Various Friends

I’ve had a week of seeing several friends. Which is a good thing!

First, I have a cow-orker from Sweden, Joar, who just moved to America last weekend, so I invited him and his wife out to dinner with me and Debbi Tuesday night. They met us at our house and we drove downtown to have dinner at Amici’s and then walk down and back through downtown Mountain View. I can’t remember the last time I met someone who had just moved to America, so it’s been very interesting learning about the immigration process and all the things they’ve had to adjust to. For instance, living in a suburban environment where cars are a necessity, rather than in a city where you can just use public transit. So I’ve been giving them some advice about traffic patterns and distances and weather and so forth (and was up-front about the fact that I’m something of a snob about living on the peninsula, as I didn’t care much for living in the valley proper).

Even though Joar’s come out to visit several times since he started working on our team, I figured they might enjoy a night out and away from all the tasks they have to tackle this week.

Wednesday evening I felt like I had the beginnings of a cold, and it got worse as the night wore on, so I called in sick on Thursday – a rare day when I felt like I didn’t have anything pressing so I could stay home without any worries! So it was a nice quiet day of watching DVDs and reading – and blowing my nose a lot.

Friday I felt better and headed back into work. In the evening Subrata and I headed over to Superstars for their Friday Night Magic draft. I drafted a somewhat unremarkable white-black deck, although that’s a big step up from my last two drafts, which were awful! I felt like I was competitive in most of my games, even though I lost more than I won, and at least two of my games were lost more due to bad luck than bad play. So that’s a step forward, right?

Saturday we drove down to Los Gatos for our friends Lisa and Michel’s baby shower. It was in a nice little park off a main park, and although it was a little chilly, it was otherwise a very nice day (perfectly clear and sunny – our party’s campsite just happened to be in the shade) and everyone had a very nice time. I was able to reacquaint myself with many of Lisa & Michel’s friends and family, whom I only see every couple of years, it seems like.

Unfortunately, Debbi ended up catching a cold of her own (or maybe she caught my cold, except mine didn’t come with a sore throat like hers did), so today we had a fairly quiet day, other than a run to the supermarket and to get my hair cut. I cooked Indian food for dinner (Debbi says it helped clean out her sinuses! And I got to use our new food processor to make cashew nut butter) and I did some work in the yard.

Only a little to report on the cat front since Tuesday’s trip to the vet: Jefferson has been taking antibiotics for a few days (which he hates) but he’s still having his bathroom issues. Newton apparently has a hyperactive thyroid, which is not unusual for an older cat, so he’ll get some medicine of his own soon. But otherwise they’re both in pretty good health.

My goal for October is to feel like I’m not stretched as thin. August and September just flew by with everything I’ve been doing! (Or do I say that every month?)

This Week’s Haul

Comic books I bought the week of 26 September 2007.

  • Countdown #31 of 52 (backwards), by Paul Dini, Sean McKeever, Keith Giffen, Manuel Garcia & Rodney Ramos (DC)
  • Countdown to Adventure #2 of 8, by Adam Beechen, Eddy Barrow & Julio Ferreira, and Justin Gray, Travis Moore & Saleem Crawford (DC)
  • Supergirl and the Legion of Super-Heroes #34, by Tony Bedard & Dennis Calero (DC)
  • Astro City: The Dark Age vol 2 #4, by Kurt Busiek, Brent Anderson, & Alex Ross (DC/Wildstorm)
  • Annihilation Conquest: Starlord #3 of 4, by Keith Giffen, Timothy Green II, & Victor Olazaba (Marvel)
  • Girl Genius: Agatha Heterodyne and the Golden Trilobite HC vol 6, by Phil & Kaja Foglio (Airship)
  • The Boys: The Name of the Game vol 1 TPB, by Garth Ennis & Darick Robertson (Dynamite)
  • Boneyard #26, by Richard Moore (NBM)

Astro City: The Dark Age vol 2 #4Wow, the last issue of Astro City came out back in April. I know there are many good reasons why it comes out so slowly, but it’s still frustrating considering this is one of the best comic book series ever published. This is a pretty good issue where the stuff hits the fan for our protagonists, the Williams brothers, as well as suggesting what the scoop with the Silver Agent is. One more special is up next, and then the third and final mini-series to conclude The Dark Age Can’t wait! I hope they can get it all out in the next year.

Girl Genius vol 6Speaking of excellent comics, I finally got my hardcover copy of volume 6 of Girl Genius. This is a hefty volume concluding Agatha Heterodyne’s adventures in Sturmhalten, including the truth about her mother, Lucretia Mongfish, the plans her mother left behind after she disappeared: Specifically, the plan to return her consciousness to life in the body of her daughter.

