Sunday, August 31, 2008

New Frontier Review

The following paraphrasing some things I wrote about DC's New Frontier mini-series back in 2006:

It seems Darwyn Cooke definitely played favorites and did not treat well any characters he didn't like. He dismissed Captain Marvel in a single panel. Superman barely received better treatment. Killing off Hourman felt so "been there, seen that." His best moments were when he was emulating Superland (my online campaign) in letting characters age and interact with history, but the tone of the story was darker than Superland and suffered for it. I had no idea where Cooke was going with New Frontier even after three whole issues. I only gave it a B+, and then only for its scope, not its execution.

It seems, sometimes, merchandising really can generate appeal for the original product it ties into. Around that same time I was critical of the stories themselves, I was posting to my Superland board about how great the New Frontier action figures from DC Direct looked. And perhaps that was a genuinely useful thing, allowing me to ignore the disconnected vignettes of the comic book and focus on character redesign. A lot of what Cooke did with the characters looked very good and a lot of that was simply trusting the original material and sticking with how the characters were actually drawn in the 1950s (with the exception of Wonder Woman, who looks like a dork in Cooke's treatement. Huge boots under metal greaves?). Where Cooke improved costumes the most was in, following how John Byrne drew the Fantastic Four's costumes in the '80s, removing the skin-tightness of costumes and making them look like real clothes with folds and wrinkles. More than on any other front, Cooke succeeded in making DC's atomic age heroes look more realistic and believable than they were at the time.

Fast forward to 2008 and the release of New Frontier on DVD -- as an animated movie. Just like in 2006, I was excited about the movie as I had been about the comic book before I read it. While I felt ambivalent about the books after reading them, I only felt excited after seeing the movie. What had changed for me? Part of it was just the thrill of seeing DC converting its own material to film and actually -- as Cooke did himself -- trust the original material! DC badly needs to try this approach more often, but that is a rant for a later post. But more importantly, the added writer Stan Berkowitz seems to have been responsible for ironing out a lot of the wrinkles in Cooke's original version. Most important of which was disposing of the incredibly long and mostly pointless prologue, with the Losers all dying on Dinosaur Island. Hourman's death is mentioned, but not dwelt on. The scene where Batman beats Superman (which, granted, occurred behind the scenes in the comic book) is eluded to even more obliquely in the movie, to the movie's benefit. DC, having Batman beating up Superman may push sales by making Batman look cooler, but it just makes no sense. Kryptonite or not, Superman can flick Batman like a flea anytime he wants, and that's the only way that scenario would ever really play out. Other elements just work better because of the medium. President Kennedy's speech at the end is much more effective when you hear him speak it than when you read the transcript quoted in the comic book. And there is just something so about seeing all those heroes moving around on my TV screen together, which is impossible to make me feel in the comic book version because I'm so used to seeing superheroes all working together in those. Until DC decides to film Crisis of Infinite Earths, it seems unlikely that we will be seeing so many superheroes all on one screen together again anytime soon.

There are still some moments that disappoint in New Frontier, the movie. Superman is still boring. After hearing Cooke speak on the DVD I realized why -- he's been suckered into believing Frank Miller's treatment of the character! Writers for DC -- DON'T READ FRANK MILLER! He is just messing with you all, screwing with DC's characters and completely mischaracterizing them. So base nothing on his work. If you own a copy of his Batman & Robin mini-series in particular, just burn it now. Seriously. Cooke also says on the DVD that the Centre is a metaphor for communism, but I don't think that metaphor works very well. The Centre isn't trying to absorb individuality, but destroy it. Better to stick with the Centre representing the alien menaces so common to comic books in the '50s and leave it at that. Also, after years of hearing Kevin Conroy as Batman, I find it impossible to accept this Jeremy Sisto as Batman. His cold, emotionless voice sounds better suited for Braniac to me. But I was really surprised by how effective Kyle MacLachlan was as Superman. The PG-13 rating does nothing for me either. I can see that the language and bloody scenes were included to make this a more obviously adult work, but it all seems just gratuitous to me and I could have easily done without it.

