Wednesday, August 31, 2005

Comics purchased (and read) 8/31/05

Marvel Comics:

1602: New World #2: If you haven't read the brilliant but overhyped 1602 written by British author Neil Gaiman, this won't make a whole lot of sense. That said, the 1602 concept (what if Spider-Man, the X-men, etc. started out in 1602 rather than the 1960s) is a fun one, and writer Greg Pak does a decent job following in Gaiman's footsteps.

Wha Huh? #1: An utter travesty of a humor book. Not funny and vaguely insulting to the reader and comic fans in general.

Speakeasy Comics:

Beowulf #4: Not a comic version of the Old English Epic. This series has the original Anglo-Saxon superhero resurrected in modern times, where he fights the Dragon that killed him (now residing in the subway tunnels of New York) and does battle with a shadowy government organization. A fun read, with moody art.

Tuesday, August 30, 2005

Finally Finished

The 60 Greatest Old-Time Radio Shows of the 20th Century selected by Walter Cronkite

Finally finished this huge set - and guess what? I can think of several dozen episodes of the Simpsons that make a WHOLE lot more sense now.

Highlights (based on my own subjective impressions) follow.

Five Best (no particular order):
1. The Shadow, "White God" - Not the best Shadow episode, nor even the best Shadow episode featuring Orson Welles, but I am irrationally in love with the Shadow tales and mythos.
2. Quite, Please, "The Thing on the Fourble Board" - I learned what a fourble board was, and the story scared me spitless. Educational and frightening!
3. Yours Truly, Johnny Dollar, "The Todd Matter" - I never would have guessed insurance investigations would have made for good radio noir.
4. Columbia Presents Corwin, "The Undecided Molecule" - Not quite up to the level of Dr. Seuss, but the all-star cast more than makes up for shortcomings in the rhyme schemes and story.
5. The Lux Radio Theatre, "The Jazz Singer" - Starring Al Jolson who played the lead in the movie. Better than the movie, IMHO.

Five worst (no particular order):
1. The Baby Snooks Show, "Report Card Blues" - I can see why this was included on the set, but rather than endearing but reckless (like Dennis the Menace or Little Lulu) Snooks comes across as a spiteful vengeance demon sent to torment her father for his sins.
2. The Jack Benny Program, "Jack Benny in the Show after 'Money or Your Life'." - Despite Jack Benny being overexposed on this set (he gets three episodes of his show on the set, leaving no room for other worthy shows), this is included only because "Money or Your Life" (the previous episode) was very funny, but also ends on a cliffhanger (of sorts). Too bad this follow up feels as though all the humor was used up on the previous episode.
3. Vic and Sade, "Muted Silver Moonbeam Chimes" - the title alludes to the only mildly funny joke in this rather bizarre show. Not very entertaining, and it feels a little like listening in on your neighbors for juicy gossip, only to find out their conversations are all very boring.
4. Grand Central Station, "Miracle for Christmas" - I found this one to be condescending, not to mention theologically suspect.
5. The Bickersons, "3-16-47" - I get it. They don't get along. I don't find listening to married couples argue all that entertaining or worthwhile.

Five most bizarre and/or most worth mentioning (no particular order):
1. The CBS Radio Workshop, "Brave New World" - Narrated by Aldous Huxley, and despite radio censors, it manages to keep most of the risquéness of the novel. Most of the story is there as well, despite a lot of compression.
2. The Mercury Theater on the Air, "War of the Worlds" - See previous post here.
3. The Chase and Sandborn Hour, "10-30-38" and "12-12-37" - for the first episode, see here - for the second: Mae West on the radio? And they expressed shock when the censors complained? No matter what she says, it sounds like a double entendre.
4. The Cavalcade of America, "Native Land" - Interesting retrospective on Carl Sandberg, but Carl Sandberg has such a horrid radio voice, it nearly ruined it for me.
5. Big Town, "Death Rides the Highway" - A radio reporter crusades against reckless drivers - however, this crossed the line from pathos into bathos (if you drive recklessly, you will cause a semi to run into a school bus! Full of orphans! With Nuns on board!)

There’s a lot more on this set, but that's good for now.

Saturday, August 27, 2005

Sci-Fi Fridays 8-26-05

6:00 Firefly: I got distracted a few times, so if there was any special behind the scenes footage for the upcoming movie Serenity (based on Firefly), I missed it. Plot wise, this was an unremarkable episode, but arc-wise it established that River was a bit more than just a girl the eeeeeeeeeeevil (*cackling laughter*) government experimented on - there are hints she can read minds or see the future.

