Chilly Vegas Trip

We’re back from a long weekend in Las Vegas. While we didn’t get the snow that the city got last month, it was surprisingly chilly all week, with lows below 40. We don’t often have to wear jackets when we go to Vegas, but this time…

Saturday night we went to see Le Rêve, the show at the upscale Wynn hotel. It’s not actually a Cirque du Soleil show, but it was created by a former Cirque choreographer. Apparently it wasn’t a big hit when it debuted, and has undergone quite a few changes since, but overall it’s quite good. For those who have been to Vegas, it’s a water-based show like “O”, but has many of the feats of strength and agility of Mystere. The music is somewhere in between, with several songs with English lyrics. The story – such as it is – doesn’t make a lot of sense, but as a framework for the sights and sounds it works well enough. Overall I still think Ka is the strongest show of this sort in Vegas, and it actually does have a story that makes sense! But Le Rêve is worth seeing, and I could see going back to see it, too.

We bookended our trip with our usual outing to the steakhouse at Bally’s, which was excellent as always. We never regret going there. If anything, we only regret being too full to eat everything on the menu.

Chinese New Year fell on Monday, so many hotels had decorations up for the event, such as the Venetian:

Venetian tower decked out for Chinese New Year 2009
(click for larger image)

…and, as always, the Bellagio conservatory:

Bellagio conservatory decorated for Chinese New Year

Panda plant sculptures at the Bellagio conservatory

We didn’t try many new restaurants this time; the only new one was BLT Burger at the Mirage, which was quite good. The Mirage is reconfiguring things since Siegfried and Roy are no longer there, and BLT replaced the white tiger habitat, which is too bad, but that’s the way it goes I guess. Otherwise we hit our usual haunts, which were good as usual, save that we had really bad service at the Studio Cafe at the MGM: Slow service, and Debbi’s eggs benedict were cooked wrong and we sent it back. We were very grumpy about this, especially because we’ve always liked them in the past, but now we’re not sure we’ll go back. We probably will eventually, once we get over this experience.

Debbi played a bunch of Pai Gow poker and I joined her for much of it. We had a few interesting hands, as every so often you have several choices of directions to go and one is clearly better than another. The most interesting was a hand Debbi had where she had both a straight and a flush, but playing the straight gave her a pair in the low hand, which was better overall. I played two hands at once for a little while, on the theory that it would lower my variance, which seems like a good idea in games played against the house.

We had some really nice dealers, especially one woman at the MGM. We also watched the other players, who can be fascinating: A lot of high rollers play pai gow, and bet $100 and up on each hand, which is a good way to win or lose really quickly. That’s an order of magnitude higher than we feel comfortable with, but it’s interesting to see. Some of them are perfectly friendly and others seem to want to just play their game and not be bothered.

I also played some poker, mixing in limit games with some 1-2 no limit. I was pretty lucky all around, and had a few memorable hands:

  • Picked up Aces in the big blind. Before the action came to me there was a raise, two calls, and a reraise. I reraised, the first raiser and callers folded, and the other player reraised me all in. I called. Someone asked, “Who has Aces and who has Kings?” A King came on the board, which worried me, but he had Queens, and I won the pot (and his whole stack, since I had him covered). I wonder what he thought when the other played wondered who had Aces and who had Kings?
  • A young woman sat down at the table and gave the impression of knowing the basics of the game, but none of the nuance. A few hands later I hit my set of 8s on the flop, and rivered a full house, and put her all in, winning her stack. The other players ragged on me for dampening the mood at the table (many of them were flirting with her). She re-bought and started winning many hands, including a huge one just after I left the table.
  • In my last session I got stacked myself: The under-the-gun player called the blind, the next player called, and I raised with Ace-Jack. UTG reraised and everyone else folded. UTG was an aggressive player who had won many pots at the table (which had just been formed when I joined) without showing down any hands, so I thought there was a good chance he had a worse Ace or even King-Queen or something like that. But he had Ace-King, and I didn’t catch a Jack and got stacked. Bummer. I did consider folding rather than going all-in, but it seemed like a borderline situation, where I could go either way.