Unfortunately, though there’s a lot to like here, the story is both padded and confusing. Most of the padding is in the form of Agatha’s allies who spend much of the book wandering around in the sewers of Sturmhalten, an expedition which is sometimes amusing, but which does absolutely nothing to move the story forward. Most of the confusion comes in trying to figure out when we’re watching Agatha and when we’re watching Lucretia, and in trying to figure out exactly who did what, and why. The motivations here are slippery things, and I think the Foglios overextended themselves in trying to be too clever with what amounted to the mechanical aspects of the plot. I think I finally got it all figured out, but it shouldn’t have been this hard.

Those frustrations aside, the book is still tremendously entertaining, very funny, and full of action, adventure, and things blowing up real good. And the secrets of Agatha’s family history are slowly emerging, although – again – the issue of motivation is central to the goings-on, and it’s not at all clear to me what exactly happened in the war against The Other all those years ago. Are the revelations herein supposed to be taken at face value, or is it all a blind for something deeper? That’s the problem with a story that has games-within-games, you can never tell when you’ve reached the center, and that can be really annoying. Eventually the Foglios are going to have to make it absolutely clear in the story that “this is what happened, and there are no more secrets to be revealed”. I hope that’s where this is all going.

(I had a similar problem with Babylon 5: When it was revealed what the Shadows and the Vorlons were really up to, my reaction was, “Nah, that’s silly! It’s gotta be a blind for their real motivations. But in fact, silly or not, that was it. But directions had reversed so many times that it was hard to believe.)

The Boys vol 1The Boys didn’t really register on my consciousness until the controversial decision by DC to cancel it from its Wildstorm line, resulting in the book moving to Dynamite. While I’ve enjoyed Darick Robertson’s artwork in various places, I’ve not read much by Garth Ennis, who is probably best known for his series Preacher, which, well, I haven’t read. However, the brouhaha and a flip-through in the store made me decide to pick up the trade paperback, which collects the first 6 issues.

The first three words that come to mind about this book are not for children. This is a grim, edgy, extremely violent, and often gratuitous story about a world in which superheroes are real, and their fights and whims take a huge toll on normal humans. Ennis doesn’t shy away from just about anything he can imagine super-powered people would do with their powers, and Robertson illustrates it in graphic detail. So if any of that is the sort of thing you wouldn’t be able to appreciate, then The Boys is not for you.

“The Boys” themselves are five people who work as a covert team to put the fear of god into superbeings, through threats, blackmail, and sheer force. Needless to say, some of them are powered themselves. Their leader, Billy Butcher, is assembling the team anew after it having disbanded some time previously, and he recruits three of his old mates as well as a new recruit, Wee Hughie, to start executing his plans. His first target is an out-of-control teen group of superheroes. Even as Hughie is getting his first taste of working with the Boys, a charming midwestern superheroine named Starlight is recruited to join the Seven, the country’s premier super-team (with the usual analogues to members of the Justice League), who learns that playing with the big boys isn’t at all what she’d expected.

The Boys reminds me strongly of Grant Morrison’s The Invisibles, not just in its approach of an undercover team fighting the forces which dominate the world, but in giving the story an “everyman” point of view: The story (almost) opens with Hughie seeing the woman he lives brutally killed during a fight between two superbeings, much as Jack Frost is the young ne’er-do-well who joins the Invisibles. Ennis is more deft at characterization than Morrison is, but then, Morrison had bigger fish to fry than following Jack through the series, while The Boys is fundamentally very much about the perceptions and reactions of the characters.

It’s probably inevitable that The Boys also be compared to Warren Ellis’ Transmetropolitan, as both books take place in which certain trands have resulted in a seriously damaged world in which our heroes (who are anti-heroes in both instances) operate, plus of course they’re both drawn by Robertson. Robertson’s artwork has advanced considerably since Transmet; it no longer feels like that of a darker Shawn McManus, it feels more realistic and more expressive, especially in his faces. I don’t think this book would have worked with anything less.

Does it work? Well yes, it does. As I said, there are many gratuitous elements: Nudity, sex, drug use, violence, which often don’t contribute directly to the story but serve merely as a backdrop. But every so often Ennis drops in that one “whoa, holy shit” moment which demonstrates that the book isn’t all about sex-and-violence, but that there are really things worth fighting for in this comic. The panoramic view of New York City part-way through was the moment that I realized the book is being serious. As I said, if you can’t get past the less-important moments, or if seeing horrible things done to good people with little immediate hope of justice being done is something you can’t stand, then this book is not for you.

