Movin' Out

As I did with Dante's blog, I'm moving this blog to Wordpress. The feeling of impending doom at LiveJournal is getting hard to shake. In particular, the exporter I've always used to back up my stuff is no longer working, and when I search for other LJ-oriented developments, all I get back is a whole lotta crickets.

SO. I've just posted my first new entry at LiveJournal: another step in the "Annotated Annotated Watchmen" journey, this one analyzing the connection between Moore's black freighter and Brecht/Weill's Threepenny Opera. This will likely be my last LJ post. Hope to see you over at the new place!

The Black And White Panther

[NOTE: This post contains spoilers for the Watchmen graphic novel, and I'm assuming readers are familiar with its plot and characters.]

Remember a few years ago, when I said that I wanted to reread Watchmen, but this time with the Annotated Watchmen alongside? Well, the time has come at last. As expected, it's producing a much more satisfying reading experience -- even just rereading the graphic novel with an eye towards structure and symbolism is deeply rewarding, as opposed to the first time, when I was just reading for the plot. Now the project is spawning a few sub-projects of its own.

I thought it would be fun to pursue the references embedded in the annotations, so as to get a richer understanding of Watchmen's various layers of allusion. Here was the first one I saw, in reference to The Comedian's secret(ish) identity as Edward Blake:
"Edward Blake is obviously a reference to Blake Edwards, the director of the Pink Panther comedies. And, no one's spotted this, Rorschach's methods of terrorism are all taken from Pink Panther movies."
Are they, now? Are they really? Very well, Collapse )

Searching For Sugar Man

One of my favorite books as a teen, and a huge influence on me during that time, was a novel called The Armageddon Rag, by the then-little-known George R.R. Martin. The book is about... well, it's about many things, including loss of innocence, the metaphorical end of the Sixties, the rewards and regrets inherent in revisiting the past, and the enormous power of music. The way it is about those things is that it follows a journalist investigating a murder, one that seems inextricably bound to the music of a fictional Zeppelin-esque defunct band called The Nazgûl, whose lead singer died on the same date as the murder. As the journalist investigates the story, he is startled to discover that the band is getting back together, and somebody who looks and sounds a whole lot like the singer is fronting them...

The documentary Searching For Sugar Man is about many things too, and the way it is about them is that it follows a journalist investigating how a beloved artist died. The artist's name is Rodriguez. A Detroit singer-songwriter in the Dylan mold, he released a couple of albums in the early 70s -- good albums, beloved by producers and critics, but completely ignored by the American audience. He quickly faded into total obscurity. Well, almost total. By some quirk, the albums became wildly popular in South Africa, their protest lyrics credited with awakening an anti-apartheid generation to the possibility and power of questioning authority. One South African describes Rodriguez's popularity there like so: "If you went into any white, middle-class, liberal home in South Africa and started flipping through the record collection, there are three albums you'd always find: Abbey Road by The Beatles, Bridge Over Troubled Water by Simon & Garfunkel, and Cold Fact by Rodriguez."

But while there are reams of information available about The Beatles and Simon & Garfunkel, South Africans could learn almost nothing about Rodriguez. They couldn't even find out how he died, though many seemed to agree it was grisly in some way. Did he immolate himself on stage? Blow his brains out right after the encore? Nobody seems to know, so in the 1990s, South African music journalist Craig Bartholomew-Styrdom starts researching an article whose premise is: "How did Rodriguez die?" He followed the money, made a lot of phone calls, and also made use of this nifty new tool called the Internet. With fan Stephen Segerman, he created a website called "The Great Rodriguez Hunt", casting far and wide for leads on the mystery.

I don't want to reveal what he found. It's best learned watching the film. Quoth Roger Ebert: "Let me just say it is miraculous and inspiring." For me, it was like a mirror image of The Armageddon Rag: where the story of The Nazgûl is dark and apocalyptic, the story of Rodriguez is redemptive and luminous. Even better, the story of Rodriguez is true. I spent pretty much the entire movie thinking it was a hoax, along the lines of Dave Stewart's Platinum Weird stunt a few years ago. Nope. It's not a hoax. It is one hundred percent true, and it shone a light on a couple of things that really moved me.

