Tuesday, April 28, 2015

And Now for Something Completely Short: An Exciting if Slightly Snarky Tale of Grammar and Combustion in Exactly 100 Characters

I know the definition of “literally.” How about making yourself useful for a change and pass me that fire extinguisher?
The End.
What? I wrote something this month. It totally counts!

Saturday, March 28, 2015

But Enough About Me: So It Turns Out I went to High School with this One Guy Who’s Famous

I was reading one of my nerd blogs a couple weeks ago and I stumbled across a name I recognized. A kid I knew in high school. Turns out he’s famous and stuff. Described as the greatest lyricist of his generation.

Meaning my generation, I guess.

Who knew?

I hadn’t read any of his books or heard many of his songs, so there’s not much point in saying who he is. Though, by odd coincidence the episode of Welcome to Night Vale I listened to that week featured the new song by his band as its musical interlude. I can just hear the voice of Night Vale’s Cecil Baldwin: “A name you weren’t expecting to read. A face you weren’t expecting to remember. Welcome to Night Vale.”

I found myself racking my brain for everything I could remember about him and came up with some funny random stuff. He was a couple years younger than me, so that meant our paths crossed in my junior or senior year. He was in the same creative writing class with me at least once and was part of my social clique.

(Said clique was a Venn diagram overlap of nerds and hippies that hung out in the high school’s central quad near the library. We were called “the Granolas.”)

Anyhoodle, I remember him being like a head shorter than me; he described himself as an iconoclast and he idolized Jim Morrison of the Doors. I don’t specifically remember anything he wrote at the time, but his style tended toward dark-clever with a bit of funny. A friend of mine lost her virginity to him, so there’s that.

Kind of funny remembering her too. I was sweet on her in eighth and ninth grade and, thanks to a lucky spin of the bottle at her birthday party in eighth grade, she was the first girl I ever kissed. Nothing more ever came of it after that despite my dropping clumsy awkward hints in ninth grade. By time we were upperclassmen, the friend zone was actually a pretty good place to be. She provided me with the intel that got me together with my first real girlfriend.

I remember being a bit concerned when she professed having a major crush on this weird little freshman and was even more surprised when she told me about the virginity thing. (We were close enough that she volunteered details.) As far as I recall, it worked out pretty well; they were together until she graduated, which is a good deal better than the hash I made of my high school romance.

So there you go: thoughts about two random people I used to know. I don’t care to live in the past, but it’s fun to visit sometimes.

Saturday, February 28, 2015

I was a Teenaged Marvel Zombie: The Problem with Spider-Man

So big in nerd news earlier this month, Sony Pictures and Marvel Studios worked out an agreement to more or less share Spider-Man. The short version is Spider-Man gets to appear in Marvel Studios movies (most likely starting with Captain America: Civil War next year) and Sony Pictures gets to reference Marvel Studios’ continuity in their Spider-Man movies and maybe some cameo appearances by Marvel Studios characters. Marvel will also be on hand to offer Sony useful advice on making Spider-Man movies that don’t stink.

Actually, Amazing Spider-Man 2 didn’t stink. It did very well, but it didn’t do anywhere near as well as Sony Pictures wanted it to, which is one of the things that opened the door to this deal.
(My take on Amazing Spider-Man 2 was that it was a perfectly serviceable Spider-Man movie that had the last half of The Dark Knight tacked onto the end for some reason. This included killing off the female lead (Rachel Dawes/Gwen Stacy) for no reason other than to clear the field for a romance between the hero (Batman/Spider-Man) and a feline-based anti-hero (Catwoman/Black Cat) in the next sequel and the mostly wasted late appearance of a classic villain (Two-Face/Rhino).)

Anyway, one of the thing both studios agreed to was that there would be yet another reboot of the Spider-Man franchise; this time with a new actor playing a teenaged Spider-Man. This should come as no great shock if you consider that Marvel Comics has spent four of the last five decades rebooting, retconning and doing all kinds of flips and twists to get back to a younger Peter Parker. “Back to basics” they always say.
Somebody once described Spider-Man as a coming of age story that’s been going on for fifty years. And that, in a nutshell, is the problem with Spider-Man.

