Just in time to beat the end of the calendar year, it’s time for my annual round-up of webcomics I’ve started reading in the past year. As usual, I cover both strips I liked and strips I that didn’t work for me, and quite a few in between. If you’re just interested in the good stuff, I’d most recommend Derelict, False Positive, Guilded Age, Widdershins, and Carpe Chaos.
You can find my past entries here: 2009, 2010, 2011.
Let’s get to it:
- The Adventures of the 19XX, by Paul Roman Martinez: I discovered this strip through its Kickstarter, and backed it because I find buying the physical collections is a great way to catch up on a long-running Webcomic (more convenient than clicking through a couple hundred web pages). The second volume is wrapping up on the web now. The premise is that of a group of adventurers in the early 1930s who are crossing the world looking for mystical artifacts which could change the future, perhaps by preventing the second World War that’s coming. They’re opposed in this by a secret cabal who want these artifacts for their own purposes (usually to rule the world). The story features a lot of period settings and technology, so it has an Indiana Jones feel to it.
That said, I’m lukewarm towards the strip. The storytelling is pretty flat, and the dialog often feels stiff. The characters – and there are a lot of them – are pretty simple and their motivations are not very strong. Since the strip has a strong pulp feel all of this is in keeping with that, but there are a lot of pulpy stories around today which have more modern sensibilities underlying that pulp feel, and this one doesn’t measure up. The art is pretty good, but again often feels stiff, carefully laid out but not very fluid.
Overall if adventures in this time period are your thing, then you’ll probably enjoy this. But if not, then it probably won’t be.
- Balazo, by Bachan: Bachan is the artist for Power Nap, and he’s quite good. Balazo is the English-language site of this Mexican illustrator’s work, and I’d characterize it as “lightweight, but entertaining”. It involves anthropomorphic characters, and focuses on the adventures of an outside-the-boundaries cop. In that way it somewhat resembles the print comics Grandville or Blacksad, but it’s not as hard-hitting or meaningful as either.
- Boston Metaphysical Society, by Madeleine Holly-Rosing & Emily Hu: I came across this at APE and decided to check it out. It looks like it’s being published as a webcomic with the intent of ultimately publishing it as a comic book mini-series. It’s a steampunk adventure about a group working to contain psychic forces which have been unleashed on the world, in the structure of a young woman trying to persuade an experienced male agent to let her accompany him. Various historical figures show up, too.
In the large, it resembles The 19XX, down to similar flaws in both writing and art. It’s okay, but feels very rough. (The site also feels like it was assembled around the turn of the millennium and is awkward to follow from the RSS feed.)
- Carpe Chaos, by Eric Carter, Jason Bane, Anthony Cournoyer, Daniel Allen and others: I picked up a collection of this science fiction webcomic at APE last year, but it took me a while to catch up on the full site. This is a “soft” SF story, in that it’s more space opera then crunchy science; it focuses on the interactions of several alien races (which all look extremely alien), exploring themes of tolerance, understanding, difference, prejudice, and the like, highlighted by the different outlooks of each of the species. It’s very well done, and the individual stories are generally excellent. The creators clearly have a large universe they’re working in, but it’s often not at all apparent to the reader at which point on the timeline a story occurs, which makes some of the stories a little confusing. Other than that my biggest complaint is that it updates infrequently, but it’s well worth reading. All-digital art by multiple artists is quite good, too.
- Cat vs. Human, by Yasmine Surovec: Gag-a-day comics about the author and her feline obsession. Funny if you love cats, probably not if you don’t.
- Cyanide and Happiness, by various: Another gag-a-day strip by multiple people, all working in a common almost-stick figure style. Highly cynical and irreverent, often being deliberate obscene, occasionally with punchlines that seem like non-sequiturs. I guess this is one of the more popular webcomics, but I think it’s merely okay. If you can’t tolerate gratuitous obscenity and nastiness in a strip, then avoid.
- Derelict, by Ben Fleuter: After going a while without finding a new webcomic I really adored, Derelict was a revelation: Fantastic artwork, fine world-building, and a gripping story. The heroine is a young woman in a future after the world has been flooded, operating her own salvage ship and trying to stay alive in a changed world where no one can be counted on to be friendly (and which is also populated with some strange things). The details in the art are stunning at times, and the atmosphere of loneliness punctuated by occasional hope is powerful. The biggest downsides are that the heroine’s face sometimes looks awkward (although she’s very expressive), and the erratic update schedule. Despite these, I still recommend it highly.
- False Positive, by Mike Walton: An anthology comic written and mostly drawn by Walton, each story lasts a few weeks and is frequently in the horror vein. If you enjoy The Twilight Zone then you’ll probably enjoy this, although the illustrations are sometimes quite graphic. Walton’s art is outstanding, and his coloring – which uses a distinct limited palette for each story – compliments the art very well. “Season two” just started, but read through season one – you won’t be disappointed.
