It's hard to believe that the film adaptations of LORD OF THE RINGS are now over a decade old. It seems like only yesterday my brother Ryan and I were settling into our seats at the cinema in Red Deer, Alberta to watch the theatrical cut of THE FELLOWSHIP OF THE RING in 2001. At the time, I had reasonable, if relatively low expectations for the film. Traditionally to that point Fantasy as a movie genre had experienced only middling success over the past few decades: there were the odd diamonds in the rough (your DRAGONHEART, your WILLOW, your BEASTMASTER), but none of them had really had any definitive staying power and after CONAN THE DESTROYER's rather disappointing follow up to CONAN (the film that had sparked the brief Fantasy revival in movies), the genre was treated much like the Western is now; they can be done, but usually as low-rent, direct to VHS or low-rent cable fare. At the time I had no idea who Jackson was beyond the fact that he'd directed THE FRIGHTENERS(I was blissfully unaware of MEET THE FEEBLES. I will never be that innocent again). I remembered liking the flick, so I thought we'd get something akin to that, with the usual low-rent effects and swiss-chesse narrative of the Bakshi attempt at the Lord of the Rings from years prior. And then the credits rolled, the New Line Cinemas logo appeared. . .and everything changed.
A moment of painful honesty here: While Tolkien's work as a visionary and a fantasist is beyond dispute, his actual prose tends to leave me a little cold. As an idea man he is without equal. Much like Isaac Asimov, the man created concepts, whole culutres and worlds from the fabric of his imagination. He created the Elvish language in his idle time teaching at Oxford. . .and then created the whole of Middle-Earth to support the linguisitic equivalent of doodling. That is amazing beyond all the telling of it. But his prose has always been a bit problematic to me. I think it suffers from an unfortunate case of bad timing, really: by the time I got my hands on the 1992 Centenary Editions of LORD OF THE RINGS and THE HOBBIT, I'd already been to Krynn, the Hyborian Age, Melnibone, Lankhmar, Florin, and Camelot. The works of Tolkien were good, make no mistake, but in the wake of those more contemporary authors I was left wondering what the big deal was all about. I was seventeen, people. Grade on a curve is all I'm saying.
What Fran Walsh, Peter Jackson, Phillipa Goyens, and Steve Sinclair managed with the adaptations of each of the three texts to film I liken to William Goldman's grandfather in THE PRINCESS BRIDE: they provided "The Good Parts" version of the original work. Of course, it could also be argued that they took more than a few liberties with the series (THE HOBBIT becoming the basis of an entirely new trilogy of films stands testament to that) but I like to think where they erred, they did so on the side of telling an entertaining story, not out of malice or in any effort to upstage Tolkien himself. The novels will always stand as touchstones of epic fantasy, and the films themselves do their best to honor that.
THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES is by no means a perfect film: the romance sub-plot is eye-rolling at best and irritating at worst(seriously, Tauriel is seventeen shades of badass but the minute Kili comes into view she gets distracted and beat down? C'mon now), and it was getting to be a bit much to see Legolas constantly playing in God mode(though the impossible happened and he actually ran out of arrows, which was something at least), serving at the Ace Rimmer of Jackson's Tolkienverse. But Richard Armitage's Thorin Oakenshield is easily one of my favorite characters in fantasy film, thanks to the actor's wonderful performance. Whereas Viggo Mortensen's Aragorn wanted no part of his lineage, Thorin is desperate to reclaim it, to see Erebor restored and his people brought back from the misery they endured at Smaug's talons. In the hands of a lesser actor he could have easily gone moustache-twirling, hammy evil when suffering from the Dragon Sickness of the treasure and his need for the Arkenstone, but Armitage makes it clear that there is a very real war going on in the soul of this noble dwarf, to the point I almost expected a Superman III-style fight between King Thorin and Thorin Oakenshield atop the lake of gold.
Martin Freeman's Bilbo isn't given as much to do here as he did in the previous films, but he is the heart of the films and it shows. His concern for Thorin's sanity, his compassion at the plight of his friend going more and more obessessed with the Arkenstone contrasts neatly with Bilbo's own growing fascination with an object that is equally. . .precious. . .to him.The scene where he takes his leave of Erebor and the dwarves. . .when he says goodbye to Balin and when he returns home. . .if your eyes don't get a little dusty, you're a stronger person than I.
And while yes, the scene with Gandalf's rescue is pure fanservice, I cannot in good conscience state I was at all put out by the arrival of the White Council in the nick of time, to say nothing of the epic smackdown given to the Nine and Sauron. Unnecesary? Maybe. Fun? Ohhhhh hells yes.
All the actors are doing solid, credible work here, but c'mon. We all know Billy Connolly walked off with the movie as Dain Ironfoot. Peter, Fran, Phillipa. . .when do I get my Dain Ironfoot movie? Whose palm do I place the money in? Tell me when to stop.
