I’m glad ‘Community’ is back in all its glory; now may that glory not kill them

Like a loud drunk at a wedding, "Community" amuses some guests, while grating on others and embarrassing the bride's mother.

“Community” is back on the air and you can count me glad. It’s the only show on TV I care to follow, and when I miss it (which is always) I catch it the next day on Hulu over lunch. When it went on hiatus in December, I wasn’t the only fan who worried NBC was trying to diffuse fan outrage over a pending cancellation, hoping we would become mollified by some other show and forget to launch our blistering letter-writing campaign.

The show has big cult following, but not a big marketable following, and the fans know it. “Community” isn’t for everybody. It’s the funniest thing on TV for my money, but let’s face it, my money’s not always good in this town. The show has two big strikes against it that make it hard for a wider audience to warm up: “Community” is weird and it’s cynical.

Weird shouldn’t be a problem.

“The Office” and “Parks & Recreation” and “30 Rock” are weird too. Tracy Jordan having a drug reaction, clinging to the ceiling of his dressing room, “bugging out” about little blue dudes and shouting out for “Doctor Spaceman” – that’s pretty out there. Then again, having two characters who convert a bedroom in their apartment to a Holodeck-like “Dreamatorium” where they can indulge their deep fantasy role-playing sorts of trumps it all. (Wider audiences failing to embrace this extreme penchant for oddity may be why, at the beginning of Season 3,” the “Community” cast pledged to “have more fun and be less weird than the first two years combined.” Of course, they pledged this as part of a Broadway song-and-dance dream sequence, so maybe they were being a little disingenuous.) Still, shows like “30 Rock” and the others mitigate their insane B plots with sweet, likable characters who can ground the audience in relatively-less-insane A plots.

Which is where cynical comes in.

Here, “cynical” is just a big umbrella word I’m using to wrap up all the deliberately thorny elements that distance viewers from this show and keep them from buying in to the long-term storyline of the characters.

Those likable characters from Dunder Mifflin and Rockefeller Plaza? They’re in short supply at Greendale Community College. (Individual characters are likeable, but “Community” makes sure we never feel sentimental about them for long. Everybody is flawed and occasionally ugly. “Community” writers make sure we remember that.)

Sweetness? It’s more an undercurrent of meanness that pervades this show. (Characters are dicks to each other – so much so, in fact, they occasionally call each other “dick.”)

Often the whole ensemble is at odds with one another and will end the entire show a fair distance short of a group-hugging make-up that gets us back to the cheery status quo. The status quo at Greendale is, indeed, that usually these characters are annoyed with one another.

I know precious little about improv comedy…

…but I know that one of the precepts is that you never improvise a disagreement or an argument that tears your fellow players down. You build them up. You never say, “No, you’re wrong,” you say, “Yes, and…” You build on one another. But “Community” is often an exercise in tearing others down.

To many, that’s the show’s strength. Some fans prefer that the show abandons treacle and contrived sitcom conventions to do something truly daring. It dares to make characters unlikable, racist, dumb, possessive, manipulative, intolerant and egomaniacal. Usually, audiences like shows where lead characters who skewer these traits in others; in “Community,” the characters are skewering these traits in each other.

When the show debuted in 2009, I wrote about my enthusiasm with glee, but I cautioned the main character, Jeff Winger, “seems to be an irredeemable cad. Cads can be a hoot, but he’ll need to be sympathetic before long if he’s going to be a cad in the spotlight.” At times, it seems Winger did grow. One of my favorite sequences in the first season is when he finally relents to become Spanish class partners with Pierce, the boorish old blowhard played by Chevy Chase. Winger doesn’t want to get sucked into Pierce’s weird event horizon, but to heal hurt feelings, Jeff finally lets Pierce dictate their elaborate presentation for tyrannical Spanish professor Senor Chang. Shown in a wordless montage, the presentation involves silly dances, tiny sombreros, dramatic gesturing and fistfuls of sparklers.


When it’s over, the two stand stock still, panting, under the scrutinizing gaze of Chang. Finally the professor nods as if he has at last given begrudging admiration for such a ballsy and ambitious delivery. Similar situations in movies and TV have taught us what to expect next. We expect him to say, “OK. That took guts. An A for the both of you.” But:

CHANG: “F … and F minus.”

PIERCE: “Did you say S?”

That’s comedy. That’s fresh and unexpected and it piles ridiculousness on top of ridiculousness. “Did you say S?” That kills me.

So there’s evidence of Winger growing. But most of the time the show shelves this, and he and others go back to being snarky and mean to each other again. Which I guess is just like life, you know?

Depth is rare – but there

The thing is, “Community” is chock full of tender moments that mean something. Two Christmases ago, the Rainman-like Abed had a seasonal meltdown that resulted in him seeing everything in a Rankin/Bass stop-motion winter wonderland. The group played along with his delusion to get him to the bottom of his depression (albeit in their own snarky and sarcastic ways). The episode explored how small traditions can resonate more powerfully than the big, gaudy, bedecked traditions that Christmas seems to be about. In a way, it’s the most trenchant commentary on the holiday season since Charlie Brown and his crappy little tree.

Professor Duncan encourages Abed to visit the Cave of Frozen Memories to sort out this crazy Christmas delusion, but Abed is having none of it.

The episode before that, Troy the naïve jock-nerd turned 21 and the gang took him to celebrate “growing up” with his first trip to a bar. But alcohol turned everyone ugly, and Troy realized that growing up meant un-fun stuff like being responsible and driving your incoherent friends home. Amazingly incisive character exploration, all of it.