7:00 Stargate SG-1: An okay episode - a break from the unsubtle main villains this season - this episode tries to clean up hanging plot points from last season without eliminating them entirely. Clones are involved.

8:00 Stargate: Atlantis: About as predictable an episode as possible. I guessed the ending (both of them) ten minutes into the show. The characters are unremarkable and unlikable, and the plots mundane and recycled.

9:00 Battlestar Galactica: Honestly, TV sci-fi has never been better than this. [side note: Richard Hatch has never done better acting, even when he starred in the original BSG.] Commander Adama gives up some of his hubris, and he and President Rosalyn reach an understanding.

On the religious note, the colonies have a very odd set of scriptures: They read like watered down Isaiah (and without the calls for morality). In fact, they aren't gospels in any sense (despite one character referring to them as such) - they predict the future but prescribe no code of conduct. This makes me wonder if the this is deliberate on the creators part, or if the creators of the show are as clueless about religion as recent shows have lead me to believe. Don't get me wrong - the show is gripping, moving and well written - and it has one of the (so far) best treatments of religion on TV. This will not be a typical Hollywood-ized version of religion - but I also get the idea the writers/producers aren't particularly religious themselves and have only glanced at any actual real life scriptures.

Wednesday, August 24, 2005

Comics this week.....

Every Wednesday is new comic book day.

The educated elites out there may scoff, but I figure that just shows their lack of open mindedness. Comic books are a serious medium for adults as well as kids - just like novels, films and music. I think it a shame many people feel they "outgrew" comics - but that shows their lack of education concerning what the comic medium really is. I suggest - to those who feel comics are unsophisticated kids material - read Scott McCloud's Understanding Comics and Comics and Sequential Art by Wil Eisner before making any careless and uninformed condemnations.

That said, I sell my blood plasma twice weekly so I can afford to buy comics. Usually I get one or two a week, but the last few weeks have been pretty dry, but this week made up for it.

Here is this week's list, with mini-reviews:

From Marvel Comics:

Mega Morphs #2: Okay, this one is a kids comic book and based on a toy line. A fun little read with absolutely no significance and nothing to enlighten the human condition. But it has Ghost Rider in it, so that's all I need.

The Incredible Hulk: Destruction #2: A look into the history of the Incredible Hulk's greatest foe, The Abomination (and whose wife Bruce Banner got jiggy with a year or so ago). A decent read, it spends a lot of time clearing up contradictory histories of the Abomination (such as revealing he's been married twice, or saying that one conflicting account of his origin was government propaganda rather than the truth). I ordered this because I'm a fan of writer Peter David, who is one of the most talented writers in comics today (he also writes Star Trek novels, but those are pure hackwork).

Spellbinders #6: I'm a big fan of magic and supernatural themed comics, especially the ones that mix them with superheroes (hence my love of all things Ghost Rider and Dr. Strange). This series, however, was confusing and made little sense. It may make more sense when read straight through in the inevitable trade paperback reprint, but I spent too much time scratching my head.

Daredevil #76(#456): (re: the two issue numbers - The numbering system at Marvel comics is a little wonky right now, so just go with it). Brian Michael Bendis writes slow, character driven tales that take anywhere from 4 to 9 issues to tell. This is the opening chapter and not much happens, but it sets the stage. It's like the opening teaser of a TV show just before the credits. Of all current comics writers, he paces his comics for the inevitable trade paperback reprint, but he does it well enough I don't mind.

Fantastic Four #530: One of the few comics my wife really enjoys, probably because of the family dynamic (and that the main characters have two children). The current author is J. Michael Straczynski, creator of the TV show Babylon 5. Those who are familiar with that show will recognize the themes that JMS worked with over there. There is one funny subplot: Child protective services is trying to decide if the FF's children should be taken out of the "dangerous environment" created by having super powered parents (it makes an odd sort of sense, since Valeria was possessed by Dr. Doom and Franklin spent time in Hell a few story arcs ago), but that subplot gets little play this issue.

DC Comics:

JSA Classified #2: A fun tale for a comic geek like me, but totally inaccessible to anyone who is new to comics or hasn't read them since the 80s. If you don't know what the terms "pre-Crisis" and "post-Crisis" mean, or who Power Girl's Earth 1 counterpart was and when she died, stay away.

