9/24/2016

50th Trek: The Physics of Star Trek

In honour of Star Trek's 50th anniversary, I'll be writing a series of posts discussing a favorite example of Star Trek related media.

The Physics of Star Trek by Lawrence M. Krauss  Star Trek created by Gene Roddenberry.
The Physics of Star Trek
by Lawrence M. Krauss

Star Trek created by Gene Roddenberry.

If Trekkies helped spawn the current fashion for fan-themed documentaries, The Physics of Star Trek would inspire the trend of books which blended two kinds of stereotypical nerdery - academia and pop culture. Virtually every successful franchise seems to have been subject to this kind of treatment: comic book superheroes and supervillains, J.R.R. Tolkien’s Middle Earth, Harry Potter, even that other, less rational sci-fi series with “Star” in its title. Compared to the era when Carl Sagan or David Attenborough or Fritjof Capra would rarely deign to reference popular entertainment, our current big-brained public figures promoting education such as Michio Kaku or Phil Plait are more likely to  mention the latest film, television show, or graphic novel, if it will help them make a point about how science functions in the real world. If author Lawrence Krauss may have initially treated the idea of a science book based on Star Trek a joke, it almost makes sense in retrospect as the logical start for the trend. When the book was published in 1995, Trek had already been talking about the future for almost 30 years.

The title for the book is somewhat misleading. The first half does cover the history of modern physics in more-or-less chronological order, from the classical mechanics of Isaac Newton, the two theories of relativity by Albert Einstein, atomic theory, to the weirdness that is quantum mechanics. But this is Star Trek after all, so Krauss must venture into the fields of astronomy and cosmology in later chapters. He even gives his two cents about biology, psychology, computer science, and philosophy, because of course he does. Unsurprisingly, it’s that last part where Krauss is at his least sure footed. At barely 175 pages, TPOST is a slim volume. But it’s hardly a quick read because of the nature of its subject matter. Nevertheless, Krauss does his best to cut down on the jargon, and there’s not a single mathematical equation in sight. The most he does to illuminate some of the more complex theories being discussed is to use several schematic drawings. It’s about as plain-spoken as a physics-based science book written by a Ph.D. can get.

What does become apparent as the book progresses is the enormous difficulty of the task Krauss has set up for himself. Star Trek was already a massive franchise in 1995, which included The Original Series, The Next Generation, seven feature films, the first two seasons of Deep Space Nine, and the first season of Voyager. Given that TNG was the most successful part of the franchise, the book tends to reference it more than any of the other Trek series. Like a later-day positivist version of Capra, or a real world Sheldon Cooper, Krauss has to demonstrate fluency in two different realms, then attempt to draw a connection between them as both a trusted expert in his field, and as a judgemental fan.*

That’s not so simple because like any form of speculative fantasy, Star Trek isn’t just cribbing from the textbook. There’s a lot of artistic license involved in the writing of any episode. Trying to make sense of Trek’s fictional universe is like translating a book from English to Chinese, then into Korean, then French, then back into English. Basically, Krauss is assembling his own head-canon. When examining technologies such as the matter transporter or the holodeck, Krauss has to surmise from multiple episodes which aren’t always consistent with each other just how those technologies function before he can give an explanation on whether they might even be feasible in this universe. Is the matter transporter just transmitting a data-rich signal to the receiving device, or is it sending with it a matter stream as well? Is the holodeck just producing holograms, or is it also manipulating solid matter whenever necessary? When he synthesizes a model for how the warp drive might work, Krauss rather optimistically explains, “This scenario must be what the Star Trek writers intended when they invented warp drive, even if it bears little resemblance to the technical descriptions they have provided.” You don’t say?

As for the answers Krauss provides for Star Trek’s three key technologies (warp drive, time travel, matter transporter), here’s the (spoiler alert!) Cliff Notes version of his analysis. All of these technologies would generate stupendous energy requirements that make them practically unfeasible. And while general relativity does make warp drive and travel to the past at least theoretically possible if not probable, matter transporters run into the theoretical limits of the Heisenberg Uncertainty Principle, which puts an absolute limit on the precision for measuring the fundamental properties of a subatomic particle. So no one’s beaming up any time soon.

Science has naturally moved on since 1995, though so far not in a direction that would change any of Krauss’ basic answers. The development of quantum teleportation uses particles for encoding and transmitting information, but still won’t allow us to transport a living person. Newer measurements about the fate of the Universe have led cosmologists to speculate about dark energy. The long hypothesized Higgs Boson particle was found in 2013. Another hypothesized phenomena, gravitational waves, was finally detected earlier this year. The discovery of thousands of exoplanets has only deepened the mystery of why we have not yet found new life and new civilization outside of the Earth. Even our own solar system has gotten so complicated that astronomers reclassified Pluto as a “dwarf planet”, whatever the hell that means. And as for exploring strange new worlds, NASA now faces competition from the private sector. But these companies arguably wouldn't exist in the first place without Stat Trek serving as inspiration.