Hair in your soup

But then there was the much-ballyhooed Dungeons & Dragons episode of last season. As you may be aware, I’m a bit of an enthusiast for D&D, both as a game and as a cultural roadhouse where so many generations and demographics have stopped in for a drink, even a metaphorically tortured one. I had heard that “Community” was embracing a D&D themed episode, and the early buzz was that it was a love letter to the nostalgia of role playing and dice rolling. It started quite promisingly, as the study group tries to buck up the spirits of a seemingly suicidal fellow student by feigning interest in his favorite hobby: D&D. They put on brave faces and try out their first game with their friend, Fat Neil.

Pierce reads ahead in the module. There is no greater sin in a game about storytelling.

So far so good. But Pierce, who creator Dan Harmon once called “the Daffy Duck of the group,” just had to become the antagonist. Often Pierce is the source of derision in the show, and he regularly says and does dumb and detestable things. But in this episode, he takes it to a new level as a D&D villain, both in-game and in-show. He takes umbrage that the group did not invite him to play the game with Neil, and he goes on an episode-long tear replete with such dialog as:

“First of all, gay. Second of all, stupid. And thirdly, why was this a secret? Are you cutting me out of the group?”

“You remembered to let fatty sit in my chair. Get out! You’re stretching it.”

“I’m 66, dick.”

(upon taking Neil’s prize possession in-game) “Maybe I’ll wipe my ass with it. That’s what you get for taking my chair, fatty.”

A lot of people loved this episode. I was so disappointed. I had wanted to share it with others, possibly others who are married to me, and say, “Hey, look at D&D through this very funny lens and see why people like me aren’t totally stupid for getting a kick out of it.” Instead, it was as mean-spirited and nasty as a dracolich with an ochre jelly in his phylactery. (That joke would kill at D&D session.) It wasn’t that the writers did any kind of disservice to role-playing games. In fact, they gave D&D a fair shake, getting legitimate laughs with the tropes, not at them. Instead “Community” did a disservice to its characters and now I don’t recommend that episode to anyone.

But whenever I get down about these characters, they say or do something surprising that reminds me why I tune in. Like “Remedial Chaos Theory,” which re-imagines a story six ways based on which character must go to the door to fetch the pizza delivery. Or “Basic Rocket Science,” in which the gang is trapped in a KFC-sponsored space flight simulator. Or “Modern Warfare,” one the greatest-ever sitcom episodes ever about paintball … and possibly one of the greatest-ever episodes of TV comedy anywhere, anywhen.

Or even just a snippet of awesome banter, like this from last week’s back-from-hiatus episode:

BRITTA: Weddings are like a little girl’s tea parties, except the women are the stuffed animals, the men are making them talk, and they aren’t drinking tea. They’re drinking antiquated gender roles.

JEFF: Somebody tell Britta what an analogy is.

BRITTA: I know what it is. It’s like a thought with another thought’s hat on.

See what I mean?

So hooray for being back, “Community.” I await more laughs of this caliber and beyond. May I just request that your writers familiarize themselves with Wheaton’s Law?

You know: Don’t Be a Dick.

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Three-Word Review of ‘The Secret World of Arietty’

Ninety-minute haiku.


Captions don’t count: In many ways, “The Secret World of Arietty” is the exact opposite of its Studio Ghibli predecessor, “Ponyo.” Both animated films are visually wondrous, as you’d expect from Hiyao Miyazaki’s studio (motto: “Bet You Ten Bucks You Can’t Notice Every Detail We Hand-Painted Into the Background of Our Movies”). But whereas “Ponyo”’s plot went far over the top (a 7-year-old boy must commit to forever loving his fish-girl friend in order to, you know, save the world from, like, bad magic or something), Arietty’s action is almost smaller than the characters who carry it out. The entire story can almost be expressed in the stillness of a tiny haiku: "Sick boy rests in bed/Espies tiny Borrowers/Must they now move? Yes." I realize that kind of smallness is exactly what Miyazaki and Co. intend, and many reviewers find it precious. Honestly, my kids and I found it a little *too* small. It’s not like I can’t appreciate such quiet, languid storytelling. I even prefer the inertia of this movie to the equally small “My Neighbor Totoro,” a movie I generally liked. (Haiku plot: "Girls see camphor tree/Lazy nature gods live there!/Where's Mei? Cat finds her.") It’s just that I’m a bit picky about my perfect balance for a Miyazaki, the right blend of arresting visuals, grand action and show-me-something story. Guess it’s time to go watch “Princess Mononoke” again.

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Escape from Gen Con 2011: How the hunted became the hunter

Oh, Gen Con 2011. Even when you were sending man-eating trolls to devour me, I still had a crazy-glad time playing, testing and sneak-peeking every game on the planet. So successful was I at wringing the life out of every waking moment for four days straight, that in the end it was I who devoured you.

It’s becoming an almost annual event for me, this trip to Indianapolis for the self-proclaimed “Best Four Days in Gaming.” I finally feel like I’m starting to figure out how to “do” this convention, and it begins and ends with meticulous pre-planning. I scoured game-related sites for weeks in advance to suss out what new games were making their debut, where the new hotness would be (all the better for circling it on the two-page convention floor map), and how to schedule my time (and allotment of event tickets) to play every game I could handle.

