Sunday, March 29, 2015

All The Things I Did: 29th March 2015

WORST: WWE Raw episodes 1138 & 1139: Wrestlemania is two weeks away, and still the WWE can't be arsed to tell any actual stories in the lead-up.  The closest we're getting is with Cena vs. Rusev, and that one involves the supposed hero trying to choke his opponent to death to get what he wants.  Still, the pre-taped Brock Lesnar interview was a delight, as they always are.  And Sting's surprise appearance at the end had me marking out.  Like most episodes of Raw, it's like sitting through two hours of shit for fifteen minutes of gold.

Black Widow (2014) #1-9 written by Nathan Edmondson, art by Phil Noto: This comic is a series of taut, single-issue spy stories starring Black Widow from the Avengers, and on that level it's pretty good.  It executes the formula well, but it does feel like a formula, and the Widow is a little too dry as a protagonist to carry it with any particular verve. One for the spy fans, I feel.

The Punisher (2014) #1-6 written by Nathan Edmondson, art by Mitch Gerads: Right off the bat this book got me on its bad side by ignoring the conclusion to the Punisher's last series.  It also features an uncharacteristically sociable version of the Punisher, one who frequents the same diner regularly and has real conversations with people.  These odd irritants aside, it's a decent action book that maintains a down-to-earth tone while also revelling in how absurdly badass the Punisher is.  He's played here as the guy who deals with problems too big for the police and too small for the Avengers, which in this story means he's shooting up a drug cartel that's hired Spider-Man villain Electro.  The book is well-crafted, and the action scenes rattles along nicely, but just as with Edmondson's Black Widow it feels a little flat.

Magneto (2014) #1-10 by Cullen Bunn and Gabriel Walta: This series is doing some interesting things, as it follows X-Men villain Magneto on a mission to take down the enemies of mutantkind, and explores whether his brutal methods are justified.  It's not afraid to go to some dark places, and never takes sides, which can make for some uncomfortable reading.  There was definite potential here, but I feel like it got derailed by its tie-in to the Axis crossover.  There are bound to be some strange tonal clashes when you do a story that evokes the Holocaust where the main villain is a telepathic ranting Nazi with a red skull for a head.

The Walking Dead season 5, episode 14: Holy shit, this show has done it again.  Another black male cast member has been killed off.  Seriously, do the creators of this show have any idea?  Are they just taking the piss?  They've killed off three this season already, and the last black guy left is a traitorous priest, so the odds aren't looking good for him.  If I'm being honest this was actually a really good episode, the kind of supply-run-goes-horribly-wrong episode that this show can now do in its sleep.  But I'm too dumbfounded by the decision to kill of yet another black guy to get over it.

Amazing Spider-Man (2014) #1-8 written by Dan Slott, art by Humberto Ramos: Peter Parker is back in control of his own body after a year or so of Dr Octopus masquerading as him (seriously, don't ask) and now he has to deal with all of the things that Doc Ock changed in his life while he was gone: mostly his new girlfriend, his position as CEO of a major tech developer, and the fact that his old ally/girlfriend the Black Cat wants to kill him.  It gets a little too goofy for its own good at times, but Dan Slott hits the right tone for Spidey more often than not, and knows how to craft a fun superhero yarn better than most.

The Colour of Magic by Terry Pratchett: I remembered this book having a lot of different settings and stories, but I had never realised just how disjointed it was.  It's more a collection of short stories than a novel, linked by its main characters and a few plot strands, but little else.  It is, of course, set on Pratchett's Discworld, and follows the adventures of the wizard Rincewind and the tourist Twoflower.  I'd always enjoyed this book as a kid, but I got a lot more out of it now.  It parodies a lot of the fantasy stories from the pulps of the mid-20th century, stuff I hadn't read back then.  I get it now, and as a result the book holds up much better than I had expected it to.  It's an enjoyable ride, just as long as you don't go in expecting a coherent story.

Uncanny Avengers (2012) #18-25 written by Rick Remender, art by Daniel Acuna: If I was just basing this on the wrap-up to the Kang/Apocalypse Twins arc, this would be higher on the list.  Yes, it erases most of the events of the previous issues, but it is a crazy time-travel epic; what do you expect?  The payoff more than delivers on the build-up, providing one of the most satisying Avengers stories I've read in years. Once that wraps up the story moves on to the Red Skull, and the lead-in to the Axis crossover.  You might recall that I didn't care for that one much.  The lead-in here strikes a bleak tone; Remender is very good at embracing the weirdness of superhero comics without sacrificing the drama and tension.  But it feels a little choppy, as it drags Magneto in from his own series, and the conclusion is very abrupt.  Ultimately, it pulls in too many elements from other comics, then has to serve as the launching point for another comic, and the story feels disjointed as a result.