Limit poker went well too, although the hands were less memorable.

We also always enjoy seeing the lion habitat at the MGM:

Lazy lion at the MGM Grand's lion habitat

One thing we noticed was how quiet things were the whole time. It even started in San Jose airport when we got there on Saturday, and there were maybe a couple dozen people in Terminal A when we got through security. Las Vegas was relatively quiet, too; Debbi says one dealer said the whole city is like that, but that the MGM Grand’s casino is doing better than most. The recession is hitting Vegas pretty hard.

On the other hand, we did have to wait to get seated at a couple of restaurants, and the poker rooms seemed as busy as usual when I played. So it’s not completely dead.

All-in-all, another pleasant getaway. Going back to work was a bit of a shock!

This Week’s Haul

  • The Brave and the Bold #21, by David Hine, Doug Braithwaite & Bill Reinhold (DC)
  • Green Lantern #37, by Geoff Johns, Ivan Reis & Oclair Albert (DC)
  • Final Crisis: Superman Beyond 3D #2 of 2, by Grant Morrison, Doug Mahnke, Christian Alamy, Tom Nguyen, Drew Geraci & Derek Fridolfs (DC)
  • Tangent: Superman’s Reign #11 of 12, by Dan Jurgens, Carlos Magno & Julio Ferreira, and Ron Marz, Andie Tong & Mark McKenna (DC)
  • Astonishing X-Men #29, by Warren Ellis & Simone Bianchi (Marvel)
  • Guardians of the Galaxy #9, by Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning, Brad Walker, Carlos Magno, Victor Olazaba & Jack Purcell (Marvel)
  • Powers: The Definitive Hardcover Edition vol 2 HC, by Brian Michael Bendis & Michael Avon Oeming (Marvel/Icon)
Final Crisis: Superman Beyond 3D #2 Superman Beyond is one of those rare Final Crisis spin-offs which actually ties in to the main series, in that something that happens in it actually happens in the main series, too. Unfortunately, that “something” is Superman leaving Earth for his adventure in this series, and otherwise this story doesn’t seem to have anything at all to do with Final Crisis as a whole – it’s just a quest for Superman to find something to save Lois Lane’s life. Indeed, the opening sequence of Final Crisis #6 seems to be Superman returning from his adventure in Final Crisis: Legion of 3 Worlds (which is also running ridiculously late, as it looks like the last couple of issues will be published after Final Crisis is over). So why bother?

As Chris Sims points out, Superman Beyond plays with the idea of breaking the fourth wall, something writer Grant Morrison has done in his career before. But it’s actually one of the least successful elements of Morrison’s writing: The climax of his early series, Animal Man, features multiple breaks of the fourth wall, but never to any good effect; indeed, the extent to which the climax works (and how well it “works” is debatable; certainly it’s not as strong as the first 5 issues, and it really feels like a cop-out) involves the hero rejecting the idea of the fourth wall and embracing the fundamental nature of the reality from which he came. When it comes to breaking the fourth wall, Morrison’s efforts seem clumsy next to those of (say) Alan Moore, and they don’t really contribute to the story here: The nature of limbo, the land of forgotten characters, could have been replaced with any place of exile beyond the bounds of the known universe and it would have served the story as well.

Superman Beyond does have some good bits to it, mainly involving Superman and his counterparts from alternate Earths. But it’s also full of things that make basically no sense: Why are the Monitors vampires? Why is the “evil Monitor” (who’s saddled with the ridiculous name of Mandrakk) so evil? Could we have some motivation here? And what does any of this have to do with Final Crisis?

