Monday, December 29, 2008

Star Trek: Phase II

Okay, this is one of the coolest things I have ever seen. The original plans for a Star Trek revival included a television series with a second five year mission. These guys have pulled it off. The acting is weak, but the sets, uniforms, and effects are spot on. It's 1969 all over again:

This "show" is done in parts, available on YouTube, and apparently there's more of them. They not only have original series writers like David Gerrold working on them, but they also have Star Trek actors working as well. I really enjoyed this one!

Here's their home page!

Sunday, December 28, 2008

Flashback: Atari!

This year, Christmas presents were a little thin around our house. Sera got the lion's share of the presents, as is only right. We made sure that the rest of our families and their kids were taken care of, and we tried to catch up on bills. Magi's dad and stepmother were generous as they always are, but we had to use that money to buy presents until we get paid again on January 2. On that day we both receive retro pay to cover the raise our association just negotiated for the new school year. They say we'd better enjoy it; with the economy in the tank, it's not very likely we'll get one at all next year. I'm not complaining. At least we'll still have our jobs!

I got Magi a professional knife sharpening station. We have a good assortment of knives, but they get dull way too fast and it's never fun to cook with dull knives. I had Magi cancel what she was going to get me, so I got a couple of books, and a Detroit Tigers beach towel and wall calendar. My dad sent me a hatchet that he made with "Native American" (he's 1/16 Native American) glyphs for which only he knows the meaning. But in my stocking this year was a truly great present. The Atari Plug-N-Play video game controller turns any TV with an RCA jack input into an Atari 2600 video game system with 10 games on it. With brilliant 8-bit graphics and powerful mono sound, this little machine will keep me entertained for hours and hours of fun!

I didn't have a video game system when I was a kid, but my mom did, so my brother and sister got to play it all the time growing up. I got to play with it sporadically when I went to visit them, and I never got enough. Now I can play some of my favorite games as often as I want. This particular version came with Centipede, Asteroids, Missile Command, Pong, Breakout, Adventure (my favorite), Circus Atari, Yar's Revenge, and some kind of Volleyball. You can be sure this will be going to school with me when we return a week from tomorrow, so I can share with my kids what real video games were like back the day!

One really nice thing about this unit is the quality of the controller. If you were playing video games back then, you might remember that the controllers were a little fragile. There was a little plastic piece inside the handle that touched the connections inside and it was prone to break every couple of weeks or so. You could get replacements, but it took time away from your busy playing schedule. This controller is heavy-duty and built to last. I'll be taking this with me on spring break for sure. Since it runs on four AA batteries, I can even plug it into Sera's extra DVD player screen in the car on the trip!

Wii users, eat your hearts out!

Saturday, December 27, 2008

The Spirit

Yes, it was bad. It was Sin City Lite.

Eric, Rob, Chas, and I went out to see The Spirit Christmas afternoon, and it was everything I expected it to be...and unfortunately, more. I get the whole chiarascuro thing, I really do. I get how the emphasis on one color (the Spirit's red tie) is supposed to draw your focus. I understand what writer/director Frank Miller was trying to accomplish. He and Robert Rodriguez were successful at it in Sin City. But whatever this movie was artistically, whatever it was thematically, it wasn't the Spirit.









The Spirit is not some genetic experiment performed by his arch-nemesis. He doesn't have some supernatural healing power, ala Wolverine. He doesn't do backflips up several levels of fire escapes. He does not wear black. He does not wear Converse tennis shoes.

Frank Miller knew Will Eisner, and supposedly respected his work. Why, then, did he turn the Spirit into just another character from Miller's own Sin City? Dwight wore a trenchcoat with Converse sneakers and did acrobatics all over the city. Daredevil (as Matt Murdock) even did that in Miller's Elektra graphic novel. Why, Frank, did we need Eisner's seminal creation to do the same? The Spirit comics had a flavor all their own. The stories did not have to be Millerized with Nazi symbolism and fetishism. You even plagiarized from your own work: "It was a nice piece of work, Kingpin. You shouldn't have signed it," became this gem: "It was a nice piece of work, Sand. You shouldn't have signed it."

You're still able to create stories of your own, Frank. What you've done is ruined a master of the form's best work. You can move on, but this is what people will remember of Will Eisner's work.

And that's a shame.

Friday, December 26, 2008


Nothing like revisiting the past to make the holidays festive! Fury, Stallion of Broken Wheel Ranch was a book that my Grandma and Grandpa McClain gave me in 1975, when I was just 11 years old. Those were difficult times for me, to say the least, and I don't think anyone could have realized the profound impact this book had on me.

The book centers around a boy named Joey Clark, who lives in an orphanage. Joey is unhappy, but a good kid, considered "horse-crazy" by his friends. He longs for a life with a real father as he goes through his chores from day to day. When an opportunity arises for Joey to go to a real, live rodeo, he sneaks in. When he's discovered, he makes a break for it and hides in a vehicle belonging to Jim Newton, a single rancher who has just caught a wild stallion named Fury. Of course Joey is discovered and eventually adopted, and of course he is the only one who can tame the wild stallion. It's stories like this upon which cliches are based.