However cleverly organized, TPOST utilizes only a very narrow set of tools to study the franchise. So it comes as no great shock that the book has galvanized other experts to give their own interpretations based on their particular field of knowledge. To date, this has included biology, computer science, ethics, business management, history, metaphysics, and religious studies. But I suspect that the book which will resonate most with the current market is the one that tackles how the Federation managed to build a post-scarcity society from a post-apocalyptic setting. If Lawrence Krauss has succeeded, however accidentally, in proving one thing, it’s that Star Trek can be viewed to be just about anything.
____
*Krauss prefers the label "Trekker" when talking about Star Trek fans.

9/17/2016

50th Trek: Trekkies (1997)

In honour of Star Trek's 50th anniversary, I'll be writing a series of posts discussing a favorite example of Star Trek related media.

 Trekkies (1997), Director: Roger Nygard Host: Denise Crosby,  Star Trek created by Gene Roddenberry.
Trekkies (1997)
Director: Roger Nygard
Host: Denise Crosby

Star Trek created by Gene Roddenberry.
“I don’t know, I hope it lasts forever … As long as it’s thoughtful, it’s a good thing." 
- Leonard Nimoy (1931-2015)
One of the early criticisms levelled at Trekkies from the very community it was portraying was that it spent way too much time parading a more extreme version of Star Trek fandom instead of representing the majority composed of more “normal” fans. The documentary’s most infamous character was and continues to be Barbara Adams, an alternate juror for the Whitewater trial of Governor Jim Guy Tucker who achieved nationwide notoriety for wearing her Starfleet uniform to the courtroom,  tricorder, rank pips and all. When discussing her actions, she referred to her fellow fans, “I don’t want my officers to ever feel ashamed to wear their uniform.” On the face of it, it’s pretty ridiculous to compare a homemade costume to a military uniform. But she insisted on people showing respect for her rank of Lieutenant Commander, even at the printing press where she worked from within its binding and finishing department.

Trekkies quickly latches on to cosplay as a signifier of the more eccentric fan. Family man David Greenstein has a Star Trek-themed man cave and bathroom at home. To his wife’s horror, he admits to wanting to modify his earlobes in order to appear more Vulcan. Alas, he can’t afford the operation. Denis Bourguignon runs a sci-fi themed dental office, complete with staff wearing blue science officer uniforms. He and wife Shelly admit, to the embarrassment of the film’s host Denise Crosby (Tasha Yar from The Next Generation), that cosplay plays a significant part in their sex life. Richard Kronfeld is fascinated by Trek’s fictional technology. He’s seen motoring down a road to the local Radio Shack using a homebuilt replica of the Total Life Support Unit used by Captain Pike. But the most charming example is the teenager Gabriel Köerner, who would go on to become the film’s most recognised character after Adams. Always filmed in costume, Köerner is the kind of passionate, nerdy, self-aware kid who proves to be an eloquent spokesperson. He’s the one who when his interview is interrupted by an unexpected phone call, responds with the immortal line "Peter, this is the worst time you could have called! Go away! ... ok bye."

Naturally, the Klingons take things a step further. They write sex manuals and enact their mating rituals, learn the Klingon language, and translate everything from the Bible, William Shakespeare, popular theme songs, to sports terminology. Some of them even have time to be heavily involved with charitable work. Other fans are also inspired to follow different creative paths. Köerner proudly displays the CGI models he made for a fan film being produced by his club. Filk (science fiction folk singing) gets only a brief mention. As do several female fans who read and write “slash” fiction (erotic fan fiction), though Debbie Warner is singled out as a member of an anonymous mailing list and author of “The Secret Logs of Mistress Janeway.” This is juxtaposed with a scene of Crosby showing off her personal fan art collection, which includes several risqué illustrations of Tasha and Data (played by Brent Spiner in TNG) captured in flagrante delicto.

However, the true weirdos are only mentioned in passing. There’s the guy who wants to collect James Doohan’s (Montgomery “Scotty” Scott) blood. Another who paid $40-60 to drink the “Q-Virus.” Another who wanted Ethan Phillips (Neelix from Voyager) to help him ease his way into death. Or the guy who keeps sending brochures addressed to “Star Trek.”

It’s this fixed component of amused ogling that seems to have upset fans at the time. Still, it would be a huge mistake to think that Trekkies goes out of its way to mock its subject matter. The cast and crew being interviewed consistently express awe and admiration for Trek’s enduring popularity. A recurring motif is how Trek’s progressive message has inspired a lot of people, including women and minorities. And many of the actors (though William Shatner [James Kirk] is noticeably absent) can recall positive interactions with their fans, whether they were media personalities, NASA astronauts, or most notably, a suicidal woman who was gently coaxed by Doohan to turn her life around.

What’s become more obvious since is that Trekkies blend of carnival sideshow and joyous celebration is a product of a different era. While geek culture was becoming ascendent in the 90s, it was nowhere as ubiquitous as it is today. A throwaway line from Köerner and a fansite created by superfan Anne Murphy serve as a reminders that geeks were still in the early stages of colonising the World Wide Web in 1997. As such, the film is informed by the need to expound on the nature of fandom to non-fans. Some viewers will unfortunately see these people as stupid or hopelessly deluded. But there’s a certain underdog quality that shines through. Many of the interviewees come across as erudite and cognisant of their outsider status. For the most part, they seem happy to pursue a hobby the world doesn’t get. And In our highly polarised environment where Gamergate, the backlash against Miles Morales, and other stories that serve as a reminder that sexist and racist attitudes exist within fandom, the pro-science, inclusive world view expressed in Trekkies is almost salutary, if a little earnest at times. Or as Spiner puts it “I don’t think I’ve ever met anyone, Star Trek fan or not, who wasn’t peculiar…. We’re all peculiar.”

