Friday, June 28, 2013

Teri Hatcher has a lot to answer for

And I'm not talking about those Radio Shack commercials with Howie Long.

I was listening to a podcast of Radio Times yesterday. It's a radio talk show on WHYY, one of the public radio stations out of Philly. The first part is the guests saying their part, and in the second segment, they take calls from listeners.

The topic was Superman and why his story still resonates.

The guests were Robert Thompson from Syracuse University's Bleier Center and and Larry Tye, the author of a history of Superman.

I wasn't particularly impressed with Thompson as a subject matter expert. He referred to Christopher ReeveS on several occasion. George Reeves played Superman. Christopher Reeve played Superman. There is doubtless a person named Christopher Reeves out there, but he never played Superman in any major motion picture. Yeah, it's a common mistake, but if you're acting as an authority, you should really know better.

Additionally, he said this was the first major appearance of a Superman suit without the red underpants, however, they were jettisoned nearly two years ago in almost every comic appearance, in favor of something that looks an awful lot like what Cavill wound up wearing.  Again, a picayune complaint, but this was a pretty big deal in comic book circles.

It's possible that he doesn't consider that a major appearance and I think that argument can be made, as Action Comics averages a circulation of a little over 100,000 issues per month and Man of Steel has been seen by millions of people already. However, if that was the point he was making, it would have behooved him to make it more cleanly.

They touched on Superman's religion/the Moses myth/the Christ metaphors. These are all old hat to comics geeks of a philosophical bent, but it was nice to see them getting a little play to a wider audience. They bitched about the fights and echoed the complaint that Superman made no effort to move it to another venue. Which is true. Except for the times he did.(Trying to fly away and getting snagged right back and also flinging Zod into space.)

When they opened it up to calls, they took one from a woman who compared it unfavorably to Iron Man ("Oh, Tony Stark was mean to me 15 years ago, I guess I'm evil for the rest of my life") 3, which she found brilliant in its characterization, which should be sufficient to invalidate her opinion. Her main complaint was that Lois was "too astute".

Seriously?! Good God. I was skeptical of Amy Adams as Lois Lane, but she OWNED that role. I thought she was the first live action performance to capture the essence of the character.

However, this alerted me to the fact that my conception of Lois Lane might not be in line with the mainstream, so I asked a couple friends for their conception of the character.

"I thought she came across as stupid.  She's in love with Superman, but her BFF is Clark Kent and she can't tell they are the same person?  Also, she is an idiot in the movies."

They also described her as "shrill" and a damsel in distress who exists only to be rescued. However, since the dominant live action portrayal of Lois Lane for our generation was by Teri Hatcher, I am forced to admit there is some merit to those claims. 

When they asked me what I thought of her, I said:

The usual caveats apply here, in that she's just as old as Superman (75 years!) and there have been almost as many interpretations, but here's my conception.

She's tough, smart. A really great reporter. She grew up an army brat. I like her. Tenacious. I think Amy Adams does a really great job with the role.

I also quoted at length from a piece DC Women Kicking Ass did, where they interviewed various writers about their conception of Lois Lane. I really liked Kurt Busiek's response. I won't quote the whole thing here, but click over and read the rest if this kind of thing interests you.

What is it about her you like? What are her strengths?

I like her drive. She doesn’t quit — she gets the story. Heck, she can
compete with Superman to get a story, and still win out. That takes
brains, good instincts and an unstoppable sense of mission. If you’re
a ne’er-do-well, the last person you want trying to get the goods on
you in Lois, because she just doesn’t quit.

What role does Lois play in the Superman mythos and what’s her importance?

Well, I’ve said it before, but she’s the urban, hard-edged cynic to
Clark’s idealistic, empathic heartland guy. The two of them are a
study in contrasts — he’s all heart, masking a keen brain, she’s all
brain, masking a warm heart — so they strike sparks and they compete
and the challenge one another and they both get to show off their
strengths. Aside from Superman himself, she’s the most important
character in the series — you can get away with dropping any of the
others, really, but if Lois isn’t there, if that sense of human drive
and spirit, going alongside and challenging the super guy from another
planet, isn’t there than it feels to me like something’s missing.