Low by David Bowie: After Bowie hit rock bottom in the late 1970s, he disappeared to Berlin with Brian Eno.  This is the album he came up with, one half made up of strange, fractured disco tracks and the other a wash of ambient synthesizers.  It's odd, it's idiosyncratic, and it's often difficult to come to grips with.  I love it.

Guardians of the Galaxy: So yes, it's taken me a long time to get to this movie, and I've heard nothing but amazing things about it.  I spent about the first third of the movie thinking that I must be broken as a human being, because I wasn't loving it.  I was liking it quite a bit, but on the whole I felt that all the scenes not featuring Peter Quill were a bit crap.  I was all prepared to write this review saying that it's an okay movie elevated by a killer soundtrack.  Perhaps I was just annoyed at how wrong they got Thanos.  But you know what?  It won me over with an onslaught of charm, and a whole lot of heart, and I ended up loving the hell out of it.  And it really does have a killer soundtrack.

Monday, March 16, 2015

On the Passing of Terry Pratchett

As soon as I heard about it I wanted to write about the passing of Terry Pratchett, but what is there for me to say?  I never knew him, and I have no special insights to offer.  I felt a twinge of sadness when I first heard the news, but there was no great outpouring of emotion.  I was (and am) just a fan, and I really only know him through his work. So I suppose that's what I'll write about: Pratchett's books, and how they affected me.

It was Christmas of 1990 that I received my first Pratchett novel.  It's written there inside the front cover of my copy of The Colour of Magic, my name and the date underneath.  I had no idea what it was, but I was a die-hard fantasy nut by that point, and I fell in love with his work.  The genre parody was spot on, even though it was a parody of fantasy I had yet to read: Lieber's tales of Fafhrd and the Grey Mouser, Howard's Conan, McCaffrey's Pern series.  It still worked when held up against the more modern works I'd been devouring, and as I said, I loved it.

From there I read as much as I could: as many of the Discworld books as I could get my hands on; the Truckers series; The Carpet People; even his sci-fi novel Strata (don't ask me about that one, because all I can remember about it is the large-breasted woman on the cover).  The Discworld books featuring the City Watch were favourites.  After a few years I drifted away from the Discworld series as a whole, but I always kept up with the Watch.

Pratchett has often been likened to Douglas Adams, and that's a fair comparison.  Both are very funny, but Pratchett has Adams beat when it comes to sheer volume.  There's also a lot more depth to Pratchett's books, on the whole.  While the Discworld series started as a parody of the fantasy genre, it gradually morphed into an astute look at our own society through a fantasy lens.  I'm not sure when it first happened, but I first noticed it in the book Night Watch, where he explores themes of revolution and authority.  I was astounded by that book in particular, and from then on I couldn't help but notice the little things in his books, the sublime moments that captured the human experience so perfectly.  More than just the funny moments, Pratchett sprinkled his books with moments of pathos, and I hope that isn't something that gets forgotten in all the restrospectives to come.

I've been meaning to embark on a big Discworld re-read for a while now.  It's been decades since I've read most of them, and there are about thirty or so that I haven't read at all.  It's sad that it took Pratchett's passing to give me the motivation, but as I said, I'm just a fan, and reading his books is the only form of tribute I can give.

Saturday, March 14, 2015

All The Things I Did: 14th March 2015

All of the things.  From Worst to Best.  Go.

WORST: WWE Raw episode 1,137: Wrestlemania is two weeks away, and the build-up for it is alarmingly underdone.  The major problem is that for three of the top feuds one of the major stars is missing.  Roman Reigns vs. Brock Lesnar: Lesnar works limited dates, and when he does show up it's usually just to stand in the background and hop from foot to foot menacingly.  Triple H vs. Sting - Sting has appeared maybe twice in the last six months, and otherwise communicates via monitor screen.  Bray Wyatt vs. Undertaker: The Undertaker isn't appearing until Wrestlemania, and the entre build-up consists of Bray desperately calling him out, and Taker sending a mystical lightning bolt to blow up Bray's rocking chair (really).  The only reason I'm excited for 'Mania is that I'm confident that all of those guys will deliver on the night.

