Skreemer: Reader’s response part 1

Skreemer: Reader's response, finaleI first read this when it originally came out in 1989, and got to thinking, “hey, was that any good?” All I could remember was near-future, gangsters, a lot of violence, the Tim Finnegan song, and something to do with fate and seeing the future. And a lot of violence. Also, a lot of violence.

So I hauled it out and am about half-way through it now. Did I mention that there’s a lot of violence? Most of it’s off panel. But there is a lot of violence in the story, and there is a lot of what happens to people who get violence done unto them. And a lot of that is shown–Fredric Wertham might have a field day with the “injury to the eye motif.” Except that the subtext of Skreemer isn’t about violence, the text is, so Wertham would have plenty to complain about, but his complaining wouldn’t go very far, since he was really interested in subtext.

Anyway. The goriness of the violence and the aftermath is muted somewhat by the muted color pallet the artists used (Tom Ziuko was the colorist). There are flashbacks which have their own tonality. Indeed, the entire book (thus far) is a flashback to the main storyline, and then there are flashbacks from there to the childhood and early gangster life of Vito Skreemer, the top dog in this dog-eat-dog world.

OK, that’s enough for now.

Splinter of the Mind’s Eye: Reader’s Response

Sure enough, there was nothing in this book about the volcano.

You might think that would be enough, but, heck, I’ve read the thing, why not respond in some detail? So, first, I had to take a break about half way through to read the Neil Gaiman “Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?” because Splinter of the Mind’s Eye was… pretty wooden.

However, there are some good points. The adventure and action sequences are pretty good, and there are plenty of these. (Not much plot beyond them, though.) Chases, blowing things up, shooting and light sabering, and more chases, and fist fights, and a dungeon crawl, and more fist fights, and shoot outs, and light sabering. And then there’s Darth Vader. Now, when we get to Darth Vader, it is difficult to keep our knowledge of how he came about and where he wound up from coloring our response to him. But bear in mind that this novel is really only the second appearance of this character. The author didn’t even know he was Luke & Leia’s father. (Indeed, the novel contains significant internal evidence that, at this point in the development of the Star Wars saga, the Empire was presumed to have been around for 40 years*.)

Still, even with those caveats in mind, hoo-boy is Darth Vader scary. Luke and Leia are fairly well drawn as well. Luke is more competent than I would have expected, and his facility with the Force is greater than maybe it should be. Maybe not. Leia is petulant, and hot-headed. But here’s something really interesting. She’s also terrified in a way we never really see in the movies. Remember that scene in the original movie where Darth Vader has her imprisoned on the Death Star and that droid floats into her cell with the huge ole hypodermic hanging off the side of it? Then the cell door slams shut, and we don’t really hear much of it again. In this novel (and I presume in the novelization of the original movie), there is discussion of the torture Leia underwent. This torture has lasting effects on the character of Leia. This is quite good, though it has the effect of making Leia sometimes little more than a damsel in distress.

Anyway. I’m glad I read it, but I’d still like to figure out how, in 1978, the volcano story trickled into the consciousness of me and my lower elementary school-aged friends.


(*A case can be made that these references to a 40 year period are consistent with the film saga. Palpatine probably was moving pieces into place at least several years before the opening of the first movie, and anyone on the wrong side of those early moves could reasonably date the earliest days of the Empire to those times.)

Whatever happened to… on Batman, on Gaiman, on Superman, on Moore

I’m taking a break from Splinter of the Mind’s Eye for reasons I’ll get into when I finish reviewing it here. Today I’m going to address Neil Gaiman’s Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader? The book, even beyond its title, invites comparisons with Moore’s Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow? So, before I address the work on its own, I’ll make the comparisons.

Gaiman points them out in his introduction to the collected volume. Basically, both stories want to be a pause in the on-going story lines of these continuously-published comic book heroes.  And both are.  The Superman story was much more than a pause, coming as it did in relation to Crisis on Infinite Earths and Man of Steel.  It buttoned up an especially comic book-y era, one which had lasted for well more than thirty years, and was a story of a very Superman style.