I enjoyed Man of Steel a lot. It was good, not perfect, but much better than its detractors claim. A big part of that was Amy Adams' smart, tough, savvy Lois and if her portrayal becomes the dominant conception of Lois Lane, then I think it was worth it.

And, bonus, my favorite exchange between Lois and Clark from the Animated Series.

Lois Lane: I'm confused, Kent. See, I've lived in Metropolis most of
my life and I can't figure out how some yokel from Smallville is
suddenly getting every hot story in town.

Clark Kent: Well, Lois, the truth is, I'm actually Superman in
disguise and I only pretend to be a journalist in order to hear about
disasters as they happen, and then squeeze you out of the byline.

Lois: You're a sick man, Kent.

Tuesday, June 18, 2013

Movie Review: Man of Steel

Since every other website that deals even tangentially with geekish issues already has a review of Man of Steel up, I suppose I'd better publish mine.

Spoilers are tucked away behind a button, so if you normally read the posts on a RSS feed, you'll have to come directly to the site and click on the button to read them. On the other hand, if you don't want spoilers, you won't accidentally read them. Yay! Everybody wins! 

I love Superman. I liked the movie a lot. In my opinion, for what that's worth, it's probably the best of the theatrical Superman movies. Not that it doesn't have issues, but the Reeve era Superman movies have issues of their own, issues, I would argue, that are more substantial than those in Man of Steel. (Turning back time, the cellophane S, Superman returning to the bar to kick the shit out of that guy for no reason, Lex Luthor's ridiculous real estate scam, the kiss of forgetfulness, and Lois Lane dangling herself over Niagara Falls so she could finally ensnare Superman in her matrimonial clutches once and for all, for starters.)

A lot of fans are moaning that the movie is not a retread of the Reeve era Superman. But A.) The same fans would be bitching that the movie is a retread of the Reeve era Superman if it were and B.) We got that with Singer's "Kevin Spacey and Kumar watch Superman lift successively heavier things" and that movie has not aged well. (Sorry fans of Deadbeat Dad Space Jesus Superman.)

When I hear those complaints calling for the return to the Reeve Superman, I think of the argument early in The Incredibles.

Helen: It is a bad thing, Bob! Uprooting our family *again* so that you can relive the glory days is a very bad thing!
Bob: [Defensively] Reliving the glory days is better than pretending they never happened!
Helen: Yes! They happened, but this; our family, is what's happening now, Bob! And you're missing this!

The Reeve/Donner movies were good. In spite of their flaws, they might even be great. But they happened, and I wouldn't want to see those movies redone with better effects.

I wasn't sold on the need for an origin story for Superman, because he's one of the most recognizable figures on Earth. "Doomed planet. Desperate scientists. Last hope. Kindly couple." Boom, you're done.

However, this worked, and it worked well. It's about Clark growing into Superman. He's been kind of half-assing it in the hero biz, just helping people willy-nilly, but it takes the events of the movie to move him from hero to SUPERhero.

Stuff I liked:

The Superman Shield: I heard the story that John Byrne is color blind and it shaped his understanding of the "S" Shield on his chest.

Since he is predominantly a penciler this doesn't come up very often - but it did shape his interpretation of Superman from his first glimpse. John Byrne (color blind) saw Superman's logo as a yellow design on a red background. Well, actually, two different shades of gray, but what I'm getting at is that Byrne was seeing the negative space of the design as the symbol, and the symbol (the S) as the background. Since he knew from the beginning that Superman was Kryptonian, he figured this abstract design was some Kryptonian glyph and thought it was pretty cool. To this day, when he draws Superman's logo (what we comics cognoscenti refer to as a chevron) he draws the two goldfish silhouettes and the little triangles that he has always seen, and which just happen to form an S shape to our eyes.

I had grown up thinking that it was the Crest of the House of El, which just happened to look like an S to us. I can't remember where I had first heard that, but it just made sense to me. I'm glad that they kept this bit of lore and expanded on it for the new movie. The impression that I get is that it's a symbol of hope that the House of El incorporated into its coat of arms, like in Game of Thrones, how the Lannisters have a Lion to represent their family or the Starks have Ned's head for theirs.

Wikipedia has some interesting background on the history and evolution of the Superman logo

Other stuff:

I don't often comment on men's shirtless scenes, but good god,  Henry Cavill is a BEAST.

