Thursday, 30 September 2010

(Don't) Give Me One Vision

I've never really understood why so many people love Alan Davis. At best, I think he's a slightly above average artist, and one who has failed to develop much for quite some time, but it's the respect people have for his stories that baffles me.

Admittedly, this is probably at least in part because I first came across him during his tenure on Uncanny X-Men and X-Men. It seemed obvious to me that writing both books and drawing one of them was too great a workload (his artwork was more impressive when he wasn't writing the books as well), and his run is generally considered a disappointment. "He wasn't a good fit", as Chris B told me yesterday.

Of course, I wasn't disappointed, or at least not in Davis himself (I was certainly disappointed in other respects). I couldn't be, I hadn't seen him in action during the alleged golden era of Excalibur he reigned over.

So, this week I sat down and read the first volume of Excalibur Visionaries: Alan Davis (an example of Marvel hyperbole that might be enough to make even Stan Lee blush), to see if I could work out what all the fuss was about.

Turned out: I couldn't. Well, kind of. Davis is certainly faithful to the original direction of the book, which as I've mentioned before seemed to spring into being entirely as a way for Chris Claremont to indulge his dimension-hopping pseudo-fairy-tale side, so that the actual X-Men proper could get on with being X-Men, without having to stop every ten minutes to listen to Kitty Pryde blather on about mystical kingdoms thick with "bamfs". The split allowed at least this one X-fan to breathe a sigh of relief, even if the bamfs were genuinely cute as all hell:

Excalibur is no less lunatic. Within the first issue, their lighthouse base has been blown to pieces by a militant canary suicide bomber who talks like Tweety Pie (his name? "Hard-Boiled Henry", though naturally he pronounces it "Henwy"). Every plot line involves either what Davis believes constitutes British mysticism (despite being English himself, Davis' first nine issues on the title make very little real use of the setting, beyond a few insider references, such as naming somewhere after Walmington-On-Sea) or a ridiculous cross-dimensional set-up. Or both. Terrible puns abound. An issue in which Captain Britain is (briefly) put on trial by the Captain Britain Corps is named "Witless For The Prosecution". An Iron Man and Punisher from a universe in which the dominant life forms are lizards are called "Dino Steel" and - and this is painful to write - "Punisaur".

Even when the action gets going, and the Anti-Phoenix and Necrom show up to destroy, well, everything, there's still time for Captain Britains on motorbikes and unicycles (the former sprouting the world's least convincing Brooklyn accent). I have to admit, some of these jokes are actually so bad they're good, or so incongruous I laughed out loud in sheer surprise.

The problem is that the book keeps undercutting itself. It is notoriously difficult to write something which needs to be both funny and project a sense of risk and not have the two elements work against each other (see posts 1 through 376 477 of my series "Fuck off, Russell T Davies"). Davis can't manage the trick. The result is a mildly diverting, sporadically amusing romp of no real substance, even in a nine-issue arc that's building to a threatened apocalypse.

I don't mean to sound too down on it. It's a very '80s book, with all that entails, and on that level it more or less works. Interestingly, though, these issues are from 1991 and 1992. I can't help but wonder how much of the love old hands profess for this run has to do with the book in isolation, and how much of it comes down to Excalibur's defiant silliness acting as a respite from all the ludicrous muscle-flexing and blood-letting that was creeping into the other X titles. In an era where Rob Liefeld could destroy one of the twin towers without pausing for thought, I can see how the (by modern standards) lightweight Excalibur would come as a welcome relief. I wonder how many people actually read Excalibur without reading at least one other mutant-related book, actually, and whether it genuinely could stand on its own rather than as aside.

Wednesday, 29 September 2010


Hurrah! After almost two months, I have finally pushed the correct buttons and pulled the necessary levers to gain access to the internet from my PC, rather than simply my laptop.

Hopefully the posting schedule should return to what is was in the first half of the year, even when I'm not spending the whole week sitting around at home watching horror films and eating Super Noodles.

Hollywood Algebra: Pandorum

(The Descent - caves) x Dead Space x (Pitch Black - Vin Diesel + Randy Quaid)
Something that seems new despite being spectacularly not, and perfectly good fun despite being spectacularly obvious.

(I do wish they'd called it "Panjandrum", though. It's not like "Pandorum" makes any more sense as the name of a deep-space psychological condition. Plus, if if was the former, the symptoms would presumably have less to do with mass murder, and more to do with dressing like the Emperor of Lilliput.)

An Autumn's Distraction

Complaining about OK Go yesterday reminded me that it's been a good four months since our last "first lines" quiz, and that I hadn't put up answers to either of the last two. This has now been rectified. Once again, these are listed according to what I consider their degree of obscurity, and no artist appears in the list more than once.

To arms, my loyal peasants!

1. "Take a boat to England baby, maybe to Spain." Simon and Garfunkel - Blues Run The Game (Jamie)

2. "Staggering home, the headlights throw a shadow up and upon." Madness - Lovestruck (Mozz)

3. "Show me show me show me how you do that trick." The Cure - Just Like Heaven (Mozz)

4. "Sail away with me honey, I put my heart in your hands." David Gray - Sail Away (Jamie)

5. "I sit at my table and wage war on myself." R.E.M. - World Leader Pretend (Mozz)

6. "When I think of heaven, deliver me in a black winged bird." Counting Crows - Rain King (Jamie)

7. "Pistols of fire, pistols of fire, pistols of fire, shatter the frame." Kings Of Leon - Pistols Of Fire (wils)

 8. "If it weren't for your maturity none of this would've happened." Alanis Morissette - Hands Clean (Mozz)

9. "Waking up at the start of the end of the world." Matchbox 20 - How Far We've Come