It's strange to think that the last of these films (THE HOBBIT: THE BATTLE OF THE FIVE ARMIES) has been released, and with it the entire saga of Tolkien on film has come to its conclusion. As a society raised in part by syndicated television and movie sequels the concept of the third act and the conclusion has always been a problematic one. Stephen King argues in his magnificent ON WRITING that the reason we have so many Fantasy novels stems from that primal desire to continue walking that road that leads ever on, for we cannot fully accept in our minds that the story has come to a close. As a superhero fan, I'm keenly aware of this willful resistance: supehero stories consist entirely of first and second acts. There will never be a final Superman story or final Batman story (WHATEVER HAPPENED TO THE MAN OF TOMORROW & THE DARK KNIGHT RETURNS are mere shadows, 'what-ifs' or 'imaginary stories' that take place outside of canon). Those characters will continue to be written and rewritten, due to a near primal desire to have the familiar reinterpreted for a new generation. But even the best stories end eventually. Arthur faces Mordred at the battle of Camlann, Robin Hood fires his last arrow to mark his gravestone, Beowulf slays the dragon and is in turn slain himself. The best stories end because the destination is as important as the journey itself. Like Bilbo, we come home from the best stories a little older, a little wiser, and with the understanding that it is who we are when standing among good company or playing riddles in the dark that ultimately matters. Be it on the big screen or in the pages of a novel, the journey itself is what's important, and while one story may end we can take comfort in the knowledge that there will be new roads to travel, with new people to meet and new lessons to learn. And that is an encouraging thought.
I turned 39 years old this week. That's a chunk of change, to be sure. So like most adults who reach this point in their life, I want to talk about monkeys. Specifically the ending of DAWN OF THE PLANET OF THE APES and what it means for the franchise as a whole. It goes without saying that pretty much everything below this point is SPOILER country, so if you haven't seen the film (and seriously, why is that? I mean, you did see the trailer where a chimpanzee is dual-wielding machine guns whilst riding on horseback, right? RIGHT?), you may want to take the time to check it out. Seriously, both the Apes movies are way better than any of the fly-by-night remakes and revamps of recent years.
All right? We good? Here we go. Fairly warned be ye:
The ending of DAWN has Caesar (masterfully played by Andy 'Can This Man Get A Damn Oscar Already' Serkiss) send Malcom (Jason Clarke) on his way, reunited with his people and having defeated Koba(played to extremely disturbing effect by Toby Kebbell). Caesar holds his family close, but you can tell from the look in his eyes that this victory is practically the textbook definition of pyrhrric. We're allowed the moment of 'victory' because of the three-act structure of the film but you can see it in Caesar's eyes. He is absolutely screwed and he knows it.
Caesar's development over the course of the two Apes films is easily one the franchise's greatest achievements. It would have been all too easy to set him up as a slavering lunatic, rabidly anti-human and plotting for the complete and total overthrow of humanity from the get-go in the best supervillain tradition. Instead, they let the story build gradually, allowing us to bond with Caesar and the Rodmans as people rather than merely archetypes to get us to the scene of astronauts screaming at the sight of a ruined statue of Liberty. Like any of us Caesar is the product of his environment, he sees both the good and the bad in humanity but it's ultimately the bad that has him take his genetically modified tribe into the wilderness to raise at a safe remove. That humanity is decimated by the coincidental release of a supervirus that brings about the near-total collapse of civilization is something that I think Casear regrets, but not too much. He sees humans as deeply flawed but not an evil to be eradicated. The trouble is he feels that his people are better, that their burgeoning civilization is the superior one. Enter Koba.
Koba is one seriously twisted individual. He hates humanity with an absolute passion, and here's the most damning thing: he is not entirely wrong. He sufferred brutally at the hands of the scientists at Gen-Sys, his experiences about as close to a 180 degree turn from Caesar's as you can get. I love that in this film, both sides get an equal say, and both have valid points to make. Especially when Koba catches wind that Dreyfuss(Gary Oldman in a solid role) is preparing for war, just in case the Apes decide that they don't want to cooperate. The humans need that electricity, and while Dreyfuss wants Malcom to succeed, he and his people have lost too much too soon to trust the altruism of a species that (for all they know) originated the plague that killed his wife and family. Koba sees this as vindication of all his beliefs about humans: lying, backstabbing, cheating, and murderous. His world view is simple: The Strong control the Weak. Humanity was Monstrous when they were strong. Now Apes are Strong, and the Humans are Weak. The Apes should seize this moment and kill the humans. All of them. And if Caesar can't see this. . .then Caesar has to go. Koba is so blinded by his hatred that he can't see how much he has in common with his enemy. And Caesar is so blinded by his idealism that he can't see how much his people have in common with Humans. It's an amazing character study, one that I remind you is in a film who only really had to deliver the sight of a chimpanzee dual-wielding machine guns on horseback to have my complete approval.
