Saturday, April 30, 2005

Holy War

Joan of Arcadia has, in the course of two seasons, metamorphosed from a charming morality play into a complex, ethically driven personal drama, and the second season's final episode indicates that yet another major evolution is underway. I've enjoyed the show in each stage of its development, due in large part to the powerful and believable performance of Amber Tamblyn, who plays the title character in the series. Tamblyn conveys the volatile mixture of self-involvement, emotionalism, devotion, alienation, altruism, compassion, and maturity that I saw quite frequently in the many teenagers I knew from my quarter-century as a high school English teacher (in fact, the only actress I know of who surpasses Tamblyn in her portrayal of a teenage girl on the cusp of adulthood is Ellen Muth, whose performance as George in the positively brilliant but all-too-short-lived Dead Like Me was a high point of episodic television). Tamblyn isn't the only standout member of Joan's cast; Mary Steenbergen imbues Joan's mother with an irresistible sincerity, and Joe Mantegna... well, has Joe Mantegna ever turned in a bad performance?

The premise of a young woman who speaks to God in various incarnations piqued my curiosity from the very first episode; I thought the show handled the whole "divinely-inspired" theme much better than the quickly-cancelled Wonderfalls, which premiered the same season as Joan but died a quick death, due in part to the fact that the central character was largely unlikeable. God tends to interact with Joan in much the same way a zen master might interact with a disciple--lots of questions, some riddles, very little direct guidance. Joan is the story of a journey, and journeys are occasionally marked by wrong turns and dead ends--and Joan has had more than her share of those.

The second season gave Joan a Job-like quality as the Girardi family was beset by a series of setbacks that pushed each of them to the breaking point. How each dealt with these crises helped to define the characters of Joan, her parents, and her two brothers--and it gave the show a complexity that broke it out of the moral-lesson-of-the-week approach that typified the first season. Things were happening here, and characters were in transition.

But the final two episodes of this season foreshadowed an even more dramatic change as Joan was forced to become a spiritual warrior, a true Joan of Arc whose divine guidance would lead her into conflict with the most evil threat she could imagine: a man who, like her, talked directly with God... but unlike her, he had turned away from God and now considered God his enemy. Only Joan understood the significance of the choice he had made, and now she will have to communicate that significance to her friends--friends who are about to become the ragtag army this Joan will need for the battle of her life. The twist sounds Buffy-like, but I get the feeling the show's creators have something larger and more metaphysical than Whedon and the Buffy team ever envisioned.

And now we have no idea if Joan of Arcadia is going to be renewed for a third season. I hope so; this show is unique in the size of the canvas on which it works, and I hope CBS has the faith (no pun intended) in Joan to let it follow its grand path.

(As an aside, Joan has led me to ponder one point: when God appears to Joan in the form of a human being, is he taking possession of an existing human being's body, Boston-Brand-like, only to release that person to pursue his/her normal life after interacting with Joan--or is God creating a physical manifestation that never existed until He needed to interact with Joan, and then discorporating that physical manifestation once the interaction is completed? I've presumed the former, but there's a solipsistic element to the latter that leads some credence to the theory that Joan herself may be far more than she appears...)

Friday, April 29, 2005

Tourney Time

For the past year and a half or so, we've hosted YuGiOh tournaments at Dr. No's every Friday night. I think we've missed one Friday night in all that time--Christmas Eve of 2004, for those of you who were going to write and ask me which Friday and why--and we've maintained a great turnout for all that time. The lowest number of players I remember us having was twenty-two; the highest was sixty-six. We average thirty-six or so every Friday night, and I look forward to the tournament nights... and not just because we make extra money from all the tourney entries.

Now bear in mind that I'm not a YuGiOh player; in fact, I'm not really a games player at all. I don't like computer games; I burned out on videogames about the time the Atari 2600 jumped the shark; I never got into role-playing games; I like some of the collectible miniatures, but I never enjoyed the games; and I'm not a card game player. I enjoy some board games, but they're the older classic family board games; I think that comes from Mom, who loved playing Monopoly and Yahtzee and Boggle and Scrabble.

