Tag: Storytelling

Part II begins now!

If I've a gripe about Act 2 of FF6, it's that it's one of those bits that gives you flexibility to choose your party but where the plot clearly defines a correct party.

It's Edgar, Sabin, Locke, and Celes.

If you've got Edgar and Sabin, you'll get their cutscene in Figaro that tells the story of their father's death, the coin toss, and Sabin's departure.

And if you've got Locke, you'll see his cutscenes in Kohlingen about Rachel, her fall and amnesia, and her current state of suspended animation.

While it's true that Celes only gets one line of dialogue to react to all this, I think it's still valid to say she's a "correct" party member here, given that she becomes mandatory after Zozo.

Speaking of after Zozo, yes, you do get to choose half your party there -- but Locke and Celes are mandatory, and Sabin and Edgar are still the two remaining party members who contribute most to the plot if you pick them -- because then you get the punchline to the coin toss story.

Sure, you can get Shadow during this stretch -- but it's not really worth it. You might catch one of his dreams if you stay at an inn, but other than that, he doesn't do much except potentially run away at an awkward moment and leave you stranded. Plus, if it's your first time playing the game, you won't know he's coming and will leave Narshe with a full party and not be able to get him (without backtracking to Narshe and leaving somebody behind), and if it's not your first time, you'll know the correct party is Edgar, Sabin, Locke, and Celes.

Anyway. That aside? This is one of the great sequences of the game. Zozo is one of the most memorable locations, and the Opera House represents everything I love about Final Fantasy in general and this game in particular. And in the version I'm playing, with the music restoration patch, it's an actual recording, complete with real voices. Singing in Italian. Seriously, it is the crown jewel of an excellent game hack and you owe it to yourself to check this version of the game out.

And then the occupied cities of Albrook, Maranda, and Tzen -- if I've a gripe about them, it's that they're a little too samey, but that was a pretty common problem in 8- and 16-bit JRPG's and FF6 provides more variety than most.

And then Vector. Vector is marvelous. The slight sheen of fire and metal over everything, the soldiers everywhere and robbers in the inn, the oppressive music.

And the Magitek Research Facility is a whole other vibe: pure mad science.

The whole sequence is so fantastic that I hate to point out the places where the seams show, but what the hell, here they are.

First: it's stated in dialogue that Gestahl has known about Magicite for 20 years and that Celes's magical talents came at the expense of an Esper's life.

But Kefka and Cid are both quite clearly surprised by the revelation that the best way to obtain an Esper's power is by killing it.

I can understand Gestahl not telling Kefka -- I mean, would you? -- but Cid? That doesn't make a lick of sense. Cid is the guy in charge of extracting power from Espers. The entire purpose of this giant facility you're in is rendered moot if Gestahl knows magic is derived from dead Espers rather than Espers in giant fishtanks. Not to mention that Cid is the person who gave Celes her magic infusion when she was a child, so if it involved dead Espers he should presumably have known about it.

(And speaking of children, the Slattery and Woolsey translations both have Terra say "I was raised on the Esper world." and then immediately tell the story of how she left the Esper world at the age of two. That's more of a nitpick over a single word choice, but it still grates.)

Also very very silly: Locke seems to immediately buy Kefka and Cid's -- that would be, to those of you keeping score, the villain and a guy he just met -- allegation that Celes is a spy.

This is, of course, completely fucking ludicrous.

It relies on what Roger Ebert called the Fallacy of the Predictable Tree (after the scene in First Blood where Rambo drops out of a tree on top of a cop -- they are in a forest; how did he know a cop was going to stand under that exact tree before he climbed it?) and TV Tropes calls Gambit Roulette.

Let's paint a picture here.

Let's say Celes was a spy seeking to infiltrate the Returners.

When Locke meets her, she is chained up in a basement. (Or, in the GBA version, just kinda hanging out in a basement.)

So okay. She wanted to infiltrate the Returners.

So she...hid out chained up in a basement, and just waited for one of them to come into South Figaro, sneak past the armed guards by stealing clothes from people, bribe an old man with cider to be allowed use of his secret passageway, and just happen to look through the door into the smallest room in the biggest house in town and see her chained up there?

Locke believes this is a plausible scenario. Because Locke is a character in a video game. And in a video game, a plan like that is perfectly logical.

