significantly unfinished state in many ways.  The author has been very open about why it may have been cancelled.  It's not support from his label (Del Rey) which he lauds as admirable, and above and beyond his highest expectations.  You can read all about it here.  One thing that I think he misses, and which I think might be a huge dealbreaker, is that his books are being publcshed by a fantasy publisher and sold as if they were urban fantasy.  In reality, in tone and presentation, they bear a much greater resemblance to supernatural horror.  Sure, the line between the two can often be a bit blurry anyway, but I think its also true that readers expecting one and getting the other are going to be a bit off-put.  The differences are mostly on the structural level of the novels, and on the tone that the novels exhibit.

I also think that the protagonist takes a lot longer than he needs to to warm up to the readers.  And his "chemistry" with Annalise is nonexistant and frustrating for a long time.  And frankly, what kind of name is Ray Lilly anyway?  Did he think of that name while working on his flower beds?  I think we have a bunch of raylilies at our house.  Nice annual flowers.  In fact, in general, I'd say that getting the books moving and feeling engaged with them was difficult for me, both the first time around, and even the second time around.  This is another feature of a lot of horror novels; they're by nature slow-starters.  That's fine for horror fans; fantasy fans often find it difficult to get engaged.

3. My online game of DARK•HERITAGE didn't work out.  I felt like I was trying to drag all of the players along, who were either distracted, busy, or just not really as interested as they were saying that they were.  In fact, it never even started, before I kinda walked away and said, "forget it."  Apathy is the death of online games, where the pacing is going to be slow anyway.  If I can't even get chargen done without pulling teeth, then the game is doomed before it starts.  My "real life" game, on the other hand, has recently restarted after a several month hiatus.  We picked up a Star Wars campaign which takes place a few years after Jedi and ignores most of the C-canon stuff from the Expanded Universe.  In fact, my own take on running a Star Wars game would be very similar; except that I'd put it even further afield in time--a few hundred years after Jedi, and time for all the signature characters to have died and some of their actions passed into legendry, their legacy having been interpreted and misinterpreted for generations now.  I'm not in the market to run a Star Wars game anytime soon (especially since someone else in the group is just doing it) but I've also been thinking of doing a back-burner bit of development for an alternate history superhero type setting sometime.

4. And finally, I added a new blog to the blogroll--4cornershikes especially about Arches National park.  Sadly, I'm not a fan of the organization of that blog; there's actually over half a dozen different blogs featuring different areas nearby.  So, Canyonlands hikes are on a different blog than neighboring Arches hikes.  I don't want to add all of them to my blogroll and swamp it with hiking blogs, so I just added one.  I probably won't get to do all the hiking I want to this summer, but I do have some scheduled trips to the Smoky Mountains and Hocking Hills, as well as somewhere in northern Michigan--I'm thinking Tahquamenon Falls State Park and neighboring Pictured Rocks National Lakeshore.  We might also manage a hike to the Sleeping Bear Dunes national lakeshore.  None of those options are exactly what I want--for one thing, they're all east of the Mississippi and I'm an avowed lover of the American west and its more dramatic scenery.  But, on the other hand, they're more doable this year than what I'd really prefer to do, and heck; they're all going to be new to me anyway.

Although hiking has been one of my great desires (and little blogged about activities) the truth is, I'm underequipped currently, a little out of shape, and way too busy to really take the big hiking trips that I want to take.  I'm probably a year or too away from having the freedom I want to do a lot more trips out west and seeing the mountains and the deserts, the national parks and wilderness areas that I'd really love to.  And frankly, what I'd like to do and what it's realistic for me to ever do (at least between now and retirement) is probably going to be at odds forever.

Tuesday, May 22, 2012

Ultimate no more

As the school year starts to get long in the tooth, it doesn't actually "wind down"--it explodes into a wild disarray of chaos, and a million things that all need to be done.  Work continues to be much more busy and stressful than I'd like, and I find that even if I can make time to post DARK•HERITAGE campaign updates--which I usually can't--that I don't have enough mental energy left when I have that time to actually do so.  I'm feeling a bit battered down by too many things all happening at once.  So, in that vein, rather than talk about DARK•HERITAGE again, I'm going to do one more superhero related post.  I doubt I'll do more than this (although I may yet change my mind) before wandering off the topic for several months again.