10. "Dearest constellation, heaven surroundin' you, stay there soft and blue." Foo Fighters - Virginia Moon (wils) 

11. "Your sorry eyes cut through the bone, they make it hard to leave you alone." Beck - Lost Cause

12. "I woke up on the wrong side of the floor." Green Day - Uptight (Jamie)

13. "Wrap me in always, and drag me in with maybes." Smashing Pumpkins - Thru The Eyes Of Ruby (JJ)

14. "I've got a dying urge to feel the way you do." Alkaline Trio - Continental

15. "It felt cold inside, so we threw the radio onto the fire." Idlewild - The Bronze Medal (Nadia)

16. "I love New York City, I love New York City." Andrew WK - NYC

17. "It covers the roadways, it covered the hillsides." Midlake - It Covers The Hillsides (Jamie)

18. "Bad news if he could choose, would he refuse to be the bearer?" The Mighty Mighty Bosstones - Bad News And Bad Breaks

19. "I drive a truck, it carries money, and every day I dream up my fantasies." Stereophonics - Everyday I Think Of Money (Mozz)

20. "I've been a desperate man, I've been sheltered by a lonely dream." Ryan Adams - Hallelujah

21. "Here come Monday mornin', life is open wide." The Presidents of the USA - Shortwave

22. "Drums come out of boredom baby, UN exports it everyday." The Manic Street Preachers - Another Invented Disease

23. "Thought you had all the answers to rest your heart upon." Bird York - In The Deep

24. "Romeo got married on the 5th of July, in Our Lady of Immaculate Dawn." Josh Ritter - Harrisburg

25. "I will find a way to get to you someday." Cracker - Shake Some Action

Seventeen bands (edit: eighteen, sorry) and seven solo artists. 18 quotes are from Americans, 3 from Englishmen, 2 from the Welsh, and one each hail from Canadian and Scottish sources. Two of the lines are sung by women, and four include the name of the track within them (a fifth comes pretty close).

44% remains, as always, the score to beat. Get to work. And sorry about the "peasants" thing.

Update: Up to 52%. Your best score to date. But there's still some easy fruit for plucking.

Update II: And now a mighty 56%!

Tuesday, 28 September 2010

I'd Genuinely Rather Just Hear Them Barking

Back in February I complained about "OK Go Syndrome", a hideous disease that strikes bands down in their prime (well, "prime") following a hit video and forces them to care more and more about the visuals and less and less about the accompanying, y'know, song.

Can I just say: case closed.

Seriously, I saw this video for the first time ninety minutes ago, and already I can't remember a single lyric, note or beat. At all. All I remember is a whole bunch of doggies doing lovely doggy things (though the band has gotten to the point where they can't manage single-take, single-camera routines anymore; what is it they say about working with children and animals?)

So, yeah, the disease is presumably entering its final stages. Still, doggies!

If God Will Send His Agents (At A Snail's Pace)

I was originally inclined towards giving Legion a bad review, on the grounds that it's a lunatic mess of a film; amusing when it thinks it's scary, irritating when it thinks it's touching, and confusing when it thinks it's, well, anything else.

On reflection, though, I think I'm being unfair. Legion only fails if you assume it was intended to be a piece of entertainment. Not an unrealistic proposition, I grant you. In Legion's case, though, it fails to convince. The only way to make any sense from the film at all is to work from the assumption that it's some kind of twisted experiment to discover exactly how much an audience can take before they break.

How else can we explain a film so totally devoid of internal logic. A film which relies entirely on the idea that it will take an archangel quite some time to fly to Earth before contradicting that ten minutes later in any case. A film in which an army can trap the woman they want dead in a remote diner next to a gas station and never think to blow it up which is exactly what happens at the end anyway. An army, by the way, that sends an old woman as advance guard to ruin the element of surprise and then a man in an ice-cream van forty seconds ahead of the horde because, well, why exactly? The other angels thought he was a dick, I guess? Why does it take them the whole film to take over one diner patron when they can possess a cop in just enough time to rip off The Matrix and Twin Peaks at the same time?

I don't even want to talk about Gabriel's rotating tin angelo-cock substitute.

So, don't see it as a film. See it as a noble sacrifice. Dozens of careers brutally ended to allow each and every one of us our own break-point. It might be watching an old woman climbing across the ceiling. It might be watching a man get crucified upside down by angels. It might even be realising that this is a film released this year in which the two black characters are "bad boy" and "God fearer" (naturally, the latter has to have a heart to heart with the former to encourage him to repent) and the three female characters are a teenager and pregnant child who need to be protected, and a shrew of a woman who turns out to be crazy/evil. Who can say?

Monday, 27 September 2010

The Truth About Cats And, Er, Kittens

Dammit! Should really be preparing for interviews and such, but instead I'm watching the ludicrousness of confusing necessary but arbitrary distinctions with fundamental moral principles exposed by singing kitty cats!

Heh heh heh. I am going to Hell.

Balancing The Sets Of Spectacular Imbalances

There is little in the field of political commentary I find more tiresome than hearing people say that because the party who they voted for promised to fight for X and failed, they now intend to vote for the party that have sworn X will never happen except over their dead bodies, amongst the ashes of our dead sun.

This has been much in evidence recently, and frequently amongst people who should know better. I share the disappointment at the nixing of the plan to repeal DADT, though I realise my annoyance is orders of magnitude smaller than those for whom a repeal would make a material difference tom - either in allowing them to serve or as evidence that their community is making genuine progress in civil rights (advancing in the teeth of fire from lunatics like Ann Coulter: "Marriage isn't a civil right. You're not black.").

That said, the idea that gay people should consider voting for Republicans in future because "At least we know where they stand" is about the most gob-smackingly self-defeating and all-out fucking idiotic idea one can easily imagine. A lot like saying you're so sick of meeting flirtatious sex-pots who don't end up sleeping with you that you may as well slash your crotch into chum with a squeaky pizza-cutter.