This is a medium where mad scientists regularly attempt to take over the world by sticking thematic robots into little rooms where they can hang out and wait until somebody walks in so they can shoot at him. Where dragons won't attack you until after you've talked to exactly the right villagers in precisely the correct order. And, lest you think these particular abuses of Video Game Logic are confined to classic games, I point you to my thoughts on Metroid: Other M, a game where a monster does not attack you until you notice a trail of bugs on the ground, and a woman will stand at a window for ten minutes while you look around and then act surprised and run away when you finally spot her.

So, all things considered? I guess Locke's got a point.

Hank is Dr. Venture's Greatest Triumph.

Spoilers for the Venture Bros. season finale follow.

I read the Zack Handlen's review of The Devil's Grip at AV Club, and these bits stuck out to me:

[...I]f part of this season has been seeing how Dean deals with the fall-out of learning his super science origins, just as important has been realizing that Hank’s goofy enthusiasm actually puts him far ahead of nearly everyone else on the show. In many ways, Dean’s mopiness and stress are easier to relate to, as they seem like the only sane response to the Venture-verse. [...] But sinking into despair, and dwelling on the inconvenience and humiliation, isn’t going to change things.

[...W]hile the Ventures and friends are holding a funeral for Dr. Entmann at the Venture compound, Dean finally breaks down and tells Hank that they’re both clones. To Dean, this knowledge is painful, confirming his deepest, darkest fears about his own validity and place in the world. To Hank: “That is awesome.” While it’s not always possible to find the bright side of things, Hank’s optimism is a healthy, even enlightened way to approach the world. For a long time, Hank Venture looked like the dumb part of the Venture equation, a nice kid whose failure to fully grasp what was happening around him kept him in a perpetual state of Pollyanna-ish bliss. But the truth is, he knows what’s going down, and while sometimes it upsets him, he’s still doing his best to have the time of his life.

This recalls last season, when Hank, hurt that his father was ignoring him to groom Dean as his successor, staged a phony kidnapping to ask him why.

Rusty, in a moment of candor, responded that Hank is too much like him -- he doesn't want the pressure of living in his father's shadow, isn't cut out for the lofty expectations everyone's set for him. Rusty has chosen to give Dean his burden -- and to spare Hank from it.

And we've seen that dynamic playing out. Dean has spent this season wracked with existential dread at finding out that he's literally not the person he thought he was. Hank, on the other hand, knows exactly who he is -- and so he's a clone besides? Well, how cool is that? As far as he's concerned, that makes him more unique, not less.

And Dean smiles.

Like Hatred's disarmingly perfect advice, earlier in the season, that he's the best Dean there is, only moreso, this was exactly what Dean needed to hear. And I'd like to think this is going to be the beginning of him coming out of his funk and becoming -- well, not the same old Dean we knew before, because that would be boring and that's not what this show is about. But to grow and change and maybe even someday become a well-adjusted adult.

Hank's already well on his way there. And he'll be there to help his brother along, because that's what brothers do.

The Venture Bros. is a show about failure. And Dr. Venture, more than anyone else, is a failure. His greatest joys come from willful ignorance and self-delusion.

But amid everything that's gone wrong in his life, he's raised a son who's turned out pretty well, and who's on his way to helping the other son turn out pretty well too.

Course, the fact that his greatest contribution to Hank's success was leaving him the fuck alone to figure out his own way carries its own little ironic sting. But even that took a kind of melancholy self-awareness that Doc shows only at his most vulnerable, a level of empathy he's never shown anyone else before or since, and, for once in Doc's life, was exactly the right choice.

The Sublime Symmetry of FF6's First Act

Well, Terra's turned pink and flown off toward Zozo, leaving me to consider the first five or so hours of FF6. In an era where episodic games are now common, it's striking that the game's first act would have made an excellent Episode 1. It doesn't just tell a satisfying story with a beginning, middle, and (cliffhanger) ending, it doesn't just introduce the premise and most of the major cast while still leaving the biggest stuff for later -- it also plays significantly differently from the rest of the game, and its plot and play beats form a brilliant mirror where the end of the act recalls its beginning.

