Archive for September, 2009

Review: Chuck vs. The Tease

Mild spoilers throughout here. Be warned.

Chuck (NBC, Mondays, 8PM) started out two seasons ago as one of my absolute favorite new shows. This was largely due to the show’s charming premise and lovable cast. Chuck Bartowski is a former Stanford student who, after being falsely accused of cheating, is expelled from the school. So, he returns home to live with his sister and her fiance and goes to work at the local Buy More (a thinly disguised Best Buy analog) as part of their computer tech Nerd Herd (again, the Geek Squad). Things seem to be going normally when his college roommate bursts back into his life… as a superspy on the run. He entrusts his old friend Chuck with the government technology he is trying to protect by anonymously sending his old friend an e-mail that, when opened, begins a visual download into Chuck’s brain of the Intersect computer, the United States government’s most powerful new intelligence tool. The Intersect has the ability to pull disparate information from all other available computers and piece items that might otherwise seem innocuous into groundbreaking intelligence findings. This means that Chuck is now a walking database of spy knowledge… and the only existing copy of the Intersect. Quickly, CIA handlers are assigned to his protection and Chuck finds himself trying to juggle his real life with this spy alter ego.

Zachary Levi as Chuck is 100% likable in this role. He’s Jim from The Office, but he works in a different office and he’s a spy. How can you not love him? Adam Baldwin’s Agent Casey plays the grizzled, patriotic, spy-for-life to the hilt—he’s basically Jayne from Firefly again, but instead of being a merc for hire, he’s a loyal government agent. Yvonne Strahovski plays Sarah, Chuck’s off and on love interest and the badass femme fatale to Baldwin’s meathead muscle.

In Chuck’s real life, Joshua Gomez as best friend Morgan is a perfect foil for Chuck. As Chuck is the bumbling heart and soul of his team of spies, Morgan is the bumbling heart and soul of the Buy More and Chuck’s chief anchor to the responsibilities of his life at home. Vik Sahay and Scott Krinsky (Jeff and Lester) are Chuck’s most notable co-workers outside of Morgan and their antics tend to be the highlight of many an episode.

Okay, a lengthy intro. Suffice it to say, the show has a fun and light concept, and it’s the cast that really sell the whole package. For a period, though, it was only the cast that was keeping me tuning in.

It was only 1.5 seasons in, and the show had already hit a rut. A prime focus in the first season was that Chuck had very real feelings for Sarah (whose cover was that she was, in fact, Chuck’s girlfriend), who had to deny her feelings for Chuck for the sake of her mission. This push and pull went back and forth and Chuck would relent and want to find a real girlfriend, and then would come back and want Sarah again—and for her part, Sarah would be devoted to the mission, and then want to confess her feelings, and then the mission, and then the feelings—both always in opposition of one another, so the two never connect. It’s a big tease for the audience. We know the game.

But this is the problem in and of itself. An audience will only play along for so long before they get frustrated. How many scenes do we need to watch where Chuck and Sarah almost kiss and get interrupted before that joke gets old? How many times can they each decide they want to make their feelings official just as the other decides now is not the best time for that? Apparently the answer is 1.5 seasons for me, because it was at this point that I decided I’d had quite enough of that tease and then I started to pay attention to the rest of the show, and that’s when the trouble really started.

Because the focus of the show is Chuck and Chuck is a regular guy, the show can’t really expand his world without making everyone in some way connected to the driving spy action of the show. So… every person Chuck has ever known in the past is a spy basically. His old roommate. His old girlfriend. His estranged father. His estranged father’s old roommate. It seems increasingly ridiculous the more you think about it, and the show is really designed to make you not think about that too hard as much as possible.

There’s also all the talk about making sure Chuck is not compromised and that his personal life be kept isolated from his spy life. And then there are episodes where someone decides that the ONLY way to get a keycard to a restricted area of a hospital (full of doctors and surgeons and techs and, by the way, not a frikkin’ spy-proof fortress) is to drug and steal it from Chuck’s soon-to-be brother-in-law. Really? I know you need to blend the two world’s somehow to heighten Chuck’s personal drama, but try and make things more plausible.

The show had lost me with a tease carried on too long. I was frustrated by the interaction of the two main characters, as they felt like they were growing increasingly distant in a fairly transparent plot to stretch out content for future episodes. This frustration with the main characters got me focusing very hard on the spy plots on the show, which are intended to be taken as light and fluffy vehicles for interaction for the main characters. But when that falls apart, the show’s conceits seem more and more ridiculous.

And then, like magic, the show broke the streak. The penultimate episode of season 2 I found myself enjoying immensely. Should I be surprised that this is the same episode that Chuck and Sarah finally express their feelings for one another mutually? The episode basically picked up the show and shook it like an Etch-A-Sketch. Chuck’s brother-in-law-to-be learns he’s a spy (and this kind of a simple plot adjustment could make for EPISODES of fun), he is purged of the Intersect (his pretty much constant wish on the show), and he gets the girl. Even if for no other reason than to learn how the show will get itself back on track, I am now totally hooked once again, and I can enjoy my main characters the way I like them: flirty, mismatched, always-in-distress spies.

