Friday, November 18, 2016

Trifles, Light As Air

Part Five of an ongoing series. Catch up with part One here. 
If you like my writing, please consider a donation to my Patreon.

It is necessary to fail gracefully. We fail more often than we succeed. Despite ample opportunities for practice, it never gets easier.

Donald Duck is his own worst enemy. He rarely wins, and when he does it’s usually accompanied by a poison pill, a humiliation or setback. He fails not because he’s incapable but because he can’t overcome his worst impulses: wrath, envy, pride, greed, sloth. He looks for shortcuts and hamstrings himself out of spite.

Thursday, November 10, 2016

Someday We Will All Be Free

Part Four of an ongoing series. Catch up with parts OneTwo, and Three
If you like my writing, please consider a donation to my Patreon.

When you are transgender, you carry the knowledge that many people believe you should not exist. That you do not exist. That you are sick. That you need help. That you need to die.

We have no homeland. We have no Mecca. We fit in on the edges of a broader LGBT culture but are sometimes barely tolerated even by many who purport to represent us. (This is not a blanket statement, but the antipathy between the transgender community and parts of the larger LGB coalition is well documented.) The parameters of our own tiny culture are defined by external hostility.

Tuesday, November 01, 2016

I Am Not A Good Person


Part Three of an ongoing series. Catch up with parts One and Two.
If you like my writing, please consider a donation to my Patreon.


I’m mean. I’m petty. I fly off the handle at the smallest provocation. I antagonize people who have done nothing to earn my antagonism. I nurse grudges and remember every specious imagined slight. I am passive-aggressive and casually cruel to the people around me. I try my best to not do these things but I feel that I am never in control of my emotions.

That’s what I used to believe about myself. This was the person I thought I was and the face I presented to the rest of the world. I believed with all my heart that I was a terrible person. I didn’t want to be but I felt helpless to change. I accepted it as a given that there was something wrong with me.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Gimme Some Truth

Part 2 of an ongoing series. Catch up with Part 1 here
If you like my writing, please consider a donation to my Patreon

You lose a lot by telling the truth. Lies fester. 
This is especially true of the lies you tell yourself.
The truth is never quite so kind as we’d like.

Do you want to get understood? /
Do you want one thing or are you looking for sainthood? /

“Outlier” is the sixth track off Spoon’s 2014 album They Want My Soul. After four years away Spoon had lapsed into semi-hiatus. Side projects multiplied. The album was good but only just “good” in the context of Spoon’s previous decade, where Spoon released five albums that are also five of the decade’s best. Part of this can be attributed to the record’s production, a more traditional rock sound that saps much of the energy. It is exchanged for a conventional rock presence that never quite coheres. Being Spoon it is still quite listenable. One of the album’s standouts – and one of the few to make good use of the album’s maximal inclinations – “Outlier” immediately attracted interest among reviewers for the seemingly devastating put-down,

And I remember when you walked out of Garden State /
'Cause you had taste, you had taste /
You had no time to waste.

Tuesday, October 11, 2016

One Hundred and Sixty Four Days

Part 1 of an ongoing series. Follow up with Part 2 here
If you like my writing, please consider a donation to my Patreon.

it me.

It’s the evening of April 30th of this year. I’m sitting on the edge of my bathtub smoking. I smoke almost every day. I am standing on the edge of an abyss. Everything feels wrong and I have no idea why. I’m covered in molasses, dragged to earth. I have strange ideas, strange fantasies. Nothing makes sense. I don’t know why.
I turn my head and hear a voice. It’s all in my head. I hear it as clear as if it were being whispered in my ear.

Tuesday, July 05, 2016

Question Time II: Back By Popular Demand

Matthew E asks: "Have you read _Bandette_? What do you think?"

I do not read books that glorify Crime or the Crime Lifestyle.

theotheradamford asks: "I have a couple-few:

- What did you think of Rebirth (a little obvious I know), or more broadly the circumstances around the leak?

- Another kind of obvious one, but dovetailing on your recent blah, what do you think comics blogging will look like in the next little while? Is podcasting the new blogging? Would you ever podcast about comics?

- I would love to hear your thoughts, if any, on Green Lantern: Mosaic."

I answer your first question at length here, as a matter of fact. There is the possibility of me doing something more long-form for the AV Club about the actual titles they've released to date - but it's been such a busy few weeks I am desperately behind and need to catch up before I could say anything at all.

The next one is complicated. Comics blogging, as I (and possibly you?) think of it, is basically dead. There will always be single-proprietor websites offering commentary on every little thing, and recently the number seems to have stabilized after dropping pretty drastically. Group blogs, especially ones sponsored by larger sites, became the next big thing, but who knows how much more juice they have them. Together, the two types of blogs don't really resemble the world of blogging of a decade ago - it's far more streamlined, with far less interblog chatter. Individual writers are more or less left alone to follow their personal whims and interests.

(Come to think of it, I was actually one of the pioneers of using my personal comics blog for slightly more formal essay and op-ed writing, so if you want a culprit for comics bloggers turning inward and engaging less and less with any kind of "community," I'm as guilty as anyone.)

More and more people with interesting things to say find themselves tossed into professional or semi-professional status, where they use some kind of early attention as a writer as a way to gain entry into some facet of the industry. This type of move almost always leads to a precipitous fall in productivity as a comics blogger (unless the job is specifically one that includes writing about comics), if not just a hard stop altogether. I can understand the reticence not to want to write about comics online when you draw a paycheck from a company that works in the field. There's also the more quotidian fact that if someone used to write about comics for fun they might not want to spend their free time writing about them anymore if they also spend their work time thinking about them. They probably have lots of non-comics hobbies to fill the time.

I admit I feel a little bit of this last one myself. No one is ever going to accuse my writing for the AV Club of redefining the face of comics commentary, but it's fun, remunerative, and occasionally I even get to say something of merit. (Not that almost 3,000 words on the soundtrack to Batman Forever isn't worthy of merit.) Sometimes after I fulfill my commitments to the site, I just don't want to write even more about comics for free.