- Guilded Age, by T. Campbell, Phil Kahn, Erica Henderson & John Waltrip: I had tried to read this once before and got bogged down, I don’t know why. When I tried again this year, I was hooked. From the start it’s an entertaining medieval fantasy strip (I guess it’s based around World of Warcraft), though it takes a few chapters to get going as initially it’s a series of vignettes mixing adventure and comedy, focusing on a band of five heroes. The strip features a number of anachronisms, especially in turns of phrase and the attitudes of the characters, which seem to be there to add some color and relatability for the reader.
The strip really comes together in chapter 8, which reveals a number of previously-unrevealed things about the world, and providing a larger structure for the story which makes you really feel for our heroes. There are strong indications of what’s really going on, but it’s taking a while to get there (not that the journey isn’t enjoyable on its own).
Read this one from the beginning; there are several hundred pages to catch up on, but it’s worth it. Just be a little forgiving of the first few chapters, until the story finds its feet.
- The Hero Business, by Bill Walko: A superhero strip in which the heroes have a publicity company, it’s been around for a while but I just started reading it recently. It’s written like a soap opera, drawing comparisons in my mind to Love and Capes. L&C is to my mind the better of the two, having a stronger character focus and, well, generally better gags. Walko’s art is quite stylized, with the characters all looking like teenagers to my eye. Overall it’s a cheerful strip – kind of an homage to 60s and 70s superhero comics – which hasn’t won me over yet.
- Incidental Comics, by Grant Snider: This came to my attention via his oft-reblogged comic “Pig Latin”, his site is a series of understated, philosophical jokes which should appeal to fans of xkcd or certain New Yorker cartoonists. A recent favorite of mine is “Story Structures”. His art is somewhat minimalist, but still eye-pleasing.
- Rich Morris: An artist who did an epic Doctor Who comic titled “The Ten Doctors”, and who does various other strips on this site. These are strips he does for fun in his spare time, so the art is often sketchy, but he’s obviously quite skilled (I think he’s a commercial artist by profession), and TTD is very good. He hasn’t updated much since I started following him, but check out his archives.
- Nerf Now!!, by Josué Pereira: I have to say this is one of those strips that I just don’t get, at all. I think it’s a somewhat meta strip based around video games? It seems to involve a curvaceous woman and her friend who is a tentacle (?), in a series of gags without a running storyline. It’s drawn in a simple manga-esque style, but I just don’t get it.
- The Oatmeal, by Matthew Inman: Another irreverent gag strip, whose creator got a lot of attention recently for thumbing his nose at a lawyer who pressured him. That incident aside, the comic is generally funny, though probably not everyone’s cup of tea. Inman’s exuberance comes through in every panel, including in his ode to Nikola Tesla, giving it a rather different attitude than the usual wry humor of many gag-a-day strips, and one that feels more genuine than, say, Cyanide and Happiness, which often seems nasty just to be nasty. The Oatmeal is surely not for everyone, but I like it.
- The People That Melt in the Rain, by Carolyn Watson Dubisch and Mike Dubisch: A creepy comic about a mother and her daughter who move to a new town and promptly get rained on by frogs, and then learn that actual rain burns the people who live there. The comic follows the daughter, Laura, learning about the curse that hangs over the town, and the various effects it has on its inhabitants and visitors. The strip went on an extended hiatus, and when it came back the art seemed sketchier and murkier than before, and the story feels like it’s meandering around rather than making progress. It’s okay – you might find it easier to follow than I have.
- Saturday Morning Breakfast Cereal, by Zach Weiner: SMBC is a popular gag-a-day strip with no recurring characters and strips that run from a single panel to ten or twelve. Subject matter is typically irreverent and sometimes over-the-top, with a regular theme of taking ideas to their logical and ridiculous extreme. Despite this, the strip doesn’t really grab me: It’s not as clever as xkcd, not as profane as Cyanide and Happiness, and the art is simple bordering on sketchy. I know lots of people who are fans, but it doesn’t do a lot for me.
- Shortpacked!, by David Wallis: I’ve actually already stopped reading this one. It’s a slice-of-life strip centered around employees of a toy store, with hijinks that regularly ensue, but it just didn’t grab me: I found it hard to tell the characters apart and the gags didn’t really work for me. The art is okay, on the simple side. Overall I think Comic Critics covers similar territory more effectively (though to be fair I find a comic shop a lot more interesting than a toy store). On the flip side, All New Issues also takes place around a comic book store, and I like it only a little more than Shortpacked!
- Wesslingsaung, by Eric Cochrane: This has to be the most exotic comic I’ve found this year, as most of the characters are nothuman. The title character is, well, I think he’s an adventurer who travels his world – occasionally traveling through time – with a centipede-like partner named Gossip. Wesslingsaung is looking for humans, and eventually finds one, and then his adventures really begin.