Lois Lane's contact is named Woodburn. I assume it's some kind of oblique reference to Woodward and Bernstein, but it just seems...weird.

I saw two LexCorp trucks in the movie. I was talking with a friend, and we agreed that we don't want to see Luthor as the primary antagonist in the next movie. My reason is that the scale the movie on which the movie operates. Say what you like about Zach Snyder (I still haven't forgiven him for Sucker Punch ) , but he manages the convey the horrifying power involved in these battles. I complain about this a lot (most recently, at this link), but having Superman threatened by human characters rarely elevates them. It just diminishes him.

(For the record, my money is on Brainiac for the sequel. I could get behind that, as long as they get Corey Burton to do the voice)

Adam Adams was a great Lois Lane. Perhaps even the definitive Lois Lane.

Christopher Meloni. I warmed to his character over the course of the film. He's an Air Force Colonel who is initially hostile to both Lois Lane and Superman, but his opinion gradually changes. He also figures in what's probably my favorite exchange in the movie. Superman had been fighting with two Kryptonians, as well as suffering attacks from military forces who considered him a threat. He saved those soldiers that he could, at great personal risk, and when the battle is over, Meloni's character says "This man is not our enemy."

Superman nods slightly and smiles and says, "Thank you, Colonel," before flying away to continue. He doesn't snark off and say "Took you long enough to figure that out." It's a moment that gets Superman so right, just the belief that everyone deserves dignity and respect until they show him otherwise. 

I thought the movie was very measured in its treatment of the military, neither demonizing them nor fetishizing them. Should an entity like Superman appear, things would probably go down much as they did in the movie. The military people had their orders and they were doing their best to execute them, despite occasional misgivings. They were people in a difficult situation and they were doing the best they could. I like the bit in the interrogation room. They're aware that their precautions against Superman are woefully inadequate, but, as they say, they have to do something, and they're doing the best that they can.

I liked Michel Shannon as General Zod, but Terrance Stamp will always be saying "Kneel before Zod" in the little television that plays in my heart.

Richard Schiff is Dr. Emil Hamilton. It's a small role, but he's pretty great in it. Richard Schiff is always great, though.

I really liked Antje Traue as Faora.  She was wonderful, by the way. She kicked the shit out of Superman, and though she's a woman, there's none of the tired sexual subtext that usually goes along with female subordinates.

Laurence Fishburne was  wonderful Perry White. I never cared too much about Perry White until a scene in All Star Superman. Just two panels. Superman is dead, Lex Luthor has his powers and he's tearing the Daily Planet apart. He comments about an expose that led to him being sentenced to death, and comments, "The Daily Planet thought I should go to the electric chair," and Perry rages back, "The TRUTH sent you to the chair." He doesn't get any lines like that, but he embodies their essence with the character.



I liked it a lot. Despite the scope, it's a more personal tale in a lot of ways than any of the previous movies.

Thursday, June 13, 2013

Funny Girl

Today was Lily's last day of kindergarten.

I wanted to take a picture of her holding a craft project from school, but she didn't want to pose with it. So I just took a picture of the project instead.

The leaves read "Funny" and "Smart". I asked her if she came up with the words to describe herself and she said she did.

On one hand, I'm happy about this. "Smart" and "Funny" are two good traits to which to aspire. If that's how she sees herself, she could certainly do worse, and I'm not sure she could do much better.

I do think she's funny. She's sharp and when she was introduced to the concept of synonyms, the first thing she asked was, "What's a synonym for synonym?", which is awfully close to Stephen Wright's famous "What's another word for thesaurus?" quip.

More importantly, when I asked her what she likes about being funny, she said, "I like to make people laugh."

Likewise, I know she's smart. She's in kindergarten, and she's reading at least a fourth grade level. She's adding negative numbers and does some multiplication.  Just the other day, she was complaining about the class, "We're still learning what a plus sign looks like!"

On the other hand, I'm worried. I asked her the other day why she prefers hanging out with adults instead of kids and she said it's because "grown ups understand what I'm talking about."  Kids tend to think they're being teased or being made to feel foolish if their peers make jokes they don't understand. If she's in it to make people laugh, and she just winds up hurting the feelings of those she wants to entertain, well, she's going to stop in fairly short order.

