Tuesday, December 31, 2013

Monday Magic

In which Tim explores the world of Magic: The Gathering one
card at a time, courtesy of Gatherer's "Random Card" button.

Aven Flock (Odyssey, 2001)

Another week, another underwhelming creature from Magic's first decade.

There's not really a lot worth saying about the card itself. It should go without saying that no sane person would willingly play this, at least in constructed. A 2/3 with Flying might be steep even at a cheaper price, and at a 4W it's just another piece of cardboard that might once have been feasible as part of a Limited pool but will almost certainly never again see the light of day.

This card came out during a period when I wasn't playing nor paying attention to the game. According to Wikipedia, the Odyssey block was a self-contained storyline set on the continent of Otaria and featuring a group of new characters and races scrambling after a MacGuffin called the Mirari. Which makes about as much sense as most Magic storylines - well, I kid. Magic is usually pretty good at story these days, they've got a hotshot creative team working behind the scenes and they've learned a lot of lessons from poorly-received blocks like Odyssey and Kamigawa, to say nothing of the clusterfuck that was the imploding Weatherlight saga. Which is to say: this was apparently a poorly-received set, at least partially because the magical quest storyline was at odds with the actual gameplay themes - graveyard focus, discard-heavy, an emphasis on ideas like insanity and dementia, alongside weird mechanics like Madness (something that even a dim-bulb like me can tell was probably never going to work the way they wanted it to). The game has gotten a lot better at making gameplay and storyline jibe, which partially explains its resurgence in recent years.

The first thing that jumps out at me about the card - yes, even more than the fantastic "Bird Soldier" in the type-line - is the art by Greg & Tim Hildebrandt. I hadn't given any thought to the Hildebrandts in a long time. If you're younger than me you might not even know who the Hildebrandts were, but for multiple generations of fantasy fans the Hildebrandts were absolutely definitive. They provided the authoritative looks for Tolkien's Middle Earth (and all the epic fantasy that followed in its wake) for many years, before even Rankin-Bass released their TV version of The Hobbit in 1977. Even if you don't know their names, you might still be familiar with their work - check out here, here, and here for a few of the more famous images. The Tolkien calendars in which these images first appeared are still popular. Chances are good that you can walk into any Barnes & Noble across the country and find their illustrations peering out of one or more editions of Tolkienana.

They didn't just do Tolkien, of course. They even did some Marvel art in the nineties, for a trading card set if I recall correctly. Even given the gimmicky nature of comic book trading cars in the nineties, they still produced some handsome images, like this and this (the latter being perhaps the most famous of their Marvel pieces, you still see it pop up here and there). That they did some Magic art is cool, even though I know that Wizards of the Coast hasn't historically had some of the most artist-friendly policies. (I have no idea what Wizards' current deals are, but considering the number of talented artists who work almost exclusively for the company I can't imagine it's not better than it was in the mid-nineties).

I didn't realize - or had forgotten - that Tim Hildebrandt died in 2006. That would explain their absence from the contemporary fantasy scene. Nothing can diminish their achievement in setting the look of epic fantasy for multiple generations of fans.

(Worth noting - even if you're not into fantasy, the Brothers Hildebrandt also created the iconic first poster for an obscure sci-fi movie you may have heard of at some point.)

Friday, December 27, 2013

Monday, December 23, 2013

Monday Magic

In which Tim explores the world of Magic: The Gathering one
card at a time, courtesy of Gatherer's "Random Card" button.

Banshee (The Dark, 1994)

Hello, Banshee! You're a terrible card from an awful set. You've also managed to be reprinted a couple times, which is something.

Back in the day when Magic was a completely new phenomenon, back before there were any other collectible card games with which to be compared, things were a little bit looser. And by looser, I mean completely out of control. The first sets were for a number of reasons so overpowered that they threatened to destabilize the still-nascent but already immensely popular game before it ever got off the ground. The expansion sets that followed the success of the first core sets were, if we're being honest, rush-jobs: they didn't know how to make trading card games yet, and they didn't understand quite how things like "power level" worked. So after the immensely overpowered Alpha and the still very powerful Arabian Nights, we got progressively less powerful sets such as Antiquities and Legends, and finally Fallen Empires and Homelands. The Dark is, from what I gather, often lumped in with the latter two as part of the game's nadir of weak game play (as opposed to the nadir of strong game play, which is probably Urza's Saga). Point being, if you don't understand anything about Magic, the early sets were often not very good because they simply had no idea how these things should be made, and it took them years to figure out how.

