Saturday, August 30, 2008

Everyone plays video games... even those who don't.

The Webster's New World College Dictionary (Third Edition) I've got sitting on my desk here defines a video game as "any of various games involving images, controlled by players, on a cathode-ray tube or other electronic screen." Perhaps not 100% precise (text-based games don't seem to fit the definition), but close enough.

If you're reading this, I have no doubt that at one point in your life, you have played a video game.

Minesweeper screenshotI think many of us forget that video games aren't just Super Mario Bros. and Final Fantasy. Video games are Solitaire, Minesweeper, Text Twist, Bejeweled, Oregon Trail, and any number of Facebook applications.

Video games are even Scene It? and those stupid "whack the gnome" website ads and that "match the number" game to get one last ball on pinball machines. Plenty of non-gamers play Dance Dance Revolution or Guitar Hero, and more than once I've heard such folks claim that they don't play video games.

Is there an assumption that if you play video games, you're a total addict, or somehow socially inept? Why is it that people who play absolutely no video games other than Madden or Halo (at least, in my experience) are somehow slightly or significantly more socially acceptable than people who play absolutely no video game other than Mario Kart or Soul Calibur? Those in the latter group "play video games," but those in the former group "play Madden" or "play Halo." All of these are still video games, folks, and I'll remind you that Halo is futuristic and has aliens, things that don't always translate into "socially acceptable."

I think it's that video games are still largely viewed as a hobby (one that often implies certain stigmas, I might add), and not as a medium. Video games can certainly be a hobby, but playing a video game doesn't automatically have to apply a stigmatized "gamer" label to you any more than occasionally watching Wheel of Fortune and Jeopardy! with my family should apply a "couch potato" label to me.

Maybe it's that modern video games don't always resemble "traditional" or "classic" games such as Pong, Pac-Man, Tetris, Super Mario Bros., Sonic the Hedgehog, or DOOM. Now that video games are becoming harder and harder to classify as any one genre--"it's a first-person, lawyer-roleplaying racer-shooter"; "it's a real-time, puzzle-platformer, tactical strategy farming simulator"--it's becoming clearer, at least to me, that video games are a medium through which we can express innovative concepts, gripping stories, and whatever else we please.

Painting is a medium, and due to the infinite variety of things a person can paint, saying you like paintings does not necessarily mean that you like portraits of dead people, paintings of fruit baskets, or any other "traditional" or "classic" kinds of paintings. We're at the point where saying you like video games does not necessarily mean that you like platformers like Mario or shoot-'em-ups like Space Invaders. It simply means that you enjoy controlling images on a cathode-ray tube or other electronic screen.

You don't need to be ashamed to say that you play video games, though we might be ashamed of you for some of the games that you play. Simply being a gamer, or even a casual fan of video games, should be no different than liking to read, watch movies, or otherwise experience things through various mediums. It's what you play and how you allow video games to fit in with the rest of your life that should define how others view you, and don't you let others forget it!

All I'm saying is that gamers, just like the comics fans Alex talked about in the previous post, don't always resemble their stereotypes, and that playing video games doesn't need to separate anyone from the mainstream. All of us play or have played games; some people prefer a real football between their hands, some people prefer a controller, and some people like both.

If you're turned off by "traditional" or "classic" video games or gamers in general, I think you'll find that modern games, especially those for the Nintendo Wii, are becoming more and more appealing to people who feel the same way you do about video games. If you're way big into gaming and have trouble relating to people outside your fandom, you might find more connections with them if you start talking about video games as a medium (instead of a hobby/obsession/whatever) for the concepts and content you're passionate about. As for everybody else, you're living proof that people can absolutely love or just kinda enjoy video games and still get along well with gamers and non-gamers alike.

Friday, August 29, 2008

An Introduction to Comics Fandom, Part One

OK, so in trying to figure out a logical starting point for this blog, we figured that it might make sense to provide an introduction of sorts to various factions of geekdom. Now, geekdom certainly isn’t limited to gaming or comics collecting, but those are the two hobbies that the humble proprietors of this blog know the most about. So, to continue on with our Introduction to Fandom Week here at Exfanding Your Horizons, here’s a little segment we’d like to call:

Demystifying Comics Fandom: Honest Answers to Real Questions

What follows are some basic true and false questions pertaining specifically to comics collecting, but, as you’ll see, you can pretty much insert any other geeky hobby into pretty much any of these questions. (I know, it’s sad but true.)