Another thing that stands out is the film’s focus on the convention as a defining characteristic of fandom. Apparently, not everyone knew back then what basically goes on during a convention. So Trekkies takes time to point out that people mingle with friends and other like-minded individuals, buy and sell a lot of merchandise, meet some of the personalities involved with the franchise, and take lots of pictures. When compared to the massive Hollywood presence seen in Comic-Con Episode IV: A Fan's Hope, these conventions possess far humbler production values, and are more local in reach. Not that it stops anyone from spending thousands of dollars on, say, a genuine Klingon forehead prosthetic. But that sense of "I have found my tribe" is a constant. As one attendee speaking for herself and her friends recalls "The first convention we went to... we were all accepted. And when we left and went back home, we had to act normal again." Several Hollywood representations of fan conventions have since taken their cue from Trekkies.

While surveying a broad spectrum of modern fan pursuits, Trekkies is smart enough not to over-explain Star Trek itself. The film doesn’t go into any detail about Trek’s fictional universe, and only mentions a few of the people behind its creation. The references and technical jargon will be appreciated by the initiated. But the viewer isn’t punished for not knowing the meaning behind “The Emissary”, “saucer separation capability”, “Romulan Star Empire”, or for not caring about the never-ending debate over who is Trek’s favourite captain (thankfully, Captain Archer wasn’t in the running at the time).

One particular debate that actually hasn’t aged very well is whether fans should refer to themselves as Trekkies or Trekkers. The film’s participants express a range of opinions favouring one term over the other, but what underlies all their arguments is a wish for greater respectability. What all of them fail to recognise is how little control anyone has over the popular use of language. In an age where Internet memes are easily co-opted by an opposing side, the idea that a simple word change could alter the prevailing perception surrounding an entire subculture can feel a little naive. But then again, the same could be said of Star Trek.

9/11/2016

50th Trek: Just a Geek

In honour of Star Trek's 50th anniversary, I'll be writing a series of posts discussing a favorite example of Star Trek related media.

Just a Geek  by Will Wheaton.
Just a Geek 
by Wil Wheaton

Former child actor Wil Wheaton once came to a fateful decision during a 1989 Star Trek cruise. After observing the apparently unhappy state of the original series cast members in attendance, he chose to leave the television show Star Trek: The Next Generation and jump start a film acting career. This looked like a good idea, when considering the circumstances. Wesley Crusher was an unpopular character often perceived by fans as a Mary Sue standing in for Gene Roddenberry. His presence on the show was greatly diminished. And Wil wasn't getting along with new executive producer Rick Berman. So it seemed like as good a time as any to jump ship and try something new. But instead of leading to bigger and better things, his acting career would stutter and then come to a complete standstill. Wil would spend the next 15 years ruing his decision to leave the legendary franchise at the height of its popularity. Two byproducts of this rocky period were a popular blog he began in 2001, and a memoir published in 2004 called Just a Geek.

Wil’s connection to TNG was initially the obvious draw when I first discovered his blog. But it soon became clear that unlike most other actor’s websites, which usually function as a vehicle for self-promotion, Wil was more than willing to discuss his many failed efforts to land an acting gig. His early blog posts often attempted to be glib about these experiences, but over time would increasingly express anger, disappointment, desperation, and self-recrimination. This is carried over into Just a Geek. Roughly half the book’s content is material reprinted from his blog posts. But unlike most bloggers, Wil developed a true command of story structure. His best posts are typically written as well-crafted anecdotes usually conveying some kind of point, or at least an amusing punchline.

But the meat of the book is found in the original content, designed to connect the disparate blog posts into a unified narrative. Wil’s blog was often praised for its candid and personal tone. But he admits here that there’s an element of public performance to his blogging. Wil initially tries to convince himself and his audience that his career didn’t take a nosedive after he left TNG. His narcissistic inner struggle becomes personified by two duelling voices: "Prove To Everyone That Quitting Star Trek Wasn't A Mistake” and the “The Voice of Self Doubt.” But numerous failed auditions grind down whatever optimism he once possessed, and Wil criticizes the industry. He bitterly complains about Hollywood’s preference for “edgy” actors and pursuit of all things popular. And like many has-beens, his fragile ego takes a further beating as he’s reduced to dependency on the convention circuit, desperately hawking autographs, reminding fans (and even fellow cast members he’s fallen out of touch with) that he still exists, appearing on game shows or any event that would have him, and selling personal items on eBay. That’s when he hits rock bottom and starts reconsidering whether he even still wants to be an actor.