But the absolute best thing about the film is that it ends on a triumphantly bleak note. Koba may have been defeated and the Apes may have escaped Dreyfuss' suicide gambit, but in that last moment before the credits roll we see in Caesar's eyes that he realizes how absolutely doomed he is. Koba may have died, but in death he achieved exactly what he wanted: a war between humanity and the apes. And we as the viewers know (from previous experience with the franchise) the outcome of that war: Caesar will lead his people to victory over the humans, with humanity becoming the slave caste of a dominant civilization of intelligent primates. Caesar's name will be revered, but it will be as the heroic liberator of apekind from human tyranny. He'll be a figure of religious awe, not a person. And in that moment at the end of the film you can almost see the mantle of that future history settle around his shoulders. It's a great moment of acting from Serkiss and the reason that it's one of my favorite movies to come out this year. A character goes from child to adult to leader to legend. . .in a movie about talking apes.
Ps. (Seriously, that scene with the machine guns. . .so. Awesome.)
Luke: "I'll not leave you here. I've got to save you."
Anakin: "You already have."
I don't know about the rest of you, but my fandom tends to be cyclical. There will be times in the cycle where you cannot get me to shut up about Doctor Who, or other periods where tabletop roleplaying games are the most important thing ever, but eventually the wheel turns and I find something else to obsess over. It's been that way for as long as I can remember, I've always been the Kid With The Book, the kid who'd sit up late watching VHS tapes of movies seen dozens upon dozens of times before. But certain stories, certain characters, they stay with you. They become part of your own internal architecture, foundation stones that help define who you are and--maybe more importantly--who you'd like to be.
If there are two pillars to the infrastructure of my psyche one would have to be Superman, of course. I've spoken of my admiration for the Man of Tomorrow elsewhere in the blog, and believe me, I can always say more. He was the hero who I encountered first as a child, and I imprinted on him. But standing beside him, like some colossal duo of statues a la the sequence post-Moria in Fellowship of the Ring, would be the figure of Luke Skywalker. Star Wars has been a part of my life so long it's like discussing an essential element or fundamental force, like water or gravity. But of all the characters, I identify with Luke the most. Why is that?
Part of it's likely due to the fact that, well, we're all supposed to identify with Luke. He's the viewpoint character in Star Wars (A New Hope if you want to be technical but I'm Old School, so I'm calling it by it's original name), the everyman who leaves the world of his humdrum life and gets caught up in the affairs of droids, Jedi, smugglers, and princesses. He's the embodiment of the Hero of Myth, and given that Joseph Campbell's The Hero With A Thousand Faces was a major source of inspiration for George Lucas, it's not hard to see just how easily Luke fits in with other heroes of yore. Of late though, George seems to have come around to thinking that the six primary Star Wars films are the story of Anakin Skywalker; his fall from grace and redemption over the course of the saga forming its foundation. And while I can agree that a case can be argued for Anakin as the protagonist of the prequel trilogy, and certainly an important figure as Darth Vader in the original three films, I would argue that the hero of Star Wars remains Luke Skywalker.He is the best of a galaxy far, far away.
I'm an Arthurian fan through and through. I love the stories of chivalry, and the stories of the Knights of the Round Table are some of my favorites (from Thomas Mallory to T.H. White). But that love got its foundation through the Jedi Knights, the Guardians of Peace and Justice in the Old Republic. Note that phrase, it's going to be important later. The depiction of the Jedi in the original trilogy; this mixture of warrior and wizard, the lightsabers, the notion of using your power for knowledge and defense, never for attack. . .it was all so wonderful. And then the prequels happened.
Take it easy, I'm not going after the prequels and I'm not joining in the haterdom. Indulge me for a moment or two and let me explain.
The Phantom Menace may have its faults (midichlorians and a Jar-Jar Binks that isn't the funny character I laughed at in the underwater craft being among them) but the thing it does have in abundance is Jedi Knights that are absolutely bad. ASS. C'mon, tell me you didn't love that opening sequence as Qui-Gon Jinn and Obi-Wan Kenobi just lay waste the battle droids, storming the command deck of the Trade Federation ship and only being driven away at the last second by the droid equivalent of a tank. That opening was bananas, and I was on the edge of my seat. I loved it to death. The rescue of Queen Amidala, the journey to Tatooine. . .I was hooked. Then we meet Anakin. . .and find out he's a slave. And that the Jedi are aware of this. And it is tolerated. In a universe with the Jedi. The guardians of peace and justice. And yet there are slaves. Guardians of peace and justice. Slavery. You can begin to see the cognitive disconnect here.