Here’s the list of What I Very Much Liked at this convention. If you’re not a gamer, or cannot appreciate the thrill of a box full of dice, board-backed maps, plastic Nazis and miniature Martians, I pity you. Still, you would be forced to admit, the visuals to be enjoyed at a fest like this are a fascinating feast for even the least nerdly among us.

Behold, my Post-Mortem Hot List:

1. Eye Candy

Even if you never roll one die, you can still meet your fun quotient at Gen Con by taking in all manner of amazing wares, displays and yes, costumes. For example, the guys at Dwarven Forge always roll out a gorgeous display of modular resin bits for constructing 3D maps for miniatures games:

Their dungeon corridors go on forever, and include whimsical surprises like the white-robed adventurer in the lower right corner of this picture who seems to have gotten lost while picking up some power converters from Tosche Station.

There’s also a blue million expertly painted miniatures on display:

I wish I had taken a photo of one where a sorcerer was reading from a scroll; the scroll itself glowed blue, and it cast a blue glow on the magician’s face and clothes, all the work of a deft paintbrush. This all comes from independent artists competing for prizes and Nerd Immortality.

When you’re through painting your miniatures, why not turn them loose on a medieval Oktoberfest in a village of solid resin buildings?

This beauteous display comes from the righteous craftsmen of the Miniature Building Authority, and as you can see, new housing starts are not cheap in a fantasy world either:

For your money, at least, you get a Gandalf-topped tower whose every floor is a discrete component. All the better for slashing your way to the top one stair at a time.

When you’re bored with the exhibition hall, you can kill some time building a house of cards in the name of charity. It’s Cardhalla, a fund-raising event that lets attendees turn ubiquitous, superfluous Magic the Gathering cards into grand structures:

At the end of the convention, charitable types bid on the opportunity to throw coins at the cardstock city and send it tumbling.

It seemed like the new game Leviathans was everywhere at this convention. I had arrived too late to play my scheduled demo of this flying steampunk battleships game, but I had plenty of time to enjoy the oversized models that, come on, are just too cool, whether or not the game is any good:

Also, giant drow warriors:

This guy is the famous Drizzt, who my son and I are just now discovering as we read the first of R.A. Salvatore’s many, many sword-and-sorcery tales.

There was so much, much more of this kind of visual feasting, it would explode the Internet to try and catalog it all.

2. Bespoke Goods, Tailor-Made on Site

Gen Con put a special emphasis on start-ups this year, and Entrepreneur’s Alley is where I ran across the nerdy stylings of Three Geeks and a Needle. I happened to be looking for an extra large dice bag to do blind drawings of tiles for the game Carcassone. When I explained to one of the titular geeks that I was looking for a bag big enough to draw tiles, she said, “Sort of like Carcassone?” Ah, yes, I should have known, my fellow Geeks would know what I was talking about. They had nothing in stock, however, for the size I wanted, and I nearly left in disappointment, when I was told, “We could make one for you. It could be done by tomorrow.” Indeed, the Geeks had their sewing machine in the booth, and after doing some hands-breadth guesstimating and selecting from their available fabrics, we settled on my custom design. When I arrived the next day, I was just in time to see these final touches being sewn into my brand new tile bag. (The Geeks apologized that it wasn’t quite done, but I insisted that getting to see my product leaving the assembly line was more than worth the slight wait.)

3. Games for the Sitting and the Savoring

This year I figured out how to use the event calendar at the Gen Con site to do more than just look at people playing games. With proper planning, I could be one of them! These game events are more than demos, they are complete play-throughs, and often take two or three hours to complete. They require careful planning if you want to sample them. One highlight was getting to play Defenders of the Realm — the guy running the game turned out to be the designer himself, the industry legend Richard Launius. Defenders is a fun and innovative cooperative game on its own; we players had a particularly great time because we could pick Richard’s brain about why he made certain design decisions. I’ll be buying this game as soon as my little Defenders are a couple of years older and a bit more worthy of the Realm.

Like a dummy I didn’t take a picture of the game in progress or of Richard, but I did manage to squeeze off a quick snap when my handsome, arrow-flinging ranger managed to kill Gorgutt, the dreaded orc general, and became … wait for it … the Orc Slayer!

Later that day, I sampled a new game called Deadwood from Fantasy Flight Games. This seemingly light little game had a surprising amount of depth. Players add buildings to a burgeoning Wild West town, sending in the cowboys from their ranches to sling guns, wreak havoc and jockey for position until the railroad finally arrives.

I enjoyed the ease of getting started and the simplicity of the decisions (which is ideal for my kids) and the longer we played I realized that if you choose to really puzzle through your choices, you could be rewarded by deeper analysis, too. This is perfect for my family demographic, and I brought a copy of this one home.

After a little deliberation, I tried another Fantasy Flight offering, the new Lord of the Rings: The Card Game:

I almost steered clear because the LOTR theme is pretty heavily milked in games, up to and including another Tolkien’d card game just a few years ago. But here’s a crucial difference: That old game was a collectible card game, which is the code word that means you can purchase box after box after box of randomized cards, and still never find the one Ultra-Rare Frodo you really needed to make a killer Hobbit deck, or whatever. I have zero interest in such frustrating money-sinks.

But this version’s a living card game, which means (apparently) when you buy a box, everyone gets the same thing. There are no mega-rares, no coveted card to chase. Plus it is a cooperative-style game that features the capability of solo play, and that suits the temperment of my house.

After our sample game, my review is that I think I like it — and may like it more on future plays — but it is pretty much the opposite of the Deadwood game I played right before it: not easy to pick up and run with, not easy to teach (except to other regular card gamers, it seems), and not easy to make a quick decision. For learning curve reasons alone, I’ll wait to buy this one.