One remedy to Wil’s downward spiral of depression and denial is his love of Star Trek. Virtually all of the book’s emotional highs are about his intermittent involvement with the Star Trek franchise. Wil’s unusual position is that he blurs the line between  celebrity and fan due to his being a lot younger than the rest of the TNG cast, a factor that inevitably colors Wil’s personal interactions with them. He’s never quite their equal in terms of experience or maturity. So he ends up playing the role of the callow youth who looks up to his smarter, wiser, and more well-adjusted colleagues. This has the benefit of making him into a POV character for the reader whenever the cast convenes at a convention, or most memorably during the filming of the wedding scene in Star Trek: Nemesis.

But Star Trek is also a source of great ambivalence, which isn't surprising given the book’s premise. Wil’s pop culture legacy already includes an internet meme sometimes called “The Wesley.” Things come to a head in a famous blog post describing Wil having an imaginary conversation with a beloved Wesley Crusher action figure. The post is included in the book to document the author finally exorcising his personal demons. It’s an uplifting story about how Wil learned to see the character he’s most known for playing in its proper perspective. But whatever inner peace Wil achieves is later shaken when he receives news that not only was all his dialogue in Nemesis left on the cutting room floor, he was also snubbed from receiving any invitation to attend the film’s premiere.

12 years after Just a Geek was published, Wil’s informal writing remains just as engaging. And the book makes for a quick read. But a few things also stick out. Because the book is so engrossed in Wil’s own quest for self-validation, none of the other characters ever come into proper focus. Not even his faithful wife who puts up with a lot of his sh__. No doubt this was a decision on Wil’s part not to reveal too much of his private life. But this does mean that the reader is stuck in Wil’s head for the duration of the entire book. This can at times feel as if some important element is missing from the story.

Another source of annoyance (at least to me) is the uneven quality of Wil’s authorial voice. Wil has a habit of switching back and forth from a more flippant tone to a more confessional style. He isn’t afraid to being a little sentimental when he’s being serious. But then Wil tries to inject some humor, and the effect can be a little forced. This is especially cumbersome when he juxtaposes very juvenile and crass statements with more doleful insights. An early example in the book is when he visits a Hooters restaurant, spends time ogling the waitress and talking about her boobs, only to be reminded of his status as a failed actor. His transition from leering fratboy to morose artist can be quite awkward.

Just a Geek was fashioned to chronicle the experiences of a struggling young actor who transitions into a writer. But 12 years on, it’s become more than apparent that the internet has facilitated a new kind of fame, one which Wil just happens to be an early manifestation. His blogging would anticipate how today’s celebrities have become heavily engaged with social media. While many of them work hard to connect with their fans, Wil has already convinced his fans that he’s just one of them. He may not have fulfilled his ambitions for the silver screen, but Wil’s newfound popularity has helped to revive his acting career. And no matter what, Wil has still managed to preserve his brand of geek identity. Only now, he’s joined during the rapidly expanding convention season by a new generation of web-savvy nerdlebrities such as Adam Savage, Jonathan Coulton, and Felicia Day. Wil Wheaton isn't alone.

9/04/2016

Godzilla Resurgence (2016)

Godzilla Resurgence (2016). Directors: Hideaki Anno, Shinji Higuchi Cast: Hiroki Hasegawa, Yutaka Takenouchi, Satomi Ishihara, et al.  Gojira (Godzilla) created by Tomoyuki Tanaka, Ishiro Honda, Eiji Tsubaraya.
Directors: Hideaki Anno, Shinji Higuchi
Cast: Hiroki Hasegawa, Yutaka Takenouchi, Satomi Ishihara, et al.

Gojira (Godzilla) created by Tomoyuki Tanaka, Ishiro Honda, Eiji Tsubaraya.

Shin Gojira has been heaped with tremendous praise from Japanese media outlets, being hailed as a “masterpiece of unprecedented filmmaking.” Reactions from western critics/fans who managed to see it have been understandably a little more mixed. Toho’s relaunch of the film franchise since the underperforming Godzilla: Final Wars from 2004 had a lot riding on it. Unlike the Legendary Pictures 2014 movie, this film was aimed squarely at the local market. So it returns the king of kaiju to his roots in Japan’s tragic relationship with nuclear power. For this story, the events it alludes to aren’t  America's 1954 testing of nuclear weapons in the Pacific but the Fukushima Daiichi nuclear disaster of 2011, though the ghosts of Hiroshima and Nagasaki are also invoked in one scene. But there’s also something more fundamental about the story. None of Hollywood’s Godzilla adaptations have come close to invoking that peculiar sense of collective awe and helplessness in the face of nature’s wrath found within the Japanese film series.

The Fukushima references come in thick and fast during the film’s opening 25 minutes. The coast guard is investigating an abandoned boat floating on Tokyo bay when a massive quake causes the Aqua-Line Tunnel to flood. The prime minister and his cabinet convene to address the calamity, but the roomful of mostly middle-aged men can’t quite figure out what’s going on. In an amusing sequence, they transfer from the PM’s office to a general conference room, then back to the office. The PM then changes out of his business suit into a blue work uniform before giving a press conference. By the time the politicians figure out the cause of the quake, a giant monster has emerged out of the bay, swam upstream through a canal, crawled onto dry land, and commenced stomping through the neighborhood's cramped streets. Only mid-level cabinet secretary Rando Yaguchi (Hiroki Hasegawa) realizes early on that the monster is responsible for the mayhem. When he later points out that it took the cabinet a full 2 hours to decide on a concrete course of action, he’s told by his superior Hideki Akasaka (Yutaka Takenouchi) to shut up and not rock the boat.

