Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Waiting for Wednesday, Volume 4, Issue 9

I almost did it again.

I almost started this post off with the word, "so." Not that it's the biggest deal, but I've noticed I do that friendly, throw-the-reader-right-in introduction thing a whole heck of a lot.

And, apparently, in order to do that I use "so" every time.

But not today, my friends. Not today. Today, well, I'm scheduled to be in a tutorial meeting from 10:00 to 4:00, and at some point during the day I need to turn in a story that's due at some point tomorrow.

In between all that, it would be awesome if I could manage to get to the comic book store.

But my Spidey Sense is telling me that's probably not going to happen. Too much other stuff going on, which is pretty depressing. But, luckily, I've been so busy that I wouldn't have the time to sit down and ready any comics, even if I had the time to go buy them.

Lucky, right?

I'm woefully out of touch with the current comics landscape, and other than knowing about the next big Marvel event, I can't say that I've been a very good fanboy lately. I have been watching Comic Book Men on AMC, though.

So that's something, right?

Sure it is.

At this point, I'm sure (at least one of you) might be wondering what my comics recommendations for today are. Well, actually, my list consists of two books--Justice League, issue six, and Joe Hill's The Cape, issue four--so I don't have much for you in that regard.

What I do have, however, is another hastily written post. Hopefully, however, I was able to deliver this hastily written post with just the right amount of charm.

And with that, I'm outta here. Before I go, though, what are you Waiting for?

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

The Secret World of Poor Marketing

Today we present a guest post from Exfanding guest post veteran and wedding victim neko-chan.

As Nathaniel stated earlier in the blog, I dragged him out last week to see the new anime movie, The Secret World of Arrietty. This film, produced by Studio Ghibli and renowned Japanese filmmaker Hayao Miyazaki, beautifully reimagines the characters and setting of Mary Norton’s classic British children’s book series, The Borrowers, from a Japanese perspective. It is a heart-warming tale of friendship, adolescence, and growing up.

In this version of the story, Sho, a sickly boy who is sent to rest at his family’s country estate before his upcoming heart surgery, strikes up an unlikely friendship with Arrietty, a rambunctious 14-year old girl who is the size of a mouse and lives with her family under the floorboards of the house. Over the course of the story, these two children learn important life lessons, both from the adults around them and from each other:

• They learn that their actions have both positive and negative consequences, and that they must bear the mantle of responsibility for the decisions they make.
• They learn that rules are in place for a reason, and to trust in the firm guidance and wisdom of those with more experience; however, they also learn that personal beliefs can colour or transcend logic, and that sometimes rules and values must be re-evaluated as new knowledge is gained.
• They learn to cultivate a sense of self-respect and dignity – to be able to believe in their own value, strength, and abilities, while at the same time being able to accept help and correction with grace and humility.
• Finally, they learn that while sometimes there are hardships, and life won’t always work out the way you hope and expect, you can still take pleasure and comfort in the company of loved ones, and in the good memories that you have shared with others.

Nathaniel and I both enjoyed this movie, and appreciated the way parenting and friendships were handled and portrayed. There was a sense of “realness” and humanity, despite it being a fantastical tale, and I think the movie is as instructive as it is entertaining. Diehard fans of the books may have issue with the literary license Miyazaki takes with the plot, but honestly it was more true to the spirit of the characters than past incarnations in film and television.

Having said all that, I now want to talk a bit about how this film has been marketed, targeted, and received in the USA, and the continuing problem of how anime is conceptualized in America.

Aside from one poster in the back corner of a movie theatre lobby a few months back, and a passing mention by a fellow anime enthusiast on Facebook, I did not hear anything about this film until after it had already been released. The same thing happened a few years back with Ponyo. There always seems to be the dual reaction of “Wait, there’s a new Miyazaki film?!” and “Why didn’t I know?!” which goes to show just how critically under-marketed these films are. If anime fans themselves don’t realize they should be flocking to the theatres for a new release, how are average Americans going to take any interest?

It just strikes me as odd that Disney, who is responsible for releasing these films in the US market, and who is a recognized master of branding, can’t seem to properly promote any of the anime titles it licenses. Even if they didn’t own the merchandising rights, they could have at least released a few previews in the theatres to spark public interest, right? But I don’t remember seeing any kind of advance trailers or sneak-peeks at all.

It all comes down to economics. In this day and age, with so many movies being created and distributed, advertising is necessary to capture the public’s attention and make them spend their $8-$12 on your movie, rather than anyone else’s. Yet, on the main Disney website, Arrietty is just a passing mention on their “Characters” page; all of their efforts are instead devoted to promoting their own upcoming projects, Brave and John Carter. Why? Because the cost to license a film made by someone else is less than the cost to develop and release a film from scratch, so they need a bigger return on their own investments, and only need to break even on the films they have brought over from other countries.

I guess I don’t blame Disney, as they would potentially be shooting themselves in the foot if they got everyone excited for the newest anime release and then had no one come to see John Carter; however, it doesn’t seem fair that this disparity in marketing is partially responsible for the lackluster performance of anime titles in the American box office.

And it’s not just the films released by Disney. When is the last time an anime movie was marketed using the same principles as a regular film? Pokemon: 2000? Films such as Ghost in the Shell in 1995 were quietly marketed to the wrong demographic, and even newly developed films like Fullmetal Alchemist: The Sacred Star of Milos are only getting a limited theatrical release in the US, with the sole advertising strategy being a few web banners on the distributor’s webpage, and an email announcement to fans on the distributor’s newsletter. There is a prevailing belief that anime fans will either watch these films online or will wait until they come to disc, and that the rest of America is simply not interested, which will continue to be the case until a successful marketing campaign actually informs fans and causes the rest of America to get interested.

The companies that release anime in the United States also seem to be unable to grasp the intended target demographic for these films and series. They wrongly assume that anything animated is made exclusively for children. They market and advertise according to that standard, and are reluctant to pick up titles that may contradict or break from this pattern. In the past, they have even gone so far as to heavily edit the visual content and dialogue of anime shows (removing cigarettes, nudity, violence, homosexual relationships, etc.) in order to make them conform with American norms and values for children’s programming, because that is the only way we can conceptualize cartoons.

However, animation in Japan is merely another way of telling a story, no different from live-action, CG, puppetry, stop-animation, or any other visual film media. Stories run the full gamut of human experience and subject matter, and the choice to portray these stories in an animated format is not made for age reasons, but for budgetary and stylistic reasons. Simply, you can do things in animation that would be difficult to do in the physical realm of live-action, and you can create a unique visual “look” or artistic style with the 2D line that is distinctly different from the visual style of any other media. You cannot lump all anime under the category of “Kids Only” any more than you can lump all live-action movies under the canopy of “Kids Only.” Yet American companies still try their hardest to do exactly that.

Of course, I can give some obvious examples such as Akira and Perfect Blue as being distinctly not made for kids, but let’s take a look at The Secret World of Arrietty as a less-obvious example. Was this based on a children’s book? Yes. Was it intended to be watched, in part, by children? Yes. But is that that the target demographic? No.

