Saturday, November 26, 2011

Roger Zelazny Book Review: Night Kings

I liked Night Kings a lot as a kid. I like it a lot less as an adult. Specifically, I like it a lot less as an adult in 2011.

Also, I hear the chords to Bob Segar's Night Moves every time I read the title, but that's just me.

It's not a bad story at all. The problem is that it first saw print in 1986, and Zelazny had no way of anticipating the proliferation of urban fantasy as a distinct genre that would rise up in the intervening twenty-five years. I began playing Dungeons & Dragons in the mid-80s. I owe my interest in fantasy and science fiction to role-playing as much as anything else. In 1991, White Wolf launched Vampire: The Masquerade, and followed it with a game where players played werewolves, and then one with magi, ghosts, fairies, demons, mummies, and so on, until it became a crowed place. They all took place in the same world eventually, and the atmosphere was very much a product of the grim & gritty, trenchcoat and katana 90's zeitgeist. (That's not intended as a dig, mind you. There are still elements about the whole deal that I appreciate non-ironically, and given the random stuff about which I write here, I'm hardly in a position to criticize anyone's tastes.) They, in turn, influenced the burgeoning genre, and this story is very understated compared to later works.

The nameless narrator is the proprietor of a specialty shop that sells silver bullets, wolfsbane and the like. He and his assistant Vic are doing a brisk business selling their wares when a hemoholic vampire named Leo arrives at the back door and informs nameless that his opposite number has chosen tonight to finish it.

So our hero closes up shop, and the evil counterpart's apprentice, Sabrina, a green-eyed woman with perfect teeth, arrives to take them to confrontation. (I had wondered if Sabrina and Vic were references to something that I had missed, but the Collected Stories, which I consider the definitive reference work in matters such as these, doesn't mention them as references to anything, so I expect that Zelazny just assigned the names without any particular meaning behind them.)

They banter and begin their duel within the cemetery, calling upon those who represent their side of the conflict. The adversary begins with "Asthtaroth, Beelzebub, Asmodeus, Belial, Leviathan...," and our hero answers with "Newton, Decartes, Faraday, Maxwell, Fermi...,"

It's probably that bit and those that follow that inspired me to write this post about the story, because it reminds me of a similar piece in one of my favorite books, A Wrinkle in Time, in which the characters are talking about humans who have opposed the darkness.

"Who have our fighters been?" Calvin asked.

"Oh, you must know them, dear," Mrs. Whatsit said.

Mrs. Who's spectacles shone out at them triumphantly, "A
nd the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not."

"Jesus!" Charles Wallace said. "Why of course, Jesus!"

"Of course!" Mrs. Whatsit said. "Go on, Charles, love. There were others. All your great artists. They've been lights for us to see by."

"Leonardo da Vinci?" Calvin suggested tentatively. "And Michelangelo?"

"And Shakespeare," Charles Wallace called out, "and Bach! And Pasteur and Madame Curie and Einstein!"

Now Calvin's voice rang with confidence. "And Schweitzer and Gandhi and Buddha and Beethoven and Rembrandt and St. Francis!"

What can I say? I like the sentiment of poets and scientists and humanitarians as the champions of humanity.

The fight goes on, the hero has the upper hand, but the cock crows and the adversary vanishes before the hero can dispatch him.

It's a trifle of a story, but I'm sentimental about it for the above reasons. It's not a bad story, but compared to the contemporary fantasy works that would come later, it's rather vanilla. I have no doubt that had the genre been more firmly entrenched, Zelazny would have put a kickass spin on the modern urban fantasy story. But it just didn't exist, and a genre has to be established before it can be deconstructed.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Prelude to Thanksgiving

We had a nice week leading up to Thanksgiving. I usually skip going to church with Jen and Lily, but I'll sometimes go along for special occasions.  This past week they were singing together as part of the family choir, so I went along to see it.

While we were walking along to the church, Lily told me "You're going to love church!" It's nice to see her enthusiastic about things. I'll often ask her questions to draw out her opinions of things, so I asked her what church was all about, and she answered, "It's where we go to learn how to be kind."

I joke about Jen's UU Church (though Jen has mentioned that it annoys here, so I try not to do it as much anymore) and I'm a pretty staunch atheist, but I am happy that my daughter is attending a church that leaves her with this impression.

They sang "I'm Going to Sit at the Welcome Table" Lily varies pretty widely. Sometimes she'll be the world's biggest ham and rattle off twenty jokes to her audience, and other times she'll hide behind me or Jen and tell us in sentence fragments that she wants us to do her talking. Luckily we got gregarious Lily for this performance.

On Tuesday we went to the little feast they were having at her class. It was pretty nice, if unfortunately named. (Jen mentioned that she can't help but think "And in the master's chambers/They gathered for the feast./The stab it with their steely knives/ But they just can't kill the beast.")

It's always interesting to see her interacting with her cohorts. I try to fade into the background because it's just a glimpse into her world that I so seldom get to see. She had one little boy laughing at everything she said. It was very cute.

Wednesday was less good. She was going to go see Happy Feet 2 with her great grandmother, and Jen had the foresight to think that she might be upset when Great Nanny would take her to the movie without me. The last thing we wanted her to say was  “But I don’t want to go with Nanny to the stupid movie!” in front of her.