This got me thinking along other lines. I think it's increasingly acceptable in mainstream and geek culture for women and girls to be smart. This hasn't nearly reached parity with men, but things are better than they were, and hopefully they will continue to get better.

(I'm not saying that things are great, mind you, just that they're better than they once were and seem to be on the trajectory to improve.)

But the same doesn't seem to be true of  humor. When I asked some (female) friends if they thought so, they responded like so:

Female Friend: Yeah I think it is seen as more acceptable for men to be funny. It's not a "feminine" trait. You've probably heard a lot of female comedians talk about this.

Me: I haven't, but that feeds into your point, because I've most recently watched stand up comedy on Netflix and I don't recall seeing ANY offerings by female comics up there.

Female Friend: I've read that young girls are confident and describe themselves as smart until they reach puberty. Then a lot of girls slink back and keep quiet I guess falling into typical male/female roles. They lose interest in math and science around that age.

(She also pointed out Adam Corolla's comments that women aren't funny.)

I never really thought of it. I like my friends because they're smart and funny. I count my wife first among this group. Of course I want to be friends with my wife. She's smart and she's funny, just like our daughter is. I'd love them both if they weren't, but I like them more because they are.

Bonus Lily Joke!

Lily: Do you want to hear a fact about koalas?
Me: Sure.
Lily: They're only the size of jelly beans when they're first born.
Me: Cool. Wanna hear a fact about jelly beans?
Lily: Okay.
Me: They're only the size of baby koalas when they're first born.
Lily: Jelly beans aren't *born*. They're *manufactured*. Like boy bands.

Wednesday, June 12, 2013

Review: Supernatural Handbook for Mutants & Masterminds

I've been gaming on and off since the 80s and I've read a lot of gaming books. I've read good books and bad ones,  books that were so evocative that they've made me want to gather my friends and start a campaign right there. I've read books that were disappointing. There were certainly more than a few stinkers when WOTC opened the door to third party supplements, but, up until now, I mostly responded by closing a bad book when I had finished it, saying, "Well, that sucked," and putting it back on the shelf with a mental note to that effect.

I love Green Ronin. I love Mutants & Masterminds. It's a fantastic system, but also a wonderful setting, with characters that lived and breathed and come alive. The people responsible for the line clearly love the genre and it shows in their work.

I love horror too. In gaming circles, horror increasingly means "Lovecraftian horror", but I embrace all kinds. The first time I encounter something new, the back of my mind is working about the best way to put a horrific twist on it.

So the Supernatural Handbook seemed like a natural fit.  My hopes were high for this book, but not unrealistically so. It's Green Ronin. I don't think they've put out a product that wasn't spectacular.

Up until now.

I didn't merely dislike this book. I hated it so much that I felt an obligation to warn people about it. It is not just the worst book Green Ronin has released. It may be the worst book I've ever paid for. I resent the very existence of this book, because it means we won't get a good horror themed supplement from GR.

Where to start? The art. This is a more subjective area than most, and, as they say on the internets, your mileage may vary, so I won't dwell on this overlong, but I thought it was pretty bad. It never seemed to mesh with the text that surrounded it, and I found it uninteresting even if it did.

The pictures for the player archetypes were especially awful. I would not be surprised if the instructions to the model were, "Put on this fedora and then hold still while I take your picture with my phone."

Chapter 1: A World of Horror 

This chapter sets the tone for the book. The meat of it is a long list of possible horror settings, with examples from media, followed by the a text box that reads: "Horror elements might include:"

If you take nothing else from this review, remember this part, because I think this is sums up everything that's wrong with the book. The examples given for horror elements are broad and obvious, and would have occurred to any reader who has the interest to read a book on horror role-playing. But, there is no guidance for what to do with these concepts for those readers who wouldn't have thought of them. It's just a list with no framework, a problem that pervades the book.

Chapter 2: The Player’s Guide to the Supernatural:

This chapter opens with some pretty general advice.  This kind of stuff has been covered elsewhere extensively, and because of my long interest in horror gaming, there was nothing new for me. I've read a lot of horror gaming material, and, as there are some generally agreed upon guidelines, I think they would be remiss in not including them. They're not for me, but it would be ridiculous to assume that every section of a book is going to be of value to every reader. I certainly won't hold their inclusion against the book.