And this is the problem with comics blogging, in its classic form: you make no money doing it, your audience is minuscule compared to what you get at even a middle-tier pop culture site, and your only satisfaction comes from the work itself. Blogging was big for a while as the hot new nerd hobby, but that was a long time ago. I still talk about comics a lot on Twitter, which you guys probably know. I love Twitter. But Twitter is showing its age, too. I have a Tumblr which I never update, and I never bothered with Instagram. I don't know what Snapchat even is.

All of which is to say: Twitter isn't going anywhere, even if the clientele and business model might change as the platform evolves. Same for blogging: there will always be "bloggers" paid and amateur, but what they may look like in just five short years from now is impossible to say. For all we know, the next evolution in micro-blogging is just about to sweep the internet and I'll find my greatest ever success as a writer using Hurkle-Durkle.

Podcasting? I tried that a couple times a few years ago. I didn't really know what I was doing and even though I got some good feedback I was dissatisfied with the experiment. But the format didn't go away (which I didn't see coming), and actually seems to be sticking around for a while, so . . . who knows. We'll see. Sometimes the future brings us strange and unexpected gifts.

And Mosaic? I think I read part of an issue, which I should remedy at some point. But do you remember how bad the Green Lantern books were at the time? There is a reason why the series was given a hard reboot with Emerald Twilight, and that's why I passed on giving the spinoff a chance. I think in hindsight Mosaic was a few years ahead of its time: it's the kind of book you could imagine seeing shelved next to Starman and Chase more easily than the company's frankly uninspired early 90s midlist. But I'll put it on The List (it's a very long list).

Monday, June 20, 2016

Question Time

Ryan Howard asks: "Based on the recommendation of Comic Books Are Burning in Hell, I picked up the two-part LOTDK story Masks out of a quarter bin. What are some other underappreciated LOTDK issues to buy this way? My annual con retailers have that series in droves. Alternatively, what are some other ridiculously cheap and easy to find comics issues that have been unjustly forgotten?"

Ah, an easy one!

The simple answer is that there was a lot of good stuff published in Legends of the Dark Knight over the book's almost-two-decades of existence. Even poor storylines still held some interest by virtue of the fact that most of the run had decent-to-great art. Even a terrible story like "Venom" still had Trevor Von Eeden on it, and that's more than enough reason to give it a recommendation. (It's still bad, though.)

Truth be told, I was never a regular reader of the book. I checked in periodically if something looked good - or, just as often, surreptitiously read it off the shelf. But there are still a few highlights I can recommend.

Kevin O'Neill appeared in the book a couple times, accompanied by Bat-Mite. Long before Morrison reintroduced the guy during R.I.P., Alan Grant and O'Neill were the first to smuggle the Silver Age imp into the post-Crisis universe, in LOTDK #38, and later in a stand alone one-shot called Mitefall, a pseudo-parody of the "Knightfall" storyline. Both of these were also recently reprinted in a thick paperback alongside the World's Funnest one-shot and a handful of other Bat-Mite (and Mxyzptlk) tales, and which is definitely worth buying

With issue #50 the series dropped its "Year One" conceit entirely by allowing the book to use Batman's real rogue's gallery. Issue #50 is a Joker story - and you guys know how I feel about Joker stories - but it's actually really good, one of my favorite featuring the character. It's another Dennis O'Neil joint, but this time with Bret Blevins, easily one of the most underrated artists of the last thirty years. I'm going to totally surprise you and recommend another Joker story, from a little over a year later - "Going Sane" by J.M. DeMatteis and Joe Staton, beginning in #65 and running for four issues. This one usually makes an appearance on any list of the best Joker stories, and it's also one of the few times to my knowledge that DeMatteis has written Batman. DeMatteis is underrated like Blevins, although in DeMatteis' case it's even more unforgivable as he has maintained a reasonably high profile in the industry throughout his entire career.

Doug Moench and Paul Gulacy later returned to the book with a direct sequel to their earlier "Prey," which just beats out the uneven "Gothic" as the best story in the book's early run; "Terror" ran for five issues beginning with #137. I'm going to completely ruin any credibility I have by finishing up by recommending yet another Joker story, "The Demon Laughs," which ran from #142-145. It's not a classic for the ages but it does have the Joker vs. R'as al Ghul, with art by Jim Aparo, and a story by Chuck Dixon. Dixon is a guilty pleasure, I suppose you'd say, and he wrote a lot of Batman in the 90s.

As for the rest of the run, at this point my sketchy knowledge runs out entirely. I know the book was published until 2007, but i don't even remember seeing it on the shelves. It looks like they were still publishing good stuff right up until the end - Seth Fisher had an arc in the book's second-to-last year, I see, and even up to the very last issue they had the likes of Christos Gage and Phil Winslade teaming up on a Deadshot story. And oh yeah, issue #200 had Eddie Campbell writing a Joker story for Bart Sears.

While it may not always have worked, LOTDK is still the gold-standard for these kinds of rotating-creator anthologies. No other character has ever been able to sustain this kind of book for long periods of time. Certainly, much of that has to do with the fact that Batman is Batman - but still, the attempt was made for a surprisingly long time to keep the book special. This was slowly eroded later on in the series' run when it began to tie-in with the Bat-books frequent crossovers throughout the 90s and early 00s - kind of hard to sell a book as an exclusive monthly event when you're selling part 178 of "Knightsend." But the commercial license afforded by putting Batman's name on the cover did allow creators to do some interesting stories which would otherwise never have had a home. It's a rare issue of the series that doesn't have something to offer.

As to the implied question of whether I'll ever return to write more about the series? We'll see. Long-time readers know that old features have a habit of resurfacing at the oddest times. I admit that I got bogged down in Mike W. Barr and Bart Sears' "Faith," wherein Batman enlists a street gang to help beat people up. I could have told you that was a bad idea, Batman, but you didn't listen.

Tuesday, May 24, 2016

I suck, AMA

It's been busy and I've been lazy, but rather than just allow this blog to go gentle into that good night, it's time to shake things up. After consulting with Mike Sterling, he got through - is getting through - some similar blog-related blahs recently by opening up the comments section for Qs for him to A. That seems like a good idea to get the "juices" "flowing" again. So pop into the comments and ask away. Just don't ask about the return of X old feature - it'll either come back or it won't, depending on the whims of Zephyrus, as with all things.