The Batman story is a pause between writers, in an era when comic books, especially DC titles, are very strange.  Writers, especially good writers, especially with iconic characters, often come into the titles with a story in mind, and a plan for THE BIGGEST THING EVER.  And this writer will do what needs doing, and there will be a couple of issues with a guest writer, and then the new writer will do a story culminating in THE BIGGEST THING EVER.

Now, imagine that Grant Morrison has written the THE BIGGEST THING EVER to happen to Batman.  Actually, you don’t have to imagine it, since you can read them in Batman numbers 655 to 685.  And then it’s followed up with Gaiman.  So you have Morrison doing his Morrison thing for thirty or so issues, deconstructing the Batman back story, culminating with a storyline titled “Batman R.I.P.”  Then this thing from Gaiman, with Gaiman doing his Gaiman thing deconstructing the Batman back story.

When Moore deconstructs, he adds a level of psychological realism, dark and gritty when the story calls for it, but mainly something along the lines of, “what if these characters were real people?  What would cause them to act like this, and what would be the spiritual fall-out of that sort of thing?”

When Morrison deconstructs, he asking something along the lines of, “given that this is a comic book, in what way can we understand all of these tales as having happened to the same character, and what happens when the character really tries to make sense of all these events–some of them flatly contradictory?”

When Gaiman deconstructs, he’s asking something like, “it’s a given that these are stories, and these characters are before us primarily for our enjoyment and for us to make some sense of the world we live in, so what’s the essence of the story, and what’s the angle on the story that shines light on facets of life?”

There are lots of places to get a summary of the story of “Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?” so I’m not really keen to spend a lot of time on that.  But I don’t think I can address it very well without looking at the plot, which is primarily in the form of a series of eulogies for Batman.  It’s a very Gaiman-y story.  It reminds me of that other Gaiman comic book–in its over-all form, it specifically reminds me of “The Wake” and particularly the one issue where everyone in the world goes to Morpheus’s funeral.  There’s a detail from that issue, one or two frames where Batman and Superman are talking about the strange dreams they sometimes have, referencing some of the stranger Silver-Age adventures.  The Martian Manhunter is there, too.  As I recall, Batman says something like, “but the strangest ones are the ones where I have my own TV show; do you ever have those?”  And Superman says, “who doesn’t?”  And the Martian Manhunter says, “I don’t.” (Note: as of CW’s Supergirl, Martian Manhunter an at least join a conversation like that. SM Jan. 7, 2018)

It also reminds me of the finale of “The Season of Mists.”  In that issue, Morpheus give a woman he wronged (wronged very badly, out of love–so he thought) the option to move on after spending ten thousand years in Hell.  She could move on to whatever comes next, or return to life as a new-born, not remembering all that came before, but always welcome in the Dreaming.

Finally, it reminds me of Death, who does not make an appearance in this story, despite it being a story about the funeral of Batman, and despite the story being carried forward not by the eulogies presented by those who knew Batman but rather by the disembodied conversation between Bruce and… some woman, who (in a Gaiman story in the DC universe) we might naturally assume is Death.  Actually, it is between Bruce and his mother Martha.  Some might like to argue that it’s not really Martha, but is, in fact, Death taking Martha’s form, and bending the rules for Bruce.  Death has been known to bend the rules before.  But I don’t think so.  Death always appears as Death when Gaiman is writing the character; I think it’s partly a respect thing–Death does not deceive.  Death would not claim to be Martha Wayne.

Also, despite reminding me of the end of “The Season of Mists,” the end of “Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?” is not reincarnation event.  Bruce is not reborn as someone else.  He is reborn as himself with a new life, or, at least, a new life in its details.  In its essentials, it will be the same life–Bruce will witness his parents’ murder, and will be Batman, and will die as Batman.

It is a strange Batman story, but one that rewards the reader able to look beyond the disjointed narrative, the ambiguous characterizations, the unexplained references, and the atemporal conclusion. It will also reward the reader able to separate it from “Whatever Happened to the Man of Tomorrow?” with its unabashed Superman adventure, Superman continuity, and Silver-Age knowingness. “Whatever Happened to the Caped Crusader?” is also whatever happened to the dark knight, the world’s greatest detective, the man who took in Dick Grayson as his ward and adopted Jason Todd–making them both into sidekicks named Robin, and whatever happened to all the other characterizations of Batman that had been published to that point? And what, despite the differences, makes them all the same–Batman?

