Thursday, May 30, 2013

Lonely Souls

I bumped this up from the comments. DeVito has a novella in an ebook.

Lonely Souls

Buy it now!!

'In a strange, violent, debauched future, an assassin confronts a new technology that enables immortality, destroying the value of death, and he begins a quest for oblivion, so goes "Final Kill" by Chris DeVito.

I haven't read it yet, but I know DeVito and if anyone can do strangness, violence and debauchery, it's him!

Zelazny around the web

I know that Jane Lindskold is not everyone's particular cup of tea, but I appreciate the work she did regarding Zelazny's legacy, and I enjoy her writing on her blog.

In the last couple weeks, she's had a couple posts on some of Zelazny's work, and I thought that they would be interesting reading for the folks around here, as she's in a position to offer unique commentary.

Roger Zelazny: Master of Odd Twists

The Role of the Reader's Knowledge

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Not dead yet!

I'm back from vacation, in case you were wondering why I've been so quiet lately. I still hope to have the revised Eye if Cat revised review up soon, but it's looking more like Early June at this point.

Tuesday, May 21, 2013

A great hero deserves great villains

When I lived near Philly, I would listen to WXPN, a college radio station. After their pledge week, they would have a countdown of the top songs or artists or albums. However, since they were 88.5 on the FM dial, it was a countdown of the top EIGHT HUNDRED AND EIGHTY FIVE songs or artists or albums, which was glorious.

It's also kind of pointless, because the only meaningful question, as another local blogger pointed out, is "Would the top three slots be Beatles, Stones, Dylan or Beatles, Dylan, Stones?"

I was thinking about this after my post where I mentioned Batman's and Spiderman's respective rogue's galleries. They definitely occupy the top two slots. (The Flash is the bronze medalist here, in my opinion, but there's a lot less consensus about his position. You could easily put the Fantastic Four's villains here, or the X-Men's.) You can argue if Spidey's are better than Batman's or if it's the other way around, but this question of the top two is mostly settled, as much as anything can be settled in the fan-boyish world of comics discussion.

You know who is not in contention for the best rogue's gallery? Superman! 

Yeah, Brainiac is great, and so are Lex Luthor and Darkseid and General Zod. Those guys are icons! You can probably include Mxyzptlk. He's not really my cup of tea, but sure, we'll stick him in the top tier of Superman adversaries. 

And just beneath them we have Doomsday, Bizarro, the Parasite, Metallo, a bit one note, but entertaining for a change of pace.

And beneath them...

I was flipping through my copy of DC Adventures: Heroes and Villains, Volume 2, when I saw the entry for the Prankster. Then I flipped ahead, and saw the entry for the Toyman.

Jesus Christ. He's fucking SUPERMAN. Does he really need TWO non-powered toy-themed supervillains? 

They're holdovers from the early days of the franchise (they debuted about a year apart in the early 40s) and some effort has been made to differentiate them. The Prankster uses practical joke themed devices and the Toyman uses toy-themed devices. But at the end of the day, they're still fighting Superman, to whom it doesn't particularly matter if they've glued accessories on their ray gun to make it like a joy buzzer OR a jack-in-the-box. It melts under his heat vision pretty much the same. 

These are guys that the Clock King finds embarrassing. No wonder some people hate Superman. 

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Four things that Josh is NOT outraged about

Since my friends have pointed out that I've spent a lot of time complaining about things that I don't like, here are four things that I'm not complaining about.

Renaming Captain Marvel as Shazam. 

Because that's what everybody called him anyway.  I even like his new costume, with its hood. 

Shazam was the name of the wizard who gave him his powers, 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.

In theory, Captain Marvel is a really interesting character.  (Check out what each of the letters gives him! ) In practice, he usually winds up being an off-brand Superman. 

Not always, though, as there are quite a few good Captain Marvel stories out there. The Monster Society of Evil was really fun (loved Mary Marvel) and  The Return of Black Adam was entertaining too.

Since he has such close ties to Greek Mythology, I always thought there was a great story with Wonder Woman waiting to be written.

Merida's redesign

 Gone are the wild tight curls, relaxed now into auburn waves. Her waist is cinched, her bust inflated: skinnier and sexier is the new Merida, star of Brave. And gone, in some of the new art, is that troublesome weapon: no fit thing for a Disney princess, after all. Fans and websites lamenting the changes, chief among them A Mighty Girl, have spearheaded a petition seeking to convince Disney to change its mind.

The redesign of Merida in advance of her official induction to the Disney Princess collection does a tremendous disservice to the millions of children for whom Merida is an empowering role model ... In an interview with Pixar Portal, "Brave" writer and co-director Brenda Chapman stated, "Because of marketing, little girls gravitate toward princess products, so my goal was to offer up a different kind of princess — a stronger princess that both mothers and daughters could relate to, so mothers wouldn't be pulling their hair out when their little girls were trying to dress or act like this princess. Instead they'd be like, ‘Yeah, you go girl!’”
There seems a deliciously vile bait-and-switch element to it all: design a character that will attract parents resistant to the traditional messaging, then recast it in same old mold once they've sold it to their daughters for you.

I think the thing got me suspicious is the line: "And gone, in some of the new art, is that troublesome weapon: no fit thing for a Disney princess, after all." I really think they're trying to misrepresent what's happening. Merida isn't pictured with her bow in all of the old art either, so it's disingenuous to complain it's not featured in every piece of of the redesigned character. (Though with wording like "deliciously vile bait-and-switch", we're clearly not getting an unbiased view)

When Rapunzel was introduced as an official princess, she underwent a similar process and for what I think is a similar reason, a CG character would look out of place next to characters based on hand-drawn animation. Further, at least based on the pictures with the article, I don't think her bust has been inflated. If it looks any larger, I think it's because her waist is in fact narrower, but that's because she has been redrawn as a cartoon.