Twelve or so years ago was when the Ultimate line of comics debuted.  For much of that time, I was a big fan of the Ultimate idea (although I was a little late to the party--I haven't been following it for more than probably about nine years or so.)  Remaking the comics?  Retelling the early stories, but updated and redrawn, and better written, and with new things that the editors and writers wouldn't think outside the box enough to do in the mainline continuity?  Brilliant idea.  And a number of really brilliant storylines and characterizations came out of the endeavor--as well as a number of misses too, of course.  But mostly, I've been very pleased with the Ultimate Universe.

Until it started doing some weird things.  First off, its publication seemed very geared towards the issue of trade paperbacks.  Almost everything ended up morphing into a miniseries that was... not coincidentally... about 5-6 issues long, so it could be bundled up and resold almost immediately after the run of the comics.  In fact, heck--I hardly read any of the Ultimate Universe as comics; it was just too freaking convenient to do it as trade paperbacks instead.  In fact, they became so geared towards this that regular monthly comics started to decline, and a proliferation of "limited series" which were soon published as graphic novels became the normal mode for publishing anything in the Ultimate Marvel line--with the exception of Spiderman; the only relatively unbroken line of comics in the entire Ultimate universe.

Perhaps because of this (or perhaps it's unrelated) the writers of the Ultimate universe started to feel that they could stray ever further from the continuity of the mainstream comic books.  While this was indeed one of the attractions of the notion of the Ultimate Universe--at the same time, it becomes difficult to relate to the books if they change too much.  This was especially problematic during Ultimatum, a major brawl of superhero and villain teams in which a significant number of major, signature even, characters are all killed--Wolverine, Cyclops, Nightcrawler, Magneto, Doctor Doom, Angel, Beast, Blob, Emma Frost, Juggernaut, Professor X, Thor, etc.

Granted, a lot of characters die in the mainstream Marvel Universe too--but never so many at one time, making the teams that they belong to completely unrecognizable.

Struggling to figure out what the Ultimates, the X-men, the Fantastic Four, etc. would do in this new superhero Apocalypse, only the Spiderman title seemed to thrive.  So naturally, writer Brian Michael Bendis decided that iconic Spiderman Peter Parker needed to die... so a half-black half-hispanic kid could put on the spidey-jammies and swing around New York.  Despite all kinds of claims that this wasn't just a PC PR stunt, everything about the comments everyone made about it made it sound like exactly that.  My already considerably ebbed interest in the Ultimate Universe, mostly only sustained by the ongoing Spiderman books, completely fell through the floor.  I honestly realy have no interest in seeing what they do now.  The Ultimate experiment, grand though it may have been, is now dead to me. 

Miles Morales--the new Spiderman--might be a great character.  I don't know.  Frankly, I no longer care.  Seeing anyone other than Peter Parker in the role is just weird (Ben Reilly and Miguel O'Hara notwithstanding) and the Ultimate Peter Parker was my favorite comic book character in years.  Without him, this isn't Spiderman--it's something else that vaguely resembles Spiderman.  It's an ersatz Spiderman just like Squadron Supreme is an ersatz Justice League, or Moon Knight is an ersatz Batman.

Wednesday, May 16, 2012

Mario Batali is an idiot

Chef Mario Batali, of the ABC food-show The Chew wants to raise awareness of the "plight" of Americans on food stamps by living for a week on a food-stamp equivalent budget.  He calls this his food stamp "challenge."  This comes to about $1.48 per meal per person.  His conclusion?  It's tough, and it's subsistence, and it's "not thriving."  Clearly America needs to spend more money on food stamps.

Unfortunately for Batali, he only really raised awareness of the fact that he's an idiot, and completely out of touch.  I don't normally post political or social commentary on this blog (that's what Facebook is for!) but this one really just made me laugh for it's audacious ignorance.

My wife is the CFO of our house, and she does the grocery shopping.  Her weekly budget for food is $100.  I have four kids.  That means that if we stick to that budget, we spend about 79¢ per person per meal.  Let's say that we aren't always strict about the budget though (which, let's face it, is true) and that we overspend by 50%.  That still brings us to $1.19 per person per meal.

How exactly is this a "challenge?"  I'm not rich, but I'm reasonably financially comfortable, and I don't feel like my lifestyle is anything like "subsistence."  Granted, I don't live in New York either.  Cost of living calculators suggest that I should increase my food budget by about 20%.  That turns my 79¢ into 95¢ and my $1.19 to $1.43--still below the food stamp limit.