But the power behind it is that it gave me hope in a time when I had none. My brief vacations to visit my father and my grandparents were the only bright spots in each year of misery. I immediately identified with Joey, and about a year later, my father allowed me to come live with him instead of being beaten and abused every day by my stepfather. This book got me through the last year of five where there was no silver lining to be found.

Thanks, Grandma and Grandpa!

Sunday, December 21, 2008

Schlock and Awful

This is the first page of Batman #683, which is previewed at this site.

My reaction is, really? You have to show Batman grabbing Talia's butt? Who is the target audience here? Obviously I couldn't have this comic book in my classroom. Could you imagine the parent calls I would get? Does this image do anything for older teenagers? I can find more graphic images by accident online, and so can they. So who exactly is this image drawn for?

I have the graphic novel that this scene is taken from. In it, Batman finally finds a moment of happiness in a lifetime of angst and tragedy. It was treated with dignity, class, and even respect for the characters. This is just schlock and awful.

Friday, December 19, 2008

Ah, Vacation!

I keep thinking about the summer vacation we took in late July. I know I didn’t write much about it at the time; I was too relaxed. I remember sitting by the “backwaters” in Mesick in a comfortable camping chair, with a fire going strong, crickets chirping, and a Tigers game on my weather radio. Sera was already asleep in the tent and the sun was going down. Magi was sitting beside me reading a book in the fading light and I thought to myself, it just doesn’t get any better than this. They say you can’t go home again, and to an extent that’s certainly true. There are no jobs in northern Michigan for us. There are hardly jobs for the people who already live there. But what a spot it made for a weeklong camping trip.

It was really difficult to convince Magi to go camping. As she has said herself, her family’s idea of camping was staying at a Day’s Inn. When my buddies and I went camping several years ago for Gen Con, I told Magi about the experience. She said even then that she was too much of a “princess” for the rustic campground we used. Well, a little store called Cabela’s took care of that! On our trip out to visit my father in Utah, I had brought what I thought we needed to camp. I had purchased a clearance-priced tent made by the Swiss Army company that looked pretty good and I set it up for the first time at my father’s house. We didn’t sleep in it, but I was reasonably sure we’d be comfortable. Well, it turns out that the air mattresses that lie on the ground are a little unstable, which we found out after one night in my sister’s tent, and our own tent collapsed in high winds the first time we tried to sleep in it two days later! All the way to Utah, I had seen signs for Cabela’s, and when we drove past one in Omaha, it looked to be the biggest store I had ever seen. So we stopped at every single one on our way home as I looked to make camping an enjoyable experience for her. A week and four Cabela’s stores later, we had a new 20’ x 15’ tent, and two queen sized collapsible air mattress frames. The windstorm in Omaha convinced me to not only replace the tent, but to get a weather radio as well.

As we set out on our first post-windstorm camping experience in my hometown, we stopped in Cadillac for lunch at Elias Bros. Big Boy. Big Boy might seem a little lowbrow for some people, but for me it’s a piece of home. The Big Boy we visited is the one at the end of Pearl Street, where my grandmother and my father lived during my senior year in high school and first few years of college. When I was with them, we ate there virtually every night. I bought Sera a Big Boy beachball for the campsite, and she really enjoyed that.

We also stopped at G&R Party Store in Cadillac, which sells fantastic deli sandwiches. Well, they seem fantastic to me anyway. If hunger is the best seasoning, nostalgia probably comes in a close second. I used to get their sandwiches when I worked at Four Winns boats right out of high school, saving money for college. I took a bite of my sandwich and packed the rest of it to go in our cooler along with a couple of 20-oz. bottles of Faygo (gotta love Michigan products), Redpop for me, and grape for Magi, and we only had one more stop to make at Wal-Mart, because I had forgotten to pack our pillows.

When we arrived at the campground, I found the tent to be just as easy to set up the second time as the first, which I had done at home in the back yard just a few days before. Sera and I had slept out there one night to make sure she was okay with tents that are not being blown down around us. While I was putting up the tent, Sera got busy getting to know the earth of my hometown through her new beach ball. Too bad she didn’t enjoy herself.

We were completely settled in within an hour, with the air mattresses inflated and the beds made. I looked at the sky and decided not to put the fly on the tent, so we could see the stars, which sparkle far brighter in northern Michigan without all the light pollution of the cities nearby. Magi asked me what we would do if it rained. I didn’t think it would rain, but of course we found out that it would the hard way. We awoke to raindrops in our faces and I threw the fly over the tent in about five minutes and just laughed as I pounded the stakes into the ground. I said, “We’ll do what everyone does at a campground when it rains; we’ll go to town!” So, the next morning we made a short trip to Traverse City, where we enjoyed a fantastic lunch at a bistro called
Amical on Front Street. My wife wrote a glowing review of it here. Sera napped in the car afterward while I went into a local bookstore to find something to read. We sat in our van in the rain while Sera slept in her car seat, listening to the raindrops, reading, and contemplating our amazing lunch. By the time we were headed back to Mesick, the rain was clearing, and the weather was mild again, as it was the rest of the week.