Superman Beyond mostly underscores Morrison’s ongoing transformation into a writer who writes for effect rather than purpose, with style but no substance (and the style isn’t all that stylish, either). It’s more fun than Final Crisis, mainly because it has a little bit of characterization and the heroes are likeable, and – thank goodness – it’s a lot shorter and less ponderous. But I can’t really recommend it, since fundamentally it’s a story without a point; it’s for hard-core Morrison fans only.

Powers: The Definitive Hardcover Collection vol 2 I’ve written a summary of Bendis & Oeming’s series Powers previously, and I don’t have a lot to add to the general overview I provided there. But I wanted to write a little something about this second volume of the “definitive” hardcover collection that came out this week.

It’s the middle of (I presume) three volumes collecting the first series of Powers, and while it’s overall the weakest of the three, it’s still got some strong stuff in it. The three stories include: Investigating the death of a Superman-type hero who turns out to have been having a lot of affairs (with women who creepily all look alike – the attention to detail really pays off in this series at times); Investigating the deaths of a team of corporate superheroes, with all the cynicism that the term “corporate superheroes” implies; And a group of anarchists who are killing current and former heroes to make some sort of point. The strength of the stories come from the exploration of detective Christian Walker’s former life as a hero, and his partner Deena Pilgrim’s maturation as a character. The two didn’t really like each other very much early on, but their relationship becomes a lot more interesting as time goes on.

The stories aren’t the strongest in the series mainly because the supporting characters mostly aren’t very interesting; they’re there to create situations for Walker and Pilgrim to end up in, so the stories feel a little manipulative, getting them where they need to be without having it come about organically. I think Bendis does the best that he can, but the build-up to the excellent stuff in the next volume feels artificial.

Still, as a whole Powers is a very good series, even if it’s being published less and less frequently these days. The definitive hardcovers are a pretty good way to read the whole series, although the trades are a good option, too.

LiveJournal Crossposting Enabled

I’ve set things up so posts on my Fascination Place journal will be automatically crossposted to my LiveJournal account. It was easier than I expected! Thanks to Jim Rittenhouse for pointing me at the LJ-XP plugin to WordPress to get it working.

And for those of you on LJ who were enjoying my relative silence, well, all good things must come to an end! 🙂

Our Long National Nightmare is Finally Over

I think the best thing we can say about the Bush presidency is that America survived to see the end of it. Although, looking around at the economic carnage we’re experiencing, it was a pretty close thing, and certainly we didn’t get much help from the administration itself.

Two recessions – this one often called the worst since the Great Depression. Two overseas wars, one of them ill-advised from the outset and largely irrelevant to making the US safer, and both of them quite expensive in both blood and treasure. The utter failure of the federal response to Hurricane Katrina. The ongoing gutting of the nation’s schools thanks to projects such as Leave No Child Behind. All adding up to a presidency which seemed to care little (if at all) for ordinary Americans, and was only interested in making a splash and further enriching its already-rich friends.

Has George W. Bush been the worst President in history? Perhaps not, but certainly he’s among the worst. The usual joke is to ask such a character not to let the door hit him on the way out, but honestly I’m okay with the door hitting him.

I’m not as enamored with Barack Obama as many are, although certainly I agree that he has the potential to be a great President. (I don’t think we’ve seen a truly great President since at least Kennedy, maybe Truman.) I hope that people can temper their expectations to account for the fact that his administration has a long way to climb to dig us out of this economic hole before they can really start building on the foundations again. That may lead to some disappointment in the next couple of years. (One almost wonders whether the Bush administration helped engineer the recession to make it that much harder for their successors to get anything done, or undo their disastrous policies. That’s maybe a little too cynical for even me, though.)

Still, the first step on the road back is to throw out the people who brought you to this place and elect someone reasonable. And it looks like we can put up a “Mission Accomplished” banner for that part.

However, the hard part has barely begun.

Birthday Weekend

I can’t complain about my birthday weekend: It’s been packed full of fun stuff.