My problem with this segment is a bit more subtle. The problem is that the advice, like that in the previous chapter, is over-broad. This was billed as a handbook of heroic horror. By trying to cover so much material rather than focusing on how (super)heroic horror is different than other types of horror,  we just get some bland musings on the nature of horror.

This section also some archetypes which, except for the previously mentioned art, which were neither bad nor good. The Cursed Adventurer, she of the fedora and the purple ankh, becomes helpless in 15 minutes if separated from an item with the easily removable flaw, which seems to be a crippling complication. The Infected Hero has the potential to be interesting, (it strikes me as a nod to the Marvel Zombies line), but the thing is, there's no mechanical support for it. He's just a speedster, essentially the same collection of stats as the speedster archetype from the core book, but with different flavor text. The others are pretty generic. The Ex-Cape, for example, isn't offensively bad, but it isn't good either.

This is followed by a couple pages on the investigation process. Again, it strikes me as trivia dressed up a gaming advice and I don't know what it's doing in a book on superhero horror. There were books where this would fit, but this isn't one of them.

Certain classes of creature (arachnids, fungi, etc.) have lists of "scary facts" that read like they were cribbed from "5 Horrifying true facts you won't believe about spiders!"on I actually did find this kind of interesting, but it's information that's widely available elsewhere and, like so much of the book, a collection of trivia with no guidance about what to do with it.

Chapter 3: Mastering Your Fears

The core of this chapter involves applying Maslow’s Hierarchy of Needs to game-mastering horror. I think it's an interesting concept, but not a tool that is as broadly applicable to running games as it is presented.

The rest of the chapter is plagued by the flaws that characterize the rest of the work. Advice that attempts to encompass everything and is consequently diluted to the point of meaninglessness, which is too vague for the beginner and old hat to the grognard.

Chapter 4: Misadventures in Horror

This is probably the best chapter. I liked most of the monster archetypes. The prose is ridiculously purple at times (The Dark Emissary has clawed out her eyes because she had seen "things that made angels go mad and demons weep in terror"), but they're interesting from both a mechanical and narrative perspective, and I even liked the art. The author even includes a 150 point, PL 10 trophy hunter for someone who wants to play a Predator, and I really do appreciate things like that.

The chapter concludes with some newspaper clippings, which aren't bad and do a better job than anything in the book of setting the mood and a couple mini-adventures too, which are serviceable.

Chapter 5: ARCADE

The final chapter is devoted to ARCADE, the American Research Center for the Arcane Defense of Earth. Prior to this chapter, I figured that the Supernatural Handbook was a poor resource that I would shelve and never read again. Having a whole chapter devoted to Leroy Dutch and the ludicrously named organization (I've always thought that S.A.V.E. (Societas Argenti Viae Eternitata), the organization to which PC's belong in the Chill RPG was faintly ridiculous, but S.A.V.E. looks like the Mossad next to A.R.C.A.D.E.), the book now offends me by its very existence.

A.R.C.A.D.E. reads like a "let me tell you about my campaign" and Dutch reads like "let me tell you about my character". I don't want to be within a thousand feet of a PC who calls his magical gun "Betsie'.  Dutch's signature quote, which the author evidently felt was so brilliant that we're treated to it twice, is, when confronted to some tentacled monstrosity, is to slap a baseball bat into his palm and declare, “We beat the ever-loving Christ out of that thing until we're up to our eyeballs in calamari." Because nothing sells horror like treating the adversaries like pinatas with a lot of hit points.

Dutch transformed the book from something that was of little use to me to something I actively hated. I felt like Roger Ebert watching North.  "I hated this [book]. Hated hated hated hated hated this [book]. Hated it. Hated every simpering stupid vacant audience-insulting moment of it. Hated the sensibility that thought anyone would like it..."


  • The scope is far too broad, and consequently spread much too thin
  • Only cursory coverage when it comes to horror as it relates to a superheroic setting.
  • Dutch. Seriously, he's awful.

I hate to rag on the book, because I've enjoyed the author's other work for the line. But I think you should pass on this one.

Wednesday, June 5, 2013

Crossover Combat: Dalek versus Beholder

The Daleks are the perpetual whipping boys around here. They were featured in the very first post in this series (previously called Geekfight, but now renamed to Crossover Combat) as the opponent for a Jedi. They lost.