So, my very short point in a very long review is to be careful of the tease. Don’t drag it out longer than is reasonable. The minute you start to question “Is this getting old?”, it’s probably been old for a week or two already and you need to course correct. Your trick shouldn’t be withholding from the audience what they want. The trick should be coming up with obstacles that it seems you are actively trying to overcome so that you can give them what they want. The audience is your friend, and you need to at least make it seem as if you’re on their side.

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In Defense of Social Networking

Social networking continues to get a bad wrap. Facebook is a destroyer of friendships, a stealer of information and a transparent attempt to insert sales into everyone’s every waking moment. Twitter is a foolish waste of time reserved for only the most vapid. MySpace is stupid (this one is true).

I’ve been wondering lately what it is about critiques of social networks that seems to get to me. After all, it doesn’t irk me if someone doesn’t like a band, show or sports team I like. Why would I feel any differently regarding a website?

I think the answer lies in the nature of the critique. More often than not, it feels like the complaint is not with the format or presentation of the website, but the function that these sites perform. And the complaints are not that people don’t have a use for the service the site provides (understandable) it’s that the sites are either inherently stupid or somehow malicious. Social networking websites don’t have some Skynet AI that will bring them to take over the world. They are tools, and the utilty of a tool is determined by the user.

Sure, Twitter is filled with idiots, but does that mean Twitter is stupid? If an inordinate number of people decide that they want to use hammers for the sole purpose of smacking themselves in the forehead, does that make hammers stupid? (The answer I’m looking for here is “No”) The presumption is that there is no utility to be found in these services and there never will be. Despite evidence to the contrary, as when Twitter was used to disseminate information during the recent Iranian revolts, critics of these sites persist.

Twitter and Facebook, compounding my irkitude, are basically just fancier versions of pre-existing and widely accepted technology. Twitter is essentially mass text messaging (or asynchronous Instant Messaging if you want to see it that way), and users have the option to make these messages available to the general public or protected just for their approved friends. Facebook is an amalgamation of various other services: photo sharing sites, blogs, flash game sites, etc. None of those things on their own are criticized, but combine them into one mega-site and we’re looking at the breakdown of civilization itself. Typical concerns with Facebook revolve around privacy concerns, when there is now a pretty thorough suite of ways to finely tune what can and cannot be seen of your information by the world at large.

So by all means have no use for these sites, or simply do not care for the way they work. But to state that the sites and/or their users are in some way foolish just by their very nature is shortsighted. Like any tool, their utility is determined by their usage.


TMNT: Double Damage and Writing for Games

This is Friday Fiction after a fashion.

Please to direct your web browsers to this rather ungainly URL. This is the latest offering from Urbansquall Games and it features a story “written” by yours truly. Why the quotes? Well, that’s the topic of today’s post.

For starters, it was awesome to get to work on a Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles project. I was a fan of the movies, the cartoons and the original Eastman and Laird comics. Good stuff all around. However, writing for a video game, writing for a flash video game and writing for an established and lucrative license are all very different from writing in general.

There’s a pretty broad range of eras of TMNT to choose from. The early comics work has a different feel and different characters from the early cartoons, which are different from the early movies, which are different from the later cartoons, which are different from the latest movies, which are different from the latest cartoons. At the outset, I wasn’t given any directive at all in terms of the story. So, I crafted up a couple Turtle story concepts I thought would be fun to tell. Baxter Stockman is trying to recreate the ooze that transformed the Turtles, Bebop and Rocksteady engineer a mass breakout from the local zoo to create an army of animal mutants, Shredder is evil and kidnaps April—that sort of thing. Classic Turtle escapades from the early cartoon era.

Well, matters immediately become more complex when you factor in that you’re not always going to have an artist who has nothing to do all day long but draw the ideas you want to appear in your video game, especially at small companies. The mandate came in from the lead designer that I had 4 areas to work with that our artist would be able to manage on top of creating all the enemy and character graphics that I was going to be asking for: city streets, rooftops, warehouse and—a pressure-release section—a techno-lair for the final bad guy.

[What do I mean by pressure-release section? This is a portion of the project that can be jettisoned if time doesn’t permit. Since a chunk of levels can be forfeited, you need to ensure the story can survive without those levels as well.]

So, the story became a very basic one. April discovers a warehouse in the city with Foot soldiers everywhere. They trail her and just after she alerts the Turtles, she’s kidnapped. The Turtles rush to her location and give chase through city streets and across city rooftops, eventually following the Foot back to their warehouse where it is discovered that Baxter Stockman is trying to create serum for super soldiers. After he is defeated, the Turtles continue their quest to track Shredder to his hi-tech HQ, where they ultimately defeat him and save the day.

So far, so good. Basic. I’m not exactly wowing myself with my story prowess, but its certainly functional and the color can come in the details.

