Wednesday, December 31, 2008

Best of 2008

Best Books:
1. Baltimore by Mike Mignola and
2. The Terror by Dan Simmons
3. The Road by Cormac McCarthy
4. 20,000 Leagues Under the Sea by Jules Verne
5. Fitzpatrick's War by Theodore Judson
6. The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, Volumes I & II: Alan Moore and Kevin O'Neill
6. Anil's Ghost by Michael Ondaatje
7. Cosmopolis by Don DeLilo
8. The Mysterious Island by Jules Verne
9. Knife of Dreams by Robert Jordan
10. Mars Needs Moms! by Berkely Breathed

1. Dark Knight
2. Wall-E
3. Iron Man
4. Hellboy II
5. The Fountain
6. The Fall
7. Stardust
8. Cloverfield
9. Bolt
10. The Incredible Hulk

Save Me From Myself - Brian "Head" Welch
The Black Halo - Kamelot
XV - King's X
Lost Horizons - Abney Park

"Beautiful Things" - Andain
"Empty Walls" - Serj Tankian
"Welcome Home" - Coheed and Cambria
"Home" - Brian "Head" Welch
"Hold Me In Your Arms" - The Trews
"I Don't Feel Like Dancin'" - Scissor Sisters
"Pray" - King's X
"In This Twilight" - Nine Inch Nails
"Where We Are" - Neverending White Lights & Rob Dickinson
"Frei Zu Sein" - In Extremo

Nine Inch Nails - Edmonton, AB
King's X - Houston, TX
Seven Devil Fix, Edmonton, AB
Abney Park, Sunnyvale, CA

Dacy's birth
Convocation/Completing and Defending my M.A. thesis
California Steampunk Convention
Vacationing in Katy, TX in May

Let Downs
The number of movies I was looking forward to that got bumped to 2009: specifically, the new Harry Potter not being released at Christmas!
Having to stall on writing Magik Beans
Seeing "The Orphanage" and "The Mist"
The end of Seven Devil Fix
The end of the Gathering

Happy New Year everyone!

Thursday, December 25, 2008

Gotthammer's Star Wars

Here's my Gotthammer Christmas present to everyone. My version of Star Wars: A New Hope, done in old-school space opera style, with a little Steampunk thrown in for good measure (I'm working on some papers for my PhD work right now concerning the Steampunk Star Wars art, so I have this on the brain). I won't be changing much about the plot for this first film, except that Biggs, Wedge, and Porkins are the stormtroopers who come aboard the Falcon on the Death Star (remember how Biggs said he'd go off to join the Empire, learn how to be a pilot, and then jump ship as soon as he could? Well...this is the 'soon as he could.') They would assist in the rescue of Princess Leia and escape from the Death Star.

In casting, I've gone out of my way to redress some of the caucasian ethnocentricity of Lucas's originals. If you were black in the originals, you were a marginal character, and in Lando's case, a traitor. If you were asian, you alien. This isn't about being PC, it's about making the Rebellion reflect in reality what it purports to in concept, as well as being the sort of people who would oppose an Empire made up of people with British accents.

Han Solo: Will Smith - he's got the cocky action hero down pat, and it will make for a very cool scene in my version of Empire when Han introduces Leia to Lando, as played by...Jada Pinkett Smith. "That's Lando?"takes on a whole new meaning. Let's face it, a lover scorned would turn Solo over to the Empire. But I digress: Will Smith is one of the best leading men in Hollywood, and while it worked for Lucas to use nobodies the first time around, if I had a chance to remake the series, I'd do it with big names like Smith. Hey, if you're going to pipedream, you might as well pipedream big.

Obi-Wan Kenobi: Pierce Brosnan - his British accent ties him to the power structures of the past, but his beard and long hair tell us he's badass. James Bond with a lightsaber, baby.

Luke Skywalker: Johnny Nguyen - sure, he's a lot older than Hamill was for the original New Hope, but I was pondering the idea of an older Luke, who actually wanted to stay on Tattooine. This is a guy who didn't want to get involved in the Rebellion, but has no choice when the war finally comes to him. He's a farmboy who likes the farm, and racing that T-16 Skyhopper and his landspeeder. Who knows, maybe he does pod-racing, which would foreshadow the Death Star battle. In addition, Johnny is a kickass stuntman, so he can handle the physical side of the role.

Princess Leia: Lara Dutta (if she'd even agree - she turned down roles in both the Matrix sequels). I want an Indian in this role because India represents one of the areas of the world the British Empire occupied, but never crushed. The entire twins idea was superfluous. It added nothing to the original trilogy save to defuse the ostensible love triangle potential between Han, Luke, and Leia. It would take nothing away to remove it, so I'm going to. It avoids the need to give her Force powers, which being Luke's twin demands in the films, not just in the sequel novels. To underscore her agency as a strong female lead (which Lucas started out with and then seemed to completely abandon), I would also have her escape on her own before Luke, Han, and Chewbacca show up, just to underscore her plucky bravado even more.

Grand Moff Tarkin: Bill Nighy - we've loved him as a villain in both Pirates of the Caribbean and Underworld, plus he's got the right accent for the Empire.

Chewbacca: Lawrence Makoare - the most kickass big guy in show business as far as I'm concerned, who is long overdue for playing a hero, after having played three of the villains in Lord of the Rings.

C3P0: Anthony Daniels - the man still needs work, right?

R2D2: No actor required, really. No, really.

Darth Vader: It really doesn't matter too much who is in the costume, so long as they're tall. And let's face it, Hayden Christiansen being in the suit at the end of Ep. 3 proved even that premise wrong. But for the voice, given his performance as the Firelord on Avatar: the Last Airbender, I
think it would be really cool if Mark Hamill voiced Vader.

Biggs Darklighter: Ryan Reynolds
Wedge: Owen Wilson
Porkins: Jack Black
Okay, maybe this is a really bad idea, but I think there's some good potential for a subplot with these three, who go away to join the Empire with the hope of jumping ship and joining the Rebellion. Trouble is, once they get assigned to the Death Star, jumping ship is impossible, given that any planet the Death Star gets close to which even smells like it's part of the Rebel Alliance gets blasted! I think there's potential for webisodes leading up to the major release with this.

I want Greg Broadmore of Weta Workshop to do the design work for the film, based upon his excellent Rayguns series.

Who to direct? Why, Guillermo del Toro, of course!
Just as soon as he's done the Hobbit. Or so he tells me...

Merry Christmas everyone!

Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Coordinates of Comparison 2009

Here's the poster I did for the 3rd annual Comparative Literature conference at the University of Alberta. Aside from a few minor changes, this is the final version. It's one of the first pieces of media I've ever done which utilized solely my own photography.

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Book Review: The Great Hunt by Robert Jordan 8/10

Darrell Sweet's crappy cover of the Great Hunt

Anyone familiar with Gotthammer knows that the past 5 years have been busy ones for me, and that the site always suffers when the coursework is dense. Regular guests here also know that I have determined to re-read (which means listen to the audio books) all eleven installments of Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time series in preparation for the release of the final book in September of 2009. I lost out on October entirely, as my I-pod was co-opted by audio books for my classes. When I finished Anil's Ghost two weeks ago, I realized I'd run out of school related audiobooks for the time being, and that I could finally listen to something I wanted to for my commutes (not that my selection of texts this semester has been onerous. With any luck, I'll blog about them over Christmas break). Like comfort food, I returned to the Wheel of Time series, picking up in mid-read (listen) of the second book, The Great Hunt.

A warning to the neophytes: these reviews are full of spoilers, and are really intended as ruminations for other fans of Wheel of Time.

Cover to Part one of the Youth Edition of the Great Hunt.

Whereas Eye of the World has one of my favorite openings and what I deem an uneven final quarter, The Great Hunt starts out clunky and uneven (which is where it loses points), but finds its stride somewhere around the middle of the novel, after Rand has reclaimed the Horn of Valere and Egwene and Nynaeve are firmly ensconced in the White Tower. At this point, the narrative takes off, maintaining suspense and tension both within the chapters as well as the overall story arc, a method Jordan will perfect over the next few books. It is the basis for why I suggest that Wheel of Time would make a great television series, as the chapters are often of an episodic nature, containing conflict and resolution as well as unresolved tension in encapsulated installments. Furthermore, the Jordan formula mirrors television seasons in the way the climactic scenes both bring closure to the current novel, while leaving enough open-ended aspects to keep readers eagerly anticipating more.

