Saturday, July 25, 2015

I Love Anime: Chobits

I caught the first three episodes of Chobits at last year’s Anime Expo and thought, “Cool! It’s like Maison Ikkoku with a robot!” As in Maison Ikkoku, the main character, Hideki, is a na├»ve young underachiever who moves into a boarding house in the city to study for his university entrance exams. Also like Maison Ikkoku, there is an attractive building manager for Hideki to crush on and a couple other potential romantic interests to complicate his life in the form of his teacher and a teenaged coworker. The (literal) device separating Maison Ikkoku and Chobits is the prevalence of persocoms, sexy girlbots with Smartphone capabilities. Which, I guess would make them Androids?
One night, Hideki finds an abandoned persocom in the trash and takes her home and activates her. It turns out her memory has been wiped and all she can say is “chi.” Hideki names her Chi and in the process of teaching and caring for her finds out that she is a chobits model persocom, thought to be an urban legend, capable of learning, free will and emotions.
The thing about Chobits is that it keeps changing its mind as to what it wants to be. Is it a cute, sexy rom-com or dark social commentary or a cyber-conspiracy thriller? One minute it’s all hijinks and wacky misunderstandings, the next Chi has wandered off with a sleazy stranger and ends up the newest attraction in a robo-peepshow.
The series flirts with the social implications of a world where programmable girlbots are as easy to come by as cell phones but shies away from exploring them in any depth. (There are also boybots, but these are only seen occasionally in the background in city scenes accompanying their female owners.) One character’s husband left her for a persocom. Another customized his persocom to look like his older sister who died. Another character actually married his persocom and tells the heartbreaking story of how she developed and unfixable memory fault and remembered less and less as her memory became more corrupted until all that was left of her was her factory defaults, much like losing a loved one to Alzheimer’s. His anguish was real, but the question was left unresolved whether she loved him back or was just programmed to. Chobits dances around the edges of the rabbit hole and shyly peeks in, but can’t bring itself to take the plunge.
As the series wound down to the last few episodes, I still couldn’t tell whether it was going for robot revolution or weak-ass Cinderella story. Overall, Chobits is a decent anime with some funny moments and interesting characters. (Hideki’s a pretty bland repressed anime male protagonist type who’s obsessed with sex but would most likely get a nosebleed and pass out at the sight of a woman’s bare shoulder.) It teases around the edges of some deep questions—about love, about objectification, about how society views women now, and even about how society may view AIs in the future—but ultimately sticks to the shallow end.

“Oh, hey, we came for the cyber-conspiracy thriller. Um, was there something we were supposed to do?”

Tuesday, June 30, 2015

But Enough About Me: Riverside Wildlife

The place I work in Riverside, California is a business park/light industrial area that’s only a couple of blocks from some hills and some undeveloped land. I like to walk along the dirt utility roads there on my lunch breaks. I take my MP3 player and listen to podcasts like Escape Pod and Welcome to Night Vale. Despite all the human activity and a fair amount of truck and train traffic in the area, I see wildlife on a pretty regular basis, especially in the winter and spring when it’s not insanely hot out.
Last winter, a herd of wild burros moved into the area for a few weeks, attacted by the green grass that came with the rain.
They want to know two things about you: 1. Are you a threat? 2. If not, did you bring food?
U haz snax?
Stop wastin' my time
Rabbits and ground squirrels are plentiful any time of year. I saw this cute baby bunny a couple years ago.
There are also birds, flowers and reptiles.
Mourning dove
I think this is a finch
Zoom lens says... Not a rattlesnake!
I am the Lizard King! I can do anything!
You can find pretty things in a ditch sometimes
The coolest animal by far was the bobcat that hung around for a week or two last month. I'd seen it or one of its relatives the year before, but I got some good pictures this year.
The first time I saw him this year, he climbed out of a drainage pipe and strode past me like it was no big thing.
The next day, he was chilling in the shade of a warehouse
The last day I saw him, he was dozing in the bushes next to the sidewalk. I was pretty surprised to see him that close and was very glad not to be a ground squirrel.
He was entirely unconcerned by my presence...
...and let me take several pictures...
...before deciding it was time to go.
He had some trouble remembering where he parked...
...and ended up walking home.