The target demographic should have been people in the 25-50 range. These are the people who grew up reading and loving Mary Norton’s books, and who have a special connection to these characters. These are the people who have seen the last four movie and mini-series adaptations of these stories (1973, 1992, 1997, and 2011). These are the people who initially grew up with anime such as Speed Racer and Astro Boy, who have probably seen all of Miyazaki’s other films, and who have maintained a history and a relationship with this media and its story-telling style. These are the people who have children or grandchildren that they are excited to see these films with as a family. These are not the people who were targeted by Disney - the original pioneer of the “animated family movie,” and the one company that should have known better.

Now let’s take a look at how said movie was received by the American public: 94% fresh on Rotten Tomatoes, with an audience rating of 87% liking it, yet over the course of the past two weeks it has pulled in only $4.5M in box office sales. It is critically acclaimed, it is loved by fans, yet the public is not rushing out to see it. This, to me, is a tragedy. Compare that to the fact that Tyler Perry’s Good Deeds, which received a Tomatometer rating of only 27%, made $16M in the past 3 days. This says that we, as Americans, are willing to pay more to see a bad movie that we can easily understand and classify than we will pay to see a good movie that challenges our conceptions of what animation is and can be in the movie spectrum.

Oh, and speaking of the public reception to this movie, let’s not forget dear old Lou Dobbs, who has repeatedly demonized the movie in our national media, stating that Arrietty is preaching a liberal agenda, anti-1%/pro-Occupy message to our children. He gives no mention to Norton or to when the books were written, and he glosses over the fact that this movie was not made in Hollywood or even in this country, thereby making it unlikely that either the creators or the inspiration of this film had any sort of American political agenda in mind.

Apparently to Dobbs, the way the Borrowers gather natural resources from their environment (the house and garden), and use these resources to manufacture their food and shelter equates to “justifying the right of the poor to steal from the rich,” and is not simply making a direct parallel to how humans gather resources from their own environment in order to manufacture goods and meet the needs of food and shelter.

Likewise, the borrowers’ outright refusal to take the ornate luxury items in the dollhouse is not, as Dobbs thinks, a rejection of wealth and the elite, it is a choice by the borrowers to live with freedom and dignity, instead of like dolls or caged pets. Dobbs’ ethnocentric viewpoints taint a perfectly innocent story by trying to force it into a modern political paradigm it was never intended to fit in.

Overall, I am glad I had the opportunity to see this movie in the theatre. I am glad it is getting wonderful reviews by both fans and movie critics. However, I worry about the fate of anime in the realm of the American theatre due to poor marketing, the misunderstanding of intended demographics, and the misinterpretation of themes as “culturally-threatening” due to blatant misinformation and existing bias.

We need to start showing movie producers that Americans are mature enough and open-minded enough to embrace films of quality, regardless of national origin, with formats that challenge our conception of what movies look and feel like, and that may or may not have anything to do with the messages and themes we are used to hearing.

So I urge you to go see this film. Take a chance on something different. I guarantee that whether you love it or hate it, whether you think it should be seen by everyone or whether you think it should be demonized, you will at least have exfanded your horizons of Japanese film, and of what animation can mean to film as a visual media.

[Click to enlarge]

Monday, February 27, 2012

The Art of the Tutorial

I'd love to get into designing video games professionally so I could share my game design philosophies by way of example, as well as in writing. One thing in particular I'd like to address is the art of the tutorial. Especially in an era where instruction manuals are largely ignored (if they're even produced at all) tutorials have become a necessary evil...but I'd like to think they're neither necessary nor evil.

Whether it's a formal lesson in key game concepts or an opportunity for players to figure things out for themselves, an unfortunate number of games seem to base their tutorials upon one or more of the following misconceptions:

- Tutorials are mandatory
- Tutorials must occur before any real gameplay begins
- A single tutorial can and should be used to cover all gameplay concepts, regardless of how long it will be until certain concepts become relevant
- Players learn well from a dry lecture format
- Players have the patience for tutorials of any length
- Players immediately digest all information given to them
- Players don't mind frequent interruptions for tutorials and advice

I'm familiar with too many games that provide boring, tedious, and/or flat-out unhelpful tutorials. The first episode of Back to the Future: The Game provides so many tips in the first few minutes that any chance of organic exploration and immediate game immersion are destroyed. Mega Man Battle Network 2 forces the player into an unskippable tutorial that completely ignores the fact that the main character (and the player) probably still remember all this from the first game. The list goes on.

On the other hand, there are games that integrate tutorials seamlessly into the gameplay and/or give players a certain degree of choice about how much they want to learn. Chrono Trigger has an entire building filled with people knowledgeable about anything you'd need to know, but there's no pressure to talk to anybody. Portal 2 indicates when skills or abilities are required for the first time with unobtrusive popups indicating the relevant key or button to press. No One Lives Forever makes basic stealth, gadget, and firearms training a brief and logical part of the storyline. Half-Life gives you an optional training course that's completely independent of the main game. There are ways to do tutorials well.

There are also ways to have good tutorials executed poorly. Metroid: Other M runs the player through a tutorial cleverly disguised as a quick battery of refresher tests, but the tutorial treats the word "SENSEMOVE" like a term everybody knows, assumes that SENSEMOVING to quickly reach full charge and magically refilling your missiles out of thin air are totally normal game mechanics that need no story explanation, and fails to tell you which button actually fires zee missiles. Final Fantasy VI, like Chrono Trigger, features a building inhabited by informative townsfolk who can teach a player all the basics about fighting battles...after about an hour of fighting battles.

I'd like to see a game developer enlist beta testers to play the tutorial, and only the tutorial. I'd also like to see the same game developer disable or remove all the tutorials before sending a different set of beta testers in blind. Combining feedback from these two angles would surely yield some enlightening insight about what information is truly necessary to include in a tutorial, and how best to present it.

I'd like to see more games like Metroid Prime that expose the player to all major game concepts in the very first level, giving just enough info on what needs to be done to overcome each new obstacle. I'd like to see more games like Mega Man & Bass that use the "Weapon Get!" screen to quickly demonstrate each new ability you've gained. I'd like to see more games like EarthBound that use random townsfolk to convey advice relevant to where they are (for example, next to a pay phone), or who they are (for example, a friendly mole that looks looks like an enemy).

Tutorials aren't inherently a drag; like fetch quests, escort quests, and anything else any gamer has ever complained about, they just have a poor track record of being done well. If developers can show more often than they tell, fool us into thinking we're not actually playing a tutorial, and better accommodate the people who would really rather figure things out for themselves (or who already know what to do), there might yet be hope for tutorials to be a fun and truly useful part of video games.

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Sunday Spotlight: Origins

Today is the day. After much consideration, I have decided to follow in the footsteps of my blogging buddy Alex and start up my own weekly column on this blog. His column, Waiting for Wednesday, usually focuses on new releases and the latest buzz in the comics world (with a thoughtful/ranty/humorous stream-of-consciousness lead-in every time). In Sunday Spotlight, I plan to focus on a different thing in particular each week.

That's incredibly focused, I know.