Jordan has stated in an interview with that one of his goals with the series was to explore how realistic self-interest would figure into the heroic epic fantasy. Jordan develops this theme throughout The Great Hunt, laying groundwork for the three male protagonists dislike for the larger-than-life roles they will be playing in their own story by the middle of the series. It finds its apogee in this book in the scene where Rand begs Thom Merrilyn to accompany him further on his adventures. Thom's refusal is based on his acceptance of a rather domestic possible future, an entirely self-serving basis for his rejection of the heroic quest. With consummate balance however, Jordan writes Ingtar's death in the reverse of Thom's decision; his earlier self-interested motivations are what drive him to a classic fantasy trope, the flawed hero's redemption through self-sacrifice. His final moments are evocative of the Spartan 300's defensive gambit combined with the tragic hamartia of Boromir: "One man holding fifty at a narrow passage. Not a bad way to die. Songs have been made about less" (653).

What is most fascinating about a return to the beginnings of the series after having made one's way through the completed works to date, is the vast scope of Jordan's vision. It is difficult to know without access to Jordan's notes how much he knew of the narrative arc, but it is safe to say that contrary to his critics, he has never wasted time on inconsequential characters. Nearly every time a character steps into a scene and Jordan gives a lengthy, detailed description, I'm recognizing them. Many characters who will play pivotal roles in the later novels are introduced, and developed in The Great Hunt. We meet nobles from the great houses of Cairhienen who will be Rand's allies and antagonists in future volumes, see relationships which begin in animosity which will someday turn to amour, and understand Min's viewings better than she can. I am more aware in the re-reading of how monstrous the Seanchan seem to be, made all the more poignant by the knowledge of how very human some of them will be rendered in the later novels. One can also see the youthful, hopeful Rand slipping away, and the cold, calculating man he will have become by the end of book five beginning to emerge. In fact, if the first book is characterized by the phrase "in the stories," then The Great Hunt is characterized by the phrase, "we aren't the same anymore," a thought that passes through the minds of the three men from the Two Rivers on several occasions.

My theory that Egwene and Nynaeve are also ta'veren is also strengthened in this novel. Even as Rand is Forrest Gumping his way into Daes Damar, the Machievallian Game of Houses, Egwene finds herself the roommate of Elayne, heir to the throne of Andor, while Nynaeve's testing results in her doing things no other Aes Sedai has done before. The idea of ta'veren is an explanation for the contrivance of this small group from the same geographical area all having exceptional abilities, and its absence in explaining the women seems conspicuous. One wonders if it is not Jordan who overlooked the ta'veren nature of the women, but just the characters in the novel, given that the worldview regarding ta'veren seems to be that only men can be such.

I also continue to be amazed by how satisfying the idea of ta'veren, and by extension, the weaving of the Wheel as secondary world philosophy explaining why the Emond's Fielders are not only exceptional, but attract exceptional people to them, ultimately proves to be. It addresses the vast scope of the series as a weaver would a fabric - the integration of the weave into the pattern is not arbitrary, but transparently contrived, and is a justified contrivance. The ontological stability of the secondary world Jordan has created rests upon this weaving. Again, detractors would state that he never completes the weaves, but without having read the finished work (now having passed to another weaver's hands to find conclusion) none of us can state this with impunity. Most fantasy novels create such deus ex machina to explain the extraordinary amount of coincidence these narrative necessitate, but few do it in as self-reflexive and in regards to narrative, satisfying fashion. Beyond the contrived ontology, a conversation between Thom and Rand underscores the goal of Jordan's project concerning the instability of truth over distances, be they geographical or temporal. When Rand asks Thom about the Karaethon Cycle, Thom's response reads like literary theory: "The Old Tongue has music in it...Translations don't have the same sound, unless they're in High Chant, and sometimes that changes meanings even more than most translations" (386). One could write an essay on literary theory regarding Jordan's ontological loom. It's something I bat about in my head as I listen to the books this time around (Phil, maybe this should be your M.A. thesis?).

Casting call merited some new possibilities, keeping in mind I am positing a hypothetical television series, not movie: While I know this will likely be controversial, I think Eva Longoria Parker would make a decent Moirane, based on her height and ability to play a woman with stubbornly adversarial inclinations who is, nonetheless, physically attractive. I think Parker also has a certain ageless quality to her features requisite for the Aes Sedai characters.
And I've decided on a Thom Merrilyn. I would cast Richard Roxburgh, who proved as the Duke in Moulin Rouge! and Dracula in Van Helsing he possesses the diverse vocal dynamic for delivering those bardic moments; can dance; and under duress, could likely sing. As for juggling, when you've got the option for a cutaway edit, you can be made to look like you're doing just about anything. I think he's old enough to age with makeup believably, but young enough that the physical demands of the part wouldn't require a double aside from stunt work. His facial features would work as Thom, given a set of long mustaches.

One final word on the television idea: The season finale would of course involve the battle between Rand and the false Ba'alzamon as well as the women's escape, but I would frame the entire episode with intercut scenes of people telling the rumors of what happened at the battle. For example, I would show Child Byar reporting that Perrin was responsible for the double-cross, and then cut to a scene involving Perrin, or show a person in a pub talking about how Rand had appeared in the sky, and then cut to Rand fighting "Ba'alzamon".

NOTE: I did a calculation of how many listening hours it will actually take me to get through all 12 books, including prequel, before the release of The Memory of Light in September. The total time required to listen to the series is approximately 345 hours. I have all the confidence in the world that when the final installment is added, it will easily require one hour of reading out loud daily to complete the entire series. As a result, given my current course-load (I'm going into another semester of 3 full time courses, while teaching not 3, but now 4 classes), I won't reach my goal. However, rest assured that given how much I'm enjoying taking the journey back through the books leading up to the finale, I'll keep posting these reflections regularly in the year to come.

All images except covers by Seamus Gallagher, the best WoT artist ever.