Contrasting The Boys with Warren Ellis’ major works is I think most worthwhile: Ellis’ stories are, fundamentally, about people pursuing the right ends for the right reasons. His stories really are about heroes, although those heroes sometimes use questionable means to achieve their goals, but they are usually reluctant to do so, or feel that they’ve been backed into a corner and have no other choice. The Boys are about people pursuing the right ends, but maybe not for the right reasons, and certainly not choosing very clean ways of going about it. Both Butcher and Hughie have a revenge motive, and also a motive to keep what happened to their loved ones from happening to anyone else. (The motives of the other Boys are so far unknown.) And their frank vigilanteism (even if tacitly supported by shady arms of the government) is not exactly admirable. But I think the point of the story is to see how far these characters can be pushed in a decidedly hostile environment, and the story in this volume is the set-up for what comes next.

Am I thrilled to be reading this book? Well, it was pretty interesting, and a little nauseating at the same time. But also compelling. I definitely think there’s a lot of promise here, and I’m going to pick up the issues that Dynamite has published since.

If you’ve been waiting for the superhero equivalent of Transmetropolitan, then The Boys may be the book for you.

Cat Checkup

Having put jury duty behind me, my next task was to take my cats – Jefferson and Newton – into the vet for a check-up. They’re now over 13 years old, which is pretty old in kitty years. Lots of kitties – even indoor ones – don’t make it that long! They’re both in pretty good health, but it doesn’t hurt to make sure. I decided after some dithering to switch to the vet Debbi uses, the Mid-Peninsula Animal Hospital, since I’ve liked them slightly better than my vet the times I’ve taken her cats in there. (Unfortunately I live a little too far to make it to the Cat Hospital in Campbell, or I’d still be going there.)

Jeff has recently been having some problems with, well, his stool being watery. But no other symptoms of anything that I’ve observed. The vet said this could be due to a very long list of things, from parasites (improbable in an older, indoor cat) to inflamed bowels to more serious things. So he gave a blood sample to be tested, and he’s on antibiotics and then some other drugs for a few weeks to eliminate some possibilities. Jefferson hates taking liquid drugs – he drools all over the place – so this will be plenty of fun, believe me.

Newton, meanwhile, has lost over a pound since his last checkup, and is definitely the smallest of our four cats now (Roulette is around 10 pounds, Newton is 8). He hasn’t shown any symptoms of anything else, although he was so active and squirmy in the vet’s office that they said it’s possible he could have a hyperactive thyroid. So he’s also getting some blood tests done. I’ll probably try to feed him a little more in the future, too; it’s very hard to regulate food when you have four cats!

So the news was I guess about what I expected, pending the results of the tests. They’re both still active and friendly so I’m optimistic that they’re still in pretty good shape. But they are getting up there, and I need to keep that in mind.

When we got home, Blackjack started following Jeff around and sniffing at him, which didn’t endear him to Jeff. I eventually separated them since Jefferson didn’t need the extra stress. I’m sure they all just went to sleep when I left for work, anyway!

Heroes and Journeyman

So this new TV season: I’ll probably skip Bionic Woman, and not much else attracted my attention even a little bit.

Tonight we watched the first episode of the second season of Heroes. It takes place four months after the first season, and we catch up with what the characters are doing. I found the first season to be pretty slow, so I don’t know whether I’ll make it through the second season. This episode bored me when it came to the Claire-and-Noah stuff (Hayden Panettiere & Jack Coleman), and more than once I thought that I’d really just like to have a whole episode of Hiro (Masi Oka). The show spends too much time lingering on boring stuff, and the dialogue isn’t especially clever so there’s very little to carry the viewer through those scenes.

The episode kicks it up a notch at the end, though, with several intriguing scenes. If it can build on these bits rather than stepping back and taking its usual time-outs then it could keep me watching. But it has to keep moving.

I stuck around afterwards to watch the first episode of Journeyman. While watching the story of Dan Vassar, it struck me how much Kevin McKidd reminded me of Reed Diamond of Homicide, and who should show up playing Dan’s older brother Jack but – Reed Diamond. I swear, I had no clue!

In Journeyman, Dan is a journalist in San Francisco who starts disappearing from his present life and appearing in the past, apparently following the life of a man whose wife and child died some years ago. Meanwhile his marriage is falling apart since his wife Katie (Gretchen Egolf) and friends thinks he’s having trouble with drug abuse. The set-up is slightly reminiscent of the book The Time Traveler’s Wife, since Dan has no control over what’s happening to him, though at least he does travel with his clothes.