Two years after giving the comic book a B+, I'm giving the movie an A. It actually improves in some significant ways on the original comic book, which is almost unheard of in comic book adaptations.

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Journey into College - Vol. 2, No. 1

[Journey into College was a comic strip I had published at both Elgin Community College and Aurora University in their student newspapers. This is the first installment published in the Aurora Borealias.]

Friday, August 22, 2008

Chainmail Scenario

[Sometime around 2004, I not only decided I was going to jump feet first into wargaming, but was going to use the original fantasy/military wargame, Chainmail. I condensed the rules into a 7-page document, drew and colored terrain squares on paper, and wrote up a first scenario. It did not go well. My three friends who played that first night agreed that the morale rules were their least favorite part, considering them too random and too skewed towards desertion. Although we could have tweaked the morale rules, I could not fire up any enthusiasm for Chainmail in them after that and I haven’t played it since. Here, anyway, is the background I wrote for that first scenario.]
All was well in the Barony of Revona, and had been for some time. But “well” was not good enough for its people. A council of concerned citizens appealed to the baron with what they believed to be a wise plan. To improve the Barony’s fortunes for the next generation, they insisted that the baron’s son should be married at once to a wealthy lady of higher station. And though it is said that Baron Kelzew was reluctant, it was not in his nature to say no to his people when they stood united behind an idea.

Nor was young Lord Michael, the baron’s son, disappointed by this notion, for he had long eyed the Lady Sonya as a potential mate. Sonya was the daughter and only child of County Pritchard of Blake. Only 40 miles separated the County of Blake and the Barony of Revona, but it was a wider gap than that between County Pritchard and the idea of his daughter marrying anyone less than a prince. Numerous gifts and offers from Revona were rebuked and returned, so much so that Baron Kelzew forgot his initial reluctance. He was now hot with anger and dispatched a force of men, along with his son, to Blake. Their mission was to capture the Lady Sonya.

Meanwhile, Count Pritchard found, to his dismay, that his daughter was becoming swayed by these constant signs of affection from Lord Michael. So he assigned a force of men to constantly protect her and defend her to the death.


After buying troops with 80 purchase points, players will choose to fight for either Baron Kelzew or Count Pritchard. They will take turns laying down the terrain squares until they are all placed. This is where Baron Kelzew’s men will encounter Count Pritchard’s men while escorting the Lady Sonya cross-country. Each side must kill or route enough of the other side to leave the Lord or Lady unprotected and capture him/her.

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Bushwinkle's Corner

[This was originally published in the Elgin Community College Observer (Nov. 3, 1989 issue). The joke was suggesting that President Bush was as dumb (or simply as naive?) as the cartoon character Bullwinkle Moose. Little did I suspect that this would be even more relevant for his son...]

Thursday, August 14, 2008

A Revised World History Timeline for Castle Falkenstein

[Written circa 1994, when I was very impressed with the Castle Falkenstein role-playing game.]