A surprising dud turned out to have a surprising up-side. My final play of my first night was Cosmic Encounter, a classic game that has been printed and reprinted for the better part of 30 years. My favorite games podcast (The Dice Tower hosted by a where-does-he-find-the-time gamer named Tom Vasel) recenty ranked Cosmic Encounter the No. 1 game of its annual All-Time Best list, so I knew I wanted to give it a go.

How did I like it? The game ended before it got to my turn. No kidding. I was playing an alien race called the Observer, and I was the seventh of seven players; the game ended after the fifth player’s turn. Gameplay-wise, I sort of enjoyed it, because even though I never got to my own turn, I had plenty to do on others’ turns; the game is primarily an alliance-building and alliance-shattering exercise as each active player seeks the aid of others to attack or defend various planets. But before this table of newbies knew what it was doing, we had let a guy build an amazing lead that could not be stopped, and that, well, was a bit of a turnoff.

But here’s the up-side. The next day I’m walking the convention floor and who should walk past me but Dice Tower host Tom Vasel. I accost him and he’s generous enough to stop his purposeful stride and greet me. Immediately I put him on the spot about my deflating experience with his No. 1 game. He laughed and put the blame on our game tutor, who failed to show us how to put the brakes on the eventual winner. He implored me to give it another try, and I agreed I would. Nice guy.

Tom also gave me a ribbon to affix to my convention badge that advertised the Jack Vasel Memorial Fund. Tom set up the fund to help gamers in need, and it’s named after his infant son who was born prematurely and died earlier this year. I wore the ribbon proudly, and you can see it in the photo at the bottom of this post.

4. Games for the Breezing By

I also played a lot of walk-up-to-the-table demos of games. These quick-hit demos are sometimes harder to get into because there is no schedule; if you don’t get lucky by walking up to an empty seat, you must either wait 10-15 minutes for the current players to cycle out, or you watch over their shoulders as they get the quick overview.

My absolute favorite of these was this behemoth:

No, not that guy, the box — Fortune and Glory: The Cliffhanger Game — which is stuffed to the gills with plastic miniatures, dice and pretty, pretty cards. The premise is that you and your fellow players are Indiana-Jones-like adventurers in a 1930s pulp movie, scouring the globe in a race to find valuable artifacts. On your turn, as you press your luck to get closer and closer to your reward — the plunder of a hidden jungle city, for example — you find yourself in movie-like entanglements, such as fist-fights with mobsters or collapsing-wall traps. If you fail at overcoming one of these tasks, you are put into a Cliffhanger, and the play passes to the next person. It worked really well with our game demonstrator, pictured above, who spun our unfolding story like he was a cinematic voice-over.

Once when I (that is to say, my character: Jake Zane, Flying Ace) was investigating the Himalayas, I found myself in a boat chase with villains on my tail. (Why a boat chase in the Himalyas? Because games, that’s why!) When I failed the dice-rolling to shake these boat-borne bad guys, my Boat Chase card was flipped over to its “Cliffhanger” side, which read: “Waterfall!” Our demonstrator handled it beautifully: “As Jake Zane watches the bow of his boat plunge over the edge of the waterfall, the camera cuts away to reclusive novelist Alexander Cartwright and his quest deep inside the hidden city…”

Jake Zane eventually died trying to infiltrate a Nazi-filled zeppelin. Yeah, that’s the recipe for a great game. It costs — coughcough — 100 bones, so I’ll have to save up before I can bring this beauty home.

Apparently the game Quarriors was burning up the buzz charts, judging by the throngs of people huddled around the half-dozen-or-so tables to get a demo of this “dice-building” game:

I generally enjoyed the act of rolling fistfuls of dice (and adding to those handfuls by buying increasingly powerful dice from a common pool), but decided its gameplay and theme were not really a match for my house, and sighed in relief as I saved myself 40 bucks.

I’m a BIG FAN of Plaid Hat Games, having discovered them at last year’s Gen Con and going a little coocoo for their game Summoner Wars. This year they were demoing Dungeon Run, a tile-laying dungeon-crawler set in the Summoner Wars universe. I tried to turn up my nose at a common dungeon crawl (I mean how many board games have mined that theme?) but damned if I didn’t fall for this one. Quick, fun play, melded with equal parts cooperation and screwage between players. Dungeon Run will come home to me as soon as it’s released. Oh, and I picked up the Summoner Wars Master Set, which has six new armies for this zippy, clever, all-awesome-all-the-time, two-player card brawl.

And I’d be remiss if I didn’t mention Hey, That’s My Fish, the game with the worst name (sounds like it came straight out of a Target game aisle, from next to soulless corporate games with names like Grab That Pickle or Don’t Step in the Doo Doo!). HTMF is actually a brilliant little kid’s game of maneuvering and blocking, and Fantasy Flight had a miniature version for $14. HEY GAME INDUSTRY: If all your best children’s games, beginner games and gateway games were in affordable, portable packages like this, not only could more dads bring back souvenirs for their kids, but we could grow the hobby as a whole to the point where I would not have to drive to the middle of Indiana to meet other people who love games as much as I do. That’s free advice; you can use that.