Thanks, chef Mario Batali, for raising awareness.  Of what a completely out-of-touch nincompoop you are.

Monday, May 14, 2012

Who Do You Trust?

Until now, I haven't really been watching the TV show Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes live.  I actually watched all of the first season on Netflix, until I got my own copies of the DVDs (for the inevitable day when the Netflix stream isn't available anymore) and I had thought that the second season was wrapping up--given that it was supposed to start in October.

After getting excited about the show again in the wake of the excellent Avengers movie (see recent posts for more details) I decided to look up what was going on in the world of the animated show.  And to my surprise, it had been delayed; I'd actually only missed a few episodes, and could get back on track fairly quickly.  I've now seen all of the episodes so far except one--"Alone Against AIM" which I'm hoping to watch here soon; probably as soon as I get time to get it from Amazon or the iTunes store or something.  What I'd like to do, if possible, since I'm still excited about it again and probably will remain so throughout this viewing season, is review each new episode briefly here on the blog as it airs, either on Sunday evening or more likely Monday morning. 

So, it probably seems a little odd to start on episode 33--the 7th episode of the second season.  But that's where I am, so let's go.

"Who Do You Trust?" is an interesting episode because it is just a piece of a larger story--on it's own, it's arguably not very stand alone.  For some time now, stuff going on in the series has been hinting at the invasion of earth by two separate galactic superpowers--the Kree and the Skrulls.  On the Kree front, two episodes have directly been attributable to that storyline--"459" from season 1, where a Kree sentry is defeated, Captain Mar-Vell is introduced, and Carol Danvers gets her superpowers which lead to her becoming Ms. Marvel in "Welcome to the Kree Empire."  In this one, Mar-Vell returns with a Kree fleet, including Ronan the Accuser.  The Kree claim that the Earth is part of the Kree Empire already, and that the humans can either submit or die.  The Avengers show up on the scene to take exception to Ronan's arrogance, but for some reason they're a bit on the light side; we get Iron Man, Hulk, Hawkeye and Captain America only.  But wait!  We already know that Captain America has been replaced by a shape-changing skrull!  As such, he actually initiates the hostilities this time around.  Ms. Marvel shows up and is instrumental in defeating Ronan--who's imprisoned on Damocles base, Kang the Conquerer's former starship which has been appropriated by S.W.O.R.D.  Captain Ameriskrull then radios in that the skrulls need to speed up their time table since the Kree are involved.

If that sounds a bit like the famous storyline called "The Kree-Skrull War" so far, from the comic book run in the early 70s, then 1) you're a bona fide comic book nerd, and 2) you'd be right; it's been confirmed by Yost and Fine that this run is partially based on that storyline.  But hold on!  That's not all; if you look at the skrull side of the hints and previews coming up--culiminating (so far) this this episode yesterday, then you'll also notice a strong resemblance to the much more recent "Secret Invasion" storyline.  Not only do we know that Captain America has been replaced by a skrull, we also learned in "The Private War of Doctor Doom" that Victor suspected something hinky was going on.  When he kidnapped Sue Storm and Janet (the Wasp) and then let them go mysteriously, the heroes weren't sure what was going on, but we got to see via an epilogue scene that Doom was testing for skrullness--and that Sue is one too.  And, of course, there's also the epilogue scene where Mockingbird and Nick Fury see that Madam Hydra was a skrull.

So, in "Who Do You Trust?" was get to see some interesting character dynamics.  Ms. Marvel is "hazed" somewhat by the other Avengers, who leave her on her own to bring down supervillain Griffin--along with cat-calling advice.  While this is happening, Nick Fury, now sporting the shaved head and goattee of the Samuel L. Jackson version of the character, takes Tony Stark and shows him the body of Madam Hydra.  He also tells him that they managed to crack just enough of the skrulls communicator to track transmissions form the S.H.I.E.L.D. helicarrier and Avenger's mansion--meaning that both organizations are infiltrated.  (We see earlier Fury going to Maria Hill and telling her about it too.)