Tuesday, April 05, 2016

Monday Magic

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

Punctuate (Unhinged, 2004)

One interesting aspect of Magic is that the game's immense success has allowed it a great deal of freedom to do weird and interesting things. This is arguably less true now, at a moment when the game is experiencing record-breaking sales and popularity, than it was in the game's first decade. Magic is selling now better than it has ever sold, and if part of that comes from what feels - occasionally, to long-time players like myself - like an increasingly conservative bent in the game's R&D, well, one simply cannot argue with results. (Also, keep in mind that even if I keep my hand in, I'm far from the most enfranchised, or typical, player. My perception of a creeping sameness in the product over the last few years is solely my own dissatisfaction, no different from, say, what you might expect from any kind of pop culture franchise whose fanbase is old enough to measure its history in decades.)

Something Magic used to do that they haven't done in quite some time is go full-in for laughs. In 1998 and again in 2004 Wizards of the Coast released two wholly comedic sets - Unglued and Unhinged. These sets were printed with silver borders, which you can see above. Normal sets are printed with black borders. Early sets also came with white borders, for various reasons, which were eventually mooted once it was decided that black borders looked better. (There have also been, briefly, gold bordered cards, used I believe for non-tournament legal reprints of championship decks. Pokemon does something similar, but Magic's tournament product sold poorly and was discontinued.) People don't like buying cards they can't legally play, which has also been a problem with the silver bordered sets: for obvious reasons they aren't legal in normal tournament formats like Standard, Modern, or Legacy. They're a niche product, then, constructed for kitchen-table players. Now, if that sounds dismissive - it's not. "Kitchen-table" - or lunchroom table, or game-store casual, or whatever you want to call it - is by far the largest "format" in the game.

A "problem" Magic suffers that its cousins in the world of kitchentop RPGs do not have is the existence of the tournament scene. The world of ultra-competitive players and wannabe grinders can act like a vacuum, squeezing a lot of the air out of the discussion of the game - this despite the relatively small percentage of players who will ever achieve success on the tournament circuit. A lot of writing about Magic online takes it as a given that the main audience for Magic is people who fancy themselves buddings pros, and therefore examine every new development with a ruthlessness that, supposedly, speaks to their experience and expertise as competitive players. Players like that have no use for a silver border set like Unhinged. There are a lot more people who play the game infrequently and casually than seriously and competitively - as with any long-running game, I believe - but the people who play it intensely, frequently, and with possible professional aspirations set the tone for much of the discourse.

Still, the Un-sets sold well enough. The problem, according to Mark Rosewater - the man responsible for both Un-sets - wasn't popularity but overprinting. In the decade-plus since Unhinged the game has had a lot of success targeting niche products for audiences outside the normal crowd who buy each regular Standard-legal expansion. The success of alternate formats like Commander, and Wizards' success in selling speciality product directly to that audience, speaks to the company's ability to identify and target multiple demographic niches within the larger demographic of Magic players. Lots of people buy Magic cards. Enough so that there are products aimed specifically at high-ticket collectors who will pay for exclusive reprints, and products aimed at people who exclusively play the Commander format, and oddball releases for unique formats like Planechase, Archenemy, and Conspiracy. The conservatism that occasionally appears in regular Standard-legal expansions does not extend to alternate formats which Wizards of the Coast has invested heavily in supporting.

Rosewater, despite the game's current success, has been trying unsuccessfully to get another Un-set off the ground pretty much since the last once was printed. Even given his track record - and if you look at the history of the sets he has personally spearheaded, he is responsible for a huge part of the game's current prominence - he hasn't succeeded yet. Although I personally am not playing much Magic now - due a combination of time factors and the fact that the Windows emulator on my Mac laptop went on the fritz and I haven't had the wherewithal to devote the afternoon to fixing it* - a new Un-set might actually get me to go back to a gaming store, even if just for an afternoon. Stranger things have happened.

*Magic: The Gathering Online is still only available for Windows. The reason why this is so in the year 2016 is apparently due to bad decisions made when they first began coding the game a decade and a half ago. They have repeatedly maintained that it is basically impossible that the game could ever come to Mac. Which is . . . what it is. Nerds, being nerds, have written a lot about the problem, if you care to look for it.

Friday, April 01, 2016


It's been a busy couple weeks here! Last week the AV Club posted my article about the Batman / Superman bromance, in recognition of a certain "motion picture" which dropped recently. Also, I wrote a piece on anti-Communist paranoia in early Marvel Comics for their "Cold War" theme week.

Also, of course, my weekly reviews of new comics continue apace. This week I looked at the actually quite good Batman #50, while last week I spent some time on the, er, not quite so good Beverly.

And on top of all that, we also inaugurated a new feature, certain to take its place among all the other infrequently recurring features on this blog - Midweek Mixes. Give it a look, why don't you?

Wednesday, March 30, 2016

Midweek Mixes

On the Floor of the Boutique, Vol. 1
Mixed by Fatboy Slim

In the rush to write premature obituaries for the compact disc, more than a few important things carry the risk of being forgotten. Like any medium the CD has its share of weaknesses, but more than a few strengths as well. (This is opposed to the cassette, whose only real strengths at the time were its size, portability, and recordability, the first two eventually eclipsed by smaller and more portable formats with far greater fidelity, and the third finally superseded by the spread of CD burners at the tail end of the nineties.) The CD had the advantage over cassettes in terms of fidelity and longevity (tape fidelity decreased with every play), and over vinyl in terms of length, size, and again, longevity. The question of fidelity in regards to compact disc sound quality in relation to vinyl is complicated by a number of factors, some of which are simply too technical for all but the most committed audiophiles. But for many listeners, the "warmth" and "personality" (grating pops and clicks) they ascribe to vinyl is actually distortion based on old media and poor equipment. A new vinyl record pressed from analog master tapes is indeed excellent, but will degrade every time it is played and requires expensive equipment to be properly appreciated.