The first of these is about mystery and music. Not to sound like a village elder, but I am old enough to remember a time when you could hear a song, or an album, and love it, but have almost nothing more than the song or the album. If you heard it on the radio, you might not even know the title or the artist! I once taped a lovely Robert Plant song off the radio, and it took me years to find out the title of the song, and that it was solo Plant rather than Zeppelin.

Even if you owned the music rather than hearing it on the radio, you might have an album cover or some liner notes to peruse, but those could be sparse or willfully obtuse, and in any case they were merely snapshots in time. You could subscribe to Creem or Rolling Stone and get up-to-date news, but only for the artists they chose to showcase. You might be able to find some historical info at the library, for well-established artists, but again, that would be up to the caprice of your library's collection. Even the albums themselves could be elusive -- I remember driving all around Aurora, searching fruitlessly for a copy of Pink Floyd's The Final Cut.

This atmosphere gave rise to wild rumors and legends. I suppose the poster child for this would be the Paul is dead phenomenon, but these legends lasted well past the Sixties. I remember someone confidently asserting to me that Michael Stipe and Natalie Merchant had a daughter together. It is a truth universally acknowledged that when there is a vacuum of information, human beings will fill that vacuum with speculation, and doubly so for the things we're passionate about. Thus were many hours spent trading ridiculous stories of our pop idols.

That's all different now. Don't get me wrong -- the age of rumors wasn't golden, and I wouldn't want to go back to it. I absolutely love that we have Google, and Wikipedia, and Shazam, and even horrible ad-splattered lyrics sites. The trade wasn't something for nothing, though. What we lost was a little bit of that mystique, that sense of the unknowable. Having information at our fingertips about the musical pantheon brings them a lot closer to earth with the rest of us. It's a mixed blessing.

The other aspect of this film that really spoke to me was about recognition and arrival. The filmmaker speaks to Rodriguez's daughters, who knew their father as someone who had put his music out into the world, only to see it immediately sink beneath the surface. When they learn that it finally found its home in South Africa, that those songs were deeply loved by an entire nation of people, the revelation is immensely powerful. They see that their father's spirit, his true self, has been kept alive for all those years. Did the news come too late? Maybe, but I don't think so. See the movie and judge for yourself.

This part of the movie felt allegorical to me. We each have our core, our essence, and as bravely as we can, we express it to the world. Sometimes the world embraces it, sometimes not so much. But it never goes away. It is there, still waiting to be seen and heard. Sometimes, it gets seen and heard in the most unexpected ways, and when that happens, the resulting illumination is a wonder to behold.

IF-Review: Mentula Macanus: Apocolocyntosis

Final entry in the 2012 XYZZY best games review project -- Mentula Macanus: Apocolocyntosis. With tremendous innovation, technical polish, and abundant humor, Adam Thornton upends the medium of interactive fiction with a work that's simultaneously traditionalist and transgressive, a layered and richly allusive delivery system for some highly demented and depraved content. It's a hugely impressive achievement, and I can't imagine anyone else pulling it off. I can't imagine anyone else even trying.

The Avengers

[We interrupt our regularly scheduled IF reviews for this topical superhero discussion. That review of Mentula Macanus is coming soon-- er, on its way.]

I've been reading a lot of 1960s Marvel comics lately, letter columns and all. I did this once before, with just Spider-Man comics, which was a lot of fun. This time I'm skipping around more from title to title, getting a feel for the way the universe gelled, and how the constant stream of feedback from readers contributed to that process. It's really given me a sense for what Marvel did differently back in those early days. For a while there, they could almost do no wrong -- "what they did differently" was more or less synonymous with "what they did right."

Know what else I've been doing a lot lately? Seeing Joss Whedon's Avengers movie. Well, okay, just twice, but that counts as "a lot" in my movie-watching book. The movie is everything I wanted it to be. It was even more satisfying the second time around. Like those early Marvels, it makes the right call pretty much every time. Really: just like those early Marvels.