Let's take a look at some of the toys that launched with the movie.

"Disney Pixar Brave Gem Styling Merida Doll"
Merida's been marketed like this from the beginning. Not that this is great by any means, but it's false to suggest the redesign represents a sudden shift of the part of Disney.

There are troubling aspects of princess culture and no shortage of legitimate issues of sexism in our society. I don't think this is one of them, though. 

Krypton existing

I talked this over at some length with my friend Phil. A lot of fans have their outside-of-the-tights panties in a twist because a rumor surfaced that Krypton might still be around in the Man of Steel movie. 

I don't think it's that big a deal. Despite the whole "Last Son of Krypton" moniker, there are generally at least a handful of other Krytonians running around at any given time anyway, and that's before you even get into Kandor or New Krypton, to say nothing of Krypto the Super-Dog, Streaky the Super-Cat, Comet the Super-Horse and Beppo the Super-Monkey (Also, if you knew that Beppo and Krypto were from Krypton, but Comet and Streaky were not, congratulations.  NERD!) An absent Krypton is an element of Superman's origin, but it's not such an essential element that it can't removed. 

On one hand, I think there is certainly a change-for-the-sake-of-change element to it. On the other, I think this is the best route to the story they want to tell. If they want to have other Kryptonians as a vital component of the story, it's easier (and better, I think) to say that there *are* other Kryptonians in the universe, rather than saying "Krypton exploded, but these characters survived because whateverwhatever because they're needed for the story". If this story needs a bunch of Kryptonians, I'd rather that Krypton still exists rather than having them come up with some needlessly complicated excuse why these guys are around.

I'm actually cautiously optimistic about this. I think the biggest misstep of the new Doctor Who series was destroying Gallifrey, because the Doctor's interactions with his peers were always my favorite stories. I think this is a great way to introduce adversaries that can contest with him on a purely physical basis without relying on the crutch of kryptonite.

Michael B. Jordan as Johnny Storm

Michael B. Jordan is being discussed as a candidate for Johnny Storm in the upcoming Fantastic Four reboot. I know him from his role as Alex on Parenthood and he's a pretty good actor. 

This is what Johnny Storm usually looks like

This is what Michael B. Jordan looks like

And some people have a problem with that. Their main complaint is that a white actress appears to be the frontrunner to play Sue Storm, his sister. Presumably they'll be adopted or step-siblings in this continuity. 

Also, Johnny Storm often looks like this, 

so the issue of his race is even less of an issue than it would be with other heroes. 

And while Jeff "Life will, uh, find a way", Goldblum, who is Jewish and ten feet tall, was not entirely convincing in his role as father to a petite African-American girl in Jurassic Park II, I think this kind of thing can work. Everyone knows blended families in real life, but they are seldom encountered in fiction, except when they're the focus of the story. I've always liked the Fantastic Four, who at their core, are a family who happen to be superheroes, and family is about more than simply having the same parents. 

Tuesday, May 14, 2013

Fixed your BatMath

I was going to keep this to myself. A friend posted a "Batmath" image on his wall on Facebook, where Batman is "greater than" Iron Man by virtue of an EMP (because it would never occur to Tony Stark to harden his suit against an electromagnetic pulse like the military does to their gear in the real world) and greater than Superman as long as Batman takes the precaution of snuffing out the sun first. I didn't agree with it, but I saw no need to reply, because it's kind of a jerky act to say "Ha ha, you suck for liking that" and while I've certainly been guilty of that, I am making a real effort to avoid that kind of behavior.

However, another friend posted the Batmath poster to my wall. Okay, it's ON, Jeremy!

We'll start with this poster.

That's better!

In my review of Injustice, I lamented the fact that, Superman is often written by people who don't like what they think he represents. I don't like Batman, and I was wondering what a Batman story by someone who hates Batman would look like. My first thought was "Short," because I categorically reject the central thesis of Batman, that someone who works out a lot can compete with and often, trivially surpass people who can lift supertankers or who have alien wishing rings that bring their thoughts to life. A supervillain would throw a van at him and Batman would belatedly realize that he can't backflip out of the way and would wind up smeared across the a nearby building.

You don't generally get Batman stories by people who hate the idea of Batman. (Except All Star Batman and Robin, but Frank Miller hates everything these days.)

My friend Eric has accused me of being contrarian. I don't think that's true. I don't hate Batman because he's popular. In fact, I think he works as a street level hero. He's a great pulp character, twenty-first century Doc Savage. (Batman has his origins in Doc's era, after all) He has an outstanding Rogue's Gallery, second only to Spider-Man's. (Some people argue that Batman's stable of villains is better than Spidey's, but come on. They each feature a portly middle-aged man as a villain. Batman's sports an umbrella and a speech impediment, and Spidey's has four killer robot death tentacles strapped to his back. Advantage: Spider-man)


Superman is still the flagship hero for DC, but I'm almost positive that Batman outsells him, possibly by a considerable margin. Superman might edge him when it comes to casual fans, but Batman is far and away more popular among hardcore comic geeks. 

I think a big part of that is how geeks view the world. I used to hang out with a fellow called the Lord. (Because he proclaimed he was the Lord of the elves, of course) Knowing him and working in a comic shop has brought me to the conclusion that nerds/geeks/whatever name you want to use for genre fans tend to think they're smarter than the population at large. I think this stems, in large part, from knowing a lot about trivial information that the general population doesn't care about. The Lord knew more about the stat block for the empress of the elves than most people, so he therefore extrapolated that he was smarter than most people about most things. 

As MightyGodKing said in a brilliant piece on Brainiac 5Nerds always love thinkers and planners, because the idea of not having any superpower other than “I’m smarter than you” is one most nerds imagine themselves to already have. 