IDW comics:

Angel: The Curse #3: Fully approved by Joss Whedon, this Buffy/Angel spin-off series explores what happens to Angel after the cliffhanger of the series finale. It takes place some indeterminate time after the series, though apparently Whedon himself has saved the actual resolution of the cliffhanger for himself. A fun read, though it is paced like a TV show rather than a comic book. The writer needs to adapt the material to the comics form better.

Spike: Old Times #1: Also approved by the Joss man himself and Written by Peter David, this comic nails the tone and pacing of the Buffy TV series while remaining true to the comics form. The story idea seems to come from Peter David wanting to clear up a bit of unclear side mythology in the Buffyverse, but the tale itself is darkly humorous and quite entertaining.

Saturday, August 20, 2005

Sci-fi Fridays

My wife and I cannot miss the Sci-Fi Channel's Friday night block. So, some brief capsule reviews of yesterday's (8/19/05) episodes.

Well, we actually have this entire series on DVD, and despite FOX's boneheaded cancellation of this brilliant series (from the mind of Joss Whedon), it is gearing up for release as a motion picture franchise under the name SERENITY. The main reason to watch it on Sci-Fi is the "behind the scenes" extras for the movie that are interspersed throughout the hour. However, they weren't anything special. The episode was funny, as usual, but I've seen it several times already.

7:00 Stargate SG-1
This season has "gone in a new direction" that I'm not sure I like. It's even more jokey than before, and the subtext the new villains add to the series (dealing with religious fundamentalism and terrorism) is as subtle as a slap upside the head with a spiked mace. The addition of Farscape regulars Ben Browder and Claudia Black seems to actor recycling, but is actually inspired. Ben Browder who takes over for Richard Dean Anderson's recently promoted character Jack O'Neil plays, in essence, the same character he played on Stargate. Cynthia Black comes across as a more versatile actress, playing a much different character than the one she portrayed on Farscape.

However, this episode, which was mildly suspenseful, gets rid of (at least for the next few episodes) Black's highly entertaining character - and at the same time Amanda Tapping's character returns. At the end of the episode, my wife turned to me and said "What? They can only have one female on the team at a time?"

8:00 Stargate: Atlantis Nothing to see here. Move along. We only watch this because it's in between Stargate SG-1 and Battlestar Galactica and it ties into the same mythology as Stargate SG-1. Last night's episode, wherein an arrogant scientist taps into knowledge beyond his ken and nearly destroys the universe, is too hackneyed and old to be truly entertaining, and I have yet to actually care for a single character in this ensemble cast.

This is the best SF show on TV period. Taut, gripping, well written, full of moral pratfalls and potholes, yet with a core of goodness. And I was one of the fans of the original series hoping this series would fail (since I wanted a continuation of the original series).

The mini-series that started it all off was okay - the actors were mostly stiff and looked unnatural - except for Edward James Olmos, who made it impossible to turn away from the screen (during the mini-series I kept yelling "Get back to Adama!")

But after the first season premiere "33" I was hooked. Unlike the half-jokey tone the original series took, this series feels like this IS what it would be like if humanity really was on the run and near extinction. Also, this series has focused more on the fleet of ships the Galactica is guarding, as well as human resistance movements back on the homeworlds. In nearly every way, it's deeper, richer and more satisfying than the original.

The one thing that bugs me is the religious angle. In essence what we have are the Cylons, who are monotheistic fundamentalists who feel that their God justifies genocide and inhumane scientific experiments (as last week's "The Farm" revealed). On the other hand, we have the pluralistic, polytheistic (and sometimes atheistic) humans. There is a holy book, but religious belief is considered private and not something you talk about. (For example, when the President asked Starbuck if she "believed", Starbuck said "yes - not that it's any of your business.") There also seems to be little in the way of personal morality required by the vague pluralistic religion followed by some humans, whereas the Cylons seem to have some very specific guidelines (some of which have yet to be revealed).

However, rather than a simplistic "strict monotheism bad/vague pluralism good" moral in the same vein as the movie The Chronicles of Riddick, both sides seem to have good and bad points. It's all very complex and nuanced, and there are hints that there's always a little more to be revealed about what's going on behind all the religious dogma.

Last night's episode advanced the mythology a little bit, but it felt more like a set-up for next week's episode, where it appears a lot of important "stuff" is going to happen. What I'm looking forward too is the revisiting of one of the best story arcs from the original series - The return of the Battlestar Pegasus, which will happen sometime in September.

Thursday, August 18, 2005

A "classic" read

Deathworld Trilogy

I just finished Harry Harrison's Deathworld trilogy. It's widely available in combined or separate editions (the link above is for the first book in the series. I read from an old out of print omnibus edition, though there are omnibus editions currently in print).