Specifically, I'll be discussing one item at a time from any fandom I've come across. I might look at a movie, a board game, a book, or an album; I might bring up a website, a t-shirt, or a flavor of ice cream. Really. One of the first ideas I had for a weekly column was called "Ice Cream Sunday," you know.

My completionist tendencies have held me back from doing this sort of thing more often. I like to give fandoms a proper introduction before discussing them in any depth on this blog, but in order to give a proper introduction, I feel compelled to first have a profound working knowledge of those fandoms. If there are obvious gaps in my knowledge that I'm working toward filling in, then I hold off on exfanding your horizons until I've seen, read, or eaten enough to consider myself sufficiently well-versed in said fandom.

With Sunday Spotlight, I'll introduce, review, or simply tell stories about anything and everything that comes to mind, regardless of expertise or previous coverage. There are games in my Backloggery I'll bet you never knew existed. My apartment is covered with geeky posters that all have some history (and a wall) behind them. I have a huge collection of Star Trek action figures that I've barely mentioned. My wife has shared music and art with me that I'd completely missed (or avoided). The possibilities, while not endless, are certainly numerous enough to keep me going for a good long while.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

So I promised you a guest post...

...but, obviously, this is not it. Go enjoy your Saturday; we'll be back tomorrow with something, we promise.

And this is a promise I can keep, because it's already been written and scheduled.

Friday, February 24, 2012

Deadline Week

It's, like, deadline week here. Complete this huge project for work by 10 AM. Post by 11 AM. Clean up the apartment before weekend plans begin. Watch these movies in our Netflix Instant Queue before their licenses expire next week. Finish this review of Out There Somewhere while it's still relevant (though, in my defense, nearly a week of technical setbacks kept me from finishing the review in time for the game's release).

Alex and I have both been in a rush. You can tell from the topics of our posts this week. You can tell from the lengths of our posts--we're never this concise, this consistently. Not to worry, though; we're starting to structure ourselves again: I've solicited a guest post for Saturday, and I'm rolling out a new column on Sunday, so hopefully we'll be in good shape going into next week.

Thursday, February 23, 2012

And Then Thursday Happened

Oh, man. I'm getting bad at this.

Usually when I get tied up and have to post late, it’s at least somewhere around 11:00. Today, though. Jeez, sorry about that, guys. It’s been a crazy week, and I just haven’t had the time I’d like to be able to sit down and write out something worth reading.

I’m kinda out of sorts altogether today, as I got into a minor car accident last night that’s set my today into a tailspin of annoyance. Not to worry, though, I was only rear-ended and, while there was noticeable damage, I’m fine.

Typically, this is where things like car insurance come in handy.

And it would, totally, if I wasn’t scheduled to turn the car back into the dealer…oh, this afternoon. Yeah. Sometimes irony is hilariously ironic.

So, yeah. I’m a little out of my mind today with stupid stuff. Also, there’s been quite a bit of work to do over the last couple of weeks, so I’m busily…um…working. And when I’m not working? Sleep.

My life in a nutshell.

Again, sorry about today. No fears, though—Nathaniel has tomorrow covered.

Wednesday, February 22, 2012

Waiting for Wednesday, Volume 4, Issue 8

As Nathaniel mentioned yesterday, my posting has been rather sparse of late. This has mostly been due to the fact that I really don’t have much time to do…well, anything lately. I got in from work last night sometime after midnight, and as I hurriedly write this morning’s column, I realize that I should probably work on planning things out a bit better when it comes to posting.

To that point, Nathaniel’s idea of a new weekly column is a good one, I think, mostly for the reasons he laid out yesterday.

For my part, Waiting for Wednesday is always the easiest blog post to write on any given week, mostly because I’ve “shaped” it into something that can be anything, really. Sure, it started out with the sole purpose of previewing upcoming comic book releases, but as they tend to do, things changed.

Rather quickly, too, as I guess I’m just no good at following rules, even if they’re rules that I’ve set.

Today, as you might be able to tell being that this column is going up around 1:30, is the perfect example of what I'm talking about. No comics reviews, no nothing really. I didn't get out of work until after midnight, and I have a pretty good amount of work due in the not-so-distant future.

So, yeah. I apologize for making this brief and kinda pointless, I'll make it up to you?

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

Forget Corinthian and Ionic; I Want a Dork Column

There'll likely be a follow-up to yesterday's post later this week, but first, I need some opinions on something. You might have noticed that Alex's posts have been fewer and shorter recently, and that's simply due to a lack of time to write. One thing that's helped to keep order and focus on this blog has been Alex's Waiting for Wednesday column, and I'm thinking it might be time to start a column of my own.

For one thing, I've been toying with the idea of a regular feature for a few months now. It's been great for Alex to have a day of the week where the subject matter is already laid out for him, and it's been great for me to have that day as a (mostly) guaranteed blog vacation. With his schedule being as relentlessly busy as it is now, it might be nice to give him a weekly holiday, and to help me from running out of posting ideas prematurely.

The trouble is...what would I write about every week?

The obvious answer is "Mega Man," but I feel that's a little too specialized--video games I could get away with, but one series exclusively is pushing it. I talk about my Backloggery enough that perhaps a weekly gaming progress update might work instead.

I could take a page from The Arglefumph Blog and do a sort of Three Things Thursday, where I pick any three things and talk about them. Simple, straightforward, structured, and yet flexible.

Maybe Random Recommendations would be in order--a quick blurb about one or two things I recently watched, read, heard, attended, or ate. I did that once, and it worked pretty well.

Alex said he'd like to read about my world-building process for my Dungeons & Dragons campaigns. There'd be too many spoilers for the players if I wrote about my upcoming quest, but I've got about six years of previous adventures I could cover, so that's a possibility.

I'm also open to other suggestions. As long as it's something I could write about easily and sustain indefinitely, I'll certainly consider it. Any thoughts?

Monday, February 20, 2012

Out of the Film Loop

My wife and I were having a discussion with two friends last night about the best movies we've seen all year. We brought up one of our recent Netflix adventures, the 1950 Best Picture All About Eve.

No no no, we were told. Something recent.

After a bit more discussion, it became clear to me just how out-of-the-loop I've been with modern cinema. Unlike video games, which I typically won't touch until they're at least a few years old, I do occasionally make it out to see a movie while it's still in theaters. Though, between all the traveling last year and the distance now between me and the people who used to drag me out to movies, I've fallen out of the moviegoing habit.

I've seen a few films in the past several months, such as J. Edgar (which I enjoyed) and Sherlock Holmes: A Game of Shadows (which I also enjoyed), but I completely missed out on Captain America and a number of others. At least with video games, I'm aware of the latest craze, but my weekly check-in at Rotten Tomatoes has fallen by the wayside for some reason, and it may be time to bring it back. I'm now completely disconnected from new movies, unless I catch a stray advertisement online or hear someone talking about a film.

The one that really took me by surprise was the new Miyazaki film, which I discovered last night when my wife announced we would be seeing the new Miyazaki film tonight. I have absolutely no idea what I'm in for; I can't even remember the name. Wish me luck.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Weekend Work

Don't really have anything comparable to follow up Nathaniel's epic--and awesome--Harry Potter marathon post from yesterday, so I think I'll be pretty brief today.

