Monthly Archives: December 2009

The two greatest things I saw this Christmas

“Compatible with Wü” — Oldest Boy got Lego Rock Band and a cheap third-party guitar. The guitar maker must not have had the authority to use the name Wii, but this solution had us in hysterics on Christmas morn. (Also, the box reads “When play Guitar Hero 3 games, the glissandi will no function due to the game limit.” I should probably be grateful they didn’t spell due “do“.)

On the trip between Cincinnati and Chicago, we also got to witness Windmills in the Mist.

This is the barest tip of the massive Meadow Lake Wind Farm in White County, Indiana, just north of Lafayette. We came upon it first at night, and were baffled by the rows and rows of red lights blinking in unison. Faint back-lighting from a nearby town just barely allowed us to see the outlines of those massive blades. It was an awe-inspiring sight.

Just look at these beauties (as seen on the Very Blustery Day we passed them on the way home):

The effect of the rows upon rows (totaling 121, apparently) of windmills was lost amid the snowstorm, but it gave me goosebumps nonetheless.

According to the Horizon Wind corporate site:

Meadow Lake has an installed capacity of 200 megawatts – enough to power approximately 60,000 average Indiana homes with clean energy each year. … The electricity generated by the wind farm is sold into the regional wholesale market. The associated energy credits are used by businesses and organizations to comply with state renewable energy mandates or to voluntarily reduce the environmental impact of their operations.

Well, I say, “Wü hü.”

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No, the Golden Globes did not snub ‘Star Trek’

Since the Golden Globe nominees were announced last week, I’ve seen a number of references to J.J. Abrams’  getting “snubbed” in the best director category for his “Star Trek” reboot — even that it should have gotten a “best picture” nom.

Now, I’m a big J.J. fan. His “Alias” and “Lost” shows are high-water marks in popular culture. I even sort of enjoyed his “Mission Impossible” installment (marred only by his penchant for the ol’ “perfect-disguise face swapping” trope). And I’m even a reasonably big Trek fan. But this movie was not the finest hour for either.

“Star Trek” is undeniably a brilliant reboot, which makes it a notable accomplishment all on its own. It manged to make this creaky old franchise relevant again, by introducing characters with depth and a sense of urgency about them. Chris Pine as Capt. Kirk is one of those surprise performances that make you rethink the character you know so well; outside of Trek circles (and heck, even inside some) Kirk had become kind of synonymous with buffoonish swagger and scenery chewing. Pine makes him crackle, to use a noxious reviewer word.

If anything, J.J. and his writers — Roberto Orci and Alex Kurtzman — deserved Globes, even Oscars, for the category “Best Character Development in an Overstuffed Ensemble.” Movie-makers should take notes on how the entire herd of A- and B-list Trek characters makes an appearance and has something relevant to do. Nobody is window dressing. No character is on screen simply as part of a fanboy checklist. That alone is a rare and satisying outcome of this reboot.

Tension stayed high throughout, as well. Someone was always in deep doodoo, and it never felt tiresome. (I’m not sure how they accomplished this. When Something Perilous is always On The Verge of Happening, it can make the story feel cheap and manipulative, but I found the constant jeopardy of the crew to be plausible, which makes it enjoyable. Another kudos, you writers.)

While good characters are usually more important than good plot, it’s the plot that sinks this movie’s Globe hopes, in my opinion. The story ball gets dropped squarely on the plot and its vanilla villain. Eric Bana makes the most of the tattooed brooder, Nero, but ultimately he has little evil-doing to do. There’s a time travel element, and a years-of-simmering-revenge element, and even an appearance by Nimoy himself, but none of these things covers up the fact that the plot drivers were directing traffic from the back seat. Given how carefully the characters were developed, I was a bit surprised that the central story felt so casually dashed out.

But maybe that’s the point. Perhaps the evil villain and his dish-served-cold weren’t the central story at all. Maybe J.J. thinks the character coalescence is really the hero’s quest in this film. Maybe if I think of it this way, I’ll enjoy the second viewing a whole lot more than the first.

"Fire everything ... at the Golden Globes committee!"

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Comics for the half-pints: What lights the fires of my little readers

Last time, we learned that comics were good for kids; yet I lamented the aging up of most modern comics and the dearth of really great kid stuff. But that’s just a relative dearth, my friends, and there have been many things that have caught and held the attention of my little ones, even Oldest Boy who (until recently) was a reluctant reader.

Representing readers who are 9, 7, 5 (and 39), here is the Scott family hit parade:

1. Runaways

This series created by writer Brian K. Vaughn and artist Adrian Alphona for Marvel is one of the first books Oldest Son asked for. At 8, he actually finished the first volume and sought out others I own. Though originally sold under Marvel’s “All Ages” line, “Runaways” has since lost that marketing demarcation because the stories and situations do trend a little older (but not too much).

