Friday, May 9, 2014

DC's Past and Future

[There's a minor correction, noted at the bottom.]

The first Saturday in May is traditionally Free Comic Book Day.  Comics publishers produce special issues of their series for stores to give away for free.  The idea is to get comics into the hands of people who wouldn't normally pick up a comic book.  Free Comic Book Day has become something of an Event - a lot of comics creators will make appearances at their local comic shops, and a lot of people show up in cosplay.

This year, DC Comics has chosen "Future's End" #0 as one of their FCBD offerings.  "Future's End" #0 is the kickoff of their big crossover event for this year.

Dayna Abel, host of the Made of Fail podcast, is deeply, justifiably, gloriously Unimpressed with DC about Future's End, and its selection as DC's FCBD offering.

Go read her editorial.  It's awesome.  It's built entirely of savage truths that need trumpeting in DC's ear.

My two cents: this fiasco is emblematic of DC's strange and fascinating role in comics history.

DC has long been known as the company of idealism, of optimism.  Its stars are traditionally paragons of heroism and morality.  DC is naturally contrasted with its biggest competitor, Marvel.

For most of its history, DC, as a whole, has been emblemized by Superman.  Superman, with his reputation as the Big Blue Boy Scout, as an uncomplicated paragon.  Marvel, by contrast, is traditionally emblemized by Spider-Man.  Superman is a successful adult with a steady job, and a mostly-uncomplicated civilian life.  Spider-Man is a teenager from a poor family who grew up in a bad neighbourhood, who's riddled with angst, and who struggles as much with his civilian life as he does with costumed supervillains.  Spider-Man sometimes struggles to do the right thing, to know what the right thing was; Superman rarely does. (These are all gross oversimplifications of course, but I believe they illustrate the contrast between the two companies fairly.)

In the 1970s, we started to see the first hints of change at DC.  DC started experimenting with "grittier" lines of comics.  Not the sort of masturbatory GRIMDARK we see now, but they did start to bring their heroes down from the heavens to deal with more street-level problems.  Probably most famously, there was a run of "Green Lantern", where the Green Lantern (Hal Jordan) was paired Green Arrow.  That series focused heavily on social justice issues.  That was the sort of storytelling that would be an obvious fit for Marvel, but which was something of an innovation for DC.

Then, in the 1980s, Everything Changed.

In rapid succession, the comics scene was hit with "The Dark Knight Returns" (1985), "Crisis on Infinite Earths" ('85-'86), and "Watchmen" ('86-'87).  All three were published by DC.

"Watchmen" was a thoughtful deconstruction of standard superhero tropes - a cynical meditation that laughed fairly directly at the idea of superheroics.  "The Dark Knight Returns" was a raw, vicious, dark interpretation of Batman, at a time when Batman was still labouring under the shadow of Adam West.  "Crisis on Infinite Earths" was a giant status-quo-shaking marketing-friendly event.

The comics industry took two lessons from these three titles: "dark and violent sells better than bright and heroic", and "huge crossover events sell better than anything".  And so everybody lost their damn minds.

Over the course of the next decade we had the death of Robin (DC '88-'89); the release of Tim Burton's two Batman movies (DC '89 and '92), the introduction of Cable (Marvel '90), a mutant whose primary power seems to have been "lots of guns"; the death of Superman (DC '92), the villain Venom getting his own series (Marvel '93), Batman being paralyzed and then replaced by a violent psychopath (DC '93), Spawn and the rise of Image Comics (Image '93), and the premiere of Warren Ellis's "superheroes who kill" super-team series "The Authority" (DC '99).  We had crossover event after crossover event after crossover event after crossover event - crossovers that disrupted individual series' storylines, and dragged them into whatever morass their publisher had dreamed up that they could advertise with a cover banner this year, culminating in DC's "Flashpoint" ('11), which led to the reboot of DC's entire line, under the marketing banner "The New 52".

The whole period of violent insanity since the mid '80s became known as the Dark Age, which is arguably ongoing even now.  DC started it, and DC has clung desperately to it.