So far, it's been a busy weekend of…well, work, mostly. And there's plenty more in store, as I have lots of stuff going on, both at work and in my at-home work endeavors.

The work-work stuff is, well, it's work and there's lots of it today, but I'm not gonna talk about it here. The at-home work, though? That's the fun stuff.

As I’ve alluded to in the past, I’m in the process of self publishing a children’s book. I’m now pretty far along in that process, and things are getting to the nitty gritty—but the fun part of the nitty gritty (if that makes any sense). I'm in that wonderful stage where I'm not entirely sure what I'm doing, which despite how it might sound, is actually a lot of fun.

You see, it’s one thing to write something, and to then stick it in a (digital) drawer for a while before making a decision to do anything with it. I've found that I'm quite good at that part of the game.

There's plenty of stuff that I've written and just socked away.

But, for a number of reasons, I decided to go all out with this latest project and sometime around October of last year I took the first big step--teaming up with an artist. Just getting to that step can prove to be quite the task, but this time it just felt like the right thing to do.

Since then, things have progressed nicely and I've received layouts for the entire book. I am, to say the least, incredibly excited with what I've seen, and I cannot wait to see what the final product looks like.

While the artist is hard at work on the finished pages, I'm now venturing out into the big, scary world of printers. There's lots of options from which to choose, and there's quite a bit of a difference in price with...well, with everything. Low print runs, in color, with a hard cover?

Incredibly expensive.

Because it's a children's book, we need to print this bad boy in full color, which ain't cheap, let me tell you. Still, along with some very smart friends of mine, I think I've narrowed things down enough to at least have a very real possibility of producing a high quality product for a price that isn't going to ruin me.

And, while those words may well come back to haunt me in the future, Present Day Alex is quite happy, and quite confident in what's to come.

Which, if you know me, is not like me at all.

But just going over page layouts and planning out both the printing and the marketing strategies for the book have me riled up--in a good way for once.

I know full well the pitfalls and the landmines of the publishing business. But, like one of my very first baseball coaches used to say, you can learn a whole heck of a lot more by watching someone who's doing everything wrong than you can from someone who's doing things right.

And I've watched plenty of people go about doing things the wrong way over the course of my career.

So we'll see what happens, and as I like to say: What could possibly go wrong?

: )

-- -- -- --

Enjoy your Sunday, Exfanders.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

Mischief Managed!

A Harry Potter movie marathon should only take 19 hours and 38 minutes, assuming you're watching all 8 films back-to-back, in their entirety (including credits), with a one-minute break between films. A timeline of your day might look something like this:

7:00 AM - Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone + breakfast
9:33 AM - Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets
12:15 PM - Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban + lunch
2:53 PM - Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire
5:15 PM - Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix
7:34 PM - Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince + dinner
10:08 PM - Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 1
12:35 AM - Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2
2:45 AM - Collapse into a heap

You might invite a group of friends over to your apartment, extend the offer for them to stay overnight, recommend they come in costume, and provide ample food and drink to keep everyone in peak marathoning condition.

How much food and drink does it take to survive a Harry Potter movie marathon? I myself polished off a half can of Pringles, a dozen powdered mini-donuts, half a Canadian bacon pizza, a pile of regular ruffly potato chips, a big glass o' grape juice, a big glass o' Hawaiian Punch, multiple cans of Barq's, Mello Yello, and Cherry Pepsi, know what? I don't think I actually want to continue this list.

While food and drink certainly help, just as important are the people subjecting themselves to this insanity with you. Watching all eight of these films alone, or for the first time, is an ordeal, both physically and mentally. Participating in a marathon with seven other people who've seen the films, and who have both thought-provoking and riotous commentary to share, is a party.

Two weekends ago, we had a party.

The setup: Facing the television were one couch, one loveseat, a papasan chair, a recliner, and some random chair we pulled out of the back room--sufficiently comfortable seating for all. A spare DVD player was in place, should the primary one catch on fire or explode after so many hours of continuous wizarding. Nearby, still within eyeshot of the TV, the dining room table was laden with a smorgasbord of snackery. Cold beverages and snacks occupied the majority of the refrigerator, save for the space in the back with the leftover chicken that really needed to be thrown away. Our chintzy blue Christmas tree, still up after two months, found a new festive purpose with my wife's papercraft Harry Potter tree topper.

The plan: Wake up, shower (please, for the sake of your neighbor on the couch), start the first movie at 7:00 AM sharp and proceed as outlined in the timetable above. Sit down to watch the first movie with breakfast in hand, make available lunch fixin's during the credits of the appropriate movie, and order pizzas for delivery at the appointed hour. Break for the bathroom if necessary between films, and during the films, enjoy all the Harry Potter-themed goodies my wife and our guests prepared in advance--butterbeer, pumpkin pasties, pumpkin juice (pictured earlier in this post), Hagrid's rock cakes, Cockroach Clusters (both pictured below), Wizard Wands, and so forth.

The hitch: My wife, who had spent the better part of the previous week with me preparing the apartment for guests, had run out of time to make anything before the marathon began, and the guest who was planning on bringing the rest of the themed snacks had taken ill about two days before the marathon, preventing her from making and bringing as much as she'd planned.

The other hitch: 7:00 AM sharp is more like 7:15-ish for most people on a Saturday.

The other other hitch: Apparently, activities such as assembling lunch sandwiches, taking photos of people in costume, and saying goodbye to friends who can't stay for the whole event, cannot be compressed into the 1-minute disc-switching break between movies, even if we start the process during the credits.

The end result: The marathon didn't actually end until closer to 3:45 AM. My wife spent half the marathon in the kitchen with experimental recipes. We suspect she was cooking with Ron's damaged wand from Chamber of Secrets, as we ended up with a plastic measuring cup destroyed by scalding butterscotch and a lump of chocolate pudding cake batter containing splinters of what was formerly my favorite wooden spoon.

Regardless, the important part is that we did watch all eight movies.

7:12 AM - Harry Potter and the Sorcerer's Stone

Having recently seen Deathly Hallows - Part 2 in the theater, it was jarring to return to the first movie in the series. It wasn't the drastic age difference between the heroes of the last movie and their considerably younger counterparts--practically toddlers, really--so much as the difference in production values. By the time the series ended, the filmmakers had settled on a dark, distinctive style, but in the beginning, production values weren't too far off from a particularly nice-looking film produced specifically for TV.

"Whimsical." I think that's the word I'd use to describe it. There was a real emphasis on the colorful characters and the unusual world they lived in. Storytelling and cinematography seemed secondary, though the whole thing still held together quite well. Perhaps even more striking was how British everything felt. The later movies are not so rooted in their country of origin; the cultural peculiarities and even the accents gradually soften into an innocuous Americanized British that neither contributes nor takes away much of anything to/from the feel of the films.

I made the observation that, if this were a video game, I would be casting Wingardium Leviosa on everything. Similar to my fondness for levitation in Morrowind, my enthusiasm for inflicting flotation on others is a matter of both amusement and practicality. Confronted by a three-headed dog sitting on a trap door? Wingardium Leviosa. Attacked by a troll in the bathroom? Wingardium Leviosa. Both you and your club can hang out on the ceiling a while.