The premise is one of those that’s-just-so-killer ideas that every writer wishes he had: When a group of bored kids discover that their parents are actually supervillains, they run away from home and try to atone for the sins of their fathers (and mothers). Vaughn created compelling characters on such a compelling mission that when he stepped away from writing duties, none other than Joss Whedon himself asked to take over.

Marvel originally made its bank with a comic about a teen superhero (perhaps you’ve heard of Spider-Man?), and “Runaways” honors those roots well with a set of modern kids from 8 to something less than 18. They’re sarcastic, bored, beset by teen ennui and heartache. When they start to get too mopey, a fight breaks out, a bad guy gets stomped, zippy dialog gets zipped, and things trip right along. A reminder: It’s still more a teen book than a kid book, and it may lead down roads you’d rather not walk with your kids. Sex is spoken of obliquely (though canoodling is practiced often), and a few characters are gay. This generally runs below the radar, except for one storyline in volume 7 that features one gay character struggling with an arranged marriage with a member of the opposite sex.

This is no problem for my household. “Runaways” meant reading and reading is good. Here are two Runaways covers that indicated just how much range and anything-goes glee this series is capable of. Is it superhero action? Teen drama? Chick lit? the answer: Yes.

One more piece of evidence. Just take a look at this gorgeous preview from one of the later volumes. With a real economy of image and word, you can figure out all the main characters: who’s lovelorn, who’s a doofus, who’s a leader, who’s a cutie-pie 8-year-old super-strong mutant with a penchant for cosplay kitty hats. These characters have always been characters first, superheroes second, and that’s just good storytelling.

2. Bone

How’s this for a great story:

1. Independent cartoonist self-publishes his own black-and-white fantasy comic.

2. Rather than bankrupting him, as the odds would dictate, the comic gains a loyal following and survives to be collected in 9 thick trade paperback books that sell admirably well for $20 a pop.

3. Years later, mega-publisher Scholastic takes an interest. They colorize the books, shrink them to digest size, cut the price in half, and market them like crazy to kids in stores and book fairs. Popularity goes through the roof.

Everyone should own a few copies of the “Bone” series based on the price-to-value ratio alone, let alone the delicious storytelling for all ages within. The story is part Tolkien-esque fantasy, part Walt Kelly “Pogo” comic strip. (I resisted these books at first because I thought they were a rip-off of my much-loved Pogo comics. Boy was that dumb.) Oldest Boy and I have enjoyed the whole series.

Writer-artist Jeff Smith strikes an incredible balance between fantasy storytelling — dragons, evil rat creatures, talking animals, medieval villages and the rest — with silly Sunday funnies. The hero, an amorphous white blob-thing called Fone Bone, is simultaneously cuter, funnier and deeper than Mickey Mouse himself. You can tell the original comics were self-published because Smith often takes pages to dwell on some small but gorgeous detail, some wee bit of action, or just some leisurely sight gag. Major publishers would never let this kind of fat go untrimmed, but in a “Bone” book, it isn’t fat, it’s luxury.

The story begins very breezy and light: the adorable Bone creatures get lost in a valley beset by evil creatures yet buoyed by funny, charming people destined to greatness. It begins to bog down in later volumes with magical-fueled plotting that makes up its own rules as it goes, but the story remains quite readable, and kids and adults alike find the characters too compelling to put down. They’re just too irresistible. The art is consistently amazing, switching at will between goofy Disney cartoon and breathtaking landscapes. Pages of panels will sometimes employ a movie-like “fixed POV” where the “camera angle” stays the same while small, almost insignificant details change from panel to panel. The effect is like watching a movie at times.

Through no coincidence, Warner Brothers is working on what may be a trilogy of “Bone” movies. Consider that a book that could give you ACTION …

… and BEAUTY …

… is also capable of clever COMEDY:

It should be a lock for a blockbuster.

3. The Incredibles

BOOM! Studios is ignoring conventional wisdon by being a startup company (founded: 2005) with a significant portion of its wares aimed at a kid audience. Thanks to a license with Disney/Pixar, it publishes several familiar character stories, including an “Incredibles” series by EIC and comix legend Mark Waid. “Licensed story” often means “cheap cash grab” or “boring, under-thought plot” but under BOOM! the stories are just as fun and smart as the source material.

You know who loves this? Youngest Daughter. (I’ve already mentioned she’s a sucker for the movie, that wonderful, discriminating little wonder.) BOOM! also released a successful Muppet Show title that (shh!) Youngest Daughter will find in her stocking this year.