But then we submit this idea as part of the overall game design to the client… and they shoot it full of holes. Turns out they’re looking for a different era of Turtles than we were providing and there are a few details their licensing people want tweaked. Easy enough to handle, but embarrassing to have had your hands slapped by a major client. As a rule, do not expect that when you have questions about items you consider critical to your work that a major client will respond quickly so you can do you job. More often than not, they’ll be silent until you’re forced to just do SOMEthing before deadline, and then they’ll be mad you didn’t do what they expected you to just assume they wanted. 100% of my experience with major game firms shows this to be true (yes, yes, 100% means I’m only 2 for 2, but still, 100%).

Story is approved at last! Time to write? Not yet. How is the story going to be told? Scripted scenes with in-game animation? Ideally: yes. Practically speaking: only if you have the time. Telling story like that is the most integrated with gameplay itself, and it requires a lot of code adjustment and tweaks that your coders might not have the time for. After all, at the end of the day, the game needs to be fun more than it needs to have some brief story elements. Their time will very likely not be devoted to your requests.

So then do you just have little markers in the level that when the player walks over them they see a dialogue box? Nah. It’s clunky for story… plus that’s how tutorial elements for gameplay are delivered.

What do you do then? In our case, we found another artist who could do animated comic-book style pages for us. However, the project has a tight timeline and the artist was only given enough time for about four to six pages of work. Now it’s time for me to try and break the story into comic-book ready blocks of action, something I’d never thought about before. I tried to keep action high and dialogue minimal and to communicate as much story as possible in broad strokes to ensure that the artist had enough time to make something quickly and have it communicated in the equivalent of 12 to 18 comic panels. It’s trickier than you might think to imply broad swaths of action and progress with virtually no dialogue.

This goes well… but then it’s clear the pressure valve needs to be applied and we lose 5 levels and this changes the comic situation. Two pages are cut. We’re now missing a boss character, and his absence happens to change the logic of the story overall. Now the evil goal of the Foot clan is vague. They kidnap April for finding their mysterious warehouse, the Turtles find the warehouse and rescue April and battle Shredder twice in the process. They defeat him… but what was he trying to do in the first place? Well, hopefully you won’t think too hard about that because it’s too late to add new pages now.

Aaand now it’s done. So, similar to, but on a smaller scale than tales of screenwriters with their films that hit the Hollywood grinder and emerge looking nothing like how they started, writing a video game title for major client is barely something that can be called your own work. It’s more commonly a collaboration between the writer, the artist and the lead designer for the game with the client throwing as many wrenches at you as they can.

We pulled it off and I think I’m happy with the product, but I’m not sure I can say I’m proud of it from a story perspective. I’m proud of the accomplishment, and happy for the experience. I really liked trying to craft instructions for an artist for comic panels, too. It’s a uniquely collaborative writing exercise. Trying to envision your words in a fashion clear enough so that someone else can make them concrete is a pretty neat task. It’s hard for me to feel too much ownership on an end product that has very little of my words and ideas of mine that were heavily augmented by a large corporate third party. I’m not trying to say I’m emo bitter kid about this, but I do want to communicate that projects like this are almost never your baby when they’re completed. They become “the job” and they’re really kind of everyone’s success more than they are yours.

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Review: Muse

Muse is really the only band you need. If you’re not familiar with the band, I suggest that you acquaint yourself. I am suggesting you need no other band not just because Muse are clearly the kings of all rock, but also because you’ll be hard pressed to find a band that can deliver driving rock anthems, haunting lullabies, symphonic compositions and span the breadth of stylings that Muse can. I’d never been able to decide upon a favorite band until I heard Muse, and from that moment on, the decision was sealed.

I think what draws me most to Muse is the sensation that they are driven by the music. They have the feel of legends like Led Zeppelin, artists that were about expanding and blending genres and were fearless about the content they explored in their songs. In the most flattering phrasing, they are rock gods. Phrased the way I see it, they are giant rock nerds. Before you protest, remember that Led Zeppelin penned several songs based on Lord of the Rings. Rock Geeks. Muse, for their share, actually created a sci-fi space western in song with Knights of Cydonia.

Their inspirations are vast. Some highlights from their lastest album The Resistance: The band claims that Resistance (not the album itself, but the second track on it) is based on the romance between Winston and Julia in Orwell’s 1984. United States of Eurasia is a song they claim comes from an imaginary musical epic with the same name. The last three tracks on the album comprise Exogenesis: Symphony, another sci-fi epic tale in song about astronauts leaving Earth to attempt to populate other planets that the band says is influenced by Rachmaninov, Chopin and Pink Floyd. And then, smack dab in the middle of the album is Guiding Light which is better cheesy 80s arena slow-jam rock than ever actually came out of the era. How can you not love the amalgamation?

Matt Bellamy, the band’s lead singer and frontman, is a large part of their appeal. You will probably think that he sounds an awful lot like Thom Yorke from Radiohead, and he does. He’s able to get that same sort of plaintive wail and the two band’s share a similar kind of expressive, sci-fi, anti-establishment feel. However, where Radiohead and Yorke tend to feel esoteric and, dare I say, pretentious, Muse is a more accessible band. They’re not as experimental, but the experience is as varied.