The episode started a little slowly, and I cringed a little at Dan’s encounters with people he knows in his travels to the past, but it grabbed me with two scenes late in the episode: A sudden appearance by a very unexpected character, and then taking the big step of having Dan act smart in explaining his dilemma to his wife. The implication that there’s something larger going on, and that Dan’s not going to be an oaf while forces manipulate him makes me optimistic that this could be a good series. So that leaves the biggest question of all: Is the series going to go somewhere?

Maybe not, but I’m motivated at least to watch the next couple of episodes to see.

Shopping Weekend

I managed to avoid jury duty last week, not through any doing of my own; they hardly called anyone for service relative to the number of people on call, so I just had to check the web site twice a day. It was kind of stressful wondering if I’d have to put things on hold for an indefinite time on fairly short notice, but happily it never came to pass. This is the third time since I moved to California that I’ve been on the wait list, which seems to be more often than most of my friends. Maybe I’ll get lucky and not get called again for five or six years.

We had a pretty laid-back weekend, which I really needed, mostly shopping for stuff. A couple weeks ago at Monday night Magic Chris and Alex made homemade french fries, and boy were they yummy! So I told Debbi I wanted to get a deep-fryer, and she said “Not until I get my food processor!” (Do you sense a long-standing point of contention between us? Maaaaaaybe.)

So we drove around to a bunch of places to look for a food processor, and were a little surprised to see that only Bed Bath and Beyond had much in the way of selection; weird, since everyone had a gazillion blenders. I guess food processors just aren’t as trendy as they used to be. Eventually we bought a KitchenAid machine from Fry’s, along with a deep fryer. So tonight we made french fries – and they were yummy! I’m not sure when we’ll break out the food processor – but our next trick will be figuring out where to store this stuff, since we’re getting short on space in the kitchen!

We headed over to Half Moon Bay today to have brunch at the Main Street Grill, which was yummy as always, but Debbi was feeling like having a lazy day at home so we came back and finished our shopping before coming home rather than going out for a hike. Next time!

So now we’re wrapping up the evening by hanging out and watching the new Jeff Dunham TV special. Not a bad wrap-up to the weekend.

This Week’s Haul

Comic books I bought the week of 19 September 2007.

  • Aquaman: Sword of Atlantis #56, by Tad Williams & Shawn McManus (DC)
  • Countdown #32 of 52 (backwards), by Paul Dini, Tony Bedard, Keith Giffen, Al Barrionuevo & Art Thibert (DC)
  • Countdown to Adventure #1 of 8, by Adam Beechen, Eddy Barrows & Julio Ferreira, and Justin Gray & Fabrizio Fiorentino (DC)
  • Countdown to Mystery #1 of 8, by Steve Gerber, Justiniano & Walden Wong, and Matthew Sturges & Stephen Jorge Segovia (DC)
  • Ex Machina #30, by Brian K. Vaughan, Tony Harris & Jim Clark (DC/Wildstorm)
  • Armageddon Conquest: Quasar #3 of 4, by Christos N. Gage, Mike Lilly, Bob Almond & Scott Hanna (Marvel)
  • World War Hulk #4 of 5, by Greg Pak, John Romita Jr. & Klaus Janson (Marvel)
  • The Umbrella Academy: Apocalypse Suite #1 #1 of 6, by Gerard Way & Gabriel Bá (Dark Horse)

Countdown #32Gee, it’s a new artist on Countdown! Too bad he got stuck illustrating this piece of cow flop, which largely involves a bachelorette party for Black Canary, who’s getting married to Green Arrow soon, in what is surely one of the most pointless company-wide events in recent memory. Countdown has been pretty widely panned in the blogosphere, and for good reason: There’s really no coherent story in it, and random events from the DC universe – like the GA/BC wedding – intrude on it for no good reason and to no good effect. It’s everything that 52 wasn’t, and that’s not a good thing.

Meanwhile, I broke down and decided to try both Countdown to Adventure and Countdown to Mystery, which are both sorta-kinda tie-ins to Countdown, each with two stories.

Countdown to Adventure #1Countdown to Adventure focuses on the “space heroes” from 52: Adam Strange, Starfire, and Animal Man. Adam Strange gets some competition in his role as protector of Rann, while Animal Man’s wife isn’t too wild about the buxom Starfire crashing in their house since she lost her powers. The art is very pretty and the story has promise, although honestly I get tired of writers dumping on Adam Strange all the time. Can’t the guy ever catch a break? I think the best Adam Strange story in the last 15 years was the JLA story in which he manipulated the Justice League to save Rann, showing that, yes, he really is just really clever and he can think rings around other heroes (and villains).

