Wednesday, September 17, 2014

All this stuff is supposed to be fun, you guys.

I can only speak for myself, but I'm sure I'm not alone in the fact that I got into geek culture - and I mean really got into it, absorbed it, made it part of my being rather than just casually watching Star Trek or reading a Superman comic once in a while - as a respite. As a way to retreat from the rest of the world and the problems it presented (whatever they happened to be at any given moment). It was a way outside of all of that, as well as a way to bring out all of the imagination and wonder that was going on in my head and give it some sort of exterior existence, however brief and/or otherwise immaterial.

There was always a certain... we'll say misanthropy (to be charitable) involved with certain segments of these various worlds (and let's be clear here, geek culture is not any one thing, more of a loose confederation of various universes joined together by the fact that most of the rest of the world just doesn't get 'em), but the trolls were usually pretty easy to spot (or smell, let's be honest here), and you could either let them spew on until they eventually made enough verbal rope to hang themselves, or you just ignored them until they wandered back to their little caves. It could be annoying sure, but it seemed (mostly) harmless and seeing as most of it was driven by a passion for X (where X = any nerdy little thing your heart desires), so as misguided and wrongheaded as it may have been, I could maybe almost kinda-sorta relate to the passion that drove it.

In the past few years, though, it looked like something had changed. The trolls seemed to be more widespread, they upped their games in all the worst ways possible, and I both saw and heard about a series of offputting events occurring both online and in person. Cosplayer harassment, the "fake geek girl" memes, ever-increasing invective aimed at the members of certain fandoms (like Twihards or Bronies to name but two), dedicated social media campaigns to discredit and demean creators and/or commentators due to differences in opinion, threats of sexual assault or even death... the list goes on and on.

I was horrified.

I became even more horrified, however, upon learning that for a lot of people out there, particularly women, members of the LGBTQ communities, people of color, people with disabilities, or any combination there of, these were disturbingly commonplace occurrences. As more of these events happened, increasing numbers of people let it be known that for them, this was all just a part of the background radiation of their lives, and all because of how they were born or who they like to sleep with or their political beliefs or or or...

I just never noticed it because, let's face it, as a straight white dude in his late 30s with a job, a family, a roof over his head, and three squares a day, almost none of this is directed at me. I've been bullied sometimes in my life, sure but there's not a whole lot in society that's actively standing against me.  The worst I've gotten are a few "buy a real game system, fag!" comments on Twitter when I've talked about liking the Wii U, but it's easy to block and ignore a handful of 13 year olds in desperate need of closer parental supervision. It doesn't come close to comparing to the sorts of things so many of my fellow geeks are dealing with on a sadly regular basis.

And here's the thing: I don't know what to do about any of it. I don't know one thing.  But we can't just ignore these people anymore. We need to talk about it.  We need to talk about it, get it all out in the open, identify and side with our allies, stand against all this, and protect each other.

Okay, I guess I do know one thing: we need to talk about it.

This weekend, I'm getting the chance to do just that. I'm going to be at BangPop!, a comic convention in my home town of Bangor, Maine, and I'm going to help run a panel discussion I'm calling "Don't Be a Dick: Keeping Fandom Fun, Safe, and Inclusive" (at least that's the Wheaton's Law-fueled title I gave it in the proposal... we'll see if that's what it's called in the program). I'm hoping it will be a chance to talk with a panel of people from various backgrounds and interests - and with the audience -  about what they've experienced, how they've dealt with it, what we can do together, and sing the praises of some groups and individuals who really seem to be getting it right.

(And yes, I know it might seem a little crass to plug my own thing in the midst of an otherwise heartfelt... whatever this is, but this is a chance for me to pull together my thoughts on this, so indulge me a bit more, please.)

I cannot and will not claim to know any of the answers, and any attempt to prove otherwise is just going to look like me trying to mansplain my way through this, which would probably get me chased out of town with torches and pitchforks (and rightly so). But discussions need to be had, and I'm happy to start one.

I was talking on Twitter recently with my friend Molly about this topic, particularly as it relates to the stuff going on in the game community right now.  She has a daughter (about my son's age) who is into comics and gaming and so on, and Molly said she's really worried about her daughter encountering all of this, and sooner than she'd like. My son is just as geekily inclined as either of us, and has anxiety issues and is on the Autism spectrum, so I'm terrified but the sorts of things he's on the verge of encountering, too.  Our kids deserve better than that. We all deserve better than that. This is our refuge.

If we don't at least start talking, though, nothing will change.

Sunday, September 07, 2014

This photo contains too much awesome. It could be dangerous.

Come on, Groucho Marx and Ernie Kovacs together? No mere picture - no mere room, for that matter - could contain that much creative, clever, comedic genius safely. I'd love to have been a fly on the wall for a conversation between these two. All that cigar smoke would probably make me ill, admittedly, but it would be worth it.