In hindsight, it's remarkable that the game survived its first couple years, based on how many things they did wrong. They weren't prepared for the game to become a blow-the-doors-off overnight success. They didn't know how important creating new cards at a consistent rate would become towards maintaining the game's momentum. And they certainly didn't know how quickly the game would be adopted by hardcore non-casual collectors who would be willing to spend a lot of money to amass as many cards as possible. This is important: the game was originally conceived as a casual pastime. Sounds weird, right? There are few more intense stereotypes in all of nerd-dom than Magic players: extreme tunnel-vision, devoted to rules minutiae, hyper-competitive, downright nasty if cornered. I've run into a few of those myself, and its one reason why I don't really play the game anymore, save for occasional bouts of weakness when I reinstall MTGO on my computer and lose a few weeks before realizing why I took it off in the first place. Ahem.

Anyway: the game was initially conceived as a time-killer for in-between role-playing games. The kind of thing you could do in five or ten minutes waiting for a bus or at lunch. You'd buy a few packs, put together a deck based on whatever you had or could trade within your play group, and be off. To a degree this makes sense if you're looking at your business model strictly as a subsidiary of the role-playing game industry. It's not as if there aren't collectible elements to Dungeons & Dragons and its ilk, but for the most part the game is pretty straight-forward in terms of purchasing habits. You buy books and maps and folders, all of which are readily available in stores for purchase. That's simplifying things immensely, because I know there are things like miniatures and models and out-of-print books and all that jazz - but it's not a market geared towards collectors as its primary constituency.

This isn't true for Magic. The most pernicious thing about the game is that it encourages gambling behavior in two different ways. In the first place, you've got the rush of opening packs and looking for the best cards, the cards you need or can trade or sell for others. That's akin to buying a scratcher ticket and seeing whether you win your money back or hit the once-in-a-lifetime jackpot. But then there's playing the game itself, which is more like poker or bridge in terms of the combination of skill and luck involved. While I do not know based on personal experience, I would be amazed if there weren't high-stakes Magic players somewhere converging in smoke-filled back rooms (to say nothing of the legitimate tournament players who play for huge pots of prize money.)

The combination of the collectors' mentality and the hyper-competitiveness of certain strains of gamer created a genuinely unforeseen set of circumstances, a "perfect storm" of dangerously addictive behaviors that quickly escalated into an entire industry. Powerful cards and strategies were exploited to their utmost by a rabid player base, a secondary market for valuable cards sprang up out of the ether, and any hopes that the game would be a casual pastime evaporated within just a few months of the first set's release. The rise of the CCG market - and Magic in particular - also stands as an interesting side chapter in the history of the collapse of the comics market in the mid-90s. Magic appeared in 1993, the year the comics boom began to go bust. Magic was such an immediate success that it became an important revenue source for many comics stores that also sold games, or even comics store who diversified into Magic as a way of keeping the doors open. But Magic experienced its own glut beginning 1995, when the company's print runs finally met with demand and overprinted sets like Fallen Empires began to clog store shelves alongside all the other waves of CCGs that had sprung up in Magic's immediate wake. The Dark wasn't very good but it was still new Magic from a period where Magic was the only real game in town, so it sold without even having to be not-terrible.

All of which brings us back to our friend Banshee here. This is a terrible card for a number of reasons, but the most important one is probably the fact that its ability is pretty useless and unnecessarily complicated. I'm no dummy but back when I first played the game in the mid-90s one of the things that bugged me was cards that seemed unintelligible on first, second, or even third glance. This isn't the worst offender from these early days - that would still be this, a card that gave me hours of joy back in the nineties trying to parse exactly what it does (still can't really figure it out). But this is still pretty awful. Four mana for a guy who can't even swing for one or block anything without dying instantly. He does damage to your opponent if you spend the mana, but just as much damage, if not more, to you. Say you've got three mana to spare and you spend it on Banshee's ability here. That means you do one damage to him and two to yourself. Fantastic.

The flavor text seems to have migrated in from a much better card:
Some say Banshees are the hounds of Death, baying to herd their prey into the arms of their master.
That's a fairly badass description of what a Banshee might do, except for the fact that this isn't what this Banshee actually does. More like:
Some say Banshees are completely miserable and useless creature who no one would ever play unless it was a dare.
Because the first set was so powerful that the game could not feasibly sustain cards of that power level without damaging long-term viability, the designers (a motley assortment of people Richard Garfield knew from grad school) overcompensated by making the next handful of sets massively underpowered, and unplayable for an entirely different set of reasons. Banshee here is a relic of a time when the game really didn't know what it wanted or needed to be, because no one had ever done this before. He's overcosted and underpowered, with a complex ability that has a steep drawback. He sucks, except for his art, which is pretty awesome. He looks like Isaac Hayes crashing your haunted house.