In a coming of age story, a young protagonist strikes out into the world and through experience comes to see the value in (or understand the flaws in) the lessons given to him or her by a mentor/parent figure. Thus, Luke Skywalker learned from Obi-Wan Kenobi to trust in the Force and Simba learned from Mufasa that Scar was completely awful.
In the case of Spider-Man, Peter Parker learned from his Uncle Ben that (say it with me) “with great power there must also come great responsibility,” which joins “Play it again, Sam” and “Beam me up, Scotty” as one of the greatest quotes never actually uttered by the character who made it famous. (The other lesson is not to be the parent/mentor figure in a coming of age story.)
When I was a kid, I saw this story on the Spider-Man cartoon. When that criminal ran past Spider-Man, I figured, "Ah, this is where he becomes a hero!" I was wrong of course. That twist at the end blew my mind.
 The problem with telling a coming of age story in an ongoing serial (such as a comic book series) is that the main character has to, you know, come of age. Then what do you do?

This issue first reared its head about ten years into the run of The Amazing Spider-Man. In real time, ten years is not an unreasonable span of time for a coming of age story. In Peter Parker’s case, that saw him from high school through college and living on his own. He had earned his reputation as a hero and had a serious girlfriend, Gwen Stacy, whom it was all but inevitable that he would marry.

Unfortunately, establishing one’s reputation and getting married are pretty much where coming of age stories end. There was only one thing to do:
That's right; they dropped her off a bridge. Some would argue that Captain Kirk getting dropped off a bridge in Star Trek: Generations was a more controversial bridge-related death, but I maintain that this came first, had a longer-lasting impact, and was less ridiculous.

Gwen Stacy’s death at the hands of the Green Goblin remains the biggest failure of Spider-Man’s career, even forty-plus years later. At the time, it signaled that maybe Peter Parker had not come of age yet after all; any hero who can’t even save the girl obviously still has a lot to learn.

Just like that, the coming of age of Peter Parker got to chug on for another fifteen or twenty years.

But time moves on, even comic book time. In 1987, Peter Parker married Mary Jane Watson. This was a thing that was sort of inevitable, just as a marriage to Gwen Stacy would have been. In a story about growing up, getting married is one of the things that happens. Even as it was happening, there were Spider-Man writers and artists who were against the marriage, but it was an editorial decree timed to coincide with the marriage of Peter and Mary Jane in the newspaper comic strip.

Almost immediately, Spider-Man’s writers, artists, and editors looked for a way to turn the clock back to their sweet, sweet coming of age story because nobody wanted to read about a married Spider-Man. When I say “nobody,” I mean nobody in the Marvel bullpen. As far as I can recall, there was no outcry among the fans and readers of Spider-Man in 1987; mostly they were content to roll with the new development.

Early on, the idea of killing off Mary Jane was floated and then thankfully rejected. Killing Gwen Stacy had been a milestone moment in the Spider-Man mythos, but it was something they could only do once. Having Spidey fail the same way twice just makes him look like an idiot.

This is where the ongoing coming of age story starts to get really wacky. In 1994, a story arc called “The Clone Saga” began. To make an insanely long story short, it involved a clone of Spider-Man coming into Peter’s life. The story arc was supposed to run a few months and end with the clone, named Ben Reilly, revealed to be the original Peter Parker and Peter (now revealed to have been a clone since the mid 1970s) and Mary Jane retiring to the west coast to have a baby and end Peter’s coming of age story once and for all (getting married is iffy, but once you have a kid you are by definition grown up) while Ben stayed in New York as Spider-Man as the unmarried young guy finding his way in life.

For reasons way too complicated to go into here, the Clone Saga ran until late 1996 and ended with Ben having turned out to be the clone after all and killed off, Mary Jane miscarrying, and the exact status quo of two years earlier restored. Even Peter’s Aunt May, who had died peacefully in a touching scene early in the arc somehow managed not to be dead. That was the last time I was a regular Spider-Man reader. It was the last time a lot of people were regular Spider-Man readers.

Further shenanigans ensued in recent years as Marvel gave up and literally invoked the power of Satan to keeping Peter’s coming of age story from ending.
I did not misuse the word “literally.” Exhibit C: Mephisto. By this point they are jumping so high over the (metaphorical) shark that they can’t even see the water down there.
So, for reasons, the arch-demon Mephisto erased the marriage of Pater Parker and Mary Jane Watson from history. It never happened, and once again, Peter Parker is a young man alone in the big city trying to find his way and learn the true meaning of great responsibility.

This one may stick for another ten years.

Peter Parker’s coming of age is existential horror story. Like Peter Pan, Peter Parker is also a boy who can never grow up. 