When Iron Man goes straight to the mansion and confronts the team--especially Hawkeye, who is the prime suspect due to the fact that Madam Hydra wanted to spare him--they argue.  Ms. Marvel wants to take Hawkeye to S.W.O.R.D. until it's cleared up.  Hulk shows that he and Hawkeye are better than average buddies within the team; he stands up for Hawkeye.  In the end, after arguing, the team effectively disbands; Iron Man claiming that he can't trust any of them.  Ms. Marvel goes back to S.W.O.R.D. and Black Panther goes back to Wakanda to prepare his country for the coming invasion.  Captain America offers to lead the remaining Avengers--Hawkeye, Wasp and Hulk--and they agree.

In the epilogue scene, Captain Ameriskrull tells his queen that all is going according to plan.  The queen steps forward, and... it's Mockingbird!  So all of this is--apparently--at the skrull's design.

For those who've read the original "Secret Invasion" you'll notice some obvious parallels, although the lack of Spiderwoman is disappointing (her run in the New Avengers up to "Secret Invasion" turned her almost overnight from a benchwarmer to a star starter.)

As I said, this episode as a stand-alone is a bit weak, but in terms of ramping up the building tension for the greater Kree-Skrull storyline, it's excellent.  It also does some interesting character moments, and is the first episode to really make Ms. Marvel feel like a genuine part of the team.  It's nice to see Nick Fury re-appear as well, although he's arguably not as on top of things as he thinks he is.

There's not a lot known about what's coming still for the series.  The next episode is called "The Ballad of Beta Ray Bill", and looks to feature Surtur as its main villain.  Probably also the return of Thor to the team proper, after spending all of this season so far on Asgard.  After that, we've only got tantalizing hints in previews and artwork stuff.  Vision to show up sometime.  Possibly the Scarlet Witch and Quicksilver.  The Red Hulk.  The Enchantress as a flunky of Surtur.  And, of course, continued shenanigans from the Kree and the Skrulls.  There's also an image featuring a number of characters including what appears to be Winter Soldier.  Since the cosmic cube episode hinted that maybe Bucky is alive somewhere out there after all, that seems a reasonable supposition as well.

Tuesday, May 08, 2012

An open letter to Marvel Animation

Still jazzed about the excellent Avengers movie which I saw this weekend with the family (twice!), both me and the younger boys delved into the Marvel Animation collection that I've gathered over the last few years (or which I can stream on Netflix) to get a continued fix of superheroes.  In this regard, I have to strongly compliment the team at Marvel Animation. 

I grew up watching superhero cartoons.  In fact, my love of superheroes (and my love of Marvel superheroes in particular) was founded less on reading comic books as a kid and more on watching animated shows--both new and syndicated--which were fairly prevalent in the 70s and 80s dedicated to Marvel characters, including Spiderman, the Hulk, the Fantastic Four, and most of the characters associated with the Avengers (Iron Man, Thor, etc.)  Sadly, neither my kids nor I have any interest in revisiting those; back in those days, since the paradigm was to present animation that was specifically geared towards kids (or what studios thought kids would want to watch and what their parents would allow them to watch), those shows feel incredibly dated, dull, and banal in the extreme.  So my great congratulations on producing a number of shows in recent years that manage to treat kids like they're intelligent and can handle more sophisticated plot, characters, and action/choreography.  Kids don't like to be treated like they're kids, and the recent crop of Marvel shows definitely gets that.  Anyone in the post Star Wars world who doesn't understand this has been willfully obtuse for years, yet it seems that the animation industry in America has largely been exactly that for most of that time.  And as a father and fan of superheroes myself, I'm glad to say that the shows are good enough that I happily watch them for myself, and would do so even if I didn't have kids.

In particular, I'm referring to The Spectacular Spiderman, Wolverine and the X-Men and Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes.  Sadly, of the three, only one of them is still running (the other two casualties, I presume, of business decisions made in the wake of the acquisition of Marvel by Disney) but at least the final is an excellent, excellent piece of entertainment.  That said, since it's the only one of the trinity to remain current, I naturally have a wish-list of things I'd love to see.  Sure, I'm just some random guy out there who watches these shows (usually with my two younger boys) but heck; if I don't make any effort to speak, I can hardly complain that I wasn't heard, can I?