All that said, though, there is a more interesting dilemma lurking in here. Namely, if you believe someone is on the right side of 99 issues, how spectacularly, unspeakably disgraceful do they have to be on the remaining one issue before you'll switch to the guy who's with you on that sole problem?

That's the question that's been going through my mind ever since I read this:
[N]ot only does the President have the right to sentence Americans to death with no due process or charges of any kind, but his decisions as to who will be killed and why he wants them dead are "state secrets," and thus no court may adjudicate their legality.
Needless to say, this is deeply, deeply disturbing. Even if I had more faith in Obama than I do (the fact that I prefer him to pretty much any given Republican president or presidential candidate since the 19th Century should not be confused for hero worship), the implications of allowing such power to be wielded by one man are obviously very concerning. Do I think Obama would start bumping off his enemies and simply claim they are terrorists? No I do not. But I could be wrong. Moreover, by providing precedent for such conduct, we need to worry not only about how Obama will use this "privilege", but how the next guy will, or the one after that. This, of course, is one of the many (many many) reasons I viewed those who argued Bush could be trusted to run roughshod over constitutional protections as so devastatingly idiotic. Quite aside from my feelings about the man in question, it is critical that every action we judge acceptable for an executive to take takes into account the way it can be used by the worst amongst us, not the best. Call it the "Nixon Test". If you ain't happy with the idea of Nixon having the ability to execute American citizens without legal review, then fuck off with suggesting Obama can have it.

It has been noted by many that Obama's deepest failings to date have been on civil liberties. From defending Bush's practices (and whilst Obama is genuinely worse in this area than Bush - about the only area in which that could be said, with the possible exception of relations with India, I believe that is more because Bush started a downward spiral, rather than there being anything specific in Obama's nature that makes him more intrinsically gittish), to extending them still further, and to letting the Republicans in Congress beat him up over closing Gitmo and allowing civilian trials for suspected terrorists, it's a pretty sorry story.

This, though, might just take the proverbial cake. In fact, this is so bad, the idea that an executive can order the execution of his citizens and declare his reasons for doing so immune to judicial review so anathema to both me and the concept of democracy itself, that it makes me wonder whether if the Republican candidate in 2012 specifically swore to ban such actions by executive order - and I had good enough reason to trust their word - whether I might have to consider switching sides.

Fortunately (from a certain point of view), it's almost certainly a moot point. The Republican political machine (as oppose to the entirety of their voting base, many of whom are noting and objecting to what Obama is doing) isn't interested in trying to force Obama to give up on this stuff. They don't want to curtail powers they hope to have access to in 2012 (and are liable to have in 2016), after all. No, right now they're all to busy arguing Obama is a secret Muslim socialist who hates America because his drunken father was an anti-colonialist (and when exactly did Americans decide being pro-colonial was the way to go, especially with regard to British colonies). As much as I despise the Republicans on their own terms, I dislike them even more because their vapid, show-boating, race-baiting antics denies America what every healthy democracy needs: an honest, sensible, and above all vigilant Opposition. The GOP right now are like the boy who cried "Wolf!", only even that analogy fails because they're more akin to the boy who cried "Wolf with ten legs and heat-vision that's the secret love-child of Satan!"

So, I am mercifully spared the agony of having to choose sides. Nevertheless, well done, Mr President. Well done for genuinely making me worried that sooner or later I will have to reconsider just who it is out there who represents the lesser evil.

Sometimes I really hate people...

Friday, 24 September 2010

The Ultimate Revelation: Finally Revealed!

Teach A Leopard To Fish...

Man, it's been a busy week in US politics. Try as I might, though, I can't generate a post on any of it. Sure, it's great that medical insurance companies are as of now legally prevented from refusing people on the grounds of pre-existing conditions, but that's somewhat tempered by the latest round of Republican gay-bashing (once again demonstrating their commitment to the troops by blocking a military funding bill because it might potentially allow DADT to be repealed) and Virginia deciding it's time to get back into the hilarious fun-time world of executing the borderline retarded.

So let's ignore all of that, and talk about tigers instead? The Other Half and I spent an hour last night watching a nature documentary in which two men and a beardless Scottish yeti entered the mountains of Bhutan to see whether there were any tigers kicking about. The idea is to form a 5 000 mile tiger highway through the lower Himalayas, so that the tigers are no longer confined to multiple small pockets of habitation, which encourages inbreeding (much like Norfolk).

It sounds like a good idea in theory, but I have to admit that the whole way through the program all I could see in my head was this:

Nothin' the last, like, eight snow leopards want to see more than a bunch of drunken, loud-mouth tigers walking in and eating all the juiciest sheep. That's just adding insult to injury.

Of course, there might be a way to keep the tigers and snow leopards happy at the same time, and that's to get rid of then Indian leopards. Sure, they're "near threatened", but who cares? Tigers and snow leopards are straight up endangered, right? Who gives a shit about "near threatened"? I'm near threatened (by which I mean I'm never more than two hours away from The Other Half threatening to punch me for being mean).

Besides, leopards are dicks. Sneaking up on people's camps; eyeing up their horses. Total jerks. Even so, though, it's important not to sink to their level. We need to ensure that the leopards we move from the tiger corridor can be gainfully employed elsewhere.

So what can we do with them. I've come up with five ideas so far:
  1. Force gymkhana entrants to choose their horses at random. Secretly replace one horse with a leopard;
  2. Instill a much needed sense of discipline on Just A Minute by swapping out the buzzers for remote opening mechanisms for leopard cages. Also, replace standard warm-up act with ten minute wrestling match between leopard and Nicholas Parsons;
  3. Replace the 3rd Battalion of the Parachute Regiment with four hundred ill-tempered leopards. Not only do they come pre-camouflaged, but they're guaranteed to land on their feet!
  4. Use instead of foxes in fox hunts, to give the toffs a real challenge. Or; use instead of hounds in fox hunts, and the fox with genetically-engineered allosaurus;
  5. Leopard synchronised swimming.
Anyone got any more ideas?