Tuesday, November 04, 2008

Finding Nemo: The California Steampunk Convention

I am tired, sore, and disoriented as I step into the lobby of the Domain Hotel in Sunnyvale, CA in the early afternoon of Halloween. On the ride from the airport in a shuttle vainly trying to find my destination despite phone calls to 411 and the assistance of a GPS, I saw a school playground (three times in our circuitous wanderings) where children were dressed as the requisite ghosts and goblins. Aside from giving me a pang of guilt and regret for not being with my children this Halloween, I assumed such conventional Halloween sights would prepare me for the costumed pageantry of the California Steampunk Convention. I could blame it on a Gravol hangover, but I know that wasn't the case. It was sheer culture shock, to cross over the threshold of this typically modern hotel and be greeted by a man in a pith helmet and full expedition gear. I stammered a greeting in return before passing by the registration table (not yet open) where three ladies sat, dressed in variously elaborate Steampunk garb. There's a part of my brain reminding me this is what I came here to see, but I cannot help but feel like a man in a tuxedo at a nude beach.
I've come to the California Steampunk Convention for research, a reality which will be construed as a joke or "in-Steampunk-character" statement over the weekend. My interest in Steampunk began in a paper I wrote on Alternate History during my M.A. coursework, titled "Difference Engines and Other Infernal Devices: History According to Steampunk" by Steffan Hantke in Extrapolation: A Journal of Science Fiction and Fantasy. Prior to this formal introduction, I was aware of Steampunk through the graphic novels by Joe Kelly, as well as through a childhood love of Jules Verne's "20,000 Leagues Under the Sea." My decision to write on Steampunk for my PhD dissertation was based on a number of reasons, most of them mercenary: if you're going to write 300+ pages on something, it should be of personal interest; it's nigh to impossible to find something in literary studies that hasn't already been done or done to death; the faculty member I wanted to work with was enthusiastic about the topic; and, because no one else has written extensively on it within the academic community, it gives me a way to distinguish myself and vie for publication of the finished work.
Hence my sudden interest in field research in the San Francisco Bay Area. While working on my program of study for a scholarship application, I googled Steampunk and San Francisco, since I was aware of the blossoming art movement there and got Wired magazine's article on the upcoming convention. Given the big names who were going to be in attendance, I determined to find a way to get there. Knowing it would be a tough sell to the University's various travel granting committees to just attend, I inquired as to whether or not the event needed any academic "experts," in the hope I could procure a presentation. A paper presented at a conference or convention lends credibility to a travel research application. I hoped for one: they granted me three--my own panel, and two round tables. I was elated to say the least. With both travel plans and a decent grant application secured, I looked forward to the weekend with anticipation.
My arrival challenged my sanguine traits to their maximum. Contrary to popular belief, I am not extroverted by nature. I was a professional people person and learned my skills for that work. They do not come naturally to me. I hid behind my mother's leg as a child, and was frightened to go ask for ketchup in fast food restaurants. I had secured interviews with several of the big names in attendance for the weekend, and planned to have informal conversations with convention attendees, but upon arrival, doubted if I could go through with it all.
Thankfully I had a very helpful "inside" contact. About a week before the convention, I was introduced via email to Natalie Rantanen, aka Lady Monroe of La Legion Fantastique, San Francisco's Jules Verne improv group. Again I googled, wondering what the hell a Jules Verne improv theatre group would do, and found that they assume characters from Verne's novels as personas for events such as Dickensfair, a "theatrical re-creation of 19th-century London, with all the color, charm, and merriment of Christmas" during the setting of the Christmas Carol. Natalie wondered if the Legion could "crash" my presentation, which was on Verne's famous anti-hero, Captain Nemo. With my own penchant for theatrics and performance (the very thing which leads people to think I'm naturally outgoing), I agreed without hesitation, provided they would permit an interview. As it would turn out, my interaction with the Legion went beyond interview.
Natalie sat down with me shortly after my arrival and assuaged my anxieities about attending as an outsider. She gave me the rundown on the local Steampunk community, on their political leanings as a group (largely leftist), their connection to the Goth movement, BDSM community, and how the convention was a meeting of many different worlds. She introduced me to other members of the Legion, who took me under their wing into the vendor's area. By the time I returned to my room to get dressed for the evening's festivities, my anxiety had been replaced once again with anticipation.
Friday night had a magical, almost surreal quality to it, given that it was done in a grand ball style, complete with an opening march which paraded a plethora of wonderful costumes, followed by a dance to the music of a brass band. The strains of the music wafted throughout the common areas, and when placed alongside the Steampunk and Neo-Victorian costumes, created an immersive environment which I surrendered myself to in the hopes of blending in and participating, as opposed to lingering on the fringes and observing. Aside from the costumes, one might assume it was a party like any other, given the laughter and lineups for liquor, but there was a level of performativity that lent an aspect of spectacle to the evening. Everywhere one looked there were costumes that drew the eye and demanded to be photographed, or commented upon. The level of detail on these costumes ranged from vests slapped over regular dress clothes (plus requisite brass goggles) to elaborate Victorian dresses blending lace with laser light accoutrements or Steampunk recreations of pop culture such as Wonder Woman or the Ghostbusters, or in the case of Legion thespian Ryan Galiotto, a Steampunk Hugh Hefner. Dressed in my own modest Neo-Victorian costume, I was able to drift through this carnevalesque celebration as participant, not the pedantic poseur I had assumed I might. While I was definitely still neophyte, my association with the Legion allowed me to step into conversations and gatherings I would have been remiss to have joined.
The next morning I dressed in regular clothes for my first round table panel, and was a little surprised to find that the majority of attendees had more than one costume for the weekend. Corsets, top hats, black powder pistols and brass goggles (and monocles) still abounded, but I was content to be in jeans and t-shirt. My roundabout was on Technology in the Victorian Era, and although I was apprehensive of coming across as knowledgeable in this area, it turned out that between myself and the other panel members, we actually had something very cohesive to say. Following this roundtable, my day was a blur of interviews with Phil Foglio, the co-creator of web-comic/graphic novel "Girl Genius"; Weta Workshop designer Greg Broadmore, creator of Weta originals Rayguns as well as the Dr. Grordborts' accompanying mythology; and Jeff and Ann Vandermeer, editors of the Steampunk Anthology; as well as impromptu conversations with convention attendees launched from my conversations with the so-called experts. The information I gleaned in both interviews and conversations proved to be greater than I'd hoped for. In a slight ironic twist, I also found myself being interviewed for a Steampunk podcast called Steampunk Spectacular. By the end of the day, I was, to quote Greg Broadmore, "shattered."
I dragged myself to my feet and staggered outside to wait for a bus shuttle to take me to the Abney Park concert. As I exited the hotel, I recognized a mother and her college age daughters I'd seen the night before. I'd requested a photo at the time, impressed as I was with their costumes, but they were indisposed, and promised to track me down for a photo opportunity later. I made a joke about never getting the photo, took the lost opportunity to procure one, and ended up spending the evening adopted in Samaritan-like fashion to attend the concert, which was a delight, since these events are never as much fun when one is without one's wingman.
While I'm still uncertain as to how the opening band encompassed a Steampunk aesthetic, Abney Park deserves their self-imposed appelation of Steampunk band, and I would argue, Steampunk music. It's one thing entirely to dress in a pseudo-Victorian fashion and claim you're a Steampunk band, but Abney park's pastiche of modern industrial ala Rammstein, 80s goth, world music and symphonic elements are melifluous expressions of the Steampunk aesthetic: archaic meets modern and makes something new. Beyond their Steampunk attributes, it must be noted that Abney Park achieve something very rare; they are consummate performers as well as musicians, engaging their audience in a familiar banter between songs, owning the stage environment, and ultimately causing the audience to forget how spartan and lackluster the light show was. Abney Park would be interesting to watch illuminated by nothing but white lamplight, and are a delight to listen to, even when the mix (as it was) is muddy and uneven.
I thought Sunday would be the day that my experience would somehow wind down, but I could not have been in greater error. My own presentation, the one which La Legion Fantastique would be in attendance at, had been gnawing at the back of my mind all weekend. The idea of involving the Legion interested and intrigued me, but we had reached no consensus on how to play this involvement out save that they would be there for the entire session, as opposed to barging in near the end. When I woke Sunday morning and went down to shop for a gift for Jenica, I discussed with Ryan Galiotto the possibility of doing the presentation in costume, and more importantly in character. He endorsed and encouraged the idea, and having bounced it off a few other Legion members shortly before the presentation, committed to the character of Dr. Gottfried Gotthammer, here at the Steampunk Convention to present his research on Captain Nemo.It turned out to be one of those moments where you make all the right choices. While I didn't hold character the entire time, the opening moments where I did seemed to create the right pedagogical space for the convention. I was able to speak with the members of the Legion in attendance in character, in this secondary world where Verne exists as historian and biographer, not fiction writer. Even after I dropped my accent and character to make discussion accessible, the Legion remained firmly locked into that Steampunk reality, with Nemo himself as living footnote to discourse. The conversation that ensued was instructive for me as much as anyone else in the room--I had speculated certain things which the community corroborated, adding to the potential academic journal article I hope to have written before the year has ended. And while this was all icing on the cake of my expectations, the presentation of honorary membership into La Legion Fantastique and the requisite brass goggles had the effect of transcending expectation to the point of placing me on a high which has yet to wear off. In short, the trip could not have been more successful short of a seance to channel Verne himself.
Another round table, a flurry of conversations, a final photo with the Legion, and by six o'clock, the Domain hotel was once again merely another place to rest the night on El Camino Real. The secondary world evaporated like the steam of the movement's namesake, and I found myself with the same sort of post-event-malaise I'd experienced as a team going to weekend retreats or conventions. It has been a very long time since I've experienced that sense of loss, especially given my desire to return home and see my family. As my plane ascended the next morning before dawn, my mind was already working out the particulars of how I could return for next year's convention, what I would want to present on, and most importantly, how I can get some kick ass boots to go with my costume.

Tuesday, September 23, 2008

Book Review: The Eye of the World by Robert Jordan 10/10

In anticipation of the September 2009 release of A Memory of Light, the final book in Robert Jordan's fantasy epic series, The Wheel of Time, I'm revisiting the entire series month-by-month.

All images in this series will be from the character renderings of Seamas Gallagher, whose art is the definitive WoT artwork for me.