I won't say that everyone who likes Batman likes him for this reason, but I do think that is a large part of his appeal for a certain percentage of his fans, the super-nerd who defeats the jocks by being smarter and therefore better than them.

Batman has his own supporting characters. Moreso than any other property except for the various Lantern Corps, Batman exists in his own continuity. That's where he works best, and I would even go so far as to say that he works well there. Look, I even said something nice about Batman! 

The problem is when you remove Batman from this milieu and plug him into the larger DC Universe. A gym membership and shark repellent don't carry a lot of weight in a world of jet-powered apes and time travel. To return to my earlier point, I don't hate Batman because he's popular. I hate Batman, because in order for him to work in the larger DCU, the other characters around him have to be dumbed down to the point where they're unrecognizable. 

Much has been made of Batman's contingency plans, an element for which I have particular distaste. Batman can beat anyone, according to the internets, as long as he has time to plan.  I was arguing with an eleven-year-old about this just last week.

The Tower of Babel storyline was a decent idea marred by a dreadful execution. The gist is that Batman has sooper sekret plans to take down the other members of the Justice League, but they get stolen and implemented without his knowledge. Having such plans is a reasonable precaution. They weren't great plans, mind you and if you need some Rube Goldberg darkly ironic Spectre-esque machinations to take down Aquaman, maybe you're not ready to play with the big boys just yet.

If you have intimate knowledge of and unquestioning trust from your buddies, it's not really that tricky to incapacitate them, is it? ("Kyle, let me see your ring for a minute," "Sure, Batman" *Bang*) And they're not even good plans, since easy access to the targets and the exotic materials (nanobots, red kryptonite) is such a fundamental part of them. 

I think the JLA was right to be pissed, not because Batman was plotting against them, but because he did such a shitty job of safeguarding their weaknesses and secret identities. 

Superman has a contingency plan to stop the league if they turn evil, too. It goes like this: "Set J'onn on fire, kill everyone else with my heat vision."

I think "Batman is underestimated because he's only human, but comes out on top by exploiting that" is a story that can work.  Buuuuuuuut, it works best when done sparingly. If you're constantly vanquishing Daxamites with effortless ease, sooner or later the powers that be are going to start taking you seriously. When I had my discussion with the eleven-year-old, he was able to cite numerous instances where Batman beat up Superman and challenged me to provide some counterexamples. That's the thing. Batman as unbeatable is cemented in nerd culture. Either he's the underdog or the uberdog. He can't be both.

I thought Morrison did the definitive Batman as underdog story with his initial arc in the late 90s JLA. The other leaguers are captured by the Hyperclan. They've shot down Batman's jet, but don't search the wreckage. 

The reason they don't search the wreckage is because they're White Martians. Think Superman, but with the additional powers of shapeshifting, telepathy and intangibility, but a vulnerability to fire. The Hyperclan had disguised themselves as heroes, by using their shapeshifting and by each member limiting himself to using just one or two of his Martian powers. Because they didn't search the flaming wreckage when it would have been logical for them to do so, Batman gets the final piece to the puzzle and is able to deduce their identity. (Superman and, of course, the Martian Manhunter figure it out on their own too, though later on, which I felt was a really nice touch.)

It works because they underestimate Batman, he has a couple lucky breaks and he has the rest of the Justice League running interference, which is a point that doesn't come up enough. I remember Batman bitching something along the lines of "I'm not invulnerable, so I can't run around in a brightly colored costume," which is kind of an asshole thing to say, because the only reason you get to run around in your slightly less brightly colored costume is because you have your teammates drawing fire away from you. (To say nothing of the fact that the young boys that you adopt and dress in garish costumes tend to die with alarming frequency)
That's what SHE said!

I've written elsewhere on the difficulties of writing truly intelligent characters. Even if you're smarter than the average bear, odds are is that your audience is not. It's a really tricky balancing act making your smart characters seem smart while still allowing your audience to understand what's going on. A common compromise is making everyone else a little slower than they are when they appear away from Batman, but that's not something I like either, because it's so clearly a cheat. 

A common complaint against Superman is that he's too powerful and boring because of that. I would argue that Batman is worse, because "Batman always wins". It could be interesting seeing Batman pluck victory from the jaws of defeat in the hands of a good writer, but for every Grant Morrison or Dwayne McDuffie, there are a dozen Rob Liefelds. Batman winning is a foregone conclusion, so the only interesting question is how he does it. Unfortunately, too often, the answer comes down to writer's fiat, (Good will always win because evil is dumb?) and the whole thing smacks of kabuki.

Clearly, I don't like Batman. I would be the last person you'd want writing a Batman story. However, since people who hate Superman write Superman stories which actually see print with some frequency, these are the stories I, as someone who hates Batman, would write.

1.) Beaten by a random encounter: Take away Batman's narrative immunity and this is the most probable outcome. Casually sliced in half by some hopped up street punk with super-powers, or for extra piquancy, killed by a lucky shot from a $50 handgun during a liquor store robbery. 

2.) Dark Knight Proxy Battle Theory: I read this on a message board, so I can't vouch for its accuracy directly, but there is apparently a school of thought that Batman's battles with the Joker are actually proxy battles, and despite all the horror and death, Batman is actually keeping things from escalating by keeping the Joker entertained in limited conflicts. If the Joker got bored, then he'd cause real damage. 

I like the Joker as a primal engine of chaos even less than I like the Batgod. The Joker's psychiatrist in the Dark Knight Return is a villain, but, well, he's not really wrong, is he? The Joker is catatonic until Batman returns.

In this version, Batman can stop the Joker whenever he wants, but he enjoys the sparring. He doesn't want the Joker to kill those all those people, but hey, a bunch of dead cub scouts is just the cost of doing business, a regrettable but unavoidable consequence of Batman's favorite passtime. 