Well, I spent ten minutes bribing/reassuring/comforting Lily when it was time to go. At first she was hysterical "I want to be with daddy," but she was mostly calmed down.  However, Nan saw that she was upset and told her that she didn't have to go.

So Nanny took off and I very gently told her that I was disappointed in her and she freaked out and started acting like the world was ending. She sulked in there for almost an hour. Every time I knocked on the door, she said, "You can't come in if you're still upset or disappointed with me."

As I kid, I always felt intensely guilty when grownups were mad at me, and it looks like Lily has the same trait. She gets over it eventually, but it's rough to see her that way.

Thanksgiving itself was almost an anticlimax. Our families are scattered all over the place, and we have potentially four meals we might attend (if we count my mom in Florida), but we just had a quiet dinner with Jen's dad's side of the family.

Lily saw Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory for the first time. I hadn't watched it in ages. I'd forgotten how long it really takes to get rolling. It's still a solid movie, better, in a lot of ways than the Johnny Depp channeling Michael Jackson version.

While we were at the meal, Lily sang a little song that she learned for Thanksgiving two years ago, "I saw a little turkey/standing by a tree/he gobbled and he wobbled/and ran away from me/I said, little turkey, please come out and play/I promise not to eat you/on Thanksgiving Day!" but somehow "on" got changed to "until" in the last line, which kind of changes the tone of the song.

Monday, November 21, 2011

The Replacement JLA: The Devil is in the Details

We had the fourth session of our superhero campaign on Sunday. (I've started a separate page for the campaign log posts and that can be found here.) It was a bit of an odd duck and two days later, I'm still forming an impression.

Eric, our GM was raising funds for prostate cancer research as part of Movember. To that end, he auctioned off plot twists in our game to the highest bidder. He's a phenomenally gregarious guy who knows a million people, and he wound up raising a bit of money to make the world a better place and got a couple ideas to torment his feckless players. It was one of those rare situations where everybody wins.

We opened on Themyscira, with a bunch of pissed-off amazons demanding to know where Wonder Woman was. This was Dave's first outing with his retooled character, Ash, aka "The Suit". The pitch had been that he'd be *based* on the guy from the Greatest American Hero, but in actual practice, we were treating him as if he *were* that guy, down to the red pajamas, silly name and sillier hair. And I was guilty as anyone, but it did tend to undermine the seriousness of the game. He was reinvented as a globe-trotting explorer who happened to have a suit of alien armor that looked like a uniform. Anyways, he bungled his interaction with the amazons to the point that his severed penis was added to their list of demands. I did no better, absent-mindedly making finger quotes when talking about "Batman". Rächen didn't do as badly, and Blink just mostly stayed quiet and didn't dig us in any deeper.

The Amazons stalked off, saying that they would have words with this "Batman" and we were shooting the shit, (I was like, "Why does John keep calling your mom Milf? Isn't her name Maggie?") then all of a sudden a golem popped up and started blasting at Rächen and warning him that he was in danger.

"You're in danger, my precious!"

He went down pretty quickly, when Ray blasted the animating sigil off of his forehead with an expertly executed called shot.

We poked around the golem and found the artist's imprint the first place we looked, inside its mouth. It would be the first and only time we picked up on any kind of clue. Apparently, one Beatrice Strobel was responsible for this thing. We took it and ported up to the satellite, where we were verbally abused by Batman. Apparently, he thought things would go poorly with the Amazons no matter who the envoy was, so he sent us as a "fuck you" to them and a punishment for us. ("Batman" is kind of a dick.)

We figured John Constantine would know who she was, but he was off on a personal errand, but Mister Terrific was good enough to track him for us. We ported down and Eric asked me for a sanity check, because we arrived right next to John and a hooker in the middle of the act. (On seeing this Katy wordlessly crumpled up the "Do you like Maggie? Yes/No" note she'd been planning to give to John.)

So, after a little bit of screaming, we found John some pants and he told us where we could find Beatrice. We headed on over there and had a chat with the delightfully eccentric Beatrice. She had a pet raptor named Roger. At first I thought this was a request from a fan of Tekken 2, but when I went home to look it up, I saw that Roger was the kangaroo and Alex was the raptor.

Yes, friends. This is the kind of game it was.

Beatrice told us that the golem was named Ulysses and he was her gift to Heinrich, her ex-husband, when they separated. She gave us his address in a shitty part of Gotham (as if there are any other parts of Gotham) and we took off to see him.

Eric had mentioned that this was going to be a skill-focused adventure, and I didn't really think that I'd be able to contribute much to it beyond some interesting interaction, because my character is a seventeen-year old who spent sixteen years growing up in a clean room, but she has a couple super-senses and I gave her high ranks in perception and insight to reflect that, so she actually found a couple clues.

We went up to the apartment, and Ray intimidated a dude threatening his girlfriend by speaking directly into his mind. We got to the apartment and saw some mystical patterns on the door. Ash made his expertise:history roll and identified them as warding patterns used by various cultures, Rächen made his expertise:magic roll and recognized them as Elder Signs.

I peeped through the wall with my x-ray vision and saw Heinrich's eviscerated corpse. Ash was ready to break down the door, but Blink just popped over to the other side and opened it. We poked around for clues for a bit, and noticed that Heinrich did not cast a shadow, and that his heart and fingerprints had been removed. We noticed that his name had been cut out of all the documentation in the apartment. It seemed to be some kind of ritual to erase his identity. I went downstairs to see if the mail still in his mailbox had gotten the same treatment.

