real romance

Like so many things in their relationship, Tom saw little romance in Stella getting her freedom from her mother.

Tom was a little angry at himself for wishing for more drama. He had to admit part of him deeply wanted it– maybe a cathartic moment where Stella could yell all the hurt and frustration out, or that last second swerve where his Stella’s mother asked who he was and showed some interest in the life she’d carried inside her a little under 17 years ago. Something to show Colette wasn’t an utter failure as Stella’s sole parent.

All that happened was Stella setting the form on the table beside the recliner, Colette looking just long enough to find the signing line with a put upon air, and then the bitch that had utterly missed what a remarkable woman she’d given birth to turned back to the TV.

They gathered the few things Stella wanted that she hadn’t already slipped over to their place, and left. No heartfelt reconciliation, no shouting match that ended it all– though on reflection, Tom had to ask himself: ended what?

It lacked romance, in any sense of the word. Continue reading real romance

Reality Vs. the Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant

Reality Vs. The Fable of the Dragon-Tyrant

As read by CPG Grey, adapting from the work of Nick Bostrom. I’m also going to spoil the 2017 Prey.

First off. Mr. Grey. I often find you inspiring. Mr. Bostrom, you seem like a together fellow.

And I am not challenging your ideal of ending our slow degeneration toward death. Whether or not this effort succeeds, the study has the potential to make lives better.

Rather, I find that because it is an aspirational tale it is like many an aspirational tale; it does not encompass the full scope of the path to that aspiration. That is not its job. I am not arguing that it is.

Rather, as a reader, as someone thinking about it after– that’s my job.

It’s odd what can prompt such critiques. My thoughts on what caused me unease with the fine tale Bostrom crafted to convey the emotion of his cause finally coalesced after watching, of all things, Noah Gervais’ overview of the two games bearing the name ‘Prey’.

During the second part of the video (around the 28 minute mark), Noah takes some time to describe how the villain in scientific progress run amok stories has to change to fit the times– or at least the possibilities seem to broaden. The part I want to hook into is only partially the bit where he notes that Transtar in game is by all outside measures a model place to work… but is killing humans to forward their ends. I am not putting that sort of horrid action on Grey, Bostrom, or any scientists they may support– I rather think they’d be horrified at the idea of their aspiration going down such a path, given the value they place on human existence.

But watch on. Gervais notes that part of the game’s lore has the company who built a space elevator— one of those great old sci-fi aspirational symbols– monopolizing said elevator, and more over stopping other elevators from being built. More elevators may just lead to a golden age of space travel.

And this is what I want us to remember.

There is not just the good just king. 

The Dragon-Tyrant paints a metaphorical picture of us all banding together to end death– it is, point of fact, a rallying cry to do so.

I’d love if we could. I’d hope we would.

My readings of history, sociology, and psychology make me wary of those that won’t.

I acknowledge, this is an idealized, aspirational fable. It’s meant to inspire, to rally us to your cause. It’s a good one.

But once we are inspired by our fables and find the reason to back our convictions, we must guide the ideals we have through a very complex real world.

We humans are a diverse lot. Many will join you in that aspiration. Mr. Grey, Mr. Bostrom, I am not arguing that they won’t.

Rather, I ask that you recognize– whatever good things may come from your quest, worthy as it is whether or not it bears the fruit you seek– there is not just the good king. If you want the wondrous things you hope for to be available to all, to be something for everyone…

Well, you’re in a race to the future, guys. Try and find the fastest path so you get there before those that would lock it behind a paywall or reserve it for those they deem worthy.

I’m Going to Now Sing the Praises of: Noah Gervais

I love good video game criticism. It fills an urge in me that isn’t really filled currently.

I haven’t been able to afford much gaming these days. Truth be told, what gaming I do tends to be on my phone– and these days, by god, do I have to wade through the Play Store to find games that come in one piece or at least have some sanity to their revenue models. I haven’t owned a console since the original Wii. The not-to-old-but-just-old-enough Dell laptop I’m typing this on is just old enough that my Steam account sits unused, despite some Humble Bundle budget pricing. I cannot run Minecraft on it, though I can run it’s free software cousin Minetest. It settles that urge to go out and buy legos while avoiding the fear I’ll lose them all, anyway.