The Empire invades Narshe, with Terra as a puppet. Terra encounters the frozen Esper, with explosive results. Terra regains consciousness and the ability to think for herself. Locke has to protect her in a battle with a tower defense element to it, with three parties defending from oncoming nonrandom monsters. Terra and Locke flee the Empire, gaining comrades along the way -- and then the party is abruptly separated. For the first time, you see events unfold through characters other than Terra -- and then everyone makes their way back to Narshe. The Empire invades, with Terra and friends defending the city; they have to defend Bannon in a battle with a tower defense element to it, with three parties defending from oncoming nonrandom monsters. Terra encounters the frozen Esper, with explosive results -- and even as she comes closer than ever to discovering who and what she really is, she loses her willpower again and becomes an unthinking beast.

Aside from that, there's the gameplay -- and, notably, a couple of things happen during this portion that don't happen again later.

First, there are the two tower defense-style battles. They're the only two in the game, which is just the right amount. The first one is easy and lets you get the hang of it; the second one's a more legitimate challenge.

There's also the "Choose a scenario" portion. While there are other parts of the game where the party is split up, there are no other occasions where you experience story developments from multiple perspectives.

And it's mostly great! Terra's scenario is pretty bland, but at least it's short. Locke's scenario is another unique piece of game; it's a puzzle that plays to his strengths as a th -- treasure hunter, and it's funny besides. Sabin's scenario is the longest and broadest of the bunch, introduces three new playable characters with tragic origin stories, and takes you through a tour of the game's various locations -- the Imperial Camp, Doma, the Haunted Forest, the Phantom Train, Barren Falls, the Veldt, and the Serpent Trench. Some of it feels half-baked -- the Forest is over in minutes, and the Serpent Trench is just a showcase for then-impressive Mode 7 animation where very little actually happens (and then you have to come back later if you want to get Mog's water dance) -- but a lot of it, like the camp sequence and the Phantom Train, is excellent.

And then there's the character balance -- this is a game that's famous for not having very much of that, but it's hard to tell in the opening act.

Each character has a unique ability -- at least, up until you get Celes and then you've got two magic-users and Terra hasn't learned Morph yet. And most of them are pretty well-thought-out.

Terra and Celes both play like Red Mages in previous FF games -- they can equip the best weapons and armor and cast both black and white magic spells, but they're not very strong as attackers yet at this point in the game, their offensive spells are middling, and their low max MP means they don't get much use out of them at any rate. Celes's Runic is pretty damned useful early in the game when she's the only magic-user in the party and it effectively nullifies bosses' magic; it's not until later in the game that it becomes basically worthless.

Edgar gets decent, but not crazy-high, damage against all enemies with the Autocrossbow. It's a pity the Bioblaster and Noiseblaster aren't much use.

Shadow gets solid-to-high damage depending on equipment, and occasionally will counter with Interceptor, which is the most damaging attack you've got at this point in the game but happens rarely enough that it's not spammy. And Shadow is squishy and dies easily. (And may randomly ditch out on you and make you restore from a save so he doesn't take that Genji Glove you put on him when he goes. That part I'm not so crazy about, but the unpredictable mercenary angle is a neat idea in theory, at least.)

Cyan is nominally a samurai but plays more like the previous games' Knight class: he does solid damage but excels at defense. Early on he's kinda like Edgar in that he's got one very good special attack and two others that aren't really much use most of the time.

Gau has immediate access to more powerful attacks and spells than anyone else in the party, but you can't control him and even if you pick a Rage like Templar that drastically boosts his defense and evade (in versions where the evade stat actually works), he's still pretty squishy.

And then there's Sabin and Locke. Who I guess, if nothing else, at least balance each other, since one is ridiculously overpowered and the other is, at this point in the game, not that damn good.

Sabin is the most overpowered character in the game. You can see where they were trying to make him something of a glass cannon like the Monks in the previous games -- he's got the high attack, high HP, can't equip good armor thing going on -- but even with weak armor he still does a pretty good job of soaking up damage, and he dishes it out like crazy. Aura Cannon is one of very few Holy-elemental attacks you get access to in the game, and it deals high damage to most enemies. And while, like Edgar and Cyan, his other two specials are inferior, they're still fairly useful -- Pummel/Raging Fist ignores defense, and he can suplex a fucking train.