What do you call half a Splinter?

I’m about halfway through Splinter of the Mind’s Eye. It’s pretty OK. I’ve wanted to read it since, I suppose, it was first released. I was in… um… second grade, I think. The question that’s always bugged me about Star Wars is this: how, years before The Empire Strikes Back, did that kid in elementary school know about the volcano?

I always figured the answer was in Splinter of the Mind’s Eye.

This probably isn’t true, though it might be. I’m half way through the novel at this point. Luke and Leia are running around on a bog planet, evading some local Imperial entanglements, and have accidentally gotten themselves drawn into a search for the Kaiburr crystal. The crystal is a thing that focuses the Force for a Force-sensitive user. They are running around with a couple of hairy grunting creatures, which I imagine look like really, really big aardvarks.

There’s also an old woman who’s Force-sensitive, and who’s been hiding out from the Empire for the last 40 years. The novel came out in 1978, shortly after the original movie, and–though it’s still considered in continuity–it’s best not to think too hard about the details. (Note: very little of this novel is probably considered in-continuity these days, SM Jan. 7, 2018.)

Anyway.

I’m about half way through, and our heroes are being chased, albeit slowly, across the face of the planet, and, despite the promise of the cover, there’s no evidence of Darth Vader yet. The writing is OK. The plot is OK. The adventure aspects are pretty good, actually. Lots of running around and fighting and blowing things up, monsters, and falling down deep holes. There’s a lot of attention paid to things like charging the weapons and having food and water.

But it feels like kind of a lot of filler. Maybe that’s because I’m looking for that other thing about Darth Vader, and I’m just not taking the time to stop and smell the roses. Or the bog gas. There’s some back story about why the characters are the ones they are, and the setting is the way it is, and stuff, over at Wookiepeedia’s page on the book. I found it interesting, since I also remember getting into an argument with some other kid about what the sequel movie was going to be called in the early 1980’s when Empire was in production.

I’ll have more to say when I’ve finished reading the book.

Hydrox? Isn’t that a drug or something?

Not a drug. A cookie. Named for hydrogen and oxygen, and made of two cookies and a creme filling, like water, you see. I haven’t had a Hydrox in years. Years and years. I don’t actually remember the last time I had a Hydrox. It was probably some time in the middle 1990’s.

For a long, long time I assumed that Hydrox was a knock-off of Oreo. Not true, by–according to Wikipedia–about four years. You see, I grew up with Oreos, and probably threw some sort of snotty fit if my mom ever got anything like, but not actually, Oreos.

This opinion was probably grounded in more than just a “this is what I know” bias. It probably had to do with the actual differences between Hydrox and Oreo. Hydrox cookies are thinner and crisper, and have a stronger chocolate flavor. The creme filling is less sweet, and crumblier.

As I recall, I went through a phase of preferring Hydrox to Oreo. This was probably snootiness. A bit of underdog worship, a bit of not supporting the big guy. You know, liking something not because of its internal qualities, but because of its relative qualities.

I used to work with a guy who liked Hydrox because he liked Hydrox. That buying Hydrox had those other relative qualities was, if you will, icing on the cake. It also added a bit of adventure to his shopping, since by this time, Hydrox was on the wane. Finding them was hit-or-miss.

Now they’re gone, and, while I’m not feeling nostalgic, I would like to try a pack to see if I actually do like them for what they are.

“Into the Fire”

So, we watched “Into the Fire” recently, as Geek Night wends its way through winter. It came, as so many episodes of Babylon 5 do, earlier than I expected. I remember, of course, that it’s a season 4 episode, but I thought it came later than episode 6 of, like, 24 or something. But there it is, sitting pretty at slot 6, on disk 2 of 6 in the season 4 boxed set.

It is, as the term has it, a WHAM episode.

It’s one we’ve been waiting for since the beginning of season 2 (though, to be honest, we’ve actually been waiting for it since the pilot, we just didn’t really know that).