3.) Joker easily stopped by actual super-heroes: Near the end of the 90s, there was an arc in the Batman books where Gotham City was devastated by a huge earthquake. In one of the tie-in issues, the JLA offers to help, and Batman, for reasons I can't quite remember, refuses that help. I'd like to see an actual superhero (instead of someone who just dresses up like one) clean up Gotham over the course of a lazy weekend. 

4.) Batman, Human Supremacist:  This one is hardly a stretch at all. It's pretty clear that Batman is no fan of people with actual superpowers. "Powers are a crutch, blah blah blah, crying cakes, this isn't sour grapes." I'd like to see an Elseworlds Batman as a fully blown human supremacist,  a Bolivar Trask or a Graydon Creed who wants to extinguish anyone he can't control. Perhaps he could launch an array of satellites to monitor all the metahumans in the world. Or is that too blatantly the act of a supervillain

5.) Batman, Mass Murderer: 

Jason Todd: [to Batman] Ignoring what he's done in the past. Blindly, stupidly disregarding the entire graveyards he's filled, the thousands who have suffered, the friends he's crippled. You know, I thought... I thought I'd be the last person you'd ever let him hurt. If it had been you that he beat to a bloody pulp, if he had taken you from this world, I would've done nothing but search the planet for this pathetic pile of evil, death-worshiping garbage and then send him off to hell!
Batman: You don't understand. I don't think you've ever understood.
Jason Todd: What? What, your moral code just won't allow for that? It's too hard to cross that line?
Batman: No! God Almighty, no! It'd be too damned easy. All I've ever wanted to do is kill him. A day doesn't go by when I don't think about subjecting him to every horrendous torture he's dealt out to others and then... end him.
Joker: Awwww! So you do think about me.
Batman: But if I do that, if I allow myself to go down into that place, I'll never come back.

The stock answer for why Batman doesn't kill the Joker is a paraphrase of the lines above. Because Batman will instantly crack and start killing people all the time. I think that is, to put it mildly, a rather specious response. 

Avatar: The Last Airbender handled this thing profoundly better. "Here is my wisdom for you: selfless duty calls for you to sacrifice your own spiritual needs, and do whatever it takes to protect the world." Sometimes going the right thing is about making difficult choices, even ones that conflict with your personal values.

However, if we buy into the belief that once he starts down that dark path, forever will it dominate his destiny, I'd kind of be interested in reading a Batman as a villain story, and not in the same "ha ha, fuck Batman" way I would enjoy the rest of these scenarios. I really dug the Lex Luthor: Black Ring arc and I think this would have the potential to be something similar.

6.) Batman the Fascist: We saw shades of this is Kingdom Come.

7.) Batman, Sex Fiend and Pimp: One of the opening issues of the new 52 featuring Batman and Catwoman getting it on with some sweaty, grindy costumed rooftop sex. Apparently Batman is okay with some criminals, but only as long as he gets to bang them. Stay classy, Bruce.

However, this could be a fertile ground for an interesting Batman story. We could have Catwoman do something horrid, or have Bats taken to task for playing favorites among the Gotham Underworld. I'd be interested in seeing him as a kingpin, choosing between the lesser evils, playing favorites and angrily justifying it until he's taken down. 

8.) Batman, worthless:

I always liked this passage from Excession, one of the Culture novels, because it appeals to my anti-Batman sensibilities. 

The attack had been too sudden, too extreme, too capable. The plans the ship had made, of which it was an important part, could only anticipate so much, could only allow for so proportionally greater a technical capability on the part of the attacker. Beyond a certain point, there was simply nothing you could do; there was no brilliant plan you could draw up or some cunning stratagem you could employ that would not seem laughably simple and and unsophisticated to a profoundly more developed enemy.

Sometimes it just comes down to numbers, how strong you are, how fast you are. One of the central conceits of the Batgod is that powers make you lazy. Or something. That Batman is the only person in the universe who works to improve himself and everyone else coasts on what God (or the Speed Force or the Guardians) gave them. It's pretty weak.

There are two variations of this I'd like to see. One is a crisis where Batman has nothing to contribute. He's just dead weight and there is nothing he can do that can't be done faster and better by his powered cohorts. 

The other would be a metahuman Batman. Someone who can catch bullets and bench press armored cars and still drives himself to exhaustion. Someone better than Batman in every way. Again, this could be an interesting story, and not just a "ho ho, Josh gets to watch Batman get his comeuppance", because it would be an interesting story seeing him come to terms with the fact that no matter how hard he pushed himself, he would never be as good as the other guy.  

I'm not a big fan of Geoff Johns, but I do love the writing in his scene.

What would I like to see in a Batman story? As I said above, I do think he works as a street level/pulp character. I could see him as an Oracle type coordinator in a JLA setting, but not on the front lines. As Wonderful as the JLA show was, it was too often Batman and his Amazing Friends. Morrison made him work for a while, but that's Grant Morrison.  

Saturday, May 11, 2013


Apparently I exhausted my stockpile of interesting posts during April.

I gave my old smartphone to Lily when I upgraded earlier in the year, and she bedazzled it and started using it as a camera and a music player.

Recently, the camera function has started behaving oddly. I took the picture below earlier today, and holy Christ, it's rather unnerving. I think the camera pierces the veil between our universe and the anti-matter mirror universe.

Here's a picture of Counter-Lily, who listens to her parents and eats her anti-matter vegetables.

Monday, May 6, 2013

Best Sunday Ever

I wasn't going to write about this, but a friend mentioned that she always enjoys my Lily posts, so I figured I might as well do it.

Lily complained about a sore throat on Thursday and we didn't think too much of it until we were called to pick her up from school. Jen got her and took her to the doctor, who confirmed it was strep throat. She prescribed some antibiotics and Lily mended quickly, though she we kept her home from  school on Friday as well as from her usual Friday playdate.