I get snatches of modern gaming via friends and let’s plays… but it does kind of suck not being able to fire up my computer just to play Salt and Sanctuary, or Bastion, or Gone Home… though I can sometimes massage the Dell to let me revisit old friends.

My first FPS was Wolfenstein. My first side scroller was Ninja Gaiden– Mario came later for me. And my first adventure game was Police Quest.  I used them to retreat from being labeled both gifted and learning disabled, a seeming paradox I’m willing to bet is far more common than people think.

Gaming was a space I could relax in, with simple expectations. Are you good at game? Good. You get more game. Are you bad at game? Keep playing, you’ll make it. The day I beat the final boss of Ninja Gaiden– damn, that second stage, especially if you ran out of power for your secondary attack– was a moment I cherish. This was a time I managed to succeed in something for myself, set for myself by myself. No matter what my mother tried.

Gaming was, bluntly, one of those joys my mom tried to steal from me. I bought Wolfenstein– and she proceeded to try to be the only one to play it. The NES was a gift from family friends, a touching one– and she attempted to turn it into hers with endless games of Tetris.

Thankfully, even on easy most games eventually frustrated her. And then I bought Doom and she stopped trying to monopolize yet another corner of my life. Doom’s complexity was not worth fucking with to fuck with me.

To this day, I have no idea whether my mother honestly found joy in these games or it was merely another avenue to gas light and restrict us. All I know is like many things in my life, it was something we could have shared that she ended up trying to make hers alone. I’m glad she failed.

BJ Blazkowicz and Doomguy, along with Commander Keen and Ryu Hayabusa in the sidescrollers and Graham, Sonny, and Guybrush over in the adventure games were my friends at times when between my mother at home and the bullies at school, I felt like I had none. Not being able to ‘keep up’ with gaming makes me a bit sad, even as I’m able to ‘adult’ enough to realize that money is needed elsewhere right now.

Good, insightful video game critiques help me stay in touch with gaming during this drought of actual ability, and I have to say among the best is Noah Gervais. Heads up, Gervais’ work is mostly on Youtube, so links to examples will be videos.

I love Noah’s opening– the title on paper, often handwritten, often with a bit of business involving the old audio visual equipment he has around or just whatever’s at hand that he can make fit. There’s personality here, the kind you must have if you’re going do such lofi presentation. The personal touch at the end of videos of reading a handwritten list of his higher tier Patreon patrons– including his dad, which he credits with also holding the camera in one of the bits. He doesn’t do the live openings anymore, but that’s agreeable. It lets Noah get to the meat of the critique– and Noah can find meat even on bones some consider picked over.

I’ve never had a machine that can handle Call of Duty, and have never been able to get into the modern FPS and war shooters. After Noah’s nuanced and personal reflection on the series, I could see both why players like these games– and more importantly, how when something you love goes off the program it can make you mad even as you still love it. His follow up later on the games released since that video expanded the emotion, and clarified the feeling underlying the first– it is their stories that keep CoD from being, truly, the same game every year (which sort of puts the choice to make Black Ops 4 multiplayer only in a bright interrogation room spotlight, just saying).

I love how Noah will connect the stories and mechanics of the games he looks at to his life– whether using his own struggles with depression to show that Depression Quest is far more universal than those that used it as a cludgeon against ‘the feminists’ would like it to be seen, to sharing how a reading by Levar Burton took him back to his childhood while talking about the fundamental anti-escapism of Planescape: Torment (a game I have played, and loved), to how hollow some of Postal’s posturing comes across when you’ve been at the suffering end— which also contains the most direct definition, clarification, and defense of the term “toxic masculinity” I’ve ever heard.

The Video of his I loved most of all, though, is his Wolfenstein retrospective. Of all the things I want to play but have only gotten snippets of time with, The New Order is one of the biggest. Did you know that Wolfenstein started out as a top down Apple gig, one of the first stealth games? I didn’t. Wolfenstein has history, spanning over thirty years of gaming– thirty seven or eight years, if recall serves. It is only barely younger than I am. Finding out how my good and faithful friend handled itself when I couldn’t spend time with it was amazing– and I ache to play New Order and truly get to know BJ. That’s thanks to Noah.