Enjoy!

True or False: All comics fans are unemployed and live in a basement. And they smell.


False! Some are, in fact, allowed to live above ground, amongst other human beings, and some are even capable of acting within the accepted norms of society!

Seriously, though, this is the one stereotype we geeks may never outlive. Comics movies abound, and every studio in Hollywood wants a piece of our favorite writers and artists and the work they create. Yet, here we are, still classified as these socially inept, unkempt, and frankly, smelly, individuals. Personally, I hold down a good job and I shower regularly. And, I played baseball at a Division I college. So, there! I seriously hope this stereotype annoys you as much as it annoys me, because we Fanpeople get a raw deal most times. And, yes, I have now made “Fanpeople” an accepted part of the lexicon.

True or False: “Civilians” are eaten alive at comics conventions.

True! I mean, False! Actually, comics conventions are a totally unique, dare I say beautiful, place where people of like minds can come together and—OK, OK. Sorry. I can’t—I can’t do it. I just can’t do it.

Comics conventions can be as bad as it gets, people. But, and I say this honestly; the next time (or the first time!) you attend a con, go with an open mind, go with a plan in your head, and most importantly, just drop any and all airs of self consciousness you may feel. Now, let me be brutally honest here for a second. When I started in this hobby a few years ago, just going to my LCS (that’s “local comics shop” for you newbies!) made me feel pretty self conscious and aware. I’d hurry inside the door when I got there, grab my books quickly, and try to cover my face when I’d leave, hoping that no one I knew would pass by and discover my shameful, comics loving secret.

I mean, really, I’d heard all the stories about the bridge trolls that dwell in such places, but I have to say; I was quite pleasantly surprised to find that there were only one or two bridge trolls at my LCS, and neither of them was all that harmful. Anyway, back to conventions (or, as we hipsters say “cons”). Now, the problem with cons (see, pretty hip, right?) is the simple fact that, because there are just more people at any given con than there are in an LCS at any time, the proportionate number of bridge trolls increases. BUT, and this is a big, important BUT: the regular human being to bridge troll ratio at any con is going to be somewhere around 5 to 1, so us regular old comics dorks (that’s any of us sans homemade Wolverine claws, by the way) handily outnumber our *ahem* base-of-a-bridge-dwelling brethren.

So, in conclusion, if you’ve never been to a con, just suck it up and go! I promise, there will be something (most likely several things) there that you’ll really enjoy. And you’ll likely want to attend another one. Maybe in another post, we’ll run down the list of some of the different types of cons that are out there. Trust me, from San Diego on down to the smallest independent comics convention, there’s something for everyone.

True or False: Collecting comics makes you fat.

False! Eating incredible amounts of fried cheese while reading comics makes you fat.

True or False: The Internet fans are a microcosm of the entire comics fan base, and their demands must be met to ensure the well being of any given publisher.

As you may have guessed from my subtle sarcasm above, this is 100% False!

Look, Internet fans are typically the most vocal of the comics fan base, and the vitriolic message board posts they leave in their wake are staggering and mind boggling. If you don’t like something, write something that’s better. Or, discuss why you didn’t like something in a civilized fashion. (For any of you vitriolic Internet fans that may have stumbled here accidentally, civilized means “Don’t throw feces at someone. Under any circumstance.”) Just because you (well, not you you, I’m talking about the crazy Internet fan, remember!) didn’t like the latest issue of Batman, it really doesn’t mean that DC Comics should fire everyone involved and start from scratch. Is it frustrating when one’s favorite character is portrayed differently than one would like? Sure. Is it tough to swallow when one’s childhood hero is depicted differently than he or she was in the 1980’s when they were fondly read by a then-10-year-old-but-soon-to-be-crazy-Internet-fan? Uh, I guess it could be.