Over the course of the prequels we come to learn that, yes, the Jedi Knights are protectors all right, but they've become so tied into and bogged down by their dealings with the Republic that they've become little more than the enforcement arm of the Supreme Chancellor. They've gotten so used to being seen as Wise and Enlightened and Strong that they've essentially bought into their own hype, to the point that they cannot see what is happening directly in front of them. Its even mentioned in Attack of the Clones that the Jedi Order's ability to use the Force has diminished. The source of their power has found them unworthy. And yet they continue in their belief that their logic and way of thinking is right, to the point that they go into a galactic conflict with an army whose origins are mysterious at best and outright sketchy at worst and a for the cause of . . .what exactly? People wanting to leave a Republic they feel is corrupt? The guardians of peace and justice become the agents of dogma and the status quo. To the point that even after the Jedi Order is gone, Yoda and Obi-Wan are still so locked into that way of thinking that they don't consider just leveling with Luke and telling him the truth. No, they feed him a mixture of half-truths and point him at Vader and the Emperor like a gun. It's all part of their plan, which is to counter Palpatine's plan. There's just one problem.
Luke Skywalker is a hero.
From the beginning, Luke's compassion is prevalent. Yeah, he may be a little whiny and a lot green about the gills, but he's concerned for his friends, be they organic or synthetic, and his first thought upon seeing the fragment of Princess Leia's message (beyond the creepy in hindsight attraction) is his notion that he thinks she's in trouble and immediately wants to help. This desire to help others gets a bit bogged own by his sense of duty to his aunt and uncle, but even when he's trying to turn old Ben down his responses are half-hearted at best. And upon losing the only family he's ever known to the Empire. .that moment where Luke sees their twisted, burnt corpses, looking away before raising his head as the John Williams score swells. . .that moment right there is when Palpatine lost.
Everyone loves Han Solo, but the thing of it is, without Luke Han is kind of a scumbag. Luke's earnestness and his desire to help is the impetus that gets the smuggler to begin his slow slide back up the idealism scale from anti-hero to a full-blown, bonafide heroic figure. And when they manage to get away, Han's first impulse? Take the money and go. He's not in this for a principle. He's in it to get paid. He did the job, it's over, moving on. Luke immediately leaps into the rebellion, and his belief that Han is better than he thinks he is allows for one of the most badass Here Comes The Cavalry moments in movie history.
Luke has a fundamental compassion that he simply cannot ignore. What's the impetus that sets him to his disastrous confrontation with Vader? The fact that his friends are in pain. The smart decision, the Proper Jedi decision, would be to accept their suffering as an inescapable truth of the universe and train to be the best weapon he can be in order to defeat Vader and the Emperor. But Luke is a hero, and he goes off anyway, half-trained at best and woefully outmatched. And then, on top of everything, on top of the merciless beating, on top of the sight of his friend frozen in carbonite, on top of the sheer terror of staring down the man who killed your father. . .you find out that the entire basis of your worldview is built on a foundation of lies.
Vader: "Obi-Wan never told you what happened to your father."
Luke: "He told me enough. He told me you killed him."
Vader: "No. I am your father."
Luke: "No... No. That's not true. That's impossible!"
Vader: "Search your feelings. You know it to be true."
Luke: "No! No!"
Imagine it: you have a vision in your mind of the father you never knew. A brave, confident figure who had adventures alongside Obi-Wan Kenobi and fought in the Clone Wars for the cause of all that is right and true. And then you find out that no actually, your father was a murderer, a butcher and monster beyond the darkest nightmares of any sadist. And he wants you to join him. And the people you trusted to help you, to prepare you for the challenges of life as a Jedi. . .they never told you. Moreover, they lied to you. And they expect you to not only accept this "certain point of view", they want you to move forward, be a Proper Jedi, and kill your own father. This is the plan. This is what will work. But again, the last of the old Jedi Order fail to recognize a fundamental fact about their new hope: Luke Skywalker is a hero.
Vader: "The Emperor has been expecting you."
Luke: "I know…father."
Vader: "So, you have accepted the truth?"
Luke: "I've accepted the truth that you were once Anakin Skywalker, my father."
Vader: "That name no longer has any meaning for me!"
Luke: "It is the name of your true self. You've only forgotten."
Luke's first thought isn't that he must destroy the monster his father has become. It's the fact that even though Vader has belted him around Bespin like a living pinball, he wants Luke to join him. That there is still a flicker, even a trace of humanity left in this husk of a living thing resonates with Luke, to the point where--flying in the face of all logic--he believes he can redeem the most fearsome killer in the galaxy. And he's right.
Not only that, Luke is the one to take the ultimate stand against the Emperor, to see the trap of the Dark Side for what it is and to have the sheer guts to throw aside his weapon and state proudly that he is a Jedi, like his father before him, and he will. Not. Submit. That stance, his compassion, and his faith in his friends all allow him to accomplish feats the previous Jedi Order could never conceive. The title of the sixth film has a deeper meaning, the Jedi have returned, but returned as they were meant to be, not what they'd fallen into. A guardian for peace and for justice, embodied in the idealism and compassion of Luke Skywalker.