All in all, Gen Con, you served up a delicious buffet of gaming entrees, and I gobbled it up. If I had a time machine, I’d totally go back and relieve this convention again. Oh, wait a second. I do!:


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Rejection Week: Bottom banana plays second fiddle

In 2009, DC Comics hit me with a surprise. Wednesday Comics was a serialized newsprint comics broadsheet that hit stands once a week for 12 weeks. I blogged giddily about the joy I took consuming it, and even had my son take a picture of me reading it, just to demonstrate its scope:

I want to apologize right now to DC for wearing a Captain America shirt for this shoot.

Wednesday Comics was a real gamble on the part of DC. It resurrected serialized storytelling from the era when newspapers had comics of substance, and it did it with an investment in A-list talent. The whole project is so daring, I decide I want in. And I want to do it daring style. I learn that the whole shebang is the brainchild of DC art director Mark Chiarello, and I know just what I want to pitch him. In my mind, Wednesday Comics is so awesome, it will surely spawn a sequel, and I think that sequel should star Detective Chimp.

Um, that would be D-list comics celebrity Detective Chimp. He’s, you know, a chimp. And he solves mysteries. Because he’s, like, a detective. It’s all very comics-logic, and if you’re not on board with that description, then, brother, I’m not sure you’re at the right blog.

You’ll notice that the original Wednesday Comics unfurls into a broadsheet equivalent to eight pages of content. I reason that I can win Chiarello over if I combine my story pitch with a mock-up of an actual issue of Wednesday Comics. Do I know that there will be a sequel to this project? No. Am I choosing a marketable character? No. Am I approaching the right guy to launch my future career as a comics writer? Considering he’s an art director, probably not.

But if you can’t believe in something stupid, ill-conceived, star-crossed and wholly unlikely, what can you believe in?

So I did it. Exactly what I said up there above, I did that. I made the mock-up. I filled it with chimp jokes. I fashioned a mock comic strip using stick figures … including a stick figure chimp … wearing a deer stalker. I consulted with the staff at Blick’s for the ideal paper and pens to execute my vision. I practiced the ideal fold, and brainstormed ways to fill it with the right content.

And this is what came out:

See how the front and back covers perfectly mimic the real thing? I'm banking here on the "just so crazy it might work" school of logic.

Just like an issue of Wednesday Comics, there's an ad inside the first fold. My ad happens to be for the Detective Chimp Agency, rather than a Kia Soul or Robot Chicken as in the source material.

Unfurled now in all its glory, you can see the giant cover letter on the left, and the giant meta-comic on the right in which Det. Chimp and his assistant, Batson, solve the mystery of who should write his comic advenures. J. Drew Scott of course! (You get that Batson-is-Watson joke, right? That's Billy Batson, the shazam-shouting Captain Marvel who's assisting Chimp. Oh, man this thing works on SO many levels.) Note the use of an original word-math puzzle in the lower center, which I created to tease how I thought Wednesday Comics could go even further into its newspaper roots. Add pencil puzzles!

Once you build a mock broadsheet comic of those proportions, you can’t just mail it. You’ve got to keep the sizzle sizzlin’ on your comix fajita. After repeat visits to my local Paper Source, where the staff soon began to think I was just nuts, I pieced together the knowledge I needed to fashion a crude portfolio to house my creation:

Yes, they had just the right brand of monkey-themed bookcloth.

The mock-up tucked neatly into the custom protective corners (cut from banana-colored envelopes. On the right I pasted a quick salutation and an offer to meet with Mr. Chiarello at the upcoming Chicago Comic-Con.

Well, once I had gone this far, it seemed cruel just to shove this into a UPS sleeve and sling it into a busy editor’s in-box. No, I knew I wanted my submission to be seen on his desk — not just on his desk, but from the very minute it entered the DC offices in NYC. All hail the Internet, which connected me to a Manhattan gift shop that specialized in custom baskets. The proprietress seemed amused by my tale and I could tell I got her invested in my quixotic quest; she had become a Sancho Panza of simian seduction, as she and began to envision a basket loaded with bananas and monkey-themed nonsense. Here’s the photo she sent me just before delivering the payload to the DC headquarters:

Nuts, right? I mean, totally bonkers that I took this stupid little idea this far, and turned it into a Carmen Miranda halftime show. You can feel the scrappy, I’m-gonna-make-it-after-all, against-the-odds vibe here, right?

But as you know, it’s Rejection Week, and I haven’t retired early to the Caymans with my fat wages garnered as a hot comix provocateur. This story must get the Old Yeller treatment.

I did hear from Chiarello, at least, and he was very gracious. He thanked me for the basket, swearing that I didn’t have to try so hard next time. (Read: Please stop scaring us with your crazy.) He assured me that if there were going to be a Wednesday Comics 2, it would probably still be using A-list talent (and that he even had some names in mind for a Detective Chimp concept he had already been noodling). He did agreed to meet me at the Comic-Con, which is probably the best outcome I should have hoped for. We have stayed in touch from time to time, so who can say: Perhaps this rejection is the very long, drawn-out, needlessly fruit-infused beginning of an acceptance one day.

And when that day comes, we’ll all have plenty of Vitamin A and potassium.

Follow ‘Em All!
Rejection Week Day One
Rejection Week Day Two
Rejection Week Day Three
Rejection Week Day Four
(Rejection Week Day Five)

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Rejection Week: Life outside the group

In 2009, I saw an ad for a Groupon editor. At the time, working at Groupon seemed like a risky prospect; I had already worked at start-ups and been laid off by every one of ’em. Still, it seemed like a rare opportunity, and I applied.

But I didn’t just send in my resume and cover letter. That’s the kind of prosaic, back-water tactic championed by the remnants of Generation X. (As I later learned, it is probably also the tactic that still works).