Locke, by contrast -- well, he's decent enough later in the game, but early on he deals low damage, has low defense and HP, and his Steal command isn't worth using. It seems to fail about 75% of the time and, when it succeds, it's usually just a damn Potion that won't even heal the damage the party took while Locke was trying to steal from the monsters instead of killing them.

His scenario's fun as hell -- right up until the part where you start actually having to fight dudes, at which point it turns into Locke mostly being a liability while Celes does all the work.

But, Locke and Sabin aside, the characters' balance is really well-thought-out in the early going.

Course, by the time you leave Zozo you've got Espers and a chainsaw -- but that's a story for another day...

Quantum and Woody and Complex Feelings

Quantum and Woody was something I loved when I was a teenager -- and then it went away. 13 years later it shows back up, but under less than ideal circumstances. It's not the book I remember, and I don't know if I should be happy it's back or pissed about it being something less than what I expected and hoped for.

Even if you've never read a Quantum and Woody comic before, I'm guessing that the previous paragraph was suitably unsubtle that you realized it was a metaphor for the plot of the comic.

I posted about the status of Quantum and Woody previously. The gist: the original comic was published by Acclaim, and the creators, Christopher Priest and Mark Bright, had a reversion clause in their contract that should have allowed them to buy out the copyrights to the comic after it went out of print. But Acclaim went bankrupt and the rights were sold at auction instead. They were eventually bought by a new company, Valiant (which takes its name from the Valiant Comics that Acclaim bought out in the first place, but is not the same company), which has opted to start a new series written by James Asmus and drawn by Tom Fowler.

Priest has said nothing about the new series, and Bright has said little -- but he did say that their relationship with Valiant is "amicable", and that was good enough for me to go ahead and pick up issue #1 of the new series.

It's...well, it's good, but it's not as good as the original.

First of all: it's not very funny.

I mean, I laughed a few times. But the biggest laugh was at a running gag from the old series. Technically it still counts as a joke -- they're invoking a running gag, not merely doing a Family Guy-style "Hey, remember that thing from that other thing?" -- but it's not Asmus and Fowler's joke, it's Priest and Bright's.

And the whole thing feels a little like that, really. The book doesn't just borrow the premise of the original, it borrows Priest's specific storytelling techniques -- it's got chapter titles with white text against a black background, and it jumps around and tells the story out-of-sequence. Yes, that's one of the things the original Q&W was known for -- but it wasn't a Q&W thing, it was a Priest thing. He used the same technique in Black Panther and Deadpool. For my tastes, this strays a little too far from the notion of a loving homage to the original series and too close to stealing another guy's bit. It's uncomfortable.

And it's also absurd, given that Valiant chose not to ask Priest and Bright to do the new series themselves, ostensibly because they wanted to do something different, that the new book hews so close to the old one stylistically.

And yet, for all that, page 2 passes up a perfect opportunity to use "noogie". What the F-word? I just don't understand how Asmus can crib so shamelessly from the original series (and Priest's general comics vocabulary) and yet draw the line at noogie, of all places.

...okay, that got a little inside baseball. Point is, the book, at its worst, feels like a cover tune that's uncomfortably close to the original without ever hitting the same notes quite right.

But at its best?

It's got heart, man.

Asmus may not have a good grip on Priest's gift for satire -- and couldn't get away with his brand of pointed commentary on race in America even if he did -- but what he does get is the relationship between the leads. It's real and it's raw -- these are two guys who really do love each other (but they're not a couple) but are so fucking furious at each other over something that happened a long time ago that it takes a near-death experience to even acknowledge it -- almost.

Asmus gets that. And it just so happens to be the emotional core of the book. More important than the jokes, and certainly more important than "Hey look you guys we put the goat on the cover!" -- it's the heart.

Aside from that, the plot actually hews pretty close to the original, despite an important change in apostrophe placement -- now, Eric and Woody are reunited after their father's murder, not fathers'.

That's been the change fans of the old series have been most nervous about -- well, the story change that fans of the old series have been most nervous about. But it works.

Ultimately, Eric and Woody's fathers weren't important to the original story; they were the McGuffin that got everything started, but we knew less about them than we knew about Uncle Ben (and only slightly more than we knew about Thomas and Martha Wayne in the original version of Batman's origin). Woody's father is only important because he's what got him to come back to town -- it's his mother who we see is mostly responsible for what shaped him as a child, for better or worse.