It’s a strangely compelling strip, although its dreamlike quality and loose plot has made it hard for me to follow, and the characters’ motivations are still murky to me. It feels like it could be a much better strip with some additional clarity. On the other hand, the inventiveness is appealing, and though Cochrane’s art is fairly simple, it’s equal to the story in inventiveness. So I’m sticking with it to see where it’s going.
- Widdershins, by Kate Ashwin: Taking place on the cusp of the Victorian age (the first story starts in 1833), Widdershins is a town in an England where magic is real. There have been two complete – but separate – stories so far. The first features artefact hunter Harry Barber and down-on-his-luck young wizard Sidney Malik forced to work together to recover a valuable treasure. The second involves a pair of wanderers who get caught up in an evil plot involving mystical spirits. The third story started recently and returns to Barber and Malik for their next adventure That’s putting it all very simply, but both adventures involve colorful characters and incredible plots, and it’s quite a fun ride. Ashwin’s art is on the cartoony side, but detailed enough, and it fits the fairly lighthearted tone of the strip. Refreshingly, it’s not really steampunk because all the fantastic elements are magic, not science.
It also had a Kickstarter recently.
- The Wormworld Saga, by Daniel Lieske: This is not your typical webcomic. For one thing, each chapter is published in its entirety when Lieske finishes it, with several months between each (there are four chapters currently up, the last having been published in August). For another, each chapter is a single vertical “page” with panels arranged within it, and you scroll down continuously to read it. This gives it a look like no other webcomic I’ve seen, and the fact that Lieske’s full-color art is gorgeous helps too.
As for the story, it’s about a boy in our world in 1977 who discovers a portal in his grandparents’ house to another world, a fantasy world in which he is apparently destined to be a major participant. It has themes of childhood imagination and wonder, but also alienation and being thrown into adult concerns while still a child. But while lavishly envisioned and illustrated, the story is (so far) not much more than that; I enjoyed reading it more for the art than because I really wanted to know what happens next. I’m also somewhat suspicious of any story with the world “saga” in the title, as it always strikes me as being a little pretentious (or at least non-descriptive). But if youthful fantasy if what you like, then you’ll probably love this.
Blue Remembered Earth is near-future SF, taking place in the 2160s. Following two centuries of climate change (global temperature shifts, depletion of traditional energy supplies, rising sea levels), Africa is on the cusp of displacing China as the dominant world power. The powerful Akinya family dominates Africa and has interests throughout the solar system, to which humanity is still confined.
Geoffrey Akinya and his sister Sunday are inheritors of the Akinya legacy, but both are marginalized by their family due to a shared lack of interest in its business affairs: Geoffrey researches elephants, while Sunday is an artist on the moon. But when their grandmother Eunice dies, their business-oriented cousins enlist Geoffrey to go to the moon to check out a safety deposit box she left behind. What he finds sends him and his sister on a treasure hunt throughout the solar system, following her path as an early explorer of Mars and beyond, despite great resistance from their cousins.
The novel has two major characteristics: It’s a world-building endeavor, and it’s a science fictional mystery involving a trail that Eunice left for her family to follow.
In general, I’m not a big fan of near-future SF, because the ideas are not big enough to satisfy me, and I’m just not terribly interested in extrapolating our current situation out only a century or two (i.e., a period where things are largely similar to our world today with some fairly straightforward changes). I appreciate what, for example, Charles Stross is doing in Halting State and Rule 34, but it’s more the story than the setting which pulls me along. I particularly dislike settings like that of Paolo Bacigalupi’s The Windup Girl, with dreary settings, little hope, and unlikeable characters.
Blue Remembered Earth falls into a slightly different category: The setting isn’t dystopic, and the story is a mystery wrapped in the shrouds of history (a bit like Jack McDevitt‘s Alex Benedict novels in that way). Rather than the characters playing out a set of movements implied by the setting, they’re involved in their own story against a slightly exotic locale. And the mystery implies that there’s something a little more advanced out there as well, assuming it pays off properly. (I’ll talk about the mystery in more detail behind a spoiler cut below.)
This is one of Reynolds’ best efforts at world-building, and he does a good job of laying things out without it becoming tedious (although I did find Geoffrey’s research with elephants to be hard going). Some of the big hooks involve an omniscient surveillance system called the Mechanism which has essentially eliminated violent crime, aquatic transhumans, and most humans having virtual reality implants. There’s also a tension in manned space exploration being potentially supplanted by unmanned, as artificial intelligence gets to the point that it can take on the risks so humans don’t have to. (And if that sounds like a disappointing development, well, that’s one of the themes of the book.)
Geoffrey and Sunday’s quest operates as a travelogue of the solar system, as Geoffrey goes to the moon where he visited Sunday in the “Descrutinized Zone”, which is free of the Mechanism. There’s also a trip to Mars, which is just barely on the civilized side of being a frontier and has a few amazing wonders of its own. They’re accompanied in this by a telepresence simulation of Eunice herself, who embodies the character of the woman but naturally lacks many of her memories. But as Eunice was both family to the pair, and a significant figure in the exploration of the solar system, she plays a significant role.