Nevertheless, I decided to tackle this thing by going full-on Millenial. Show them that I knew how to roll in this new anything-goes economy. So I submitted a sort of post-modern cover letter. I did a screen grab of a Groupon ad, and made myself the product.

Considering that I never heard back from this – not even an appreciative, “Very amusing, but no thanks” – I’m wondering if I should have positioned myself as a product worth more than $40.

Follow ‘Em All!
Rejection Week Day One
Rejection Week Day Two
Rejection Week Day Three
(Rejection Week Day Four)
Rejection Week Day Five


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Rejection Week: Trains to (literally) nowhere

Next up in my week of failure: My non-starter career as a map designer.

So, I like me some board games. A big welcome one in my house is Ticket to Ride, which is fun for people who are not big-time gamers (like most of the people I know, am related to, and live with).

TtR, as the cool kids call it, is a “route building” game, where players collect matching sets of cards to claim lengths of train track, thus connecting cities on a U.S. map and earning points. It’s a popular and influential game in the industry; it’s easy to play, with just enough decision making that it’s one of the pillars of the modern gaming era for the way it widened the appeal of board games to more and more casual players. It has spawned variants with European and Switzerland maps, so clearly it has a broad reach. My family likes this one, and I was content to play it and nothing more.

First edition map courtesy BoardGameGeek.com

And then its publisher, a company called Days of Wonder, announced an open contest to create a map. The winner would get his custom map included in a planned map set, as well as a cool 10 grand in his pocket. Even without the money, I’m pretty sure this was going to be a hotly contested contest, because gamers are people with big ideas, and there’s not a one of us who doesn’t think he can draw up an awesome map for a game like this.

And so I did. I took it seriously. I daydreamed, I doodled, I output, I playtested. As I told my wife: “I don’t have a reasonable expectation of winning; but I have a reasonable expectation of being considered.” I entered the contest in April of this year … and I never heard so much as a toot-toot again. If my entry ever achieved the status of considered, it’s cold comfort now.

But you guys, it was gonna be so cool! First I considered the setting: What’s the kind of unique and exotic place one would want to see if you wanted a new Ticket to Ride experience? Historical settings came to mind, like the Old West or maybe the famous roads of ancient Rome. Then I hit upon an idea that I thought was gold (and which I now have assumed everyone else had, too): set the map in a fictional place!

As fun as it would be to imagine Frodo hopping the 3:10 to Mordor in Middle Earth, there remains the little problem of copyright. Which means sticking to fictional works in the public domain. Which covers many (but not all) books before 1923. What realm in those old books is rich enough to support a map of train-linked  locations? Maybe the Oz books by Frank L. Baum … but then I reasoned, why choose just one location? Why not link all of the famous cities of literature in a mythical mishmash? That sounded like fun.

So I developed Ticket to Ride: Library. Entire genres of books would be divided into “countries” separated by mountains and rivers that required tunnels or ferries to link. To support the library theme, I brainstormed for a wide representation of the kinds of sections you’d find in a library, from obvious fictional realms to historical. For this last one, it felt a bit daft to link imaginary lands with real ones, but I settled on historical locations that exuded a bookish quality, from lost cities we can explore only in books (Pompeii and Roanoke Colony) to places best identified with legends and tales (Nottingham and Man in the Iron Mask‘s Chateau d’If).

I spent a full day in the library consulting the Dictionary of Imaginary Places. A great read even when you’re not designing a game.

A fat list of cities in hand, I sat down with some pencils and sketched something out. I used the same distribution of track colors and lengths as the original U.S. map, just to ensure I was starting from a place of balance. Here’s what I came up with.

So I put it to the computer. Using my hack-y Adobe Illustrator skills, I began to plot out this mix-and-match world. I quickly discovered that starting with a gridless sheet of paper was the biggest fiction of all, as I had given myself absolutely no quality control over fitting these pieces and parts together. Many things had to change on the fly, all while maintaining a playable balance of route lengths and colors.

When I was ready, I had Kinko’s output this map on 30 x 20 poster paper. Now we were working with a map at 100% of size, and it was time to playtest.

Handmade destination cards, with bitty maps so you can find what you need to connect. There's somethng diabolical about linking Mr. Toad and Dr. Moreau.

After dutiful testing, I recognized there were some rough patches. Some areas of the maps had too many long routes, and there weren’t enough short routes or “work arounds” for blockades by other players. I went back and played with it some more. Here’s where I ended before finally determining this map was not going to get called up to the big leagues:

Note how you need to build tunnels to places like Atlantis and King Solomon's Mines; meanwhile the differences between some genres are so steep (Juvenile and History, for instance), they are divided by mountains that must be tunneled through. Tunnel rules are borrowed from the Ticket to Ride: Europe.

By now, I renamed the game Ticket to Ride: Athenaeum, because I wanted to make it feel a bit more like a game, a little more playful. Athenaeum connotes an entire temple of learning (yet doesn’t sound quite so dry as that). I envisioned a game supplement that would act as a primer for the place-name origins, some of which are kind of obscure. (Did you know the “Cold Lairs,” are where the monkeys took the kidnapped Mowgli in The Jungle Book? What a sad-sounding place for such a primo Louis Prima tune.)

Here’s how I described it in the official entry (click to make readable):

I even suggested this game could licensed to a bookseller like Powell’s or B&N. “Consider the possibilities,” I wrote, “of TtR: Tattered Cover, or even TtR: Audible!”