Tabletop roleplaying games have been a part of my life for over thirty years now. My first encounter with the medium took place almost by accident at the age of eight. We were visting my friend Owen's house in Fort MacMurray, Alberta and I discovered some orange-spined books featuring monsters on the cover belonging to his father. Being a voracious reader even back then I dove into them, and discovered in short order that this wasn't a traditional book. There was no story, just a collection of monsters, their backstories, and some odd series of numbers I didn't quite understand. This was my first encounter with the Monster Manual of first edition Dungeons & Dragons, detailing everything from goblins and kobolds to Zeus and Great Cthulhu. In the span of what had to have been a few hours visit my fate was sealed forever. Unfortunately, as I was going to Catholic school at the time (an irony not lost upon me today), my grade school self would have to wait a few more years until I could come into my own and discover roleplaying games properly.
I'm going to assume that a lot of people here are familiar with tabletop RPGs, but on the off-chance you aren't here's the thumbnail sketch: imagine the games you played in childhood (Star Wars, superheroes, GI Joe, or even the traditional Cops & Robbers) carried over into adulthood, but with a formal rule structure based around the outcome of die rolls as final arbiter of certain situations or actions ("I hit you!" "Did not!" "Did too!"). D&D is the most famous example of this, based around fantasy settings a la Lord of the Rings, but there are other mediums too. Science fiction, superheroes, Weird Westerns, Steampunk, Planetary Romance, if it's got a following chances are good there's a system to make it happen.
My next encounter with tabletop games happened a few years later after I'd moved back to Nova Scotia. Being a nascent geek, I instantly gravitated toward the emerging comicbook stores/games shops that were on the rise in the greater Halifax/Dartmouth area, and one day while at one of these shops, I discovered the volume TEENAGE MUTANT NINJA TURTLES & OTHER STRANGENESS. Understand, by this point (1988 or 1989, details blur) I was a huge TMNT fan. I had the Mirage trade paperbacks, tolerated the cartoon adaption (which wasn't nearly as cool, but hey, points for robot ninjas and the Technodrome), and the notion that there was a game where I could not only play one of the characters but build my own badass mutated animal hero? Where do I sign?! I also made another discovery that Palladium Games(the company which produced TMNT&OS) also produced the ROBOTECH roleplaying game. I was hooked, and hooked hard.
Of course, the problem of any RPG is finding a group with which to play, and in Nova Scotia in the late '80s to early '90s, that was hard for me. My cousin Nathan ran a few Robotech games for myself and my brother, but his heart wasn't really in it. I played a couple more games through junior high and high school, but it never quite took off into a regular campaign.
And yet I would continually purchase roleplaying games, from the hefty core rulebooks to supplementary tomes. Like the ant in the fable with his friend the grasshopper, I kept hoarding these gamebooks for reasons quite beyond me (and beyond my parents and my own Wallet, to say the least). Even today I'll still buy a games system, though most of them gather dust on my shelf or sit idle in boxes. Why is that?
I think it stems back to a couple factors. My family moved around a lot and I was an introverted kid, spending a lot of time inside my own head. These books weren't just collections of stats and figures, they were a window into another world, where I could be more than just The New Kid. On Krynn I could be a Knight of Solamnia, in the Outer Rim I could be a daring smuggler one step ahead of the Empire, or I could be the newest costumed hero to take the fight against evil to the mean streets of Gotham City. They were an escape, and I used them to put myself into places and worlds where I felt more dynamic, more confident, and more together than I did at the time I bought them.
But a lot of these systems never got played. They sat on shelves and while I enjoyed them, I never partook of them, except for a few online excursions and play by e-mail. Well, that's going to change. This column (which will be released on a more-or-less-regular basis) is going to be me examining the game systems I own. From old favorites to recent purchases, it'll be an effort to understand why I got them, what I hope to gain from them, and maybe even how I'll run them for my friends. At the very least it'll help me put all this spent time (and money) to a productive use. At the very most it'll help me provide you with some insight on game systems you might want to try out for your own amusement. Plus, being in public and making plans about a game forces me to, y'know, actually produce something, which can only help a born procrastinator like yours truly.
So join me next time as we discuss a game system, why I got it, what's good about it, and whether or not I run it. And if you've got a favorite system you'd like to hear me talk about, comment on the blog and if I own it (I own a bunch, so its probably on my shelf somewhere) I'll be happy to rap about it.
Trickier still to encapsulate in the span of a facebook post. I don't like putting such things up and out in public; despite my extroverted persona among friends I'm actually a pretty private person when you come down to it. Still, it was asked of me and I always endeavor to at least try to grant the requests of others, albeit with varying degrees of success.