Note I said loved. That Wolfenstein video is awesome, but it’s two years old. In a recent video, Noah introduced me to an entire genre I was not aware existed. Survival strategy. I am getting Frostpunk as soon as I have a machine that can handle it. Imagine it, sitting down and mapping out a genre that’s been ignored– from Outpost to Frostpunk, and the key stops in between– that’s just amazing.

Like all critics, he has his quirks– I wait with baited breath for the use of the word “charisma” in one of his videos– but for his insight, for the doorway into gaming his work gives me… well, he’s one of the few people I apologise to when I have to change my Patreon level.

Luke and Jessica on the Couch [taking a moment 01] (spoilers)

Let’s take a moment.

Today, the moment I want to look at is from one of my favourite comic book series of all time, created by writer Brian Michael Bendis and artist Michael Gaydos for Marvel. It’s where Jessica Jones (one of the two best things in the whole Netflix Defenders thing) comes from, and it was called Alias. Which is why her Netflix show was called Jessica Jones.

This particular moment features Luke Cage (the other best element of Defenders). And it features Jessica and Luke sitting on a couch.

Now, this is part of the acclaimed final arc of Alias, Purple. We’ve learned Jessica’s origins just prior to this arc, and just before the moment I want to focus on Jessica– after having stumbling into Luke’s apartment drunk, claiming he’s not half the man her sometimes employer Matt Murdock is, throwing up, passing out, and waking up in her bra and panties because Luke wanted to get her clothes to the cleaners– has put on one of Luke’s old trademark yellow shirts and had an explanation for this latest bender cajoled out of her.

Her latest case has to do with Killgrave, the Purple Man. And once she explains the very personal reasons she has to dread Killgrave, we understand why she is insistently a PI and not a superhero. Why she’d turn down the Avengers. What she’s dealing with everyday.

But that’s not the moment. The moment I want to look at is this:

Alias 26-28.JPG

Through this all– by joking with her rather than lecturing her, by listening rather than interpreting, and basically being her best friend in the sense of best acting like one– Luke has gotten the story her boyfriend Scott Lang assumed a SHIELD or Avengers file could tell him, has not assumed to know her and what’s best for her like Carol Danvers did. And when the story leaves her drained, he offers comfort. He offerers her an out from confronting Killgrave– not insisting she has to face him for closure, but when she asserts her choice shifting to accepting it and supporting her.

This was pretty much the moment I made Jessica/ Luke one of the only couples I ship, yes. Even if the ending of Alias didn’t put them together, though… this moment was the ‘button’ on a scene where someone finally took Jessica Jones where she is– rather than where she was or where they thought she should be. And it made both Jessica and Luke forever awesome in my eyes.

followup: a note on the 303 and Black Summer

these musings contain spoilers for the books mentioned

Since I recently mentioned Black Summer, it might be a good time to mention it in context of another Avatar Press book. 303, by Garth Ennis and Jacen Burrows.

After all, those are the books that got buzz for featuring The American President being assassinated. In Black Summer, it’s a superhero doing the killing. In 303, a old Russian Colonel.

Both make excellent points that stand this decade or so later.

Besides the deconstruction of superheroes seen in Black Summer, Ellis also makes many points about how we deal with crises, what human drives we have (and how that can unify and divide people), and what the landscape we’re creating can produce.

Ennis gives us a taut and very grounded military/ political thriller. His points are about how wars are fought today, how isolation from the people fighting can make their leaders more easily ignore the cost, or decide it worthy, and about war profiteering and politicking.

Of the two, I do find myself liking Black Summer more.

I read these books back to back, 303 and Black Summer.

In the end, both our assassins die.

But in 303, the assassination is the climax. There’s almost a wish fulfillment there, wanting someone to bring the violence they are so isolated from back to those in power, wanting to see yourself (as the Colonel comes to) as a servant, or even force of history. And yes, we see the president’s wife cry, we know a gunship gets the Colonel and gives him an end to his hauntings. And so, that bullet serves as an exclamation point to Ennis’ very pointed musings on duty, and being ground down by life, and people in power thinking they are above being ground.