According to contest rules, my entry had to fly forth without the actual map. If I could sell it on the entry form, they’d ask to see the rest. So to ensure it got opened and regarded, I gave it a snazzy jacket to grab the intern’s attention as he plodded through the buckets of mail:

Note the "Read or Die" tattoo design from the novelty book "The Illustrated Librarian: 12 Temporary Tattoos for Librarians and Booklovers" from Accoutrements.

The gaming masses may never be able to play my version, but at least I have my own little home grown kit I can make my children play any time I want. “All aboard, kids! Daddy’s got to make use of his investment of the time and money that went into his failed game design!”

Follow ‘Em All!
Rejection Week Day One
Rejection Week Day Two
(Rejection Week Day Three)
Rejection Week Day Four
Rejection Week Day Five


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Rejection Week: World traveler stinks it up

In 2001, I joined my wife on an adventurous business trip to Germany and Austria. It was adventurous less for our adventure and more for who joined us: our 1-year-old son. He was an active dude, who quickly got to know everyone on the plane as he ran up and down the aisles greeting people. Of course, whether ascending or descending, the plane is almost always at a pitch, and while running downhill, Oldest Boy would really get to motoring, up to and past the point of falling.

Just a couple of good looking guys, out for a cruise in Kitzbuhl. "How you doin', ladies?"

It was exhausting, and all three of us slept for 14 hours once we bedded down in our Garmisch-Partenkirchen inn at the day’s end.

In any event, when we returned, I felt I had a singular look inside the travails of traveling with kids. It was no cakewalk, but it could be done, and I had insider information. I knew people who knew people at the Chicago Sun Times, so I wrote up my first big travelogue and hoped to make a sale. I must have botched the initial impression, because even though I thought this was pretty good, I was politely declined.

There went my career as a travel writer. Perhaps I would have been miserable … though I’m looking for a downside to travel writing and I just can’t find one.

Diaper Rush

When traveling with baby, don’t forget the simplest rules of planning

By Andrew Scott

Of all the triumphant sights in Germany—Hitler’s Alpine aerie, Ludwig’s mad castle, the basilica of the beer-brewing Benedictines in Ettal—none was sweeter than my wife pressing a package of diapers to the window of a Munich gas station.

I breathed a sigh of relief when I saw it…a stinky, stinky sigh of relief, since my 1-year-old son’s current (and last remaining) diaper had filled the car with more than the air of desperation, if you know what I mean. This station was truly our last hope for finding a fresh nappy in, apparently, all of Germany.

It was a simple mistake. Between the diaper bag supply and the suitcase stash, we miscounted our inventory, just before my boy’s pants went atomic. No diapers? No problem—if you have the ubiquitous American retail system at your service. But shopping in Germany is a weisswurst of a different color.

We were just checking into our hotel in Munich when we made our unpleasant discovery. Where, we asked the front desk clerk, is the nearest grocery store? She provided the directions, but pointed out a small detail as we turn away:

“But today is Saturday.”

Turns out this wasn’t such a small detail after all. All stores—and that meant all stores—closed at 5:00 on Saturdays. We had missed last call by an hour. Worse still, those same stores remained closed on Sundays. And, of course, the kicker: Monday was Pfingstmontag, or Pentecost Monday, a national holiday. In America, of course, it’s inconceivable to imagine a thing that cannot be bought at any hour of any day, especially something as essential as a disposable poop catcher for your infant. But here in Germany, we were looking another 60 hours of diaperlessness. What was next: Ringing doorbells?

But then another clerk offered this crazy idea: “Well, there is that filling station that has a store. It might be open.”

Really? Gas station convenience stores are a novelty in Bavaria? With a son who was growing increasingly vocal about the situation in his drawers, we drove 15 frantic minutes to an unassuming little box of a gas station. When my wife held that package of “Fixies” brand disposables against the window, it felt like opening day of Oktoberfest.

On the whole, our first real trip with baby was an amazing success, despite the litany of crises, averted catastrophes and near misses. Because we had planned obsessively for this before we left, we never hit total misery even when the wheels came off our wagon. Here is a short list of ideas—both practical and philosophical—that we gleaned for other parents making their first-time long distance leap:

* Be patient. Travel is never going be the same way for you now. Admit it. Move on.

* Expect that not you will enjoy everything the way you want. On more than one walking tour of a gold-gilded palace, I hung back from our tour groups to minimize the distraction of a fussy baby. Granted, this was a small mercy on some of the stuffier palatial tours—but I accepted this eventuality before I even bought my ticket.

* The umbrella stroller is magic. An umbrella stroller whisks baby from car to terminal to gate, a walk of approximately 20,000 leagues in most airports. Then, right before boarding it collapses into a neat tube that most flight attendants are happy to store special for you. (We managed to get some seats backing up to bulkheads, so the stroller could be tucked right behind us.) Don’t spend more than $50 on one of these; the more geegaws they have, the clunkier they are. We went bare bones and were never sad.