Reynolds’ characterizations are not his strong suit, and BRE is not out of step with the rest of his work in this regard: Geoffrey, Sunday and Eunice are reasonably drawn, the other characters are largely two-dimensional. And there’s not a lot of character development – Geoffrey struggles a bit with not wanting to make waves with his family beyond what’s necessary for his research, but doesn’t want to just roll over and do whatever the cousins want, either. This tension does come to a head, but the resolution is somewhat dictated by outside forces, so there’s not a moment of epiphany or a significant character shift for him.
Blue Remembered Earth is sometimes noted as the first volume of a series titled “Poseideon’s Children”, but there’s almost no indication of that in the edition I have (save an offhanded comment in the author’s afterward), and the book in fact stands on its own perfectly well, not so much the first of a series as a novel which could have sequels.
Overall it’s a pretty good book, an enjoyable ride, probably sitting somewhere in the middle of Reynolds’ oeuvre in my opinion.
As promised, a little more spoilery commentary on the mystery side of the story after the cut:
Read on, Macduff! »
The kittens have been a nice distraction from Blackjack’s passing. They’re getting big so quickly! A about two weeks ago we started letting them out of their room to start exploring. First we let them have half the upstairs hallway and a bathroom, then the whole upstairs (guarded by a baby gate and a human sitting at it at the top of the stairs). They loved chasing each other back and forth through the hall and bedrooms, and they explored the bathrooms, and the beds, and various other things.
A melancholy moment was when Sadie went to the laundry basket where she’d encountered Blackjack before, and we’re pretty sure she remembered him and was looking for him, as he was the first kitty she’d really met. I like to think Sadie and Blackjack would have become friends, had things gone differently.
Last weekend we opened up the whole house to them (except for the study and the laundry room). They careened down the stairs and suffered a major traction loss when they got to the hardwood floors downstairs, but since then they’ve loved it! Jackson likes hanging out under the Christmas tree (and we have to stop him from chewing on it), and they both like to scale the cat tree.
I think it took the better part of the two days last weekend for them to finally calm down enough to sit and snooze with us. At times we’d see Sadie walking around looking absolutely exhausted, but she was still so excited that she didn’t want to sleep because she might miss something! But eventually they napped: Sadie sleeps loafed up on a couch cushion, while Jackson sleeps on his side with his legs sticking out. And then they wake up and do it all over again.
(click for larger image)
We still put them in their room overnight or when we’re leaving the house (and sometimes just to give the big cats a break from them), but they’re totally looking forward to being out all the time. And we’re being really careful when we go outside when they’re out to make sure they don’t try to dart outside.
The big cats are doing okay with them. There’s been some hissing. Jackson seems to back off when hissed at, he doesn’t want to get smacked down. Sadie, though, runs after Roulette and paws at her even when hissed at; I think those two are going to have to throw down at some point. If Roulette would just smack her a couple of times that might resolve things, but so far she hasn’t. Sadie has even tackled Newton on the couch a couple of times!
Roulette ran upstairs the first few times we let them out, but now she stays downstairs and is usually either under the futon, or on the back of the couch, watching them. Newton followed them around a little, but now isn’t very interested unless they disturb his sleep. Jackson likes to go sleep with him sometimes, and he gives Newton a bath when he does (Newton has mostly stopped grooming himself in his old age). One time I heard Newton meow, and I went over to find him ready to jump off the couch, while Sadie was upside-down, on her head, back to the couch cushion looking at him. “Extreme kitten flirting” I called it.
Debbi’s started giving all four cats wet cat food together as a treat, and they’re all pretty accommodating. Jackson is a bit of a bully trying to get the others cats’ food, and Roulette is torn between wet food (her favoritest thing) and staying away from the kittens – the food wins. To her credit, she’s also played with Debbi and the kittens when Debbi brings out a toy, so she’s starting to get used to them.
The kittens’ personalities are slowly emerging. Jackson is full of energy, is easily distracted, but is also the snuggler when he finally winds down. He’s also got the extra-loud purr. Sadie paces herself a little better, isn’t quite as aggressive, but also interacts with the humans less. I think she’s still trying to figure out how to get people to love her. I hope she becomes more snuggly because she has extra-soft fur which is great to pet.
The kittens have been a lot of work, but they’re also a lot of fun. They keep themselves entertained a lot, and then crash and hang out with us for a while. The big cats are still not too happy about it all, but I think they’re slowly coming around.
I read Matter last year around the same time I read Surface Detail, but they’re two very different books. While I quite enjoyed Surface Detail, I found Matter to be fairly tedious, and the ending to be a big letdown. This review contains mild spoilers.