Oh, and bathrooms! We didn't realize it at the time, but J.K. Rowling apparently is fascinated by bathrooms. And socks. Or so one of my guests pointed out.

Props to the child actors, by the way. Rupert Grint was especially emotive as Ron Wonderstruck By Everything Weasley. Props also to the casting department; selecting a trio who can effectively and convincingly stay in the shoes of these characters for an entire decade is surely no easy feat. Lastly, props to the props department. Obviously.

One thing that stood out is how neither Draco Malfoy nor Severus Snape ever reached the heights of antagonism one might expect after reading the books. Up until You-Know-Who returns at the end of Book 4, Snape and Malfoy are the real villains of the series, with occasional distractions by the likes of Professor Quirrell and Tom Riddle. At least, that's the way it always appeared to me--the movies, on the other hand, downplay the Malfoy rivalry to an extent, and Snape never once looks like a bad guy (up until the end of the sixth movie) if you can separate poor people skills from villainy.

9:48 AM - Harry Potter and the Chamber of Secrets

I'm not sure what happened here. I was awake, comfortable, and totally in the marathon zone...but I had enormous difficulties keeping focused. For starters, we had a disorganized start--after shouting at the other viewers a few times that we were STARTING THE MOVIE NOW TEN NINE EIGHT SEVEN SIX, I still got some baffled looks from people wandering in from the kitchen wondering about why I had started without them.

After a while I realized it wasn't just me--it was the movie itself. Whereas the first film flowed rather smoothly from one scene to the next, the second film seemed somewhat scattered, a little unsure of where it was going for a while, and what was important to show. Strange, considering I had previously believed the second movie to be superior to the first in most regards. Random spiders at the scene of the crime? ANOTHER BATHROOM? Alright, so I don't actually have a complaint against the den of Moaning Myrtle, but we started to notice the pattern here.

One of the most disappointing parts of the film--and it almost hurts to say this--was Kenneth Branagh as Gilderoy Lockhart. Now, a decade ago, I would've told you he was my favorite part of the movie. However, following some discussions with my fellow viewers, a consensus arose that Branagh's Lockhart forced his charm on others to make them like him, while Rowling's Lockhart was so self-centered that he couldn't help but suck others in. It's the subtle difference between an arrogant teenager dragging you by the arm, and a black hole. Someone proposed Ewan McGregor as a better fit for the part, and despite the group's deep respect for Kenneth Branagh in his other endeavors, no one seemed to disagree.

What really sealed the Chamber's fate as a low point of the series was the ending, which did not strike me as anything particularly terrible until one of the guests pointed something out to us: there is NO reason for Hagrid to get that kind of applause when he returns. The man was gone for a trivial amount of time, he's ignored, disrespected, or downright hated by half the school, and thoughout the entire movie he did absolutely nothing!!! YAAAAAAY!!! STANDING OVATION FOR HAGRID!!! We were in stitches.

12:37 PM - Harry Potter and the Prisoner of Azkaban

The third film, as well as the third book, are my favorite in the series. I always chalked it up to clever time-travel, a good balance of seriousness and good cheer, the Knight Bus, two of my favorite characters from the series--Sirius Black and Remus Lupin--and the wonderfully creepy Dementors. Upon further inspection, I began to understand that my appreciation of the film goes a bit deeper.

I enjoy a certain amount of mystery and surprise in my stories, but I also like to have a sense of direction; within fifteen minutes, the main focus of the movie is clearly in place (with some GREAT setup), and the pacing remains consistently tight throughout the rest of the film. I also enjoy a story where everything matters. From the lesson on riding a Hippogriff to the fleeting glimpse of Lupin's fear when facing the Boggart, details both great and small come full circle, which makes for a very satisfying tale.

The group seemed to agree with me: moving from director Chris Columbus to director Alfonso Cuarón for this film was the right choice.

3:03 PM - Harry Potter and the Goblet of Fire

I must have miscounted somewhere, because at the beginning of the third movie we were 22 minutes behind schedule, and now we're only behind by 10. I chalk it up to clever time-travel and good pacing.

One guest celebrated Goblet of Fire as the best in the series, as it was sufficiently mature and dark for her tastes. Given her criteria, I can understand where this film would be a favorite, but given mine...I think only the special effects put this a notch above Chamber of Secrets for me. It didn't help that this is where it was brought to my attention that Cedric Diggory was played by Robert Pattinson of Twilight fame--Diggory was totally hip until I was no longer able to separate the character from the series I'm supposed to be innately angry at despite never having read or watched any of it.

We took this opportunity to make our own butterbeer--a combination of cream soda, butterscotch syrup, and unicorn giggles--which turned out to be the single most delicious thing anyone could have hoped for that wasn't an actual stick of butter in a mug of beer. Which would be pretty terrible, actually.

Our viewing of the film started off disjointedly, and the film itself--directed by a new guy, Mike Newell--felt a bit aimless at first. After the last movie, I had started counting how long it took each film to get to the main plot. Despite the basic explanation of the Tri-Wizard Tournament, I counted 36 minutes until the story finally moved past the exposition phase--more than double the time it took Prisoner of Azkaban to get rolling.

I had difficulty putting my finger on it the first time I saw the movie, but it had always felt a little "off" to me. Part of it was the sluggish start, and part of it was the overwhelmingly darker atmosphere (both visually and figuratively), but the missing part of the equation revealed itself as Angry Dumbledore.

Pick any other movie--any other movie--and Dumbledore is consistently a man who is calm and in control in every circumstance; even when he's losing his mind drinking crummy Horcrux water in the sixth movie, he's at least prepared for it. Here, Dumbledore resolves every situation by shouting until the problem goes away. Monitor the volume and tone of the man's voice; I think you'll find that it never dips below "mildly annoyed at the person across the room."

This must've been the movie I was thinking of when I first decided I preferred Richard Harris as Dumbledore over the man who later inherited the role, Michael Gambon. Looking back, my opinion seems to have been primarily based on my initial interpretation of Dumbledore as merely a kindly old wizard, and on my general resistance to new actors in familiar roles. This time around, Gambon ultimately felt like the right fit for a successor.

The first sign of Marathon Fatigue set in at 4:55 PM: for a brief moment, I caught myself beginning to nod off.

Also...we ended up back in the bathroom again, cracking the mystery of the screaming egg.

5:55 PM - Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix

Dinner arrived in the form of pizzas during this movie, marking the last concerted effort of the day for any kind of special food outside of the snacks already on the table and in the fridge. I was initially concerned about our ability to stay focused without another meal or major snack to boost us, but the cohesiveness of the films from here on out helped the flow of the evening significantly.

For one thing, the last four films were all directed by the same person, David Yeats. For another, the Harry Potter novels were still very much in development when the first four movies were released, and it wasn't always clear which characters and details would be important in later books.

Columbus focused on whatever would make a good tale for the kiddies; Cuarón focused on whatever would allow the movie to stand on its own as a creative work; Newell focused on whatever seemed most likely to be relevant to future sequels; Yates, however, began filming Order of the Phoenix the year before the final book was released, minimizing the amount of guesswork required in his storytelling. The direction and tone of the series were clear from here on out, so Yeats was able to focus on simply telling the rest of the tale.