Casey: That's a federal offense.
Me: We're the JLA. I'm not afraid of the postmaster general.

The mail still in the box was untouched, so we did more searching. We found some sticky, foul smelling substance on one of the walls, and a box with a box of matches, a small fire extinguisher and a note that read "When in doubt, burn the note."

Just as we opened the box, we got a call from HQ that demons were running riot in Gotham, and it wasn't immediately clear if our opening the box was the cause of that. They ported us over, and the Bloodson, on seeing the other demons, quipped that "High School never ends."

We made pretty short work of them. Eric was trying out the minion rules. (Minions automatically take the worst result from any failed check, so they go down in one hit.) They were immune to attacks with the fire descriptor, so Rächen wound up chucking a big mailbox at them, further irritating the US Postal Service. One of the demons threw a baby like a football, but I made my athletics check and caught it, zipped over and handed it over to a police officer who was cordoning off the area, getting my picture on the front page of every newspaper in America.

The demons poofed away when defeated, (Eric described the effect like the dusting of Buffyverse vampires) and we had enough foresight to capture the last one in order to question him. We tried to intimidate him, but I think we had about five ranks total in intimidation between us so that went about as well as anything we tried. However, I had the halfway bright idea, "Hey, Intimidate is resisted by Will, right? Just use your will draining power on him," and we got him to talk doing that.

Unfortunately, he didn't have a lot to say. The demon mentioned it was part of a horde, and made some threats about what awaited us, but didn't really give us anything actionable. Ash received his second offer of castration for the night. Once again, our powers filled in when our smarts failed us, and we were able to backtrack the residual heat of the demon's flaming footprints back to their source. Ash and I flew, and Ray climbed on to Blink's back and they did quick ports.

Rächen's magic sense started tingling when we passed by a club called Details. I thought it was an odd name for a club, because it made me think of the magazine. It turned out there was a method to Eric's madness, though we didn't learn what it was right until the very end.

Ray and Blink stopped to talk with the gentleman who had set off the alarm. He called himself Mister Mammon and he engaged them in Auric Goldfinger-style sinister banter,

A man of wealth and taste
  while Ash and I continued on and found the warehouse with the portal.

We called in to the satellite of love, but the portal was interfering with our coms, so we couldn't get through, though we did get a hero point for our troubles, so that was nice.

We gathered up the other two and once Ray had a look at the portal, he figured he could devise a ritual to bring it down with seven rounds of prep time. So we just had to keep him alive long enough to do it. Blink looked in to the portal, and saw an Elder Evil, but made his will save. A bunch of minions swarmed in on the second round, but Blink is an absolute beast against minions, and he decimated them with his selective burst area attack.

And then Mister Mammon teleported into our midst and things got really interesting. This was a bear of a fight, and he shrugged off two consecutive critical hits without even a bruise.

Of course, we didn't need to win this fight, just survive it long enough for Rächen to do his thing. My character is more or less the tank of the group. She isn't much tougher than the other characters at this point (and I'll really be glad when we go up a level and become more able to differentiate ourselves through our saves), but she does regenerate from damage very rapidly. The problem is, her regeneration is fueled by sunlight, and the sun went down several hours ago, and there's nothing darker than a Gotham City night.

We held Mammon off long enough for Rächen to do his thing, and we closed the portal, and Blink stunted a nullify effect to drop Mammon's force field, and we managed to start accumulating some hits on him, but he ported out before we could drop him, as a good villain should.

We went to Heinrich's funeral with Beatrice, and with a little prodding, we figured out that we should light the turpentine-smelling fluid on the wall. It spelled out, "THE DEVIL IS IN THE DETAILS" and I was like, "Oh, I get it!" and I proceeded to explain it everyone else, which was rather unnecessary, because they had all figured it out too.

Overall? Good adventure, though the disparate elements at times made the session at feel like a series of vignettes and not a logical progression of cause to effect. They were fun vignettes, though, so I'm not complaining. The fights were good, the investigation was neat, we all had our times to shine and I think everyone had a lot of fun. My biggest disappointment is that we're all going to be so busy that we're not going to have another game until the New Year rolls around. That's okay. The game is good enough that I'm willing to wait.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

Parent-Teacher Conference

We had Lily's first parent-teacher conference on Wednesday, and it went about like we were expecting. She already knew her letters when the year began and the class is going to start covering them in January. It's frustrating for a couple reasons. I've mentioned them in other posts, but I feel like this is only going to teach her that school is not where you go to learn, but just some place you go because you have to.

I was talking to a friend whose son, while generally doing well, is facing challenges with one or two aspects of his school work. And he says he's fine with that. And I think I would be too. I don't want Lily to be some sort of manufactured prodigy like John Stuart Mill, but I think facing and overcoming challenges is an important part of growing up.

I was among the smartest kids in my very small high school, able to coast on natural talent and that led to a difficult adjustment in young adulthood, as I had vastly overestimated my own capabilities. No parent wants their child to repeat their mistakes, and it bothers me that she might.

She's still amazingly precocious, though. We were playing our version of "20 Questions", "I'm thinking of an animal". It's just what the title suggests, with one player thinking of an animal, and the others asking yes or no questions trying to determine what kind of animal it is.