Tuesday, December 17, 2013

Monday Magic

In which Tim explores the world of Magic: The Gathering one
card at a time, courtesy of Gatherer's "Random Card" button.

Hipparion (Ice Age, 1995)

I love cards that are just straight-up a normal animal who just happens to have fallen under the control of a shady wizard. This is why Grizzly Bears will always be the best card, and why you should accept no substitutes. I've seen the arguments in favor of replacing the Grizz with more "flavorful" versions of the same card, but my response is always the same: if magically controlling a giant grizzly bear isn't fantastic enough for you, you live a much more interesting life than I do.

And I think the same goes for our friend Hipparion, more or less. The Hipparion was apparently a real genus of horse that existed for 22 million years, before dying out somewhere around a million years ago. The problem here is that the hipparion skulls I'm seeing online appear to be significantly different than those of contemporary horses - more rounded, less elongated. Also, hipparion still had three vestigial toes. Although we don't see our boy's hooves here, his face looks more or less like what you'd expect a modern horse to look like.

He also looks pretty fucking spooked, which is something horses do quite a bit from my understanding. And why wouldn't he be? He's a horse. Some asshole wizard probably summoned him to do battle with a giant dragon or horde of zombies, and he's not very happy with the situation. And if you look at his ability, it actually captures a bit of the flavor of a recalcitrant horse: you have to pay more mana to get him to block a creature with power three or greater. Which means, if you're going to ask him to die, you have to pay more. I can imagine the horse's thought process:
What the fuck, I was just minding my own business chomping on some grass when this grody dude in a spangly muumuu summoned me to fight or something. I'm a god damned horse, I'm not a wyvern or merfolk. I like to eat grass, run around the plains, mount some sweet fillies. Sometimes if I'm feeling frisky I go around and kick some bros, that kind of thing. But now I'm facing down a field full of goblins for God-knows-what reason - I guess it's not so bad, I can stomp those guys pretty easy. That bear is pretty fierce but we just bounce off each other, so no worries. Wait, what? He wants me to block this thing? Fuck that guy, I am not getting crushed so this asshole can get one more turn to pray he pulls an Oblivion Ring before scooping. He's not even wearing any underwear under that muumuu, it's just swinging down there.
The flavor text for Hipparion reads, "Someone once said that Hipparions are to Warriors what Aesthir are to Skyknights. Don't believe it." This pearl of wisdom is attributed to General Jarkeld, the "Arctic Fox." General Jarkeld really does not look very intimidating. He does look like he spent a lot of time planning his outfit for the Cure show down in Pittsburgh. I also like how the flavor text is basically this dude slagging on the Hipparion. Like, really? The Hipparion are unreliable mounts who don't want to get killed? Great way to advertise how awesome the Hipparion is to people. "Play this card, even the made-up people in the game think it's stupid."

But I like Hipparion. Sure, he's basically useless, but he's also a horse, and horses are cool. He actually seems pretty upset about his lot in life, which - considering that he probably dies a lot, when he's not sitting in a box somewhere being unplayable - is pretty understandable.

Sunday, December 15, 2013

Um, OK.

You just keep on keepin' on, Simon.

From West Coast Avengers #16 by Steve Englehart, Al Milgrom, and Joe Sinnott

Friday, December 13, 2013

Better Watch The Fuck Out

Tigra ain't taking your shit anymore.

From West Coast Avengers #10 (1986) by Steve Englehart, Al Migrom, & Joe Sinnott

Tuesday, December 10, 2013

Munchausen Weekend

Masters of Sex

Masters of Sex is not a perfect show, but so far it's better than it had any right to be.

The series began with a number of obvious strikes against it:
1. A detailed period piece set in the late 1950s, uncomfortably close to the era of Mad Men.

2. It's on Showtime, a network with a history of mismanaging its prestige (or even just decent guilty pleasure) dramas. The twin collapses of Homeland and Dexter are harsh examples for anyone foolish enough to trust the network to shepherd a quality show in the same manner as HBO and AMC. (The only real counterexample, Shameless, remains strong as it heads into its fourth season - but also perpetually underrated, and if anything, poorly promoted by a network that otherwise has every right to be proud of the show's consistency.)

3. This isn't a fictional cast of characters, this is about William Masters & Virginia Johnson, real scientists whose real research had real repercussions across American society and the world. It's hard to overestimate the significance of Masters & Johnson's work, but that very ubiquity could well make it difficult for the show to avoid falling into the mode of breathless hyperbole.