Coming back to The Eye of the World right after finishing the 11th book in the series was like getting together with an old friend you have very fond memories of. It's been over fifteen years since I bought the trade-paperback first edition of Eye of the World and devoured it, enjoying the familiar fantasy plot conventions as an introductory book to what I then took to be yet another Tolkien clone, albeit a good one. This time I experienced the book as a literary scholar, a man approaching middle age, listening to it on audiobook, with the attention of a close read, since audiobooks preclude the option to skim or skip passages.

I'm also aware of Jordan's intentions with the series, not only of where characters will eventually end up, but also from a thematic perspective, thanks to an interview with Jordan at the end of the audiobook for Knife of Dreams. Knowing those intentions made re-reading the first book a richer experience than it might have been, despite the love I have for it.

In the interview, Jordan stated that one of his intentions was to play with the idea of what would really happen if a rural farm boy was told he was the savior of the world. How would real people, with real concerns, fears, emotions and desires do when faced with the invitation to the heroic quest? In speaking about this standard epic fantasy trope, Jordan invokes Tolkien. So the oft-complained about similarities to Tolkien are very intentional. Unlike Terry Brooks, who simply seemed to be writing "Lord of the Rings for Dummies" with his bestselling Sword of Shannara, a book which slavishly and shamelessly followed the general plot line of the Rings trilogy, Jordan employs the familiar conventional plot moments to communicate this major theme of his series: what would really happen if Gandalf came to town and told you to go on a quest to save the world?

So yes, the Two Rivers are like the Shire, the flight to Taren Ferry is very much like the race to the Brandywine River, Baerlon is a lot like Bree, The Ways and Shadar Logoth are much like Moria, Thom Merrilin's sacrificial battle with the Myrdraal echoes the Bridge of Khazad-dum, and Master Gill and the Queen's Blessing seem to have been crafted from similar muses as Barliman Butterbur and the Prancing Pony. However, all those elements are mixed into a story that is vastly different from The Lord of the Rings, as is evidenced clearly in subsequent books.

Yet even in The Eye of the World there is already a difference between Tolkien and Jordan. Tolkien wanted to write a mythology for England. Jordan wanted to write a piece of historical fiction about such mythologies. In a way, The Eye of the World is to Tolkien what Eaters of the Dead is to Beowulf. Jordan's characters experience those iconic high-fantasy moments, but they do in a fashion which always retains Jordan's rich layers of verisimilitude. This is the reason for the painstakingly detailed descriptions. It's the reason the later books can contain nearly 1000 pages wherein nothing earthshaking occurs. Because in order to present that strong sense of secondary reality, Jordan focuses on his characters, not the events they are caught up in.

Jordan's novels are a little like watching a Michael Mann film; a lot of screen-time is devoted to the building of characters, so that when the action set pieces happen, they are all the more riveting. Consider the pace of Mann's Heat: the majority of the film has the speed of drying paint. When the bank heist finally occurs, the speed with which the action is presented causes our hearts to race. Jordan's characters move through the fantasy world of Wheel of Time with similar pacing. Jordan can rest in banality for a good long while, so that when they Myrdraal, or Trolloc, or whatever shows up to threaten our heroes, we care whether or not they live or die.

The Eye of the World has a much faster pace than the later books will, but it is still primarily focused on developing characters rather than displaying grand epic battles or magical set pieces. It is largely concerned with Rand, Mat, and Perrin; Egwene and Nynaeve will not come into their own for several books yet. This was a brilliant move for the first book, given that there was no guarantee any sequels would be released. The book focuses on Rand above the other two (although it plants seeds for the multitude of plot-threads Jordan will weave in later books), and is able to reach a point of closure and conclusion so that, if Eye of the World had been the only Wheel of Time book ever published, it would have been fairly satisfying in terms of closure.

This was one of Jordan's true gifts as a writer: to bring a strong sense of closure to the end of his books while simultaneously hanging the reader over a cliff. There will always be unresolved elements at the end of each novel, but each book ties up in a relatively neat package.

From a nostalgic standpoint, it was nice to tread familiar ground once again, and find it loaded with new surprises, the result of seeing where the multitude of plot and character threads end up playing out.

I love the opening chapters of the book for the way in which Jordan plays up the parallels between the beginning of Fellowship of the Ring and Eye of the World, all the while presenting these somewhat tired conventions in fresh ways. I think my love for it stems from having been roughly Rand, Mat and Perrin's age the first time I read Eye of the World. The three boys are like college age hobbits, minus the diminutive statures. I could resonate with hobbits better before I stood six foot and was interested in girls. But as a young man just out of high school, it was a joy to read the same plot line of leaving the Shire, with young men who were my age, who had the same sorts of concerns I did.

Reading through reviews on Amazon, you'll likely find many who complain of Jordan's use of the Tolkienesque formula followed by so many other major fantasies before Wheel of Time. I don't think Jordan is using it as a template however. In an interview with, Jordan revealed that he wanted to explore what the "Hobbits fleeing Black Riders" template would look like if it were dealing with real people. So while Eye of the World follows many of the conventions employed by Terry Brooks, and more recently, Christopher Paolini, it is my opinion that Jordan was using these familiar fantasy tropes to clearly set forth his thesis. What would happen, Jordan is asking, if the wise wizard (in this case Aes Sedai) showed up to reveal the savior of the world, and he refused to cooperate? Further, Jordan's use of Tolkien's plotline from Fellowship of the Ring further underscores one of the series' other major themes, which is how information gets passed along in a pre-industrial world, and how that information gets changed as it passes through many hands. "In the stories" is an oft-repeated phrase throughout Eye of the World, and since the Wheel of Time has woven many other ages (including our own), it is conceivable that Jordan was giving a nod to Tolkien wanted to draw upon myths and legends, perhaps implying that it was this story which gave birth to the myths and legends Fellowship of the Ring drew upon as inspiration.

Jordan's concept of Time's weave as it regards ta'veren is a stroke of genius as well, as it effectively explains the need for sometimes nearly deus ex machina coincidences. If the thread's of Time's weave have spun the three heroes out into the weave, then it only follows the weave wants to make sure they are preserved. I had asked in an earlier post why only men are ta'veren and was glad when Moraine says that Egwene and Nynaeve are "perhaps" ta'veren. Although we never gain any confirmation of this in the first book, the subsequent novels definitely see these two strong females along with Elayne creating a secondary trinity of female ta'veren.

Still, the first book belongs to the boys: to Rand's youthful optimism, gone all together too quickly in the next book; Perrin's nearly pessimistic resignation, for which only Faile's love will be the balm; and Mat's mischief, which never really goes away in the series. In that way, Mat is somewhat like Sam, always reminding us of the place we began, so that we remember why we are enduring this long road down the pattern to book 12.

NOTE: In reading book one in such a deliberate fashion, I have settled upon some of my actors for my hypothetical television series. Please remember, that even though this is hypothetical, I want my choices to mirror some sense of reality, so most of the actors I choose will be television actors, not film ones. In the role of Rand, I would choose someone like Jared Padalecki, although he is already too old to play the role. In the role of Mat, I'd want someone like Matt Czuchry, who would encapsulate the mischief very well I think. And for Lan, I'd want Richard Burgi, who I'm positive could pull off the stone-faced warder, and who really needs a break to play a nice guy with a heart of stone. That's all for this time around, although I'm sure by the end of book 2 I'll know who's playing the ladies. And I'm very open to suggestions for a young actor to play Perrin. He's a tough one. Thom Merrilyn is also proving an incredible difficulty, since the actor must be able to sing.

See ya next month with book 2!

Wednesday, September 17, 2008

Anonymous said...

The following is the sort of comment I'll just delete without apology in the future. Not because it's incredibly mean-spirited, but because it was anonymous. I figure if someone has the nerve to spout the shit this person did, they ought to own up to it. I'll also take a moment to respond here, since I haven't had a good rant in a while. I'm the italics.