Order of the Phoenix was and is my next favorite film after Prisoner of Azkaban in large part because of how much detail it manages to cram into such a short amount of time without feeling at all overwhelming. And 17 minutes to get to the main plot? Atta boy, Yeats.

One major observation I made during this film--which seems to apply to all the other films--is that, despite a huge repertoire of magic tricks up their sleeves, not a single wizard can put out fire. Almost without exception throughout the entire series, if something is on fire or surrounded by fire, the heroes are rendered helpless.

If the heroes merely followed my approach to wizarding, they'd be in much better shape. Surrounded by flames? Threatened by Dolores Umbridge? Your cousin Dudley collapsed after a run-in with Dementors and needs to be dragged home? Wingardium Leviosa.

8:15 PM - Harry Potter and the Half-Blood Prince

Now that the series had settled on just one director, and now that the actors were no longer growing up so rapidly between films, the look and feel of the series was finally settling into a consistent groove. The music, however, became notably repetitive by this point--not only did many of the tunes start to sound the same, but I'm positive I heard some of the more backgroundy ones in previous films. Not a major strike against the films, but definitely a detracting factor.

I found myself having trouble focusing on this one. Actually, upon further inspection, I realized I'd been having difficulties focusing on all the even-numbered movies, and I'd been enjoying all the odd-numbered movies more. This one started off slowly, as did Chamber and Goblet, so I'm thinking it must be an inherent problem with the most plot-intensive installments in the series.

This is the film where the bathroom fad was supplemented by an alarming trend of dead birds. Between Fawkes the phoenix, Headwig later on, and the victims of the Whomping Willow, we began to wonder whether the people responsible for the films had a thing against our fine feathered friends.

During the scene at the end of the film where Harry and Dumbledore take the creepy boat across the creepy lake, I pointed out that they could have avoided the whole miserable situation of almost being pulled under and drowned by the creepy lake creatures if they had only Wingardium Leviosa'd themselves across. Sheesh. These people.

Lastly--and I don't recall whether I misheard, misread, or misspoke this--I have scribbled down in my notes the name "Horace Snugglemouth."

11:14 PM - Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 1

After a few departures between movies, our viewing group was now reduced to half its previous size. We were still awake enough, but the "party" feel had subsided back to "straight-up marathon." It was up to the movies more than the participants to keep the momentum going.

I caught myself momentarily nodding off for the second time at 1:02 AM. Hurry up and kill Voldemort, you guys.

Without the whimsical backdrop of attending classes at Hogwarts, Deathly Hallows - Part 1 felt much closer to a traditional Hollywood movie than something specifically Harry Potter. Removed from their usual context and dressed in civilian clothes, the main actors tended to stand out more than the personalities of their characters. Daniel Radcliffe seemed to have grown out of the role of Harry Potter, while Rupert Grint had completely made Ron his own. Emma Watson still made a convincing Hermione, but Hermione herself had lost her snotty, nerdy edge over the past few movies without seeming to develop or pick up any other traits.

As if to compensate for this, Dobby--finally--left behind his roots as a pale imitation of Jar-Jar Binks and became a real character. When you can get an audience to shed a tear of legitimate sorrow over a grating little elf, you have truly accomplished something.

When you can get an audience to start counting the number of times your characters visit a bathroom, you've accomplished something altogether different. What IS it with these movies!?

1:43 AM - Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows - Part 2

I saw both parts of this movie in the theater, and I felt a jarring disconnect--all the character development was in the first film, and all the action was in the second film. The first time around, I enjoyed the first one and found the second one to be too much, too often--not unlike Quantum of Solace.

On a second viewing, also like Quantum of Solace, the second one became more satisfying than the considerably slower first one after I had sorted out my expectations. As the second half of a whole, Deathly Hallows - Part 2 is a satisfying conclusion, but I'm still not convinced it's a necessary one. With the kind of pacing and selective scene trimming exhibited by films 3 and 5, Deathly Hallows could have been a single movie on the order of The Lord of the Rings: The Return of the King: long, but epic enough in scope to warrant the length.

After repeatedly ignoring my peanut gallery suggestions to use Wingardium Leviosa on EVERYTHING, the heroes at last took advantage of the other spell I'd continually pushed for throughout the series: Accio, the summoning charm. The ONE time they decide to use it to find a Horcrux, it doesn't work. Fine, whatever. They then proceed to flood the vault by slogging through self-replicating trinkets that multiply when touched...and all the while, I'm thinking, "You guys could've just Wingardium Leviosa'd yourselves to the ceiling and floated over that mess." Forget these heroes; I'm rooting for Neville Longbottom next time.

At 3:54 AM, more than a full hour after we had originally planned, we shut off the television and lurched toward our respective sleeping spaces to collapse into our respective heaps.


Overall, the marathon was a great success. We not only survived, but I hopefully speak for everyone when I say we had a good time. In many ways, the marathon didn't truly start until the fifth movie--with all the drastic directorial changes, the first four films served more as a foundation for the last four movies than the first half of a series. Still, roughly ten years in the making and without a clear endpoint for most of it, this movie series came together impressively well.

When organizing this event, I billed it as "The Stupidest Thing You Will Do All Year." Twenty hours of continuous Harry Potter? Jamming eight people into a space better suited for five? Consuming unspeakable amounts of junk food and caffeine to stay focused? Well, with good company, thoughtful conversation, and frequent wisecracks, it wasn't so arduous after all--time flies when you use Wingardium Leviosa.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Lost in Space

I may have mentioned before that movies, television, books, comics, and video games are forms of escapism for me. I enjoy immersing myself in one fantasy world or another not just because it's entertaining, but because sometimes I need a break from the real world. For a few hours last night, I was lost in space.

It started with Out There Somewhere, an indie game I have the pleasure of reviewing for We occasionally receive review copies of games, as you may recall from my coverage of Gemini Rue and Tobe's Vertical Adventure, and OTS is my latest foray into the realm of attempting to play and review a pre-release game quickly enough for it to still be relevant.

OTS is a fun little puzzle-platformer in the same vein as VVVVVV, and I've been playing for at least a little while every night since I downloaded it. The game takes place on an alien-filled planet, and the hero uses his teleporter gun to leap around, Portal-style, in search of the bad guy. In other words, it's exactly my kind of game. Of all the entertainment I enjoy, I find myself gravitating most strongly toward thinky science-fiction.

Which is why it's appropriate I spent the rest of last night watching Star Trek with my wife.

Two episodes of Deep Space Nine and one episode of Voyager--"Soldiers of the Empire," "Children of Time," and "The Thaw," respectively. Though the Voyager episode suffered from a little bit of questionable science and a few poorly thought-out command decisions (which is typical of the early seasons especially), these episodes were thought-provoking, emotionally impactful, and just plain interesting, making for the greatest night of Star Trek we've had in a long time.

We were hooked, a little more than usual. "Just one more episode," we kept saying, throwing reasonable bedtimes to the wind. The real world would go on without us for a while. We were lost in space.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

Gameplaying the Fool

I don't believe I ever told you about the April Fools' joke I pulled last year.

