Category Archives: Comic books & superheroes

Where have I been?

Regular readers of this blog may have noticed that my posts have been less frequent in the past year. In lieu of my usual holiday "snailmail" letter, here's an update.

Late 2014 turned out to be difficult. Janice and I traveled to Pennsylvania and New York City to visit an ailing uncle of hers and our college friend Steve A.L., respectively. Both of them died, so we drove back down to their funerals.

Mike H., the manager of the Compleat Strategist in Boston, also died, joining Robert A.S. and other role-playing friends whom we lost in the past few years.

After the usual holiday travel to see our families in Upstate New York and Virginia, Janice and I got sick in early January 2015, followed by a very snowy winter in the U.S. Northeast.

Valentine's Day weekend

Waltham, Mass., in February 2015

I then changed jobs in March 2015 (Janice had changed technical writer positions in September 2014). This has been the main thing keeping me from blogging.

After about six years as an editor managing a TT site about Windows enterprise desktops, I began working at EH/RBR as a writer covering robots. My former colleagues gave me a very nice going-away party, and a few have stayed in touch, joining former co-workers from BNA and IDG/CW.

Robotics has been an interesting beat, as I've learned a lot by trying to keep up with the business news around this rapidly developing technology. I've also had the good fortune to travel to events in Milan, Italy; San Jose, Calif., and soon, the annual Consumer Electronics Show in Las Vegas.

In the coming months, I may also get to travel to Canada, Denmark, and Lithuania for work. While I don't particularly enjoy spending time in airports or cramped airplane seats, any chance to see the world, meet new people, and eat new food is a good one!

I got to tag along with Janice to Limerick, Ireland, and we really liked exploring the Cliffs of Moher, various castles, and the beautiful countryside. Janice and I have also returned to regular arts fairs such as the Lowell Folk Festival and the Christmas Revels.

In the meantime, Janice and I have kept busy, hosting college pal David I.S. & Sandra K. for last New Year's and the wedding reception of mutual friends Thomas K.Y. & Kai-Yin H.

We also hosted her family for Easter and her 50th birthday, grad school chum Erik B.L. and his family, and St. Louis-based gamer Byron V.O., who may be visiting again later this month.

In late August, we met my family in Ogunquit, Maine, to celebrate my mother's 85th birthday, my father's 80th birthday, and Janice's and my 20th wedding anniversary. So many milestones!

I also attended genre entertainment conventions including Anime Boston, the Tampa Bay Area Renaissance Festival, the Watch City Steampunk Festival, the Boston Comic Con, and the Rhode Island Comic Con. All of them had the usual cosplayers, fun panels and autograph sessions with celebrities, and tempting artist and vendor booths.

We recently spent Christmas at my brother and his family's new house in Northern Virginia, and we met some friends in Westchester, N.Y., on the way home. Some of us have started planning reunion gatherings to celebrate the 30 years since we graduated from high school and began college.

The "Westchester crew"

With the "Westchester crew," December 2015

Three nights a week, I've continued my role-playing games and historical weapons classes. My D20/FATE "Vanished Lands" fantasy campaign has given way to two adventuring parties using Dungeons & Dragons Fifth Edition (D&D5e).

Fellow Game Master Jason E.R.'s "Star Wars: Dark Times" scenario (using Savage Worlds) just ended its latest chapter, and we're about to start Bruce K.'s D&D5e "Kings and Pawns" space opera miniseries. The latest "episodes" of my D20/FATE "Star Trek: Restoration" game also went well.

Gene's latest Trek uniform

"Capt. Tzu Tien Lung," Halloween 2015

Speaking of ongoing series, I've been enjoying the latest wave of fantasy, horror, superhero, and science fiction shows on television (more on that to come). I saw fewer movies in theaters in 2015 than in previous years, but I've gotten pickier, and time has been limited.

I've also been reading several SF magazines and Web sites, assorted pulp comic books, and various novels (mainly with the "Escapists" book club). So much to do, so little time!

I'll try to post more specific reviews in the coming year, and I wish all of you a healthy, peaceful, and Happy New Year!

Big Hero 6 review

After the Boston Christmas Craft Festival this past Saturday, 8 November 2014, Janice and I went to the Showcase Cinema de Lux in Dedham, Mass., for lunch at B. Good Burgers and Big Hero 6. We liked the animated superhero movie, which is one of the best since Incredibles.