That opening section is unmistakingly the work of Hideaki Anno. The quick jump cuts between the cabinet scenes and the monster’s progress through Tokyo, closeup of pensive faces, talking heads shot at every conceivable angle, heavy use of onscreen text to label every place name, political figure, and piece of military hardware, even the orchestral soundtrack, are devices used in his landmark anime series Neon Genesis Evangelion. Once the PM decides to mobilize the Japanese Self Defense Forces to take out the monster, Anno uses one clever sequence to emphasize the unwieldy nature of the Japanese hierarchical structure. A JSDF helicopter pilot radios his field commander for permission to fire, and the request is passed up a needlessly long chain of command until it reaches the PM. But the topical focus may be a big stumbling block for non-Japanese audiences. The film has a huge cast of Japanese name actors playing various supporting and incidental roles in order to better convey the vast scope of the government's bureaucracy. After a while, this starts to feel like an exercise in seeing how many famous people can be crammed into one film.

A particular shortcoming that American viewers will probably complain about is the lack of “character development.” The film does not dwell on the private lives of its cast. Unlike the 2014 film, there’s no family at the center of the drama. None of the politicians, not even the PM, call home to make sure their families are safe, and both Rando and Hideki appear to be single. This lack of personal stakes might be seen as a drawback. On the other hand, this spares viewers the mind-numbing horror of having to witness cloying scenes of family reunion found in many Hollywood disaster flicks. Anyway, that would only distract from the main focus - the story of a nation experiencing and eventually moving past this terrible event. What that means for the cast is that Rando and Hideki will learn to overcome their differences as the older generation around them falls.

The other character of significance is Kayoco Anne Paterson (Satomi Ishihara), a Japanese-American envoy. Anime fans will recognize her as the latest example of that stock character, the part-Japanese foreigner (see Asuka Langley Soryu). So she gets to be played by a Japanese actress, speak in fluent Japanese, but skip the use of honorifics (gasp!). Kayoco carries herself with a little more swagger than would be acceptable to many Japanese woman because she was raised in the west. She delivers her random English lines with that weird voice that often passes for a foreign accent in Japanese entertainment, but just sounds to most Americans like an atrocious attempt to mimic their pronunciation and speech patterns.

Kayoco is initially shown representing America's interests, only to side with her ancestral home as the two nations goals begin to diverge. Japan's government is first portrayed as weak. The PM keeps dithering and JSDF hardware proves insufficient to the task. When the Americans intervene to help stop the monster rampage, their actions are briefly welcomed. But the Japanese become increasingly ambivalent as the U.S. military considers more extreme measures. The other American cast members are all pretty awful. Hovering at the edge of the screen, never in focus, always mumbling their lines, and never directly interacting with their Japanese counterparts. The U.S. remains a distant authority figure. And the two nations being allies won’t stop Japan from being nuked a third time.

As for the monster that will be later known as Godzilla, he’s a mixed bag. Like some past incarnations, he’s an unidentified species that’s been exposed to heavy radiation. But Anno’s new twist to the formula is that Godzilla now mutates like a pokemon going through various stages of evolution. The amphibious form that emerges from the ocean looks downright silly with its large bug-eyed expression with gaping mouth. The final form seen in all the promotional material makes him into a horror movie creature. His clearly visible rib cage and exposed glowing red flesh give the impression of a rotting corpse. Godzilla moves more like a zombie than an enormous beast. Anno imbues him with new abilities. His traditional radioactive breath comes in different forms, from a fine mist to concentrated energy beam. The tail and spikes on his back can fire their own energy beams. He emits some kind of EM pulse like the MUTOs of the 2014 film. He can reproduce asexually. He might be able to fly. There’s theoretically no end to what he can do considering his ability to mutate. This Godzilla feels like something that would fit right at home within an anime series.

In the 1954 original, lone scientist Dr. Daisuke Serizawa invents the Oxygen Destroyer, the only weapon that can surpass the destructive power of Godzilla. He uses it to kill the monster at the cost of his own life. In this 2016 reboot, the film’s lone scientist is already dead. So who then saves Japan? Basically, Japan saves itself with the help of a few allies. Rando creates a task force composed of misfits like himself, and the solution they eventually come up with brings the country together behind a common cause. It's as if Japan found a way to clean up all of their nuclear contamination. Unfortunately, the CGI effects used so successfully througout most of the film fail to make its implementation look very convincing. Otherwise, this is still a more optimistic ending than the original, even if the film’s parting shot leaves the viewer with a sense of uneasiness about the future.

8/28/2016

Superwoman #1

Superwoman #1: Story/Art: Phil Jimenez Inks: Matt Santorelli Colors: Jeremy Cox Covers: Steve Downer, Terry Dodson, Rachel Dodson  Lois Lane created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Lana Lang created by Bill Finger and John Sikela.
Story/Art: Phil Jimenez
Inks: Matt Santorelli
Colors: Jeremy Cox
Covers: Steve Downer, Terry Dodson, Rachel Dodson

Lois Lane created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster.
Lana Lang created by Bill Finger and John Sikela.