Continued stories
In 1961, when the Marvel Universe as we know it began, comic books were disposable, not collectible. There was no expectation that whoever bought issue #41 would necessarily have bought issue #40 or have any intention to buy issue #42. Consequently, each one was required to be self-contained, with one story, or even multiple stories, that began and ended within its covers. That's a bit of an oversimplification, but the general expectation was that a comic book contained at least one complete story. Sure, there were motifs that continued from one issue to the next, but they were more or less in the form of an established status quo. Clark Kent always works at the Daily Planet. Lois Lane never gets any closer to figuring out his secret identity. Jimmy Olsen is always just as young and eager and boneheaded as he ever was or ever will be. Stories that deviated from this status quo always made sure to return to it before the issue was over.

Many early Marvels followed this pattern too, though their internal status quo was a fair bit more interesting. However, it quickly became apparent that the stories they wanted to tell were too complex to be contained within a single book. Not only that, they seemed to be attracting older, more sophisticated readers, who might be more reasonably expected to buy a title consistently. So, in many books, "continued stories" became the rule, and whoever read issue #41 might in fact need the previous one or the next one, or several iterations thereof, to get the full tale.

Oh, the complaints that readers sent in about this! The company was accused of greed, insensitivity, poor storytelling, and more. In fact, the hue and cry was so great that at one point Marvel actually abandoned continued stories and tried to keep all issues self-contained. The (predictable) result? Duller, more superficial stories. In fact, it may have almost been a calculated move on their part -- by the time they did it, the Marvel Universe had already been established as an enormous tapestry of characters whose lives regularly interwove, collided, and separated again. To write the very kind of stories they had made obsolete may have been their way of saying, "Oh, this? Is this really what you want?" Needless to say, continued stories returned soon afterwards.

In 2012, the majority of movies are self-contained, but there are plenty of franchises in which each sequel moves the characters along a larger arc. However, what we hadn't seen yet is a movie that ties together multiple franchises in the way that The Avengers does. There are four different lines of movies, each with its own sequel trajectory, that come together in this one. Four sets of stories feed in, and this story will resonate along at least three lines in the future. (I'm not sure if there are going to be any more Hulk movies, though no doubt the success of Avengers makes that outcome more likely. Heck, maybe even Black Widow and Hawkeye will get their own franchises.)

This is an immensely powerful position for a movie to occupy. In the comics, a shared universe gets you several great things:
  • If you're following multiple lines that come together, you get to feel like an insider when the collisions happen. The more lines you follow, the more satisfying this can be.
  • The coherency of each strand is enhanced by its participation in a greater coherent whole. When Spider-Man bursts into Stark Industries, he may wonder why Iron Man isn't showing up. Those of us reading Iron Man know that he's trapped by a villain in another part of the factory, and knowing this lets us feel that both Spidey and Stark are a legitimate part of a larger, grander story.
  • When personalities do come together, especially if they clash, the drama of the encounter is greatly enhanced when each character is fully fleshed out with a detailed background and a story of his own.
The Avengers movie inherits each of these advantages, along with the sheer pleasure of seeing a bunch of great actors thrown into an ensemble cast, and an enormous sense of payoff from the most elaborate setup ever.

These people do not get along
As I said, Marvel set up a fictional universe in which its superheroes were constantly running into each other. And when that would happen, inevitably, they would fight at least once. Fans loved seeing the good guys square off against each other, if only from the geeky desire to take the measure of each hero. And so Stan Lee would contrive some sort of misunderstanding or unusual circumstance that would force the heroes into conflict. Letter columns were always full of people eager to know who would win in a fight: Hulk vs. Thor? Thing vs. Iron Man? Spidey vs. Black Widow? Hero vs. hero conflict gave those fans a little satisfaction, though not always as much as they wanted, given that the story often took a left turn before either hero suffered a full defeat.

