Wednesday, May 26, 2010

Getting Bigger

So when I was originally brainstorming the new book, I had an idea that I immediately dismissed as too over the top. A couple of weeks later, I decided to go ahead and make that the climax.

Then I saw "Iron Man 2," using a free pass my mom gave me last year that I had never gotten around to using, and afterward, I dropped by Barnes and Noble, where I picked up a compilation of Spider pulp novels reprinted by Baen under the title, Robot Titans of Gotham (with a cover by Steranko, woot!). On the discount rack for five bucks!

Just looking at the cover, I immediately felt that my too big, over-the-top novel climax was now too small. I've only read a couple of Spider novels by Norvell Page, lent to me by Sargon, and his words echo in my brain. That the novels are relentless. They never let up. I don't know if Satan's Murder Machines lives up to that Steranko cover, but that's what I want my book to live up to. And it occurred to me that it would be a cool trick if I could pull it off, to make what seems like the predictable climax happen in the second act, so that people can still be surprised when the story spins into unexpected territory.

I don't know if I can come up with an idea big enough, but that's what I'm shooting for. To have a first act where people say, "No way he would go that far," a second act where they say, "Holy shit, he did go that far, but look how many pages are left! WTF?" and a third act where all they can say is, "Dude!"

Corinne Bohrer doubts I can pull it off.

But Caroline Munro believes in me.

Corinne Bohrer can't believe I'm bringing in another imaginary kibitzer.

Monday, May 24, 2010

It's Over

Watched the Lost finale last night, and enjoyed it more than I thought I would. I expected it to revolve more around the cosmic good-vs-evil finale, with the Sideways scenes (the first few seasons had flashbacks, then flash-forwards, and this season, parallel universe/flash-sideways) heading toward some sort of irrelevant convergence.

What I didn't expect was for the episode to really revolve around the Sideways scenes, with epiphanies and tear-jerking character moments every 10 minutes or so. The Sideways reunions--Jin and Sun, Sawyer and Juliet, Sayid and Shannon, Charlie and Claire, Daniel and Charlotte--I don't know that I've ever cried this much watching any show. Some people are complaining that the show didn't pedantically answer every mystery, like the origin of the numbers, but seriously, I didn't care. Sometimes numbers are just numbers, and besides, any explanation they gave would fall short of our expectations, reduce that delicious sense of mystery to a simple, "That's it?"

In the end, though Lost was a show on an island with lots of mystery, it wasn't about the mystery. It was about the characters, about the pains and triumphs of life, and the possibility of redemption. You could perhaps say it was about Mystery in the spiritual sense, that sense of pursuing answers to questions that can never be truly answered: fate vs. choice, destiny vs. coincidence, knowledge vs. faith, that which can be seen vs. that which can't.

The finale touched on all these things, but did't dwell on them tiresomely the way some previous episodes had. The time for debating was over. The final two-and-a-half hours were about the characters, having made their decisions, taking action and embracing their fates. It felt just right.

And even though no other show has ever been so ruthless in killing off characters, by the end, even death couldn't stop the show from celebrating life in all its variety. I truly loved the series, start to finish, and though I'll miss it, I'm glad it ended when it did and the way it did.

Sunday, May 23, 2010

This Is (Not) The End

Lost finale tonight. I'm excited, yet a little disappointed. While it is cool that we're finally seeing this season take the show closer to the Stand-like vision the creators talked about back in Season 1, it feels as if a lot of the journey (with Dharma and the Others and Widmore's group) consisted of side trails that led nowhere.

But maybe it'll all tie together. And the journey was fun.

More tomorrow, after the show.

Tuesday, May 18, 2010

Taking Shape

So what did I do with myself yesterday, having given myself permission to lay off the regular feature updates for a while? Interestingly enough, I did a little work on my book idea.

There's an interesting tension between forced productivity and paralysis. When I was working at the Daily Oklahoman in the 80's, I wrote three or four screenplays and pieces of a couple of novels. The discipline of having to write at work on demand gave me the ability to do so on my off hours as well. In the years after I left the paper, though, I pretty much stopped writing for several years.

I picked back up in 1992, challenging myself to write every day, which resulted in a screenplay. Then I enlisted and didn't write as much, though I did write one incomplete novel during the next five years. Leaving the service with a book idea and a year's worth of research done during my second tour in Korea, I wrote my first finished novel, but didn't write anything else during a five-year period.