So I just spent the last 10 minutes perusing your somewhat egotistical
(all blogs are egotistical by their very nature - only an egoist would assume other people want to read what they write. In addition to my egotism, I'd say the 876 visitors who came by this month seem to think I have something worth saying. It ain't millions, but then again, we egoists don't really need an audience)
always condescending (come on... you dont have a Phd, nor are you would resume not have sufficed... or does the image of a scholarly fantasy compel you to use curriculum vitae?)
(I don't think I'm always condescending. And when I am, I'm of the opinion I can afford to be, because I'm confident in my opinions and smart enough to back them up. No, I don't have a PhD...YET. I'll have an M.A. before the next 2 months are up though, and I'll add that to the two undergraduate degrees, multimedia certificate, and seminary coursework I hold. I'd ask you to produce your credentials, but I'm pretty sure you don't have any. And I believe people start calling it a c.v. when they've been published, or have multiple degrees, or start applying to work at colleges and universities instead of at McDonald's. And it's not limited to Europeans; my sister worked in HR for years, and referred to the 'resumes' she received as curriculum vitae - it's not just an ostentatious synonym for resume, it's a document citing everything you've done, including samples of your work. And isn't a scholarly fantasy if you're actually a scholar)
and forever self-aggrandizing (yes thats a big word...but I am sure you have a professor that will explain it to you)
(actually, self-aggrandizing is a hyphenated word. And as it turns out, I AM the professor who explains the words.)
Somethings never change,
(you mean some_things never change. And you're right. I'm firmly convinced that people have most of their hard-wiring in by the time they're 20. So I've been the way I am for a long time now. I'm just a heavier version of it.)
and Mike your still a tool
(you mean you're a tool. funny that you could make a snide remark using self-aggrandizing but not use proper grammar here)
...but lets
(let's...and if this makes you tremulous, just remember - you started it.)
keep it at the grandiose scale that your ego is obliged to accept...
(thank you, I appreciate the pandering to my inflated self image)
not just any tool... you're the Binford 5000 of tools
(A HOME IMPROVEMENTS reference? Nothing says classy like a Tim Allen quote. Nevertheless, I couldn't agree more. I believe I said that very thing in my self-aggrandizing Legend of Gotthammer).

(usually a postscript comes after a signature. You didn't sign this, so it's pointless to say it's a postscript)
how could you possibly claim to be a greater sinner then
the apostle paul (I distinctly recall reading you blabbering on about how sinful you were sometime back... didnt
(oh come on already! use a bloody apostrophe!!!)
know it was a pissing contest... but fortunately that too is forgiven)
(I wasn't aware it was a pissing contest either. And it isn't really arrogance to think you're more sinful than someone. If I'd said I was a greater evangelist than Paul, you might think of me as self-aggrandizing...oh already do.)

Monday, August 18, 2008

Changing My Religion...again

Shortly after Unlimited Magazine published my article, "Changing My Religion," I received a request from Christian Week magazine to publish a shortened version of the piece, which is in the latest issue. You can read the online version here.

"Sweat runs down my face. Drops sting my eyes, which are half-blinded by the glare of stage lights. I strain to see people I know in the shadows of this dimly-lit bar, applauding in waves whenever we finish a song. Our own volume is a tsunami by comparison, a roar so loud my ears will ring until I drift off to sleep around 4 a.m. after the final song has been sung, last call announced and the gear safely stowed in our practice space. Tomorrow night we’ll haul it out again. I’ll set up my amp and plug in my guitar in a very different venue.
Tonight wine is one of many spirits imbibed—probably the least popular in the type of places my band, Seven Devil Fix, plays. Tomorrow, if wine is present, it will be a sacrament of the spirit. Tonight I sing for the pleasure of these patrons; tomorrow I will sing for the applause of heaven. In less than 24 hours my feet will touch down in two worlds. While I’m learning to live with the tension between the secular and the sacred, it hasn’t always been easy."

The rest of the article can be found HERE.

Wednesday, August 06, 2008

Josh and Caleb...coming around to the end

I can't access my website. Go figure, but somewhere in the midst of all the OS switching and wrangling with my computer this past year I lost the password, and my Dreamweaver isn't working properly to boot. So thank goodness for the blog. I've been working at finishing up the color art for the line drawings I did 3 years ago. What a hiatus. But I vowed I'd finish what I started with Josh and Caleb, so here's the next image, until I can get my web woes sorted out. For those who've never had the chance to peruse it's the link to the webcomic that started my online presence.

Tuesday, July 22, 2008

Book Reflection: Save Me From Myself by Brian "Head" Welch

I heard about Brian "Head" Welch's conversion back in 2005 when I was visiting my parents in Medicine Hat. There was an article in the Medicine Hat news titled something to the effect of Guitarist for Metal Band finds Jesus or something equally accessible to the largely senior citizen population of my home town. My mom asked if I knew "this band," and I recall being a mix of emotions. I was shocked because I couldn't have guessed the "Metal Band" would end up being Korn, a group I was marginally into: I loved their music, and hated Jonathan Davis' lyrics, with the exception of Falling Away from Me and Make me Bad. What I had most appreciated about their music was the haunting, spooky guitar lines and the big fat sound of layered low-tuned 7 string guitars, both Korn guitar trademarks. I couldn't tell you if that was due to Head's influence (although his solo release single "Flush" would lead one to conclude thusly), but my reaction at the time was the result of years of listening to Christian rock when I was a teenager and praying bands like Metallica would get saved. I was excited Head might work on a solo project which would have elements of the Korn sound without Jonathan Davis' lyrics. I would have been excited about his conversion if I'd known all the reasons, but the article didn't go that far. Head's autobiography, Save Me From Myself: How I Found God, Quit Korn, Kicked Drugs, and Lived to Tell My Story, goes that far, and beyond.

I'm not a big fan of autobiographies. I like to read about people's experiences, such as Bruce Feiler's Walking the Bible, or Touching the Void by Joe Simpson, or in the vein of life-changing spiritual experiences, Bruce Marciano's In the Footsteps of Jesus. I'm interested in the moment of crisis, not necessarily the life that leads to it, at least not told in excruciating detail. I like Christian autobiographies even less because they often seem to fall into the same trap the popular evangelistic testimonies did in the 80's: "I used to do drugs/drink too much/have wild sex and then I found Jesus and it was all good." Or the equally popular "I could have been a millionaire/a rock star/a famous actor but I gave it up for Jesus so I could be here speaking to you." So why would I be interested in Welch's book? One, because as I've already stated, I liked Korn's sound and was genuinely interested in finding out what had happened to Welch. Second, because Brian Welch wasn't saying he could have been somebody. From a success perspective, he was somebody, which is why his conversion was so shocking. I wanted to know why a person would leave the fame and money behind. And third, I was badly in need of a good testimony. It's been too long since I've warmed my hands at the flame of a new Christian's fervor and zeal. I was looking for a little inspiration I guess.

It takes a long time to get to the inspiration in Save Me From Myself, but I found myself engaged in Welch's journey for the simple fact that he's roughly my age, and had similar goals. I wanted to be a rock star as well, though obviously not nearly as bad. Nevertheless, I had no trouble picturing his youthful years, the hairstyles and guitar bodies, the sound of the music and the reasons Korn was different in their sound. The first portion of the book is mainly concerned with Welch's addiction to drugs and alchohol and the cyclical nature of his attempts to come clean. It serves well as a memoir of his days of rock and roll debauchery, but gets redundant at times with a near grocery-list accounting of the types of drugs Welch was using. It also deals largely with the fractured relationship he had with his daughter's mother, and the difficulties they faced. And it deals with these events in all their awful glory, not edited for television. This book is not for those who like their Christian autobiographies stripped of sex, substance abuse, and the seven words you can't say on television. I can speed-read, and did so for this portion of the book, simply due to the spiralling repetition of the events, the 'Groundhog Day' nature of Welch's lifestyle. I wanted to get to the moment of crisis, when the change occurred.
I'm glad to say that while the press has framed Welch's conversion as sudden, and media for the book purports his religious experience as leaving him clean from substance abuse without any repurcussions, Welch's journey is much like everyone else's: one step at a time. I have never personally known anyone whose conversion experience was a complete 180 moral turn, even if it seems that way initially. I'm also glad that Welch had no such expectations, or he'd likely have given up early on. He speaks of regressions into drug use, old patterns of behaving, and how Christ is making him into something new. There is no sense of complete arrival. We can tell he's in process, a work in progress, not finished yet. But this is clearly a man whose life has been changed.