She mended pretty quickly and by Saturday, we were in good enough shape to head down to the local farmer's market, which was just opening for the season. Lily loves it because there are always so many dogs for her to pet. 

We had a pleasent visit, then came back home and watched Vampire Dog, which was terrible. It had Norm McDonald as the voice of a vampire dog who loves what everyone in the movie called "jelly", but what was actually a fruit-flavored gelatin dessert more commonly known as Jell-O. I know that Jell-O is called jelly in the UK and Europe, but in the US, it's called jello, damnit!

Obviously the Jell-O people wanted nothing to do with this movie, so we're left with a bunch of characters referring to what's clearly Jell-O as jelly. Which by itself is not a bad thing. It can sometimes be fun to refer to a brand name product with a wink and a nod without mentioning the product's name. However, it's kind of weird here, because the word "jelly" describes something distinct and completely different from "Jell-O". You're taking a specific word that applies to a specific thing and using it to describe something that already has a name. When I mentioned this to Lily, she said "Yeah, you noticed that too?"

After that we went to a local carnival. Carnivals aren't really my cup of tea, but we've taken Lily to this one every year since she was born, so we had to go. We didn't want to spend a lot of money because we have a vacation coming up and we'll be spending our money there, but tickets were so pricey and rides cost so many tickets that it was a better deal to drop the thirty bucks and buy Lily a wristband.

I snapped this picture while she was waiting in line and this is already one of my favorites. She looks so thoughtful here.

She had a great time and went on a ton of rides, so I guess that was money well spent.

Sunday was interesting. I was flipping through a book that mentioned "Unnatural Creatures of Unspeakable Evil" and Lily's first reaction, on reading that, was to exclaim "Unnatural Creatures of Unspeakable Evil! Let me see!" as detailed here.

Then we talked about Andy Warhol. She had learned about him in art class and she was telling me all about him.

I told her about the Batman movie he had made, but she didn't seem too interested. It's a shame, because it's the most accurate depiction of Batman ever produced.

(My friend Tim and I saw some clips of this when we visited the Alex Ross exhibit at the Norman Rockwell museum. The display implied that it never occurred to anyone until filming was almost completed that DC might have a problem with someone else making a film about their intellectual property.)

Then we talked about squids versus whale. She had a book from the library from Scholastic's Who Would Win series, which is like a kind of deadliest warrior of the animal kingdom, and oh my god, it's like the coolest idea for a book ever!

I figured that the giant squid would have the advantage, because it could hold the whale underwater until it ran out of air, but apparently that's not the case. Sperm Whales are considered predators in this relationship. I'm still pulling for the giant squid, because I'm a sucker for the underdog.


Jen and Lily went to church and had a pot luck lunch and then we rendezvoused at home before taking off to meet up with Frederick and Danny at Frederick's place.  Danny's a good kid, but he made it a point of saying that he has better things to do than read my blog, so I'm just going to say that he sat in the parking lot while wearing a diaper and hitting himself in the face with a salmon, saying "I'm a big, poopy poophead." If it really matters to him, he can swing by and contest this claim.

Then we all headed over to the local Build-A-Bear, because Lily still had a little credit from last time. She made a cat named Charlotte. Lily almost put the Star Wars theme in Charlotte's paw (you can pay to add something that makes noise when you squeeze the appropriate paw), but wound up going with a meow sound at the last minute.

We went to the Army-Navy store to see about getting a bow for Lily because she showed some interest in the activity, but they no longer carry archery equipment. I used to love that store when it was all cool surplus stuff, but now it's all novelty t-shirts and branded camping gear.

We picked up some of the series 10 minifigures at Toys R Us. Lily got the same figure twice, but Frederick was good enough to swamp the warrior princess for one of them.

We had dinner at the Golden Corral. The line stretched out the door, but Frederick and Danny were good company, so we didn't mind.

The food was delicious, and both Jen and I were stuffed for hours afterward. Lily, on the other hand, said she was hungry while we were driving home, so make of that what you.

We returned to Frederick's house and played a game I never even knew existed. It's Yoostar 2, which is kind of a video karaoke game. The camera records the player, who acts out various classic and not-so-classic movie scenes. Lily fought Godzilla. We all had a ball.

On the way out, Frederick gave Lily an extra copy of his Mister Good and Evil. Jen expressed polite interest and Lily said, "Every good thing he does is a little bit bad and every bad thing is a little bit good."

Jen: Oh, that's interesting.
Me: That's from the Lego minifigure website. She read that once, several months ago.
Jen: (To Frederick) And that's why we can never get away with anything with her.

Always great to see Frederick and Danny. It was a really fun (though slightly pricey) weekend. Lily said it was the best Sunday she ever had.

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Unnatural Creatures of Unspeakable Evil

I had an idea for a post and I was doing a little reading up for it while I was eating my breakfast. (The post will be "Could a Beholder take a Dalek?" if you're curious)

I was flipping through the book when Lily came rocketing down the stairs. "What are you reading?" she asked.

I showed her the back cover.

"Oh!" She said "Unnatural Creatures of Unspeakable Evil! Can I see?"

"Um, no. You're six years old." I put the book on the far side of the table.

Lily reached over and opened the book. "Oh! I like this picture!" (A mind flayer Elder Brain) "That looks weird!" (Gibbering mouther), "That looks cute!" (Hound of the gloom)

I took the book back. "It's cute now, but it's not going to seem cute at bedtime."

She sulked a little bit, but I think it's funny that I'm raising a kid who's first reaction to "Unnatural Creatures of Unspeakable Evil" is "Oh, can I see?"