So why do I enjoy tournament night? There's an energy, a vitality to the tournament crowd that really enthuses me. The players seem to genuinely enjoy coming in--and the younger players in particular are excited about the evening. Seeing a couple of kids running to the front door of the store because they can't wait to come in and sign up for the tournament... there's something about that excitement that's contagious. The older players also have a good time; we have some parent-and-child teams who show up, and I've come to regard many of them as friends.

I know the YuGiOh wave has already crested, and YuGiOh low tide is eventually coming--but I hope that by the time it gets here, there's something else that generates this level of excitement. It recharges my batteries to a degree, reminding even a jaded old comic book guy of what it was like to be so excited about a comic or a game that the time it would take to merely walk to the front door of the store seemed too long.

Thursday, April 28, 2005

Forensic Follies

There was a time when CSI: Crime Scene Investigation was compelling television. Unfortunately, the edge of the series dulled midway through the second season, and CSI has become bogged down in formulae that don't work (insightful personal stories about characters with whom we viewers have no attachment; pseudo-science that wouldn't work in forensic reality; exploitative kinky sex dramas that are supposed to shock the mainstream viewer in a 1960's-Dragnet "can you believe this?" sort of way). Tonight's episode was a mix of all three—a little "meaningful" insight into Sara Sidle's personality (you may yawn now), some "shocking" sexploitative incest subplots, and a laughable plotline involving the extraction of audio sounds from grooves in a wet clay pot that was on the wheel at the time two characters were having a conversation.

Someone needs to tell the writers that we viewers have no interest in these characters; they are tools to move the plot along. They function best as competent, capable policemen; the episodes bog down when they become troubled personalities with problematic off-the-job lives. CSI is the star of the series, not the people who comprise the CSI team. Let's hope that the writers can get back on focus next year; otherwise, this show is going to follow such once-fascinating concept shows as ER into forgettable mediocrity.

In Search of...

A few weeks ago in an earlier entry, I mentioned a childhood friend, Gary Steele; I've known Gary since the fourth grade, and we became particularly good friends beginning our seventh grade year, when we both began attending West Rome Junior School; we remained steadfast friends as we both went on to West Rome High School (alma mater: "Destined to be a Walmart Parking Lot"). Gary and I discovered fandom together at more or less the same time; I think I was the one who first ordered a copy of Rocket's Blast•ComiCollector back in 1965 or so, and I shared it with Gary. We each ordered fanzines from various listings in those pages, passing copies back and forth so that each of us could enjoy twice as many zines for our mutual investment. We both joined our first apa, Myriad, at the same time, and we remained active in those apas as well as in SFPA and Galaxy through the early 1980s. When I made that first nervous phone call to Susan Hendrix, a comics reader whose name and address I found in a Batman letters column, I remember telling Gary about it. Gary remained a good friend to both Susan and me as we dated and ultimately got married; he spent many a night at our tiny house in Cedartown, he helped in our move to Marietta in 1977, and he joined us in Marietta three months later. We made hundreds of bookstore runs together, we debated comics and music together, we shared an interest in television shows and movies (Gary was also the first person I knew who successfully ran his television sound through a home stereo system--sure, it's something we all take for granted now, but in 1969 it was A Big Thing).

Something happened in 1979 or so, though, and I never really knew what it was. I remember that, for the first time in years, we went for more than a week without hearing from Gary at all. That was disturbing, since I heard from Gary pretty much once a day, minimum; we had grown up thinking of one another's place as a second home, and we kept each other updated on everything. When we did finally hear from Gary again, both Susan and I could tell that something was different; Gary was aloof, distant, and less communicative than he had been. Within a few months, Gary had cut off his contact with his former fan friends in Southern SF fandom; he had quit attending Atlanta SF Club meetings; he had dropped out of the apas that we had so enjoyed. I'd see him every now and then at bookstores; when I bought Dr. No's in 1982, he'd drop by periodically, but there was still a perceptible distance between us... the distance that was so hard for formerly best friends to transcend.