The story revolves around members of the royal family of the Sarl, a medieval-level humanoid race who live on one of the levels of the artificial shell world of Sursamen. Ferbin, the heir to the throne, is forced to flee his nation when his father is betrayed and overthrown by his second-in-command, tyl Loesp. His younger brother, Oramen, is installed as regent, but tyl Loesp plans to kill him and become king himself when the time is right. Thirdly, their sister Djan Seriy Anaplian was gifted to the Culture years earlier where she’s become an agent of Special Circumstances, a group tasked with especially difficult and important missions.
While Anaplian travels back to Sursamen – a little tricky since it lies outside Culture space – Ferbin works to get out into space to contact her, while Oramen works to stay alive even as he is effectively exiled to oversee excavation of the Nameless City on the adjacent level the Sarl have recently conquered. He also learns that the Sarl’s advanced patrons, the Oct, are up to something in the Nameless City. That something turns out to be of extreme importance – and danger – to all of Sursamen, which Anaplian and Ferbin find they have to stop once they get to the planet.
When I started reading the book, my first reaction was, “Uh-oh, another medieval-setting Culture novel,” having not been especially enamored of Inversions. It’s better than that novel in many ways, as Ferbin and Oramen both being forced to grow up and deal with the new realities of their lives is expertly handled. And Anaplian’s adventurs outside Sursamen are also entertaining.
Unfortunately, the larger threat from the Nameless City really undercuts all of the nice character development, truncating the growing tensions in much the same way that Janet Leigh’s stop in the hotel truncates the story in Psycho. It then becomes a very different story, which itself has an unsatisfying ending, as nearly everyone comes to grief. While it’s a page-turning ride, the conclusion feels devoid of meaning and borders on a throw-the-book-across-the-room experience.
The enduring character of the story is Ferbin’s aide, Holse, who is a lower class man who is devotedly loyal to his master, largely at sea in the advanced environments he and Ferbin travel to, but who has enough presence of mind and sense of self not to be overwhelmed by them. But he’s not enough to save the book.
Banks’ Culture series is pretty uneven, with some great books and some weak ones. Matter is towards the lower end of the spectrum, which is too bad because it starts promisingly.
I’ve given McDevitt a hard time over his Alex Benedict novels since the terrific A Talent For War, but I’m happy to report that the latest in the series, Firebird, is the best since that inaugural effort, with a genuine sense of wonder, a nifty plot twist and a satisfying conclusion.
The story opens with antiquities dealer Benedict’s aide, Chase Kolpath, being approached to sell some items from the estate of Christopher Robin, a physicist of some note who disappeared several decades earlier. (Yes, unfortunately the disappeared man has the same name as the boy in Winnie-the-Pooh, but oh well.) Chase doesn’t know who he is, but Alex fills her in: Robin was notes as being a proponent of there being alternate realities, and supposedly having been trying to find a way to them. One evening he returned from a trip with his pilot, who dropped him off in front of his house, and he disappeared. The pilot then volunteered to help with rescue efforts in a major earthquake and was killed in the process. While Robin is assumed to have died, no one knows for sure. Maybe he found a a way to other realities and simply stepped into one.
Alex doesn’t really believe this, but hits the talk show circuit to build up Robin’s mystique to make the most money for his client. But then, as always happens, he gets bitten by the bug to find out what really happened to Robin. THe investigation turns up a few facts: That Robin had become interested in reports of mysterious ships that occasionally appear near worlds, stations or other ships and then disappear without ever being identified. That he had a friend he went on missions with who was killed on one of them. That he was interested in a world named Villanueva, where human life had died out centuries ago but the trappings of it had been left intact. And that he had bought several old spaceships and taken them out in the 15 years or so before his death, returning without any of them. It all adds up to something that doesn’t equal parallel realities, but does equal something just about as cool, which even raises the specter of one of the earliest background elements of the series.
McDevitt often stretches to put Alex and Chase in danger, sometimes a little too far as neither of them is a fighter, and the risks they take sometimes seem ridiculous. But he does a better job of balancing this than in recent novels. He also does a good job of taking one of the side plots and turning it into a serious moral dilemma and distraction from the main plot.
Best of all, once we learn what’s really going on, he lets Alex and Chase get to the meat of the problem, and there are several wrenching scenes where we learn what happens to several characters. Fortunately there’s also a satisfying afterward which ties up one of the loose ends. So McDevitt really gets just about everything right in the novel.
Overall the story doesn’t have quite the impact of Talent, and the nature of the series takes just a little wind out of the sails of the potential of the story (in a true standalone novel, there’s the potential for a lot more exploration of the plot twist which can’t really happen here without revealing more about Alex and Chase than can really happen here). But it’s still a really fun novel, and quite a page-turner too. If you’ve bailed on the series prior to this, I suggest getting back on board at least for this installment.
Debbi says that when she went to get Blackjack and Roulette she knew Blackjack was the cat for her. I think she got Roulette partly because Roulette seemed to like me, but Blackjack was the cat for her. She wanted a black cat, and he played hard and seemed to like people. He came with his name, while Debbi came up with “Roulette” to match him.