And all that would seem to be intact -- in this version, Eric's father took Woody in as a troubled foster child. And, while the circumstances of Woody's departure from the family are left as a mystery for now, I wouldn't be surprised if they were similar to what happened in the original series: he went to live with his mom, things went south fast, and he wound up living on the streets.

All of which is still entirely possible if Mr. Henderson was his adoptive father. Mr. Van Chelton is completely unnecessary to the story.

Through all this chatter, I guess I've focused on Asmus's writing over Fowler's art. Fowler's art is like Asmus's writing, I suppose -- it's solid but it hasn't blown me away, and unfortunately a whole lot of it seems to be just recreations of scenes from the original series (like the opening of Q&W falling out a window while the news media mock them).

Still -- it's good. It's not what I'd hoped for, but it's not bad.

It's good enough that I'll pick up #2. And hope that this generates enough interest that maybe someday we'll see something new from Priest and Bright. New Quantum and Woody, the release of the completed-but-unpublished issues of the original series, or something else entirely -- it doesn't matter, I'd be happy to see anything by them that I haven't seen before.

Because that's the real point, here -- yeah, I like Quantum and Woody. But not nearly as much as I like Christopher Priest and Mark Bright.

Spoilers

There's recent research indicating that people who know spoilers ahead of time actually enjoy them more than people who are surprised -- that anticipation increases satisfaction.

This was -- and here's where I start to get a little pretentious -- this was the view of the ancient Greeks at the very dawn of theater.

(Did I just spell "theater" with an "-er"? Guess I'm not being that pretentious.)

When I was a freshman in high school, we read Oedipus Rex in English class with my favorite teacher. He told us the twists upfront: that Oedipus killed his father and married his mother. Of course, the whole play is a mystery about Oedipus slowly piecing together the clues toward that ending.

One of my classmates indignantly asked the teacher why he told us the ending before we read it. The teacher responded, "Because the audience in those days would have already known too."

Sophocles, I think it's safe to say, understood storytelling. He understood suspense. And he understood that it's entirely possible to build suspense even if the audience knows what's going to happen.

And at this point I offer a Warning: The rest of this post is written around major spoilers for both Game of Thrones the TV series and Song of Ice and Fire the book series. Including bits that haven't been on the show yet.

Of course, if you believe what I've just said in the preceding paragraphs, you'll keep on reading anyway, spoilers or no.

I've spent the last week and a half or so catching up on Game of Thrones. But I already knew, with a couple of exceptions, what was going to happen, as I'm already all caught up on the books.

So I knew about the Red Wedding. I knew what was going to happen. I anticipated it.

And it was still affecting as hell.

Whether it was more enjoyable than the first time, more enjoyable than reading it -- well, that's an interesting question.

I will say that there was a lot less confusion in watching it as a foregone conclusion.

The big bits in the books, the shocking parts, the stabby parts -- I find that I wound up going back and rereading them, several times, to make sure I'd really read what I'd just read. Ned's death, the Red Wedding -- and here's the part where I get into stuff that hasn't happened on the show yet, so this is your final warning --, Joffrey's death, Jon's stabbing -- my reaction to those was, as much as anything, Wait, what? I had to go back, read it again. Particularly with Joffrey's death -- I had a feeling that the other three examples I've just given might happen; certainly there was plenty of foreshadowing that something bad was going to happen -- but Joffrey's death caught me completely by surprise. (Perhaps because it's also the only major twist in the series that gives readers something they want instead of hurting them.)

Watching it on TV, knowing what was going to happen -- it increased the air of foreboding, the grim knowledge that the outcome was inevitable. I clenched my teeth, clutched the arm of the couch, and caught every single little bit of foreshadowing as it built.

And speaking of Joffrey's assassination, every bit of foreshadowing lands harder knowing that it's coming. Margaery Tyrell and the Queen of Thorns feigning friendship to Sansa is that much more cruel, knowing that they're not merely pumping her for information but setting her up to take the fall for his murder.