1) In the past, Marvel entertainment offerings have often felt fairly "chimney" like, and although some recent efforts over the last few years have helped to better integrate the entire "superhero community" within the Marvel Universe and weakened the chimney walls, it's still a significant problem.  Especially since the X-men show didn't get it's second season after all, it's especially galling to see that the mutant community and the rest of the superhero community seem to operate in different spheres altogether most of the time.  It would be great to see the X-men feature in the Avengers cartoon somewhat.  In fact, if I can offer a suggestion of a storyline to adapt, the Ultimate War seems like a great place to start.  Following devastation after an attack by Magneto, which the X-men thwart, SHIELD believes it needs to bring the X-men in for questioning and/or containment.  While the Avengers might initially be reluctant, they can be convinced to do so, initiating a fun fight in which the various team members manage to fight each other to a nice standstill.

2) Speaking of the involvement of mutant book elements, if we're going to have the Kree and the Skrulls play a major role in Season 2, why is it that the Shi'ar are always relegated to the mutant storylines?  I'd love to see the Avengers take on the Shi'ar too.  In the cosmic scheme of things, they're as big a deal as the Kree or Skrulls, right?  The shunting of Shi'ar concerns to mutants every time seems to strain credulity after a while.  Plus, I'd love to see the Starjammers or the Imperial Guard take on the Avengers!

3) And in terms of cosmic elements: GALACTUS!  Although he's often considered a Fantastic Four villain, one of the most iconic Galactus stories is from 1979 or 1980 or so when the FF teamed up with the Avengers to take on Terrax and Galactus.  Plus, we've already established that the Avengers and the FF "hang out" from time to time, and it's always seemed to me that the FF and Avengers are fairly neatly integrated--so much so that it's not unusual to kind of forget that some of the most iconic antagonists in all of Marveldom (Galactus, Doctor Doom, the skrulls, the Kree, Namor, etc.) weren't always associated with the Avengers anyway.

4) Some other interesting crossover potential could get more characters on the screen (while still focusing the story and development on more important/familiar ones).  I'm thinking here: Squadron Supreme!  The Supreme Power storyline, where Reed Richards was captured and taken back to the "Supremeverse" for trial, SHIELD, the Avengers, and the rest of the FF go to rescue him, and have a smackdown drag-out fight with the Squadron--only to discover that Doctor Doom was ultimately behind the whole thing--would be a great two or even three part story arc.  Don't use the older Squadron visuals; they look a little corny now.

5) And of course one of the ultimate possibilities for crossover using a relatively recent storyline would be Ultimatum.  I mean, don't kill off characters like that story did (what was Jeph Loeb thinking, anyway?  Did the Ultimate Universe really need to commit hara-kiri?) but otherwise the premise of that is colossal, and would be fascinating to see on the screen.

6) This may be too complicated to pull off in this kind of show (in fact, I'm sure that it is, but this is a wish-list, right?) but it would be really fun to see different away teams amongst Avengers--a New Avengers, a Secret Avengers, etc. Plus, the idea of putting your best foot forward with the Avengers--putting the most popular characters in the Marvel U on the team, including Spider-man and Wolverine, who aren't traditionally associated with them--brilliant.  And Jessica Drew is fantastic.  Way to turn a bench-warmer into a real star there.

7) What are the chances you could build off momentum generated by the Avengers movie to create a SHIELD animated show?  Considering that GI Joe and Cobra were initially repurposed ideas that Larry Hama had for SHIELD and HYDRA, it seems like you've got a great model on how a show like that could look; a modernized GI Joe (with different characters) and without the cheesiness and public service announcements.  Featuring Samuel Jackson look-alike version of Nick Fury, Maria Hill, Black Widow and Hawkeye (maybe get him out of the classic purple togs and into a movie-like or Ultimates like outfit), throw in Jessica Drew, and you've got a potential hit, I think.  Use the same animation style as Avengers and heck; it'll be like what SHIELD does when they're not showing up in episodes of the Avengers.  Given his relatively modest power-set, maybe Captain America could be a semi-regular guest star.  By the way, loving the Ultimates looking outfit on Cap in season 2.  I hope when the real Cap comes back and replaces that filthy skrull imposter he keeps the modernized uniform.  Either that or gets a bare-headed Captain Steve Rogers style uniform.  Actually, yeah... use that one.