Friday night Debbi took me out to dinner. We went to Sundance the Steakhouse, a local place that we’d never been to before, but which we discovered through the discount cards we get through our workplaces. (We’ve actually discovered several good places through them.) It was very yummy! They have an elegant decor with wood panelling and display cases of what I assume are memorabilia from Stanford, which is just down the street. We each ordered a steak dinner, with an appetizer of potato skins. Good stuff! We’ll definitely go back.

At home we watched 3 more episodes of Battlestar Galactica, and we’re now nearly caught up.

And that wrapped up my birthday proper.

Saturday we ran a variety of errands in order to host my birthday party in the evening. As always I didn’t send out the invitations until quite late – Wednesday evening. With my birthday falling so soon after Christmas it’s always hard to get myself to put it together early. I also have a hard time figuring out whom to invite. I worry about having so many people over that we won’t have space to cram them all into our house, but on the other hand I also consider inviting some people I know casually, enjoy hanging out with, but wonder if they’d feel peculiar that I invited them to my birthday party. Debbi encouraged me to invite more rather than fewer people, so that’s what I did. And then of course, there’s always some obvious person that I forget until a day or two later.

Anyway, despite my worries and despite the short notice, we had plenty of people show up. Which is itself rather flattering: I have lots of friends! Some folks I hadn’t seen in a while showed up, too, such as Lucy, Trish, and Mark & Yvette.

People were mesmerized by a frustrating puzzle that Debbi’s father sent her for Christmas: I think we managed to identify all the OCD people in the room with it. And our friends Lisa and Michael brought their daughter Isabella, who is now walking, and who loves cats. I guess she was able to pet Blackjack at one point, which left her completely delighted. She’s become quite the little flirt. Subrata and Susan brought over Ajay, who’s not yet crawling, but who seemed pretty happy to see all the people. He’s going to be quite the little charmer himself.

After consuming the USDA-mandated quantities of cake and ice cream, everyone staggered off home. But we had a great time. Even the cats had fun!

Today we headed off to Half Moon Bay for brunch and an hour walk along the seashore: It’s been quite warm here recently, so it was perfect weather for it. Then we came home and sat around watching football and putting the house back together.

I couldn’t really have asked for a much better weekend. How was yours?


My Mom sent me an e-mail this morning that began, “I know what I was doing 40 years ago. I also know what you were doing, probably crying. Well, we both made it this far.”

I have mixed feelings about reaching the big four-oh. On the one hand I lead a comfortable life, I enjoy my job, I have a great girlfriend, great friends, and more to do with my time than I have time. And I still have all my fingers.

On the other hand, the older I get the more I feel like certain things are slipping away from me. It’s unlikely I’ll have a significant writing career at this point (and there’s a whole post I could do about my writing skills, aspirations, and failures), and I regret that my drawing skills have lain fallow over the last 15 years.

Of course, there are also things that I feel like I “should” have done, such as travelled more widely, but I don’t really regret not having done because they’re not things I’m really into.

Age 40 is something of a landmark age: If you haven’t had kids yet and want to, you’re probably thinking seriously about getting moving on it. On the other hand, if you had kids in your early 20s, then they’re starting to head off to college around this time. 40 is an upper bound for even most world-class athletes to compete at the highest level, so what about the rest of us? Not to mention that in past centuries, many people were lucky even to make it this far. Those factors, combined with it being a round number which our monkey-brains like to treat as something special, make this birthday a little melancholy for me.

But I really shouldn’t be gloomy about it, because really things are pretty good. Turning 30 seems like it was a long time ago now, so I have lots of time ahead of me, too. And maybe I’ll get to some of that stuff over the next decade.

Plus, I managed to keep my birthday under wraps and it looks like I’ll escape being suddenly embarrassed by all my cow-orkers today, the way we embarrassed my friend James on his last birthday. Thank goodness!

Sure I wouldn’t mind being 30 again. But this ain’t bad.