• 800 BC. Aristotle writes A Treatise on Paranormal Cosmology, explaining how magick works, and is condemned to death.
• 492 BC. Herodotus records that centaurs fought alongside the Athenians at the Battle of Marathon – the first known human-faerie alliance.
• 49 BC. Powerful faerie beings of an unknown nature had been posing as Roman gods for over a century and manipulating Roman politics. This year, they back the wrong horse. Julius Caesar crosses the Rubicon, exposes the faerie imposters, and defeats their puppet tribune, Pompey.
• 30 AD. Last centaur legion leaves Rome and vanishes, never to return. Once common, centaurs become very rare on Earth from now on.
• 50 AD. Roman legions come to a secret agreement with the dwarfs of Europe, allowing the former to conquer the continent without retaliation from the latter.
• 185 AD. First dragon spotted in England.
• 375 AD. The persecution of the Huns by dragons in Mongolia forces the Huns to move westward.
• 450 AD. The Unseelie Court of the faerie drives Britons out of England. For some reason, the faeries then vanish, leaving England free for the Angles, Saxons, and Jutes to settle.
• 511 AD. The four sons of King Clovis try unsuccessfully to drive the dwarfs out of Gaul.
• 777 AD. Charlemagne allies himself with dwarfs and dragons, and drives all evil faerie – at least temporarily – out of Gaul. The vengeful faerie possess a Germanic tribe and ambush Charlemagne. Roland’s death at that battle is avenged by the dragon, Verepouvant.
• 800 AD. The Islamic Empire develops a math-based form of sorcery, based on the works of Aristotle and Ptolemy.
• 1090 AD. Pope Innocencia officially recognizes magick – a first for the Papacy – but only for the use of the clergy. The Holy Order of St. Boniface is founded for the purpose of training clerical magicians.
• 1347 AD. The Black Death begins in Constantinople. The Unseelie Court is suspected of involvement.
• 1450 AD. Leonardo daVinci writes a book on magic so controversial that all copies are burned, save one rumored to be in Bavaria. Marco Polo is imprisoned by the Dragon Kings of China.
• 1490 AD. Aztec blood-sorcery proves to be no match for Spanish gunpowder, though the Spanish people are rumored to be cursed from here on.
• 1588 AD. The Spanish Armada suffers bad luck against the English. Sir Walter Raleigh’s admiral, Liam O’Conner, is rumored to be a selkie, which would make him the highest ranking faerie officer in a human military, to this point in history.
• 1600 AD. The Age of Englightenment begins. Scientific and philosophical achievements coincide, either coincidentally or intentionally, with increased human and faerie interaction on an everyday level that persists for the next 150 years.

Wednesday, August 13, 2008

D&D's Earliest Beginner-Level Modules

[I had done most of the work on this list back in 2006 as a poll for my Dungeons & Dragons players, to determine what scenario they would like to start a campaign with. Every module below was either prepared for 1st-level characters or a significant portion of the adventure is appropriate for that level. I don't own every module listed. Thanks to "The Kelly Clan" for the White Dwarf additions.]

1. JG15+ Thunderhold [and the] Sunstone Caverns
2. JG37 [Castle Blackmoor] First Fantasy Campaign
3. JG52 The Thieves of Fortress Badabaskor
4. "The Lichway" (White Dwarf #9, Oct./Nov.)
5. B1 In Search of the Unknown (#9023)
6. T1 The Village of Hommlet (#9026)
7. JG102 Caverns of Thracia
8. Rahasia (Daystar version, later module B7)
9. B2 The Keep on the Borderlands (#9034)
10. “Pit of the Oracle” (Dragon #37, May)
11. "The Halls of Tizun Thane" (White Dwarf #18, May/Jun.)
12. "Simpleton's Tomb" (Dungeoneer's Journal #23, Oct/Nov.)
13. “Haunted Keep” [Basic rules sample dungeon](#1011)
14. B3 Palace of the Silver Princess (#9044, orange cover version)
15. B3 Palace of the Silver Princess (#9044, green cover version)
16. “Chapel of Silence” (Dragon #50, June)
17. U1 The Sinister Secret of Saltmarsh (#9062)
18. JG680 Tower of Indomitable Circumstance
19. B4 The Lost City (#9049)
20. “Chagmat” (Dragon #63, July)
21. M2 Maze of the Riddling Minotaur (#9060)
22. N1 Against the Cult of the Reptile God (#9063)
23. [Basic rules sample dungeon](#1011)
24. M1 Blizzard Pass (#9067)
25. B5 Horror on the Hill (#9078)
26. “Citadel by the Sea” (Dragon #83, Oct.)
27. “Barnacus: City in Peril” (Dragon #85, Dec.)
28. B6 The Veiled Society (#9086)
29. BSOLO Ghost of Lion Castle (#9097)
30. MV1 Midnight on Dagger Alley (#9104)
31. B8 Journey to the Rock (#9106)
32. C3 The Lost Island of Castanamir (#9110)
33. UK5 Eye of the Serpent (#9125)
34. “Sword of Justice” (Dragon #92, Dec.)