There's a great line in a comic book that's stuck with me over the years. It comes from the oft-overlooked-but-still-pretty-good mini-series BATMAN: YEAR TWO. A lost love of Bruce Wayne's comes back into his life and he asks her if she's happy. She replies "I'm content. It's more than most people have."
Dennis Leary also put it another way, stating that happiness comes in small doses(like a cigarette, a chocolate chip cookie, a five-second orgasm). You smoke the butt, you eat the cookie, you. . .well, y'know. . .and then you go back to work. Happiness is something to be cherished and savored in the moment, because all too often it seems like life has the sole mandated purpose of taking a person with hopes, dreams, and aspirations and ruthlessly grinding their respective faces into a mixture of equal parts gravel and broken glass. We're all adrift on this planet spinning at ludicrous speeds through the black of space. The only certainty in life is that everything is uncertain. That the universe was here long before us and will be here long after us. Everything else is a matter of personal perspective. Happiness is a candle against the darkness, it keeps us going and helps us maintain. Happiness, courtesy, and deceny are the three pillars to getting out of this madcap existence--well, not alive, but at least with some semblance of dignity and sanity intact.
Here then, in no particular order, are the things that make me happy:
1) My family. I was born to loving parents, have a sibling who is easily the best friend I will ever have (don't tell him I said so, I'll never hear the end of it), and grew up in a community of relations that--while I don't see near as often as I like--I care about a great deal. There's the old saw about it taking a village to raise a child, I was raised in a community of witty men, strong women, and excellent peers who were and remain a comfort to me in spirit if not always in the flesh. Nova Scotia is in the heart, wherever I go she's always with me, and the family there I love and adore even if I'm not always vocal about it.
2) My friends. Old, recent, and otherwise. I'm an introverted extrovert by nature; I learned quick as my family moved about the country that if I was the Funny One, people would tolerate me, if not always accept me. Over the years I've made some amazing friends, all of them warm, caring, funny, and giving people who for reasons that perplex me still find time to tolerate a slightly standoffish pop-culture junkie loudmouth. I sometimes become irritable with being made to leave my solitude, but it's at those moments Common Sense tends to smack me upside the head and remind me "Hey, dickhead, these people care about you and want to spend time with you." That tends to put things in perspective.
3) The Fanboy Power Hour. Something that was started on a whim has actually become a source of pride to me. When we started out I had no idea what the hell I was doing. Now. . .okay, I still really don't know what the hell I'm doing, but I'm proud of the accompishment of not only starting something, but sticking with it for 3 years. It's a labor of love for myself, Ryan, and Cody, and while we may or may not blow up to Smithian or Wheatonian proportions, it's still fun to sit around the table, talk, and laugh with these guys.
4) Science Fiction, Fantasy, and Horror fiction. A lot of you never met my cousin Nathan, but you know the impact he had on Ryan and I in a big, bad way. Nathan was my age, but always seemed older somehow, more together. He was a fan of science fiction, fantasy, horror, and hip-hop, and those things have left a lasting impact on my psyche. Nathan helped turn me on to the Dragonlance series, to Heinlein, to Warhammer Fantasy and then straight on to Tolkien. He ran the first roleplaying game I ever played, and we watched ARMY OF DARKNESS in the basement of my aunt and uncle's place and my love of wiseass heroes was forever set in stone. Nathan pointed me to the path that led from being a kid who happened to read science ficiton and fantasy into a fan of such things, into a reader who embraced genre and wasn't afraid to read 'those weird books' as my mother called them(but who never once kept me from reading). Sometimes I sit and wonder what he would have made of today's pop culture landscape. I expect he would have dug it to no end.
5) Writing. Lately my schedule has been up in the air, but writing is so much a part of the background noise of my life that no matter how much life slings at me, I'm always working on something. The revisions on the novel, the short stories, they're all something I am intensely proud of. Yeah, I'm no John Grisham or Stephen King (hell, I'm not even a John Saul), but you learn something as you go through the motions and sit down to the blank screen or sheet of paper. It isn't about that. That is all extraneous bullshit. Because in that special, sweet spot you hit when the words are moving through you and the scene is spinning out before you and for one brief, flickering moment it doesn't feel like this is a creation of your mind but almost like a window into somewhere else. . .it's a feeling adjectives struggle to convey, but if you've been there, you know it exactly. I may never be anyone of note, but as long as I get to feel that feeling, like I'm fulfilling the function I was made for, in the place where I belong, I'll be a happy man.
6) Laughter. Being able to make people laugh is something I live for, and being able to joke around with friends is something that helps me maintain. If I'm making someone else laugh, if I'm providing a sliver of joy on a given day, my own worries seem a bit more trivial and a lot more managable.