Jen has played this with kids older than Lily, and they're generally terrible at it until they hit eight or ten, asking questions like, "Is it a dog?" or "Is it a bear?" without first trying to narrow it down. But Lily shows a lot of thought with her questions, trying to figure out where the animal lives, what it eats, if it has fur or feathers and other questions along those lines. Today she asked, "Does it move slowly?", which is not only a good question, but which also shows a very solid grasp of grammar.

We were having a tea party earlier today.

Me: This is great tea! I'll give you one million dollars for your recipe!
Lily: Thank you, but I already have one trillion and ninety-nine dollars already.
Me: Wow, how did you get so much money?!
Lily: I do the mayor's dirty work.
Me: Um...

She also left me speechless when we were talking about sports. I mentioned that she was old enough to join a sports team if she wanted, leading to this exchange.

Lily: I can join a sport?
Me: That's right.
Me: Um...
Lily: (Looks at me eagerly)
Me: ...I suppose?

What kind of five-year-old is interested in golf?

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Legion of Super Heroes: Cry Wolf

I'm continuing my reviews of the second season of the Legion of Super Heroes animated series, with episode three, "Cry Wolf".

I don't like Timber Wolf, but the little widget on the side of the page that tracks the most visited posts says the one about him is the seventh most popular post on the site, so I guess I'm in the minority here.

Courtroom dramas are an episode that can be dropped into any series and Cry Wolf is a terrible episode that could have been a really solid one with a couple minor changes.

We open on a scientific symposium. I think it's on Heisenberg-7, but I'm not certain. (Hey-o!) Dr. Mar Londo, Timber Wolf's dad is there, showing off these new bio-golems he invented. Timber Wolf is in the audience. He rips off his disguise, jumps on the stage, wolfs out to a more feral form reminiscent of his first appearance,  beats up the bio-golems, bays at the moon and then moves in to finish off his dad, who is begging for mercy.

Then the image freezes and we see that it's a video. Timber Wolf is on trial.

On trial for sucking. The verdict? Guilty.

Cosmic Boy declares him guilty and sentences him to life imprisonment on Takron-Galtos.

Credits. Cam is pleading with Cosmic Boy and the rest, and whatever other problems the second season had, it wasn't the art direction or the animation, both of which are consistently superb. I thought this scene was particularly well done in that respect, with the shadows and subdued colors lending a very somber mood to the piece.

However, it's also this scene that shows off the big flaw with the episode. When Cam says that Timber Wolf wouldn't do this kind of thing and asks for other character witnesses, Cosmic Boy points out, quite legitimately in my opinion, that hundreds of eyewitnesses, a holographic record of the attack and physical evidence outweigh any testimony they might offer.

Timber Wolf breaks loose and most of those present pursue him. He fights them off and Phantom Girl helps him escape. There are several sloppy moments here.

Though the cool S-shield force field is not one of them.

The first is when Timber Wolf says to Superman-X that he didn't think X would vote with the rest of them.

Superman X: "I had no choice. The evidence -"
Timber Wolf: "-was rigged. "

This is actually two problems in one. The first is, well, dickhead, maybe that's an argument you should have made during your trial intend of just mounting a defense that amounted to a sullen "Fuck you" to Cosmic Boy.  The second is that the only characterization we've had so far of Superman-X is that of shouty space asshole and there's no reason to assume that he'd extend the benefit of the doubt to Timber Wolf moreso than any other Legionnaire would.

Except there is. If Superman had been in this role, everything would make sense. But he's not, though I think it was written with him in mind and it just doesn't work with Superman-X in the role.

We see Timber Wolf running off, and they catch him, but he turns out to be Chameleon Boy, which was actually fairly well done. Even though Phantom Girl and Cam helped Timber Wolf escape, Cosmic Boy doesn't do more than wag his finger at them disapprovingly.

Meanwhile, in New Metropolis, Timber Wolf gives a Deckard-like narration as he looks for clues. He tears up the apartment of an acquaintance of his father, "Yin Des Neerg" (which is an anagram for Sidney Green), and this scene goes a long way towards illustrating what's wrong with the second season. They tried to make it more "realistic", but it lacks the verisimilitude of the first season. For instance, when 's ransacking Neerg's closet, Timber Wolf comes across a collection of lab coats. And that's fine, as far as it goes. Lab coats are shorthand for scientists in visual media after all. When I worked in a laboratory, I had a lab coat.

But here's the thing. I had a lab coat. As in one. And I left it in the lab at the end of the day. It wasn't the only clothing I owned, as seems to be the case here. You can't see it that well in this still, but Neerg's closet is filled with nothing but lab coats. It's a trivial detail, but it's characteristic of the problems that crept in with the second season.

Neerg comes home, apparently unable to hear a wolfman tearing his apartment apart through the door.

Then the Legionnaires arrive. They have this brief exchange,

Cosmic Boy: "I don't want to hurt you, Timber Wolf."
Timber Wolf: "Well, that makes one of us."

which doesn't make much sense. I would assume that Cosmic Boy's original line was something like, "We don't want to fight," because, as written, Timber Wolf's reply suggests that he doesn't want to hurt himself, which is the kind of thing that should go without saying.  Anyway, Timber Wolf attacks Cosmic Boy and Superman-X and the fight spreads to the bar below. More Legionnaires show up, and Cosmic Boy manages to put down the idiot ball long enough to put up a good fight. First he blocks the exit with two video games, then pulls loose some bar stools and batters Timber Wolf with them. And again, I have to express my admiration for the animation here, because that scene just looks brutal. 