This Week’s Haul

  • Booster Gold #16, by Dan Jurgens & Norm Rapmund (DC)
  • Fables #80, by Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham, Peter Gross & Andrew Pepoy (DC/Vertigo)
  • Final Crisis #6 of 7, by Grant Morrison, J.G. Jones, Carlos Pacheco, Doug Mahnke, Marco Rudy, Christian Alamy & Jesus Marino (DC)
  • Adam: Legend of the Blue Marvel #3 of 5, by Kevin Grevioux, Mat Broome, Sean Parsons, Roberto Castro & Álvaro Lopez (Marvel)
  • Annihilation Conquest vol 2 TPB, by Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning, Sean Chen, Scott Hanna, Javier Grillo-Marxuach, Kyle Holz, Tom Raney, & Wellington Alves (Marvel)
  • Daredevil: Born Again premiere HC, by Frank Miller & David Mazzucchelli (Marvel)
  • B.P.R.D.: The Black Goddess #1 of 5, by Mike Mignola, John Arcudi & Guy Davis (Dark Horse)
  • Invincible #58, by Robert Kirkman & Ryan Ottley (Image)
  • The Perhapanauts #5, by Todd Dezago, Craig Rousseau & Jason Copland (Image)
Final Crisis #6 Another month, another issue of DC’s disastrous event series, Final Crisis. This issue could be titled, “This issue, something happens!” Some of the Apokaliptians are defeated, even though the fight took three issues (!) to conclude. Luthor and Sivana outmaneuver Libra, whose role in the series has been so utterly trivial it’s hard to understand why he’s there at all. And Batman faces down Darkseid, and both sides lose. Superman shows up (from a trip whose second issue hasn’t been published yet) to try to pick up the pieces.

It’s dreadfully written, from start to finish, with Morrison piling pointless detail on top of recycled plot device. Who cares that the Legion’s Miracle Machine is Guardian technology harnessed by the Controllers? Captain Marvel Jr. uses the world’s most obvious solution to deal with Bad Mary Marvel, and her claim that she can never change back again feels right out of Miracleman. Then there’s the decidedly unheroic plan to lead the remnants of the human race to life on a parallel world. Okay, the notion that the Question would become part of the global peace agency that creates OMAC is cute, but – so?

This issue of Final Crisis feels like a series of in-jokes, and not particularly funny ones, at that. It’s not clever, it’s not fun, it’s not heroic. Who’s reading this crap?

Oh wait, I am. But only for one more issue. Thank goodness.

On the (much) brighter side…

Daredevil: Born Again Every so often I try to come up with what I think are the ten best comics stories of all time. The list usually changes each time, and I don’t typically even get to ten, but there are two books that are on every list: One is Cerebus: Jaka’s Story, and the other is Daredevil: Born Again. Marvel’s reprinted the latter this month in a nifty hardcover collection, which I happily picked up.

The remarkable thing about Born Again when it was published is that Daredevil’s status quo is completely changed by the story: At the beginning he’s a respected lawyer, and by the end of the first chapter all of that is gone, and he never gets it back. Not surprisingly, he eventually returned to his old status quo, but at the time it was a radical change that seemed irreversible.

Fundamentally, Born Again tears down Daredevil’s life from the very beginning, as his nemesis, the Kingpin of Crime, learns his secret identity. Rather than just killing him, the Kingpin ruins him first, and then kills him. Or tries to. As anyone who has lost everything would be, Daredevil becomes desperate, has nowhere to turn, and confronts his torturer. But, having escaped death, Daredevil has nowhere farther down to go, and he’s forced to understand who he is at his very core, and to rely on that essential self to pull himself up. Miller chronicles Daredevil’s arc carefully, but every little bit counts.