What struck me after reading 303 and going to Summer was how Ellis placed John Horus calmly announcing he’s killed the president and the man’s Secret Service detail to the press there for a White House press conference at the start. It’s the inciting incident, and Horus makes his motives clear in a few pages. He’s perhaps the most powerful of the Seven Guns of the setting, and he’s got demands.

(He’s also the man in white. There’s a comparison to be made to Beserk and Dark Souls and other media that reverse who wears white and black in the story, but let’s put a pin in that.)

After his act and ultimatum, his fellow “Gun Enhanciles” are faced with the fall out, and all hell breaks loose.

The climax, after lines are drawn and destroyed and redrawn and almost forgotten in the chaos, is three men dying in a graveyard via massive ball of flame.

It comes down to Tom Noir (yes, the one in black, but we’re pinning that for now) cornering his one-time friends John Horus and Frank Blacksmith. John killed the President. Frank went to work for the government and planned the incident that cost John half his left leg and the love of his life in an effort to neutralize the Guns.

And Tom tells them both off. John and Frank, in his mind, are ultimately idiots. And the same kind of idiot at that.

He point blank tells John killing the President didn’t make him “Two Fisted Jesus for the American way.” It makes him Lee Harvey Oswald. It makes him the asshole with a gun who shot someone particularly important.

Frank is no better, blindly joining authority, planning ways to kill his friends, and framing it as some sort of sacrifice to make a better world.

The crux of why I love the end of Black Summer so much is this.

After Tom uses his girlfriend’s gun to cremate himself and John and Frank to death, his last statement broadcasts over the airwaves.

Frank and John’s mistake, Tom says, was deciding they had the right to chose for everybody. Caring so much about saving the day, they forgot the future they were supposedly fighting for.

As vigilantes, he and his friends acted outside the law. John, he asserts, never got that he was a criminal the second he used his enhancements to fight crime. They may have acted outside the law for justice, but they were not beyond it.

Then he broadcasts the proof of war crimes by the Administration, where the bodies are buried, who did what– the evidence that perhaps led John to his choice– to the nation at large. A simple message, offering a choice, that was recorded while he waited for his oldest friend and former mentor to come and be killed.

Tom Noir knew he was a man that became a criminal to serve justice. This fact did not put him and his friends beyond the law.

It didn’t make them the law.

Degrees of Humanity: Warren Ellis’ Super-Hero Decon trilogy (under the influence 02 )

Watchmen— deservedly– gets a lot of love. It’s something of a watershed title, seen as both for good and bad introducing a bit of ‘reality’ and ‘darkness’ to the super-hero set.

I do enjoy Watchmen. Not my favourite Alan Moore book (we’ll get to that later) but it’s Alan Moore. There maybe one or two things he’s done that I see as falling flat.

But my favourite super-hero deconstruction is not Watchmen.

In three stories published by Avatar Press, Warren Ellis gave us perhaps the most to the point deconstruction of superheroes ever. Less formalistic than Moore and Gibbons’ iconic Watchmen, less mired in distaste than Ennis and Robertson’s blackly funny The Boys, I find myself coming back to Black Summer, No Hero, and Supergod more than the others mentioned.

Moore dissected the genre. Ennis went on a merry stabbing spree with it.

Ellis instead looked at the scans and tests and made three decisive cuts to extract what he wanted us to look at.

These three storylines are each in their own universe, but all share Ellis putting the concept of heroes through its paces. For my money, these three books are among the best critiques of superheroes you’ll see, and I think the reason is simple.

Unlike Moore, Ellis doesn’t take everything apart to get at this point. He is more targeted, the difference between an autopsy and extracting a tumour. Rather than change everything at once, he limits himself to one or two aspects, like a researcher running a trial.

And unlike Ennis, Ellis doesn’t hate super-heroes. He doesn’t even have Mark Millar‘s somewhat trollish urge to hold up the genre’s flaws and go, “so this is what we like? Really?”

Ellis has actually confessed to being somewhat bemused by the type of comics he’s often written over the years. He wasn’t raised on superheroes. In order to write them, the man honestly gave a bit of time to trying to figure out America’s dominant form of comics.

Ellis has once or twice noted that he usually has to approach a superhero book as another genre. This naturally lets him take advantage of the fact that superheroes at their best are like rock music– often helped by a good, solid hit of outside influence. It also leads most of his work in the genre to be somewhat deconstructive.