4. Tiny Titans

Art Baltazar is responsible for 90% of the cuteness in the galaxy. Just look at his cast pic of the Tiny Titans, the shrimp-sized version of DC’s Teen Titans:

Awww! The Tiny Titans monthly comic is rather uncategorizable. Baltazar’s super-sweet art aims in two directions: at the ankle-biter set, as well as adults who can appreciate the irony and comedy of  turning angsty teens into kindergarten stick figures. The jokes split that difference, too, as one part Bazooka gum wrapper, one part deep inside joke. My boys liked the comic cuteness — it’s Twinkie-sweetness didn’t put them off at all; I think they totally got the humor behind it.

I don’t always get the DC inside jokes, but Baltazar and author Franco (he of the single name) remember their classic Harvey comics well enough that these super-light reads still have more in common with Richie Rich and Capser than a DC Comics superfan panel at Comic Con.

That’s not all

These are just what’s clicked in my house. There is more to choose from out there: the amazing classic Disney comics by Carl Barks still hold up — these are the old Uncle Scrooge adventures to strange lands, and man, they don’t make ’em like that any more. We’ve dabbled in more old stuff like Tintin and Asterix, though the jokes were either a little highfalutin or dated for Oldest Boy to connect with. (We’ll try again in a year.) And heck, even Archie, still exists in all his undead variations:

If you can’t find something to read, it isn’t Archie Comics’ fault. Youngest Daughter maintains a perpetual fascination with Betty & Veronica, though she remains a bit unsure about those oafish Riverdale boys.

The choices are there. Now, what are you planning to buy the little nippers on your Christmas list?

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The childishness of comics, or: Hey, Kids! Comics aren’t just for you any more

A recent University of Illinois study supports what I already knew to be true: Comics are just as useful as books to foster good reading habits in kids.

Here’s my hero, professor Carol Tilley:

… and she says:

“Any book can be good and any book can be bad, to some extent. It’s up to the reader’s personality and intellect. As a whole, comics are just another medium, another genre … If you really consider how the pictures and words work together in consonance to tell a story, you can make the case that comics are just as complex as any other kind of literature.”

This is great news for dads like me who need ways to engage a reluctant reader (or who just, you know, like seeing kids be happy when they read). But it’s no surprise either. Comics are just like any pretty medium that can catch the eye, and pretty things always make children stop and gawk.

There’s just one problem: the variety of comics available for kids is teeny weeny compared to picture books, chapter books, video games and Disney Channel sitcoms.

Where did all the kid stuff go?

If you want to make a comics fan cringe, tell him, “Hey, didja know comics aren’t just for kids anymore?” Yeah, no kidding, pal. Comics haven’t been for kids for about 25 years.

Sure, they used to be. Under the Comics Code Authority (a ’50s era self-censorship stricture the industry foisted upon itself to avoid government regulation), comics were restrained by a preachy, black-and-white morality. The result was pure goofy kids stuff. But those kids who loved it grew up, and their comics followed suit, bringing along murder most foul, torture, rape, pillaging and … social issues. You know, characters could be gay and stuff.

(For posterity’s sake: Note that independent comics have a long history of doing all this and more. But R. Crumb’s butts-and-shrooms fixation of the ’60s and Will Eisner-esque hard-knock biographies of the ’80s were never considered great early-reader material anyway.)

The fact remains, though, that comics are a compelling medium for kids — superhero comics even more so. After all, that kid-to-comic loyalty is what made the industry viable to begin with. Art Spiegleman, the living legend of comics who gave us the Maus graphic novels, recently edited a volume of classic pulp-era comics, and in a recent interview he captures the nostalgia-fueled love comics fan have for their funnybooks:

“Comic books were considered the most disposable ephemera, yet clearly those who grew up with them cherished them,” Spiegelman said. “It seems like some of the most important literature for children in the middle of the 20th century is in these comic books.”

That’s some love, right? Yet comics has precious little to offer its younger readers these days. Why? It’s tough to be a competitive medium when:

A.)  Parents and other media gatekeepers still dismiss you as “disposable ephemera.” That is, until …

B.) … those gatekeepers reconnect with you expecting a nostalgic visit to their youth, but are shocked by the density and adult themes of modern fare.

C.) Comics companies put out “all-ages” books intended for younger readers that wither and get canceled because the market can’t support it. The young readers are out of the habit of reading you!

Not all is lost. My young readers and I have found good comics as more companies and creators get experimental with attracting young eyeballs. Author Michael Chabon (I’ve geeked about him before) has come around to the same way of thinking. In 2004 he gave a fairly famous address at the Eisner comics awards where he lamented, “Children did not abandon comics; comics, in their drive to attain respect and artistic accomplishment, abandoned children. … Now, I think, we have simply lost the habit of telling stories to children.” Strong and cynical, but he’s come around a bit since then;  in a recent interview he said:

Since I gave that talk – entirely coincidentally, I’m sure – tons of cool stuff has emerged. When my kids go to the comic book store … they find all kinds of cool stuff. … Even the Big Two (Marvel and DC), seem to be putting out a fairly consistent line of titles aimed at younger readers. And there’s all kinds of cool independent books as well.