The back-up story is about Forerunner, a supporting character in Countdown, and it’s basically a good tale about a completely uninteresting character.

Countdown to Mystery #1Countdown to Mystery was originally going to be Steve Gerber’s relaunch of Doctor Fate, but I guess DC decided it might sell better if tied in to the current ongoing event of Countdown. Who knows if it does, but the story here has absolutely nothing to do with Countdown. In it the helmet of Nabu lands on the head of Dr. Kent Nelson, failed psychiatrist. Does he have any relationship at all to the Kent Nelson who was the original Doctor Fate? Who knows? Gerber’s trippy, stream-of-consciousness narrative doesn’t really work at all – the thing feels entirely by-the-numbers, like one of the glummer moments of a Doctor Strange run over at Marvel. Justiniano and Wong’s artwork sometimes feels like Tom Mandrake, and sometimes like Kevin O’Neill, which is a bizarre mixture. It’s not bad, although the tweaks to Fate’s costume look kind of silly.

The back-up here is about the current incarnation of Eclipso, a silly DC villain from the 60s who’s now in the body of the ex-wife of The Atom, for reasons which emerged in DC’s event of a couple of years ago, Identity Crisis, which was a series which had very pretty artwork and a completely nonsensical story. All of which means that this series probably would have been better if it had been left as just a new Doctor Fate series.

World War Hulk #4I think I see how World War Hulk is going to end: The Sentry is going to finally join the fray, try to talk the Hulk down from his rampage, they’ll get into a fight, and then the Sentry’s evil opposite number, the Void, will get released. In the ensuing chaos, the other heroes get free and try to contain the void, the the Hulk slips away somehow – possibly injured and taken by his allies out of reach of Earth’s heroes. And the Hulk’s story diverges from that of Earth again. Which would leave the question of: What happens next?

But first there’s the even bigger question: Can Greg Pak surprise me and pull off a different ending from this?

The Umbrella Academy #1Fans of Hellboy must check out The Umbrella Academy. Gerard Way is the frontman of the band My Chemical Romance, one of those rare alt-rock bands that I’ve actually heard of. Irrespective of that, the comic is actually quite good. The book has a strong Victorian-era feel, although details of the story suggest that it takes place in sometimes between 1920 and 1960 (after the death of Gustav Eiffel, for one thing). In it, a number of infants are mysteriously born to women across the globe, and a prominent man named The Monocle goes out to collect them, but finds only 7, whom he raises himself in The Umbrella Academy. The seven each have one or more unusual powers, but their father dotes on Number One, who is a Superman-like figure, and denegrates the others. The first half of the issue takes place when the group is 10, and the second half focuses on Number One, now called Spaceboy, 20 years later, when an accident has left him with the body of a giant gorilla.

The book has heroes in domino masks, a talking ape, a boxer beating up an alien, and one of the kids reappearing after a long absence. Ba’s art is reminiscent of Mike Mignola’s work on Hellboy, and the whole thing is creepy and eerie and provocative. A very neat start, I’m very much looking forward to the next issue!

(You can read some previously-published solo adventures of adult members of the Umbrella Academy on the comic’s MySpace page.)

On a completely different note, if you’re interested in any incarnation of the Justice Society of America of the last 35 years, you might be interested in the extended debate Kalinara and I are having about them on her blog. We have completely different points of view on the subject, which is amusing even if I do find her point of view rather incomprehensible! 🙂

Well That Sucked

Magic draft tonight. Onslaught block – our first time drafting that block. We had 8 players.

And I had probably the worst draft I ever had. A green/black deck with big creatures and not enough stuff to let me survive to get them out.

I got kinda screwed because the first pack there seemed to be plenty of green and black going around, so I thought I was in great shape. Then the second pack had no black – because the guy on my left was filtering it out – and the green was very mediocre. And the third pack had no black – because the guy on my right was filtering it out – so I ended up with big expensive creatures and not enough removal and no real combat tricks. I got completely run over in both matches I played, so I bailed after that since I wasn’t having any fun playing.

I should have ended up in green/blue, since there was a huge amount of blue going around. But not in the first pack, so I assumed one or both players on my right were in blue. (They were actually in red/black and red/blue.)

I feel like my drafting ability is going backwards – both of my last two drafts have been awful – and I don’t know how to get better at it. It sucks.