When I was unemployed last year, I took to the regular features on my blog as a way to keep myself disciplined, and eventually made myself write a novel as well, while still maintaining those regular features.

But since I've started working again, I find that all my free time has been taken up with thoughts of the regular features whenever I sit down to work. I keep telling myself I'll work on the book, but I've got to get the weekly features out of the way first, and I've had less and less mental energy to do both.

So now I'm turning my energy toward the novel instead of scanning comics and doing screencaps of movies. Which is not to say I've done a whole lot of actual work. Most of what I'm doing right now is technically called "stalling," which is to say I'm turning ideas over in my head again and again, trying to find the approach I want to take. Romancing the stone, so to speak.

I spoke before about "negatives," giving myself a list of things I didn't want to do. The problem with negatives is that, if you don't have a bigger and stronger list of positives--things you want to write about, qualities you want the finished product to have--then basically what you've done is talk yourself out of writing anything. Which is where I was until yesterday.

So I asked myself in the simplest terms, what do I want the finished product to look like? What book do I want to write?

And the answer I got was, "Johnny Dollar meets Godzilla/Cthulhu, in the style of 'Big Trouble in Little China.'" Which means what? More or less, action-comedy with trappings of mystery and supernatural horror in a period setting. I paced around for a while today and sketched up an idea map for the story. Not a plot outline, per se, but just an idea of all the factions at play and the overall scheme.

Now I need specifics, especially characters. Characters have always been a weak spot for me, but Death Wave showed just how much good character work can pay off in the writing. I had a really firm grasp on my main characters for that one, and they surprised me a couple of times.

So my next steps: develop my main characters, and take the plot from vague overall notion to a list of specific events and scenes.

Saturday, May 15, 2010

The Rut

Yeah, you've probably already noticed that there's no Vault update again today. I had the comic scanned, and had notes down for what I wanted to say. Likewise, I made ntoes and screencaps for Movie Monday, but so far haven't written a word of actual post.

I think I'm burning out on the regular features grind for a while. It was good discipline while I was unemployed, but right now, it just feels like a second job that pay worse than the real one. And I'm just not feeling the excitement I used to. I think Batman burned me out.

I'll be back soon with something, but I'm not sure just what yet.

Tuesday, May 11, 2010

Breaking Down

So yeah, no Out of the Vault or Movie Monday the last few days. I had Out of the Vault all set to go, but a change in work schedule and some parental obligations left me without time or energy to get the scans done. And I had a movie all picked out, but wasn't going to start on the movie with the comic left to be done. So there you go. Sometimes the real job trumps the fake blog job.

Which isn't to say that the real job is going all that well. I have never in my life descended so quickly into total apathy on a job, not caring how I'm doing or whether I keep the job or not. Part of that is my own lack of aptitude for the job, but another part is the way the company manages to kill any fragment of enthusiasm I might have had for the job. I mean, I can understand why they've established some of the policies they have; they need to squeeze as much productivity out of their people as they can. But fear and stress aren't conducive to employee morale or cohesion or company pride.

And if that wasn't bad enough, Frank Frazetta died today. I was not Frazetta's biggest fan growing up. Frazetta was one of those guys that everyone else was telling me I ought to love, but I preferred the more detailed work being done by guys like James Bama (who was doing the covers for the Bantam reprints of Doc Savage) and Boris Vallejo.

But as I got older, I came to appreciate Frazetta more, and to recognize just how talented he was. A couple of years ago, I saw an amazing documentary about his career titled "Painting With Fire."

So anyway, put on some Molly Hatchet or Nazareth and lift a glass to Frank. We'll miss him.

Wednesday, May 05, 2010

Big Game Wednesday - A Super Second Chance

Yes, it's late, but still Wednesday.

So as old Dungeon Masters were leaving and new Dungeon Masters coming in, I decided it was time to take another shot at being a Game Master myself, and when I was visiting the game store, I ran across a couple of superhero RPG's that presented me with a fascinating dilemma.

On the one hand, there was Champions. I had read good reviews of the system, but when I looked at the book, I was less than impressed. The art and production values were crude. Even the typesetting looked cheap, almost as if the book had been typed up in someone's back room. And when I looked over the character sheet, oh my God. Fourteen stats. Fourteen.