Tuesday, August 12, 2008

"Modernizing Shakespeare"

[I did this cartoon for the Dominican Star (April 22, 1998 issue) while attending Dominican University. I was also playing the Prince in Romeo & Juliet at that time. Coincidence? This was the last piece I had published in the Star, or any college newspaper. The scanner is not entirely to blame for this poor scan -- the actual printing was low quality to start with.]

Monday, August 11, 2008

Re: Batman the Animated Series

[This is partial transcript of -- I believe most of -- a letter I wrote to the Fox TV Network around 1993. There was a rumor circulating at that time that Fox was going to take the critically- and fan-acclaimed Batman the Animated Series show off the air. It is the only time I ever wrote to a TV channel about a TV show.]

I am writing in regards to this network's horrific decision to cancel BATMAN: THE ANIMATED SERIES. I would have written much sooner if I had not such trouble acquiring your address. You have made a terrible error in judgement by casting aside BATMAN -- and for what? So you can air more ratings-grabbing swill like POWER RANGERS? There is more at stake here than short-term rating boosts, and I will endeavor to explain why.

The first reason is art. While many shows are entertaining, or even educational, few shows can boast of being both, plus art. FOX has few such programs, and fewer than other networks.

The second and most vital reason is because of the fans. Shows with large fan followings, such as this, you should hold onto at all costs. I am sure you have received a flood of complaint letters already, and you have only begun to hear from all the Batman fans out there.

Saturday, August 2, 2008

Die Another Day Reviewed

I had recently told someone that I was so far behind in movies that I had yet to watch Pierce Brosnan’s last James Bond movie, so I thought I should break down and finally watch Die Another Day last night (which I happened to have handy on videotape). Boy, do I wish I’d spent my evening more productively.

And the movie starts out so promising too! North Korea has been so topical in recent years. Having Bond deep under cover in such an evil empire was very suspenseful. The hovercraft chase was okay, but at least it’s a vehicle Bond hasn’t raced so far, and there are few of those left! But then to take out the main bad guy in the first scene in the movie! And then Bond captured and tortured? Whoa, this is heavy stuff for a Bond film! This must be good!

Well, any hopes I had that the whole movie would be so good were dispelled with Madonna’s techno theme song – surely the worst Bond theme song ever. THIS is the descendant of Goldfinger and Live and Let Die? And even this early, there are other signs of trouble. Why is Bond so sure he was betrayed just because he was identified? Bond is ALWAYS identified! Christopher Walken just had to scroll through a database of MI6 operatives and turned up Bond in a minute in A View to a Kill (surely not the best Bond film ever, but still…).

The movie continues to be promising in Hong Kong, with Bond escaping from his own liberators in order to hunt down his betrayer, and even the Cuba scenes are mostly good. We get to see Bond driving around in a cool 1950’s-era car with big fins. The movie’s saying, “Sit back, relax. Just enjoy watching Brosnan play Bond.” Okay, I can deal with that. Halle Barry shows up, trying to evoke the spirit of Ursula Andress. Good choice. Halle turns out to be one of those love interests, ala Goldfinger and For Your Eyes Only, who is on a parallel path after the villains. Okay, I’ve seen that coincidence before. We’re treading on dangerous ground here of losing what originality the early scenes had and descending back into formula. But at least the movie knows what worked in the past up to this point.

And then comes the wacky science. DNA transplants? Invisible cars? Powered battle armor? Okay, movie, get back to basics. Bond is a spy. The farther you take him away from spying and into superheroics, the less he works. What happened to just enjoying Brosnan as Bond? We’re even treated to a computer-animated sequence of Bond surfing with a car hood and a parachute that looks so cheesy you’d think it was made for a Bond film seven years earlier. C’mon, people. Pixar could have made Bond look better! But no, this is all part of an effort in the second half of the movie to make it look more like a video game. There are cheesy moments of fast forwarding and slowing down that add nothing to the movie and take away huge amounts of remaining believability.