And there you are. There's other stuff of course (comics, movies, Doctor Who, Babylon 5, Star Trek, Star Wars, etc), but those are the key things. The things I can rely on to make me smile even when the world seems to want to treat me like a disposable commodity, when the darkness is closing in and all reason says that I'm nothing like what I thought I'd be and its far too late in the game to try. When the shadows close in and I feel the old familiar misery trying to settle onto my shoulders, I think of these things. And I get by. Here's hoping you get by too.
I work in IT. Tier one technical support to be precise. If you've ever seen an episode of The IT Crowd or called a toll-free number for help configuring your router you've got a rough idea of what I do. I help with your e-mail, I replace toner cartridges when the ink runs out in the printer. I loan out laptops and mice and ensure they can connect to the Internet if you need to train. Not a horrible career as they go, and it keeps the wolves fed while I do my best to hasten the arrival of my inevitable stardom(which at 37 years old better pick up on the hastening, but that's a whole other story). The point is, I help people. I enjoy helping people, and I like to examine problems and see if there's a solution that can benefit a person or persons in need. I wouldn't have hung on damn near a decade in the business if I didn't derive some satisfaction from it, however distant.
I enjoy superhero fiction. Superheroes are born problem-solvers. Whether due to training from youth or the empowering light of a yellow sun, superheroes take on challenges and do their best to overcome them in the service of helping others. By no means realistic, but it's fun and it speaks to something in me that responds to the notion of might for right. Of using one's inherent gifts to help. That's got a lot of appeal as a fantasy, just look at the box office numbers lately. The notion of getting past all the red tape and the obstruction and the mistrust and the bullshit and just going out and kicking some ass in the name of what's right has a lot of appeal. The myth of the superhero is an appealing archetype and provides us with both entertainment and an ideal to aspire toward. That's great and I wouldn't change a thing.
A common trope I see in comics and film is the notion of "superheroes in the real world" or statements along the lines of "we took great pains to ground this film in reality". This sentiment of taking the iconic heroes of youth and placing them in a setting like our contemporary world had an initial appeal in my youth (I remember years past being stoked beyond words at how badass the 1989 Batman film had made the Dark Knight in terms of his mainstream appeal) but as I've grown older it's become more and more problematic to me. You could argue it's age and seeing the past through rose-coloured glasses, or a desire to keep my childhood icons from being forced from the idyllic realm of Good versus Evil and into the gray morass of the world outside my window, but I think the reason is inherently tied in to my experience in IT. There's really a simple reason why we all should be extremely grateful that superheroes don't exist in the real world.
They would go completely and irrevocably insane.
Day after day, I deal with easily same problems (or variations on the theme). Helping people who run the gamut in terms of personality and technical ability. And for the most part they're wonderful people. Who invariably experience similar problems. Over and over and over and over. . .the stress can build on a body. It's definitely built on mine. Hell, in 2004 when I started working in the business I had hair. And it was brown. Now the few battered enclaves of follicles left on my head are brown turning gray. There have been moments when I have felt intensely happy to have helped out. . .and moments when I've cheerfully thought about taking a Louisville slugger to the nearest workstation and continue until every last vile glowing box has been smashed to bits.
I've been reading Boom Studios' IRREDEEMABLE, Mark Waid's brilliant deconstruction of the superhero and his place in the world, and it's nothing short of breathtaking in just how low one hero can sink after years of letting that pressure build until it finally erupts. Superheroes are comforting enough on the page because within the universes created for them they can make a difference and the challenges they face are so often are external threats. But what happens when it's just the simple act of having to deal with the same level of crisis day after day after day without respite? Constantly hearing cries for help with your super-hearing and never getting a moment's peace? Or of being completely impervious to pain but a simple caress of a hand in your hair would cut a potential partner's hand to ribbons? And the worst bit, the absolute worst, is being able to discern the naysayers and critics even when 95% of the people love you. Because we all do it really; no matter how much praise we receive we invariably focus like a laser pointer on the negative.
Imagine the worst day you have ever had. He dumped you. You lost your job. You got cheated out of that promotion. You get raked over the coals for something you didn't do. Imagine all of that, all of it. . .and then imagine you could shoot lasers from your eyes. Imagine you could flip a tank with one hand. Imagine you can crush coal into diamond. You're a nice enough person, so of course you help out as best you can but it just never stops, does it? There's always someone else to save, some other disaster to halt, another kitten in a tree and it just keeps going. It's not like a regular job where you at least get to take a break while someone else can spot you, is it? And what recompense do you get other than a pat on the back and a smile? Imagine being on-call twenty-four seven for these ungrateful little shits who constantly need, need, NEED--
Lord Acton once wrote "Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely." In a fantasy, we know that the hero is true and just and good because for the most part that's how the writer envisioned him. Superheroes work brilliantly when they're fighting to save the world in a universe of jet packs, aliens, talking gorillas, and time travel. In reality, superheroes would be people. And people never handle power well. Much like salt, realism is best used sparingly, to enhance the flavor of a dish. Dump it on wholesale and the taste is ruined. I hope that the upcoming release of MAN OF STEEL strikes that balance.