Okay, enough doting. I don’t really have a bucket list, I have  “See Muse live before you die” list. This is the song I’ve decided I most want them to do during their set:

And here’s another that shows off a bit of their range, wait for the little piano sonata in the middle:


The Workout Plan

Exercise has long been a problematic thing for me. It’s not that I don’t like the idea of exercising, or the results. It’s mostly that I just don’t have the time for it. I’m sure this is a pretty common excuse given, but I think it’s especially true in the case of someone who has a hobby they devote a lot of their time to.

Here’s my typical schedule these days, to give you an idea. I wake up at about 6am to get ready for my day. I leave home at about 7:15am to get to work, and then work straight from 8am-4pm (I prefer to skip a lunchbreak and eat while I work so that I can be out of the office sooner). The entirety of the commute home (including picking up my wife from work) takes about an hour, so 5pm. Once I’m home, if I assume a tight scheduling of 90 minutes for reading/writing/general decompression and about 30 minutes for dinner, that gets me to 7pm. I go to bed between 10:30pm and 11pm, so let’s say that I’ve got about 3.5 hours to myself then. This of course assumes I don’t have any outside projects that are pressing (game scripts under deadline, reviews to write, stories I’m trying to complete) and that I’m not doing anything like house-hunting or other various random items that crop up in the course of daily life.

With my schedule as it is now, that’s 3.5 hours to fit in all my general relaxation and TV watching and hanging out with my wife and, yes, exercise. Now, to exercise properly is about 60-90 minutes at a minimum, I figure. So, it’s been a tough hurdle for me to convince myself that getting back into the shape I once had is a fair trade off for only having about two hours a day to myself during the week.

I decided to change my way of thinking about the exercise process, though. Rather than thinking of exercise as an interruption to the routine or an imposition on my schedule, I’ve opted to think of exercise as a means to fitness, but also as a means to liberate my own schedule. Including this extra chunk of task in my day will become a way for me to train myself to not check work e-mails at home and to try and squeeze in more writing during breaks and slow periods at work. If I can use exercise to develop some peripheral perks, that may help me keep it in the loop consistently enough that it can become a habit and then its smooth sailing from there.

What’s the specific plan, though? I’m going to start out pretty light. The extra steps of prepping for an traveling to the gym are part of my barrier to entry to exercising—I just don’t like that extra wasted time. So I’m going to try to do things from home to start off. On alternating days I will approach the very simple 100 Push-ups and 200 Sit-ups programs. These are essentially just guidelines for escalation in doing these two very basic workouts, but having a metric and set plan that someone has created for you to follow is a nice thing to have, especially when it doesn’t cost as much as a personal trainer. The meat of my exercise, though, will be going out running. My primary goal is to lose weight (the dream goal would be dropping as much as 25 pounds, but I think 15 is the most realistic), and I think running is my best option for that. To start, I’ll be opting for endurance style training. I’ll set a timeframe for my running—let’s say 30 minutes to start—and opt to run that whole time without stopping. Previously when I would run, I’d always end up reverting to my sprinter’s past and doing sort of interval style distance running, but I think that didn’t really set me up very well for being able to increase my distance over time. Over time, I’d like to be able to get to the point that I can tackle 90 minutes of running with little issues.

What’s another great way to ensure I stick with my plan? Beyond incentivizing myself by having exercise help define my schedule more, I’m also going to make sure I’m giving myself the little toys to make things easier. So, I’m buying a little armband for my old-school 1st-gen iPod Shuffle, ensuring I have tons of podcasts loaded up so I can feel like I’m getting in some edumacation while I run, I’m grabbing a cheap little athletic watch to time myself, etc. etc. Buying these small, inexpensive items I think will help make things seem more official and more special for me. I don’t really do much personal shopping, so getting to buy stuff like that might help me look at all of this like some sort of a treat.

Anyway, that’s the plan. We’ll see how it goes.

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Fiction: The Snow’s Shadow – part 2

Those were the lost years for Shiro. His peers graduated from the school that no one would ever know existed and walked the world in shadow, practicing their many arts. Some were pleased to know that Shiro had vanished. Others were crestfallen that he was never able to learn to be like his brothers and sisters. In time, nearly all forgot about the young shinobi who was fated to fail.

Fukurō thought otherwise. Careful study of the tales reveal that Shiro had been sent by his master to train in isolation. As wise as Fukurō was, he could not teach Shiro what was needed. Fukurō was himself a creature of the shadow, and he knew he could only walk beside Shiro for a short distance before Shiro must find a new path without the old man’s guidance.

The tales all say that Shiro was not seen for many years, but this is foolish. No shinobi is ever seen that does not wish to be seen. To say the shinobi were not seen is to say that this world is vast. It is the kind of statement that is not worth the breath it would cost. Shiro had been told to seek the way of the light and it was there that he could be found if any knew the secrets to watch for. He spoke with the sun and the sky. He walked among reflections and lived in the open world. As other shinobi greeted the dusk, Shiro greeted the dawn.