Big Hero 6

Disney's latest animated success

Plot

Loosely based on a title published by Marvel Comics, Big Hero 6 follows Hiro Hamada, a teenage underachiever who spends his time in underground robot fights in the city of San Fransokyo. A visit to his older brother Tadashi's university impresses Hiro, who applies his genius to designing "microbots" to gain admission.

Tadashi has been designing Baymax, a cuddly android intended to help with medical emergencies. Hiro gets help from his brother and new friends at the university, but his successful demonstration is marred by the rivalry between Prof. Robert Callaghan and entrepreneur Alistair Krei and a devastating fire….

As you may have seen from the previews, Hiro and friends soon work with Baymax to defend San Fransokyo from a supervillain….

Cast

The voice cast includes a few celebrities, but they weren't readily identifiable or distracting, and the characters are well-developed in both voice and visual design. Ryan Potter is a typical adolescent as Hiro, with moments of stubbornness and sentiment. Scott Adsit is cheerful and surprisingly insightful as Baymax.

Other actors include Jamie Chung as daredevil student GoGo Tomago, Daon Wayans Jr. as big control freak Wasabi, and Maya Rudolph as Hiro and Tadashi's loving but distracted Aunt Cass. Star Trek: First Contact's James Cromwell lends gravitas as Prof. Callaghan, and Firefly/Serenity's Alan Tudyk is Alistair Krei.

Direction

Directors Don Hall and Chris Williams wisely decided to set Big Hero 6's San Fransokyo in a pocket universe rather than the live-action Marvel cinematic universe. While there are many nods to conventional comic books and anime, Big Hero 6 stands on its own.

Like Pixar's Incredibles, Big Hero 6 presents superhero and science fiction tropes in an energetic way, with tragedy outweighed by the responsibility and fun of doing good. I was also pleased to see young scientists portrayed in a positive way. The story feels fresh, even if it the final act is predictable.

Cinematography

The character faces will be familiar to anyone who has seen recent Disney/Pixar films such as Ratatouille or Brave, but that's no different than the house styles used by Aardman, DreamWorks, or Sony.

As each animated movie tries to top its predecessors for "eye candy," Big Hero 6 stands out in the design of Baymax, who exhibits a surprisingly wide range of emotions despite looking like the Stay Puft Marshmallow Man, not unlike Wall-E.

The other area in which Big Hero 6 is noteworthy is its design of San Fransokyo and the nascent superhero team. Animators have been wisely avoiding the "uncanny valley" with cartoonish characters, but the hyper-realistic settings and frenetic action surpass most recent live-action movies. Big Hero 6 resembles a video game, but in this case, I don't necessarily mean that as a putdown.

Soundtrack

Composer Henry Jackman combines traditional movie music with pop styles, aided by the track Immortals by Fall Out Boy. The score also keeps up with the action and raises the emotional stakes when needed. Even though Big Hero 6 isn't exactly a Disney/Marvel flick, there is a cameo after the final credits.

Rating

I'd give Big Hero 6, which is rated PG for action, 7.5 out of 10, three and a half out of five stars, or a B+. While The Lego Movie, The Boxtrolls, and The Book of Life were arguably more original, I found that this Disney movie did a better job of capturing the fun of superhero comics than, say, Man of Steel or X-Men: Days of Future Past.

Big Hero 6 beat Christopher Nolan's Interstellar at the box office, but I hope to see the latter film with Thomas K.Y. and friends next weekend. Speaking of the uncanny valley, I'll probably skip Paddington and Penguins of Madagascar, but Minions does look amusing.

Rhode Island Comic Con 2014 report, Part 2 — farewell to Warehouse 13

On Sunday, 2 November 2014, Janice and I returned to the overcrowded Rhode Island Comic Con (RICC). The lines moved more smoothly, and we took in more of the sights at this latest genre entertainment convention.

We were pleased to join a full room for the Warehouse 13 panel. Saul Rubinek and Eddie McClintock shared the same chemistry as their characters — seasoned agent Artie Nielsen and wisecracking Pete Latimer — did in the treasure-hunting TV show. Rubinek explained that SyFy canceled Warehouse 13 because of its expensive production, dwindling audience numbers (not counting DVRs), and a shift back to "harder" speculative fiction.