On the other hand, there was the second edition of Villains and Vigilantes, with slick cover art by game co-designer Jeff Dee (and in a bit of subtle coolness, the heroes on the front of the book are much improved versions of the heroes on the cover of the first edition). I went back and forth for quite some time over this strange, ugly-looking game book that I'd heard good things about and this slick presentation of a game whose first edition I hadn't much liked. In the end, I chose V&V again.


Well, for several reasons. Number one, I figured it couldn't be too different from the old game, which meant I would be familiar with the way the game operated. And I might be able to more easily convert some of my old characters. And then there was the fact that new supplements were coming out, like Willingham's Death Duel with the Destroyers.

Basically, as far as I was concerned, V&V looked like it would be easier to learn, better supported, and simpler to run. And in the end, I think it was the character sheet that decided me, with only five basic stats compared to Champions' fourteen. It just looked a lot less complicated.

Ha. Little did I know.

So I bought the game and started playing with the new character design rules. And here's the thing: if you thought Hero was complicated, you never tried playing V&V. Yes, you only had five basic stats (and one of them was Charisma, so it was really like only having four). But every stat had multiple game effects.

Take hit points. Instead of rolling a certain number of hit points per level like the old game, in new V&V, your hit points were calculated from your stats and your weight. Your weight in lbs. divided by 50 yielded your basic hits, which were then modified by stats and powers.

Say I had a character who weighed 150 lbs. with Str 9, End 28, Agi 13 and Int 23. That weight would yield 3 Basic Hits. The stats give hit multipliers of 1, 3.4, 1.4 and 1.3. Multiply them all together and you come up with 18.564, or 19 hit pts.

Damage was even worse. Hand-to-hand damage was based on carrying capacity, which was determined by a freaking algebraic formula. Even worse, the formula was wrong. Here's the relevant section of the rules.

As you can see by the hand-written addition, the formula does not match the plain English description given below. For my character listed above, the formula as written in the book would yield a carrying capacity of 5,677.5 lbs, while the formula as described (and hand-written) would yield a carrying capacity of 264.7 lbs. For my 150 lb. hero of great toughness, but average human strength, which is the more believable result?

On the other hand, combat simplified a little. Now the power combat matrix only covered half a page rather than a full page.

Anyway, I gave it a valiant try. I ran several adventures in second edition, stealing shamelessly from X-Men and Teen Titans comics, among others. I ran a few of the published modules, but also several of my own adventures. An assault against a secret military base inside a mountain, taken over by a vampiric sorcerer who also happened to be a mad scientist. A battle against a cult called the Children of the New Sun, led by a deranged goddess named Aureole. A string of battles against a horde of insectoid aliens.

We had some fun, and I wasn't as horrible a Game Master as I'd been on my first try, but I still wasn't very good, and it was really frustrating. So I ended up quitting and letting some other guys take their turn. One guy I barely knew and the other guy was a big dork, so I wasn't expecting much.

But it turned out, both guys were really good Game Masters, and I learned a lot from them.

Monday, May 03, 2010

Movie Monday - Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter

In the early 70's, the English studio Hammer was starting to fall on hard times. The huge success of their late 50's/early 60's horror films had been ridden into the ground through repetition: by 1972, the studio had put out six Frankensteins and seven Draculas, along with four Mummys, four cave girl movies, and a trilogy of lesbian vampire movies featuring Countess Mircalla Karnstein. Audiences were looking for something new, so writer/director Brian Clemens (creator of 60's TV classic The Avengers) decided to try something new.

That something was "Captain Kronos, Vampire Hunter."

It starts as a typical Hammer vampire film, with a couple of blandly pretty girls frolicking in the forest. But one of them is kissed by a sinister hooded apparition, leading to this.

Sadly, that hair looks more realistic on the old lady than it did on the younger girl.

Soon, an ex-soldier on horseback, accompanied by a hunchback in a wagon, come thundering into town.

Yeah, that's right, they bad. They are Captain Kronos (German actor Horst Janson) and Professor Heironymous Grost (John Cater). Soon they are joined by Carla (Caroline Munro hubba-hubba), a smokin' hot babe they find imprisoned in stocks for dancing on a Sunday. She gladly hitches a ride with them rather than wait around to be thrown in the stocks again.

They soon arrive at the home of Dr. Marcus, an old friend of Kronos's. Marcus's manservant is taken aback at the contents of their cart.