"All right, Brin, I'm just going to need a stool sample"

 He wolfs out, escapes and is picked up by Neerg (really Cam in disguise). Cam makes fun of Cosmic Boy, which is kind of funny,

and Phantom Girl gets some quality snark in.

"Melodrama and self-pity. A toxic combination."

 They head to Heisenberg-7 where Timber Wolf announces that he's going to do what he does best. I don't know what that is, but one would assume that it isn't pretty.

So they go back, Timber Wolf sniffs around and realizes that he was there. Again, if he were really interested in mounting a defense rather than being an aggrieved martyr, this is probably the kind of thing he should have done when he was first accused. A bunch of science police show up, but he smacks the shit out of them and upon escaping, decides to exile himself to Rawl.

He stomps around the jungle for a while, and there's a neat continuity nod to ans they show the old facility, now overgrown with vines. (At least, I assume so. I don't care enough to go back and rewatch the Timber Wolf episode.)

Timber Wolf smells his dad and confronts him. Dr. Londo tells him that he sent a bunch of nanites into Timber Wolf's brain and controlled him in order to frame him for murder, so that Brin would have nowhere to turn and be forced to rejoin him. Timber Wolf refuses and destroys a bunch of bio-golems and turns feral just as the Legion shows up. He smacks Phantom Girl around in his rage, and she winds up helpless and unconscious for the second episode in a row.

Seeing her like that snaps him out of it and he turns on his father and destroys his mind control headband. At the end of the episode, they're on the Legion Cruiser, and Timber Wolf says he's not sure he can go through this alone again, but Phantom Girl assures him that he won't have to.

Monday, November 14, 2011

Roger Zelazny Book Review: The Game of Blood and Dust

I like The Game of Blood and Dust, but I can never remember if it's "Blood and Dust" or "Dust and Blood". It's got a novel enough concept, nameless players take on the roles of "Blood" and "Dust" and introduce three changes apiece to the time stream as part of their game, and I think he could have just introduced the clever concept and coasted on that, but he didn't.

For such a prolific science fiction author, Zelazny never wrote a huge amount of time travel stories. I think Roadmarks is the only one that deals with it as a central concept, though If At Faust you Don't Succeed, Creatures of Light and Darkness and The Changing Land each touch on it peripherally. (In the introduction to Go Starless in the Night, Zelazny says that story was written as a non-traditional time travel story, though I don't personally don't consider it one. It's about a man who journeys into the future through suspended animation and if we include Starless, we might as well include This Moment of the Storm and Isle of the Dead, both of which deal with a very similar concept.) Maybe I'm overlooking one or two others, but it was never a huge theme in his work, which is a shame, because when he wrote it, he wrote it well. (Oh, I can't believe I almost forgot Divine Madness, possibly the best of his short stories!)

In the story, the players Blood and Dust alter history, saving certain personages, eliminating others, until we get to the end and wind up with a world pretty similar to our own. (Though not identical, as the the past was altered so that the assassination of Lincoln in Chevvy's Theater was a success.) This is something that Zelazny touched on with Roadmarks, where Red was trying to change the timeline so that the Greeks won at Marathon, as they did in the real world.

I really do think that Zelazny was one the best science fiction short story authors of the 20th century, and this one has everything I like about his craftsmanship. We get the concept, he doesn't over explain it, but instead tells enough to explore it, and then quits before we're bored with it. His pacing is simply magnificent. As Brand says in Sign of the Unicorn: "Sequence and order, time and stress! Accent, emphasis."

I've raved before about the notes in the Collected Stories, and this is another story they enrich. During one round of the game, Julius Ambrosius and Abou Iskafar are killed by the contestants, and I never knew if they were historical figures of whom I was unaware or if they were entirely fictional creations made up for the story. (If you're playing at home, they're the latter.)

In the introduction to the story, Zelazny says that story had its genesis in a solicitation by Playboy, where they would run one science fiction story a year and they'd all be illustrated by Philippe Druillet. Playboy never went through with the project, and the illustrations were never made, but Zelazny said he occasionally wondered what form they would have taken. I do too.

Weasel's Big Adventure

Lily is aware of the existence my blog, though I'm not sure how much she understands. She'll occasionally say something like "Don't post this on your blog!" but I think she's just repeating something she's heard from Jen.

However, she was very proud of some of the pictures from the weekend and she actually asked me to put them up on my blog. Who am I to say no?

For the first part of our weekend, we went up to the Steel Stacks, the cultural center that went up on the site of the old Bethlehem Steel location. The big blast furnaces are still standing and look really neat. Also, it's nice that a theater in the area is showing convenient midnight movies again.

Somebody needs to set up a Fallout LARP here.

We wound up going for a program on Native Americans, but Lily wasn't all that interested, so we just wound up doing coloring at one of the tables.

I like this sequence of pictures, because you can see the first one, she's thinking about what to do and in the second she's doing it.

Plan your work...
...and work your plan.

(I posted the second on Facebook and a friend observed that it looks like Weasel is copying off Lily's paper.)