I was uncomfortable that it was a seemingly Charismatic group who brought Welch to Christ, since I myself am uncomfortable with Charismatic churches. Not Charismatics mind you. I have some good friends who are Charismatic or Pentecostal. I just don't like it when they get together in large groups. However, I'm thankful for the mental stretch this required of me. If Head had gotten saved by a bunch of Baptists, I wouldn't have a growing edge off the book. I need to be reminded that God works through all his children, not just the ones I'm theologically comfortable with. All that said, I like Welch's take on denominationalism, in that he's "not into it." I'm not really sure we can ever truly not be into denominationalism; our Christianity bears the imprint of the groups we worship with, but I'm a fan of what Lewis called Mere Christianity and what Dinesh D'Souza calls traditional Christianty, and it seems that Brian Welch is too.

I wouldn't say I finished the book and felt inspired. Not in the way I'd hoped. But I did feel challenged in a few areas, primarily to get back to reading my Bible more often. That's what I mean about warming my hands at the flame of new zeal. New Christians often devour the Bible. I nibble and pick at it these days, and it's nice to have a reminder that spiritual health is directly related to our mental diet. On that note, the statement which most impacted me concerned Welch's choice of music in the wake of his conversion. He effectively said that he wasn't precluding the option to listen to mainstream music, but that he wanted to fill his head with things which pointed him toward Christ.

I can relate to that statement. I've had many conversations with people about why I don't listen to Tool an awful lot, despite my love for their sound. I just can't bring myself to listen to Maynard's lyrics repeatedly. As the man himself said, when he sang "fuck your God" in "Judith" (a Perfect Circle song, but indicative of most of Maynard's lyrical propensity), he wasn't referring to some made-up God. So for me, listening to Tool is the faith analogue of hanging around with someone who constantly and vehemently bad-mouths my wife, to the extent of making overt statements that I should never have married her. That's why I love Chevelle, especially when they sound most like a Tool knock-off. I get the sound without the invective.

I realize that some of my past posts might lead someone to assume I don't like "Christian music" but that's not necessarily true. I don't like subculture music. I love music that encourages and uplifts, which teaches and instructs, which acts as prophecy and prayer. When I was in my teens I was a huge fan of pre-John-Schlitt Petra, Rez Band, Undercover, Daniel Amos, The Choir and Michael W. Smith, just to name a few. I still try my best to stay informed as to the latest and hottest acts in the Christian or "Christian by association" scene. My current faves are P.O.D., Skillet, Flyleaf, Mute Math, and Project 86. Sometimes I force myself to take a break from the likes of Rammstein and Nine Inch Nails, just to make sure I'm getting intake of music that lifts my soul up to Christ. Its not that I find the other music drags me down into hell mind you, just that the intention of the lyrics in bands which are unabashedly Christian is less ambiguous, and in my experience, lends me a better footing in my faith when I need it.

But I like quality as much as I like content. I want the music to have integrity on its own. Good lyrics with bad music doesn't strike me as a serious sacrifice of praise. So I'm glad that someone with Head's musical chops will soon be adding his stamp to the category of sacred music. Admittedly, from what I've heard so far, his lyrics will leave something to be desired in terms of maturity and growth, but I'm cool to listen to a baby Christian find his way in the world, given that he'll be playing music with a 30-something ability. In a way, it seems to me like this will be the sequel to Make Me Bad, which admitted the Christian view of the human condition without the Christian view of a Cosmos with a Savior who could give you a hand up. Having read Save Me From Myself, I'm clear that Head has a firm grasp of that Savior-filled Cosmos, and it's a good place to be living, loving and playing music that will eat through concrete. After all, why should the devil have all the good music?

Saturday, July 19, 2008

Movie Review: The Hulk 7/10

In a year awash with superhero movies, it is likely that the second cinematic attempt at bringing Marvel Comics' Incredible Hulk to the screen will be the least well remembered, despite a pre-final-credit-roll tie-in to Robert Downey Jr.'s highly successful portrayal of Iron Man. Which is too bad, since The Incredible Hulk is a far better movie than its Ang Lee channeling Freud predecessor. While I liked Eric Bana as Bruce Banner (hell, their last names even sound the same) and I enjoy watching Jennifer Connelly in the worst of films (okay, I enjoy watching Jennifer Connelly period), 2003's Hulk was all angst and no fun. Or to put it another way, too much Ang Lee and not enough Stan Lee. As I am wont to do with comic book movies, I'll be using my comic book movie criteria, but loosely throughout instead of item by item.

Louis Leterrier's direction, coupled with Zak Penn's screenplay, and an all-star cast turning in great performances makes for a great film. But it's the way in which the film stays true to its source material which really makes The Incredible Hulk as an excellent comic book film, something the first attempt never properly achieved. And when I say source material, I mean both the comic book, as well as the popular 70's television show.

First of all, Hulk Smashes. This is key. If the Hulk doesn't smash, it's just a big green dude who is somewhat tremulous. The Hulk must smash. And in a CGI filmmaking world, the Hulk can smash like he's never smashed before. The mayhem in this film gives Godzilla a run for his money. And Hulk doesn't just smash buildings, cars, or other inanimate objects. He also smashes people. He even says "Hulk Smash!" And it works.

Second, the movie nods its head to both the comic-book and the television series on many occasions, the most successfully with Lou Ferrigno's presence, both seen and heard. Seen as a security guard who can be bribed with pizza, and also as the Hulk's voice, which works really well. There's also a moment where the haunting piano music from the television series is employed in a scene where Banner is destitute in a South American city. There are others, and the comic book references abound, which is a fanboy plus. In addition, as was evidenced in Jackson's immersive Lord of the Rings sets and prop-work, those invisible layers of mythology add to a film, even if it isn't seen onscreen.

Third, Ed Norton is great as Banner. I read a few reviews that stated his performance was flat, to which I must reply, "he's playing a guy who needs to keep his heart rate down. How else would you play such a character, but flat?" If Bana's Banner had been given similar heart-rate rules, he'd have turned into the Hulk every 20 seconds. On that note, the film follows my "superheroes don't shag everything that comes their way" rule, but for very different reasons than say, Iron Man.

Fourth, Hulk smashes. That's really all I want to see when I go to a movie about the big green superhero with anger management issues. I want to see something get smashed. And I wasn't disappointed.

Tuesday, June 03, 2008

Book Review: The Terror - 9/10

Dan Simmon's "The Terror" is to the Franklin Expedition what "Pan's Labyrinth" is to Franco's Spain. That is to say, the book is as much a mix of history, horror and fantasy as Del Toro's film is, and achieves this pastiche with an equal level of success. The premise is simple; Simmons imagines the doomed expedition, trapped not only by the elements of the Arctic, but by something more elemental, a physical monstrosity which is killing the men off. I have likened it to John Carpenter's The Thing, but with Kurt Russell in the role of Captain Francis Crozier of the H.M.S. Terror, a role Russell would be sufficiently aged enough to play at present. I'm not implying the "thing on the ice" is an alien. I'm not going to say anymore about the nature of the beast, and have betrayed no spoilers in revealing its presence in the book. The book's jacket liner will tell you as much, and the first chapter makes several references to its presence and malevolent nature. I will warn you that you'll need to read the whole book to find out exactly what "it" is, and that many might find the journey too long and arduous, although I'm of the opinion that this was Dan Simmon's intention.

In truth, the monster is an interesting sideline to the story, but Simmons is thoroughly concerned with his cast of historical characters, especially Crozier, and the reason for turning the pages is the growth and development of the men of the Expedition, not the unraveling of the mystery surrounding the monster's identity, though that certainly makes for an enticing motivator. As with "Pan's Labyrinth," the most monstrous actions are done on the part of the humans, and the historical facts of cannibalism on the expedition, when they finally rear their ugly head, outstrip the fantastical "terror" by far.

Simmons has a deft hand when it comes to explicating historical information within the action of a page-turning scene. He is far more fond of showing us than telling us, and passages that would have been dry exposition in the hands of a lesser word-smith are rendered page-turners, as is especially the case with a surgery late in the book. Ultimately though, Simmons is about the men within this historical setting. The book is historical insofar as it appears thoroughly researched and meticulously crafted to produce verisimilitude. It is horror insofar as it produces fear, employing all the means Stephen King laid out in "Danse Macabre" for evoking horror, even the last resort, the "gross-out." It is fantasy insofar as it deals with the supernatural, or at the very least the possibility thereof. And additionally, it is philosophical, pondering the question of whether or not Hobbes was right in his "Leviathan" when he claimed that life is poor, nasty, brutish, and short. The interplay between the historical and the fantastic hold that question in tension until the very last page of the book, and possibly beyond, leaving the reader to ponder how they themselves are stuck in the ice, trapped in a cold, violent world which seeks to devour them.