Wednesday, May 1, 2013

The List of the Top Ten Best Princesses of All Time

I was having some pizza with Lily, when we decided to make a list of the best princesses. Lily is six and outgrowing princess culture. She's observed that a lot of princesses don't do much of anything. They dance and wear fancy dresses and throw parties and once in a while get kidnapped and rescued. Lily wants more out of her princesses than that and I don't blame her.

Here is our top ten. We've limited the list to actual royalty, which disqualified a couple characters who would have otherwise been included, but look for them at the end of the post.

10.) Ariel, the little mermaid: The most traditional princess selection on the list. Anybody not know this story? Sings some songs, sees a boy, falls in love, forbidden to see him, sells her voice to a sea witch. Ursula, the mer-octopus (there's even a word for them: Cecaelia. How great is that?) is a more interesting character to me at this point than Ariel. In researching this piece I came across an article someone had written titled "Ursula is the best Disney Princess" and makes a compelling case. 

Ariel is okay. Her story is hardly the feminist ideal to which I'd like my daughter to aspire (throw everything away chasing after a boy and become a child bride at 16), but it's an entertaining enough story with some good songs. 

9.) Princess Kida: Hey, remember Atlantis: The Lost Empire? It was a great movie, and it's universally beloved by the three people who have seen it.  On watching it for the first time, Lily observed "Kida is more adventurous than most princesses."  I think she scores as high as she does because the film was so novel (for a Disney princess movie) and it has a great look and a unique style. 

8.)  Starfire: From the Teen Titans cartoon, of course, not the blow-up doll from the new 52. The Teen Titans is one of the more underrated series out there. It appeals to kids without being patronizing, and there's a real joy to it that cartoons often forget. Starfire is an alien princess who doesn't understand earth, but she's played with this infectious enthusiasm, so what could have been annoying is instead a pleasure to watch.

7.) Princess Vespa: This is Lily's choice. I put the question out there on Facebook and a couple people suggested Vespa, but in truth, she had already made the list. I showed her Spaceballs, recalling that though it had its ribald moments, it wasn't that bad and I could just mute the bad words. The memory cheats. It is insanely inappropriate. She was quite taken with Princess Vespa, however. According to Lily, she's prettier than Princess Leia too.

6.) Merida:  I like Brave, but the movie kind of sags in the middle.  My friend Tim observed that the movie has no b-story, and consequently, the story seems a bit thin, ably articulating problems I wasn't able to identify. I wrote about the movie in more detail here.

I like Merida, but I want to like her more. Merida is...complicated. She's independent, but she's more than a little...bratty. Nothing to show that you're ready to chart your own course like throwing a tantrum in front of your parent's friends and then poisoning your mom.

And yet, I love her for her flaws. Lily says that I only like characters who make mistakes and I think that's true. Merida wanted a quick and easy solution to her problems, things didn't turn out as planned and she most of the movie trying to undo the effects of that rash action. Everyone makes mistakes. What matters is how we react to them. 

5.) Rapunzel: Tangled is great another movie. I wrote about it here Review of Tangled (And for a grown man, I sure spend a lot of time writing about princesses.) It's marred somewhat by its ending (cutting her hair should have been Rapunzel's decision), but a great movie nevertheless. Also fun, How it should have ended.

4.) Giselle: Her eligibility is borderline, because it's never made explicit that she's actually a princess. She lives in a cottage with woodland creatures, which is not something princesses are known to do, but so did Aurora (Sleeping Beauty). Let's assume that she's a princess in exile or something. And I'm fudging my own rule to include her on the list, but come on! You can't have a list of the best princesses without Giselle!

At once an embrace and subversion of the princesses that have come before her. Amy Adams is outstanding in the role. I can't imagine anyone doing it better. 

I mentioned above how cartoons often lack joy, but that's not a problem with Enchanted. It never makes a misstep. Sure it pokes fun at the tropes of Disney movie, but it's done with love and reverence. 

3.) Princess Leia: "Aren't you a little short for a stormtrooper?" Oh, burn! Apparently one of a handful of women in the galaxy. Crack shot with a blaster, backtalks Darth Vader and Grand Moff Tarkin, strangles a gangster with her chains. She's smart, she's tough, she's a great leader.

2.) Nausicaä: Not actually Lily's number two choice, but I'm exercising veto power in my position as the person who is doing the actual typing. Nausicaä is the lead character in Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind.

Her creator, Hayou Miyazaki said Nausicaä is not a protagonist who defeats an opponent, but a protagonist who understands, or accepts. Not that she's incapable of kicking some butt when it's required. Lily suggested a movie marathon the weekend before the return to school to celebrate the last day of summer.   At one point she asked, "Can we watch the movie about the super strong princess?"

I felt the hairs on the back of my neck rise as Jen turned her gaze on me.

"What movie is that?" I asked.

"The one where she's friends with the giant roly polys."

"Oh," I said. "Nausicaä." Then I added, "They're not roly polys, they're Ohmu." 

Back before she was born, we decorated Lily's room with an underwater theme. We didn't want to go pink, because neither of us is thrilled about the whole princess culture (There's a great book with a great title called Cinderella Ate My Daughter about it), but if she has to be in to princesses, I think Nausicaä is just about the best one out there. 

The name of the character comes from the Odyssey  She's the young woman who helps Odysseus one of the seven or eight times he washes up on shore over the course of the story. I found this account while I was researching this piece: 

Miyazaki's impression of Homer's Nausicaä came through an account of her in a translation of one of Bernard Evslin’s handbooks of Greek mythology. From Evslin’s description Miyazaki imagined a fearless, compassionate, beautiful, and spirited girl who delighted in nature and spurned convention—an image he admits being somewhat disappointed to see did not seem so splendidly displayed in the Odyssey

She's such a great character. She's not super-strong either, but Lily was referring to my very favorite scenes in the movie and one of my favorite scenes in any movie.  Nausicaä  is out at the periphery of the village and when a bunch of airships land and start disgorging troops. She sees that they're heading for her father, the king, so she starts running to his room.