The Avengers takes this cue and runs with it. And, uh, now it's probably time for the Collapse )

IF-Review: Cryptozookeeper

Here's another entry in the series of 2012 XYZZY nominees game reviews: Robb Sherwin's Cryptozookeeper. It's the most Sherwin-esque Sherwin game I've yet seen. It's gonzo, it's funny, it's extreme, and it's shambolic, and it's all these things to the most highly refined degree I've ever seen Robb accomplish, which means it's all these things to the most highly refined degree I've ever seen anyone accomplish.

Geek Bowl VI question recap

At Geek Bowl V last year, my team The Anti-Social Network ended up winning all the marbles, except the marbles were actually considerable sums of cash. Hooray! This year, the event moved from Denver to Austin, Texas, and we didn't fare quite so well, coming in 10th out of 146 teams. Still a respectable showing! But not enough to get paid, as only the top 3 teams win money.

Nevertheless, a great time was had! I got to spend quality time with my wonderful teammates, met the delightful Valerie Thatcher, spent a great afternoon with the estimable Rob Wheeler, and got to experience the Austin 6th Street bar strip during a pretty freaky power outage. Turns out that the bar scene is really not my scene, and the bar scene when none of the bars or streetlights have electricity, and thousands of people are roaming through darkness, is really REALLY not my scene.

Of course, the reason I went there was Geek Bowl VI, which now bills itself as the biggest live trivia event in the U.S. It's a pub quiz multiplied by 20, and every year, Geeks Who Drink does a little better job with the event. It's never without its flaws, but it's quite impressive to manage 150 or so teams and deliver a variety of good questions in a fun way. Not to mention the cash prizes, which make for a very cool incentive.

Here's the format: each team has its own small table, with 6 chairs. Quizmasters read questions from the stage, and the questions are also projected onto large screens throughout the venue. Once all the questions in a round have been asked, a two minute timer starts, by the end of which you must have turned in your answer sheet to one of the roaming quizmasters. The game consists of 8 rounds, each with its own theme. Each round contains 8 questions -- usually, each question is worth one point, so there's a maximum possible score of 8 points for each round. However, some rounds offer extra points -- for instance, Round 2 is traditionally a music round, with 8 songs played, and one point each awarded for naming the title and artist of the song. In a regular GWD pub quiz, it's only Round 2 and Round 8 (always the "Random Knowledge" round) that offer 16 possible points. However, in this year's Geek Bowl, two other rounds were upgraded from 8 potential points to 16. Finally, teams can choose one round to "joker", meaning that it earns double points for that round.

For posterity and enjoyment, here are the questions from Geek Bowl VI. Note that I'm reconstructing these from memory and notes, so they may be missing any clever turns of phrase that they might have had originally, and any inaccuracies that result from my paraphrasing are solely my fault. I'll put any commentary about our team's experience in [square brackets].

At the request of Geeks Who Drink, I had taken these down. Then, in a pleasing and surprising turn of events, we had a good conversation over email in which they decided that having the questions posted might be okay after all, as long as they were posted at least a week past the date of the event. So, I'm pleased to say, the questions have returned to this entry! Thanks, Geeks!

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Ice Slowly Melting

A couple of years ago, I wrote about my annual Christmas traditions with my friends Siân and Kelly, a mix CD of songs I've been listening to that year. The songs generally reflect a little something about my life in one way or another, though not perfectly so -- sometimes they're just songs I've imprinted on for some reason. The liner notes tradition has continued as well, but I didn't post the notes from 2010. See, 2010 was a terrible, terrible year. Professionally, it was by far the unhappiest I'd ever been in my job, and personally, my marriage tailspun into a major crisis right at the same time we moved into a new house and my work life was at peak misery. It was very difficult, and painful, and I withdrew from many things and people.

Then came 2011. In January, I started a new job, thank god. I am in a much healthier atmosphere now, and am much, much happier at work. Laura and I finally found the right counselor in the spring, and have healed a lot of things. By the time November rolled around, I had started to emerge from a fair amount of depression, and it was in that mood that I made this year's CD. I feel really happy with the collection, both as a musical collage and as a reflection of my year.

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