Wednesday, May 14, 2008

Movie Review: Iron Man 10/10

Last year I reviewed Superman Returns without using my handy Criteria for Comic Book Movies, and ended up giving it an 8. I have regretted that review several times since then. Nothing major, but I had a clouded judgment, given that it was a Superman movie, and I am a huge Superman fan. If I'd used my Criteria for Comic Book Movies, I think Superman Returns is a 6, maybe 7 at the most.

By contrast, I am fully convinced that Iron Man is a 10. It is a perfect comic book movie. But just to make sure I'm not biased, I'll stick to the Criteria this time.

1. Source Material. Iron Man sticks to its source material as though it were scripture. The origin story in the film is same as the original comic book. The characters are pulled right from the pages of Iron Man, and the villain, Obadiah Stane and his Iron Monger suit, were the wrap up to a long-running animosity between the two. The film achieves a tight summation of the first 20 years of the Iron Man mythos without sacrificing the heart of the tale.

2. Visual Storytelling. The montage giving the audience Tony Stark's back-story was brilliant, and epitomizes what comic book film-making should be about. The story jumps time several times without losing linear continuity, effectively saying more with less. The Iron Man suit's powers are demonstrated, rather than revealed through exposition.

3. Costume. While it is definitely sleeker and sexier than the original Iron Man armor, the armor of the film is undeniably the same as the comic book's. Any improvements made are in the details, rather than the obvious choice some might have made years ago, which would have been to lose the red and gold colors in favor of something less bold and...well, comic book.

4. The fourth rule is that Superheroes don't shag everything that comes their way. I should have added the caveat, unless they're Tony Stark. However, while Tony starts out as a womanizing playboy, his serial sexual escapades are framed in a negative way. Early Tony is not presented as a moral exemplar. His experience in the Middle East is transformational beyond his becoming Iron Man. He seeks to become a better person in his private life as well. I like this, because it means that when I take my kids to films like this some day, I don't have to explain why Superman humping Lois in the fortress of solitude wasn't considered morally reprehensible (I'd like to say that I don't think this is prudery. And perhaps I need to limit my criteria to Superhero Comic Book Movies, since films like Sin City are adaptations of comic books with lots of sex in them. )

5. The fifth rule used to be "Keep Joel Shumacher away from your film." I might add Sam Raimi to that list now, given the general public's response to the third Spider-man film. I think the core idea behind this rule is that good special effects, flashy special effects and glitzy sets do not a comic book movie make. The mise-en-scene of the film should not be garish or painted entirely in oversaturated primary colors. The setting can look completely realistic, which ostensibly allows for the actions of the super-hero to be even more fantastic. Iron Man does not take place in some fictional world, but in our world, with something to say about the issues taking place in our world. While it might not actually change anything about the real world's problems, I have to say that the moment where Iron Man descends with a vengeance upon terrorists preparing to wipe out a small village has a certain cathartic joy to it you just can't get from watching Hotel Rwanda. It's part of the fantasy of the comic book, that these heroes are real in some possible world somewhere, making things right in a way our world never seems to achieve.

6. Give the fanboys and girls things only they will appreciate. Iron Man showcases one of the best Stan Lee cameos ever, when Tony Stark mistakes him for Hugh Hefner. Or perhaps he's supposed to be Hugh Hefner. As a fanboy, I know that Stan Lee was Hugh Hefner in Fantastic Four many years ago when She-Hulk was taking Ben Grimm's place for a while. A magazine of ill-repute got pictures of She-Hulk while she was sunbathing on the roof of the Baxter Building and when She-Hulk shows up at their office demanding the pictures, the sleazy mogul behind the magazine was modeled on none other than Marvel Comic's mogul himself, Stan Lee.

7. Make sure you've got good villains. Jeff Bridges was positively menacing, and when Iron Man and Iron Monger go at it, the slug-fest is worthy of the best splash pages of any comic book. There's nothing like using a motor cycle as a weapon after you've clotheslined its rider.

Beyond my formalist, anal-retentive comic book criteria, Iron Man is what summer blockbusters are meant to be, with Robert Downey Jr. reminding us all throughout the film why he was once nominated for an Academy Award.

The preview for Dark Knight was amazing. But all I could think when I left the theater is that Batman has some big shoes to fill this year. They look a lot like red and gold ski boots and if you're wearing repulsor gloves...and yeah. You can fly.

Tuesday, May 06, 2008

How to Read Robert Jordan's Wheel of Time

In 1990, I picked up a book by a writer named Robert Jordan, who at the time was mainly known among fans of fantasy for the Conan novels he penned, which were among my favorites at the time. Seeing one of my favorite post-Howard Conan writers had written something entirely his own, I bought the trade paperback without a moment's hesitation. I was not at all disappointed. The Eye of the World, the first novel in the Wheel of Time series, followed the classic formula high fantasy had been treading since Tolkien wrote of Sam and Frodo leaving the Shire with Nazgul in pursuit. The difference was, that unlike Terry Brooks' Shea and Flick Ohmsford, the young adventurers leaving their village were not vertically challenged, and several were females. And the differences didn't end there.

Getting to the end of the book and realizing it was the first in the series was icing on the cake of a thrilling, fast paced fantasy read. And the second book in the series, "The Great Hunt," while it didn't live up to the expectation "Eye of the World" had set, was still very good. I couldn't wait for what I assumed would be the conclusion, the third book in the series. After all, nearly all high fantasy before the 90's was wrapped up in a trilogy, wasn't it?

Alas, "The Dragon Reborn" did not wrap up the story, and in a pre-Internet world, I had no way of knowing that Jordan intended for 12 books total. I'm not sure anyone following the series in those days did. And by the time book 6 came out, I was sick of waiting for things to wrap up. The way I sawy it, while Terry Brooks had pumped out two Shannara trilogies, he'd had the good sense to wrap things up at the end of each book so fans weren't hung out to dry waiting.

So I got stuck at book seven for several years. Although I had no intention of ever reading them, I kept getting the books as they were released. I thought long and hard about selling all but the first book, since I'd read it three times in the course of reading up to book 6 (I found that I needed to re-read the whole series when book 6 came out, as I couldn't remember who the hell half the characters were).

The reason I started reading the series again was friend Jeff Nelson. Jeff is a voracious reader and had read all of the books. Where many others had given up, he'd persevered, and still had many good things to say about the series. So Jeff was my initial inspiration.

The way I got over the hump of Book 7 was I've been a gold member for awhile, and had been thinking about using the unabridged audio version of Book 7 to get me started again. I listen to books on my I-pod while doing yard work, shoveling the walk, or driving. Last year, as I was working hard on our yard and basement, I began listening to Book 7, sure that I'd be using it to augment my actual reading of the book.

I'm not sure I've picked up a Jordan novel since. But I am about to begin Book 11. And I'm looking forward to the posthumous collaboration of Jordan with Brandon Sanderson sometime next year. So, to all those who have given up on Jordan, and wished they hadn't, or to those who are thinking about starting but have heard too many negative reviews, here's how I recommend reading Robert Jordan's "Wheel of Time" series.

I'd like to begin with a few words to Jordan's detractors.

1. Understand that Jordan as a writer, loves detail. He will describe clothing in so much detail, that if "Wheel of Time" ever gets optioned for film (it needs to be a television series, but more about that in a moment), the costume designers will be able to go for a hell of a lot of coffee breaks. He is fond of giving elaborately detailed descriptions of every character, even the minor ones. If you can't handle that, shut up and stop reading the series.

2. The repetition of previously established plot elements in subsequent books is for the people traveling on planes who pick up book 5 in the airport. It allows them to enter the world enough to get through the read. It's a device publishing companies use with bestselling series like this one to ensure that the series remain a bestseller. While I have never started any series mid-way through, some people apparently do, and these passages are for them. If you can't handle that, shut up and stop reading the series.

3. Jordan likes to weave intricate plots with a cast of characters so large it necessitated a glossary at the end of each book. Many of the books are entirely character based, and so seem to have "no action" taking place. This is because you as a reader want someone to storm a tower, engage in a climactic battle, or throw a ring into a fiery pit. Jordan is too busy marrying characters or introducing a new plot thread to bother with such things. And while he may not talk about a character for one book, he has almost always gotten back around to them later on. If you don't like character development the way Jordan does it, shut up and stop reading the series.