 The scene cuts to him, an old man, sitting up in his bed. He unsheathes his sword and lays it on his lap. He tells his advisor to hide and she tells him that she'll be staying. We see the troops enter the room, and then the scene cuts to the outside, where we hear the sound of a gunshot. Nausicaä  hears it too, and she sprints up the final flight of stairs and when she bursts into the room and sees these men standing over her father's body, she completely flips the bleep out and demolishes the squad with nothing more than the small staff she was carrying.

 When more troops arrive, these in full plate armor, she picks up a fallen sword and sets on them too.

She's about to kill one of them when Master Yupa, her mentor, leaps into the room and intercepts thrust the blade of the sword with his arm. He has his knife ready to go through the neck slit of the commander's armor, and as his blood drips down the blade, he lectures the commander for violating the rules of engagement, then says to Nausicaä that if they fight here and now, the invaders will massacre the people of the village in retaliation. 

It's not an attitude often found in American movies, where only quislings cooperate with the enemy and naked defiance and open violence are the only avenues to victory. It reminds me of two quotes I like:

At fifteen life had taught me undeniably that surrender, in its place, was as honorable as resistance, especially if one had no choice. - Maya Angelou

Be patient. You are not winning a game called justice, you are living a life called justice. Bertolt Brecht tells the story of a man living alone who answers a knock at the door. There stands Tyranny, armed and powerful, who asks, "Will you submit?" The man does not reply. He steps aside. Tyranny enters and takes over. The man serves him for years. Then Tyranny mysteriously becomes sick from food poisoning. He dies. The man opens the door, gets rid of the body, comes back to the house, closes the door behind him, and says, firmly, "No." 

1.) Princess Diana of Themyscira, aka "Wonder Woman: When we were first spitballing the list, I asked Lily who she thought would be on the list and she said, as matter-of-factly as I've ever heard anyone say anything, "Well, Wonder Woman would be first, obviously."

Wonder Woman, woman of the hour, with her super-power. 

Her career has not always been kind to her. Her costume is kind of silly (and is not improved by giving her pants, Jim Lee!), her backstory is constantly being rewritten, and no one ever seems to know what to do with her.

I forget who made the observation, but someone once said that male superheroes look like athletes and female superheroes look like models. Wonder Woman is one of the few who is occasionally drawn looking like an athlete, and I really like that. Yes, women can be muscular too. It's nothing to be ashamed of.

I love this picture of Wonder Woman.

Sometimes she wears hoplite armor, which is the kind of thing I think she should wear all the time, to be honest.

Isn't that better than a star-spangled swimsuit?

She predates World War II and her characterization has been all over the map, but at heart, she is an ambassador from a paradise to the outside world, trying to lead by example. 

Lily asked if I could post the following so everyone could see. How could I refuse?

"I like princesses who are brave, and pretty but not too fancy, and don't always wear their crowns. 

Like Wonder Woman, even though she usually wears her crown.

From Lily

(Wonder Woman looks nice. I'm kind of envying her hair.)"

She didn't want me to include that last part, but come on. Wonder Woman does have nice hair.

Disney Princesses: 

Mulan: Mulan might have made the top ten, except for the fact that she's not actually a princess. But when her father is going to be conscripted, she disguises herself as a man and fights in his place. 

I totally called the plot twist in a movie for six year old girls. (Stupid Huns. You can't hide in a dragon when Josh is on the job.) The villain's death certificate reads "Death through horrific misadventure", which is pretty par for the course for Disney Villains. 

My big complaint was about the voice acting. I'm just not a big fan of celebrity voice actors. Harvey Fierstein and Eddie Murphy, both lent their extremely distinctive voices to the film and I kept imagining the pair of them in a recording studio. Miguel Ferrer is an actor whom I really enjoy and he performed the voice of the lead villain. The movie had a lot of Asian actors in small parts, but the main characters were all famous Americans trying to talk with accents, which didn't thrill me.  

Snow White: Snow White was the first full length animated film of its kind. It's from 1938, and while beautiful and ground-breaking, it doesn't hold up well 75 years later. Snow White is an utter cypher. However, she paved the way for what would follow. 

Sleeping Beauty: True to the name, I fell asleep watching this movie. Aurora is no one's favorite princess. I did like the character design on the fairies though.

Cinderella: I like the movie more than the Princess. Cinderella is pretty much the archetypal Disney princess, heart of gold, persecuted for no fault of her own, waiting for someone to deliver her. That's fine. She's not much of a go-getter, though.

The movie is really well put together. One doesn't usually notice the pacing on a cartoon, but this was so well constructed that it would seem artificial if it wasn't done so perfectly. The evil stepmother is evil in minor, petty, believable ways, and seems so much scarier because of it. 

Belle: I hate to say this, but, as much as I love Belle, she talks the talk, but doesn't walk the walk. "There must be more than this provincial life!" Your elderly father goes off to invention fairs! You're content to sit around reading in a meadow all day and singing about how boring your life is. 

And, admittedly, she eventually steps up, but she didn't change her situation. Someone changed it for her. And that's an understandable trait, and one I share to a certain extent. And I never thought I'd be quoting the Offspring in reference to a Disney princess, but there's a line in "Cool to Hate" that always struck me as being very true. "I like to hate stuff/cause then I don't have to try to make a change." It's easier to curse the darkness. 

And it sounds like I don't like Belle, but I really do. She's smart, she's brave, she's tough, she's principled. So, she needed a little nudge before she could grow to her potential. That's true for a lot of people.

Pocahontas: I'm sentimental about Pocahontas because I saw the movie right when I started dating Jen. I was working nights then, and I bought a stuffed Meeko and put it on her car after my shift ended in the morning. 

