Tuesday, March 31, 2015

The Con List

It took some doing, but my new blog is finally launched. The Con List

Here you will find lists of conventions by state. It is not comprehensive and I know I am leaving out conventions. It is a work in progress but I hope some people find it useful.

Friday, March 20, 2015

In Real Life

Anda is a high schooler who is about to learn something about the real word after being introduced to an online game. No, this isn't a dark tale. It could have gone dark, but writer Cory Doctorow gives us a light tale about a girl who comes to realize that life, and especially the people in it, come in shades of grey. Artist Jen Wang adds a style that is amazing and perfectly compliments Doctorow's story of a girl trying to find her identity. It all starts with a special guest speaking in one of Anda's classes.

Liza, a gamer, speaks to the class about gaming and more specifically how girls view themselves. While plenty of the girls in the class are gamers, none of then play as female characters. The story also indirectly addresses the reality that women and girls face in gaming and nerd culture. Liza goes on to say that it's a tragedy that so few of their in game characters are women and how when she started, and even she couldn't be proud of who she was even though she is one of the best. Times are different, now, she explains, but things still aren't perfect. And this is the case in the real world. Events like Gamaergate are proof enough. But the odd territorial misogyny in gaming isn't exclusive to that world. Certain circles and individuals in comics and other nerd/geek branches have become hostile to women making their marks. But back to the story. Ada joins the fictional MMORPG (Massive Multiplayer Online Role Playing Game) Coarsgold, a World of Warcraft kind of game, and makes her character.

She also joins Liza's guild, Clan Fahrenheit, an all female group. As she progresses, she befriends a senior member of the guild, Sarge, who convinces Anda to go on side quests to eliminate gold farmers. Gold farming being the practice of acquiring currency in game and then selling it to other players. Gold farmers do the grunt work of making money by whatever means. It can be time consuming. Other players who either don't have the time or don't want to put in the time to make the in game money themselves use real money to buy the game money. It is a real practice that is banned by most games. And people do make a living doing this.

While some do it for personal profit, it is not uncommon for people in some countries to go to work doing this every day for an employer, for long hours, with low pay and no benefits. After going with Sarge to eliminate farmers a few times Anda meets Raymond, a gold farmer who explains that he isn't doing this to cheat the game. It's not a matter of cheating, for him it's a matter of real world living. Essentially he works in a real and virtual sweatshop to survive.

The story goes on to show how Anda comes to grips with how people in other parts of the world survive and how ethics and good and bad can be blurred. It doesn't help that Sarge is getting paid real money by other gamers to take care of the farmers.

Anda faces real and virtual consequences that help to define the person she wants to be. Games are supposed to just be about having fun right?

The book is the expanded version of Doctorow's short story, Anda's Game. It could have used a little more character development and it feels like some things could have gotten fleshed out a little more, but it's otherwise a great book that could have gotten heavy handed with the subject matter.It could have been dark, but the writing and amazing art keep this on the lighter side. It's also good to have a gamer themed story with a female hero. It's also written so that you don't have to be a gamer to follow and enjoy. And I enjoyed it a lot as a non-gamer. I first check this out from my local library and decided to add it to my collection. I recommend it for gamers and non-gamers young and old.

Monday, March 9, 2015


Critics don't like it and not surprisingly a lot of people didn't go see it. Chappie earned $13.3 million in it's opening weekend. I honestly didn't expect it to be high up on the must watch list for people. Sci-fi doesn't get much love unless it's part of a major franchise or adapted from something high profile. But even then, I was surprised at the negative reaction. But I suppose the negative and lukewarm review are not that much of a surprise either. Writer/Director Neill Blomkkamp didn't get much praise for his last film, Elysium, either. I thought that film was good. And I think Chappie is another good film as well.

(some SPOILERS to follow)

Chappie is set in the near future in Johannesburg, South Africa. Crime is rising beyond the capacity of the police, and robots from the Tetravaal company are brought in. Tetraval is run by Michelle Bradlley (Sigourney Weaver).