At the same time, DC was at the forefront of the Reconstruction movement.  The Reconstruction movement was and is an ethos of comics creation that says "Great, we've taken these heroes apart to see how they work.  Now let's remember what we liked about superheroes in the first place, and then build them back up, using what we've learned to make them better."  Famous works of this wave include "Kingdom Come" (DC '96), which very directly addresses the state that our superhero mythoi had reached, and "DC: The New Frontier" (DC '06), which gleefully and boldly ignores Dark Age tropes, and celebrates the Golden Age ethos of idealism.  Other notable Reconstruction comics that come to mind are "Astro City" (Image '95-'98) and "Tom Strong" (ABC '99).

(This whole arc is interestingly played out across the history of the classic DCAU, but that's another essay.)

So DC's been instrumental in both the darkening and the reaction to it.

It's starting to look like the Reconstruction movement is losing badly, at least at DC.  There's still a puerile obsession with GRIMDARK, and a lack of confidence in the ability of laudable, admirable heroes to drive stories and sell comics.

Which brings us to "Future's End", DC's ultra-violent grimdark mega-crossover for this year.  DC has chosen to offer "Future's End" #0 as a Free Comic Book Day giveaway.  This is the choice they've made to draw new readers in.

DC clearly believes that clinging to the Dark Age is the way forward for them.

[Edit: I initially had Dayna Abel listed as "founder of the Made of Fail network".  Ms. Abel herself tells me that Kevin O'Shea was the founder.]

Monday, April 7, 2014

Stars in a Young Universe

Episode 4 of the new “Cosmos” was titled “A Sky Full of Ghosts”.

In it, Neil deGrasse Tyson showed a map of the galaxy, then showed a small circle around our solar system and said (more or less) “If the universe were only 6,000 years old, this is the farthest we'd be able to see.”  The light from farther bodies wouldn't have reached us yet.  

And I thought But how cool would that be?  If the world were only 6,000 years old?  To be constantly spotting new stars? Stars we've never gotten to see before?

Because, in such a universe, the light from more and more distant stars would reach us each year.  We would see new stars all the time.

Someone pointed out to me that our nearest neighbour is something like four light-years away. So really, you'd be getting only a handful of new stars over the course of your lifetime.

So I threw some math at it.

Some Assumptions

Assume that the universe snapped into existence, as it is now, in 4004 BC.  This is the figure provided by the Ussher chronology, and is a figure I usually see cited by young-earth Creationists.  This universe contains an Earth, and this Earth contains humans who are cognizant of the night sky.

Assume that the Milky Way galaxy is a sphere (which it isn't) and that stars are uniformly distributed (which they aren't). These are purely to make the math simpler.  Assume also that our solar system within the galaxy is at least 6,018 light-years from its edge (so that the horizon of visibility doesn’t reach the galaxy’s edge before the present day).

Assume the Milky Way galaxy has a volume of about 39 trillion cubic light-years.

Assume the Milky Way galaxy has about 400 billion stars.

That gives us one star for every 97.5 cubic light-years.

The History of the World

From this math, a narrative starts to emerge.

For the first three years, we expect to see no stars. The only lights in the sky are the Sun, the Moon, and the five planets that are visible to the naked eye.

Then, somewhere between year 3 and 4, a new light appears! Another night-time pinprick light, like the few we already see!  What does this mean?  Has the Sun had new children?  Are new gods being born?  Is Creation ongoing?

Somewhere between year 4 and 5, three more stars appear. Because guess what? The process accelerates.

The distance to our visible horizon increases linearly with time, but the visible volume increases with the cube of time.

By the end of year 7, we can see 13 stars, along with the Sun, Moon, and classical planets. By the end of year 10, we can see 42.

In year 100 - not by year 100 but in year 100 - we get 1,276 new stars.

That's 3.5 new stars a day.

In year 1,000 we get 128,757 new stars.