8) And finally--does the show always have to adapt existing comic book stories?  It'd be really fun to see something really unique or original that really goes somewhere a bit unexpected and surprising.  Bringing in a character that's completely unexpected, or a storyline that is really different (what about--Nightcrawler and Bettsy Braddock as Avengers, for example?  Hah?)  That was one of the biggest potential promises of the Ultimate universe--and for a number of years, a big part of its attraction.  Too bad the magazine side of the business went and blew it all up so the potential isn't there anymore.  It's nice to tell some different stories, but if you kill off most of the main characters, then  you might as well have just had a completely different continuity altogether anyway.  But some of the more subtle things were brilliant.  How awesome was teenaged Kitty Pryde and Peter Parker together, for example?  Or Aunt May's house as a little mini Avenger's Mansion in Queens?  As you can see from my suggestions of story-lines to adapt, the promise of the Ultimate line--lost though it may yet be--was a huge attraction, and I can see it glimmering still in the various animated series--if you're willing to step a little outside of the box.

Once again, I mostly want to congratulate Chris Yost and Joshua Fine for the fine (no pun intended) job on a number of spectacular animated shows lately.  My family and I have been very grateful for their presence.  My kids would almost certainly have become Marvel characters fans anyway--thanks to the movies--but the animated shows are really instrumental in making real life-time fans out of them, just as they were for me back in the 70s and early 80s.



Monday, May 07, 2012

Avengers assemble!

In a development that's surprising to nobody, Marvel's The Avengers movie, which opened this last weekend, was a staggering success.  In fact, it blew past three-day records (previously held by the last Harry Potter movie) rather comfortably.  If there is anything surprising about the success of the movie, it's that it's been so successful; better than Disney's best estimates predicted (keep in mind that Disney now owns Marvel--and handled the marketing for this movie.)

I did my part towards contributing to that success, buying no fewer than nine tickets over the weeked; my wife and I saw the movie on Friday, I sent my oldest son with a bunch of his teenaged friends on Friday separately, and we brought the entire family to partake on Saturday afternoon.  In addition, I was excited enough afterwards that I looked up everything Avengers related I could find on Netflix; apparently the Ultimate Avengers animated movies are now available to stream.  Also, the Avengers: Earth's Mightiest Heroes season 1 is out there, but that's been true for a while,  I went to look up season 2 thinking it had maybe just finished, but I discovered belatedly that it was delayed and actually just started broadcasting a few weeks ago.  I promptly set my DVR to record everything that comes from this point on, but I'll probably have to buy the first five episodes on Amazon or something unless a rerun plays again already.  (My thoughts of watching some Star Wars this weekend to celebrate Star Wars day ended up being quite fleeting.)

I mentioned in my last post that I've long been a fan of the Avengers team, and many of the individual characters within it as well, for that matter.  That said, I certainly felt some trepidation going into the movie.  Joss Whedon was attached to it, and while he's kind of an icon to a bunch of pretty hard-core geek culture guys, I'm not a fan.  There's a reason why (until now, anyway) he's never really had a genuine commercial hit, most of his shows flop, and he's struggled for years to build the career he wanted.  I think he's a terrible writer of dialogue and characters--supposedly his strong suit.  He loves to use very strange, forced and bizarre metaphors and pop-culture references, and all of his characters end up speaking in more or less the same voice.

However, luckily for us, only a bit of that was on display in The Avengers.  Sure, there was a handful of patented stupid Whedon lines (Bruce Banner's simile of Loki's brain as like a bag of cats being the most prominent, but Fury's reference to mind-controlled Hawkeye as Loki's own personal flying monkey being another) but luckily, whenever one was dumped on the audience, the dialogue quickly moved on and it ended up being the set-up for an actually clever line rather than just a stinking stain on the movie.  The movie is quite a bit funnier than any of the lead-up Marvel movies.  In fact, my oldest son actually complains that it's too funny when he expected more seriousness.  Then again, it's not the first time that he's come across as yet another complainy teenager who takes everything too seriously.

A few comments: if Hawkeye and Black Widow are supposed to be non-super-powered, then apparently Captain America is too, given that they're at least as capable as he is.  And if being a really good martial artist with James Bond ninja skills is good enough to get 50% of the roster spots on the list of "Earth's mightiest heroes" then that is a worrying thought.  Of course, the other 50% is Iron Man, Thor and Hulk, so maybe they make up for them somewhat.  This isn't a problem so much with the movie, though--The Avengers as a comic book, as an animated series, as animated movies and now as a live-action movie all had the exact same conundrum built in.

The Hulk, who's always been just a bit disappointing so far in his own movies, finally well and truly holds his own.  Frankly, he kinda steals the show.  He seems to be nearly everyone's favorite character this time around.  Luckily for us, Ruffalo (the third actor in as many movies to play the part) has apparently signed a six-movie deal with Marvel, so we'll probably see quite a bit more of him before all is said and done.  Hopefully work on Hulk 2 is already underway.