But these characters have been around for decades. Doing the same thing over and over makes for stale comics. And, methinks, it’s a prelude to certain forms of madness. Characters change. Writers and artists change. Just go with it. And, if you just can’t fathom a Spider-Man without organic web shooters (or with!), or a super model wife (or without!), or a dead (or living!) Gwen Stacy, well then don’t buy the book. It’s your right. But don’t attack the creators for “ruining your childhood” and demand their immediate expulsion from a company. That’s just silly.

So, to recap, Internet fans don’t have very much say in what happens at any publisher, nor should they (typically that’s left up to professionals). Internet fans are a minority of the readership. Granted, they are a VOCAL (and crazy—don’t you dare forget crazy!) minority. But a minority, nonetheless.

That’s all for today’s segment, folks. But, stay tuned for An Introduction to Comics Fandom, Part Two, coming very soon! And be sure not to let this topic stop here! We want to hear from you! What did you think of the post? Are you an angry, raging fanboy and want to punch me in the face? Well, please do so (metaphorically) in the comments!

Thursday, August 28, 2008

Firefly: To know it is to love it

Firefly / Serenity charactersThere are two types of people: those who have never seen Firefly, and those who are irrevocably hooked. If you’ve seen Firefly and aren’t completely enthralled by it, then either you didn’t really see it, or else you are not a person.

Firefly is a 14-episode space Western of sorts created by Joss Whedon (the guy behind Buffy the Vampire Slayer, Angel, and Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog, but you don't need to be a fan of any of those to like Firefly). The show was cancelled after one season in large part because Fox aired the episodes out of order, and the stories from episode to episode are interconnected enough that jumping around completely ruins everything.

The basic premise of the Firefly universe is this: The Earth that we know got used up, and humanity took to the stars in search of new places to live. They terraformed a bunch of planets and got settled; some of the planets are high-tech and densely populated, while others are big balls of dirt with a few rugged settlements here and there, away from the influence of the law.

The show follows the crew of the Firefly-class freighter ship Serenity as they do whatever it takes to make a living, honest or not, and to stay alive against the dangers they encounter and the people who are trying to hunt them down.

A few things that set Firefly apart from other sci-fi shows: You don’t need to know a lick of technical mumbo-jumbo to know what’s going on; half of the characters have no idea what half the stuff is people are talking about, and they get on just fine.

The show isn’t crawling with aliens. You’ll notice that all the characters are human, and on top of their physical makeup, I mean that they are truly human. There are no “bad guys” or “good guys”; everyone has heroic traits and flaws, and even the villains, no matter how evil they may be, have some character trait or some aspect of their history that makes you understand them as more than just people added to the story to cause trouble for the heroes.

Also, though the show is set in the future and often in outer space, and though it features gunfights and barfights and chase scenes and everything that adds zing to a Western, Firefly isn’t a space Western featuring a spaceship crew; it’s a story about real people who just happen to be in a space Western. Whether it’s the internally conflicted captain, the plucky comic relief pilot, the sweet engineer, the mysterious young stowaway, or any of the other crew members, I guarantee that you will find one, if not several, characters that you can relate to and will start caring about as if they were your friends and family.

The characters are highly realistic and interact like real people do, and the universe in which they live is equally realistic. I’m not talking about the plausibility of their technology (though it certainly all sounds reasonable enough), but rather about the feel of the universe. The locations are appropriately pristine or grungy, and everywhere looks like people honestly live there.

Beyond that, you’ll get the sense from the first episode that anything can happen, as it can in real life. I won’t spoil anything, but know going into it that nothing and no one is safe. Most TV shows make you wonder how the characters are going to get out of a tight situation; Firefly makes you wonder if they’re going to get out at all, and the action is that much more intense and you get that much more attached to the characters because of this.

Firefly covers everything: it has action, drama, mystery, suspense, a little splash of horror, romance, philosophy, tragedy, and comedy, and everything is woven together into one incredible experience. The series is easily worth watching multiple times: the abundant humor and some clues about the show’s mysteries are very subtle, and you’ll likely only pick up on them after you know how everything turns out. Sometimes it’s almost like watching a different show, because you can focus less on “are they going to make it?” and focus more on the present.