Not so for the humble CD. I can go to my closet and pull out a twenty-year old CD and it will sound the same - just as good or bad as its mastering - as the day I bought it, even if I've played it every day in the intervening time. I don't need a particularly elborate piece of equipment to enjoy the sound. I don't own an expensive stereo, which surprises some people. I listen to music on my computer or in the car, or on headphones. Contrary to what someone like Neil Young would have you believe, humans do not possess super ears. There are only so many frequencies we can hear, and any attempt to increase fidelity beyond these frequencies is quixotic, unless your goal is to play Steely Dan for your dog.

The story goes (possibly apocryphal, but it's too good to let go) that the reason why early CDs were 74 minutes long was so that one disc could hold the entirety of Beethoven's 9th. The length was soon expanded to 80 minutes when engineers figured out there was another six minutes to be had on the disc's surface. What is important here is that I think - and perhaps this is just me - 80 minutes is probably the upper limit for most peoples' attention span when it comes to sitting down and listening to any single piece of music. Maybe it's because we've been conditioned by the length of the CD to think so, but 80 minutes is a long time. Long enough for a medium-length car ride. Long enough for most symphonies. Anything longer and you need an intermission.

Mix CDs popped up in the mid-90s as a response to the growing popularity of electronic music, and particularly the rise of celebrity DJ culture. Any faceless producer could compile an anthology, but only a DJ could make a mix. It's an odd phenomenon, on its face: you're buying a CD by an artist composed primarily of other peoples' songs. You're making an investment in the curatorial instincts of a disc jockey. Maybe it was a live recording of a night out, complete with flubbed transitions and crowd noises, maybe it was a studio creation precisely constructed on Pro Tools. Maybe, like Kiss Alive, it was a clever amalgam of both approaches. While a few pioneering electronic acts had always performed live, for most DJs and producers the DJ mix was the closest they could get to an actual live album, a relatively easy revenue stream rock and pop acts had been exploiting since 1963 when James Brown dropped Live at the Apollo. (The Orb's double album Live 93 was an early outlier, as a "live" album by an electronic act, something many at the time mistakenly believed to be a contradiction in terms. The Orb, being the Orb, had some fun with the idea.)

1998 was a good year for Fatboy Slim. You've Come A Long Way, Baby was the kind of pop crossover album American record companies had found somewhat elusive in the midst of the "electronica" push of 1997, which yielded only two real superstar releases (The Prodigy's Fat of the Land and Madonna's Ray of Light), alongside a number of respectable-if-not-blockbuster imports like the Chemical Brothers and Daft Punk. Much of America was perfectly comfortable accepting house and techno as the new default soundtrack for video games and movie trailers, but for most artists that did not translate into sales. Fatboy Slim was the nom de guerre of former Housemartins bassist Norman Cook, who had made a career for himself in the early part of the 90s as a remixer and house music producer using a number of aliases such as Pizzaman and the Mighty Dub Cats. On paper, Fatboy Slim was just another in a long line of disguises for Cook, one concocted for the specific purpose of producing music in the style of the newly ascendant "big beat" genre, a stupid name that was essentially invented to describe the peculiar hybrid of acid house and hip-hop pioneered by the Chemical Brothers on their 1995 album Exit Planet Dusk. (Fatboy Slim's first album was called, appropriately, Better Living Through Chemistry.) The Chems' sound was expansive, stylistically catholic, and defined by a potential for pop crossover.

The "problem" for Cook, if it can be called that, is that Fatboy Slim soon became a lot more famous than any of his other aliases. Fatboy Slim was in reality an modest and slightly goofy guy who was far more comfortable hiding behind the decks in a DJ both than on center stage. "Fatboy Slim" didn't exist, and this tension was obvious from the fact that Cook continued to produce remixes and occasionally perform under his real name at the peak of Fatboy Slim's popularity. There was, to be fair, no indication that You've Come A Long Way, Baby would be as popular as it became, but for a while there it was simply ubiquitous. You couldn't throw a stone in a movie theater in 1999 without hitting a movie that either used a Fatboy Slim song in the trailer or prominently on their soundtrack. "The Rockafeller Skank" was a weird anthem for a dance craze that never existed, but for a solid year the song was everywhere. You probably still remember the hook.

But before You've Come A Long Way, Baby, Cook dropped On the Floor of the Boutique. The Big Beat Boutique was the house club for Brighton-based Skint records, Fatboy Slim's label. The On the Floor of the Boutique series tapped out after two more entries, one by big-beat also-rans the Lo-Fidelity All-Stars and a third by label head Damian Harris under the name Midfield General. Both are good - I listen to the second disc a lot more than I've ever actually listened to the Lo-Fidelity All-Stars' actual albums, for instance - but the first release is the best.

Like any mixtape, different mix CDs are designed for different purposes. Some are more intimate affairs, some educational. On the Floor of the Boutique represents, with eighteen years' hindsight, a kind of historical artifact - anyone wanting to understand the "big-beat" sound outside the context of Chemical Brothers albums could do a lot worse. Skint mainstays like Cut La Roc and the unjustly forgotten Hardknox show up, alongside a pair of Fatboy Slim tracks (the excellent "Michael Jackson" and, of course, "The Rockafeller Skank" at the disc's climax). But there's also a bit of history, beginning with Michael Viner's Incredible Bongo Band's "Apache," one of the most frequently sampled songs in the history of hip-hop, similarly important to the industrial and hip-house sounds that converged in "big beat." The Jungle Brothers show up with a remix of their 1988 track "Because I Got It Like That," a welcome inclusion that also highlights the debt owed by contemporaneous British electronic music to late 80s and early 90s hip-hop, particularly Public Enemy and the Native Tongues groups.

More importantly, though, it's just a good mix. Listening to it again in preparation for this I was reminded again of just why I played the album so many times back in the day. Although it wasn't released in the United States until 1999, I ordered it from the UK soon after its release, as one of my first orders from (I don't think it was my first order, but it's impossible to know since I can't see any records of Amazon purchases before 2007.) Like most good dance music, it's a great CD for driving.