Thursday, 23 September 2010

V For Verbosity

Chris B and I now have a second slice of ruminations on comics available to those with two hours to kill (along with a fair number of brain cells). This time we focus on V For Vendetta, though we also discuss the film adaptation and just how mad Alan Moore is this week.

Tuesday, 21 September 2010

"Outraged? I'm Barely Surprised"

Every now and again I like to imagine what a Republican candidate could say that would render them persona non grata amongst their fellows. Other than, y'know, agreeing with Obama or being mean to Israel, obviously.

If, like me, you'd been thinking that maybe arguing miscegenation would be much easier to stop if inclusion didn't mean white people kept meeting all those sexy black kids in school would be beyond the pail, then you lose! If you thought that claiming too many "free-thinking Jews" are deleterious to an optimal society would be too much, then you lose! If you thought demanding parents ensure their children know what the "appropriate ethnic boundaries" are when socialising or getting married, then it sucks to be you!

And if you think that arguing all three things simultaneously in the same 2001 article would surely sink someone's career for life, then you just haven't really been paying attention.

I wasn't particularly surprised to discover this guy has been endorsed by the statewide Republicans - and all the shock I did feel came from the fact the state in question is New York. The best possible spin on this I can think of is that maybe the state GOP was legally required to endorse him since he won the primary last time around - though that jibes with what I know about how these things generally work. Perhaps they're trying to keep quiet about all this. The NYSRP website literally doesn't mention Russell at all, other than his self-penned bio, but he's not the only candidate for which that is true. I'm not sure "Let's just accept that we have to endorse the foaming bigot and hope no-one notices" really lets anyone off the hook in any case.

You know what, though? Sooner or later you start to get inured to this sort of thing. Not the comments themselves, so much, but the fact they keep popping up but so many people seem to find them not worthy of comment. All I've had in my head since I read those three articles is a CJ press briefing:

I'm not saying the Republican Party is going around beating women to death, obviously. But it's pretty bad, it's getting worse, and I don't know how much longer we're supposed to pretend to be surprised by this stuff.

(PS: If all that is too heavy for you, try this West Wing spoof instead: "Toby" is absolutely brilliant).

How I Justify My Existence

Hooray! At long last, I have another paper afloat in the Ocean of Journals! This is much better than the earlier one, too; and works as a kind of overview for the lion's share of my thesis work (I have another one describing the remaining eight months of work, but that's still stuck in approval-limbo).

So if anyone has a working knowledge of maths and access to Science Direct, feel free to take a look at the sum total of my efforts from the middle of 2005 to the end of 2008. Otherwise, you can always just scan the abstract and marvel at all the pretty syllables.

Monday, 20 September 2010

Five Things I Learned In Glasgow

1. There is quite simply no way to hang a poster in Glasgow saying "STOP TORY CUTS!" without a strategically-added "N" appearing almost immediately, and you're a fool if you think otherwise.

2. If you're planning to spend your last Saturday night before emigrating to South America watching your favourite musician, do not spend the afternoon beforehand engaged in an impromptu drinking contest with someone with six inches and at least a couple of stone on you. Especially if you haven't eaten more than a egg and cress sandwich all day, and if apparently your Welsh upbringing has led you to confuse "a drinking competition" with what those of us who are Middlesbrough-born describe as "a weekend" (seriously, sorry you got sick, Erika!)

3. There is a barman in the Curler's Rest (adjacent to Hillhead metro station) that looks exactly like me from behind and to the side. I spent the whole afternoon seeing him out of the corner of my eye and turning to look. God knows why, of course; I probably didn't need a closer look to determine that it was not, in fact, me.

4. Turns out the world wasn't crying out for a lager and rum cocktail after all.

5. You can get ejected from a pub in Glasgow on a Saturday night for looking too morose. I don't even remember being sad. Perhaps I was upset about how badly my cocktail skills have atrophied. Or guilty about my newest acquaintance vomiting out the contents of her stomach whilst the support act was on. Mainly, though, I think it's because Josh Ritter didn't play Kathleen.

Friday, 17 September 2010

Radio Friday: Onwards To Glasgow

I'll be spending a fair amount of time on the road tomorrow and Sunday (though not, admittedly, at the wheel), so we return to Radio Friday with my current absolute favourite driving song. It's really hard not to start accelerating wildly during the guitar parts in the middle eight.

Everyone have a fun weekend!

Thursday, 16 September 2010

Yeah, But Hamas Are Werewolves

Just in the interests of undercutting any accidental surge towards over-earnestness: this post (via LGM) made my laugh so hard my teeth hurt.

A Brief Dalliance With Cod-Philosophy

And to think, some of us were worried the Pope's visit might not be the best of ideas. I can only assume the man is working under some strange kind of conservation of bullshit. It must have taken him a while to decide how to balance the scales for admitting to the mistakes the Catholic Church has made over the child-abuse scandals. I don't know if linking vociferous Atheists to the Nazis will quite get him there, but it's a damn good attempt. Richard Dawkins might be a dick, but he ain't trying to fiddle the legal system of the country so that everyone else will have live according to his ideas - something the Pope might want to have a go at trying.

What's particularly annoying is that I hear less extreme formulations of the Pope's formulation all the time. I thoroughly enjoyed the week's worth of religious talks I went to last year (even if the overall tone of the event itself tends to cause ), but a regular feature of the surrounding discussions and testimonies was the idea that the absence of God means there can be no morality, no belief in the importance of humanity.