The Walking Dead season 5, episode 13: This show has taken a definite upswing since Rick and co. found a safe place to live.  They're telling a different kind of story now, and it's one I'm a bit more interested in than the relentlessly grim survivalist tale that was going on before.

Amazing X-Men (2014) #1-12, writing by Jason Aaron and Chris Yost, art by Ed McGuinness: This run of issues features two stories: one about the return of Nightcrawler from the dead, and the other about an army of Wendigos.  The first is a swashbuckling action romp, as Nightcrawler summons the X-Men into the afterlife to stop pirates from stealing souls from Heaven and Hell.  It's exactly a absurd as it sounds, but it gets away with it through sheer charm and exuberance.  In the second, the Wendigo curse is activated when a human corpse is fed through a grinder in a meat-packing plant; hundreds of Canadians end up eating human flesh, and all of them turn into the mythica Wendigo.  Cue the X-Men, and another story that hits a very similar tone to the Nightcrawler one.  It's a bit throwaway, and not quite as good, but it's in the same ballpark.

The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle: This is a collection of the first twelve Sherlock Holmes short stories, and it's immediately apparent that the character works better in this format than in his first two novels.  All of the fat is cut, and what is left is a dozen or so lean stories that give every chance for Holmes to display his genius without too much clunky exposition.  Still entertaining over a century later.

Young Americans by David Bowie: Bowie's first post-glam album may be one of his weaker efforts from the 1970s, but that still makes it pretty damn good.  He's in full-on Philly soul mode, and doing it very well.  It's an underlooked album.  The only bad track is his cover of The Beatles' 'Across the Universe', and even that pulls out a surprisingly gutsy outtro.

Uncanny Avengers #1-17, writing by Rick Remender, art by John Cassaday and Daniel Acuna:  In the wake of Avengers vs. X-Men, both teams have formed a squad together to promote mutant/human unity.  It all goes pear-shaped when the Nazi Red Skull shows up wielding the brain of Charles Xavier as a weapon, and it gets even worse when the grand-kids of Apocalypse show up.  Remender is drawing on plot threads from his amazing run on Uncanny X-Force, and weaving them together into a balls-out, high-stakes superhero magnum opus.  It does get a little ham-handed when Remender starts moralising about race-relations and cultural identity, but the rest is solid gold.  Plus, it has Kand the Conqueror, and I am a sucker for a good Kang story.

Station to Station by David Bowie: Right from the middle of Bowie's cocaine-addled peak, this album is masterful.  He's shed the glam by this point, and is working more with funk and soul influences.  There may only be six songs on the album, but every single one is a winner.

BEST: A Night at the Hip-Hopera by The Kleptones: Hip-hop classics meet Queen backing tracks, in what may be the greatest mash-up album of all time.  This is probably my favourite album of the last decade.  Check it out, if only for the amazing combination of the Beastie Boys with 'Radio Gaga/I Want to Break Free'.  It's free if anyone wants to check it out here.

Sunday, March 8, 2015

The Hero of the Beach's Journey

Anyone who read a comic between 1960 and 1990 has probably seen the ad above.  It was ubiquitous and inescapable, and so became iconic as it imprinted on the brains of millions of impressionable youngsters.  I never knew anyone who took the course, and I never took it myself.  Who knew if it would even work or not?  Not me.  Until now, that is.

I've been meaning to do something about my fitness for a while, but I am - as you may have noticed - a bit lazy.  I also don't have money to join a gym, or hire a personal trainer.  What I do have is an unhealthy fascination with comic books and the ephemera surrounding them.  What better way for a comic nerd with no money to get fit, than to follow the advice of a man who died over forty years ago?

So this is the deal: for the next twelve weeks I'm going to be blogging about the Charles Atlas course.  I've been working on pretty much everything but my novel, so it's not like my mind is on writing these days anyway.  I intend to complete the entire course, following all of the instruction (except for a few that I flatly refuse to acknowledge), and write about my progress as I go.

Before I begin, this is what the Atlas method has to work with:

As you can see, neither exercise nor photography are things I've had much practice with.  I like to think that I'm giving the Charles Atlas method a blank canvas to work with.

The Atlas Method (which I have as a handy PDF) is split into eleven lessons, with a few appendices at the back.  The appendices are hilariously macho, with instructions on boxing, wrestling, and jiu jitsu, but I won't be tackling those.  I ain't here to hurt nobody.  Atlas' writing style is also quite startling.  He's fond of highlighting key phrases with ALL CAPS.  He'd be a real nuisance on message boards.  Mostly he bangs on about HEALTH and STRENGTH and POWER OF WILL, and the idea that ALL EVIL HABITS MAY BE DESTROYED BY THE PERSON WHO REALLY DESIRES TO CONQUER THEM!  He'd make a great super-villain.