A good DJ functions not just as a curator but as a master of ceremonies as well. Even if you're just sitting at home listening to the disc on your computer, it's designed to approximate the experience of enjoying a crowded night out on the dancefloor. I've never enjoyed dancing even though I love dance music - weird, I know - but I have seen Cook DJ once, at the height of his popularity in 1999. He knows how a night at the club should operate. Not every track can be a climactic banger. You build to multiple peaks over the course of a set. "Michael Jackson" comes in at about a third of the way through the disc, and serves as the disc first climax before dropping down into a more reserved mode with DJ Tonka's "Phun-Ky." There's another climax about twenty minutes later with the transition of Aldo Bender's "Acid Enlightenment" into Hardknox's brutal "Psychopath," before falling down again in anticipation of building into the one-two climax of Cut La Roc's "Post Punk Progression" segueing into "The Rockafeller Skank." More than just a live memento or a compilation of good tracks, this is textbook example of how a good DJ maintains the ebb-and-flow of a live dancefloor in real time.

With CDs on the outs and many music consumers either regressing into vinyl fetishism or wholly embracing digital (hope your music doesn't disappear when the cloud drifts away!), the poor mix CD has become something of an afterthought. Just like the album itself, people still make them and people still buy them. But the format is a poor fit for the digital age, where segued tracks in a single mix can't be easily extracted or incorporated into shuffle settings. Listening to a DJ mix requires patience, the conscious decision to sit down and listen to one thing for over an hour. Sometimes, though, it's worth the effort.

Availability: Even though I paid like $20 for an import back in the day you can probably find this for under $5 if you have a decent used CD store near you.

Monday, March 14, 2016

Monday Magic

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

Holy Strength (Eighth Edition, 2003)

Meat and potatoes. It's hard to think of a simpler Magic card than Holy Strength here. It was published in the first Magic set - 1993's "Alpha" - and remained a staple of the game's "core sets" for almost twenty years. It was never really a "good" card, per se, although there are definitely certain circumstances when you would want to play it. But it was a familiar sight for multiple generations of players, enough so that it - like many other underpowered staples from the game's early days - was nevertheless a welcome presence.

The concept behind Holy Strength is not just simple, but rudimentary in such a way that it serves as a useful teaching tool. Holy Strength is an Enchantment - that is, a card you can cast that becomes a static ability, one that stays on the board and continues to be in effect unless and until another effect removes or alters it. In this case, Holy Strength provides a small boost to one of your creatures: a +1/+2 boost, to be precise, meaning one additional point added to their strength (the amount of damage they can dish out) and another two points added to toughness (the amount of damage they can survive). Say, for instance, you have one creature on the board - let's go with another relatively weak but sentimentally favored Core Set staple, the immortal Grizzly Bears:

So if you cast your Holy Strength on your Grizzly Bears, your Bears go from a respectable, if not particularly exceptional, 2/2 to a 3/4. That's nothing to sneeze at. Under certain circumstances, as I said, this is a perfectly respectable play. For instance, if you're playing Limited, where your card pool is, um, Limited, and you have to construct a deck out of a random pool of cards, there are times when you'll need that stalwart Grizzly Bear to fill the mana curve on your Green / White Selesnya deck.

But more often than not, if you're playing Constructed - any format Constructed - you will have access to better cards than Grizzly Bears and Holy Strength. Maybe even a card like . . . Anurid Brushhopper.

There is nothing really exceptional about Anurid Brushhopper. It's got a weird ability that you can't imagine using unless you built an entire deck around taking advantage of it - either a deck that needed you to discard a bunch of cards, or needed lots of blinking creatures, preferably both. But what makes it useful for this exercise is its stats - it's a 3/4 for CMC 3, or to be more precisely, for one green, one white, and one generic mana. That's the exact same price you'd pay for a Grizzly Bear with a Holy Strength attached, only on one card instead of two. It's more powerful because it's strictly better - essentially, one card that can do the job of two. If you had a choice between playing one Anurid Brushhopper or a Grizzly Bear with a Holy Strength, you'd be a fool to pick the latter unless there were other circumstances at play.

Magic is a numbers game. The decisions you make while building your deck all contribute to, hopefully, creating some kind of numerical advantage. If you've only got sixty cards in your deck (the minimum for Constructed, which for reasons of maximum efficiency its usually not a good idea to go over), every card has to pull its weight. Every card has contribute to your advantage - and if one of those cards is devoted to giving a small buff to another card, well, that's a very inefficient use of that precious slot. This is why Auras in general - not just Holy Strength, but most Enchantment cards dedicated to boosting creatures - can be a dicey proposition. One card that can't even function unless you have a creature on which to put it is an inefficient use of a card slot, unless the effect granted by the Aura is sufficiently powerful to overcome that weakness. Holy Strength isn't very strong, and even though it's cheap at just one white mana, it's just not worth it in most instances.

But it is cheap, and it is simple, which make it a great card for illustrating certain facets of the game - such as the usefulness (or lack thereof) of Auras, and the importance of card advantage. And if you're playing Limited, and need a cheap white spell to fix your curve - well, there you go. You probably have ten copies of the card stuffed in a shoebox somewhere. Even if you've never played Magic, you've probably got a few copies stuffed in the insulation of your house.

The other interesting thing about Holy Strength is that it's one of a matched pair with another card from the game's earliest days . . . UNholy Strength.

In terms of gameplay, Unholy Strength is slightly better than Holy Strength, inasmuch as black is the color much more likely to play cheap and aggressive creatures that could benefit from the kind of early-game boost a cheap Aura like this can provide. But that's not why it's interesting. Can you guess why this card, of all the 295 cards that made up the first Magic set, caused a bit of a ruckus? In 1993? It may not have inspired a Tom Hanks-starring made-for-TV movie about the hazards of fantasy gaming, but Magic did it's part to upset conservative parents across the Bible Belt, too. (For more information on this topic, check out this longer piece by Magic's own Mark Rosewater.)