4. It's about sex. Not metaphorically. It's right there in the title. The show does not - cannot, really - shy away from depicting the act in the plainest terms. There's no male full-frontal, but they give us just about everything else, including the view from inside a woman's vaginal cavity as she experiences an orgasm. Given the unavoidably prurient subject matter, and given America's extremely poor track record in ever discussing sex without falling to juvenile titters, the show must walk a fine line between maintaining its dramatic bona fides and succumbing to the temptation towards unvarnished exploitation.

I can't say that the show has successfully managed to circumvent all these potential stumbling blocks. It's not quite out of the woods yet.

But so far, so good.

Yes, it's a costume drama set in the years right before the beginning of Mad Men. To a degree I feel the show uses that to its advantage: whereas the earliest episodes of Mad Men lost a lot of time on exposition, simply explaining the context of the early 1960s for an audience primarily composed of people who had not yet been born (go back and watch those first few episodes - they really are a drag), Masters of Sex didn't need to spend near as much time on this kind of contextualization. Watching the first episodes, I feel as if the show took advantage of the fact that a large percentage of its audience could be assumed to be familiar with Mad Men: we already know the milieu. There are far fewer of those groan-inducing moments of Sally Draper wandering around with a dry cleaning bag over her head, or the children jumping around the inside of the car without a seatbelt in sight, to illustrate just how different the world of the past was. We get it.

I don't think there's anything wrong with this. It's no different, really, from the way in which new doctor shows assume the audience's familiarity with the hospital milieu - and the conventions of generations of previous doctor shows. The well-heeled, exquisitely detailed mid-twentieth-century period piece is a thing now, and I don't think Masters of Sex will be the last show to follow the lead of Mad Men. AMC has another new drama coming down the pike, Halt & Catch Fire, that sounds even more explicitly cut from the Mad Men cloth, if the advance hype is to be believed. All to the good.

What really elevates Masters of Sex, and the number one factor that makes me believe the show will outpace its potential shortcomings, is the acting. No flies on Lizzy Caplan (although, to be honest, I keep wondering how she gets so much time off from her catering job), but the show belongs to Michael Sheen. I don't really want to compare his work here to that of Jon Hamm, because that's a completely facile and obvious comparison, but for all that it's still an inevitable comparison. As different as Don Draper and William Masters are, both characters serve as the centripetal force that unifies a large and diverse ensemble cast. Both Hamm and Sheen (and Steve Buscemi too, for that matter) are very comfortable standing stock still and allowing the rest of the show to happen around them. They are the immovable objects around which the drama revolves.

The difference, however, is that Don Draper - for all his transgressive behavior - remains deeply invested in the status quo. One of the overarching themes of Mad Men, when taken as a whole, is Don's growing impotence in the face of cultural upheaval. For all his personal demons, he was really quite fond of his life circa 1960, and his frustration at being unable to move the clock back is perhaps the show's central narrative. William Masters could not be more different. Masters is not helpless in the face of cultural change: he is a force for cultural change. We as viewers know this is true because we know just how famous Masters & Johnson eventually became, and how many copies of Human Sexual Response were sold.

The problem with this kind of narrative is that it can be difficult to balance the needs of fiction against the needs of following the template of real-world history. This is the knife's edge that Boardwalk Empire has been walking for some time now: the introduction of Al Capone and the subsequent Chicago gang wars constantly threaten to wrench the narrative away from its (fictional) grounding in Atlantic City. The fact that we know Al Capone is a figure of historical import presents a challenge to the writers faced with the unenviable task of keeping Capone in the story without having Capone become the story to the detriment of the rest of the show's wide array of (mostly fictional) gangsters and goons. The singular importance of Masters & Johnson to twentieth-century cultural history is both the greatest strength of and greatest potential weakness facing Masters of Sex: we want to know how it turns out, even if we know how it turns out. We have no idea what happens to Don Draper at the end of Mad Men, but barring a strange Tarantino-esque left turn, we know that William Masters dies in 2001 at the age of 85, married thrice, with Virginia Johnson as his second wife from 1971-1992. (Sorry for the "spoilers.") This isn't the first television program to face the challenge of coloring inside the lines of history while remaining fresh, but it is a challenge nonetheless.