I think Pocahontas as a Princess has a number of problems, not the least of which is that she's the Indian Princess viewed through Privileged White People Idealism. Still, the movie had nice songs.

Tiana:  "The Princess & the Frog" was Lily's first movie in the theater when she was three years old. I was concerned that she wouldn't be old enough for the whole theater experience, but she was really good throughout the whole thing. The closest thing we had to an incident was when we had a potty break and she wanted to wash her hands in the urinal, but really, who among us hasn't made that mistake?

Tiana is a pretty good princess and almost seems a response to the issues raised here and elsewhere about the other princesses. Wishing is only going to get you so far. It's hard work that really gets things done.

Overall, the movie was really nice. Oprah Winfrey was in it as the mom. I like Oprah Winfrey okay, but she's like the richest woman in the world, and there aren't that many of these parts to go around, and I swear that she plays every black matriarch in every movie that has one. (Like Ian Holm is with Hobbits.) There aren't that many roles for older actresses, much less older African American actresses. I'm sure the studio wanted her for the cachet she would bring to the film, and she does do a fine enough job but I think she should have passed on it and let another actress perform the role.

I really liked the character design for the villain, Doctor Facilier. He kind of had a Baron Samedi vibe going on what with the purple and black and the top hat. I was surprised that he killed the plucky firefly sidekick, but he wouldn't have been much of a villain if he couldn't manage that. I thought they did a reasonably subtle job with racial issues, without having them them overwhelm the narrative. I wouldn't call it a classic, but it was a solid entertaining outing. 

Jasmine: Jasmine is a pretty decent princess. Active and proactive. She does as much to defeat Jafar as does Aladdin and she doesn't even have a magic carpet or a wishing lamp. I don't particularly care for the movie, but that's no reflection on Jasmine's merit's as a princess. 

Non-Disney Princesses: 

Princess Azula: From Avatar: The Last Airbender. I wanted her on the list, but Lily wouldn't have her. She's a princess and an outstanding villain. Near the end of the series where her paranoia has consumed her and she's driven away all those who really cared about her, it's hard not to feel sorry for her, too. 

Princess Peach: From the Mario games. I would have included her in the top ten list, but she was in another castle. Ha ha! 

(Too soon?)

Anastasia: Is a Grand Duchess a princess? You know what? Close enough. Anastasia is unique for the list as she's the only one who is a real person, but we're really reviewing her appearance in the animated film from the 90s. I really dug this movie. I have a soft spot for the real Anastasia. Wikipedia says this: "The Tsar's children were raised as simply as possible. They slept on hard camp cots without pillows, except when they were ill, took cold baths in the morning, and were expected to tidy their rooms and do needlework to be sold at various charity events when they were not otherwise occupied." 

So I was already favorably inclined towards the society depicted in the film. I have great deal of affection for the movie itself as well, partially born from it's wealth of details. My favorites, from the imdb are:

The portrait in the ballroom of the whole family includes a dog. The dog existed. This spaniel named Joy belonged to Anastasia's brother, Alexei, and was found alive at the house where the family was killed. Anastasia's own dog, Jimmy, did not survive.

The music box in this movie actually existed. It was given to the real Anastasia by the real Marie Feoderovna for her thirteenth birthday, but was "silver with a ballerina on top."

It was pretty entertaining. but I think, on reflection, that it could have worked without the fantastic elements. Rasputin didn't really seem to belong in the movie. And Bartok the albino bat? I mean, I know you need something to put in the Happy Meals, but Geez, couldn't it have been a bear in a ushanka or something?

Angela Lansbury played Marie Feoderovna, the Dowager Empress, and both Jen and Lily called her the Queen and ignored me when I corrected them. (I expect I'll just have to get used to that.) "She's not the Queen, she's just the King's mom!" 

Galadriel:  Galadriel is a princess, the only daughter and youngest child of Finarfin, and "the mightiest and fairest of all the Elves that remained in Middle-earth". Despite that pedigree, she doesn't do all that much during the Lord of the Rings, does she? She just kind of hung out in Lothlórien and handed out some presents.
Looked really pretty doing it, though

Princess Fiona:  But the one from the Amber novels, not from the Shrek movies. I was working in a video store when the original Shrek came out and the manager played it all time. In my nightmares, I still hear Mike Myer's ridiculous brogue saying, "It's on my to do list."

Princess Mononoke: Like Nausicaä, one of Miyazaki's great characters. Unlike, Nausicaä, not actually a princess, despite her name. She's not even my favorite character in the movie. I think I like both Ashitaka and Eboshi more.

Buttercup, the Princess Bride: Again, wonderful, but not a princess.

Princess Irulan: From Dune, and a couple of the sequels. I have to include her, or Greg will use his gom jabbar on me. 

Danielle in Ever After: I'll put this one  here so Jen won't be mad at me. I thought Anjelica Huston acted circles around her, though.

Snow White in Mirror, Mirror: This was a fun movie. Julia Roberts was born to be an evil queen. Also, Bollywood dance number at the end. 

Vanellope von Schweetz: From Wreck It Ralph. Loved the movie, hated this character, but she's technically a princess.

Xena: I don't know if I've ever seen an episode of Xena all the way through. But she's unquestionably a princess, no doubt about it.  Oops, apparently not. See comments.

Dr. Princess: From Adventure Time. My friend Eric suggested her. But I don't know anything about her. 

Mia Thermopolis: My friend Kristin suggested this one, but she was already on my list. Anne Hathaway's character from the Princess Diaries. I knew before her turn as Fantine that Hathaway had real chops as an actress and this is the film that convinced me.

Twilight Sparkle: From My Little Pony! Because Phil demanded it!

So, that's the list Lily and I came up with. I welcome any comments and suggestions.