Jen's mom was there, and she'd never been to the local casino, so they took off together and Lily and I went to our comic store to get her comics. We had a nice time there. The owner was kind enough to hold a copy of Legion: Secret Origin #1 so we got that and our free flight ring.

The flight ring was a little big for Lily, and I suggested that we loop it through a chain so she could wear it around her neck, but she decided to give it to Weasel instead. We decided that "Princess Weasel" was a member of the Legion of Super Pets.

I personally don't think this is great picture, but Lily really loves it, and this is why she wanted me to post it online.

Another shot of Weasel.

That was it for Saturday. On Sunday we went to our annual family Jump-In-The-Leaves party and Lily had a blast with her cousins. In the car, she described a crossover between the worlds of Teen Titans and Danny Phantom. (Each of the teams has a vegetarian, so they went to Raven's room and exchanged recipes.) 

Things kind of fell apart at bedtime. Between Daylight Savings Time and a couple hours of jumping in the leaves, Lily conked out before six. Had she fallen asleep an hour later, we would have let her sleep through the night, but we figured that she'd wake up in the middle of the night if she went to bed at that hour.

So we woke her up, and she was in such a grumpy mood, at one point proclaiming, "I hate everything in life!" which is such a funny sentiment coming from a pretty little girl dressed in pink.

I sat down on her bed and stayed with her as she drifted off. There's a trick to this. She's a very deep sleeper, but she's also very sensitive to us leaving if she's not all the way asleep. Jen and I have to get off the bed s-l-o-w-l-y, otherwise she'll feel the shift as the mattress rebounds. I feel like Indy with the idol on the pressure plate in the beginning of Raiders of the Lost Ark.

Despite the lousy Sunday, we had a great morning. Lily was a perfect angel, and she loudly proclaimed to everyone at the bus stop that she had the best mommy in the world. Jen said she wished she could copy this morning and replay it every day.

Thursday, November 10, 2011

Watching cartoons with Lily: Superman/Shazam: The Return of Black Adam

I suppose I've been in a bit of a funk lately, and my productivity has fallen off. So, in an effort to snap myself out of it, I'll try to post more regularly, though these posts may be shorter than usual.

I've been watching a lot of cartoons with Lily recently. My friend Eric recommended Superman/Shazam: The Return of Black Adam and it's a pretty solid story. I streamed it through Netflix.

It's a retelling of Captain Marvel's origin. (And there's a whole convoluted thing here. The title is Superman/Shazam, but the hero in question is actually named Captain Marvel. Shazam is the name of the wizard who gives him his powers and the magic word he yells to assume his super-powered identity. Shazam is an acronym for the wisdom of Solomon, the strength of Hercules, the stamina of Atlas, the power of Zeus, the courage of Achilles, and the speed of Mercury.)

Anyway, prepubescent Billy Batson wakes up in his ratty apartment, then hustles off to meet a mild mannered reporter for a great Metropolitan newspaper, who is writing an expose on the lousy conditions faced by homeless kids. On the way there, Billy encounters some bullies shaking down Tawny, a homeless man. He stands up for his friend and gets a black eye for his trouble.

When he gets to the diner, he digs into the breakfasts Clark Kent bought for him. Kent notices the bruise and asks about it, and Billy says that he's beginning to think that being good isn't worth the bother anymore. Clark admits that being good is hard and being bad is the easy route.

As if in answer, Black Adam floats down outside the diner and shatters the window with a clap of his hands. I really like Black Adam. Arnold Vosloo, probably best known as Imhotep from the Mummy movies, oozes alien menace. He reminds me a bit of Zod in Superman II. He doesn't know much about this alien world in which he finds himself, only that he is destined to rule it. A phrase that leaps to mind is that of a cultured brute. That brutishness extends to his appearance. Superman is a lot sleeker than he's usually depicted in DC animation and I'm convinced that's in order to contrast him with Black Adam's stocky build.

Anyway, Adam moves in on Billy, and Clark orders him to leave the boy alone, and then gets smacked through several walls. He picks himself out of the rubble, takes off his glasses and pulls open his shirt to reveal the Superman shield.

Cut to Black Adam's implacable pursuit of Billy through the streets. Just as Adam is about to kill the boy, Superman shows up and rescues him. Black Adam gets all the good lines and while Superman's dialogue is a little weak, I think it still gets the meaning of what it is to be Superman across loud and clear.

Black Adam: You fight for the Wizard?
Superman: I fight for those you can't fight for themselves!

They spar a bit, and seem evenly matched until Black Adam realizes that Superman is especially vulnerable to his magical lightning. And this is what I mean when I say the feature understands Superman. Here he is, outmatched, with the life of just one little boy at stake. But he never wavers, even when his foe hits him hardest where he is weakest. Black Adam burns him with the magical lightning, then buries him hundreds of feet underground by driving Fawcett City's version of the Washington monument on top of him.

Billy runs, finds the Wizard and is granted his powers. I was never a huge fan of Captain Marvel (though I always had a bit of a crush on Mary Marvel and that cute little skirt of hers), but I like that they exist to oppose the seven deadly enemies of Man. There's something about a hero who fights against the worst part of human nature that's really appealing to me.

Back in the real world, Black Adam has defeated Superman. Billy shows up, transforms into Captain Marvel, and his characterization here is great too. His absolute joy as he learns his now powers is infectious.