Tuesday, March 08, 2016

Hip to be Square

Paul Ryan was one of the squarest artists to ever work at Marvel. Nothing about his art was particularly flashy or stylish. At the time of his greatest successes, he definitely felt out of step with his surroundings. But in hindsight he was a remarkably - almost supernaturally - solid draftsmen and storyteller. His figures had weight. His action sequences flowed logically. His women were sexy and his tough guys were surly. He never missed a deadline.

He knew how to draw and he did it well. He was a consummate pro who could make even the most absurd ideas plausible - stuff that gets snickered at now, like Sue Storm's Malice-inspired cut-out costume, or the Thing walking around with a face full of scars (after a nasty fight with Wolverine) for almost three years - he made it work. He was comfortable settling into long runs working with the likes of Mark Gruenwald and Tom DeFalco, fellow craftsmen who put a lot of effort into making consistently readable, quality books, month-in and month-out. He was a pro, and in the end what more could any of us ask for?

Monday, February 29, 2016

Monday Magic

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

Dwarven Ruins (Fallen Empires, 1994)

Ah, Fallen Empires. Memories!

It really is amazing, in hindsight, that Magic survived as long as it did, because the first few years of the game were defined by a series of garbage decisions on every level - business, creative, gameplay - any one of which would have derailed anything less than a bonafide phenomenon. Fallen Empires was a bad set in many ways but it wasn't bad enough to kill the game. By 1995 they couldn't have killed Magic if they wanted to - and they sure seemed to be trying.

Magic's success during this initial period is also significant because of the game's positive impact on the comics industry. The game first premiered in 1993, during the beginning of the end of the early 1990s boom-and-bust. Right about the time - late Summer of that year, actually - when stores across the country were beginning to realize just how badly they had been screwed by a perfect storm of bad market conditions, this weird little trading card game (there had never been such a thing before, so people didn't even know how to categorize it) with spotty regional distribution started to seep into stores. The first Magic sets were printed in laughably small numbers. No one, least of all the people who made the game, expected what they got: a phenomenon that would in short order create an entirely new category of games. Comic book stores sitting on hundreds of unsold copies of Turok #1 and Adventures of Superman #500 desperately needed something to keep the doors open, and the fact that people were actually buying Magic cards in large amounts - when they could be found at all - was more than enough reason for these stores to embrace the new product. Hundreds of stores across the country closed in this period, but many of the ones whose doors remained opened survived because they started selling Magic cards.

The first few Magic sets were all underprinted. Even after Wizards of the Coast had begun to realize the scale of their success, they still couldn't quite figure out how much product was enough to satisfy demand. From Wikipedia:
Because previous sets were underprinted, often making them unavailable very quickly after they went on sale, more Fallen Empires cards were printed than any previous set. Wizards of the Coast announced the print run of Fallen Empires to be 350-375 million cards compared to 75 million for its predecessor The Dark. Booster packs were thus available until 1998 despite the fact that Wizards stopped shipping cards in January 1995.
So how many Magic cards was enough? Somewhere between 75 million and 350-375 million.

This is why, when I first got into the game in 1995, Fallen Empires was everywhere. Along with Homelands and Chronicles, Fallen Empires was ubiquitous, overprinted, and soon discounted heavily by retailers who were trying to make up for lost time by loading up on as many Magic cards as the market could bear. The problem was that, like most of the other early expansion sets, Fallen Empires was weak. Not as weak as Homelands, mind you (still considered by universal consensus to be the worst Magic set ever printed), but weak enough that sales suffered.

I bought a lot of packs of Fallen Empires, though, for the simple reason that it was there. Stores still couldn't keep the core set (Fourth Edition, by then) in stock, but if you had money left over from comics burning a hole in your pocket and wanted to buy Magic cards, well, there were always packs of Fallen Empires on hand. It may not have been Mr. Right, but it was Mr. Right Now, if you know what I mean. When they pop up, it's worth pointing out that you can still to this day get a sealed box of Fallen Empires for around the price of a box of whatever the new product is.

Amazingly, all these weak, underperforming sets did little to lessen the insatiable desire for new Magic product. By 1995 there were other Collectible Card Games on the market, but Magic was still the one to beat. Ice Age was well-received and sold well, even if it was followed in short order by the aforementioned Homelands. As chaotic as the first three years of Magic production was, the market for the game only continued to grow, and those retailers who had embraced the game as a lifeline during a down period for the comic book industry. To this day it's rare to find a comic book store that doesn't at least carry new Magic product, even if they don't go so far as to support tournaments. (The fact that a pack of Magic cards has usually been around the price of a new comic probably helps.)

Anyway, Fallen Empires. It was a weak set in terms of gameplay but as far as flavor went it was actually pretty cool. There was a quite elaborate story behind the set, featuring a war among various factions on the Dominarian continent Sarpadia (I talked a little bit about Dominaria last week). The dwarves were fighting orcs and goblins, which is usually what dwarves do. Interestingly, despite their status as an evergreen fantasy race, dwarves have been largely absent from Magic for many years. Apparently there were various parties in Magic R&D who just didn't like dwarves, which seems weird considering that they're making a card game called Magic: The Gathering.

Monday, February 15, 2016

Monday Magic

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

Haunted Angel (Apocalypse, 2000)

And here we go, because someone - at least one person - demanded it, the return of, well, a recurring feature. And boy, do we have a card for you this week, one of the most significant, format-defining cards in the history of the game -

Hah, no. This is Haunted Angel. This is a bad card.

This came out in 2000's Apocalypse. I wasn't playing Magic when this came out. This was the Summer 2001 set, meaning it was the most recent new set on September, 11th, 2001, when terrorists commandeered -

Fuck, shit. There has to be something more interesting to say about Haunted Angel.

OK. We can do this.