Blackjack was a little sick as a kitten, but got over it. Then he became all kinds of trouble! He was bold and liked to check everything out. And after he played hard, he crashed hard and slept hard. He just kept going until he was done, and then he climbed somewhere he felt safe and zonked out.
(click the thumbnails for larger images)
Blackjack also chose Debbi as his human. He would often nuzzle at her neck while kneading her and purring, something we called “giving her wuv”. He only did this for me once, when he was a kitten and she was visiting her family back east and had left them with me. But otherwise this was something he saved for her.
I think he had designs on becoming top cat when he came to my place, but Jefferson knocked him off of that idea promptly. Then he and Newton started fighting to see who would be second cat. We called them the “silent wrestlers”, as they would struggle on the floor without meowing or yelping. I’m not sure who won that struggle, since when Jefferson passed away we think Roulette moved from being bottom cat to being top cat, without anyone putting up a fight.
Blackjack was a very demonstrative kitty: He would often fall asleep on the floor, and then eventually end up lying on his back, exposing his tummy for everyone to see. We think he meant he was happy and comfortable with us. He was also very strong, being 14 pounds of pretty solid muscle, with powerful hind legs that could let him leap sideways quite some distance from a starting position. He had the most pathetic meow, sounding like someone was torturing him, when he was perfectly fine. Since he was all black, he could meow without us seeing his mouth open, which was pretty weird at times.
Like I said, he was a trouble-maker: He was a shoelace chewer. He liked to eat vegetables: Corn, frozen peas, and he’s gnaw on banana peels. Once he went deaf he got even pushier at the dinner table, trying to grab our food, and of course saying “no!” to him would have no effect! He would sometimes pull out one of his nails grooming himself, with just the quick sticking out from his paw. The nail always grew back, but that was kind of strange.
He and his sister wrestled and chased each other a lot. When they started chasing each other upstairs at the townhouse Debbi would say, “The elephants have been released!” Blackjack would often play harder than Roulette really wanted, and she’d meow in protest until we separated them. But he didn’t bite or otherwise cross the line.
Blackjack was – along with Newton – our social cat. He’d hang out when we had visitors, and as recently as last month he was up on the dining room table checking out what we were up to when I had friends over to play Magic. When our friends Lisa and Michel brought their daughter Isabella over, he was the one who eventually went over to check her out. She sat down and he sniffed her from toe to head, with her looking a bit startled by it all. Then he decided that was good enough for him and he left.
He would find strange places to sleep: Under the shelves in the closet at the townhouse. Under the desk. In the laundry basket. Places where it was hard to spot him because he was all black! He liked sleeping under the Christmas tree, too. He also discovered the heating vents under the cabinets in the new house, and enjoyed sitting in front of them last winter; he’d usually be in front of one every morning when I came down. He liked looking out the window, and was more curious than agitated when we got outdoor feline visitors (whereas Roulette would go nuts over the intruder).
And of course he would play: Jump after toys, run up and down the stairs. My Mom gave us a two-foot-long tube with fleece on the inside, and I could get him to run back and forth through it for quite a while. And then he’d get tired and he’d sack out inside it. Like the other cats, he enjoyed being carried outside, but he was especially aggressive about trying to eat grass if we put him down, so we usually didn’t.
I wanted to end with what I think is the quintessential Blackjack picture. He was still young when Debbi took this picture with her phone, but it captures his innocence and curiosity. He still had his whole life ahead of him and he was ready to enjoy every minute:
We had Blackjack put to sleep today.
He never recovered from his downturn shortly after Thanksgiving, and he just spent most of his time sleeping, usually in the laundry basket. He seemed confused and disoriented, and blood tests from Monday came back showing he had elevated white blood cell counts (probably fighting something off, as he’s been congested), but also plummeting red blood cell counts. The vet said we could run tests, but it could well be his cancer has gotten into his bone marrow or even his brain, and we knew if that was it then we weren’t going to treat him.
Wednesday Debbi called to make an appointment for this afternoon to bring it to an end. He continued to go downhill, and at times we wondered whether he would even make it to today. I think he last ate on Thursday night (some wet food). We ran out of the antiviral meds we were giving him for his eye lesions and his eyes were regressing (his right eye was all gunked up this morning). Thursday night I came to bed after Debbi has fallen asleep, and he wasn’t in the laundry basket. I looked around and he was lying outside the litter box in the study. I brought him back to the laundry basket, but he got up and went back and lay down in the litter. I tried putting him in a soft cat couch in the room, but he ended up lying under the desk instead.
He stayed there until yesterday when Debbi brought him downstairs when she got home from work and put him on the couch with Newton. He snoozed there until it was time to go today.
We went to my office’s holiday party last night. Usually for these things we get home late (we got back around 1 am), and we’re tired but we know we can sleep in and have a quiet, restful weekend. But this time I knew we’d be having a terrible day today and going to bed wasn’t the relief it usually is.