Those skewers will make for some awfully big kebabs.

Marcus has summoned them to help with a vexing problem: the young women of the town are turning old and dying. Grost immediately divines the problem: a vampire that consumes youth rather than blood (there are many different types of vampire, Grost says, thereby alerting the audience that this movie is not going to be 90 minutes of yawning while waiting for the stake). So Kronos and Grost begin trying to track down the vampire, using sophisticated detection methods like dead toads and bells on ribbons.

And at night, Kronos keeps warm with Carla.

Oof. In a nicely subtle bit of euphemism, Kronos's cigarette gets happier the closer Carla approaches.

All the investigating appears to bear fruit when some local toughs are hired to instigate a fight with Kronos in a tavern.

And here we see a couple of the things that made Kronos so unique. Number one, this scene obviously owes more to American westerns than to vampire movies. Clemens appears to have been trying to make an action film rather than a horror movie. Too bad the budget was so low and the schedule so tight, because with a couple more action set pieces, this film might have made a bigger splash.

And number two, notice the sword on the bar. Kronos was intended to be the first of a new series of films, so Clemens went out of his way to throw in lots of incongruous elements to Kronos's character (which would probably have been explored or explained in later films in the series). Kronos carries both a samurai sword and a rapier. He smokes a "Chinese herb" and bears the scars of an old vampire bite on his neck. And he's got his own logo (seen in the title card above) which he has stamped on all his gear, from his horse blanket to his backpack to his ring.

Meanwhile, as Kronos is dispatching the goon squad, Dr. Marcus pays a visit to the local nobles, a family called the Durwards. The father, a legendary swordsman, died recently of "plague," while the mother shuts herself into seclusion and the two grown children share a close relationship.

On his way back from the Durwards' mansion, Marcus has a strange encounter in the forest and discovers that he is now a vampire himself, which leads to the centerpiece of the movie, as Kronos and Grost try to figure out how to kill him.

Each type of vampire can only be killed in a certain way, you see; you can't just stake them and be done with it. It's a clever and entertaining sequence that, like the action scenes, probably just needed to be pushed a little further to transform it from interesting cult footnote to enduring fantasy classic. By incredible coincidence, it turns out that the way to kill this type of vampire is one that involves stabbing with a steel implement, like, say, a sword made from an iron cross. Why, one might almost think the film was setting up a big swordfighting climax.

Before Grost can forge the sword, however, Kronos must show off his dueling chops by fighting a few of the townspeople, roused to fury by Marcus's manservant, who claims the newcomers murdered his master in cold blood. The scene is undercut somewhat by Janson's clumsy swordplay and Clemens's inexperience as a director.

Anyway, it all comes down to a battle between Kronos and the not-quite-dead Lord Durward, surrounded by Durward's family and Carla, all victims of vampire mesmerism.

That's fight arranger William Hobbs playing Durward. Why pay an actor when the stuntman's right there?

Of course, Kronos wins in the end and rides off into the sunset, inexplicably leaving behind the two best things in the movie--the vampire-killing sword (does he honestly believe he'll never run into that kind of vampire again?) and Carla. Luckily, Carla (or at least Caroline Munro), came back in other films.

Looking back, "Captain Kronos" is more interesting as a precursor of what was to come than as a movie in its own right. Which is not to say it's bad, just that it was way before its time. If it had been made a few years later, with a bit better budget, it might have revolutionized the vampire film. As it is, it anticipates the blend of action and supernatural horror found in later films like "Buffy, the Vampire Slayer" (along with Hammer's last film in their Dracula series, 1974's "The Seven Brothers Meet Dracula," a truly odd fusion of vampire horror with Shaw Brothers kung fu that I need to hunt down sometime).

Saturday, May 01, 2010

Out of the Vault - Alter Ego

I've already established that (in my opinion, at least) 1986 was a turning point in the comics industry due to the one-two punch of Batman: The Dark Knight Returns and Watchmen. But perhaps nothing illustrates it so clearly as a botched attempt to do basically the same things one year earlier.

Because it isn't as though these two comics came out of nowhere and suddenly turned comics darker. Moore been doing similar things in Swamp Thing and Miracleman for years, and Miller had pulled dark stunts like the death of Elektra in Daredevil. And other creators had also been heading in similar directions at the same time.