Speaking of sequels, Marvel movies have been famous for having fan-service teasers at the end of the credits for upcoming movies.  There were actually two post credit sequences this time around; one after a modest list of the main actors, and one at the very end after all the credits rolled.  Don't forget to stay for the whole thing.  My wife thought the first teaser trailer was kinda confusing, but thought the last-last scene was one of the funniest in the whole movie.  Granted, by the time we got to the last-last scene, it was after 2:00 AM and she might have been a bit slap-happy.  The teaser, if you haven't heard already, features Thanos turning around and smirking at the camera after the chitauri alien leader says that to attack Earth is to court Death.  My three boys were all sufficiently clued in to Marvelness to recognize Thanos right away--probably from my old Capcom video games--but my wife and daughter didn't get the reference at all.

Speaking of girls who are not sufficiently clued in to superheroes, my daughter misheard the name of Hawkeye as Hotguy the entire movie.  It wasn't until afterwards when we were getting some Mexican food for lunch (it was Cinco de Mayo after all) when she was commenting that he had one of the dumbest superhero names she'd ever heard that we figured it out.  We all laughed.

Another bit of Marvel trivia; the chitauri is a name concocted by Mark Millar--they're supposed to be the Ultimate Marvel version of the skrulls--so since the chitauri were in this movie, that means that we've had the live-action debut (as far as I know) of the skrulls.  Of course, they were a bit underwhelming; mostly being a bunch of foot-solders for Avengers to beat up, but they still looked pretty cool, and they did at least have the patented skrull chin wrinkles thing going on.

In fact, the entire movie felt more like an adaptation of The Ultimates than it did The Avengers in a way.  Not that it isn't the same thing (kinda) and not that the Marvel Cinematic Universe doesn't have a similar look and feel to the Ultimate Universe in most respects, but that was still somewhat surprising.

Finally, Loki also came into his own.  He's not my favorite Marvel villain by any means (I honestly greatly prefer Doctor Doom and Galactus, and am significantly diheartened by the lame treatment both of them were subjected to in the Fantastic Four movies.)  Tom Hiddleston plays him sufficiently ham-like and yet endearing to make him one of my favorite screen villains in quite some time.

Friday, May 04, 2012

Geeky conundrum

I was reviewing our plans for the evening with my wife a bit.  It looks like we may be really busy, so I may not have the freedom to choose with impunity here, but if I did... what a conundrum.

Today is May 4th.  Because of the sound of May 4th, it's long been considered Star Wars Day (May the Fourth be with you!)  Coincidentally, I've been hankering to rewatch my Clone Wars DVDs a bit.  Sounds good, right?  Pop those bad boys in and indulge some Star Wars on Star Wars Day.

Except that it's also opening day for The Avengers, and pretty much all of the super hero movies of the last few years from Marvel have been leading up to this movie for a long time.  When it comes to superheroes, I've always been a Marvel guy, and as it turns out, The Avengers was one of my favorite series for a while.  Oh, sure, I had a long, indulgent fling with the X-books; who didn't during the late 80s and 90s, anyway?  But the Avengers were always the "classic" superheroes to me.  Also; all kinds of cool stuff has been done with the Avengers in the meantime; I don't just mean the buildup of the mainstream blockbuster movies (although those are indeed very cool) but there's a pretty decent animated Avengers show on Cartoon Network these days, and the New Avengers comic book itself is pretty spiffy.  I don't really read too many comic books anymore, but since Marvel is putting them out in trade paperback compilations shortly after they finish running as regular comic books, my public library has been picking all kinds of stuff up--ironically, I now casually read more comic books than I did when I was actually collecting them when I was younger.  Although I'm always at least 6 months to a year behind "current" events.

So, given that I have a busy evening; I'll have to choose.  I can't watch Avengers and then come home and marathon through some Clone Wars, I don't think.

Hmm... or can I?

Thursday, May 03, 2012

The Land of the Three Empires

Not long ago, I came across the idea of naming the more detailed, "core" areas of the DARK•HERITAGE setting the Land of the Three Empires.  In some ways this is a misnomer, but it others, it's spot on.  The map I've drawn of the setting obviously has the Mezzovian Sea as its most prominent feature, but I've decided not to call it anymore the Mezzovian region, because several areas on the map are not really placed so that proximity to the sea is in any way important to them.  So, the land of the Three Empires it is.