This morning he was wheezing every time he breathed. Just before it was time to go Debbi was holding him, and I suggested she take him outside, since he always enjoyed the outside. When I looked out on them next she was picking him up from the lawn. She said he’d merped at her and wanted to get down, and then he ate a few blades of grass, something he always tried to do when we put him down outside.
Debbi gave Roulette and Newton a chance to say goodbye – Newton licked his head – and then we went to the vet where our wonderful doctor put sedated him (probably the best sleep he’s had in a couple of days due to his breathing problems) and then did the deed. She told him he was a tough guy and that he beat his lymphoma. And maybe he did, but he just couldn’t catch a break: He went deaf, lost his sense of balance, lost his powerful hind legs, stopped purring, stopped giving Debbi kneads-and-nuzzles (what we called “wuv”), developed eye problems, lost a bunch of weight, and finally just spent all his time sleeping. He was a cat who was full of life and energy and mischief, and seeing him diminish like this has been terribly hard.
This is extraordinarily hard on Debbi, because Blackjack was her special kitty, the one she immediately knew was the cat for her, and the one of our adult cats who bonded entirely to her. It wasn’t fair to her, and it wasn’t fair to him. She’s been a great mom, and has done everything he could have asked her to do. The doctor said he had a good quality of life these last two years because of what she’s done. Two years is the life expectancy of a cat diagnosed with lymphoma if given treatment, and he didn’t quite make it, but almost.
Debbi’s been stronger today than I’d expected, while I’ve been weepy and sentimental. We sat on the couch for a while, and Newton climbed in my lap while Roulette curled up next to me. Even the kittens seemed to sense that something was wrong, though I don’t think they have any idea what.
I think Blackjack would have liked the kittens, and certainly after how he harassed Newton and Jefferson when he came into the household he deserved to get harassed by some kittens. He was more curious about them than Newton and Roulette have been, for the few days between when we got them and when he started his final slide.
Blackjack was a little shy of nine and a half years old.
I’ll write a less sad remembrance of him tomorrow, but I had to get the sad stuff out of my system first. For now I’ll leave you with the last Blackjack picture:
I wrote about the kittens, so I also wanted to update how the big cats are doing.
I’ll start with the bad news, which is that Blackjack has not been doing well. He’s been gradually going downhill for a while now, but right after Thanksgiving he had a big slide: He doesn’t jump anymore, he seems disoriented and unbalanced, and he spends most of his time sleeping. Debbi took him to the vet this morning and they’re running some tests, and gave him a vitamin shot, so we’ll see. He might have something treatable, or his cancer might finally be catching him. Or, we might never know, since we’ve already decided we’re not going to run invasive tests on him, since anything we find is probably more than we’d be willing to treat at this point.
Fortunately, he doesn’t seem to be in pain, and he’s still eating, drinking, and using his litter, and he sometimes comes out to say hi. But it’s been a hard week.
Newton, by contrast, has been getting better recently. Well, sort of. He went in for some blood work and had lost a little weight, which surprised me since he feels heavier and more solid to me. His hyperthyroidism has been improving, but his kidney values are off a bit. So we’ve cut back on his thyroid meds, but are giving him subcutaneous fluids an extra day per week. The doctor said we want to treat the symptoms, but we also want to treat him, and he seems to be feeling fine.
Really: He’s up and about more often, he’s curious about things (he wants to go into the garage lately), he walks around meowing and demanding that we put water in the sink for him to drink out of, and his appetite is fine. He even chased Roulette off the couch recently, although he doesn’t move so fast anymore so she got away easily. He’s no spring chicken, but at this point I could almost believe he’ll outlive us all.
His better condition unfortunately has come with him meowing at 3 am again sometimes, which isn’t so welcome. But oh well.
As for Roulette, she’s about the same. She’s been a bit more spastic recently, running around downstairs and playing more often. She’s still very wary of the kittens, but not as much as she was.
I don’t know if it’s the kittens, or knowing that something is wrong with Blackjack, or sensing Debbi’s sadness about him, but she has been sleeping with us at night more than she has in a long time. That’s been pretty nice. We were sitting on the couch yesterday and every so often she would get up, walk over my lap once, and then go back to where she was sleeping. I guess she’s just checking on us.
I’m just hoping she’ll adjust to the kittens and be a good big sister to them, because I think they’ll have a lot to offer her, though I bet she wouldn’t believe that if we told her!
Our big excitement this weekend is that we added two new members to our feline household!
We’d been thinking about getting some kittens for a while. While we did already have three cats, Newton is elderly and Blackjack is slowing down due to his lymphoma. Roulette is 9 years old and still active, but she seems to be getting a little bored without another cat to play with. We know that integrating new cats into the household will take work, but certainly we would look at getting new cats if we ever got down to just Roulette, and it seemed to make sense to get Roulette used to them while she was still young enough to make the adjustment.