Creation is Complete

Now, though the process accelerates, there's a point where it rather suddenly peters out.  The visible horizon reaches the point where the “new” stars are too distant to see with the naked eye.  I’m talking individual stars; brighter objects, like galaxies, are visible much farther away.

I’ve found different answers as to how far away that would be.  This forum post provides a broken link, and a claim that it indicates about 4,075 light-years.  This site claims 16,300 light-years.

I’m going to pick a nice round 4,000.  4,000 years is the upper bound on this accelerating increase in visible stars.  After about the year 4,000, we mostly stop seeing new stars with the naked eye.

But in the year 4,000... we get 2 million new stars.

That’s 3.9 new stars becoming visible each second.  3.9 new stars every second, and then nothing more.

I want to world-build with this.  I mentioned it to some friends, and several said they want to poach it for their own writing.  (They’re welcome to it; I can’t be the first person to have thought of this.)

Having a long period where new stars are appearing - faster and faster - would be awesome for delimiting the Ancient Days - you know, that period where The Rules Were Different, and The Gods Routinely Meddled On Earth.

I don’t believe any of this is true, of course.  We have detailed astronomical records going back millennia, and we have all sorts of evidence that the universe is, y’know, not just 6,000 years old.  And I’ve made all kinds of simplifying assumptions that kind of sink it (the “uniform distribution” assumption in particular).

But.  This is neat.  I want to worldbuild with it.

Saturday, March 22, 2014

Haiku Reviews: Muppets * 2, Grizzly Park, Ancillary Justice, Gigli

“Muppets Most Wanted” (2014 film) in haiku:
Fucked up and funny.
A lesser film than the last.
I hope there are more.

“The Muppets” (2011 film) in haiku:
Wonderful fix-fic
And love letter to fandom.
The Muppets are back!

“Grizzly Park” (2008 film) in haiku:

The right person lives;
The rest are et by a bear.
Hope you like boob jokes.

“Ancillary Justice” (novel by Ann Leckie) in haiku:

Vast collective selves,
Space empire with no genders;
Slow burn, but big fire.

“Gigli” (2003 film) in haiku:

J-Lo and Affleck
And child-like hostage makes three.
Terrible sitcom.

Monday, March 10, 2014

Movies in Haiku: Robocop, 300, Lego, Hyenas, Nazis!

"Robocop" (2014) in haiku:

Less fun than before;
Surprising thoughtful sci fi.
So close to Bechdel.

"300: Rise of an Empire" (2014) in haiku:

Eva Green is win,
But few bright lights in the cast.
Go rent the first one.

“The Lego Movie” (2014) in haiku:

Fandom and whimsy,
Then sudden punch to the feels.
Now I want Lego.

"Hyenas" (2010) in haiku:

Ludicrously fun,
Like bad Anita Blake fic.
No budget in sight.

“Nazis at the Center of the Earth” (2012) in haiku:

Jake Busey in snow,
Transforming Mecha-Hitler -
What more do you need?

Monday, February 11, 2013

Better to Light a Candle - Orson Scott Card and DC Entertainment

Arright.  So.  DC hired Orson Scott Card to write "Adventures of Superman", a weekly digital series.

Mr. Card sits on the board of the National Organization for Marriage, an advocacy group that seeks to prevent marriage equality from ever becoming a reality in the United States.  He also has a history of writing homophobic screeds of various flavours.

Inspired by John Scalzi's recent initiative, I've made a decision:

For every issue of this series that comes out, I'm sticking $5 in a pot.  Every few weeks (or when the series ends), I'm going to empty the pot out, and donate half to Human Rights Campaign, and half to the Lambda Foundation.

Human Rights Campaign donation page

Lambda Foundation donation page

Now, Scalzi has the attention of the slug he's trying to counteract, so there's at least a nominal chance that this measure will actually curtail said slug's behaviour.  That's not the case here - Card has no idea who I am.

This does, however, channel my rage in a constructive direction.

Who's with me?

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Data and Branagh

This is the kind of little thing that delights me.