I've always had a hard time even comprehending this way of thinking. It seems baffling to me that there can be no concept of right and wrong without it being imposed on us from elsewhere. Sure, my ideas of right and wrong are filtered through my cultural heritage, and quite possibly (if not inevitably) flawed our flat-out incorrect. But the same is true of the way in which Christians interpret the Bible. Anyone who claims that they know with utter certainty what God wants in any given situation is a flat-out fool.

In other words, we all might be wrong. We all might think something not because it's true, but because the society we inhabit has considered it axiomatic for so long we no longer even think to question it. We all might know something is wrong, but find a clever argument - either from our own heads or the Gospel, but equally sophistic - to make us feel we should be allowed to do it. I have no problem understanding why Christians believe their millions of different local interpretations of how things should be are superior to ours, but it is a fallacy to argue that we lack them entirely.

Regarding what makes humans special if they just came about by chance, I'd say: nothing. Nothing actually makes a human objectively special, beyond their uniqueness, but a snowflake or a cane toad or a fungal infection can all make that same claim - in other words, literally everything is special in those terms, which sort of defeats the purpose of the word. What matters - all that matters - is our subjective feelings on the matter. And those tell us all that we need to know: the friends we rely on, the family we love, and those people we have wanted and kissed and smiled at beneath our sheets are different. Different in the same way that the Mona Lisa is different from a collection of shaded swirls. Different in the same way that "I love you" is different to "J mpwf zpv". That is to say: no different, except in context.

Which is why empathy is so crucial, of course; it requires you to realise that everyone on the planet has someone who feels that way about them. Everyone is special, because somebody else believes them to be. You don't need one all-powerful being to tell you that, just the summation of experience of the entire human race. Which, of course, is the only thing an atheist like me thinks is at work whenever we wonder about how to live in any case.

Continue The Excoriation!

The second part of what my editor was good enough to call my "Epic article of epicness" is now available for your perusal. I guess now I'll have to start thinking about what I shall talk about next time around.

Tuesday, 14 September 2010

Pity These Poor Dumb Animals

Via Balloon Juice, a fascinating article from the Boston Sunday Globe on the theory that what made humanity so successful wasn't simply our ability to craft tools, but in the inventive ways we made use of animals - both as food sources and as "living tools". To a layman like me it seems like a fairly compelling case.

Obviously, though, I'm biased, since I'm automatically sympathetic to any theory arguing that people who don't like dogs are objectively my genetic inferiors.

Sunday, 12 September 2010

Sixty Second Review Corner: Scott Pilgrim Vs The World

If you replace motorbikes with moping over girls and paper some decent one-liners over that stupid scorpion-catching mini-game, then Scott Pilgrim... is entirely indistinguishable from watching a play-through of No More Heroes by a stoned slacker who is in no fucking hurry to finish whatsoever.

Saturday, 11 September 2010

SpaceSquid vs. The X-Men #35: The Approximation

Character descriptions can be tricky things. On the one hand, you don’t want them to be overly complicated. That’s not to saying complex characters are a bad thing, obviously, but if you can’t sum up the essentials in sound-bite form, it’s generally evidence things are too murky and confused. Psylocke is a case in point: “Sexy psychic ninja [1]” doesn’t give us anything about who she is, and anything in addition is liable to trap us upon the endless Ferris wheel of madness that makes up her existence. “Angry, lonely, beer-swilling samurai”, on the other hand, gets us far closer to who Wolverine really is.

Things can also go wrong when you try defining a character by what they are not, rather than what they are. “She’s not a typical woman!” “He’s not the sort to give a crap!” “They’re not going to play by the rules!” Whilst these might not necessarily be automatically bad (or the last two, anyway; see below), there is a depressingly high number of examples for which this approach has led to sub-Gambit-style literary laziness.

In short, then, you ideally want something snappy yet informative, which defines the characters rather than just sketching the outline they form against the void.

With all that in mind, then, it’s probably not a good sign that the only real way to describe Joseph seems to be as follows: “He’s not Magneto”.

Looking back at Joseph’s brief life, it seems like every dramatic beat in his entire story involves him behaving either just like Magneto, or entirely unlike him. He loves human children, but he massacres those who threaten his charges. He has faith in human nature, but he’s still desperate to take Rogue aside for some horizontal jogging. Plus, of course, he goes crazy at anything the writers judge reminiscent of the Holocaust.

It was probably inevitable that things would turn out this way. Joseph could no more escape Magneto’s shadow than New Coke could distance itself from its ubiquitous older sibling (and in fairness that was at least partially the point – both for Joseph and for Coca Cola). Still, just because something was bound to happen does not mean we should be happy when it does. In truth, Joseph is of very little interest as a character, precisely because of this phenomenon – everything he does is compelling only in comparison to someone else.

So is there anything we can take from what literally no-one is calling “The Joseph Years”? Well, one would hope we might say something regarding the old battle between nature and nurture. This, of course, is a central issue within the X-books, at least from Claremont onwards. The assembled masses of anti-mutant hysteria are ignoring nurture entirely, after all, claiming nature is so important as to trump any consideration as to who someone is, rather than what. Moreover, there is always some interest in seeing how well-known characters react in radically different circumstances. This is one of the wonderful qualities of the Age of Apocalypse. It’s fascinating to see Cyclops forced to choose between his conscience and his father figure, rather than finding them always in lock-step (until after the millennium, at least), or watch Wolverine actually with Jean Grey, and then watching her drift slowly away. The AoA was an entirely different world, though. If you want to study the effects of altering someone’s background, one should not start the experiment in a laboratory and conclude it in a burning field.