So Saturday we went to the Silicon Valley Humane Society. They have an amazing facility over in Milpitas (the outdoor dog exercise areas alone are impressive!). We weren’t set on getting kittens immediately, but we were open to it. We met a couple of 4-month-old brown tabby cats who were very nice, but the ones that won my heart were a pair of 2-1/2 month olds, who we ended up taking home that day.
We spent an hour in a whirlwind of activity preparing the library for them while they sat in their carrier in the bathroom, and finally we were ready to let them out into the room that will be their home for a few weeks. They’re both bundles of energy, and they spent an hour chasing each other all over the room when they emerged.
The boy with the gray tabby pattern we’re tentatively naming Jackson, although we’re still mulling over that one. He’s a very high-energy kitty, and is very snuggly when we first go in the room after some time away. He’s also quite meowy and has a loud purr motor which engages whenever you pick him up.
The white girl with the orange tabby markings I think we’re going to call Sadie. She’s a little more subdued than her brother, but only because I think she paces herself better and isn’t as aggressive. But she can still keep up with him and rarely gets overwhelmed. She enjoys burrowing under the blanket on the chair in their room.
They’re going to stay in their room for at least a couple of weeks. We put up a baby gate at the door to make it easier for us to get in and out without risking them dashing out (Jackson already tried to escape once before we got the gate). Blackjack and Newton have both seen and sniffed at them through the gate, but seem mostly uninterested. Roulette is quite agitated as she knows there’s something there, but I don’t think she knows what. We introduced her to them through the gate tonight, and she didn’t hiss, but she didn’t approach them, either. I think it’s going to take her a while.
It’s a big step for all of us, but it’s a step we knew we’d be taking eventually. And the timing works out because I’m off work for a week, and Debbi for half a week, and then we have Christmas break in a little over a month. So we can spend lots of time with them.
Wish us luck that this integration goes as smoothly as getting Jefferson and Newton used to Blackjack and Roulette did!
Last night I got together with some people at work to play some Magic. What made this a little different is that I had never met any of these folks before. There’s been a mailing list for Magic around for a while, but it’s been long-dormant. A few newer folks joined it and organized a few games, and last night I went to join in.
Originally we were planning to do a booster draft, but one guy had not done a draft before, and another expressed a preference for sealed deck, so we decided to do sealed instead. We played Return to Ravnica, which I had already done one sealed deck game with my friend Subrata, and it was an underwhelming experience, mainly because our pool of cards was pretty lame. So I hoped that this would be a better one.
While we were opening our packs, I joked that I was opening rares that were useless in limited (like Grave Betrayal and Guild Feud, both of which I opened). Then I joked that it was time to choose the wrong colors for my deck.
I wasn’t too impressed with my deck when I built it, but it turned out to be an absolute powerhouse, winning all six games I played. Heck, arguably it was more my deck that won than me.
Here’s the 40-card deck I played:
This might not be the very best deck I could have built – neither Aerial Predation nor Sundering Growth are great cards – but it still worked very well. Even those two cards served their role, killing a flyer and getting rid of a few pesky enchantments. I did not get much use out of either the Populate or the Scavenge mechanics on my cards (I think I Populated once in six games, and never Scavenged), but the Azorius Justicar’s Detain ability was handy multiple times.
This is an aggro deck with a wonderful curve: I’m usually laying down serious beatdown by turn 4, and I often have options to kill my opponent’s creatures, keep him from killing mine, or just to play my creatures in the right order so I end up with my best stuff on the table by the time he runs out of removal. Precinct Captain is a beast which runs away with the game if left unchecked, and Deadbridge Goliath is just ridiculous in limited. Inevitably I just overran my opponents with my sheer number of creatures.
I splashed blue for Skymark Roc only because I had filled 21 of my card slots and was hard-pressed for the last card. I decided the Roc was just so much better than my marginal white and green cards that I would try to shoehorn it in. It only showed up once, but it was the all-star of that game.
The only change I made to my deck was I removed a Plains and added a Forest after my first game; getting my small green creatures out on turns 1 and 2 was critical, so I think that helped.
I’ve been running 18 land in my 40-card limited decks since I read an article a few years ago about why this is a good idea. I wish I could find the article, but the basic argument is that you lose more games by being mana-short than by being mana-flooded. Ironically, for aggro decks like this one where the majority of the cards are cheap (16 of my 22 spells cost 3 mana or less), hitting your land drops can be even more important since you want to make sure you put the pressure on early and don’t miss an opportunity. But 18 land also gave me the flexibility to play 2 spells costing 7 (and the Angel of Serenity won a game for me singlehandedly; I drew the Risen Sanctuary once when I could have cast it, but it was superfluous by that point).
Anyway, the guys I was playing with were a lot of fun too. It’s been a while since I’ve met a bunch of new people at work, so this was a neat change of pace. And it reminded me how much I enjoy playing limited Magic, especially when everything comes together.