Superman rallies, the pair face off against Black Adam. Adam is taking a beating so he triggers a flood, and Superman has to disengage to stop it. Marvel chases Black Adam to the city, where he takes a hostage, and if there was one thing I didn't like about the movie, this was it. The hostage is the only woman in the movie, and all she does is whimper.

Danica McKellar is credited as Sally, and I don't even know why they needed a real voice actor for the part.

That aside, it's a good scene with a great exchange:

Captain Marvel: Put her down!
Black Adam: You want to be a protector? Then protect the soul. Revert to your mortal form and I will prove a benevolent deity.
Captain Marvel: And then you'll just kill me.
Black Adam: I will.
Captain Marvel: Shazam.
[turns into Billy]
Billy Batson: Now put her down.
Black Adam: See? Like an ant.
[Black Adam throws woman into the sky]
Billy Batson: No! Shaz...
Black Adam: [covers Billy's mouth] Your last breath wasted on the wrong word.

You get Billy's decency there and Black Adam's alien menace. He made that choice with full understanding of the consequences. It's so good, I'm almost willing to overlook the Byrne hold. As Black Adam is just about to kill Billy, Superman lances him with heat vision and descends with the woman in his arms. Billy transforms and makes short work of Black Adam. Captain Marvel picks him up out of the crater and prepares to finish him off and there is another exchange that I like.

Black Adam: It changes you, does it not? The power.

Superman: That's enough.
Captain Marvel: No, I have to. To protect them.
Superman: How? By being like him?
Captain Marvel: By being stronger than him.
Superman: Then be strong. Be good.

Tawny shows up, and threatens Black Adam with ten thousand year exile. Unable to bear the thought, and having just spent the last five thousand years flying back to Earth, Adam cries Shazam and reverts to his human form, aging five thousand years in an instant.

And that's the end. Clark's story hits the paper, and things seem to be improving for Billy and other kids like him. The bullies from earlier see him and push him against the wall. They taunt him and dare him to say "...just one word."

Billy looks up, smiles and the camera cuts away as he begins saying something. Lightning arcs across the sky and the credits roll.

Lily liked it. It's a little more violent than Jen would probably be comfortable with, but I was watching it with her the whole time, and she followed the plot pretty easily, and changing into an adult superhero is such a wish fulfillment fantasy for a kid that she loved it. At the end, I didn't need to explain to her what Billy said. She mouthed the word right along with him when he said it.

Monday, November 7, 2011

The Replacement JLA: Session Three - Blink's mom has got it going on

We had our long delayed third session of the DC Adventures campaign on Saturday. (Sometimes it sucks being adults with grown up responsibilities.) It's not easy gtting all of us together but kudos to Casey who has the longest trip and to Eric for running the game after he put in a very long shift. I think it's a tribute to Eric's skill that we were still enthusiastic after the lengthy delay.

Link to the first session
Link to the second session

Everybody was there this week. The crew:

  • Eric was the GM.
  • Casey played Blink, a brilliant geneticist who developed a process for granting super powers. Before the game started, he gave himself teleporting powers and then made sure that his notes on his process were destroyed forever.  FOREVER.
  • Frederick played Rächen Bloodson, son of Etrigan and Morgan La Fey.  He's a treasure hunter, recoverer of supernatural artifacts. We haven't really explored the angle, but Eric says that if we need a change of pace for a session, Rächen's day job is a ready made hook for Indiana Jones type adventures.
  • Frederick's stepson Danny ran Plastic Man.
  • Dave played the Great American Hero guy he ran in the first session. He still lacks a heroic and an actual name. When we need to talk about him, we call him "Ralph" or Mister Hinkley.
  • and I was Dawnfire, the Super-Ingenue.

The game opened with a fight against a pair of PL 14 bruisers who were harassing some made men. These guys were monsters. At one point Eric mentioned that they had a toughness score of 20! Fortunately, their will value was only 6 and Rachen has an attack that targets his opponent's will. If they were played to the fullest of their abilities, I don't think we would have beaten them with the amount of teamwork we displayed, but they were just a pair of two-bit goons amped up to superhuman levels, so fortunately they were as bad as their jobs as we are.

The fight wasn't my favorite battle of the campaign. We had a bunch of participants, and Danny bogged it down a little with Plastic Man deciding if he should move from place to place as a pogo stick or a hang glider or an Easter Bunny on tank treads or whatever. A couple rounds in, he settled on a putty-colored T-Rex with goggles.  Eric's good at responding to that kind of behavior without encouraging it, and it did lead to one laugh out loud moment where the T-Rex ate one of the mafiosi by mistake, prompting Frederick to quip "Itsa me, Mario!"

We finished the fight, rescued the civilians, and did do the thing that you do in a comic book super brawl. I was on the roof top when the battle ended. Eric had been calling for perception rolls the whole time and despite having a decent score and super senses, I kept missing it. What were rolling to notice was the bomb and the camera strapped to each of the bad guys. We were apparently being monitored by a shadowy mastermind and he detonated the bombs when he saw his goons were licked. Of the PCs, only Plastic Man was close enough to be hurt by the explosion and no tears were shed over that.