These Scouts are designed to augment and support the police force. They perform everyday police duties and provide front line and fire support duties for the police firefights. The Scout's designer, Deon Wilson (Dev Patel), wants to forward the project by designing sentient artificial intelligence for the robots, but that is not something Tetravaal is interested in.

Also in development at Tetravall is a larger robot dubbed MOOSE. Think Ed 209 from Robocop. The lead designer on that project is Vincent Moore (Hugh Jackman), an ex solder who is jealous of Deon and the success of the Scouts. Vincent wants the MOOSE out on the streets but can't understand why the police don't want something so expensive that is clearly designed for military purposes.

(Side note, Jackman is rocking a sweet short mullet with frosted tips. This is his actual hair.)

Chappie starts out as just another police Scout, number 22 to be exact. 22 is a robot who had a history of getting damaged. The maintenance staff are never surprised to see it. One day 22 takes an RPG to the chest and is deemed to damaged to repair. Deon seizes his opportunity and steals 22 to experiment with the new AI he just perfected. Enter Die Antwoord, the rave/rap group made up of Waddy Jones aka "Ninja" and Yo-Landi Vi$$er.

(Another side note. Ninja allegedly made several bad impressions with the cast and and crew and created a lot of tension. Coincidentally, Ten$ion is the name of a Die Antwoord album.)

To understand how these two managed to appear in and influence this story so much, you have to hear it from Blomkamp himself. “There was this really weird crossover that happened while I was writing Elysium—and  has a lot of robotics in it—at the same time I was listening to a lot of Die Antwoord’s tracks... All of a sudden I got this idea for this robot—like the Elysium robots, it was a kind of police/security machine—being hijacked by this band that I was listening to. I don’t know where the hell that idea came from, but that was the genesis for Chappie.” For the film, Die Antwoord play more off the wall/criminal versions of themselves. Ninja and Yo-Landi are street thugs who owe A LOT of money to a psychotic criminal. Along with their partner America (Jose Pablo Cantillo), a Latin gang banger who somehow got himself stuck in South Africa.

(Yet another side note. A Latin-American guy has to go to South Africa to get nicknamed America?)

The gang in desperate need of cash come up with the brilliant idea of finding a remote to shut down the Scouts so they can pull off a major heist. So why not kidnap the designer of the Scouts? They jump Deon on his way home with 22. There is no remote shutoff so the plan changes. They want Deon to rebuild 22 and reprogram him to follow their orders. Deon's AI of course isn't an instant thing. The robot has to learn, much like a child. This is where Chappie picks up his street language and mannerisms. Ninja and America teach Chappie to be a thug, albeit a thug who doesn't want to shoot people, and Yo-Landi takes on the role of... mommy.

(Last side note. I promise. Sharlto Copley did the motion capture and voice for Chappie. He's starred in District 9 and Elysium.)

Yes, absurd. But this lends to some funny moments. Think of a more ghetto Johnny 5. This odd arc in the story also give the movie it's heart believe it or not. While it is hard to find sympathy for thugs, in a weird way Chappie's innocence gives these people some redemption in the end. Yo-Landi becomes more of a mother and even Ninja (taking the role of the horrible"Daddy") finds a little redemption at the end. (I guess that makes America the cool uncle?) It takes to the absolute end of the film, but it's there. If you have seen the preview, then you know the eventual showdown between Chappie and the MOOSE happens. Vincent Moore takes every opportunity to derail the Scout program and makes some pretty insane decisions that throw the city into chaos.

 I will admit, it gets a little predictable and you have to suspend your disbelief to get over the gang bangers raise a robot thing. But it is a movie after all. No new territory is covered. The obvious inspirations from Short Circuit and Robocop are there. I would call this light sci-fi with the whole what defines a soul and is artificial life really life elements. It's not there to make you ask serious questions, it's just good entertainment. While some question the probability of a story like this happening, I see it as more of what can happen when you got a bunch of desperate people who don't take the time to think out their actions. There are stranger films out there that are hailed as good. It is flawed, it's not as deep as Blomkamp's previos films District 9 and Elysium, and it could have used some more character development, but I still recommend it. I enjoyed Chappie a lot.