Seven years passed before Shiro returned to history. Seven years after his student’s departure, Fukurō was taken from his school. There existed only a very small number of schools in Nihon. As time passed, the shinobi began to seek more glory, to become more visible. They fought for reputation in a way that was unknown to their forefathers, who only needed approval of the many kami that governed all things. This new generation looked for the approval of the Nihonjin and the pleasures their money and favor could grant them. So it began that schools would fight amongst themselves. They would perform elaborate feats to claim their dominance. The kidnapping of the famed master Fukurō was seen as particularly daring display.

He was taken to Fuyō-hō, the most majestic peak in all of Nihon. It was surely Fukurō’s wish that his students and his school would absorb his teachings and respond in the grand tradition of the shinobi, with patience, precision and stealth. His students, though, were clearly lost without the strength of his presence. They reacted with the rashness of youth and organized immediate and foolish rescue ventures. Many students were lost during the attempts to scale Fuyō-hō. The fortress Fukurō had been taken to was near the mountain’s peak, which meant that any attempt to approach was difficult to hide, the distance to traverse being so great.

Distance is typically no concern for the shinobi. Stealth, when executed properly, has no end. Picturesque Fuyō-hō is known for the majesty of its snow-capped peak. The techniques of the shinobi were of little use upon the vast stretches of pure white snow. Even the cover of darkest night did little to disguise their ebon movements against the fields of ivory.

Attempts to return Fukurō from his captivity continued to meet with failure and soon they became less and less frequent. When they had stopped altogether, Fukurō’s captors declared their victory. It was at this time that Shiro enters the tales once more.

Shiro understood that to conquer his rivals, he must first tame Fuyō-hō and so his journey up the mountain was slow. He moved during the day, melding with the light and learning the secrets of the mountain. Breaching the fortress would only be half of his journey. Once he had retrieved his master, he had to ensure he would be able to return with him and Shiro understood that this was not a task that his master, wise and skilled as he may be, could accomplish on his own.

As he advanced, Shiro would take note of every available shadow and create shelters where there were lapses. He spoke to the mountain and asked it to shift the snows. He coaxed the growth of the trees and bushes. He made a home of the mountain and learned its secrets and only then did he know the time was right. During the day he moved through snow as blinding white as the cloth that covered his skin. At night he buried himself, becoming as much a part of this new home as he could.

This was the lesson that Fukurō passed down to his student. Shiro had learned to live in and be a part of the world. He had taught himself to adapt and to forge pathways where none existed. While his fellow students had learned their craft well, they had not learned to find their own way and were limited in ways that Shiro was not, for all the many freedoms they seemed to have earned above the Nihonjin. The shinobi trusted in their teachings, but Shiro had learned to trust in himself.

After weeks of scouting and preparation, Shiro was finally ready to rescue his master. He approached the fortress atop Fuyō-hō at the peak of the sun’s domain over the world, knowing that this is when it would guarded least. The shinobi would only be expecting what shinobi know, the tricks of their forefathers and the tricks of the Nihonjin.

Providence smiled upon Shiro’s infiltration, as there was not a cloud in all of the sky over Nihon that day. The snow upon the ground was a blazing white and Shiro moved gracefully through the light, whispering to the snow as he went, and it gladly covered his footfalls as he proceeded, happy to have the company and to be flattered by his respectful nature.

Whereas the shinobi would sink into the darkness surrounding a fortress wall and swim up its depths to the parapets, Shiro found another path. The darkness ignored him as stoically as it always had. He paid it no heed as he strode ably up a sunbeam to enter the fortress. He then began his quest for the center of the fortress, which was surely where Fukurō was being held.

To the guards scattered atop Fuyō-hō, Shiro was nothing more than the light reflecting off the snow, the artifacts of vision after closing one’s eyelids, a strange reflection in a pool of water. He was invisible to them in a way that none of their other brethren had ever been. And so he reached the center of the fortress.

When he opened the door to Fukurō’s cell, it is said the old Owl stood and addressed his pupil. “I am proud of you, Yuki Kage.” Shiro was confused by this, and was concerned that perhaps his master had been mistreated and that his mind had wandered during his captivity. “I am your faithful student Shiro, Master.”

At this, it is said that Fukurō laughed. “You are Yuki Kage. You are the Snow’s Shadow. Bright as daylight itself and invisible as the unseen. And I am no longer your master.” Before Shiro could protest this unprecedented statement, Fukurō put his arm around his former pupil and said, “Now, Master, will you teach me the wisdom you have learned in your travels? Fuyō-hō is grand and I fear I will not be able to return without your guidance.”

Shiro’s heart swelled at this praise and he turned back to the cell door and stepped out with his former master into the light of legend.

I had intended this to be a cute little fairy tale take on the Ugly Duckling, but with less of a “It’s cool, you’ll grow up and be beautiful automatically, so don’t worry about it” and more of a “You are unique and this is your strength if you can discover it”. I had planned on it being a very light and fluffy piece. And then I decided that I didn’t want to say “ninja”, I wanted to use a more traditional term like “shinobi” and from there I decided I wanted to use the proper terms for Japan and its people (“Nihon” and “Nihonjin”) and then from there I realized that I was writing an entirely different story than I had intended to. The core is the same, but almost nothing else is as I had envisioned it. So… I guess this is a fun example of writing guiding itself, which is one of those things that when I read articles where authors say it I just want to smack them in the face for being all smug about their craft: “Oh yeah, the words just write themselves”.