Friday, January 30, 2015

A Song in My Heart (It Should’ve Stayed There): A Little Traveling Music

Now that my daughter is attending UC Santa Cruz, I have decided that my trips up there are going to be my excuse to visit the great old book and record stores they have up there. Actually, do they even call them record stores anymore? Even CDs are passé these days. Passé or not, I’ve decided I should use the opportunity to buy some CDs of my favorite LPs that I haven’t been able to listen to in a good long while.

On my most recent trip earlier this month, I picked up American Pie by Don McLean, Graceland by Paul Simon, and Bob Seger and the Silver Bullet Band’s concert album, Nine Tonight. “American Pie” was Don McLean’s biggest hit and, at eight-and-a-half minutes, is one of the longest songs to reach number one. It’s always been one of my favorite songs and I knew all the words by heart by time I was in junior high (or most of them anyway; there was no Internet at the time to give me a definitive ruling on the “Landed foul on the grass” lyric). Understanding the various references to the music of decade or so following the plane crash that killed Buddy Holly, Ritchie Valens and the Big Bopper (which actually has since become known as “The Day the Music Died”)—the King, the Jester, Lenin (or possibly Lennon) reading a book on Marx, Sergeants playing a marching tune, the Byrds eight miles high and their fallout shelter, Jack Flash sitting on a candlestick, and on and on—came bit by bit over the subsequent years.
"The angels guide my every tread/ My enemies are sick or dead/ But all the victories I've led/ Haven't brought you to my bed"

The album also includes “Vincent,” McLean’s other hit. Sometimes known as “Starry, Starry Night,” it was about Vincent van Gogh. I’d always thought it was a pretty song, but now find myself liking it even more since watching the Doctor Who episode, “Vincent and the Doctor.”
I cried too.

The rest of the album is a collection of 70 male vocalist soft rock ditties, some light (“Winterwood”), some dark (“The Grave”); good, but not great. Except for “Everybody Loves Me, Baby (What’s the matter with you?).” Now that song is made of sheer fun and deserves the title of “Greatest Love Song Sung by a Megalomaniac.” (Jonathan Coulton's “Skullcrusher Mountain” deserves recognition in this category too.)

I used to have Graceland on a cassette, which made it handy for the car. On CD, it is once again handy for the car. The song “Graceland” is such a great road trip song, especially through places like U.S. 101 through the hill-cradled farmlands south Monterey County or, as the song itself cites, the Mississippi Delta. The rhythm and the lyrics just nail the feeling of going somewhere for any number of reasons, but mostly for the sake of just going somewhere.
"These are the days of miracle and wonder"

Paul Simon is a songwriter with a particular knack for lyrics that stick with you like “How we look to a distant constellation that’s dying in a corner of the sky” or
“Along come a young girl, she's pretty as a prayerbook
Sweet as an apple on Christmas day
I said good gracious can this be my luck
If that's my prayerbook Lord let us pray”
Likewise, there are also memorable characters like “Fat Charlie the Archangel” and the “Girl in New York City who calls herself the Human Trampoline.” (And sometimes when I’m falling, flying, or tumbling in turmoil I say, “Whoa, so this is what she means.”)
Nine Tonight is a mashup of two 1980 Bob Seger concerts, one in Detroit and one in Boston. It’s a great album but it struck me as a little strange hearing him tell the audience how great it is to be back in Boston and then singing about northern Michigan summertime a few songs later. In any event, both audiences add a lot of excitement and energy to the record.
"Now sweet sixteen's turned [51] ... Come back baby, rock and roll never forgets!"
 I have for a long time maintained that the very best Bob Seger songs are either about rock and roll (namely, “Old Time Rock & Roll” and “Rock and Roll Never Forgets”) or are about a girl he might have loved but didn’t realize it until it was too late. The latter category includes “Night Moves,” “Roll Me Away,” and “Brave Strangers.” I also include “Hollywood Nights,” which was a bout a girl the guy didn’t realize he shouldn’t love until it was too late. These are songs that may make you think of a particular person from your past and put a smile on your face. It may be a wistful smile or it may be a relieved one, but you’ll smile nonetheless.
“So we walked out, hardly speaking, disappearing in the night
Saw each other a few times after, but we never really got it right
We weren’t lovers, just brave strangers…”
The last four songs on the Nine Tonight CD fall into one of these two categories: “Night Moves,” “Rock and Roll Never Forgets,” “Let It Rock” originally by Chuck Berry and turned up to eleven for the concert audience, and finally a concert version of “Brave Strangers” that I hadn’t even known existed before I read the back of the CD case.
Flying along Route 46 in the afternoon from Paso Robles to Lost Hills, singing as loudly and badly as I feel like; there are times when music is just perfect. I do love me a road trip.