Friday, March 6, 2015

The Twelve

During World War II there were two kinds of heroes. Those with powers and those without. Those without were typically “tourists”, guys who put on the mask for fame and women. But when war broke out, they all joined the fight, powers or not. The most notable of course is Captain America. And while Steve Rogers was frozen and woke up in the modern world, there were other heroes who had a similar fate. These twelve heroes got grouped together by chance and were tasked with a secret mission. They were going to raid the Nazi SS headquarters in Berlin. They made it in but they never came out and faded into obscurity. In August of 2008 a construction crew working on the foundation for new apartments accidentally broke open a secret chamber. There they found The Twelve in stasis. Trapped by the S.S. they were to be experimented on after the Nazis took back Germany from the Allies. That never happened.

The Twelve lies somewhere between Watchmen and The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen. Writer J. Michael Straczynski and artist Chris Weston created this tale of twelve heroes out of time for Marvel Comics. Their history is even as interesting as their fictional lives on paper. These characters date back to when Marvel was Timely Comics. Straczynski and Weston brought them back for this miniseries. The Twelve are:

Master Mind Excello
Precognition and extreme perceptive powers. He has low level telepathy and can even sense broadcast waves. The modern world is so noisy he had to go into seclusion to literally clear his head.

Dynamic Man
Super strength, flight, invulnerability. His creator made him to be free of vice and a savior to humanity. But todays humanity is different from that of the 1940s.

Super strength and near invulnerability. He claims to hail from an underground civilization, but it may be his mind covering up an emotional trauma.

Captain Wonder
Super strength, flight. An accident with an experimental drug gave him his powers. He joined the fight against the Nazis and now he lives in a world where everyone he loved is gone.

Black Widow
Technically the original Black Widow and also the first female hero in comics. In the modern version of her origin, she sold her soul to a demon in exchange for vengeance on her sisters murderer.

The Fiery Mask
Project and controlling fire and heat. His claims his powers come from a mad scientists failed attempt to kill him.

The Phantom Reporter
No powers, but skilled in fighting. He is a reporter who put on a mask to right the wrongs he reported on. He now reports on the world from the perspective of a man from the past.

Mister E.
Another tourist, he has no powers, but joined the fight against the Nazis. He now returns to find a son who resents him for abandoning the family and hiding his Jewish faith.

Laughing Mask
No powers but a will to punish criminals. This District Attorney became to fed up with the justice system and took the law into his own hands.

The Blue Blade
No powers buy he has... style. He is described as "Errol Flynn turned up to eleven." Kids, ask your parents... or grandparents. The modern world might give him what he wants most, a bigger spotlight and fame.

The Witness
A detective who accidentally shot an innocent man. He tries to kill himself after prison but a voice tells him it's not his time and gives him the ability to see a crime before it happens. He observes the victims and judges if they are worth saving.

A robot controlled by electronic telepathy. Cut off from it's creator, it no longer moves.

The Twelve wake into the world after Marvel's Civil War and have to register with the government. They are given an offer to become sanctioned government agents while they recover at a secret mansion. They don’t have to work for the government and they are free to stay as long as they want, but if they decide to leave they must make it on their own. In a new world they struggle to adjust and all their sins and baggage just become amplified. In this story there is no huge enemy at the gates. There is no great evil they are teaming up to conquer. This is more of a study on how people would react to a world they are out of touch with. Fans of Babylon 5 are familiar with Straczynski's ability to unfold a story and the lives of his characters. Their biggest threat is themselves and some don't survive to the end of the series. This is a stand alone story and even though it exists within the regular Marvel Universe, this is the only time these characters have made an appearance since their Timely Comics days.

The series premiered in 2007 and finished in 2008. I was fortunate enough to find a hardback collected addition at a used bookstore and took a chance. This is one of those great books whee you don't have to know the history of any characters to get into the story. Even thought they appeared in comics' Golden Age, this is very much a new origin story and even though the door was left open for future stories, but the story arc here was completed. It is an interesting and entertaining series definitely worth picking up for something a little different.