Here is my recommendation to you: Watch this series. Now. If you aren’t hooked by the end of the first episode or two, then there’s no talking to you. You can probably get the complete series for about $25-$50… but I’ll bet you’ll still want more. Fortunately, there is more.

By a very special brand of miracle, the entire main cast of the show returned for the 2005 film Serenity, which takes place after the events of the TV show. It is a heart-wrenching, pulse-pounding thrill ride that resolves some of Firefly’s biggest questions and makes some very big changes. You can get the regular edition, but I suggest the Collector’s Edition DVD, which goes for about $20-$30. Lots and lots of extras, including (but not limited to) fantastic outtakes, lots of behind-the-scenes looks, and a collection of the five short Internet videos released to promote the movie that offer a slight glimpse into the past of one of the main characters.

I can assure you that you will be in Firefly withdrawal even after watching the movie, which is why you might wish to turn to the comic books, published by Dark Horse, which require a knowledge of the show to fully appreciate.

Those Left Behind is a series of three comics that spans the gap between the TV series and the movie. Not only does it explain what happens in-between, but it also ties up some loose ends from the TV series that never had a chance to be resolved thanks to its premature cancellation. The complete Those Left Behind series is currently available in a softcover book as well as a hardcover book with lots of pretty bonus art. These will run you between $10-$20.

Serenity: Better Days coverBetter Days is also a series of three comics, but is more along the lines of an unaired episode of the TV series. It takes place after the TV series but before Those Left Behind and Serenity. The compilation book is in the $10-$15 ballpark.

Float Out is a one-shot about everyone's favorite wisecracking pilot, Hoban "Wash" Washburne. The unique style of storytelling covers some of what happened before Firefly and just a hint of what happens after Serenity.

Lastly, there is rumor of A Shepherd’s Tale, which will finally tell the tale of the mysterious Shepherd Book. It supposedly takes place prior to the events of the TV series.

Of course, there’s always other stuff you can buy—posters, t-shirts, soundtracks, even lunchboxes and Christmas ornaments—but aside from fan fiction and fanart, that’s about the most of the Firefly universe you’re likely to see any time soon.

If all that still isn’t enough, do an IMDB search for shows and movies that feature your favorite Firefly characters; you might be surprised where you find some of them. Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog is an excellent place to start, as it features Nathan Fillion (Captain Malcolm Reynolds), and it’s still Joss Whedon. Just to name a few more, you've also got TV series such as Chuck and V and Terminator: The Sarah Connor Chronicles, plus movies such as 3:10 to Yuma.

And, if that really still isn’t enough, pick up the rulebook for the Serenity Role Playing Game and start writing and playing your own gorram adventures! That’ll cost you around $25-$40 for the book, plus maybe $4-$9 for the set of polyhedral dice you’ll need to play, and extra money if you buy any of the supplementary books such as Out in the Black and Six Shooters and Spaceships.

Of course, other players will most likely need to have books and dice of their own, and tabletop roleplaying games have all sorts of other expenses and complexities attached to them, but I won’t take the time to detail them right now.

So, to wrap up:

Why you should watch Firefly: Powerful storytelling, truly memorable characters, highly unconventional, something for everyone, wholly engrossing experience.

Disclaimers: May cause insatiable fandom and heartbreak.

Price recap and suggested viewing/reading order:
Firefly: The Complete Series (DVD) - $25-$50 (Start here first, no matter what!)
Those Left Behind (Comics; softcover or hardcover compilation) - $10-$20
Serenity (Collector’s Edition) (DVD) - $20-$30
Float Out (One-shot comic) - $3-$5
Better Days (Comics; compilation) - $10-$15
Serenity Roleplaying Game (Books) - $25-$40 for the core rulebook, plus $15-120 for supplemental books, plus $4-$9 for dice
A Shepherd’s Tale (Comics; unconfirmed) - ?

Estimated total: $108-$289 for the whole shebang, at least for now.


[Photo from www.cineleet.com. Better Days cover from www.darkhorse.com.]