Haunted Angel is the kind of card no one in their right mind would play under normal circumstances. It's never been reprinted, which is usually a good sign of its forgettability. And yet, it's also a good example of a card that works within the context of its set, maybe not playable under most circumstances but intended to bolster the set's story and themes. Apocalypse was, as you might imagine from the title, a particularly significant set, story-wise. This set was the culmination of a years-long story leading to the invasion of the plane of Dominaria (the former default plane for every Magic set) by the evil extra-dimensional Phyrexians. The core storytelling gimmick at the heart of Magic - the conceit behind the game, really - is that the game takes place in a multiverse of different worlds that can only be traversed by magically gifted "Planeswalkers." You, as in the player, are a Planeswalker, able to take spells and artifacts from across many different worlds in order to wage magic duels. Dominaria was the game's home from its very first set (Limited Edition, retroactively labeled Alpha), back in 1993, although it's been only rarely seen in the last twelve or thirteen years as the game has focused on expanding its stable of worlds.

The Phyrexians are less a race than an infection, a kind of evil illness that spreads through a black bile (kind of similar to the black stuff in Prometheus, although over a decade earlier). The leader of the Phyrexians, Yawgmoth, invaded Dominaria in the lead up to Apocalypse, raising the dead of Dominaria to fill the ranks of his army. (Hence the name "Apocalypse," signifying an actual Biblical end of the world event.) The idea behind a card like Haunted Angel, therefore, is that even a pure creature like an Angel can be turned into an enemy after death: when Haunted Angel dies, your opponent gets a mirror image of the creature with which to attack you.

On it's own without that ability, this would be a good card - an Uncommon white 3/3 with Flying for 3 CMC is definitely playable. But giving your enemy a 3/3 flyer of their own to attack you with after losing the creature, that's a punishing drawback. The one situation where this card might come in handy would be in a multiplayer game: the card grants evil Angels to all your opponents, not just one, and there are lots of circumstances where giving free creatures to other players in a multiplayer game might come in handy.

Although Yawgmoth and the Phyrexians were defeated at the end of Apocalypse, that wouldn't be the end for the villains. A few hundred or so years later (here's a handy, if confusing, timeline for the Magic storyline, although it's a bit out of date) the Phyrexians regrouped on the artificial plane of Mirrodin. The last we saw of the Phyrexians was in 2011, so it's been a while. Recent changes in the game have been designed partly with the purpose of accelerating the occasionally moribund pace of storytelling, so hopefully we'll get some development there soon.

Thursday, February 11, 2016

Stuff Stuff Stuff

So it looks like I've been . . . busy? Apparently I have an article up about Deadpool, written with the express purpose of introducing the character to people who may find him either unfamiliar or unpleasant. For the record, I am pro-Deadpool, in that I have been reading about Deadpool since I bought New Mutants #98 off the stands way back in the day and have read probably 99% of all Deadpool comics ever published, having enjoyed more of them than not. A lot of Deadpool's problem boils down to Deadpool fans, and the reaction to Deadpool fans among certain more enfranchised segments of the readership. Is there a bit of classist resentment here, given the tendency of jokes at the expense of Deadpool fans to focus in on things like hypothetical literacy levels and potential Insane Clown Posse fandom? U-Decide!

And as if that weren't enough!

Abhay's got a 2015 Year-In-Review series going up at the Comics Journal website as we speak. I do a guest bit here, as more or less a straight man brought in to explain this year's panoply of mainstream comic book events. One problem with the pieces, I think, has been the conscious decision to turn off commenting for the articles. I understand why Abhay and the Journal came to the decision, and I respect their reasoning - but looking at the discussion online, peacemeal on Twitter, and I think there's actually a disservice being done here in terms of some degree of conversation being sidestepped. Again, I understand not wanting to deal with the fallout of, oh, Mark Waid coming in and getting butthurt and dismissing some legitimate criticism because it comes wrapped in some brilliant scatology (and he comes in for a good drubbing more than once because, well, Mark Waid had kind of an absurd year [which doesn't take away from the fact that he wrote some good comics in 2015] where he did and said some absurd things that deserve little better than outright mockery). But on the other hand I've seen some legitimate criticism of the piece online - whether or not I agree with the criticism is immaterial to the fact that some of the questions raised are interesting and deserve to be answered, especially in the context of a piece that does a dynamite job of calling out the absurdity of people in the industry repeatedly saying, in response to legitimate criticism, "we need to have a conversation," and then reacting dismissively to said conversation when it arises.

Now, obviously I'm biased, being, you know, part of the article in question, and having nothing but respect for Abhay as one of the funniest people alive and one of the two great inspirations for this very blog (the other one being, of course, the immortal Gone & Forgotten). But some of the conversation (there's that word again!) I've seen on Twitter has been interesting. Does Abhay get a pass for his criticism in some quarters because of his gender, when often women who have said very similar things have been criticized? Another valence here that often gets overlooked is that he's speaking from the position of an absolute outsider to the industry - he doesn't make a living, or really have any financial stake in the industry at all. He's a lawyer in LA. He gets to say a lot of shit because at the end of the day he has absolutely no skin in this game, even less than I do, really. So there's no sense that he's trying to make things better through critique because there's no sense that he has any investment in the system other than as a gadfly trying to make people laugh by pointing out how completely idiotic some of this shit is. I personally don't have a problem with that (obviously) and aspire to the status of gadfly myself, but I also recognize that the freedom to say any old thing comes with the very real price of pissing off people who actually are invested in trying to make things better, which is something I sort of gesture towards at the end of my brief contribution. It's something I think about, at least, even if I am also aware that I have absolutely no qualms about pissing people off for no real reason other than that it amuses me to do so, which is pretty much the textbook definition of "white guy privilege."

Thursday, February 04, 2016

War Reporting

The Weapon of a Jedi: A Luke Skywalker Adventure
by Jason Fry with illustrations by Phil Noto

Heists are easy - heists, rescues, races, any type of story that has a ticking clock bolted onto the plot. Smuggler's Run profited from its status as a rescue story. The race against time, with Han and Chewie running to keep one step ahead of the Empire, gave the book a shape and trajectory of a classic thriller. Greg Rucka can write the hell out of those. The Weapon of a Jedi can't help but seem baggy in comparison.