Joseph gives us the opportunity to change the pieces without changing the board. This is a great idea in theory – though it’s worth noting that as careful as the Holocaust needs to be handled in superhero stories in general, you need to handle the idea of Holocaust survivors forgetting their experience far more carefully still [2]. Unfortunately, though, it turns out that the ‘90s X-Men writers were uniformly of the opinion that Magneto – horrific personal trauma – years of fruitless struggle = whiny little bitch. Even his one real remaining link to his past, his powerful attraction to Rogue (and I do like the idea that this is coded into his DNA, though this may be because I am convinced my predisposition towards redheads is entirely genetic) reduces him to squabbling with Gambit like a lovelorn and sulky teenager.

This is particularly disappointing because the juxtaposition between Joseph and Remy is far more interesting for other reasons. The comparison between them is particularly important whilst considering this question: can you be held responsible for crimes you no longer remember?

This is naturally relevant for Gambit. His crimes remain a secret for almost the entirety of Joseph’s tenure on the team, and when they are revealed it is not through his choice. If Joseph can be held morally responsible for the crimes of Magneto, however (if we make the same assumption as the characters at the time and work from the position that Joseph is a de-aged amnesiac, rather than the clone he ultimately proved to be), then it is clear that Remy is no longer the X-Man most in need of absolution. Somehow, though, Joseph is accepted by the majority of the team almost immediately. Worse, Gambit watches Rogue, his former love who left him specifically because of her fears about what he might have done, become Joseph’s most stalwart defender, and perhaps more as well. Apparently, fighting and sacrificing for redemption is far less appealing to the observer than simply waking up one day and forgetting what you need to atone for in any case.

In this particular example, the flaw in Gambit’s logic is clear. Lacking recollection of Magneto’s messy and blood-stained past might save Joseph from some sleepless nights, but that’s irrelevant beyond it being Joseph’s good luck. The X-Men have already forgiven a Magneto entirely in possession of his memories once before, in the ‘80s, precisely because the deeds he chose to atone for were well-known, and because he asked no-one to forget them. Gambit, in contrast, keeps it all secret and hopes everyone else will forget any of it was ever there in the first place. It’s like apologising to someone for stealing their money, and offering to pay it back in monthly instalments, but refusing to disclose how much you stole in the first place.

In general, what should be done with Joseph is unclear. Or at least, one’s initial inclination might well diverge sharply from the law. As far as, say, Rogue is concerned, Magneto is gone. Not dead, necessarily, because Joseph may in theory regain those buried memories, but perhaps in a coma – a state which does not generally suggest itself to a jail cell. Whilst Joseph remains ignorant of his past, then, it could at least be argued that there is nothing to be done.

Is that true, though? Part of the answer to that depends on how one views justice, and weighs its various aims. We talk about those who die before sentencing as “escaping justice”. Rehabilitation (often the most pressing concern of the liberal, myself included) has now become a non-issue, but society’s need to see the guilty punished has been denied. If such is your primary concern, then it is very difficult to argue that someone can escape justice whilst going free. That might seem to depend on what we understand by the term “guilty”, but actually it doesn’t. The law is quite clear that amnesia is almost never a defence against verdict, merely a qualifying factor in punishment (this is why, to return to Joseph’s true nature, one should not consider an amnesiac criminal as entirely interchangeable with a clone of same).

Our question, then, is not whether Joseph should be held responsible, so much as what should be done about it. This boils down to considering his capacity to re-offend. If Joseph is truly divorced from “his” former life, then rehabilitation is not only impossible, but if one is interested in preventing Magneto from committing further crimes, locking him up with no memory as to why would seem to be entirely counter-productive.

But is that divorce total? His reaction to the Phalanx proves his memories are entirely missing. He is clearly in possession of a great deal of his education. He can speak English, he knows where America is, he doesn’t have any problems understanding the way a convent works. If all that remains (and yes, a lot of this simply stems from the way fiction treats amnesia), then can we be sure that the state of mine that led to him, say, sinking a Russian submarine with all hands is truly no longer in evidence? The nature of law states that whilst one is assumed innocent until proven guilty, once the latter is decided the burden is upon the defendant to prove they are deserving of clemency. This can be summed up by the following example: if you are found to be carrying heroin, claiming it was planted upon you will not save you from conviction, only (possibly) helping you out with your punishment. Whether or not this is fair is a discussion for another time. It remains true. Whether Joseph should escape jail time (or even the death penalty) is a matter for sentencing, not for the attribution of guilt.

Obviously, none of this is really relevant with regard to the X-Men. As Rogue, Emma Frost and (to a far greater extent, as we shall cover next month) Marrow make clear, the team is entirely willing to take in former criminals, even when their contrition for their earlier crimes is somewhat less than complete. At that point, however, we’re into the question of how much one should consider oneself beholden to a system you already know is desperately biased against you – a topic for another time. Let’s just say that the team tends to believe they’re a law unto themselves, and this is something that always works far better in fiction than it would in the real world. Moreover, perhaps the good a superhero can do is so great that we should consider serving with the X-Men as a form of saving lives (though there is probably an entire article to be written on whether the sheer power of superheroes should mean that they should be allowed to atone for serious crimes by what amounts to exceptionally useful community service), though that is of course an argument that the system can be improved, rather than ignored.

Let us leave things there. Joseph serves as an interesting experiment. Perhaps he was a failure as a character, but it must be said that anyone who can generate so much text on the subject of his existence (even compensating for my tendency for ludicrous verbosity) should not be immediately dismissed as irrelevant.

Next month, we take a very brief break from considering mass-murderers and ask ourselves what you're supposed to do when all your mutant power serves to do is get in the way of your true gift.