Superman and his supporting cast have always been at the center of every convoluted twist in DC’s shared universe. It wasn’t that long ago that the publisher brought back the Post-Crisis version of the character, then killed-of the newer New 52 version. The new Superwoman series is a homage to one aspect of the character’s history. As unexpected as was the announcement for this new comic, Lois Lane and her romantic rival Lana Lang have been known in the past to temporarily gain superpowers. The comic is rife with continuity nods that, depending on one’s perspective, is either a confusing mess that makes it very difficult for any new reader to understand what’s going on, or cleverly plays to nostalgic fans.

It’s great to see the underappreciated Phil Jimenez working in comics again. His densely packed pages with panels loaded with text is pretty much a throwback in today’s industry. And the first half of this comic is a bit of a headache to get through, which is devoted to explaining the current status quo. At first, I wasn’t entirely sure which version of Lois was actually in the comic. And Lana’s reinvention as a science/reporter type was a bit unusual. Oh, and Lex Luthor is again wearing another suit of armour and apparently suffering from Helicarrier envy. But the mid-story plot twist did at least end the heavy emphasis on exposition in order to concentrate on the seat-of-your-pants action sequence. And the plot twist did make Lana a much more interesting character in the series.

It’s difficult to say in what direction that much-discussed-on-the-internet cliffhanger ending is leading towards. My first guess was that it was a typical comic bookish misdirection. But most of online fandom seems to be taking it at face value.  If so, it’s not a particularly dignified way to send off a character that hasn’t been particularly well-served by the New 52 era. But unfortunately for that person, DC’s continuity does need a bit of uncluttering.

Superwoman #1: Story/Art: Phil Jimenez Inks: Matt Santorelli Colors: Jeremy Cox Covers: Steve Downer, Terry Dodson, Rachel Dodson  Lois Lane created by Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster. Lana Lang created by Bill Finger and John Sikela.

8/20/2016

Deathstroke: Rebirth #1

Deathstroke: Rebirth #1. Story: Christopher Priest Art: Carlo Pagulayan Inks: Jason Paz Colors: Jeremy Cox Letters: Willie Schubert Covers: Aco, Romulo Fajardo Jr., Stephen Platt, Peter Steigerwald  Deathstroke created by Marv Wolfman and George Perez.
Story: Christopher Priest
Art: Carlo Pagulayan
Inks: Jason Paz
Colors: Jeremy Cox
Letters: Willie Schubert
Covers: Aco, Romulo Fajardo Jr., Stephen Platt, Peter Steigerwald

Deathstroke created by Marv Wolfman and George Perez.

Deathstroke is not a character I have any particular interest in reading about as the protagonist, and the New 52 relaunch purged most of the continuity elements that made him a fascinating villain for the Teen Titans. Without that history, he’s just another super soldier sporting a cynical attitude. But DC seems determined to revive the character’s short-lived, 90s-era popularity. So he’s been given the Rebirth treatment in a new series that’s less about superhero adventures, and more about gritty, violent tales featuring ruthless mercenaries. Fortunately, the writer hired to shepherd this latest relaunch is Christopher Priest, who’s perhaps best known for his critically-acclaimed run on Black Panther.

Like most Rebirth issues, the comic certainly works as a reintroduction to the character. The fragmentary storytelling moves back and forth between a younger Slade Wilson taking his two sons camping in the woods during the dead of winter, and the present-day version working on a job for an African warlord. The former is terrible human being. An absentee father figure who’s hellbent on teaching his kids life’s harshest lessons and moulding them into manly survivalists like himself, even if it means literally beating those lessons into them. The latter’s a soldier of fortune who follows a strict professional code of ethics. But an unexpected appearance of someone from his past complicates his loyalties.

Deathstroke: Rebirth #1. Story: Christopher Priest Art: Carlo Pagulayan Inks: Jason Paz Colors: Jeremy Cox Letters: Willie Schubert Covers: Aco, Romulo Fajardo Jr., Stephen Platt, Peter Steigerwald  Deathstroke created by Marv Wolfman and George Perez.

Carlo Pagulayan draws a pretty cool looking update to the original design of George Perez. His style conforms to DC’s house style, which is to say that it’s good but not particularly unique to look at. What let’s the issue down are the muddy colors of Jeremy Cox. The usual bright blues and oranges of Deathstroke’s costume are replaced by more neutral hues that make it harder to read the character on the page. This is exacerbated by the African setting being drenched in dull earth tones.

The strangest part of the comic is the unexplained presence of an elderly Clock King. His advanced age and his Silver Age style costume are oddly out of place in this comic’s more down-to-earth milieu. He adds an element of intrigue in a competently told, but otherwise conventional comic.

8/15/2016

Comic-Con Album Pt 38

Lara Croft Tomb Raider Cosplayers, Comic-Con International, San Diego Convention Center, Marina District, San Diego, California. Nikon n90s SLR Camera. Fujifilm NPZ800 color negative 35mm film.
Lara Croft cosplayers, Comic-Con exhibit hall

I was vaguely aware at the time that Mark Hamill was filming Comic Book: The Movie at the exhibit hall.