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Review: Spider-Woman, Agent of S.W.O.R.D.

This is not a review of a comic, at least not in the traditional sense. Spider-Woman, Agent of S.W.OR.D. —which I assure you is something I have no intention of typing over and over again, so we’ll call it SWAS—is a motion comic. What does that mean? Learning that was the primary reason I purchased the first two episodes of this series (available for $1.99 apiece on iTunes). A motion comic is a hybrid between cartoon and comic. The art is for the most part static, but the “camera” pans around to focus on different areas of the art. Typically the foreground and background will be different layers and there will be background motion during otherwise still scenes. There are moments of brief animation, such as a car chase, but otherwise the action is largely talking heads and shifting frames with voiceover acting.

The plot of SWAS follows the life of Jessica Drew after the Skrull invasion during the Secret Invasion story arc. Without giving too much away, Jessica’s Skrull replacement was a pretty major figure in Secret Invasion and her return to Earth and her former life is a trying experience for Jessica. We pick up the action as she is approached by S.W.O.R.D., a shadowy government agency that is seeking to hunt down and destroy the remaining Skrull on Earth.

I was primed to enjoy this, which might be part of why what I saw let me down so much. The art for the motion comics is done by Alex Maleev, who has a great moody and painterly style that looks fantastic on a page, but I feel is ill-suited to a motion comic where the progression of the pages is independent of the reader’s will. I can’t stop and look at the art and admire it, I just have to watch it stream along. It also necessitates a gritty and dark feel for the motion comic, one that almost becomes oppressive only after two episodes and 20 minutes of comic.

Part of the weight of the motion comic comes from the way the content is being delivered. The first episode has roughly 2 minutes and 45 seconds of a 9 and a half minute long motion comic consist of two women sitting on a bus and talking. It’s necessary exposition, but perhaps there was a better way to tackle the first ever motion comic than by having a full third of it consist of alternating shots of two people talking to one another on a bus. The second issue/episode at least has the good sense to include a chase scene.

The voice acting in the comic is decent, but feels a little stilted, which is likely just a side effect of the character art not having lips moving along with the audio at all. However, the second episode commits a cardinal sin for this media format, in that it features two female characters talking to one another and they have very similar voices. I very quickly lost track of who was talking and ended up pretty confused as to what was being discussed, not having read all of Secret Invasion and being able to use that to contextualize things.

I also understand why Spider-Woman was chosen for the comic, as she featured heavily in Secret Invasion, and isn’t a major comics draw like some of the other Marvel characters, so her arc can be followed through in this new format without upsetting too huge a portion of the fan base. But she’s not a terribly well known or dynamic character (as far as my exposure to her is concerned). I would much rather have seen a mini-arc for a more A-List comic like Spider-Man or Wolverine or Hulk (and perhaps Mr. Loeb would have some critical insights for how to bridge the gap between comics and motion more effectively, having been a TV heavyweight for some time now).

I’m likely going to download and watch the third episode, but I have a hunch that will be the last one. I’m not terribly engaged by the heroine, and her story so far is as dreary as her outlook. The voice acting is clearly professional, but has a bit of an emotionless tone to it. I’m also not enough of a fan of the franchise being presented for me to feel any real loyalty to see it through to the end. It’s probably worth snagging an episode to see what it’s like, if you’re a comics buff, but it’s not the kind of product that will win over any new followers.

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Gripe: Butts

Today will feature my first formal gripe for the blog. It’s something that’s been bugging me for a couple of weeks now, and I figure the best place to exorcise it will be the blog. I imagine it’s the kind of thing that might alienate some of the readers, but that depends on what kind of smoker you are.

I’d like to be able to say that I don’t see any of the appeal in smoking, but I can understand why some people choose to take it up. The “cool” factor that revolves around smoking is part of the zeitgeist. The tobacco companies did their jobs extremely well through the 20th century. There is a legacy of badassery that surrounds smoking. It’s a very devil-may-care mystique that even persists despite all the massive health dangers that have been exposed.

I can only assume that the nihilist James Deany cool that accompanies a cigarette are what cause what seem to be a majority of smokers to litter with abandon — and this is my gripe.

I’m going to go ahead and say that just about any smoker you talk to would say that they are not litterbugs. They wouldn’t just drop papers out of their car on the freeway, or crumple up a fast food bag and just leave it lying in the middle of the ground in a parking lot. But for some reason, it appears that most smokers don’t believe that a cigarette butt counts towards the littering charge.

It’s true that I’m generalizing a really broad group of people, but this isn’t some snap observation I’ve made. We had a new guy move into our apartment building the other day. He’s a smoker, and can’t smoke inside. He’s clearly following the rules there, as we see him out front by the curb smoking… but now there’s an ever-increasing pile of cigarette butts just laying by the curb now where he stands. I frequently see smokers driving down the freeway tossing butts from their moving vehicles. Just last week I was parked next to a woman sitting in her car smoking, and she just flicked her butt away before driving off. I’ve hung around with acquaintances who have decided they want to light up, and before they head off to their car to leave, they just flick their butt to the ground. I’ve even started to find spent butts in the underground garage at work.