Saturday, September 06, 2014

Context, not content : admiring Atari box art

All of the unpleasantness online of late about the video game industry and its fans has made me nostalgic for a time when video games were simpler, more colorful, and free of rampant, violent misogyny. Or at least for a time when there wasn't an easily accessible internet on which a certain breed of people could anonymously spread their rampant, violent misogyny.  And having recently discovered 2600 Game By Game Podcast (thanks to a recommendation on my friend Stover's own show, Please Like This Podcast), I've been thinking specifically about the Atari 2600, where the games were definitely simple and colorful. Positively "stone knives and bearskins" (to borrow a Spockism) compared to today's games, but considering how many of them were just squares shooting smaller squares, they were really fun.

And the box art, particularly in the early Atari releases, was almost always amazing... gorgeously rendered little movie posters to help provide (and occasionally invent) context for what we weren't seeing on the screen. I used to feel a little cheated that the cover only featured a small illustration and the rest of the space was given over to single color, text-filled uniformity, but I've come to appreciate that as I've gotten older; it adds to the "future by way of the 70s" vibe, particularly that font. It's easy to imagine the crew of, say, Moonbase Alpha from Space: 1999 kicking back in their snazzy flared jumpsuits and playing Super Breakout or something when they weren't worried about the moon hurtling through space.  Here's a larger-than-intended assortment of some of my favorites, because it was too hard to limit myself to just 5 or 10.  Click to make Asteroid size, of course:

Man, that is one smug dragon! "Oh, is this the key you need?"

Obviously the game doesn't look like this, but it's probably the closest representation to what the game actually entails, so there's that.

Mars Needs Women (in Hiphuggers)!

I never thought of The Great Raceas needing a video game, now I wonder why we've never gotten one.

Title sounds like Video Gym Class, but the box art makes it seems so much more fun.

The best Burt Reynolds movie never made?

Really takes your mind off the fact that it's basically Nuclear Armageddon: The Home Game.

Not only does this make it look like the most high stakes Othello game ever, but that you're actually playing against Iago. Nice touch.

Nope. Definitely not The Outlaw Josey Wales. Don't know what you're talking about.

The box swaps out a more traditional Pac-Man than the one depicted on the cart itself. I like them both, but the traditional Pac-Man that's front and center looks out of place when compared to the ghost monsters also in the foreground.

How good a likeness is this? I hope they gave the original art to Pele and that it hangs in his home in a place of honor.

The Tron / Death Race mashup you never knew you wanted but now can't live without.

Always loved the looks of these domed cityships. Not one thing remotely Space Invaders about it, but it's a great looking design.

This helps sell the tangential Atari Forcetie-in, and that's not a bad thing at all.

What is it about these Atari racing game covers? They all look great!

In space, no one can hear you Pong, I guess? Also, Super Breakout was a space thing?  Really?

I don't care what you say, I love everything about the Atari Superman game, even the pretty generic cover.

How do you liven up a checkers video game? Making it look like a BBC costume drama starring a young Mark Hamill as the smug prince is a good start.

Wait, we get to play chess against Steve Wozniak? Cool.

Right now is the first time I ever noticed that it's Yars' Revenge, not Yar's Revenge. Huh.

Saturday, August 16, 2014

At long last (son of Krypton)...

Art by John Romita Jr., Klaus Janson, and Laura Martin

It took a while, but it has finally happened: a regular, main publishing universe Superman comic from DC actually feels like a Superman comic again.

I really wanted to like Superman at the time of the New 52 relaunch - I really wanted to like everything at the time of New 52 relaunch, for that matter, but as I've discussed in the past, (and a lot of other times in the past, at that) Superman resonates with me more than almost any other fictional character, so I was especially hoping to like the then-latest take on Big Blue - but it never clicked with me for a lot of reasons.  The most obvious (and admittedly superficial) is That Costume, of course (though the "workin' man" outfit he wore in Morrison's Action Comics flashbacks wasn't much better), but in their desperate attempts to make this Superman seem fresher, they de-emphasized or outright jettisoned a lot of elements that make Superman, well, Superman.

He's not a reporter anymore, he's a crusading social blogger!  He's not married to or even dating Lois Lane, he's hooking up with Wonder Woman!  He's aloof, sad, and lonely, because brooding is what the marketing department seems to think is popular!  He spent his early years taking on corporate fatcats, because the Occupy movement was huge in the news at the time the series was relaunched!  And so on.

I understand that Superman is perceived as being a hokey concept in the ever-cynical 21st century, and that trying to make him seem hip and edgy is obviously a priority for the Greater Warner Bros. Marketing Machine, but to paraphrase the immortal words of Rocket J. Squirrel, that trick never (or at least rarely) works.  We don't look to Superman to be hip, we look to Superman to be capital-G Good; anything else just doesn't feel right.  All of the New 52's efforts to distance Superman from that seemed at worst a total failure, and at best they reeked of trying too hard.

Not that things were much better in the era just-preceding the reboot.  The less said about that "Superman goes on walkabout through the American heartland" thing, the better.