Pt  29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35, 36, 37,

8/07/2016

Snotgirl #1

Snotgirl #1, Story: Bryan Lee O’Malley Art: Leslie Hung Colors:  Mickey Quinn Letters: Maré Odomo.
Story: Bryan Lee O’Malley
Art: Leslie Hung
Colors:  Mickey Quinn
Letters: Maré Odomo

Bryan Lee O’Malley is again delving into the lives of pretentious twenty-somethings facing down a personal crisis. But Snotgirl is his first major work being serialised in the pamphlet format. He’s also sharing co-creator credit with the lead artist, newcomer Leslie Hung. This might be why the comic exhibits an emotional edge not usually found in O'Malley's previous stories, particularly noticeable in a main protagonist who could probably be described by many as monstrous.

O’Malley and Hung also get to explore a field that millennials can legitimately claim to have grown up around and actively shaped, which is online social media. Lottie Person is a self-described 25 ¾ year-old fashion blogger, and extremely proud of her effortlessly chic style. “On my blog, I’m perfect. My nose never runs. Every hair on my head is exactly where it’s supposed to be.” This makes Lottie stereotypically judgemental about other people’s fashion sense, even secretly giving her supposed friends nicknames out of spite. Lottie even dubs her regular get togethers with them as “haters brunch.”

Naturally, this masks a number of deep-seated insecurities. Like many people with popular social media profiles, Lottie finds most of her online relationships very superficial. “...my friends are all horrible people. And my boyfriend decided we’re on a break.” But what she really fears is her perfect image being completely shattered by a not so pretty alter ego. When her allergies act up, she becomes a total mess as her eyes and nose run over with tears and snot.

Snotgirl #1, Story: Bryan Lee O’Malley Art: Leslie Hung Colors:  Mickey Quinn Letters: Maré Odomo.

Snotgirl constantly critiques how technology has changed social interaction. Lottie considers the perfect version she projects on her blog to be truer than her allergy-ridden secret identity. It’s an easy belief to maintain since she spends most of her time texting the people she knows on her phone rather than talking to them directly. Lottie stalks her ex-boyfriend and the girl he left her for online, only to dismiss her as not being pretty enough. She tries to impress another women she recently met (whom Lottie dubs “coolgirl”) by texting her from the kind of hip bar she would never patronize, then taking a selfie from that location.

It’s easy to see why O’Malley wrote around Hung’s artistic talents instead of trying to tackle the story with his usual chibi style. Hung’s characters are drawn to resemble the elegantly elongated figures of josei manga. It’s perfect for a story critiquing the empty lives of glamorous looking individuals. Colorist Mickey Quinn completes the look with a washed-out palette of unrealistic tones such as pinks and greens.

Where the art falls short is towards the end. Snotgirl starts to move beyond merely lampooning popular culture and moves into darker territory with a melodramatic twist and a late self-realization from Lottie that tears down her carefully constructed world. But Hung’s depiction feels too glossy and emotionally restrained to deliver on the full force of this scene.

Snotgirl #1, Story: Bryan Lee O’Malley Art: Leslie Hung Colors:  Mickey Quinn Letters: Maré Odomo.

7/31/2016

Wizzywig: Portrait of a Serial Hacker

Wizzywig: Portrait of a Serial Hacker, by Ed Piskor.
By Ed Piskor.

The cover for the graphic novel Wizzywig is slightly deceptive. The title is a play on the acronym WYSIWYG, which stands for the “What You See Is What You Get” feature of the modern graphic user interphase. The cover design for the Top Shelf edition (the comic originated as a serialized webcomic before being self-published in 3 volumes) evokes the case of an early model Apple Macintosh running MacPaint. But creator Ed Piskor is less interested in the birth of desktop publishing than in the world of phone phreaking, war dialing, and other activities associated with old-school computer hackers. Piskor’s art style descends from the line of satirical cartooning that began with the Underground Comix movement of the 60s and continued with the alt cartoonists of succeeding decades. So it’s well suited to drawing a clear parallel between the outsider status of cartoonists and hackers while pillorying those who persecute them.

Given its almost 300 pages of densely composed panels and scope of subject matter, the comic is not a quick read. Piskor channels the first 20-odd years of computer hacking through his main protagonist Kevin Phenicle, a composite of several famous real world hackers (namely Kevin Mitnick, Mark Abene and Kevin Poulsen, with a dash of Josef Carl Engressia, Jr). Going by the internet handle “Boingthump”, he occasionally runs into tech legends like Robert Morris or the pre-Apple Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak. The comic begins with a series of talking heads giving contradictory opinions about Kevin. As people either vilify or idolize him, an overall picture emerges of a near-mythical figure who’s nonetheless deeply misunderstood by the public. The scene quickly shifts to a radio show hosted by Kevin’s childhood friend Winston Smith (a reference to Off the Hook, a radio show hosted by Emmanuel Goldstein). Winston informs his audience that Kevin is currently being imprisoned without trial and agitates for the government giving him his proper due process. The scene shifts again to reveal a much younger Kevin being bullied by two kids while waiting for the school bus.