The first thing that Atlas talks about is oxygen, and the importance of good, clean air.  It boils down to this: leave your windows open, and breathe deeply.  I'm a shallow breather by nature, so this one is going to be tricky to remember.  And as much as Charles would like me to leave my windows open at night, I have family members to consider.  That ain't gonna fly.  I'll just have to get my fresh air during the day.

Good posture is next on the agenda.  It's like Charles Atlas is talking right at me, because years of reading, writing and computering have left me with a curved spine, and I'm not about to give any of those things up.  I have a habit of slouching when I sit on the couch, but I'll try my best to remember to sit up straight, at least for the next twelve weeks.

And now, on to Lesson 1 proper.  This lesson is about exercising the chest and shoulders, which is why I provided the photos above.  There are seven exercises, to be done in the morning and at night.  I'm currently doing 15 repetitions of each, and I plan to increase that as I go.

1) Push-ups.  You know this is an old-timey course, because Atlas has to describe how to do his 'special dipping exercise' instead of just saying 'do some push-ups'.  He advocates doing them with feet on the floor and each hand on a different chair.  When I'm alone I'll do them with the chairs, but otherwise I'll be doing them on the floor.  I'm too shy to do these exercises where my family can see me.

2) This one I'm not certain about: I'm supposed to throw my hands up to the ceiling while inhaling, then cross them over and bring them down while exhaling.  It's a breathing exercise, but I'm not entirely sure I'm doing it right.  The diagrams aren't always the clearest.

3) Pulling an invisible rope while tensing my chest muscles.

4) Locking my middle fingers together and bringing my arms over my head.

5) Pressing my fist into my other hand at about hip level, and pushing with both arms.

6) Another one I'm not sure about, where I have to "bear down the shoulders and arms" while contracting my chest muscles.  I'm doing it, but I ain't sure I'm doing it right.

7) Pushing myself up with my hands while sitting in a chair.

So, that's my regimen for the next fortnight, and indeed for the entirety of the course.  While the other lessons will come and go, this one has to be done over the full twelve weeks.  I'm not complaining, it's actually not too strenuous so far.  I did my first round of exercises this morning, and I'm about to do my second before I go to bed.  I don't feel any different yet, but it's early days.  Time will tell if I become THE HERO OF THE BEACH, THE WORLD'S MOST PERFECTLY DEVELOPED MAN, THE MASTER OF DYNAMIC TENSION or if I just tone up a little bit, maybe.

WHAT MY OTHER BLOGS SAID THIS WEEK: - My dissection of the AD&D Monster Manual continues.  I'm up to letter T!  After years of toil, I'm nearly done! - In other ultra-nerdy doings, I've got an in-depth examination of The Citadel of Chaos, the second Fighting Fantasy gamebook.  Enter at your own risk, there's some hardcore nerd shit going on in there. - I'm still playing Orthanc, one of the very first computer RPGs.  If you like making dungeon maps on graph paper, this one's for you.


What I'm Reading:
The Adventures of Sherlock Holmes by Arthur Conan Doyle
The Complete Robot by Isaac Asimov
Amazing X-Men by Jason Aaron and Ed McGuinness

What I'm Watching:
The Walking Dead season 5

What I'm Playing:
Crossy Road

Saturday, March 7, 2015

All The Things I Did: 7th March 2015

All the things, ranked from worst to best.

Resurrection season 2, episodes 11 to 13: I'll admit that I was getting into this as it started drawing more and more on apocalyptic imagery, and supposedly heading towards an epic climax.  But if there's one thing I can't stand, it's an anticlimax.  This series spent hours building up the premise that "if this baby is born it could mean the end of everything!!!!!".  Of course the baby is born, millions of people return from the dead, and then the show cuts to a "one year later" transition and shows that everything is fine and dandy, aside from some irritating bits of anti-Returned legislation.  It's the textbook example of how to get me to stop watching your show.

Marvel 75th Anniversary Celebration #1:  This comic is mostly full of throwaway anthology stories.  The most notable are a look at what the other Marvel characters were doing during the origin of the Fantastic Four (a story which contradicts continuity in a number of places) and a Darwyn Cooke adaptation of a prose story that was Stan Lee's first published work.  The latter is a fine example of what a great artist like Cooke can do with an execrable piece of writing.  It's fun, but not enough to save the rest of the forgettable material.