Anyway. The episode opens with Sheridan and the Army of Light taunting both the Vorlons and Shadows into a confrontation. Since coming back from the dead, Sheridan has been bolder about taking on both sides in the war. Originally, the Army of Light was under the tutelage of the Vorlons, but in recent months it had become clear that the Vorlons were playing a longer game than the younger races had imagined. It had never been about defeating the ancient enemy, merely about driving it back. For who knows how long, the Vorlons had been using younger races to … well. It was more like a deadly brawl for the most part.

Lately, the Vorlons had decided to really go on the offensive, and actually beat the Shadows. Apparently. But actually, no. Just wipe out places where the Shadows had influence because…

OK, so there were basically two scenes and a couple of sequences to justify this as the cool episode it is, because looking too closely at the tactical decisions of the Vorlons and Shadows (Vorlons especially) just makes me think, “really? Nobody saw through this before?”

The sequences are the space battle stuff. Ships flying around, shoot-em-up, and like that. Great looking stuff.

The first scene that really rocks is when Londo confronts Morden, telling him to get the Shadow ships off the island they’ve been parked on for the last couple of months. It’s not entirely clear why the Shadow ships had to be parked on Centauri Prime, except for some game-playing with Cartagia, but they were there nonetheless, and Londo wanted them off. Morden, naturally, refused, so Londo blew up the island.

Morden: “You’re insane!”
Londo: “On any other day, you would be wrong. But today–today is a very special day.”

Wow. There are a couple of other scenes on Centauri Prime which are pretty cool. When Vir realizes that Londo is Shadow influenced, and the Vorlon planet killer eclipses their sun from orbit is pretty cool. And it’s pretty cool to see Vir get what he wants from one of his early conversations with Morden. “I’ll look up into your cold, dead eyes, and wave. Like this.”

The other cool scene is a speech by Sheridan culminating in, “get the hell out of our galaxy.” Not all confrontations are about combat, you see. Still, one of our viewers correctly noted that, actually, Lorien provided the final nudge to get all the First Ones to go.

Most of the rest of this season was set up in the next episode, “Epiphanies.” It has to do with the Earth Civil War, which has been on the back burner pretty much since sometime before the season 3 finale. Bester was back almost, but not quite not causing trouble. Garibaldi resigned as Chief of Security to go freelance helping people find things and people they’d lost in the Shadow War. Zach and Lyta made some personal connections, and she made some telepath-centric decisions which made things more difficult for Sheridan. And, probably, for her. I could not say, as I say when I could say more than I know… And the Delenn-Sheridan story took its first step toward becoming the Sheridan (Delenn) story.

“I like it” and other thoughts on TRON: Legacy

When Sam Pevensie looks behind the old TRON video game machine in the back of the dusty, decades-closed video game parlor abandoned by his father, he enters a WORLD BEYOND HIS IMAGINATION! In this world, Aslan the Programmer sits in Manichean silence, waiting… for what, exactly? While the specific thing he was waiting for is never made clear, generally, he’s waiting for an opportunity defeat the bad guy, a fascist of his own creation. Then his son arrives, messing up his Zen thing, man.

No, no. Actually, not, or at least there’s more than that. There are plenty of ways to be unkind to the plot of TRON: Legacy. “It’s a Disney movie,” for instance. Or you can spend the entire movie saying, “this is like Star Wars.” Or The Matrix, or The Chronicles of Narnia, or The Mighty Morphin Power Rangers… or … well, you get the idea. It’s a fantasy quest movie, and a sequel to a movie which inaugurated a film genre–the virtual-reality-computer-land. Which means that it draws from the same well as all fantasy quest movies, and its progenitor invented some of the tropes we’ve come to expect from these kinds of movies, so of course it’s going to remind of us other movies.

The same goes for the visuals. Tight science-fictiony clothes? Got em. Cloaks, hoods, robes, and full-face masks? Got em. Martial arts-y fights? Got em. Car chases, motor cycle chases, aerial dog-fights? Got em.