Why is it considered okay to do this? Cigarette butts are the kind of trash that in aggregate comprise a massive amount of trash. According to the Ocean Conservancy Cleanup Group, butts and other tobacco product trash (packaging, cigars, etc.) amount for 38% of the world’s total debris [numbers from here]. That’s what we in the science community like to refer to as a “shit-ton”.

Is it so hard to spend 30 seconds to walk over to an ash tray to discard your butt? Or to put it in your car’s ash tray? And if you flick your butt out of the car because you don’t want your car to smell like smoke… shouldn’t that tell you something about your habit?

I was at the mall recently and there was an outdoor sort of kiosk area (I say “sort of” as it was actually more of a tent) where massages were being offered. A man was at the register of this tent, working there and clearly recording some sales numbers onto a sheet. He was smoking and as I walked past, he flicked his spent cigarette butt right past me, towards the ash tray that was about 10 feet away from him. He missed. He did not venture to pick it up. Essentially he had no problem leaving cigarette butt litter around his place of business.

I just don’t get it.

I imagine I’ll hear from friends of mine who smoke or have smoke and they’ll say to me that they police their butts (which is an awesome phrase, for the record). But what defence can someone who engages in this practice offer, I wonder? I’m guessing it will involve something like “Hey, go to hell”, because I’ve tried to come up with a good reason and can’t find one other than “I don’t care”. And that’s what’s really depressing to me.


Friday Fiction: The Snow’s Shadow – part 1

Here’s part one of a story I’ve been working on. Part 2 of 2 should be coming up next Friday. Forgive me if I have butchered any Japanese, I haven’t run it all by my favorite translator yet.

The Snow’s Shadow

In a land that the people call Nihon and in a city that was once called Edo, there was a school that no one knew existed. Describing the area surrounding this school would be a fruitless exercise, for it cannot be seen. Listing for you the steps to reach its doors would be a folly, for your feet will never tread upon its grounds. Suffice it to say, the school existed, though the Nihonjin know as little of it as the rest of the vast world.

From this invisible school issued forth invisible students. They could be seen, but only as it suited their purposes, so they were called invisible. The students were called shinobi. In some years hence, they will also be called oniwaban, which has a more savory aura, and they will not be so invisible then. That is for other tales.

There were mature, expert shinobi in this school, walking unseen among the Nihonjin, but this tale does not concern them, except as corollary. This tale tells of the chibi sasuke and chibi kunoichi: the little ones.

If the concept of little shinobi is amusing, think of the tiger cub learning to stalk or of the falcon’s chick spreading her wings for the first time. Deadly things learn their deadly arts when they are smallest. So it is with the shinobi.

The garb of the shinobi is their skin. By tradition, they are swaddled in clothes as black as night. Their eyes are all that is left visible. This is for the benefit of the young shinobi as well as their parents. Tiny shinobi in garb the color of night are difficult to locate.

It is said that as shinobi grow, their second skin grows with them and becomes a part of them, as they become a part of the shadows. This may seem outlandish, but this is the first failing of most Nihonjin when it comes to the shinobi. The laws of this world are suggestions to the shinobi. It is also said that only fools speak to the wind, but the shinobi have learned much in this manner. To borrow the words of one of the poets of the western world, there are more secrets in this world and the one beyond it than the nihonjin will permit themselves to recognize.

Over time, the little shinobi are taught to breath in the light and exhale shadow. They are taught to exist as a perception, to live as an inkling. They stand astride the wall separating this world from the next. They learn the language of this plane and the ones that surround it. They also learn a great many deadly arts.

The world of the shinobi is vast, but it is by necessity rigid. Secrecy is delicate. This is why the shinobi who was called Shiro did not have a life that mirrored that of his peers. When he was an infant, he was swaddled by his parents in a white cloth that was so pure it was blinding. They offered him no explanations or apologies.

There is a special cruelty wielded by youth. It cuts more sharply in a place of rules and structure, where tradition can lend credence to any number of otherwise outlandish taunts. While his peers busied themselves with matters of the darkness, Shiro had a very different matter to contend with. The shadows spurned him. He was welcomed only in the light, and even there he was hard to look upon. Being hard to look upon is a very different thing than being hard to see. One cannot help but be aware of something that challenges a gaze, rather than redirects it.

The little shinobi were merciless with Shiro. This is unsurprising as they are trained to be fearless in all things. They cursed his name and mocked his parents for what they were sure must be a legendary display of foolishness or cruelty. Why else would a young boy be subjected to such bizarre conditions? He was beaten and abused by the more violent of his peers, who were convinced that his very presence was a threat to the existence of the shinobi. He existed outside of the order of the world, they claimed, which was in violation of the principle law adhered to by the shinobi. He was told that his master would only tolerate him for so long, and that one day he would be wiped from this plane like any other abomination.