Warehouse 13 cast

A fun SyFy show

McClintock took several questions from the audience and was just as charming as goofball Pete was on the show. Both actors also described how they bonded with the precise but philosophical Joanne Kelly as agent Myka Bering and youthful and professional Allison Scagliotti as wunderkind Claudia Donovan over five seasons.

While I appreciate NBC/Universal choosing to return to the channel's roots, I also think there's room for quality comedies and family shows that still fit under SyFy's umbrella. I'd prefer reruns of the Twilight Zone or The IT Crowd to wrestling or dumb "reality" competitions. At least fans got a decent sendoff for the underrated Warehouse 13, and there has been no shortage of supernatural procedurals lately.

Janice and I walked through the celebrity and cosplay areas, vendor aisles, and artists' alley one more time before heading back to Massachusetts. Among other things, I picked up the complete Young Justice on DVD. We had planned to get a group photo with Rubinek and McClintock, but because of scheduling snafus, it was not to be.

We had a good time overall, and I'm glad that Janice was a good sport in dealing with the lines and crowds. The annual Boston Christmas Craft Festival this past weekend was easy in comparison.

Coming soon: A look back at this past summer's Creation Star Trek Convention in Boston, a review of Big Hero 6, and my take on the current television season!

Rhode Island Comic Con report, Part 1 — Trekking in the rain

This past weekend, Janice and I drove down to Providence for the Rhode Island Comic Con (RICC). Despite the ever-growing crowds, we enjoyed the latest genre entertainment convention.

In addition to seasonal arts and crafts festivals, I usually try to get to some of the local events featuring TV and movies, comic books, and games each year. Because of family-related travel, I ended up skipping this year's Boston Comic Con, the huge New York Comic Con, and the upcoming Super MegaFest, as well as various Renaissance festivals.

Popularity brings problems

I'll write more about other recent cons soon, but back to Providence. Janice and I tried to get to the convention center early, and we had to wait outside for two hours in various lines before we finally got on the right one for our wristbands and admission. As with last year's Boston Comic Con, it might have been easier to get in without advance tickets.

At least it was raining only lightly rather than snowing as in Massachusetts, and the cold I've been fighting was manageable. I felt particularly bad for the underdressed cosplayers shivering farther back in line. Extra layers or overcoats never hurt, at least until we get inside (Janice and I ran ours back to my car once we got in).

All of the events I've attended in the past few years have struggled with growing attendance. While I'm glad to see a new, more diverse generation of fans sharing some of my interests, organizers and venues have yet to catch up. Vendors can't sell things if people can't get to their tables or booths, and fans excited to meet artists or actors come away with negative feelings about communal experiences.

According to people I talked with, the Rhode Island Convention Center can hold up to about 10,000 people at a time, and the RICC had to turn people away by Saturday afternoon after 20,000 showed up. If a total of 17,000 people attended last year, it was a mistake to plan for 50,000 over the course of this weekend. Understandably, many people were very unhappy, but I hope that everyone can learn better logistics for the sake of safety and fun.

What should organizers do? I recommend planning for more frequent events, finding larger venues if possible, and making the events more specific — just pop-culture celebrities or graphic artists, for example. If nearly every state in the U.S. has a Renaissance festival or two, some of the pressure could be relieved with more numerous, local shows.

On the show floor

Once we got into the RICC, it was crowded but worthwhile. There were many celebrity guests, including the original Star Trek's William Shatner, George Takei, Nichelle Nichols, and Walter Koenig. I had seen these actors before, but it was Janice's first time to see them in person.

We also got to chat with John Rhys-Davies and Karen Allen from the Indiana Jones movies, former Doctor Who Colin Baker, and The Flash's John Wesley Shipp. All were very gracious and took the time to speak with each autograph seeker.

At last year's RICC, I got to hang out with both Buck Rogers and Flash Gordon — Gil Gerard and Sam Jones! This year, Farscape's Gigi Edgley complimented Janice's and my "positive energy," and "Whedonverse" (and Agents of SHIELD) alumnus J. August Richards was much more pleasant than his tortured characters. I'm friends with Jacqui B., who runs his and others' Web sites.

We browsed the vendor area and walked through Artist's Alley, which included luminaries such as Neal Adams, Jim Steranko, and Bob Eggleton. I bought sketchbooks from Michael Dooney and Chrissie Zullo. As collectible card games and video games have displaced tabletop role-playing games, anime seems to be more popular among many younger consumers and cosplayers than traditional superhero comics.