However, TRON: Legacy does its own thing with these elements. And it does them because it is carrying forward these elements from 1982’s TRON. 1982. The mystic hippie programmer? He’s here now because he was here then. The sleek glowing colorfulness in a black and white world? In 1982 that’s what the future looked like. Crazy hair cuts, and make-up, and the cool kids sitting on low couches at loud dance clubs? That’s been the future since A Clockwork Orange, at least, and possibly even as far back as Metropolis, which TRON owes quite a bit to anyway, and is an aesthetic which reached its high point (if you will) in the middle 1980’s–exactly the moment when Aslan, excuse me, Kevin Flynn got trapped in the machine of his own creation by his highly motivated, if narrow-minded, doppelgänger, Clu. My point is that neither the look and feel, nor the story, of TRON: Legacy is unacceptably derivative; rather, it’s an exemplar of its type (of story), and the times during which it was (within the story) supposed to be created.

There are even a couple of sub-plots with some actual suspense. One is pretty obvious, really, and all I’ll say about it is that it would be nice to have more of the character Tron and more of the actor Bruce Boxleitner in this movie. The other is pretty well done–there are a couple of characters about whom your initial expectations are toyed with before things are made clear.

You’ve probably noticed that I haven’t spent a lot of time on what the plot actually is. You know: who does what, where, and why. Well, partly it’s because it’s a straight-forward ‘gotta rescue my dad from the bad guy, and save the world’ sort of thing. Partly because if I get into much detail beyond that, it’ll start to look weaker than it is. Here’s why: the movie tells an impossible story. The events in this movie cannot possibly happen. The entire TRON adventure cycle rests on a premise which is simply not possible. You cannot scan a person and then have that person transported into a computer. In the first movie we see the technology at work on an orange, and then we see Kevin Flynn get physically transported by a laser scanner sitting right behind him, strangely, pointed at the work station by which it is controlled. In the new movie, the fact that people are literally transported into the computer is driven home by the fact that Sam Flynn bleeds–which makes it apparent to one and all that he’s not a program: he’s a user.

Anyway. The impossibility of the premise is not a flaw with the movies. But once you’ve accepted that, somehow, these characters are actually–physically–transported into the computer, then there’s really no point in crabbing about the rest of it. It’s internally consistent, it moves from here to there, and the two major Flynns get to grow from where they were at the beginning to where they end up at the end. What more could we reasonably expect from a plot?

About that internal consistency. It’s pretty strange, actually. Water? Smoke? Roast pigs? But, here’s the thing about all that. Kevin Flynn, even in the first movie, has always had remarkable control over the environment within the computer. It’s never explained, beyond “he’s a user” and “he’s the creator.” In the first movie, Kevin notes that it’s elementary physics that energy can always be diverted. He can also revive profoundly damaged programs–he does it in both movies. Perhaps some of this relies on the convertibility of energy and matter. Maybe not. This is all Kevin’s world in a very literal way, though he does not have complete control over the actions of the programs running around within it.

But really, the point of TRON: Legacy isn’t what Kevin Flynn can manipulate within the computer, or what Sam Flynn can do with the light cycles, or ad hoc decision making to attain his goal of rescuing his father and ending tyranny. The point is that, though Kevin and Sam each have the knowledge to manipulate portions of the system, neither has a very clear idea of why they do things. This is not a profound conflict. But the TRON adventure cycle is not a profound story. It’s a dreamland, or–if you will–a four-color sliver age of comics story. There are good guys, there are bad guys, there’s some mumbo-jumbo, there are obstructions, and then things work out.

And here’s where I want to leave it. When things work out, they just sort of work out, and things just sort of keep rolling along. It’s fairly mature, I think. Go back to the earlier comparisons with Star Wars or The Matrix, or even the ending of TRON. In TRON: Legacy, the climactic battle occurs several minutes before the final show-down, which is personal in a way that traditional ‘this time it’s personal’ show-downs cannot even begin to approach. The show-down allows the successes, but only apocalyptically. The successes and failures happen, and when the good guys win (as they must), they’re actually not all that happy about it. It’s kind of a downer of an ending. Well, no. AMC’s The Prisoner had a downer of an ending. TRON: Legacy has, if not a downer, exactly, then certainly not the kind of ending where the world is remade, rather it has an ending where some things change, because things have to change, it’s the way of things, and some things just keep on, man, cause the more things change, the more they stay the same.

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