After the fight we performed super hero damage control and talked to the "legitimate businessmen" who had been the targets of the goons. They said there was a push to consolidate the gangs in the absence of super-powered opposition, and they were seeing a lot of pressure from the one gang in Metropolis that used a lot of alien technology.  I knew, as the group's resident Superman fanboy, that that the guy was talking about Intergang, but that's not something my character would know, so I just kept my mouth shut.

I called my dad at Cadmus to help with the cleanup, which pissed off "Batman", (I again failed my perception roll. Cadmus rolled in while we were still rescuing people and I was totally oblivious to my dad in the hazmat suit waving and mouthing "Hi, honey!") and we traced the signal (and the trail of destruction) to a nearby apartment. The apartment housed a lab where the procedures had been performed. Blink felt the techniques seemed awfully familiar.

We beamed up to the JLA satellite, and Mister Terrific ("Fair Play!") was tasked with analyzing our clues. (I think this is another way where Eric's format for the campaign really works. We have a lot of NPCs in a support role, allowing us to focus on playing characters that interest us and not worry so much about what they bring to the party's capabilities) He determined  that the process to which the bad guys had been subjected was still on-going. The way I read that was that they were subjected to the procedure and then released to cause havoc while they were still metabolizing this Vitameatavegamin cocktail. That implied to me a time limit, that they were going to burn themselves out in short order, so this sinister mastermind behind everything cut them loose as soon as as was viable in order to maximize their time in the field. That's just conjecture, though.

Dave's character figured that that the explosives were of extraterrestrial origin, leading to this exchange.

Mister Terrific: Cadmus would love to get their hands on that.
Katy: Hey! Cadmus does a lot of humanitarian work!
Rächen: So does Lexcorp.
Katy: *sulk*

Mister Terrific mentioned something about Ohio, which reminded Blink that he needed to use the bathroom. He teleported to his mom's house in Ohio, which tipped Mister Terrific that something was up, because he had only mentioned the general location and not that exact address. So "Batman" gathered us all up and we teleported down to Blink's mom's house, and his past came out. He had been involved in the family business as a slightly younger man, and the family business was super-villainy. His dad, apparently, was still active, and he seemed to be the ones creating the supervillains with Blink's techniques, and he was going to use Mrs. Blink (Maggie) as leverage to keep junior out of the picture. Blink did an end-run around that by moving his mom up to the satellite. (Somebody mentioned that in two days, we're going to find her smoking a post-coital cigarette with John Constantine.)

It was a short session, but I'm glad we had it. We laid a little more groundwork, and there's a love triangle developing between Blink, the Huntress and Ralph. Ralph and the Huntress had a nice meal together, and she apparently digs his magnificent perm, but Blink is exploring their shared history. (Both of them come from criminal families)

Overall? Solid, if short outing, with a good mix of action and RP. I'm looking forward to the next one.

Tuesday, November 1, 2011

And you and me will be whirlwinds of danger. we'll crash on our bikes and take candy from strangers...

Kimya Dawson shout out!

So this weekend was our Halloween party and an unseasonable snowstorm. (My spellchecker wanted to correct that to "an unreasonable snowstorm" and I'm not sure it's wrong.) It wasn't the biggest snowstorm we'd even seen, but the thing that made it dangerous was that many of the trees still had a lot of leaves and the compounded weight caused a lot of trouble.

We had been shopping the night before and it looked like we were going to get quite a few people, but as the snow accumulated and guests (quite reasonably) had to cancel, we found ourselves going from "How are we going to feed all these people?" to "What are we going to do with all this food?"

A couple of our friends live very close by and a couple were willing to brave the winter weather, so it wasn't a complete bust. Lily ran around and played superheroes with a friend's son. She said that I was the Joker. I don't think that was the best fit. I'm a paunchy, bearded man with glasses who happened to be wearing a Superman shirt.

The Joker? Bizarro, maybe.

They had to take off and Lily played "What were you thinking?" with the grownups. You get a question, say, name five things that are blue and you get points based on the number of people who have the same answer. For instance, if you said the sky, and 5 other people also gave that answer, each person would get six points for it. If you said the sea and only three other people agreed with you, you'd get four points.

Its kind of neat, because there are True or False questions. True or False, the Amazon is the longest river in the world? and it doesn't matter if you get the question right or wrong, only that you're in the majority. We had to make some accommodations for her, but she didn't do too badly.

The next day, there was still a lot of snow on the ground, and I asked Lily if she thought Mother Nature was mad at us. (She's not sure if Mother Nature is real or metaphorical.) She kind of shrugged and said, "No, it's just a cold Fall day."

For my birthday, I got some nice clothes from Jen, some blank nesting dolls from Lily and the Superman stuff I had worn over the weekend.

Blank nesting dolls. Seriously, how cool is this?!

Jen went as a pirate and Lily went as a fairy pirate princesses. I was Lily's "Candy Caddy". I kept offering to hold her candy, but she kept declining when I clarified that I'd be holding it IN MY TUMMY!

Pirate Booty

I was actually very proud of her. We went out with one of her little friends. Lily is completely fearless and very much into scary stuff, and her friend, like most little kids, was less so. Some of the houses were pretty intense, and her friend didn't want to approach, but Lily gently offered help, "It's not so scary. I can hold your hand," and then accepted that her friend still didn't want to do it. I'm really happy that she's kind enough to make the effort, and gracious enough not to force it.