Wizzywig: Portrait of a Serial Hacker, by Ed Piskor.

Piskor uses these vignettes as the basic building blocks of his narrative. While Kevin’s formative years enfold in a mostly episodic manner, the comic regularly flash forwards to adult Kevin’s incarceration. Mixed in are excerpts of Winston’s radio show, more interviews with random people on the street, television news reports, and scenes involving other more relevant characters. This structure affords Piskor the ability to easily shift forwards and backwards in time. But it’s also calculated to make the esoteric subject of computer hacking more comprehensible to the layperson. Certain sections inevitably go into detail about Kevin’s exploits, whether that be discovering a security flaw in the punch card system used by bus lines, scamming a delivery place to score some free pizza, pirating computer games, pranking members of a local BBS, or undermining the monopolistic power of Ma Bell, the act that would finally earn Kevin the unwelcome scrutiny of the Powers-that-be. Piskor’s explanations are short, not too complicated to follow, and easily digestible to the non-technical reader.

Wizzywig is a pretty good showcase of how a cartoonist maintains narrative momentum even when the characters are engaged in fairly mundane tasks. Like Chester Brown in Louis Riel, Piskor mostly sticks to the highly readable 6-panel grid layout. Characters in conversation or deep in thought are often shown walking from place to place. Or drawn in different poses and shifting perspectives if they’re merely sitting. Piskor’s eye for gritty detail is quite efficient in conveying setting and mood, but it’s his gift for caricature that stands out. No one's physical features are flattered, no matter however attractive. People often seem to possess odd proportions or carry themselves with terrible body posture. Most of them have big noses, sallow skin, shaggy hair, beady eyes. In contrast, Kevin’s impossibly poofy hair and pupiless eyes (again recalling Riel and Little Orphan Annie) suggests a potent mixture of innocence and craftiness.

Wizzywig: Portrait of a Serial Hacker, by Ed Piskor.

At first glance, Kevin would appear to be the stereotypical nerdy kid who’s a whiz with computers, but has no friends or can’t get laid. But he’s an orphan living with a grandmother who’s incapable of providing him with enough adult supervision, or dole out the kind of practical advice on how to deal with school bullies. Kevin’s hacking doesn’t just arise from boredom or intellectual curiosity, but also from an impulse to strike back at his oppressors. Hacking becomes a non-physical form of asymmetrical warfare. The irony is that for all his social awkwardness, Kevin becomes particularly adept at what the industry calls “social engineering,” manipulating the behavior of other people to obtain information and get them to do what he wants. But his cunning also belies a deep naivete that leads to his eventual undoing. An early sign of things to come is when Kevin illegally resells gaming software, but as a joke inserts a bit of extra code into the program which will display the message “Boingthump owns your soul, sucka!” after 100 plays. Unfortunately this renders the game unplayable, and Kevin earns the ire of local gamers. More ominously, the code’s ability to infect whatever system the game’s installed into also gains media attention, and the name Boingthump becomes associated with computer viruses.

Kevin becomes a fugitive from the law around the halfway point, living a day-to-day nomadic existence. It turns out that the resourcefulness he’s displayed are particularly useful to life on the run. Much of this part of the book is still spent on educating the reader about various hacks: how to assume a false identity, find temp work, and not draw attention to oneself. Kevin runs a number of hustles just to stay alive. One particular scheme involves rigging numerous radio contests and recruiting women to claim the prize, usually taking the cash items for himself. His social engineering takes on an even more mercenary overtone, and Kevin’s portrayal becomes somewhat dehumanized as a result.

Wizzywig: Portrait of a Serial Hacker, by Ed Piskor.

This part of the comic is where Piskor’s satire is at full force. The mainstream media’s treatment of hackers is embodied by a muckraking television journalist whose thick mustache and ludicrous combover makes him look like an older, evil version of Kevin. His reports on Kevin’s alleged crimes become increasingly sensationalized, with both the FBI and the Ma Bell only too happy to participate in the vilification process. Winston becomes the sole voice of reason in this climate of media-induced paranoia.

A side effect of this shift in tone is that Kevin becomes more a symbol of systematic injustice than a fully fleshed out individual. The earlier part of the book helped establish him as a sympathetic, if flawed human being. But his character development stalls as he becomes a fugitive, and later a prisoner. It becomes less about Kevin himself than his mistreatment at the hands of his captors. This saps the story’s intended emotional impact when Kevin’s grim experiences are connected to the wider world and latter day whistleblowers, such as Pfc. Bradley Manning and Wikileaks. It’s the most glaring weakness in a highly ambitious work which actually has something relevant to say about the present-day terrifying state of American politics.

Wizzywig: Portrait of a Serial Hacker, by Ed Piskor.

7/25/2016

Comic-Con Album Pt 36

Cassandra Peterson/Elvira, Mistress of the Dark, Comic-Con International, San Diego Convention Center, Marina District, San Diego, California. Nikon n90s SLR Camera. Kodak 160VC color negative 35mm film.
Cassandra Peterson, Comic-Con exhibit hall

Another not very good use of the camera flash. Notice the deep shadow on her left.

Pt  29, 30, 31, 32, 33, 34, 35,