[1] I feel bad listing “sexy” as a trait, in all honesty, but then I don’t have a great deal to work with. I shall refrain from embarking upon another rant about how “strong woman” only counts as a character description if you secretly believe a woman behaving like she has no interest in being a second-class citizen is worthy of comment. It’s a mirage, a way of providing female protagonists without providing female characters.

[2] Hint: having Joseph explode with rage because his memories of Auschwitz have been stirred by bird aliens being eaten by Borg aliens? Not the way to go.

Thursday, 9 September 2010

A Long Delayed Excoriation

As promised, the first part of my article for Geekplanet on why Jonah Goldberg shouldn't be allowed near keyboards any more.

Wednesday, 8 September 2010

If A Branch Falls...

My latest project is now ready to be revealed - the first in a series of podcasts on comics, hosted by my good friend and high-up GeekPlanet muckity-muck Chris Brosnahan.

This is the first podcast I've been involved with, so I'm a bit stilted - hopefully I'll ease into them. There was a problem with the mic as well, though this has now been fixed.

Also, if I can manage to get through future recordings without being savaged by insects the size of cocker spaniels, then that would be awesome.

Tuesday, 7 September 2010

451 On 9/11

Oh, for the love of Pete: is there nothing the lunatic Right isn't prepared to try in the interests of just being the biggest dicks humanly achievable? Florida pastor Terry Jones is planning to spend 9/11 burning Qu'rans.

Naturally, this isn't merely a bullshit move, it's deliberately inflammatory (no pun intended), and it's hardly likely to manage any of that "hearts and minds" outreach we could probably use more of at this point.

Obviously, such scurrilous activities as suggesting this is a bad idea is generating outrage:
It's revealing that the Left is absolutely bat bonkers about the Qu'ran barbecue but has always been totally supportive of burning the American flag as a matter of Constitutionally mandated free speech if nothing else.
(h/t to Mahablog for the link).

I still we still haven't managed to grasp the basics of free speech. I know of no-one on the left who isn't totally supportive of burning Qu'rans "as a matter of Constitutionally mandated free speech if nothing else". It's the "nothing else" part that's the rub, of course.

Actually this reminds me of a story my father likes to tell about my late grandfather. He was very keen on building communities, of helping out where he could in the Berwick Hills estate where he lived, and on one occasion he found himself at a meeting of the local councillors. He started giving stick to a man who had just been put in charge of some initiative or other, and was by all accounts stuffing his responsibilities up royally. Said man got very angry, puffed out his chest, and announced "I am in charge of this initiative, and it is my right to run it as I see fit."

"Oh, absolutely", my grandfather said, sweetly. "No-one in this room is questioning your right to take charge. It's your bloody idiotic way of doing it that's the problem."

If I had a penny for every conservative who confused who heard "You are not allowed to do this" when told "This is a goddamn imbecilic thing to do," I'd be rich enough to afford my own stack of Qu'rans (which I could burn if I wanted to, but, y'know, that would make me a turd). It's exactly this level of purposeful misunderstanding that leads to Sarah Palin arguing criticism of her viewpoints is an abuse of her First Amendment rights (the same Amendment, I swear to God, that she thinks gives a radio commentator the right to say the N-word on radio and not be fired for it).

So, yeah. Totally support Jones' right to do protest against Islam. It's just his bloody idiotic way of doing it that's the problem.

(As an aside, I note the very first commentator on Joshuapundit's post compounds the error by arguing that there is some hypocrisy in the left arguing burning Qu'rans is bad for the troops and thus should be critised, whilst holding that saying the press should be allowed to report on the war even if it puts troops in a negative light. The difference is obvious: the press were attempting to inform the public about what is being done with the troops they sent and the money they paid. Terry Jones is trying to be the biggest twat he possible can.)

Who Are The Real Racists?

First, the good news: we are theoretically acquiring broadband for the flat on Thursday. The last half-decade of dealing with Virgin makes me somewhat reluctant to put too much faith in that possibility, but it is at least conceivable that this black-out is near an end.

The bad news is that I am still four days from escaping the two busiest weeks of the year for me: two conferences which this time round have been placed back to back (indeed, the only reason I was able to spend a post talking about Durham beer is that the brewery tour that inspired it was put on by the conference organisers).

I'm spending some of the less interesting/useful talks thinking about the structure for my next X-Men article, which is centered around Joseph. As I began thinking about the nature vs nurture conflict that he represents (at least in part), I was reminded of this Matthew Johnson post about the problem with assuming the central metaphor for the X-Men is racism and/or homophobia:
if superhuman mutants really existed society would have a legitimate reason to fear or at least be wary of them, something that has never been true of any oppressed minority...

But if the metaphor that’s supposed to be at the heart of the series doesn’t work, why has the comic been so successful? Because the X-Men don’t represent oppressed minorities, they represent oppressed teenagers. (This may also explain why comic books about characters who are actually part of oppressed minorities generally fail to sell.) Nobody feels more persecuted than teenagers, especially the nerdy, white, middle-class teenagers who have traditionally been the main audience for comics.
I'm not sure I'd necessarily agree that middle-class white nerds/geeks like myself feel particularly persecuted as teenagers, or whether the persecution simply takes different forms and stems from different sources, but that aside I think Johnson is entirely correct as to the true reason the books sell. I'd hazard a guess that 99% of teenagers at least either want to fit in, or want to fit in with the group that doesn't fit in (let's call that latter truth the "Goth Paradox").

On the other hand, the fact that people are drawn to aspect A of a given story does not mean aspect B is not the intended heart of it. Studio 60... was never explicitly about how certain careers demand so much of your time that your co-workers ultimately become both friends and family, but having spent two years basically burning myself up in teaching, that was one of the things I loved most about it (see also Scrubs). That doesn't mean that must have been what Sorkin was pushing for (though if you do know what Sorkin was pushing for, please let me know).