* Back carriers are essential—but not benign. Umbrella strollers are suited for shorter distances over smoother terrain, which does nothing for a day in Salzburg’s Old Town district or the rocky paths above the Eagle’s Nest. Instead, we relied on the back carrier. Sure, it was bulkier than soft pouches or slings, but the extra structure, when properly adjusted, provided superior support for long days on foot. My back ached at the end every day, but less than any other option, I’m convinced. Plus, it elevated my son above my head, giving him a better view (and keeping his grabby hands away from counters and tables). When it came time to eat, our carrier could stand upright next to the table, a helpful feature for the many, many times restaurants came up empty on boosters and high chairs. Speaking of which…

* Go fearlessly. Few Germans seemed to take their kinder out to eat at restaurants. (Yet, strangely, dogs were welcome everywhere.) We took our baby anyway, and discovered that even though we sometimes felt conspicuous and out of place, we were just as often received with warmth by servers and locals who admired our bravery and our son’s spirit. Having our son along made new cultural connections possible.

* Take few toys—but make ’em good. We didn’t want to haul a daycare’s worth of toys across Europe. To keep our son occupied in the car, we selected one manageable chunk of plastic that had a bunch of manipulation points—clicking, whirring, popping up, snapping down, tinny music and a poorly digitized voice chip. Even if the incessant tinkling and tootling from the back seat bordered on a violation of the Geneva Convention, it kept him occupied on sometimes lengthy drives.

* Count those diapers. At least once a day. And as a last line of defense, keep one spare tucked in an outer pocket of a suitcase. You just never know.

Follow ‘Em All!
Rejection Week Day One
(Rejection Week Day Two)
Rejection Week Day Three
Rejection Week Day Four
Rejection Week Day Five

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Rejection Week: A goodbye to my greeting cards

Welcome to Rejection Week, an examination of just a few things I have created that have been rejected, denied, passed over and outright dissed. My list of misses is much longer than my list of hits, and sometimes I think there’s more value in reflecting on what didn’t work rather than what did.

Also, there’s a completely self-serving aspect, too: Many of the things I’ve created I really liked, and if no one will ever see them, then they die little deaths on my shelf. So yes, I will only be sharing things that I am at least a little proud of.

We open with a series of greeting cards I made in 2009 as part of Hallmark’s regular open contests for amateurs. Though I didn’t necessarily expect Hallmark to use my art, I worked as hard as I could to make some of these look pretty. I believe my style could only be lumped generously in what is called “naive art,” which is a pretentious way of saying “doodler.” As I recall, I did the first two for a basic birthday challenge, and then another series as a sort of “what can you do” sampler aimed directly at Shoebox.

In each case, I got a confirmation e-mail that my submissions had been received. And that was all.

What I learned

I learned that coming up with pithy, bawdy, zippy jokes for a greeting card is not the same as cracking jokes in the back of an office meeting or civics classroom. I was unemployed when attempting these, and I think it would have been easier if I had been surrounded at the time by my usual cadre of funny co-workers. Just being around smarties and smart alecks raises the game of creative types. I’m especially susceptible; retorts and repartee are an elixir for inspiration. (Which seems self-evident on the Shoebox blog; that sounds like a supportively goofy office for generating regular ha-ha.) I could have used that boost when staring at the drawing board for these.

Follow ‘Em All!
(Rejection Week Day One)
Rejection Week Day Two
Rejection Week Day Three
Rejection Week Day Four
Rejection Week Day Five

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Three-Word Review of ‘Cars 2’

Lasseter’s blind spot.

Captions don't count: The original “Cars” inspired my very first Three-Word Review, as I believed I could sum up its entirety to a co-worker by saying, “Beautiful but boring.” And here we are at the sequel, which is even more beautiful and – through explosions, spy gadgets and incessant jeopardy – somehow even more boring. “Cars 2” delivers cartloads of James Bond blah-bah and stand-by-your-friends gabbity gab, and somewhere near the end I’m waving my hand in the universal “speed it up” signal, because I’m tired of driving down this highway on a flat tire. Just end it already! What director John Lasseter thought was an exciting, twisty romp is actually unintelligible and self-indulgent and sadly, strangely weak. And it stings to say it, because this is Pixar we’re talking about, and they should know better. Lasseter, more than anyone, knows story. As a producer and director and creative leader at Pixar since Day One, he has overseen some of the most powerful movies, animated or otherwise, ever created. Under his hand, Pixar has become synonymous with top quality storytelling. So what happened here? Reportedly, the “Cars” concept is Lasseter’s baby, a personal project bubbled up from his primal love of rolling vehicles. That childlike infatuation must block all sense and sensibility when making judgment calls about his talking-car dream. He indulged his whims, damn the torpedoes – those torpedoes being “original story” and “meaningful character” and “coherent plot,” all of which hit home and sank this leaky ship. But take heart: The teaser trailer for next summer’s Pixar outing, a Scottish fairy tale called “Brave,” came out this week, and in 60 seconds hope returns that Pixar never really lost its way. It can be excused an off year every couple of decades.




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Three-Word Review of ‘Kung Fu Panda 2’


Stronger than bamboo.

Captions don’t count: KFP2 treads boldly into territory that usually belongs only to Pixar. This soulful film swings confidently between heft and lightness, humor and pathos, which until now has been only Pixar’s playground. I’ve blogged here before about how the original KFP out-Pixar’ed Pixar that year and sent Wall-E to the rust bin of history. I’ve also been clear that I didn’t care about this sequel, because the original did its job so well … and since when has a sequel to a children’s franchise been anything other than a mediocre cash-grab anyway? Since KFP2, that’s when. Featuring fewer kung fu kicks, but more meaning, this movie also deals in one of my favorite themes: Self-determination and the notion that destiny is not in charge of you – YOU are. Panda Po comes into his own as a fully fleshed out personality, a magic combination of self-confidence and self-deprecation, of gravitas and goofiness. This is not just a great sequel, it’s a great movie.

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