Which brings me to Alter Ego, by Roy Thomas and Ron Harris. In the early to mid-80's, there was an enormous surge of energy in comics from a series of ambitious young writers and artists, many of them working with more mature themes than were common in mainstream comics of the time--Nexus, Elfquest, Cerebus the Aardvark, Love and Rockets, Mage for just a few, as well as Miller's and Moore's work. Things hadn't turned dark dark yet, but they were headed in that direction, and the industry was taking notice.

Naturally, not everyone was happy with the direction comics were starting to take. Some folks complained that comics were supposed to be escapism and shouldn't be taken too seriously. Comics should return to their fun-loving roots, they argued.

Then again, you could say that Miller and Moore were respecting history in their own ways. Swamp Thing, Miracleman, Watchmen, Daredevil and Dark Knight all took the idea of existing comics properties with recognizable characters (or thinly-veiled imitations in the case of Watchmen) and turned them in more mature directions while trying to stay true to their histories.

And in 1985, First Comics put out Alter Ego, a four-issue miniseries that seems superficially very similar to Miller's and Moore's masterpieces. In the first issue, young Rob Lindsay discovers a new comics shop in his neighborhood with a mysterious owner who lends him some Golden Age comics, including a mysterious title called Alter Ego that he's never heard of and can't even find in the price guide.

That night, the comics shop is blown up, after which Rob is attacked by several barely-disguised knock-off Golden Age comics villains come to life. He is saved by the comics shop owner, revealed to be the Golden Age character Captain Combat. Cap tells Rob of a war being fought on an alternate Earth, a war that Rob must help to win, or else his Earth will be next. Captain Combat then fades out to a scrap of paper which blows away on the wind.

Rob goes home and discovers a glowing mask that has fallen out of the Alter Ego comic. So he puts it on and is transported to the alternate world, assuming the body and costume of a character named (of course) Alter Ego, where he discovers a bunch of barely-disguised knock-off Golden Age heroes being held prisoner by racist caricatures...

though he soon discovers that they're only racist caricature robots, so that's all right then.

If you wonder what I mean by "barely-disguised knock-off Golden Age heroes," check out that bottom panel above. Surrounding Alter Ego are almost identical versions of the Golden Age heroes Daredevil, Silver Streak, Airboy, Black Terror, Fighting Yank and (I think) Sheena, Queen of the Jungle. Only in this comic, they're called Double Dare, Scarlet Streak, Skyboy, Holy Terror, Yankee Doodle and Camille, Queen of the Jungle.

In issue 2, Rob learns that the real villain behind everything is a gigantic monster known as the Crimson Claw (another almost identical knock-off of Golden Age villain, The Claw, from Silver Streak Comics), who has stolen three nukes from our Earth.

He destroys his world's Los Angeles with one, in order to frighten his world's governments into surrendering to him, and plans to use the other two to start World War Three on our Earth. So Rob battles to stop the Crimson Claw while also dealing with his parents' divorce and the death and destruction that he witnesses all around him.

On the surface, Alter Ego is made up of the same elements found in both Watchmen and Batman: The Dark Knight Returns--an abiding respect for comics history, new twists on old characters, superheroics mixed with real-life dramatic concerns, gritty violence with bloody consequences and a high body count, an overarching plot concerning nuclear terror. But it doesn't do any of them very well.

Part of the problem was Harris's clunky art. Another part was the fact that the Golden Age heroes were such transparent knock-offs that it became distracting, especially when there were so many of them (including a cavalcade of jungle heroes that ride to the rescue in the final issue, then all die within a few pages). There were so many that none of them came across as actual characters, just familiar costumes with unfamiliar names. Though a lot of characters died, there was no impact to the deaths because the characters were so paper-thin. And the dramatic scenes of, say, Rob trying to process his parents' divorce fell flat because the writing just felt like the same old Marvel melodrama.

In the end, Alter Ego just felt like old pro Roy Thomas desperately trying to stay relevant in an industry that was being transformed by young turks. A few years earlier, Thomas had been the young turk, writing the biggest titles in the Marvel stable before becoming Editor-in-Chief of the entire line, while oldster Jack Kirby was desperately trying to stay relevant writing those hippie New Gods books at DC. It couldn't have been easy to suddenly see all the attention and adulation going to all these young nobodies who hadn't paid any dues at all.

But Alter Ego was a failed attempt to keep up with an industry that was going through fundamental changes.