By the 1990's, I had only the most minimal contact with Gary. We saw each other maybe once a year at best; we rarely contacted each other beyond that. I often wanted to find out what had gone wrong between us, but I couldn't bring myself to ask the question.

Since 2000, when I had my heart attack and subsequent surgery, I talked with Gary only once, to let him know I was still alive and that his friendship had meant a lot to me and I'd like to see him again... perhaps at dinner. He was noncommittal, and while he gave me his email address, he never responded to the emails that I sent him.

Last year, when I tried to call Gary, I discovered that his longtime phone number--the number that had been his since 1977--was disconnected. Gary had moved after spending almost twenty-five years in the same apartment... and I had no idea where he had gone or how to get in touch with him. I've tried to contact his father in Rome at least two dozen times, but Mr. Steele's health has been problematic in recent years, and I suspect he spends most of his time with family rather than staying at home.

Reading my entry referring to Gary Steele made me realize that I still miss him. I wish I knew where he was; I'd love to find out what he was doing now, where he's living, how life has been treating him... And someday, I'd like to learn how that chasm opened up between best friends...

Wednesday, April 27, 2005

One for El Rodeo

Tonight, as is the case almost every Wednesday night for at least sixteen years now, the whole Dr. No's Gang headed to El Rodeo restaurant for our post-comic-book-day dinner and gabfest. I say "at least sixteen years now" because we discovered that none of us is exactly sure how long we have been showing up at El Rodeo. I remember that we missed going for a week in 1989 when I had three wisdom teeth removed--and since I can verify that surgery was done in October of '89 and we had been going for a while before we missed it (otherwise, there would have been no tradition, so missing it wouldn't have been memorable), we know that the tradition must date back to early 1989 at least. I suspect it may go back as far as 1987, but I simply have no way to verify that.

At any rate, the dinner was superb, as is always the case; the folks at El Rodeo have never failed to give us first-class service, superb food, and much-appreciated tolerance regarding our endless conversations on almost every subject. The smallest groups have been four people; the largest, sixteen; the average, eight. The core attendees for these weekly mini-banquets are Brett Brooks (my store manager), Charles Rutledge (formerly the manager of the short-lived second Dr. No's from the mid-1980s, and a friend for almost twenty-three years now), and me. Regulars include Chris Appel, a former Dr. No's associate and a superb artist (see what I mean at his website; it's a shame that the folks at Devil's Due haven't latched on to Chris to do the covers for their G.I. Joe comic books); Allyson Brooks, Brett's wife, who is a talented graphic designer and the primary author of the Meddling Kids RPG; Buck Turner, the assistant manager at Dr. No's and the designer of the POS system we use in the store; Chrissie Turner, his wife, who does some superb animal portrait art (including the wonderful pencil portraits of Asia and Tisha that hang in our living room); and Ralph Groff, a longtime friend of Brett's since high school who has become a friend to us all. Recently, Charles' friend and former co-worker Trish Barbisch has been joining us every week, bringing a new viewpoint to the group, since she (like Ralph) has no interest in comic books at all. Our numbers used to include Ed Thomas, a former Dr. No's guy and a trivia master; Patrick Key, another former Dr. No's guy who is now teaching elementary school art (pity him!); and Lanny Lathem, a graphic designer who has taken his remarkable skills to Texas, where he's working with the G.I. Joe Fan Club.

It's amazing, when you think about it; this group of friends has been meeting virtually every week for almost a third of the time I've been alive, and the tradition is just as strong as ever. The food is always good, but it's the friendship that's most important; the flow of the conversation is engaging, the in-jokes have years of history behind them, and the group is genuinely interested in the ups and downs of each member's life. I couldn't ask for a better group of friends, and the dinner remains a high point of the week for me.

(Even though I do eat too much... Can't resist my weekly order of Nachos Mara, chicken and beans only, extra lettuce, no sour cream!...)