Then again, I also paid special attention to every change, every surprise, every moment that wasn't in the books. Robb's wife being stabbed repeatedly right in the belly -- Jesus Christ, that may have even topped the book for gruesomeness. Grey Wind dying in a cage instead of putting up a fight. Catelyn killing Lord Frey's wife instead of a handicapped grandson. Roose Bolton being the one to kill Robb himself, rather than just sitting back and watching. Every alteration was that much stronger for being unexpected -- and I think the biggest question in my head right now is how Shae's story is going to turn out, since it clearly won't be the same way as in the book. (Though, on the other hand, it could simply be the obvious -- Tywin finds out about her and makes good on his threat. Which unfortunately would leave us without the last interesting little twist we learn about Tywin, but I think that ship's already sailed.)

It is, as you'd reasonably expect, hard to quantify something like enjoyment. But I think good stories are ones that don't rest entirely on twists and can still be enjoyed even if you know what's going to happen. Indeed, I'd sussed out who Jon Snow's real parents were by the end of the first book, but that hasn't decreased my anticipation for the big reveal when it comes.

Bender's Back, Baby!

"Guess this is your lucky day, Pimparoo."

That would have been my one-sentence reaction to the returning Futurama, but then the third act happened. (I haven't watched Fry and Leela's Big Fling yet, just 2-D Blacktop.)

There are a lot of great Futurama episodes. The best have an emotional core to them -- Jurassic Bark, Luck of the Fry-rish, Godfellas. Other great episodes experiment with the format of the show -- any of the Anthology episodes, for example. (Well, I wouldn't describe the Holiday Spectacular as great, but all the rest.) Some are deftly-written time-travel stories, like Time Keeps On Slippin', Roswell that Ends Well, The Why of Fry, Bender's Big Score, and The Late Philip J Fry. Some are biting political satire, like any episode with Nixon in it. And some of them do clever things with the medium of animation -- like Reincarnation. And this one.

The Professor's hypercube was a nice touch. The Mobius strip played with the concept a little more. But the actual segment where they're caught in the Second Dimension is fucking ingenious. The writing -- the Professor explaining how everything works here -- is brilliant, and the design is even better.

This is an episode that did immensely fucking clever things with science fiction and with animation. I've never seen anything quite like it -- the closest thing I can think of is Homer3, which played on the same premise in the opposite direction.

The show's had its ups and downs. But as this just-started thirteen-episode run is the last we'll be seeing of it for awhile, it's great seeing it fire on all creative cylinders and do shit that I've never seen it or any other show do.

Also: the latest issue of the comic is legitimately great too. Zoidberg becomes unstuck in time and has to prevent a catastrophe from happening while still trying to piece together just what exactly is going on.

Newsroom

I never got around to watching West Wing, but I know Aaron Sorkin's work well enough to say yup, Newsroom sure is an Aaron Sorkin show.

It's a show where snappy patter gives way to self-congratulatory political bombast; it's probably the most sanctimonious liberal wankfest you'll find on TV now that Olbermann's gone. And I say that as a liberal, a guy who generally likes Olbermann, and for that matter somebody who's been enjoying The Newsroom. Mostly.

But man it does get pretty over-the-top.

And that's when I like to picture Jeff Daniels with frozen snot caked to his face and his piss-soaked pants stuck to Jim Carrey. It helps to deflate the hot air a bit.

The show's also written around not one but two (and, spoiler alert, three by the end of the first season) annoying damn will-they-won't-they office romances: one between the two principals, and another between a couple who bear at least a passing resemblance to Jim and Pam on The Office.

And when I say "at least a passing resemblance", I mean the Jim Halpert character is named "Jim Harper".

He's not as fun as Halpert, though. He's more of a joyless workaholic who nevertheless is more appealing than Not-Pam's current boyfriend. While Not-Pam is less charming than Pam, makes poorer life decisions, and is frankly a little dumb in a way the show repeatedly plays for laughs. In short, the whole thing reeks of the network demanding that the writers stick some romantic tension in between all the political monologues, and the writers put about as much effort into it as changing "Halpert" to "Harper" would suggest. ("So, 'Poochie' okay with everybody?")

In their defense, they know it. There's a whole episode devoted to how the show-within-a-show has to cover Casey Anthony because it's getting clobbered in the ratings by focusing on shit that's actually important instead. The message is pretty clear: look, sometimes you have to put crowd-pleasing bullshit on your show to get people to watch the important parts. And I have faith that the writers are smart enough and have a strong enough grasp of irony that the connection is intentional.

The Real Questions

I was going to write a post about Edward Snowden.

But then I realized: that's bullshit.