Daredevil is sometimes pushed aside in his own story: The Kingpin has his own arc and gets considerable page time as he’s flying high after doing away with the hero, until he realizes that not everything has gone according to plan. Between these two is Daily Bugle reporter Ben Urich, a friend of Daredevil’s who is also targeted by the Kingpin due to his investigative skills, and who has to face his own demons as a result. The book is full of interesting supporting characters, and even the Bugle editor, J. Jonah Jameson, gets a chance to shine; Jameson may have a blind spot where Spider-Man is concerned, but we see here that he truly is a good man when it counts.

Born Again is a deeply human story, with just a few whiffs of super-powers. Heroes and villains circling each other in a game more complex and deadly than a mere fight. And David Mazzucchelli is an essential component of the story, his artwork impressing with his control of light and shadow from the very first page, moving to a highly stylized approach when things are at their darkest, before returning to a more traditional style in the climax.

It really is one of the best comics ever. Don’t miss it.

This Week’s Haul

A very light week:

  • Green Lantern: Wanted: Hal Jordan TPB, by Geoff Johns, Ivan Reis, Oclair Albert & Daniel Acuña (DC)
  • War of Kings Saga special, by Michael Hoskin & many hands (Marvel)
  • Secret Invasion: War of Kings #1, by Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning, Paul Pelletier, Bong Dazo, Rick Magyar & Joe Pimentel (Marvel)
  • Hellboy: The Wild Hunt #2 of 8, by Mike Mignola & Duncan Fegredo (Dark Horse)
  • The Boys #26, by Garth Ennis & Darick Robertson (Dynamite)
Secret Invasion: War of Kings one-shot Marvel follows up its most recent event, the impenetrable Secret Invasion (which at least had the advantage of being more lively than DC’s Final Crisis), with an event for its space heroes, War of Kings. I’m mainly buying it for the space heroes angle, since I enjoy both Nova and Guardians of the Galaxy, and WoK is written by the authors of those series, Dan Abnett and Andy Lanning. That said, the set-up is amazingly convoluted and if you really want to know all the details, you can pick up the War of Kings Saga issue, which summarizes the whole thing.

Briefly, the Inhumans are a relatively obscure set of Marvel characters who millennia ago were substantially evolved by the alien Kree, who intended to use them as weapons. The Kree instead pulled out and the Inhumans have lived ever since in seclusion, first on Earth and then on the moon. Following some unpleasant confrontations with humanity in recent years, Black Bolt, the mute leader of the Inhumans, has decided that his race should claim their heritage as the rulers of the Kree. In this week’s Secret Invasion: War of Kings one-shot, they do exactly that, with Black Bolt seizing power from the incumbent Ronan the Accuser. Meanwhile, the Shi’ar empire has an usurper of its own, Vulcan, the mutant brother of the X-Men’s Cyclops, and he sees the Inhumans’ action as an interesting challenge to his own power, and presumably intended to provoke a war with them.

Got all that? It’s really even more complex than that – that’s the brief version.

At a glance this event looks like it’s going to suffer from a lack of sympathetic characters: Black Bolt has always been something of a nonentity, written as a stoic figure who acts through others, whole Vulcan is just an outright villain. But presumably Abnett and Lanning are going to show the war between the two through the eyes of people affected by it, such as Nova and the Guardians and anyone else who’s in the wrong place at the wrong time.

Of more concern is the sheer convoluted nature of the premise. Earlier cosmic events such as Annihilation and its sequel Annihilation Conquest had the advantage of having relatively simple premises, but pulling in these complex set-ups just makes this one very hard to get behind: Can’t we just have a good old space war without getting Vulcan and the Inhumans involved? It feels like a big overreach.

It’s also a disappointing to see the interesting ongoing storylines in Nova and Guardians disrupted again by yet another event. Can we call for a moratorium on this stuff and get back to some plain, simple storytelling?

I have a certain amount of faith in Abnett and Lanning to pull off stuff like this, but I think they’ve set themselves a big challenge here, and I’m not sure the payoff is likely to merit the risk.