As far as a quick, easy, fast paced action scf-fi thriller, this series delivered. The plot of the first book is the most exciting - it deals with survivors fighting off a planet where it seems everything (and I mean everything, right down to the blades of grass and the minerals in the rocks) in inherently deadly to humans. A galactic adventurer plops down in the middle of this survival tale and notices that almost none of this makes any sense, since 90% of the time these deadly features have no evolutionary advantage. And then there's those humans who farm the countryside and aren't getting attacked by the flora and fauna every waking hour....

Each volume moves at a quick pace, never giving you time to think to deeply about what is (or might be) going on. Characterization is at a minimum, but it's a fun read. At least the first book is. The second book is mildly offensive, since Harrison decides that to provide comic relief he needed to ridicule religion. But that's a minor nit. The real problem with volumes two and three is that after dealing with a planet where everything wants to kill you and there is no chance for rest or relaxation, adventures on a slave planet and amidst a hunter-gatherer society just seem anti-climactic.

Also, the last volume paradoxically endorses both capitalism and totalitarianism, since the hero uses terror and mass murder to unite all the tribes under one powerful leader. In the end, he manages to get them to embrace capitalism, and thus a relative peace, but *never mind* all those people you helped kill along the way.

Tuesday, August 16, 2005

Just finished

Rise and Fall of the Media Establishment
by Darrell M. West.

I'm using this book as the cornerstone of my Rhetoric 309 class here at UT-Austin. Though this book is aimed at the undergraduate textbook market, it is well written and accessible for the modern reader. I doubt a better, more concise history of the news media exists today.

This tome should be required reading for everyone interested in the debates over media bias or the quality of news reporting in general. This book traces the American news media from the early days of the partisan press that existed before and after the revolutionary war, through the days of a switch to a commercially based media, up to today's "fragmented media" (as West terms it).

In this book, West succinctly shows where our idea of an "objective" news media comes from, and shows that this idea is of (relatively) recent vintage and is an almost purely American ideal (for example, in Europe the news media is often openly partisan and proud of it).

The last chapter suggests possible directions for the future of the news media. Despite the fact this book came out before blogs took off, he is amazingly prescient.

This book has a very neutral tone - West (mostly) avoids making value judgments. There's fodder in here for all sides of the debates over the current state of the news media. This is the rarest of rare books on the news media - one that is objective, informative and useful.

Monday, August 15, 2005

Currently I'm listening to

The 60 Greatest Old-Time Radio Shows of the 20th Century selected by Walter Cronkite

I'm about halfway through. As a kid, I stumbled upon some old phonograph records of old 1930s radio shows like The Shadow. Ever since then, I've been nostalgic for something that my Grandparents barely recall. After seeing this collection at the local library, I knew I had to listen to it.

So far it’s quite a mixed bag. There seems to be no clear criteria for "greatest." Some shows were "events" others are presented as merely typical of the show they are representing, and some shows are there for mere historical curiosity. For example, the Chase and Sandborn show that was playing opposite the (in)famous Halloween scare on CBS is included in this package not because it was a great example of radio, but because it was what most people were listening to the "night that America panicked." Apparently a lot of listeners turned over to CBS during the musical numbers, intending to turn back for the comedy segments. Since many then missed Orson Welles' opening, a lot of the listeners thought they had stumbled upon real newscasts.

Anyway, some of the shows are real gems. Aldous Huxley himself narrates a radio adaptation of Brave New World and there's a moving tribute to the end of World War II. Vincent Price turns up several times, as does Orson Welles and Jimmy Stewart.

The advertisements interest me the most, though. The old time radio shows seemed to have a love/hate relationship with their sponsors. Some shows worked them into the skits, and other ruthlessly mocked their sponsors. The Arthur Godfrey show, for example, was fairly boring and unfunny (even though it was apaprently a comedy), but I'm guessing it was included because the host spends much of the half hour making bizarre jokes about Kleenex Tissues (his sponsor).

Some shows were "sustainers" i.e. they didn't have a sponsor and existed to fill the air time between sponsored shows. Those shows were disproportionately science fiction and suspense. Comedy and variety shows had all the big, important sponsors (mostly tobacco, coffee and alcohol products - good family fun sponsored by all your sinful vices!).

Once I'm finished I'll likely list my favorite (and least favorite) from this box set.

First post

Just a test to make sure this is working......