I like his point about how a lifelong love of comics can loop back into the creation of high-quality material:

I think all of the popular media I grew up enjoying were sort of mature mediums in the sense that they were being created by people who had grown up loving the stuff to begin with. You know, that can be a blessing and a curse, and some things can get overly fan-ish and vanish up their own posterior orifices, but it can also be a recipe for really savvy and multi-layered kinds of storytelling.

I agree, and my kids and I have enjoyed some savvy, multi-layered comics for kids. Next post, I’ll illuminate some of our collective favorites. Stay tuned, and keep your Christmas shopping list handy.

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Art of the con II: A second round with my father’s postal oppressors

Recall, if you will, the battle I’ve been waging against the solicitors who deluge my father’s mailbox. My pop, who has slight dementia, falls for conservative causes who write with desperate pleas for money. (“The ACLU is targeting Christians!“; “Barack, show us your birth certificate!“; “The Illegal Immigrant Superhighway is paving the way to a North American Union!“) He has donated just enough to have his name and address smeared around the scamosphere. His mailbox is clogged with like-minded PACs, religious extremists, fearmongers, race-baiters, money-grubbers and other shameless grifters.

In that last post, I reported how my sibs and I responded to all of August’s solicitors by hand, mailing more than 250 responses in all. At the time, I printed and stapled this message inside every return-reply envelope:

“My father has dementia, and would gladly give away the last of his savings to anyone who asked. PLEASE remove him from your mailing list at once and leave him in peace. Since most solicitors send repeated mailings, I’ve noted your address and will be watching.”

Firm but polite. Insistent, whipped up with honey and only a hint of vinegar. On the whole, perfectly reasonable. How did it work? Well, let’s take a look at the first two days of November:

The stack weighed 11 pounds. I repeat: TWO DAYS; ELEVEN POUNDS.

After two weeks, I cut off the mail gathering and replied to everything we had received so far in November. It resulted in 200 responses. TWO HUNDRED RESPONSES.

So this time, I intensified the message we stapled inside:

DECEASED

Please remove [my dad’s name & address] from your mailing lists.

We are keeping track of solicitors and will escalate our complaints unless his name is removed promptly. PLEASE STOP SENDING MAIL. Thank you.

That’s right, I said he was dead. Yeah, I went there. Also note the distinct lack of words like “you jackals” or “bastard blood-suckers.” As with the last round, I noted the names and addresses of each solicitor, marking each of their multiple offenses. Here’s the red label we slapped on the outside:

This is at least the second notice we have sent your organization.

Please remove [my dad] from your mailing list. We WILL contact your Postmaster with a fraud alert if you do not cease.

Ooh! Strong arm! Here’s the thing: In just two weeks’ worth of mail, you would not believe how many of these solicitors sent multiple requests for money. Who has the wontons to be so rude? Here’s who — this list represents any group that sent two or more mailings in that two-week window:

* American Conservative Union (7 mailings in two weeks!)
* American Federation of Senior Citizens (8 mailings! Our winner!)
* Benefit Security Coalition (5 mailings!)
* Christian Voice
* Citizen Outreach
* Citizens United for American Sovereignty
* Conservative Caucus
* Freedom America (5 mailings!)
* Freedom’s Defense Fund
* Liberty Counsel
* Malcolm Wallop (for Frontiers of Freedom)
* Minuteman Project (6 mailings!)
* National Committee Against the U.N. Takeover
* National Council for Survivors
* National Senior Action Council (6 mailings!And I just discovered this group is a subset of the American Federation of Senior Citizens; see above for their staggering contribution to my father’s mailbox!)
* Nevada Republican Party (Why is a Nevada group looking for money in Illinois? Because villifying Harry Reid is so much fun.)
* Political Headquarters 2009
* Renewing American Leadership (Newt Gingrich)
* Safe Borders Coaltion
* State Department Watch
* The 60 Plus Association
* U.S. Border Security Council
* William Russell for Congress (This time, a Pennsylvanian seeking funds in Illinois. I guess John Murtha is a hot-button figure. For somebody.)

While I suspect that many of these groups are fronts, scams, drop-boxes and frauds, it’s possible that some of them truly exist, and truly employ hard-working, well-meaning patriots who only want the best for America. If you know anybody at any of these operations, please share with them my most heartfelt middle finger. I really need them to quit asking my father for money.

By the way, the list above doesn’t even take into account the scads of sweepstakes announcements and prize-claiming notices and “guaranteed share of 10 million dollars” letters my father receives, because I just assume those are postmarked from the Fourth Circle of Dante’s Inferno, and there’s no point trying to appeal to their decency. Perhaps I should pick up a course in Conversational Abyssal at a local community college on the chance I could catch the ear of these cloven-hoofed devils.

If the mail relents even one iota, I’ll report it here. Don’t hold your breath.

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