His “Extremis” story for Marvel’s Iron Man was very much a futurist’s tale that just happened to have the best written Tony Stark in years in it– and took the character back to base principals and then forward.

Ultimate Galactus was strongly an alien invasion/ genocide attack story. It also wonderfully broke down such a story’s typical narrative (there’s a chilling element of psychological warfare to how this world eater prepares his food), made Galactus truly alien in a way the movies couldn’t manage, and made it a truly galactic threat rather than a mere villain for the Fantastic Four.

And these Avatar books?

These three books throw this approach in sharp relief in a way.

Black Summer, No Hero, and Supergod– because they are addressing the stuff of super heroes directly– still have the framework of this approach. But it is also Ellis looking closer at some of the things the way he usually writes heroes drives to the edges.

Ellis over these three books draws the sharpest of attentions to a fact that super hero lovers and haters both miss– the key problem with the extremes super heroes oftens inhabit (be they the extreme moral high ground of the most archetypal portrayals of Superman or the over the top dark humour of Ennis and Robertson’s The Boys) is that they don’t really deal with the core of what can make our heroes feel ‘well realized’ or ‘flat’.

Humanity.

The true realism that superheroes may ‘lack’, all acceptable breaks from reality excused, is that they lack a sense of humanity– even in lacking it. At the core of a truly badly written superhero is often a lack of personality– it is not, as some claim, that they come off as sociopathic or inhuman. That would still register as real, as a human possibility.

Even today, superheroes can fall to register on a scale as possibly being human, and this is a death knell for engagement on a deeper level. There is a fundamental disconnect between what was intended, and what the reader perceives. There is nothing real there, or that it isn’t real enough for the suspension of disbelief.

Even given a sense of personality, whatever degree or form of humanity (or inhumanity) you do give our super-human guardians, Ellis finds there are ways for things to go wrong.

The three books represent three different viewpoints that can be seen behind the powers. Black Summer’s Gun enhanciles are all too human– the salvation of some, and the doom of others. The ultimate man behind it all in No Hero is in many ways inhumane– and heed the warning on the title. You will find no hero here– though if you squint you may see the same vein of humanity Ennis so lauded in Ellis’ Transmetreopolitan. Sugergod, finally, shows us truly inhuman forces… and the risks of giving all the power to some non-human ‘other’.

The scale of disaster varies, but I think it’s fair to say each is somewhat apocalyptic by the end. Sometimes on a rather personal level, and sometimes global.

Crowley in his Tarot interpretations renamed the apocalyptic major arcana card “Judgement” to “Revelation”. And all three of the moments of judgement in these three stories are very revealing.

Works that shaped my perspective. Under the Influence.

under the influence 1: Coping with Horror: Gravel

Cosmic horror has an uphill battle with me; I’m an atheistic little materialist shit who wants to know ‘sez who?’ when you try and class your story as about things ‘man was not meant to know’.

The reason I love Warren EllisGravel stories from Avatar Press (usually ably aided by co-writer/ artist Mike Wolfer) is that there is genuine horror here.

The first story, Strange Kiss, opens with combat magician Sgt Major William Gravel, SAS, watching one of his few friends die as a bunch of half dead lizards attempt to be born from him.

Another stand out from later in the longform Gravel series: one of Gravel’s fellow magicians sucking on the teat of a strange near mammal near reptile god he’s summoned from beyond that’s eating little girls from the local town.

The climax of Bad Medicine, a story centred on racial relations in London, England, still chills me to this day as the city boils over and Bill fights… really to save one small boy and avenge another dead friend.

And ah, there’s the crux of it.

Gravel wrings genuine terror, disgust, and a sense of wrongness from these things– and then Bill fucking deals with it. Because he is a soldier, born army and works for food. This is the life he was handed, and Bill fucking deals with it.

One of the core concepts of the whole thing is just that– it doesn’t matter if it’s a pandimensional lizard god, Britain’s own highest magicians, or a scientist’s experiments gone wild. Lovecraft and others keep trying to play up the helplessness aspect, but a more interesting answer than, “no, you cannot hope to cope with the horrible vowelless one!” will always be “yes, but there is a price– and isn’t that just life?”