After a quick lunch at Charley's Grilled Subs, Janice and I attended Vic Mignogna's panel on "Star Trek Continues," fan-made movies set right after the original TV series with professional-grade production values and actors. Janice and I then watched his latest episode, "Fairest of Them All," which returned to the popular alternate universe of "Mirror, Mirror."

The acting was solid, with Mignogna as Capt. James T. Kirk, Mythbusters' Grant Imahara as Lt. Hikaru Sulu, and Chris Doohan a dead ringer for his late father James as chief engineer Scotty. Asia De Marcos is also a strong reflection (sorry, couldn't help it) of BarBara Luna as Marlena Moreau, the "captain's woman." Michael Dorn provided the computer voice for the alternate universe's Enterprise.

For any fan of classic Trek, this is more true to Gene Roddenberry's idealistic space opera than many of its subsequent spin-offs and certainly more so than J.J. Abrams' reboot. We missed Shatner's panel, but we did catch a brief one with Nichols and Koenig in which they reminisced as the franchise approaches its 50th anniversary.

Janice and I sat through part of the costume contest — my favorites included characters from Invader Zim and Marvel's Modok — but we eventually left to eat. Not surprisingly, most of the restaurants in the adjacent Providence Place Mall were full, so we ended up grabbing dinner at Panera before checking into the comfortable Hampton Inn & Suites Downtown. We had better luck than actress Eliza Dushku, who was robbed, but all's well that ends well….

I'll post soon about our second day at the con!

Animation nation, fall 2014 edition

While a number of news outlets have observed the demise of Saturday morning cartoons, a television tradition for generations of Americans, there is still a range of animation available in primetime, on cable, and online. Still, it will be hard for a younger generation accustomed to a wealth of streaming video to have a common pop cultural language.

Nicklelodeon, which has aired the surprisingly well-written Kung-Fu Panda: Legends of Awesomeness and How to Train Your Dragon: the Series, among other shows, recently moved Avatar: the Legend of Korra to online-only broadcast of its fourth and final season.

While Legend of Korra may not have the consistency or popularity of its parent, Avatar: the Last Airbender, the Asian-flavored fantasy series has still featured excellent characterization and world-building. Its story arcs and setting have inspired much of my current "Vanished Lands: A New Dawn" campaign.

I think Legend of Korra has bounced back from the rushed storytelling of its third season, which looked like it might be the end of that franchise (and the less said about the 2010 live-action movie misfire, the better). The new video game probably won't be enough to keep the franchise going.

Legend of Korra

The Avatar gang

Similarly, the Cartoon Network, which had ended Star Wars: Clone Wars after the Disney-Lucasfilm merger, continued its track record of canceling good shows such as Young Justice and Green Lantern: the Animated Series. At least Clone Wars managed to end well, filling in the gaps between the prequel movies and the classic trilogy.

Cartoon Network threw the final episodes of Clone Wars online and burned off episodes of Beware the Batman in one weekend. The sitcom Looney Tunes Show has also dropped of the schedule, but I'm sure Bugs Bunny and company won't be gone for long.

To be fair, DisneyXD had also canceled Spectacular Spider-Man in favor of shows for a younger audience. At least it has begun showing Star Wars: Rebels, which is a bit more kid-friendly than Clone Wars had become and features the familiar setting of George Lucas' galaxy shortly before the events of Star Wars [Episode IV]: A New Hope.

I'm enjoying Rebels so far, and its crew of adventurers is very similar to the characters in Jason E.R.'s recent "Star Wars: Dark Times" space opera scenario. With Disney/Lucasfilm working on more live-action movies, I expect Rebels to get a decent amount of promotion.

In addition to Avatar: Legend of Korra and Star Wars: Rebels, I've been enjoying the latest incarnation of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, although I don't know how long Nickelodeon will carry it. TMNT has all the wackiness of its predecessors and is still faithful to the core characters that Eastman and Laird created (again, don't get me started on the latest live-action flick).

There are many cartoons for younger children, such as Ultimate Spider-Man, as well as some long-lived ones aimed at young adults, such as The Simpsons, Robot Chicken, and Archer. Unfortunately, there are few all-ages shows that aren't formulaic comedies.

We've fared better lately with movies, but serious fans will continue to look at anime or other animation from around the world and wonder why cartoons on U.S. TV aren't more diverse.