4. Bottom line: There are already enough posts all over Internet chat rooms, Amazon, and Indigo (or the other online bookseller of your choice) telling us about why they are no longer reading Jordan to sink the Titanic again. If you gave up on the series, just write "ditto to so-and-so's review, I gave up too" and get on with your life. Just shut up and stop reading the series.

So, now that I've announced that I know why people generally give up on the series (which were reasons I shared), let me tell you how I got back on the Wheel.

1. I started thinking about "Wheel of Time" as a television series. It's long enough to sustain several seasons, the iron is hot for the striking insofar as fantasy media goes, and the cast is basically Beverly 90210 (or whatever teen drama is currently hip - sue me, I'm old) meets Lord of the Rings. The cast would be young, attractive and cool, and the setting would be cool in the current deluge of fantasy films. But it's too damn long for a single film installment, so a television series makes the most sense. I got to thinking about how we watch television series, which is one episode at a time. I began to view the chapters in each book as "episodes" of "Wheel of Time" as a television series, and each book as a "season." I don't like every episode of "Buffy the Vampire Slayer" and there are some seasons I like better than others. Some of my favorite episodes are in my least favorite seasons. But I love the characters, and I want to see what happens to them, so I tune in. I love Rand, Mat, Perrin, and many of the characters in Wheel of Time. I want to see what happens to them. So I keep tuning in.

2. I listen to them on audiobook. This is an extension of the "Wheel of Time" as television series concept, since it takes about 40 minutes or so to listen to a chapter. Some people just aren't that patient, but if you did it on your work commute or as part of housework, yardwork, or some other activity which would allow you to pay attention to the story without sawing your hand off, then you could easily get through a "season" of "Wheel of Time" before you know it. And Jordan's prose actually lends itself (in my opinion) better to audio than to regular reading. The repetition of how Aes Sedai do this or that is less annoying, because your brain is also thinking about washing the dishes.

3. I remember that Robert Jordan used to be a Dungeon Master for his kids. So much of "Wheel of Time" reads like a long-form role-playing campaign. I've got this nagging, but unconfirmed suspicion as a DM myself that many of the vignettes in "Wheel of Time" are narratively tightened versions of gaming moments. They just feel that way all too often. I find that thinking about "Wheel of Time" as a gaming campaign gives me ideas for my own gaming, especially in areas of character development. And it challenged me to run a campaign involving three different groups of players all playing in the same world and time period, but in different places, with their actions having major ramifications for each other's groups.

4. I got over the reasons I quit. Simply put, they were my reasons. I had expectations of Jordan he never intended to fulfill. I expected him to wrap it up in a trilogy. He didn't. I expected him to snap Rand out of his sullen funk. He didn't. I expected him to stop telling me about the embroidery on coats or dresses. He didn't. I expected him to bring a certain major character back from the dead. He didn't. And finally, I expected him to finish before he passed away. And he didn't.

It was that last one that really galvanized me. When I heard he had terminal cancer (many years after it was a reality), it got me thinking about the legacy the man would leave on this earth. An epic bestselling fantasy series. And I realized that, to quote Elvis and Sinatra, he'd done it his way. I might not like some of the choices Jordan made, but I love the world he created and the people walking through it. And I wanted to know how they fared in the end.

So that's my journey to Book 11 of "Wheel of Time" and I wanted to share it with everyone who visits my blog or reads my reviews at Amazon and Indigo, because I've enjoyed the journey. I want new readers to know what to expect, but also how to let go of those expectations, and to know that the journey is one worth taking. Especially if you want to be there when the final novel is released next year.

Me? I'll be starting book 1 this fall and listening to all the previous "Seasons" of "Wheel of Time," one per month, in anticipation of the final installment. The Wheel of Time turns...and I'll be turning pages with it.

NOTE: One final word. I'd like to add that while "Wheel of Time" is one of my top fantasy series of all time, I pray to the publishing gods at Tor to re-release the whole bloody series with new covers. Each time a new book comes out, I am further convinced that Darrell Sweet is not only the worst possible choice for cover illustrator for this series, but also that he has never read any of the books, or in the case of the first one, not even a description of the major characters. Judging from this post, I am not alone. In a perfect world, Keith Parkinson would have been the illustrator before he passed away. Since he is no longer an option, I'm suggesting Seamas Gallagher, who has done what I consider to be the best renditions of the characters from the series, with the exception of the interior art of the Wheel of Time roleplaying rules from Wizards of the Coast. Barring that, I'm ordering the whole series from the UK, where the covers, while a bit boring, are at the very least, not annoyingly inaccurate.

Thursday, April 24, 2008

Reflection - Shanna She-Devil

Getting gift certificates for your birthday is a blessing and a curse. A blessing, because it's always fun to go on a shopping spree on someone else's dime. A curse, because I always feel I need to live up to the gift-giver's generosity by picking the absolutely most perfect thing. It can't be junk. It's gotta be great. I can buy crap with my own money, but effectively, gift certificates are still someone else's money. So when I went to Happy Harbor Comics, the best comic book store on earth, to spend two rounds of gift certificates (Christmas and birthday), I was feeling a little overwhelmed.

A good comic shop is one of my favorite places to be. And Happy Harbor isn't just a good comic shop, it's a great one. The guy who owns the place understands the hobby and the people who indulge in it. He'll watch you to make sure you aren't stealing any of the merchandise, but otherwise, he lets you browse for lengthy periods of time, a practice which is essential to the hobby. We comic geeks just like soaking up the ambience of a comic shop, looking at the covers, flipping through the pages. If a comic shop has a sign about not flipping through the comics, it's owned by some paranoid wanker who doesn't understand that if I like a comic, I'll still buy it AFTER I've looked inside. But I need to look inside to make sure that the artist who painted the amazing cover is the same guy who illustrates the whole book. Because I'm not buying comics for how much they're going to be worth someday. I'm busying them because I like reading them.

That's why I only get trade paperbacks anymore. I don't buy single issues, save on rare occasions, like when I order the collected Atland books. I want to support the artist in that situation, and he might not ever get the chance to release a trade paperback (TPB) if I don't support him in the single issue stage. Never mind that taking a TPB off the shelf and reading it is a hell of a lot easier than taking the single issue out of the collector's bag I have it hidden away in.

But deciding on the right TPB is a difficult thing, especially at Happy Harbor, because the selection is phenomenal. However, I'd been eyeing one book in particular since I first started scouting out my possible choices for spending my gift certificates shortly after Christmas. I was Shanna, She-Devil by Frank Cho.

Artists like Frank Cho are why teenage boys start reading comics. Frank Cho draws the best women in comic books, with anatomy which, however buxom his women become, still obeys gravity. And they all look a bit like Linda Carter, which isn't a bad thing. He also draws great dinosaurs. And he does both in Shanna, She-Devil.

If you ask me why I picked up a trade paperback of a scantily clad jungle girl who kicks the ever living shit out of dinosaurs with birthday gift certificates for my favorite comic shop, I'll tell you "I like to read the articles...I mean story!" In all honesty, you can look down your nose at me all you like.So maybe this is my mid-life crisis...the scantily clad jungle babe for my inner adolescent, and the dinosaurs for my inner child. It takes me back to being 12 years old reading my first Conan comics.

The plot is simple. A military unit crash lands on a mysterious island filled with dinosaurs. There they discover a secret Nazi research facility. Inside said facility, clones of hot blonde Aryan women who were going to be super soldiers! How proto-feminist of the Nazis to choose women as their super soldiers! Only one is still alive, and when she is freed from her stasis tank, she joins with our group of soldiers in trying to survive on the island...until a deadly virus is unleashed! Only a serum back at the Nazi research facility can save them, but there are a lot of dinosaurs between Shanna and the serum, and then even more between her and the camp!

Yep. Plot is dumb as hell. But Cho rises to the occasion, both as visual artist and writer, to make Shanna, She-Devil not only fun, but somewhat engaging as a character as well.

Say what you will. It's got dinosaurs and a hot blonde heroine. I've been studying high-falootin' literatooor for the past 5 years. I needed some junk in my reading diet.