The great irony at the heart of Masters of Sex is that even though William Masters believes with confidence that his great work on human sexuality will change the world, he remains personally unable to understand just how these changes will effect the world immediately around him. The show portrays him as cold and distant, an extremely practical and precise clinician who is nevertheless compelled to risk his sterling reputation on a potentially ruinous course of research. So far, with the first season almost on the books, William Masters remains something of an enigma: we know a little bit about an unhappy childhood, we know he is extremely repressed (but then, so is just about everyone), and further than that, he is pathologically unable to express even the most simple human emotions. Certainly it makes sense that such a stolid individual would be drawn to the most seemingly chaotic, messy, and disreputable field possible. But at the same time there is still something missing from Masters that keeps the audience from identifying too closely with such a genuinely troubled (and genuinely brilliant) person. He's really not very nice. To be precise: he is consistently callous and distant, and often seemingly malicious for no reason other than simple caprice. He is dangerous and ruthless, and willing without a second thought to blackmail his closest friends in order to fund his research. He is attractive because of his confidence and his intelligence - and both attributes are well illustrated by Sheen's performance - but there is also something very essential absent from his makeup. We are consistently rooting for him to be a decent human being, and he consistently fails.

The closest we get to understanding Masters over the course of the season - to date - is a comment towards the end of the most recent episode. His wife asks him if, when his research is published and his findings are accepted and his genius is acclaimed, he won't then be content with his accomplishments. He replies to her, simply, "there's always something to prove."

The show has improved dramatically since its first episodes. The beginnings of great series are never quite as auspicious as we would like them to be, in hindsight: the first couple episodes of Mad Men are inert; the first episode of The Wire is ham-fisted and on-the-nose in a way the show would never again be; and the first truncated half-season of Breaking Bad was so boring it scared me away from the show for years afterward. True to form, Masters of Sex takes a while to get going. The show needed to move past the shock value of its own sexual content before it could settle in to a comfortable groove. There are of course a few inevitable scenes of 1950s yokels tugging on their proverbial collars and exclaiming "Gollee!" at the sight of a pretty woman. There's a terrible, terrible metaphor involving a completely period-inaccurate comic book story, at which everyone reading this will probably cringe. Not the type of bush-league mistake Matthew Weiner would ever make, not on his worst day.

But the show improves. The second half of the season makes a case for the show as a serious contender. Once past its earliest fumbles it begins to gather steam at an impressive rate. I think, if Masters of Sex continues on to become the show it could be, episode ten of this season, "Fallout," may come to be regarded as the tipping point: finally, the show managed to stick the landing completely. There's a distinctive tone here that could bode well in terms of the show being able to carve out an identity for itself outside the expectations of previous prestige dramas. You have serious melodrama (the question of who impregnated Masters' wife) overlaid by brief flashes of farce (the nuclear strike drill), mixed with workplace drama and serious character work, all built around a genuinely shocking fist-fight. But if, after this one season, we can identify a singular motif for the program, it's the continuing, repeated trauma of very unhappy people slowly coming to realize for the very first time that they actually are unhappy, and struggling blindly for ways in which to make themselves feel better. The moment Masters begins his sex study, things begin to change. It's the catalyst, the first domino that sets off a chain of completely unintended and yet also inevitable consequences. These unintended consequences comprise the show's narrative. "Fallout" is the moment when it becomes obvious for the first time, to the viewers if not to the characters themselves, that there is no way to put this genie back in the bottle. Under the unifying metaphor of nuclear annihilation, the show asserts the presence of a very different, and not completely malign kind of catastrophic change.

If Mad Men is the story of people profoundly unready for the massive systemic changes of the 1960s, Masters of Sex is the story of people desperate for change, who can see even the slightest glimmer of uncertainty on the horizon as cause not just for dread but for for hope as well. We can discuss whether or not certain of the individual storylines cohere or convince. I think, in this instance, that even if some of the notes across the different supporting plotlines are familiar, the sum definitely adds up to something greater than its parts. It started off shaky on its feet, but gained confidence throughout the season. I would not be surprised to see the program win a few Emmys right out of the gate. This is exactly the kind of show that you wouldn't think was being made anymore, to go by all those breathless post-Breaking Bad think-pieces about the decline and fall of quality television. It's good, it's thoughtful, and it obviously has the potential to become even better now that the first season kinks are well worked out.

The question remains as to whether or not it will be allowed to achieve its full potential. Showtime is the variable quantity here: if Masters of Sex were on HBO or AMC, we wouldn't feel the need to hedge our bets quite so fastidiously. Showtime has proven that they have no compunctions whatsoever about meddling with even the most successful formulas, with horrible results. The downfall of Homeland has already become idiomatic for precisely this type of creative implosion. With this specter haunting our thoughts, the wait between this coming Sunday and Fall of 2014 will be a very long year indeed.