In the "Star Trek: The Next Generation" episode "The Defector", Data rehearses Shakespeare's Henry V, in the title role.  Data mentions he has studied the performances of numerous past actors in the role, including "Branagh" - presumably Kenneth Branagh.

Now, given that Branagh was born in the 20th century, Data can't have seen him live on stage - he can only have seen his film work.  (Unless there's a time-travel plot in play that I'm unaware of.)  Branagh did, in real life, star in a movie adaptation of Henry V, which, according to Wikipedia, was released on October 6, 1989.

Here's the rub: the TNG episode in question aired on New Year's Day, 1990, a mere three months after the movie was released.  It's my understanding - and I'm willing to be corrected - that Trek episodes, like most TV shows, were filmed months before they aired.  Which means that when the cast and crew were filming this scene, Branagh's movie wasn't even out yet.

Wednesday, January 16, 2013

Mobile Frame Zero - A First Look

This is damned interesting.

Mobile Frame Zero came to my attention earlier this week, thanks to a post on Penny Arcade.  It's a tabletop wargame, a la Warhammer 40,000 or Heavy Gear or Warmachine.  The difference here is that MFZ's rules are distributed under a Creative Commons license, and the game uses "Lego or other building toys" for its models and terrain.

Creative Commons.


Which is to say: if you already have some Lego, you could play this game for free.

Me and Wargames

I don't have a lot of background with wargames.  I've been playing WH40K for about a year and a half, and I've played a few rounds of Warhammer Fantasy.

I haven't played MFZ yet.  I read the rulebook over the weekend, and I've dug out the box of Lego at the bottom of my closet.  We'll see how this goes.

The Mobile Frame Zero Setting

There's a setting for the game.  It has a strong "real robot" mecha feel, along the lines of "Mobile Suit Gundam" and "Patlabor", though it's interstellar in scope.  It doesn't have the rich texture of the WH40K setting, but few games do, tabletop or otherwise, and WH40K has been around for 25 years.

Its other disadvantage versus WH40K, though, is it doesn't provide the same easy, automatic justification for forces who're nominally on the same side to face each other.  In WH40K, you have 20-odd mechanically defined factions, but within that division you've got room for countless subdivisions, each with their own agendae, each ready to go to war with each other at the drop of a hat.

That said, there's infinite room for invention.  It's set in the future, but deliberately vague on how far in the future - the people of the future measure time by the Solar Calendar, and the game's "present day" is SC 0245.  The factions aren't mechanically defined, so you can concoct whatever fluff you want for your force - I might create a pirate or rebel force, who do have excuses to attack anyone.  Likewise, because the factions aren't mechanically defined, you can simply ignore the fluff outright if so inclined.

Army Building

Each player fields a force (called a "company") of 3 to 8 "frames" - the game's term for mecha - with each frame carrying up to four combat systems of various kinds (weapons, surveillance, defense, etc.).  If my math's not off, there are 672 possible combinations of upgrades - 672 mechanically distinct frames.

Every battle size sets a range of  company sizes; within that range, you get to decide how many frames to deploy - the largest force starts with a significant point disadvantage, and the smallest with a significant point advantage.

And, of course, you build your company out of Lego.

Flickr is already full of people's Mobile Frame Zero handiwork.

Game Mechanics

These rules look damned elegant, and, in sharp contrast to WH40K, they're completely memorizable.  No shelf full of codices full of stats to memorize - just a simple upgrade system.  Frames can carry up to four systems - chosen from defense, weapons, surveillance, and movement - each of which provides dice that can be allocated to various actions.

When frames take damage, you remove systems from them, reducing their abilities - until you ultimately blow them to smithereens.

The mechanics call for a fairly large number of dice - potentially forty-ish, in five different colours.

Conclusions So Far

This game looks like a lot of fun.   I'm deeply enamoured of what looks to be a flexible and elegant unit-construction system, and it's a chance to wargame without breaking the bank.

The next step is to build some frames and try this thing out.