Even our main villain has descended irrevocably into camp. He has a laser satellite (and haven’t we seen this twice before? Three times, counting Austin Powers?) aimed right behind Bond’s car, chasing him down to the edge of a cliff. But then he stops the laser at the edge of the cliff? Why not shoot it over the cliff, in case Bond is dangling there? No, better just to assume he’s dead, right? And while I’m ranting, why are we given a scene with the main villain trying to bond with his father during the climax of the movie? It’s a good scene, but shouldn’t it have come earlier, before we were expecting lots of action?

The movie has its moments, particularly in the strong first half hour. The sword fight is pretty cool. And Halle gets more good one-liners than Bond does for a change. But there is too much lame stuff in this movie. I have to give it a C+. Made me miss Tomorrow Never Dies, and look forward to trying the new Casino Royale to see if they really did figure out how to do Bond right again.

Friday, August 1, 2008

Misc. Comics Graded - pt. 2

Howard the Duck #5 ("I Want Mo-o-oney", Sept. 1976). Grade: A-. There's meat here -- from Howard's oversensitivity to racism (vs. ducks in comic books) to a touching scene where Howard can't bring himself to repossess a TV from a down-on-her-luck mother to the return of running gag character the Kidney Lady. The wrestling match doesn't hold up to the same standard and the whole combination of scenes doesn't run as smoothly as it should have.
Howard the Duck #6 ("The Secret House of Forbidden Cookies", Nov. 1976). Grade: A. Gerber at his absurd best, mocking religion and gothic romance virtually simultaneously. What really shines in the early Howard stories, though, is the surprisingly realistic romance between Howard and Beverly. Sadly comes across as a little disjointed, like the previous issue.
Howard the Duck #7 ("The Way the Cookie Crumbles", Dec. 1976). Grade: B+. The previous issue's storyline is wrapped up jarringly fast so Howard can move on to a political convention and political humor. Gerber tears down political straw men as Howard is set up to run for President, but is more subtle and astute while connecting political corruption with sexual harassment.
Howard the Duck #8 ("Open Season", Jan. 1977). Grade: A-. Politically innovative for a comic book, including a then-rare combination of text piece and traditional comic panels, the humor about our political system is still rather obvious and the assassination attempt run-on gag is morbid and not funny.
Howard the Duck #9 ("Scandal Plucks Duck", Feb. 1977). Grade: B-. More disjointed than ever, the running for President plot is dumped entirely to pack Howard off to...Canada? The Beaver isn't a remotely funny villain, but the jibes at the Canadian mountie stereotype are.
Howard the Duck #10 ("Swan-Song of the Living Dead Duck", March 1977). Grade: B-. Gerber gets too cerebral for his own good, devouting a whole issue to Howard surreal dream -- or is it just to give Colan a chance to draw every character from the series to date in one issue?
Marvel Team-Up #49 ("Madness Is All in the Mind", Sept. 1976). Grade: C+. Iron Man is barely important to this story, where Spider-Man and Capt. DeWolff learn more in the mystery of the Wraith. Spider-Man says it best, though, when he says Mysterio and Mirage can already do what the Wraith can. Sal Buscema art does not help. Mostly a yawn.
Marvel Team-Up #52 ("Danger: Demon on a Rampage", Dec. 1976). Grade: B. Sure, it's got Sal Buscema, but it's got Batroc too. Can't go wrong with Batroc! Then Cap and Spidey team up to take down an extradimensional alien previously drawn by Kirby in Cap's title. Odds are Kirby drew it better.
Fantastic Four #176 ("Improbable As It May Seem-- the Impossible Man Is Back in Town", Nov. 1976). Grade: B+. Thomas' exposition-heavy take on the FF is pretty dull, but Perez makes them look good and the fun starts, not with the Impossible Man, but with his trip to Marvel's offices and meeting all the staff there. My copy is signed by Roy Thomas, so it's particularly hard for me to throw this one out.