Wednesday, August 27, 2008

A Bit About Nathaniel

I am the everygeek. I play video games. I watch anime. Once upon a time, I played Magic: The Gathering. The vast majority of the books I've read outside of school have been sci-fi or fantasy. I enjoy superhero movies, westerns, silent films, and all manner of other movies (except horror). I've been involved in numerous theatrical productions as a writer, an actor, and a director. I'm a music fan with eclectic taste, and I aspire to have the soundtrack to every video game I've ever played.

I've a nascent interest in non-mainstream board games, and I participated for a time in an online game of Epic Diplomacy, where the game board was the entire world. I write Dungeons & Dragons quests, and I occasionally play D&D and other roleplaying games both in person and in play-by-post games. I'm a closet shutterbug with a deep appreciation for fine photography. I'm a Religion major, and I'm fascinated by religions and how they have shaped the world's people, their cultures, and history. I have a collection of action figures, and a toybox filled with some issues of MAD and Cracked, and scatterings of mostly-inherited comic books of varying levels of obscurity.

I'm making my own homebrew Super Mario World game. I've posted a few multiplayer levels for Jedi Knight II on the Internet. I write reviews of video games, and I'm working on an FAQ/Walkthrough for the DOS game Jetpack. I once created a computer game or two with QBasic. I have a large bucket in my closet filled with LEGOs, and I bring it out when I feel the urges to create and to return to the simplicity of my childhood. I loved the Choose Your Own Adventure books, and I even wrote a few adventures of my own.

Every few years I play through all the core classic Mega Man games (the numbered ones) back-to-back. With my friends, I've watched marathons of the Pirates of the Caribbean trilogy, The Matrix trilogy (with a few parts of The Animatrix thrown in), the Lord of the Rings (extended edition) trilogy, and all six Star Wars films.

I write poetry and murder mysteries. I challenge myself to keep up with the lyrics of "Weird Al" Yankovic's song, "Hardware Store," and I do a darn respectable job. I read webcomics. I collect D&D miniatures. I have posters on my walls of Star Trek, EarthBound, D&D, Star Wars, Blue Seed, and The Simpsons. In my cubicle at work I have two small ships from Star Trek, a figurine of Mega Man, and two RPG motivational posters.

Former Halloween costumes include Geordi LaForge, Luigi, Mega Man, Sonic the Hedgehog, and a California Raisin. I've dressed up as Gilderoy Lockhart multiple times to assist with the local library's midnight launches of the new Harry Potter books. Twice I've been to the Baltimore anime convention, Otakon, and twice I've come in costume.

I could go on. Though you can probably tell where my strongest interests lie, I'm always interested in being exposed to more, perhaps to find a new hobby or fandom that I love, or perhaps to be able to stay afloat when the conversation turns to Call of Cthulhu, Watchmen, or World of Warcraft.

Being informed about other people's hobbies and fandoms, even if we find them unpalatable and their appeal inscrutable, brings us closer to those around us. It's the difference between seeing a child who wants to be some cartoon character named something like "Bat-Guy" and seeing a child who wants to be rich, carefree, and very, very cool.

I am the everygeek. There's a lot I can tell you about... but I'll bet there's a lot you can teach me. Stick with us. We're in the business of expanding horizons and bringing folks of every shade of geekiness together. I think there's a little something to be found here for all of us.

Tuesday, August 26, 2008

A Bit About Alex

The following is a short piece of, well, something, that I wrote a couple of years ago as a writing sample for various comics magazines in hopes that they would be taken aback by its brilliance and I would be hired on the spot. They weren’t, and I wasn’t. In any case, I think the piece serves as a nice little introduction for this blog, which is in its infancy, but will hopefully one day take on a life of its own and conquer the world. (It won’t.)

So, without further ado, I present:


A Fan of the Dark Knight Returns
Or: How I Became a Fanboy
By: Alex Giannini


When I was nine years old, I remember very distinctly being asked by a family member that I had never seen before what it was I wanted to be when I grow up. My answer drew a laugh from those standing around; some even shook their heads and walked away, obviously tickled by what I had said in response. But to me my answer made perfect sense. You see, when I was nine years old, I wanted to be Batman. It was the only logical choice for a kid that had owned every action figure, watched every television episode and movie, and bought just about any comic whose cover was graced by Gotham City’s protector.