Shiro was largely impervious to these taunts and took the beatings as a matter of course. He was, after all, undergoing the same stoic training as his counterparts. The notion that his master would disapprove of him was something that gnawed at him. The parents of a shinobi supplied little beyond an origin. The master became the entirety of existence for the young warriors. He was the source of all wisdom and praise, as well as the final judge in all matters.

The master, known to all as Fukurō, the Owl, but never addressed as anything but Master, was in fact entirely unperturbed by Shiro. Was a difficult student any less of a student? What use is a teacher who can only instruct the simplest of pupils? The Owl saw to it that Shiro was given instruction the same as all his peers. He must learn the principles and methods of the shinobi. To separate him entirely would be an injustice, and would only reinforce the words of the other students, that he was different, that he needed to be sequestered.

It seemed to Shiro that he was not performing well. Devoted as he was, it could not be denied that the teachings of stealth could not be applied in the same way for Shiro as for the rest of the shinobi. The techniques he knew well, but their application was lost to him. Fukurō, however, withheld any criticisms. The other students took this to be the definitive sign of his shame at such an unacceptable pupil. Shiro took this to mean that he must strive harder to please his master.

When Shiro was almost of age, when all shinobi emerge from the school to seek their way in the worlds, Fukurō asked for Shiro’s presence after his normal lessons had ended. There was much whispering about this event, as it was the old Owl’s most overt gesture towards a student who had led a most tumultuous life in all other aspects.

The details of this meeting are a matter of conjecture. Shiro never spoke of it and Fukurō was famous for his secrecy. What is known is that after their discussion, which stories say lasted from a few short moments to days on end, Shiro walked out of the school and into the world and it was assumed that he would never be seen again.

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Wednesday Review: The Hangover and Movies in Reverse

The Hangover is funny. It’s pretty raunchy (and there is a pretty healthy dose of male nudity in the film, a healthy dose of female nudity in the credits), there is a lot of swearing, but there is also a pretty surprisingly strong storyline to the film.

I don’t think I’m going to be giving anything critical away regarding this one, but consider this your spoiler warning.

The film begins fairly close to the film’s end, with Bradley Cooper’s Phil Wenneck calling his best friend’s fiance to tell her that they will not be making their way back from Las Vegas for her wedding that afternoon. They have lost the groom in the course of a bachelor’s weekend and don’t think they’ll be finding him anytime soon. Immediately after, the film jumps back in time to show the setup for the wedding and the bachelor party weekend. We’re introduced to the characters and walked slowly into their weekend. Thanks to Zack Galifianakis’ truly odd Alan Garner, the evening begins to get progressively weirder and edgier… and then stops. The camera cuts and we get to see none of their adventures. It’s bummer for a moment… but just for a moment.

The next thing you see are Phil, Alan and Stu Price (the ever-increasingly more brilliant Ed Helms) waking up in the disaster zone that their incredibly lavish suite has become. The rest of the film chronicles the three men as they attempt to unravel just what the hell happened to them the night before which they, for various reasons, cannot  recall in the slightest.

The Hangover really worked for me. My wife liked it as well, but not quite as enthusiastically as I did. I think it’s the sort of film that really benefits from a crowded theater. The energy of the crowd would no doubt be really infectious. Similarly, rent this and watch with a crowd of buddies for maximum effect. But I liked it for more than the comedy, I liked it because it’s a movie in reverse.

The way the story in The Hangover is told is really conducive to ensuring a tightly structured and quick moving screenplay. Before the screenwriters could figure out how the three men unravel their adventures the night before, they had to figure out what those adventures were, and then going backwards figure out how the men sleuth out the solution and what new adventures they would get into along the way. There are essentially two stories here and both of them need to be fully realized for the film to work.

In the entirely opposite end of the film spectrum, we have Memento, which explores the same idea. Memento is a noir thriller that deals with a man who has no short term memory. He forgets what he was doing every few moments. This leads to some truly excellent moments such as forgetting, in the middle of a chase, if the main character is running after or away from another man. But in order for the film to make sense going “backwards”, the film had to be written so that it made just as much sense in reverse as well. Try watching another film in reverse… the cause and effect are out of wack. The linear nature of most scripts cannot support this. Memento shatters that convention and in the process presents us with an ironclad screenplay. The story had to be structured so carefully that the script is just flawless.

I’m not making the statement that The Hangover is the same caliber of film that Memento is, but the lesson that can be learned by both is the same. A story should have many angles. There should be action that is both seen and unseen. An excellent way to explore this concept is to mess with the time of your film. If you tried to tell it in reverse, could you? Could you start it near the end, jump to the start, and still make sense? Check out Pulp Fiction or Kill Bill or Reservoir Dogs to see this in action as well. Tarantino loves to play with the timeline in his films. By taking moments out of their normal flow and dropping them around, you’re forced to look hard at what makes sense and what stands alone in your screenplay. Your scenes will begin to support themselves and be strong independent of the rest of your script.

So start thinking of your screenplay from more than one angle. Think about what happens in between the scenes and before them. Think about how you can jumble your timeline, and see if you’ve got the chops to make it all work afterwards. And see The Hangover, because it was pretty awesome.

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