Sunday, May 31, 2015

I was a Teenaged Marvel Zombie: No Bad Villains

Last month, I got my hands on the first two graphic novels of Ms. Marvel, incorporating issues 1 through 11 of the new series. The main character is Kamala Khan, a 16-year-old Muslim Pakistani-American girl who likes writing Avengers fanfic. She’s struggling to find some kind of balance between the conflicting demands of the traditional culture and values of her parents and those of her Jersey City high school peers when she’s exposed to a mysterious cloud that gives her shape-and-size-changing powers. (Point of nerdery: the cloud is Terrigen mist, which means that she’s an Inhuman.) Anyway, she uses her powers to help people—no shock there—and it’s great. I highly recommend the series.
The main bad guy for this story arc was a fairly flawed clone of Thomas Edison called “The Inventor.” The specific flaws have to do with the fact that some cockatiel DNA got into the mix while he was being created and his conviction that all teenagers should be put in vats Matrix-style to generate power.
“You kids with your intertwitters and hippity hop music! Get off my lawn!”
While certainly an appropriate nemesis for a new generation of hero, I was struck by the feeling that he’d stolen his shtick from a 1980 Spider-Woman villain called “Turner D. Century,” a name that I would gladly steal for my own uses if I thought for a second I could get away with it. Turner D. Century was all about restoring the country to its idealized and uncorrupted state of around the year 1900. So, he dressed in period costume, rode around on a flying bicycle built for two and wielded an umbrella that shot fire. His villainy included the use of a bicycle horn that would have killed everyone under the age of 65; a scheme that, if successful would have brought about the extinction of the human race. No deep thinker, that one.
He needed to put a mannequin on the second seat of his bicycle built for two. It was kind of sad.
Turner D. Century was eventually killed in a Captain America storyline by an assassin known only as “The Scourge of the Underworld,” or “Scourge” to his friends of which he presumably had none. The Scourge storyline was a crossover event before crossover events were the big, overwrought, drawn-out cash grabs where everything is going to change forever this time we mean it for real that they are today. Basically what happened in the few months before the story reached its conclusion in the pages of Captain America, some C-list villain would show up for a few panels in some other book, cackle a bit about his nefarious scheme and then unexpectedly take an explosive round to the chest. Scourge would then pull off his rubber mask or whatever disguise he was using, shout “Justice is served!” and disappear, all without drawing any attention from the book’s title character.

(What’s more, Steve Gerber had done this bit some years earlier in the pages of The Defenders with the “Elf with a Gun.” Basically, there would be a “meanwhile” and a cut to random people we’d never seen before who’d have whatever they were doing interrupted by “An elf! … An elf with a gun!” Blam! And then we’d cut back to the main story. It was just a weird random thing that happened that Steve Gerber had no intention of explaining or resolving. He was kind of brilliant that way.)
It's a terrifying and ridiculous way to go. It's terdiculous.
Anyway, Scourge did in old Turner D. Century along with nearly 20 other supervillains of varying degrees of actual threat and/or silliness. It turned out to be a pretty good story even if Captain America wasn’t able to win the day without using the phrase “Judge, jury and executioner.”
Spoiler: They're all doomed.
I actually had a point. All of the above characters were considered disposable by reason of being played out (at best) or just stupid and ill-conceived (at worst). Looking at some of the names given, it’s easy to see how one could have come to that conclusion. For example, “The Hijacker,” who apparently hijacks things.
On the other hand, if they hadn’t killed of old Turner D. Century, they could have used him in Ms. Marvel and wouldn’t have needed to invent the Inventor. (Though a cockatiel-headed megalomaniac was definitely the way to go when the need arose.) 

Where we're going, we don't need pants!

As I’ve always maintained, there are no bad characters, only badly written characters. For instance, take Kraven the Hunter, a classic villain from Spider-Man’s rogue’s gallery. His shtick was basically that he was an evil big game hunter who wanted to hunt Spider-Man. By 1987, he’d been pretty played out and hadn’t appeared much. Then came the six-part “Kraven’s Last Hunt,” which, among other things presented a look into the C-list villain’s tortured psyche. Today, “Kraven’s Last Hunt” is remembered as one of the best Spider-Man stories ever.
So I can’t help but wonder how many of Scourge’s victims might have had a “Kraven’s Last Hunt” in him or her, given the right time and storyteller. For instance, where would the turn of another century have found Turner D. Century? What if he patented his flying bicycle and it became the hot new thing among the generation he loathes? What if the Hijacker set out to pull off a really big heist? What if the Ringer (his thing was he threw different trick rings and hoops and such at people) or Bird-Man (he could fly!) set out to prove once and for all that he’s not ridiculous?
The story was actually called "Spider-Man Night Fever." I feel somehow cheated.
Someone should do a Hypno Hustler story. “Hypno’s Last Boogie,” perhaps?
Or maybe "Kangaroo's Last Hop?"


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.