Batman embodied everything a kid could ever want to be in life; he was a crime-fighting hero with a cool car and an even cooler secret hideout. And if that’s not enough, his alter ego was a billionaire playboy without a care in the world. Oh, and he had a butler. A butler named Alfred. Why would any full-blooded nine year old American boy strive for anything else in life? Then, suddenly, when I was 11 years old, I was Batman. Well, for one night, anyway…

I got the costume almost a full month before the 31st of October, but I dared not put it on until it was just the right time. I couldn’t take the chance of getting it dirty or, worse than that, tear it in any way. So for almost one full month, the essence of The Batman clung to a wire hanger attached to the knob of my bedroom door.

Finally the big night came, the one time in my life that I could actually be Batman. I remember the costume with its black cloth mask and two eyeholes that kept creeping up towards my forehead as I walked from door to door. The long, flowing black cape that I would continually get my feet tangled in, my muddy boots ruining the pointed bottom of the not-so-well-constructed fabric. I remember my mom going out and buying me two pairs of black gloves, one for the elementary school parade earlier in the day, a dress rehearsal of sorts, and the other for the real thing at night. Because, as we all know, Batman works so much better at night.

As for the most important part of the costume, I had plenty of black tee shirts baring the unmistakable insignia of The Batman, but this was, of course, a special night, one that called for a special black tee shirt. Or, at the very least, one without holes and grass stains all over it. So, there I was in my costume, which in my own head was the greatest Halloween costume of all time. And how could it not have been? After all, I was Batman. (And, just for a visual here, to anyone else who may have seen me on that Halloween night those years ago, I was way more Adam West than I was Christian Bale).

But in any case, somewhere between the ages of 13 and 19 I became wholly disinterested with Batman, and with comic books in general. I suppose it was because I was getting older, more mature. (Right) In high school I was more interested in baseball and girls, probably not in that order mind you, and I certainly didn’t have time for Batman. Old comics got stashed away somewhere in a closet and pretty much everything else was thrown out. My days with The Batman of Gotham had officially come to an end.

That is, until quite recently, during my junior year in college. I had a class up on 14th Street in Manhattan, a good ten-block walk from the main campus of New York University. Along the way was a comic book shop with countless images of Dark Knight Detectives and Supermen of all sorts right there in the store front. One day my interest in taking a look inside and appeasing the inner child finally overcame my apprehensiveness of what it must look like for a 21 year old to walk into a comic book store. Little did I know…

It was on that day that I came back to comics, and more importantly, it was on that day that I came back to Batman. I bought a few of the newer issues with my childhood hero on the cover and was impressed enough to start making monthly trips back to the store to keep up with the ongoing stories. And, in case you were wondering, the very first issue that I bought was Batman #613, right in the middle of the Jeph Loeb/Jim Lee opus that is “Hush.” Pretty good place to start, huh? (And, if you have no idea what the heck I'm talking about, don't worry. We'll get to it!)

However, it wasn’t until I asked a few questions and purchased a collected edition of Frank Miller’s The Dark Knight Returns mini-series that I became completely enamored with comic books once again. Miller’s graphic novel is the reason that I still read comics; it is the reason why I don’t feel too bad when I drop fifty bucks a week on books and it serves as a rationalization of sorts for why I can spend that extra ten dollars on a trade paperback. (Or an extra forty that I don’t have on a Bowen statue). Dark Knight was, and still is, a brilliant piece of fiction, a biting and horrifying satire of 1980’s New York, and quite simply, it is one of the best things I have ever read. And I was an English Literature major in college.

Seriously, show me something, anything, that’s better than Dark Knight and I’ll give you a cookie. And don’t lie; you know you liked Dark Knight waaay more than any of those fancy literature-type books that you read in high school or college that you think you should bring up in such a conversation…

Annnnd we’re back in the present. And yes, now I clearly see that where I decided to end the above piece really wasn’t a very logical place to do so. However, I was young(er) and na├»ve(er?) and I thought everything I wrote was revelatory. Today I realize that I'm just as full of it as the next guy, but hey, at least now I have a blog. OK, enough of this—tomorrow, a bit more of an introduction to my own, slightly crazy thoughts on comics culture.