In the meantime, I'll enjoy superheroes in comics as they fight in a universe that understands and supports their efforts, while at the same time doing my best to use the gifts I've been given to fight the good fight. And if a radioactive spider or dying alien should offer me a nibble or a powerful knickknack, I'll just say no. Probably best for all of us that way.
In my recent internet wanderings, I came across an article online that piqued my interest and got me thinking. While I'd originally intended to respond to the article on the Facebook group upon which it first appeared, I thought this might be a better venue to put forth my argument (and hey, it's been a while since I posted anything around here). So here, in brief, is my counter-point:
With respect to Mr. Womack, who's clearly done his homework, I respectifully disagree. While I concede that the Jim Kirk of NuTrek isn't the same as the one from the original series, consider the circumstances by which they come to their respective stations.
The Jim Kirk of the primary timeline is one who was raised by loving parents, who bore witness to the massacre on Tarsus IV orchestrated by Governor Kodos. The young man who enrolled in Starfleet Academy far earlier, buckled down and became known as the single dullest student there. The Kirk of the Abrams films is not the young man who was in attendance at the peace conference on Axanar, but he does share the rebellious streak that prompted both men to cheat the Kobayashi Maru scenario out of a stubborn refusal to accept a no-win scenario. The Kirk who would go on to be humbled by the cloud creature on Tycho IV as two hundred of the Farragut's crew died is a man forged by years of experience to become the youngest captain of a Federation starship at the age of thirty.
But by that same token the NuTrek Kirk is a different man in his own right. A man who grew up in the shadow of a father he barely knew, raised by an (apparently) emotionally distant mother and an abusive stepfather. A young man who grew up brilliant but angry at the world, who lacked the focus and direction he so desperately needed until meeting Christopher Pike and being flat-out called on his own bullshit. A Kirk who took the challenges of the Academy and met them and (over the course of years in my mind as there's no way you go from cadet to Captain in three weeks like the first NuTrek seems to imply, I'll grant you that) received the opportunity of a lifetime and became the youngest Captain in starfleet, and moreover captain of the flagship of the Federation. He's arrogant at times and cocky, very much not the Kirk of the primary timeline because -that Kirk had nothing to prove-. NuKirk adopts the veneer of being too cool for school as a defensive shield, to keep people back. Keep moving, keep up the bluff, and don't ever let people see a moment's weakness that can be preyed upon. This Kirk grew up with a chip on his shoulder easily the size of a small moon.
The classic Star Trek had the luxury of a 45-minute format to tell the story it needed to tell, whereas with the Star Trek films of the current day we have two and a half hours at most to build an entirely new universe from scratch. The mandate of the Abrams films is entertainment with a humanist twist, and while we could explore themes of madness, the use of power, and humanity's place in the universe in the classic series, this new universe hasn't even had a chance to launch into the five-year mission proper. They're dealing with the aftermath of having the table completely flipped by Nero in the first film, of a Federation that is struggling to hold onto those high ideals in the face of a new and uncertain universe. Yeah, it's great that in the future humanity has gotten its collective sh!t together and we're going out into space to explore, but there's every chance that the people we're going to meet aren't going to be nearly so enlightened. That they will, in fact, try to kill us and threaten our entire way of life. It's the Roddenberryian (yes that's totally a word its in the becktionary) ideal slams into the reality of a world where we see the almost daily clash of differing cultures. The character of Admiral Marcus from Into Darkness may be an asshat. . .but he's not entirely without a point either.
And yet it's through the actions of men like Kirk (Classic or New) that we learn to take on those challenges, to find the way to win even if it means changing the game completely. The theme of Into Darkness was hubris and its consequence: NuKirk had basically been all but told by SpockClassic and Nero that he's going to be a captain of some renown in the future, and he'd gotten a bit full of himself, confident in his own future legend. The humility he earned over the course of the film sets him up to be a Kirk who's an acceptable mix of both universes, at least from where I sit. A Han Solo in terms of confidence and ability but with a Luke Skywalker head on his shoulders. This Kirk has a lot more to learn than his primary timeline counterpart, but he has the same potential and it shines through over the course of the films.
I'm Stacy Dooks, a thirtysomething IT professional/writer living in Calgary, Alberta I'm a fan of all things popular culture, literary, and all points in between, and have pretty much committed large chunks of both The Official Handbook of the Marvel Universe and DC's Who's Who to memory. Whether or not that's entirely a good or bad thing I leave to the discerning reader.
This blog is an experiment in creating a public forum for my discussions about comics, pop culture, and writing and what they mean to me. Thanks for stopping by!