WWE Raw episodes 1,135 and 1,136: Speaking of forgettable...  WWE is on the road to Wrestlemania, which is supposed to be the biggest event of the year, but you'd never know it.  The same story beats are being hit week after week, the champion Brock Lesnar never bothers to show up, and the wrestling has been decent at best.  Who would have thought that the highlight would be Curtis Axel, and his delusional #Axelmania rants? 

The Walking Dead season 5, episodes 11 and 12: Interest is picking up here, as Rick and co. move into a community that, shockingly, seems perfectly safe.  It looks to me as though they're heading for a story where we explore whether Rick's crew can still function in a normal society, and I'm cool with that.  It's a change-up from the same old formula, and that's exactly what the show needed.

WWE Fastlane 2015:  Most of the matches here were dull, and the crowd didn't help.  Why would you pay to go to a wrestling event, and not react to anything?  The last two matches saved it, though.  John Cena and Rusev had a good back-and-forth match that went a long way to cementing Rusev as a legitimate main-event heel.  The ending, with Rusev hitting a distracted Cena then making him pass out with the Accolade, was the right one, and sets up their Wrestlemania rematch nicely.  The Roman Reigns/Daniel Bryan main event was a corker, but that's to be expected when Bryan is involved.  And as much as I would rather see Bryan head to Wrestlemania as the top guy, I'm kind of glad that the WWE doubled down on Reigns in the face of negative crowd reactions.  Bryan was the safe option, but they're trying to make a new star here, and even with Reigns's obviosu deficiencies that's commendable.

Thunderbolts #13-32 by Charles Soule and various artists: I hadn't really enjoyed the first twelve issues of this series by Daniel Way, but with Charles Soule taking over the book improved a lot.  It got a genuine premise, for a start: the group do one mission for the Red Hulk, then one mission for another member, alternating each time.  It also gained a sudden self-awareness of it's own absurdity, which it needed.  You can't put so many grim killers on the same superhero team and expect the book to be taken seriously.  The highlight of the run was the team's trip to Hell, which embraced the silliness of the situation and had some clever tie-ins to other Marvel books.  The book tailed off a bit at the end, and got cancelled before it could get around to giving every character a mission, but it had its fun moments.

Powers: The Bureau #1-12 by Brian Michael Bendis and Mike Oeming: This series has been running for about 15 years now, but this is the first time I've tried it.  The premise is that the world has superheroes, and the FBI deals with them.  It's pretty simple, and the opening arc sets the tone immediately by featuring a case involving superpowered semen being sold on the black market, and some highly entertaining foul language.  The plotting is a lot tighter than Bendis's mainstream work, and the characters are entertaining on a superficial level.  I was with it until he introduced a pregnancy plot for the main character, had her lose the baby after being kicked in the stomach, then didn't mention it at all in the nest story.  Perhaps it will be explored going forward, but it's not the sort of thing that I feel can be dropped like that.

The Sign of the Four by Arthur Conan Doyle: The second Sherlock Holmes novel is better than the first, mostly because Holmes is actually in it the whole way through.  It still falls into the same narrative trap that A Study in Scarlet did, though: the last chapter is a massive block of exposition detailing how and why the murder was done.  The plot is cliched from a modern perspective, being a murder mystery involving missing treasure and an island native, but Holmes himself remains entertaining enough.

Nova #1-16 by Jeph Loeb, Zeb Wells, Gerry Duggan and various artists: Young Sam Alexander finds his dad's space helmet and becomes the star-faring Nova, in a solid execution of the teen superhero formula.  There's nothing new on display here, but it has a lot of exuberance that carries it through the standard tropes.

Foundation's Edge by Isaac Asimov: How often does someone create a sequel to their most famous work decades after the original, and pull it off?  Not often, but here Asimov has managed to do it, writing a novel in 1982 that's just as good as the Foundation stories of the 1950s.  Foundation is a hard sell as a series, being a story about a fellow who maps out the future using maths, then sets up two organisations whose goal was to see that the best possible future comes about over the coming centuries.  This story involves the technologically superior First Foundation and the psychic Second Foundation being drawn into a conflict revolving around the mysterious planet Gaia, with the fate of the galaxy at stake.  There are no space battles, or exciting things like that, just politics and space exploration.  This is hard sci-fi, by one of the masters, and if you're into that sort of thing it's a series you really ought to read.