Daleks should need no introduction to readers of this blog or fans of Doctor Who. The history of Doctor Who is the history of the Daleks and that history is the Daleks fucking up and losing every time they appear.

However, are they finally being confronted with an adversary they can defeat? Read on to find out.

Beholders are one of the most recognizable of the Dungeons and Dragons monsters. They're so closely tied to the brand that when the rules were open-sourced in order to open the game more widely to third party creators, Beholders were one of a handful of "product identity monsters" that were held back.

It always struck me that Daleks and Beholders more or less occupy the same niche, xenophobic aliens who shoot their death rays at anything different from themselves.

They certainly have a distinctive look. And when I say "distinctive look", what I mean is that they're fucking terrifying.

Look at them. Good god.

The big center eye projects an anti-magic field in front of it. While this is usually a big deal in D&D, it's completely irrelevant against the technological Daleks. Not so the ten eyestalk eyes, each of which generates its own magical effect, charm, disintegrate, flesh to stone, death ray, telekinesis.

How do they fair against the Daleks?

Daleks: The Daleks are, for the purposes of this exercise, comparable in performance to what we see from the individual Dalek we see in the Eccelston episode of the same name. We're basing it on what we see it do on screen, not on accounts of what we're told it can do. Refer to the earlier post for details. 

Beholders: They're based primarily on their entries in the various monster manuals, and the more detailed information in "I, Tyrant" and "Lords of Madness". 

One on One - Straight Up Fight

The Dalek and the Beholder are in a forest glen, see each other at the same time, and hostilities commence immediately (of course).  Who wins? 

This is a fight that highlights the similarities between the two combatants. They're each packing an instant kill death ray that they have no compunctions about using. Maybe a slight advantage to the beholder, because the terrain is not going to be perfectly level, and while we know Daleks can levitate, they don't do so all the time. 

On the other hand, if the beholder has never seen a Dalek before, it might think the anti-magic eye would protect it, and, if so, it would have no chance to learn from its mistake. 

This one could go either way.

Verdict: Toss-Up (Or more likely, mutually assured destruction)

One on One - Indirect

Say the beholder and the Dalek start off on opposite sides of a city and have basic knowledge of their opponents.  

This one's not even going to be close. With the charm ray, the beholder has an advantage that the Dalek couldn't hope to overcome. The beholder does everything the Dalek does, and a whole lot more. It has on average, higher than average human intelligence. The Daleks are often described as "geniuses", but that can only possibly refer to technical aptitude, as they have no impulse control and are absurdly incompetent each and every time we see them on screen. 

Verdict: Beholder

Small Groups: 

Here's where the Daleks have an advantage. Whovians know that there are occasional schisms in Dalek society, with each faction believing that the other is impure and must be destroyed. Beholders think that about every other beholder. A dozen Daleks would exterminate a dozen beholders one by one, in less time than it takes to screech the word.

Verdict: Dalek

Small Groups - Unified Beholders:

There are certain circumstances where beholders can work together. A hive mother can compel cooperation, groups have united in the Spelljammer setting, and if faced with the real prospect of extermination, they would probably unite against a force dedicated to that. Under these circumstances, the beholders would crush a much larger force of Daleks.

Verdict: Beholder.

Every Dalek versus Every Beholder:

This is the only way the Daleks ever win these things, isn't it? There are a zillion of the buggers. Yeah, they'd win, through virtue of overwhelming numbers. 

Daleks lose. Daleks always lose. 

Chris Kovacs Zelazny Essay in The New York Review of Science Fiction

As the subject line says, Chris Kovacs has an Argo/Zelazny essay. Rather than clumsily paraphrase him, here are his own words:

I have a new essay in the May 2013 issue of The New York Review of Science Fiction. It's titled "The reality and mythology enveloping Zelazny’s Lord of Light, the FBI, the CIA, and Ben Affleck’s Argo." In that essay I discuss and debunk a number of myths about Zelazny, the novel, the movie, the theme park, the FBI raid, the CIA's use of the script, and the recent movie Argo which altered facts and ignored others.

The pdf of the issue can be purchased for $2.99 at this link:

I wouldn't be surprised if the website releases it as a free, featured article. But in the meantime the pdf is the only way to get it.