It started out harmlessly enough--my YouTube playthrough of Mega Man 6 was running way behind schedule, and I had decided to give my anxious viewers a preview of the video I was working on. Nothing too spectacular; a little over a minute of raw footage with no commentary, but visually interesting enough to stand on its own. However, I wasn't just going to hand this over to my fans--if they were that eager to see some new material, then surely they wouldn't mind a scavenger hunt to find it.

Now, one thing that's important to understand is that a number of my viewers like to hang out on my channel, participate in ongoing conversations, and rewatch my videos with some degree of frequency. This is the kind of crowd you need to make a YouTube scavenger hunt work. I made the grand announcement that I had released an unlisted video--one you could only find if you had the video URL--and that I had scattered clues across my channel as to what the URL was.

Here it is in full:

I explained to my viewers that I had split the link into seven parts. The biggest chunk was easily visible on the main page of my channel; the rest were character pairs (letters, numbers, or symbols) hidden somewhere on the video page for six different videos, one from each Mega Man game I had worked on up to that point. By locating all the URL pieces and assembling them in order, viewers could access my top-secret bonus video. I admitted up front that it was most likely not worth the effort they'd put into finding it, but hopefully the search would be sufficiently entertaining.

I was impressed by the sportsmanship--people largely kept to themselves, and didn't ruin the surprise for anyone. There were a few pieces that people found particularly tricky to locate, but I gradually introduced more clues to point folks in the right direction. The biggest general hint I could give was to look for anything that was out of place.

Some of these were particularly devious.

In my channel profile, I provided the first part of the link:

In the description of one of my Mega Man 1 videos, I uncharacteristically ended one of my professional-looking explanatory sentences with the big grinning face emoticon. This emoticon also happened to be the next part of the URL: =D

I made a big deal in one of my videos about how I avoided cluttering up my videos with comment boxes (annotations); I added a comment box to the corner of a Mega Man 2 video with the next part of the URL: 08

I snuck one of the pieces into the title of a video: "Mega Man 3 - Part h2"

One of my video descriptions for Mega Man 4 was slightly altered to discuss: A video review / walkthrough / showoff video of Mega Man 4 (NES), WIth retrospective audio commentary.

Another piece was concealed as a video search tag for one of my Mega Man 5 installments: _Q

The last piece was hidden...somewhere in the description of a Mega Man 6 video, but for the life of me I cannot remember where. Presumably at the beginning or end of a word where I could subtly tack on an extra letter to form the character pair--for example, when talking about vYamato Man. Wherever it was, I recall this being one of the easier pieces to find.

The scavenger hunt went on for a few weeks. On April 1st, with the next official video still a ways away from completion, I decided to go public with the top-secret scavenger hunt an April Fools' joke.

Relatively few of my viewers had successfully located all the parts of the URL and seen the video, so this would be a perfect way to both share the secret with the masses and sucker them in with a gag at the same time. I made it the featured video on my channel, and passed it off as Part 5 (the next installment) of my Mega Man 6 run. The kicker was the video description:

After a series of major setbacks with the recording of my Mega Man 6 commentary, I was forced to either re-record the whole thing or just give up entirely. So, there's no commentary with this video.

It's been a lot of work to put together these videos, and I just don't have the time I used to, so this will probably be the last video I make. Sorry about that.

Disappointment. Tragedy. Outrage. Then the observant folks went on to read the video tags:

* not actually Part 5
* ha ha gotcha
* april fools

Laughter. Relief. Still outrage. A few people don't take kindly to April Fools' jokes. Mine was (inadvertently) extra sneaky because the video posting date wasn't April 1, but in fact March 3, making it appear that much more legit.

Still, as good a prank as I've ever pulled, not to mention the best scavenger hunt I think I've ever thrown. Things to keep in mind for the future, methinks.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Waiting for Wednesday, Volume 4, Issue 7

It’s always tough to write a Waiting for on a week where there’s just not that much new stuff that’s interesting to me. While that doesn’t happen all too often, I find myself facing that particular issue right now, actually, as I stare at the little blinking cursor and...well, whisper curses at it.

My list for the weekly comics shop sojourn is awfully short today, and even though there are a couple of books that I’m looking forward to picking up, I guess my comics enthusiasm has been quelled a bit because of stories like this and this, both of which broke over the past week or so.

I’m always saddened by tales of creators losing out on the things they created, and in both of the above cases, that appears to be exactly what’s going on.

I went through—on a much smaller level, mind you—an incident where a character I’d created was being claimed by someone else as their own. And let me tell you—even on the smallest level, that situation is absolutely not fun.

For me it was maddening, and just thinking about it makes me angry all over again.

So when I hear about things like what’s happening to Gary Friedrich—the creator of the most-recognized version of Ghost Rider—I tend to get a bit...punchy. I don’t mean that in the literal sense, but it does annoy me quite a bit thinking about what’s just plain right—if not in the legal sense, then certainly in the moral sense.

And the issues between Walking Dead co-creators Robert Kirkman and Tony Moore—high school friends who are now embroiled in a lawsuit concerning payment over Walking Dead royalties—make me sad, and put a bit of a damper on what was an otherwise excellent mid-season premiere episode of the show.

So, yeah, I’m a bit soured towards comics today.

It’s mind-boggling that basic creator rights issues still take place today in an industry with its fair share of outright creator-rights nightmares. It’s unfair, and frankly, unnecessary. Am I so naïve to think that giant corporations want to protect the properties they own? Of course not. But at the same time, I wish the same giant corporations would give something back to the creators that gave them—and fans—so much during their careers.

Right. I’m off my high horse for today.

As for today’s new comics? Well, quickly, there’s Batman, issue six, from writer Scott Snyder and artist Greg Capullo, and Wonder Woman, issue six, and both those books deserve lots of attention. Batman, particularly, has been wonderful. There’s also the fourth issue of Richard Moore’s Gobs, and issue nine of Mark Waid’s excellent Daredevil relaunch.

You really can’t go wrong with any of the above comics. So, while I go cool down a bit...what are you Waiting for?

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

Exfanding Review: Comic Book Men

So the mid-season premiere of Walking Dead and the premiere of the new reality series, Comic Book Men, have both come and gone.

Walking Dead absolutely (excuse the pun) killed it, ratings-wise, raking in over 8 million viewers on a night that was dominated by the Grammy Awards (which pulled in close to 40 million viewers). For its part, Comic Book Men did quite well following the zombie phenomenon Sunday night with 2 million viewers.

Reviews of the show, however, have been a mixed bag.

That’s to be expected, I’d say, and while I really enjoyed watching the series premiere and I liked the format of the show, there were times when the action dragged a bit.

But as an introductory episode to a new show, I think Sunday night’s premiere served the series well and I think the show is going to pick up from there.

Part Pawn Stars and part Clerks, Comic Book Men is, admittedly, exactly my kind of thing. So I’m biased, and while I can understand some of the critiques I’ve read (“there are no likeable characters”; “it propagates the ‘comic book guy’ stereotype”), I knew what to expect going in.