What are the Three Empires?

• Terrasa, is really more of a dynastic union held together loosely.  The Crown of Aragon, if you will, in many ways.  This makes it somewhat less of an Empire, but it still styles itself as one nonetheless.

• Qizmir, also, is actually a caliphate, a semi-democratically assigned leader who's as much spiritual as political leader.  But again, as it resembles more an more a dynasty (as the caliphates in the real world did in time), it is fair to call it an Empire too.

• Baal Hamazi, I've often said, is a fallen no-longer-existant empire.  But that's the perspective of outsiders, or perhaps an after the fact type of perspective.  To the inhabitants of the Baal Hamazi territory, it's not at all clear that their empire has "fallen" so much that it's undergoing a prolonged rough patch.  Just as the First and Second Intermediate periods (which separated the Old and Middle kindgoms, and the Middle and New Kingdoms respectively) didn't really constitute a significant or permanent break in the continuity of the society of Ancient Egypt, many hamazin are sure that one or another of the various powers in the region will eventually reunite the empire again--albeit possibly in a form very different from that which it bore in the past.

Despite the fact that none of these empires are really a true empire, they are the titular empires of the Three Empires lands.  Why not Kurushat or the states mentioned in the Forbidden Lands?  Or even Tarush Noptii?

Mostly because I just don't see them as "core" to the setting in the same way.  Sure, they're important.  I would love to eventually develop them more.  Heck, Kurushat was actually the first area developed and remains as well developed today as many of the core areas.  More well-developed still than Qizmir, frankly.  But they're not core.  I don't see them as continuing to grow in complexity, depth or importance to the setting, whereas the lands of Terrasa, Qizmir (or at least the western frontier regions of Qizmir, which make up the eastern edge of the Mezzovian Sea area) and Baal Hamazi is where I imagine most of the action to really take place in the setting.

So, misnomer or not, I like The Land of the Three Empires as an exonym to describe the region where my DARK•HERITAGE stuff mostly takes place.  In fact, in many ways, I like it better than the label DARK•HERITAGE, which is a legacy title that I feel is occasionally more and more irrelevent over time.

Tuesday, May 01, 2012

The Razormaids

In a setting that's famous for its skullduggery; a setting where every urban center is a wretched hive of scum and villainy, it should be unsurprising that there are a number of organizations throughout the setting dedicated to the craft of assassination.  Many of these are quite infamous, including the Union of the Snake, the Black Cluachla--the "special ops" division of the original Cherskii Mafia organization, and others.  One of the most colorful, however, is the Razormaids.  Always a female-only organization, the Razormaids were originally founded in Terrasa itself, by the Queen some three hundred years ago, Reina Teodora Napoleona Albergo as a kind of secret service in place of eunuch guards, which were otherwise the fashion at the time.  Brutally and efficiently trained, they became fanatically loyal.  Later in a dynastic change, it was demonstrated to their loyalty was to the heiress of the Queen, and not to the state.  The organization was forced underground.

Even today, the controlling matron of the Razormaids is a pretender to the crown, although any claim to any throne has long-ago passed on and they have no intention or desire to pursue it.  Instead of a bodyguard and special ops role, the organization has become a premier hired assassin guild, and while the Reina (the title that the leader of the guild still holds, out of tradition) rules in splendor--without the overt political power, but with wealth and influence that even the organization's founder may well not have enjoyed.  The current Reina of the Razormaids is Sobeyrana Viars d'Guizas.

Although assassins (and their various dependents over time) are extremely privileged and well-treated by the organization, the start of the career of an assassin is usually quite harrowing.  Many young girls have been kidnapped over the years; most recently, they have been bought as slaves in the markets of Sarabasca as youngsters--usually no more than 8 years old.  Their initial training regimen has harsh and long; not unlike that of the Spartan warriors from history in the real world in many regards.

One side effect of picking up so many girls in Sarabasca is that the ethnic and cultural trends within the organization have gradually taken on a patina of Qizmir influences.  The Reina, who reigns in Terrasa, is infamous not only as a master of assassins of high repute, but also as a matron of some of the most exotically beautiful girls in the city.  Not that their identities aren't strictly confidential, of course, but rumor and reputation often run wild in the absence of facts.