Because this isn't about Edward Snowden.

I just read a great piece by Matt Taibbi titled As Bradley Manning Trial Begins, Press Predictably Misses the Point. He argues, persuasively, that focusing on Manning is what the government wants. It wants the story to be about a person instead of about the information he disclosed.

The NSA story isn't about Snowden, any more than the military leaks are about Manning or Assange. "Hero or traitor?" is a bullshit question.

There are real questions we should be asking. Here are a few courtesy of Bruce Schneier:

We need details on the full extent of the FBI's spying capabilities. We don't know what information it routinely collects on American citizens, what extra information it collects on those on various watch lists, and what legal justifications it invokes for its actions. We don't know its plans for future data collection. We don't know what scandals and illegal actions -- either past or present -- are currently being covered up.

We also need information about what data the NSA gathers, either domestically or internationally. We don't know how much it collects surreptitiously, and how much it relies on arrangements with various companies. We don't know how much it uses password cracking to get at encrypted data, and how much it exploits existing system vulnerabilities. We don't know whether it deliberately inserts backdoors into systems it wants to monitor, either with or without the permission of the communications-system vendors.

And we need details about the sorts of analysis the organizations perform. We don't know what they quickly cull at the point of collection, and what they store for later analysis -- and how long they store it. We don't know what sort of database profiling they do, how extensive their CCTV and surveillance-drone analysis is, how much they perform behavioral analysis, or how extensively they trace friends of people on their watch lists.

All that said: I can't resist linking the petition for Obama to debate Snowden. Obviously it's not going to happen, but if it gets 100,000 signatures, the White House will have to issue an official response.

And presumably up the signature requirement for an official response to 150,000 for next time.

Star Trek into Idiot Plot

Major spoilers follow, I guess, albeit mostly stuff everybody's been expecting since roughly the end of the last movie.

So let me get this straight.

Eric Bana travels back in time and kills Kirk's father.

And this causes Ricardo Montalbán to turn into Benedict Cumberbatch?

Did that happen 300 years prior to the era Bana actually traveled to, or did it cause an already cryogenically-frozen Ricardo Montalbán to turn into Benedict Cumberbatch?

Like, was he really surprised when he woke up?

I kept waiting for the other shoe to drop and for the real Khan to be the guy in the pod they had to open up to save Kirk.

I mean, it's not like the plot reasons for Khan's ethnicity and national origin changing are that important. There is a rather strong argument to be made against the Hollywood trend of recasting minority roles with white guys (and no, trolls, casting Laurence Fishburne as Perry White is not "the exact same thing", because you see making a film's cast more diverse is not the exact same thing as making it less diverse), and, moreover, there are some rather regressive overtones in making the ultimate genetic model of a human being a pasty white guy. But as for the plot reasons? You could really handwave all that stuff. Whatever; it's just a movie; they recast the guy. Don't think too hard about it.

Which would be much much easier to do if the last act of the film weren't spent beating you about the head and shoulders with Wrath of Khan references.

After the first couple, I thought, You know, I'm getting way more out of this than people who haven't seen Wrath of Khan recently.

By the end of the film, I thought, You know, they're much happier for not getting all those damn references.

Hell, I was the only person in the theater who laughed out loud when Spock yelled "Khaaaaaaaaaaan!"

Anyway. I'm a casual Trek fan. I've seen a few episodes and movies here and there; I generally enjoy them.

I can definitely see the fans' gripes that the new movies are dumbed-down action flicks -- but what the hell, they've been pretty entertaining, and impeccably cast.

I still love Benedict Cumberbatch. Even if I don't think they should have cast him as a Mexican.

Welcome Back to Astro City

One morning when I was fourteen years old, my uncle asked me, over Sunday breakfast, if I'd heard of Astro City.

"It's great," he told me. "There's this kid who comes to the big city because he wants to get a job as somebody's sidekick."

"Sounds like something out of The Tick," I said.

"Kind of," he responded, "except that it's played totally straight."

So I picked it up, and Uncle Jon was right -- it was wonderful.

I don't remember if #4 or #5 was my first issue, but in short order I'd bought all the back issues too, including the trade of the original miniseries. I haven't missed an issue in the 16 years since. And most of them have been downright sublime -- while, at worst, some were merely all right.