The guys on the show are funny, and a lot of their humor revolves around making fun of each other—they’re close friends, and, frankly, that’s what close friends do.

In that sense, Comic Book Men is one of the most “real” of the reality shows on TV—you get the feeling that these guys act this way towards each other with or without the cameras running. And, sure, some of the insults can seem mean-spirited, but if you listen to any of the multitude of View Askew podcasts out there, you’ll know that these guys are actually good friends and they spend a lot of time together.

The biggest surprise for me, actually, was just how much they focused on comic books—I honestly thought the store and the comics would be an afterthought, but in the first episode at least, that stuff was right up front in flashing lights.

So much so, in fact, that I’m not sure how much of a mainstream audience this show can bring in.

I applaud the show for going this route, though, and I will definitely be back for next week's episode.

Monday, February 13, 2012

Wrestling with the Facts

As you may have noticed if you've been following the blog these past few months, my blogging buddy Alex has been writing about wrestling a bit more that usual (read: at all). Traditionally, I'm the one to foist my fandoms on Alex (as was the case with Star Wars and Firefly), and traditionally, Alex is the one who misses the boat when it's his turn to make me watch Kevin Smith films (which I'm still waiting on, by the way). So, I figured I'd take it upon myself to exfand my horizons.

Between my grandfather and my middle school friends, I received enough of an exposure to know who some of the big names were in wrestling--Andre the Giant, Hulk Hogan, Sgt. Slaughter, The Rock, Stone Cold Steve Austin, Undertaker, Big Show, Triple H, etc.--but I was always on the sidelines of the fandom. I'd seen a few matches here and there, and had sat in on plenty of conversations, but there were still huge gaps in my education. Names like CM Punk and Mick Foley meant absolutely nothing to me when Alex brought them up in posts over the past year.

Poking around Netflix yielded exactly the kind of learning tools I'd been hoping for: WWE: Top 50 Superstars of All Time and OMG! The Top 50 Incidents in WWE History. Learn who the major players are, and then learn about the biggest events that have defined their universe--just like I've been doing with comics. So far this has proven to be an effective way of surveying fandoms, and my 4-1/2 hours of immersion in all things wrestling was no different.

Top 50 Superstars was interesting, celebrating fifty of the most popular, successful, controversial, and influential professional wrestlers from the past six decades, as chosen by the WWE's 2010 roster.

There was Killer Kowalski with his murderously large hands; The Fabulous Moolah, who, in addition to having a fantastic name, stayed involved in the business for decades; Ric Flair, who's exactly as flamboyant as his name suggests; Mr. Perfect, who did this incredibly impressive--and perfect--pencil twirl on live TV; "The Million Dollar Man" Ted DiBiase, who perfectly embodied the excess of the 1980s; Bob Backlund, the guy who held the championship title forever; and Kane, who's just plain scary.

I was impressed by the grace, style, creativity, and skill of the likes of Eddie Guerrero, Rey Misterio, Randy Orton, John Cena, and Edge. I was fascinated by the parts that Gorilla Monsoon, Iron Sheik, and Gorgeous George played in the history and culture of wrestling. I was amused by the strong personalities of Rick Rude and Rowdy Roddy Piper, and charmed by Junkyard Dog, "Superfly" Jimmy Snuka, and, yes, Mick Foley. After a segment on Shawn Michaels, preceded by snippets of interviews with CM Punk (among others) about these superstars, I was finally able to return to this post and this post and get all of Alex's references.

Actually, I'm getting ahead of myself. I still had OMG! The Top 50 Incidents in WWE History to watch before that could happen. Superstars left me with that warm feeling of, "this is a cool fandom; I could get into this." OMG!, while informative, left me with that warm feeling in my stomach of being violently ill.

It started with the theme music: Some rapper shouting "OH MY GOD!" and nothing but "OH MY GOD!" for what felt like a whole sixty seconds (which, in reality, was probably closer to only a minute). I expected this grating introduction to be followed by a show similar to Superstars--a comprehensive look at the most outrageous, unexpected, and significant moments of the past six decades of wrestling history. Instead, I got everything Stone Cold Steve Austin ever did throughout his entire career, plus that one time in 1984 where Roddy Piper smashed a coconut on Jimmy Snuka's head.

To top it all off, each of the 50 incidents was introduced with "OH MY GOD!" and the same ten or twenty seconds of obnoxious vamping from the song. I was ready to pull a Tim White by the end of it, and the fact that I even know what I'm referencing somewhat disgusts me.

I get that these were supposed to be the most shocking moments in wrestling, and I freely acknowledge that I'm a little sensitive about certain matters and a little squeamish about others. I was on board with anything that was extra theatrical for the sake of looking cool--like Jeff Hardy getting caught in the explosion of his own pyrotechnics, or Brock Lesnar collapsing the entire ring with a superplex, which was awesome--but so many of these incidents were just disturbing to me.

Impaling Randy Orton on a floor full of thumbtacks? Humiliating the tiny Haiti Kid by hoisting him up and shaving his head? Destroying aisle after aisle of a grocery store just to beat somebody up? Kidnapping the chairman's daughter and forcing her into some kind of unholy marriage rite? Driving away from a funeral you've interrupted with the coffin dragging from your truck?

These things look innocuous and even slightly silly in writing, but they made my skin crawl when watching them. Whether or not they were staged is beside the point; I was floored by the number of children I saw in the crowds--small children, at that--and glorifying these ideas with that kind of audience is downright twisted.

After watching the Superstars show, I had a debate with my wife--she argued that wrestling was senselessly violent, and I argued that it's really no different than any other violence taken out of context. Each of these characters in the ring has their own motives and backstories that are driving them to hit Jimmy Snucka with a coconut; The Dark Knight looks pretty senseless, too, if you only see the part where that dude gets stabbed through the hand with a pencil. The violence itself might still be distasteful to you, but it's unfair to judge it as senseless without the proper context.

After watching OMG!, I wasn't sure where I stood in that argument anymore.

The wrestling I remember from what I caught on television was good old-fashioned beatings. Some theatrics, to be sure, but nothing more outrageous than swinging around a steel chair or slamming someone against the wall of a cage--it's all blunt force trauma anyhow, whether you're using your hands or falling on people from the rafters. Barbed wire on a baseball bat? Well, maybe that's just me being squeamish.

What makes this so difficult for me--and what makes wrestling the spectacle it is--is how tough it can be to determine exactly what's real and what's just for show. There's a visceral thrill in the uncertainty of it all. If somebody gets tackled on a football field, you know the kind of injuries to expect. If somebody gets tortured in a movie, you can be confident it's all just make-believe. If "Macho Man" Randy Savage gets bitten by a snake in a wrestling ring, your imagination runs wild with possibilities, foiling all attempts to properly rationalize what's just happened.

Even with all the stomach-churning moments I endured throughout OMG!, I'm glad to have had the exposure; this blog was founded on the principle of promoting an understanding between geeks, and this is one fandom where I've been out of the loop for some time, and to a bigger degree than I ever realized. Am I an expert yet? By no means. But I finally understand what it means to be the "Heartbreak Kid," and I think that counts for something.