Tuesday, April 26, 2005

Winging It

Bill Galvan sent an advance copy of Thunderbird #1 (Nathan Shumate-W; Bill Galvan-A; Atlantis Studios $2.95), a new superhero series launching next month. Thunderbird is exactly the sort of straight-ahead superhero adventure that Bob Layton aimed for with his short-lived Future Comics line; it's traditional adventure, capably done and pleasant enough. Unfortunately, it's also rather formulaic and undistinguished; the characters are archetypal and undeveloped (the loyal employee who admires his accomplished employer, the devoted assistant who must be protected,the rich tech-guru industrialist who's also a whiz in the lab, the amoral mercenaries) and the whole thing seems more en medias rush than en medias res. Not a bad book, just nothing outside of the ordinary; Galvan's art carries the story along quite nicely, though, and I suspect that with a little more experience, he'll find a place for himself as a mainstream superhero illustrator. Grade - C

Meet Mischa

A few days ago, I told you about Mischa, the latest addition to our feline family. Here's a photo of the lovely little jade-eyed girl. She's growing steadily and has now passed the eight-pound mark--and that makes her slightly heavier than Tisha, our beloved senior cat. Anna still holds her title as the heavyweight cat in the household, coming at at a tad under ten pounds... and what's most amazing is that Anna is primarily a dry food eater, preferring it to the stinky canned food that every other cat loves so (that makes her the first cat we've ever shared a home with who expressed a preference for dry food over wet). I had assumed that a dry food diet would keep Anna leaner... boy, was I wrong!

Monday, April 25, 2005

The Dirty Truth

DirtBoy #1 (George M. Dondero - W; Colin Adams - A; Moronik Comiks, $2.95) is a very attractive book—and it would be a much better read if Dondero had been able to resist the urge to succumb to sophomoric burp-and-fart "humor" and continue with his surreal, slightly twisted story of dysfunctional youth in a warped fairy-tale forest. DirtBoy, an a cross between Peter Pan, Bart Simpson, and Pigpen, becomes a reluctant hero when a young visitor to the forest is threatened for reasons unknown. By the end of the story, however, it becomes evident that DirtBoy isn't the only Bad Kid in this story. Adams' art displays a bold, confident, distinctive ink-lines, a great sense of layout and design, and an engaging style; Dondero's story is hampered by a juvenile self-indulgence, though. Grade - C+


Everything is coming together for Free Comic Book Day, set for May 7th. We're having the majority of our guests in the store from noon until 3 that afternoon (although Paul Jenkins will be there from about 1 pm until 3:30 pm); it's a good lineup of talent, and a nice cross-section of genres (although I do wish that we had been able to find someone who did younger readers books, just to completely round out our offerings). If you're going to be anywhere near Marietta on that day, stop by; we're looking to beat last year's crowd of 750+ people for the day (although I'll admit that's going to be tough to do!)...

Man of the Hour

24 remains the best show on network television this season. What particularly impresses me is that the writers have avoided the aggravating gimmicks that made the first two seasons alternately suspenseful and irritating: no Perils-of-Pauline style kidnapings in which the victim runs from one dire menace to another, no sidetracked subplots that interfere with the primary storyline, and no "failure to deliver." Every episode has been suspenseful in a different way than the episode before, and Marwan's plots have escalated to the level of global menace. I'm glad to see the former President returning in this episode; now I can't wait to see what happens at the end of the episode. As it stands now, 24 is a show I watch twice—once I zoom through it to get the core plot elements out of the way, and the second time I watch it more carefully for subtleties that I didn't have the patience to wait for initially. There aren't too many shows with that much going for them!...

Temporary Disappointment

Temporary #2
(Damond Hurd-W; Rick Smith-A; Origin Comics, $2.95) is an entertainingly flawed book. I can tell what Hurd and Smith are trying to do with the story, which juxtaposes a police detective's real-world actions with the multiple-personality dynamics that motivate him--but it comes across as an affectation and is never particularly convincing. The worst part of it all is that it pushes Envy Saint-Claire, the temp who is the star of this series, entirely out of the picture for far too much of this issue. When she does finally take an active role in the story, filling a temp position at the police station where the volatile detective works, her role there seems forced and the rather abrupt ending comes across as forced and lacking in justification. A lot of what made the first issue of Temporary succeed is missing here. Grade - C-

Tuesday, April 05, 2005

It Can Happen To You...