Astro City has disappeared a few times over the years, usually owing to writer Kurt Busiek's chronic health problems. Yesterday, after a nearly three-year hiatus, it relaunched with a new #1. And it was delightful.

Straight away we're introduced to a new character (though one, Kurt teases, who we've seen before) called the Broken Man. He looks like Bowie in Labyrinth or Dream in Sandman, and he breaks the fourth wall and addresses the reader directly as he narrates the rest of the issue.

And what an issue it is. It's new-reader friendly and makes for a great jumping-on point -- but it still manages to pack plenty of nods in for the old fans. Brian Kinney, the kid who came to Astro City in 1996 to become a sidekick? He's in there. And some other familiar faces are too.

It feels like going home. It feels like checking in on old friends you haven't seen in years. And there's only one other comic book that makes me feel like that: Love and Rockets. I think it takes a pretty specific set of variables -- a strong, singular vision by the same creators over a sustained period of time, who are willing to let you feel that passage of time as their characters grow and age, and who are confident enough in their world-building that they can take a break from the same old characters, explore the world, and check back in on the old cast a few years later.

Reading Astro City is like coming home. There's a purity to it, and a joy, and an earnestness. In a time when the superhero genre and superhero fandom are dominated by cynicism, Busiek, Anderson, and Ross aren't afraid to show a world that's bright and full of wonder. And to tell a story that has a complete beginning, middle, and end all in one issue, even if it is Part One of something.

It's not entirely free of irony -- the Broken Man makes a crack about the previous story arc a couple of pages in that made me laugh -- but it's cheerful. It's a book that remembers that superheroes can be both fun and awe-inspiring.

Or not. Because, as much as anything else, it's also a book about ordinary people going about their ordinary lives in an extraordinary world. Regular folks, going to work, living their lives, raising their families.

And that's why Astro City struck a chord. And why it continues to resonate, two decades in. The title aside, it's not really about the city -- though the city is certainly important -- and it's not about superheroes -- though they're pretty important too. It's about people.

And in the new Astro City #1, Kurt Busiek delivers a solid story, with faces new and old, new mysteries, and the prospect of plenty of adventure to come.

As for Brent Anderson, he's really hitting his stride again too. I was a little disappointed with some of his recent work as he began experimenting with digital inking, but in this issue he's back to his crisp old self. His Samaritan, in particular, is a joy to see again, and he handles the rest of the sizable cast with aplomb. Whether he's doing an action scene or just swooping in on an ordinary family, he keeps the action brisk and dynamic. And I'm particularly fond of the new, Kirby-inspired alien character who shows up near the end of the issue.

Ross's cover (I got the "main" one, I guess?) is great as always, but this time it's more remarkable for its composition than for its detail, as 2/3 of it is the dark shape of two doors opening out on the world. It fits the story nicely -- both reflecting the mysterious door as a focal point, and drawing attention to the reader looking in on this world from outside, another key element of the story.


So, by all means, go out and buy the new Astro City #1.

And in the meantime, the original, 1995-vintage Astro City #1 is free on Comixology.

If you want a few more recommendations, my favorites are the first three trades, Life in the Big City, Family Album, and Confession. You can read them in any order (chronology is important for the later ones, namely The Dark Age and Shining Stars, though those appear to be out-of-print at the moment anyway).

And while I urge you to support your local comic shop or independent bookseller, well, if you'd rather do the Amazon thing here are some links that I'll get a kickback on:

  1. Life in the Big City (original miniseries -- 6 self-contained issues)
  2. Family Album (ongoing series #1-#3, #10-#13 -- some self-contained issues and short story arcs)
  3. Confession (ongoing series #4-#9, a single story arc, plus a short story from #1/2)
  4. Tarnished Angel (#14-#20, another arc)
  5. Local Heroes (#21-#22, the eponymous 5-issue miniseries, the Supersonic one-shot, Since the Fire 9/11 tribute -- mostly self-contained single-issue stories; I think there's one two-parter in there)

...and from there it looks like kind of a mess, with The Dark Age and Shining Stars apparently out of print for the time being. I'm guessing that'll change soon; maybe I'll update this post when they're easily available again. Meantime, it looks like the individual issues are pretty easy to get ahold of.

Anyhow, all this to say...I love me some Astro City, and the new #1 did not disappoint. I'm glad it's back.