Part of the blame must rest on the protagonist. It's accepted wisdom by now that Luke Skywalker is the least interesting thing about Star Wars. For all of the hot air expelled over the last almost forty years about the "heroic journey" and the cod-structuralism Lucas (almost certainly) picked up after the fact to explain the generic virtues of his heroic fiction, there's no evading the fact that the hero at the center of the original Star Wars trilogy was purposefully constructed to be as bland as possible. That's important in the story itself. When he appears at the beginning of A New Hope he's essentially an empty vessel, defined by longing and ambition and curiosity about and for the future, but still almost entirely a blank slate.

(As sexist as it seems in hindsight, the in-story decision to allow Luke to train as a Jedi while still maintaining Leia's cover makes sense in light of what we later learn about how the Jedi operate. She was raised as a politician, a diplomat, and a rebel, and was every bit as talented and confident as her twin brother was awkward and uncertain. She would have made a poor candidate for Jedi training given the fact that Obi-Wan and Yoda reasoned they probably were only going to get one more shot at the Emperor. Better to go with the blank slate farm boy who could be more easily indoctrinated to their dead religion than the willful, educated princess who would be just as likely to become the next Count Dooku as anything else. [To say nothing of the real-world fact that no one in 1977 had any idea that Leia was anything but a princess. The history of Star Wars is a history of turning ex post facto rationalizations of plot holes into narrative opportunities. Although Roy Thomas left the comic after a year, the evolution of the franchise evolution bears his influence, with the later Expanded Universe and even Lucas' own Prequels assuming a position in relation to the original trilogy similar to that of Infinity, Inc. and The Last Days of the Justice Society to the initial 57-issue run of All-Star Comics. In this light, it's hard to shake the association of The Force Awakens as, essentially, Geoff Johns' Star Wars, with all that implies.])


The Weapon of a Jedi isn't a thriller. The plot is simple: Luke, flying an unfamiliar Y-Wing on an undercover scouting mission, runs afoul of an Imperial patrol and is forced to put down for repairs on Devaron (you remember, where these guys come from). This just happens to be the site of an ancient Jedi temple that has been placed off-limits by the Imperial governor. With a three-day wait for his ship's repairs, Luke sets out with the aid of an unscrupulous guide to explore the ruins. (The plot is, literally, Luke killing time while waiting for car repairs.) The Empire arrives on the scene, a young Davaronian girl he befriends is jeopardized, and wouldn't you know that same unscrupulous guide who has basically been hanging around waiting to kill Luke and steal his lightsaber since his first appearance tries to kill Luke and steal his lightsaber. Luke wins, the Imperials get killed (and their bodies thrown down a giant hole, which is a nice gruesome touch), and Luke defeats the guide. The end.

If it sounds like I'm piling onto The Weapon of a Jedi, I don't necessarily mean to sound so negative. There's nothing wrong with it, but it struggled to keep my interest. Even though it's exactly as long as Smuggler's Run (which I polished off in two hours), it took the better part of a week to get through. I can't blame Jason Fry. The premise holds some of the responsibility. Set between A New Hope and Empire Strikes Back, the book has the unenviable task of needing to fill-in a three-year gap in the timeline of a character whose backstory leaves little room for deviation. To wit: even though there's three years between the end of A New Hope and the beginning of Empire Strikes Back, Luke learns precious little about being a Jedi in that time. He shows up on Dagobah knowing almost nothing, so any attempt to fill in the blanks about what he gets up to in those three years has to avoid him actually, you know, learning anything. Here Luke finds three old lightsaber training drones in the ruins of the temple of Eedit and spends time practicing the rudimentary forms Obi Wan managed to teach him before he died. He learns how to meditate a little better. Even that feels like skating up to the edge of violating continuity, however, considering just how little he understands when he meets Yoda about the significance of patience to the Force. Even the one aspect of Luke's training that can plausibly be developed in the period - his lightsaber skills - starts to seem problematic, as the book shows him beginning to understand the Zen-like concentration necessary to wield such a difficult weapon correctly. He then forgets all these lessons about patience and concentration before he leaves for Dagobah, perhaps thanks to a Hal Jordan-esque head injury that occurs off-panel.

It's not Fry's fault that Luke is a bland protagonist. One of the smartest things they did in The Force Awakens was realize that the best way they could build anticipation for the guy was to have him gone. Here, left to his own devices and without any of the other main cast to play against (although R2-D2 and C-3PO are on hand), the book can't help but seem like marking time.

Journey to Star Wars: The Force Awakens?
Hey, you like C-3PO's red arm? Well guess what, he's still going on about that in the framing sequence. At this point, I am beginning to think that the red arm schtick was designed specifically to troll fans, given our relentless "fill-in-the-blanks" attitude towards gaps in continuity. Books like these wouldn't even exist if there wasn't a market for it, though, so I guess there's really no one to blame but ourselves. In buying a Star Wars tie-in novel in the first place, we advertise our status as marks.

Just as in Smuggler's Run, the framing sequence is notable far more for what it leaves out than what it says. The main story is a flashback being narrated in the present by C-3PO to Resistance pilot Jessika Pava. She wants to hear a story about the legendary Luke Skywalker. Anyone having read this before the movie might not have read much into that, but it's obvious in hindsight that Luke is a "legend" at least partially because he's been missing for a while.

The other connection comes in the form of the aforementioned unscrupulous guide, a vaguely insectoid fellow named Sarco Plank. Yes, the same Sarco Plank who appears literally for less than a second onscreen in The Force Awakens, as one of dozens of dudes hanging around the trading post on Jakku in the movie's first half-hour. He does have his own toy, though, so you can now relive the adventure of that time he tried to kill Luke in a YA tie-in novel, or that time he was sitting around while Rey did something else in the foreground. Viva la Star Wars!

Tuesday, February 02, 2016

The Hurting's Party Jam Podcast #62

The Hurting's Party Jam Podcast #62 by Timoneil5000 on Mixcloud

A little late considering it's ostensibly a 2015 "year in review," but in my defense I finished it before Christmas break and just sort of, um, forgot to upload it. Also, those who don't pay attention to such things might want to note that my Bowie tribute mix is still available via the top pinned post on my Twitter homepage. I'll probably take it down at some point.