Marvel Premiere Featuring the Mark of Kane #33 ("The Mark of Kane", Dec. 1976). Grade: B+. Has Chaykin's art ever looked better than in his early days? The first story is a confusing, but thankfully short one about Kane fighting a Spanish illusionist (but if those are illusions, then how did they kill the priest in the pit?), but this is a prelude to a longer piece about the brigands that Kane is tracking and Kane's encounter with their leader, The Wolf.
Marvel Two-in-One #24 ("Does Anyone Remember...the Hijacker?", Feb. 1977). Grade: C+. It's interesting to watch an obscure Ant-Man enemy that hasn't been seen in 14 years holding his own against the Thing, even for a short while. Black Goliath tags along, but is more interesting as scientist Bill Foster before he suits up. Again, another '70s comic saddled with Sal Buscema's lackluster art.
Super-Villain Team-Up #10 ("The Sign of the Skull", Feb. 1977). Grade: B-. A watered down Dr. Doom lets Capt. America tag along, is afraid of his own missiles, and gets beaten by the Red Skull? Sub-plots with Sub-Mariner and the Shroud don't help and only the all-star cast and awesome cover saved this from a C+ or lower.
The Human Fly #4 ("Rocky Mountain Nightmare", Dec. 1977). Grade: B+. Bill Mantlo still on top of his game with an intriguing story of two obssessed fathers, dressed up in superhero clothes.
Spider-Woman #1 ("A Future Uncertain", April 1978). Grade: B. Promising start, primarily an origin flashback with a romantic mystery plot.
Spider-Woman #4 ("H--- Is the Hangman", July 1978). Grade: C+. Wolfman can't seem to decide if the Brothers Grimm or the Hangman is the main villain, nor can he decide if Spider-Woman has super strength or not.
Spider-Woman #5 ("Nightmare", Aug. 1978). Grade: B-. Was the Hangman ever there at all? After providing a bondage scene, he mercifully and mysteriously disappears from comic books. Once he's gone, Spider-Woman has one of those dream sequences that combines "story-so-far" flashback with angst-riddled introspection.
Spider-Woman #6 ("End of a Nightmare", Sept. 1978). Grade: B-. Wolfman seems determined to attract an adult audience, even if he has to fill the dialog with profanities to do it. It would have helped more if the story had made more sense. How does Jessica's venom bolt disentegrate Morgan LeFey? Why are her powers always so variable? Why does Magnus summon Jerry Hunt? Hunt has been reduced by now to a Steve Trevor-like tagalong boyfriend. At least, for once, a Spider-Woman issue has an actual ending instead of a cliffhanger.
Spider-Woman #7 ("July 4, 1978...", Oct. 1978). Grade: C. Spider-Woman's search for her father is wrapped up too conveniently, Pyrotechnics, Inc. is a lame, generic villainous organization, and how does a Brother Grimm just happen to turn up for one panel to stretch the story out? At least we're reminded that Hunt works for SHIELD by the Nick Fury cameo.
Spider-Woman #8 ("The Man Who Could Not Die", Nov. 1978). Grade: D+. Wolfman is still trying too hard for off-beat and revisits the bondage theme from #4. How can Jessica snap chains easily now and rope gave her trouble then? A tragic villain wanting to end his serial immortality was a good idea, but it makes less sense when he wants to kill Jessica too. And where would they find spikes growing naturally at the bottom of a cliff? And what's the deal with the back-up story about a haunted suit? And now Jessica can smash through walls already?
Bugs Bunny #203 ("Rendezvous at Bleak Point", Dec. 1978). Grade: C. Bugs Bunny and Elmer Fudd tackle smugglers, then Bugs and friends stop a burglar, and finally Bugs helps a fat man lose weight. The art is bland and the stories never live up to the plots.
Machine Man #12 ("Where Walk the Gods," Dec. 1979). Grade: B-. Machine Man finds himself judged by the very people he tries to save, then inexplicably gives five people superpowers just by accidentally shocking them with electricity, and then gets judged a monster by them until a boy speaks up for Machine Man. Without that weird middle part, this would have been a much more effective story. Ditko inks himself here?