I'm also not unsympathetic to Johnson's case that airport security makes clear that the case for the Mutant Registration Act genuinely exists independently of bigotry. I'd point out power-dampening equipment exists in the Marvel Universe, and I'd be rather more happy with the idea of attaching those to airplanes than demanding all mutants be registered, but I can see that leading to problems as well as more and more people start placing dampeners in more and more places and end up segregating mutants by default.

However, the critical mistake Johnson makes - and it's entirely understandable - is in comparing individual mutants to individual members of a minority. This, of course, is because a single homo superior has more power than a lone homo sapien. But does one mutant have more power than, say, the ACLU? Or HUD? Or ACORN could claim, once upon a time? Hell, some of the lamer mutants have less power than Park51 will, if it ever gets built.

Or, as a more direct comparison: does Magneto have more power than Barack Obama?

Racists in contemporary America don't hurl abuse at black people directly - at least, they don't in public. Instead, they attempt to whip up hysteria over groups that are either run by black people, created to help black people, or provide a service they think black people will disproportionately benefit from. The number of people who last year were convinced ACORN was planning voter fraud widespread enough to steal elections was truly frightening - to say nothing of how Congress took the unprecedented step of voting to deny all future funding to ACORN without a Congressional investigation, something they weren't even prepared to do with the guys who were locking up rape victims in shipping containers. Just two months ago we were inundated by terrified screams that the New Black Panther Party was coming to beat you up if you don't vote their way, and that the Obama Administration was covering their asses.

The racist dog-whistles of the 21st Century are all about pretending one's concern is over disproportionate or unequally applied power, and somehow it's always black people who are either wielding that power, or they're benefiting from it. "Attacking HUD is code for attacking blacks", as Deborah O'Leary opined in "Celestial Navigation".

It's still, I admit, not a perfect metaphor - the people running scared of the ACLU misunderstand both intent and power level, which is not so true of anti-mutant fear. I just wanted to point out that concerns over levels of power is not something that differentiates the Marvel Universe's fictional bigots from the ones we suffer right here.

Sunday, 5 September 2010

Adventures In Beer And Cider

Yesterday's trip to Durham Brewery was interesting for several reasons. First of all, it finally proved beyond doubt that it genuinely is possible to fail to organise a piss-up in a brewery. If any of you are interested in replicating this seemingly impossible task, I recommend taking our organisers tack, and show up half an hour before the brewery opens, without arranging a start time for the tour, and then complain loudly that "this is how I always do it".

Once the tour began (mercifully, the tour group scheduled for half ten failed to materialise, otherwise we'd have been entirely screwed), things became interesting for another reason.

Obviously, that reason was beer. I learned much about its history and methods of preparation yesterday - or at least I did during the first hour of the tour before inebriation set in and I mainly learned how to balance a point glass on a forklift without it falling off - but none of it was so interesting I feel compelled to report it. Instead, I thought I'd mention some of the beers I tried yesterday, along with some of the drinks I sampled during the Beer Festival this week as well (particularly the cider we found that was so sweet and strong that it was like being punched and then hugged by the same apple).

Dabinett Apple (Millwhite) 8.0%: A cider so sweet and strong it's like being punched and then hugged by the same apple. Recommended in small doses, or as a preparation for major surgery.

Midnight Special (Mr. Whitehead) 5.0%: If I'm going to put up with a perry so comparatively bitter and thick, then it damn well better be stronger than 5 percent. Not impressed.

Thistly Cross (Thistly Cross) 7.2%: This is more like it. Ridiculously strong and tasting of sweet apple juice, this could perhaps be considered almost like an alco-pop for adolescent gorillas. Nothing sold out faster, and I can see why.

Inspiration (Durham) 3.2%: Quite tasty, but smells worryingly of pesto. I am told that's just what hops smell like, but it gave me a craving for pasta, cheese and pine nuts. Guess that's better than kebabs, at least.

White Magic (Durham) 7.0%: Made with palis otter malt. Incapable of appreciating this after learning it is not farmed by actual otters.

Temptation (Durham) 10.0%: Unbelievably thick, and quite sweet. Like drinking liquefied coffee chocolates mixed with brandy. Absolutely delicious for about three swallows, at which point you feel less like you're quaffing beer, and more like you're trying to tarmac the inside of your stomach.

Genesis (Durham) 4.3%: Spent whole time trying to think of Phil Collins joke. Failed.

Magus (Durham) 3.8%: The one you want. Seriously.

Wednesday, 1 September 2010

"They Must Have Looked Something Like... A Roast Chicken"

Ooh! They've dug up a new species of dinosaur! And it sounds... er... interesting.
The fossil of a stocky new dinosaur with two sets of claws on its feet unearthed in Romania has given researchers a window into what European predators looked like in the final years of the Age of Dinosaurs... "Compared to Velociraptor, Balaur was probably more of a kickboxer than a sprinter, and it might have been able to take down larger animals than itself, as many carnivores do today."
Man, it must have sucked to be a dinosaur during the late Cretaceous. There you are, standing around waiting for something to arrive that you might be able to shag, and sighing with melancholy over the upcoming death of your entire species, and all of a sudden this little bastard shows up and starts kicking the shit out of you:

Also, I don't care what the fossil record says. That's only an "artist's impression" if the artist in question is off their fucking tits.

Sixty Second Stage Review Corner

Pretty much all you need to know about Craig Revel Horwood's version of Chess, which a group of us went to see last night, can be summed up by this brief exchange:

SpaceSquid: I have to tell you, never in my life did I expect to see the bastard love-child of a S&M Darth Vader and Edinburgh Castle menacing a tiny goth policeman with wood blocks.

The Other Half: Oh, I'd missed that. I was too busy watching someone simulate sex with a cello.