The end result of this is that it has been so long since a regular Superman book read like a regular Superman book that the return to form by Geoff Johns, John Romita, Jr., and company feels fresher than most of the rest of DC's current output.  Clark is still being written to feel like the ultimate outsider, but Johns got a lot of mileage out of that in the now-sadly-abandoned Secret Origin mini, so under his pen it feels right (and let's be honest, he is the ultimate outsider-looking-in, so that feels natural; and if I'm being honest, it appeals to the Aspy in me, making Superman more relatable that ever).  But at the same time, you have Perry White all but blackmailing him to return to The Daily Planet and trying to coax him out of his shell and rejoin his traditional comic book cast/family, which is brilliantly metatextual.  This Clark seems less like an aimlessly idealistic 20something, and more like the confident reporter of the past (and even at his most bumbling, Clark had to have been a great reporter to get and keep that job).  Lois Lane smells a story, Jimmy Olsen has his own weird story going on in the background, Steve Lombard is a lout, Ron Troupe is the smartest guy in the room... it's the Silver, Bronze, and Chromium Age cast all mashed up and brought into the now.

And then, of course, there's the whole thing going on Ulysses, the man who thought himself to be the "last son of Earth" whose origins and powers parallel those of Superman's, and the villain who seems to be haunting them both... already very curious to see where that's going.

DC's relaunch efforts got off to a shaky start and for nearly 2 years I didn't follow any of the titles regularly.  In the past year or so, though, they've been starting to win me back little by little.  The Jeff Lemire / Andrea Sorrentino Green Arrow was fantastic.  The first two issues of Grayson were fun reads and if #3 is just as good I think I'm in for a while.  I'm really looking forward to Gotham Academy and the new Batgirl.  But to like a Superman book again... if I'm being completely honest, this is the thing that I'm most excited about.

If only they could do something about that costume.  No one seems to be able to make it look good.  Not even John Romita SENIOR!
Art by John Romita Sr., Klaus Janson, and Laura Martin
If the senior Romita - one of comics' greatest artists - can't make your costume look good, it's a bad costume.

Friday, August 15, 2014

Robin Williams, RIP

Popeye is a beautifully weird movie and if you think differently then I'm terribly sad for you.
I've been reading and watching a lot of Robin Williams tributes this week, but the one that stuck with me the most was one from Paul F. Tompkins.  This passage, in particular, resonated with me:
Robin Williams made me laugh so many times. So many times. When I was a kid, having problems of my own, feeling unpleasantly different from the people who populated my world, I found sanctuary watching this guy on TV who was celebrated for being a weirdo, for being an oddball, for being silly. He was praised for having a mind that produced delightful absurdities with great speed. No one told him to be quiet. No one tried to make him act like everyone else.
This, exactly, summed up the appeal of Robin Williams to me, from the Mork & Mindy days all the way up to more recent times.  As a kid (and more than a few times as an adult), I was told I was weird, that I was acting out, that I needed to start being "normal", etc.  Here, though, was a guy who was not only allowed to follow the flights of his fancy to every weird little place they brought him, but both encouraged to and well-rewarded for doing so.  That was amazing to me, and incredibly important to developing my sense of humor, sense of self, and general outlook on life.  I saw what the so-called normal kids looked, sounded, and acted like, and I've gotta tell ya, the path blazed by Robin Williams (and Jim Henson, and the Pythons, and Joel Hodgson, and Ernie Kovacs, and and and...) seemed so much more interesting and appealing, even if I didn't want to be a professional performer myself.

No matter what you chalk his appeal up to - energy, intensity, physicality, warmth, rapid-fire stream-of-consciousness wit - the man was watchable in everything he did, comedic or serious.  Even in his sappiest films, like Patch Adams or Bicentennial Man, movies so treacly you contract type 2 diabetes just by watching them, he's still amazing to watch.  Whatever he's doing on screen, even if it's just clownish shtick with a bedpan on his head, he's the sort of guy you have to watch.  I defy you to take your eyes off of him.  You can't; he wouldn't let you.

This, I think, is another reason I've always appreciated the man.  Show business is full of people who are so desperate to seem cool and aloof.  They want and need the approval of an audience, but downplay that as much as possible.  Robin Williams, on the other hand, seemed pretty okay with admitting he wanted people to like him, and worked to squeeze every conceivable ounce of attention out of the people for whom he performed.  Maybe some folks see that as trying too hard, but I appreciate the honesty of it.

I was sad when I heard he died, angry when I heard it was suicide, and found a dark bit of understanding in it all when I heard he may have had Parkinson's... a person that physical losing control of his body's function?  Yeah, that answers a lot of questions in my mind. 

But no matter the cause and reason, I'm still gutted by his loss, and for the admittedly selfish reason that I wasn't done watching him yet.  I wanted more complex dramatic work, and more gut-busting, play-to-every-seat-in-the-house comedy.  Clearly I'm not alone in this, but that's cold comfort in a time like this.

All my condolences to his family, friends, and my many fellow fans out there.