When I was twelve or thirteen years old, my best friend Gary Steele and I would daydream about what our lives might be like when we grew up. Of course, our view of adulthood was probably shaped in part by the comics we read, by the James Bond films we saw, and by such television series as The Man from U.N.C.L.E. that we never missed. But our daydreams generally involved a high-tech, gadget-laden lifestyle straight out of these realities.

Now I'm fifty-one going on fifty-two, and I realize that I'm living that very same lifestyle. Oh, I don't get to do the spy things and all that, but I do have all the gadgets. Tivos, DVD recorders, computers, wireless networking, mobile phones, GPS navigation systems, iPods... it's a James Bond fantasy, and it's all ours for a relatively low cost.

In fact, all things considered, I've been remarkably lucky in my life. Not only do I have all the gadgets that I dreamed of as a child, but I also have a wonderful house, I'm married to a woman I'm in love with, I have the time to do things that I enjoy, I still get to do fanzines (only now my fanzine is called Comic Shop News, and I can make a living doing it)... sometimes I wish I could let my twelve-year-old self know that sometimes it does all work out, and we really do get what we wished for.

Well, except for the Aston Martin and the international espionage...

And Mischa Makes Three

I've got to do more frequent updates to this site...

It's been more than three weeks since we added a new kitten to the household. Her name is Mischa, and she's another Siberian—a beautiful little girl, only seven months old (born on September 1st). We got her from the owners of Anna's parents; in the intervening weeks since I last wrote about Anna, we did a little detective work and tracked down the folks who had owned Anna's parents. It turned out that they had several other kittens fathered by the same male Siberian as Anna; little Mischa caught our attention immediately, and the owners were willing to let us add her to our household.

The woman who owned her, Mrs. Draper, is a true cat lover; she had thirty cats in her house, and the entire house was virtually one enormous cat environment in which people were allowed to co-exist. Cat trees everywhere, toys, furniture modified for cat purposes... all the things that we eccentric cat people do, multiplied. Naturally, when Mischa got to her new home where there were only two other cats, she was overwhelmed; for the first two days, she lived in the basement, behind the television set or behind the sofa. On the third day, she ventured upstairs very briefly, then scampered back to her "safety zone."

By the end of the third day she was learning to recognize us as the ones who kept bringing her food, and that helped. Finally, on day four, I was able to entice her into coming upstairs with me... and that was akin to inviting a vampire into the house. Once she learned that the upstairs was also cat-friendly, she lost all fear of the household; since that time, she has approached every corner of the house with that same "know-no-fear" seven-month-old-kitten attitude.

Tisha adjusted to Mischa almost immediately; after having spent so many years with Asia, Tisha had been incredibly lonely for the six months that she was the only cat in our house (if only we had known that she missed the companion of other cats!...), so having yet another companion didn't bother her at all. Oh, she gets a little aggravated when Mischa gets right in her face, but Mischa seems to recognize Tisha's refined nature and her age and she gives her respect.

Anna... well, Anna seemed to like being the only baby in the house, and she took to Mischa with a little trepidation. After a few days, things got better, but she's still not accustomed to the fact that Mischa doesn't respect anyone else's food bowl or anyone else's territorial rights, and she really hates to see Mischa play with any of the toys that Anna thinks of us uniquely hers. But now they get along tolerably well, with the only friction coming when Mischa wants to play after Anna has decided that it's time to lounge about, or when Mischa insists on chasing Anna's feathered toy before Anna is through with it.

I don't know that we'll ever get to that point where Anna and Mischa are absolutely comfortable with one another the way that Tisha and Asia were—but we also brought Tisha and Asia into the house on the very same day, and they were within a week or two of the same age. All considered, I think that Anna has been quite accepting of Mischa thus far... although Anna still treasures those late-night moments when everyone else has been put to bed for the night but Anna gets to come upstairs and laze about on the bed with us as the evening winds to a close...