When Sera wanted to swim, I took her down to the beach where my grandmother used take me when I was young. We always called this area the “backwaters” but I never understood what it really was, and unfortunately I was too wrapped up in other things to ask. The “backwaters” is actually called Hodenpyl Dam Pond and it’s essentially a flooded valley where the Manistee River used to run through. When the Dam was built by Consumers Power in 1925, the waters backed up, creating the…”backwaters.” Swimming in the backwaters was always a challenge because the beach has about fifty feet of rocky sand until the water is about six feet deep, and then it drops off quickly and steeply. The mud bank that forms the drop off has freshwater clams galore. You can’t eat them, but they sure skip well across calm water.

While we were set up, my buddy Eric came up for a couple of days. I had wanted to go canoeing, but logistically, it wasn’t going to happen with three adults. So, we did the next best thing: we went rafting instead! The four of us rented a raft and set out down the river on the shortest trip they had available, which is two hours. We had a little difficulty at first, as the current pulled us behind a downed tree. Paddling out of that was a bit of work, but after that it was smooth sailing. You really don’t have to paddle much as you float down the Manistee. You just have to steer and enjoy the scenery. There are old railroad bridges, sand banks, and some evidence of logging. By the way, that part of the Manistee River is also home to a bird sanctuary. On any given day you can see Herons with wingspans well over six feet taking off. There are bald eagles too, but we didn’t see one that day.

Two and a half hours later, Sera was pretty miserable. Her life jacket prevented her head from turning so that she couldn’t even rest her head on Magi’s shoulders. She still talks fondly about riding in the boat, though.

That night, we returned to Amical, and had a wonderful dinner. I had a sirloin steak with morel mushrooms, the trademark of my little town. If you’ve never had morel mushrooms, they sell for around $25 per pound and they are worth it. I grew up with them, so I can’t bring myself to spend that kind of money on them, but if I see them on a menu as part of a meal, there’s a good chance that I will order it.

The next day, we said our goodbyes to Eric and left for Mackinac Island, just a hundred or so miles north. We had reservations for the Grand Hotel, and after four days of roughing it, we looked forward to being pampered. We took the ferry over from Mackinaw City, and while Magi and Sera rode in the main cabin, I rode on top in the air and took pictures. When we arrived after 15 minutes, we initially had trouble finding a coach to the hotel. For those who have not been to Mackinac Island, there are no motor vehicles allowed except a few fire engines and ambulances. Everyone else is conducted by horse, carriage, or bicycle. It was actually convenient that we were delayed at the dock, because I had forgotten my sport jacket. You see, at the Grand Hotel, you must dress in jacket and tie after six. I had left mine in the minivan. Fortunately, we had valet parked, so the people at the ferry arranged for it to be brought over on the next boat and delivered to the hotel. What service!

We checked into our room and showered, showered, showered. Our feet were filthy from days in the sandy pines, wearing Crocs. Even after you take a shower at the campground, you have to walk across sand to get back to your campsite. It took some serious scrubbing to get the dirt out of every nook and cranny of our toes. My jacket arrived at about the same time as the luggage, and we got ready for dinner. Meals at the Grand Hotel are sumptuous, and always wonderful. The milk chocolate crème’ brulee was amazing.

Sera loved shopping in the little village. There were all kinds of cheap souvenirs and plastic toys that she could play with, and we got her a t-shirt with a monkey on it that she just adored. There was so much to see that was new to her. There were horses everywhere, and beautiful flower gardens. And she really enjoyed the attention she got from the wait staff and the guests in the dining room as she virtually pranced through the aisle after dinner.

The next day, during Sera’s nap, I rented a bike and rode the 7.5 miles of Lake Shore Road. This is a trip I really want to take again next year with my own bike. The one I rented was comfortable enough, but my bike is built much more for someone my size. I’m hoping Sera will want to go with me in her trailer. She would really enjoy the scenery. I want to find a way to mount our video camera on my handlebars too. It’s a gorgeous ride.

All too soon, we were headed home back down I-75. It rained most of the way back, and it was fitting. We had enjoyed such great weather for most of our trip, we felt it was a fair tradeoff to drive home in the rain. With just a quick stop at Sea Shell City, a great tourist trap that has been there for years, we drove straight through until we were almost home.

As I sit here in the dead of winter with a slushy drive home ahead of me, it’s nice to think back to that week in what I consider paradise. I look forward to going back for more.

Saturday, December 13, 2008

The Greatest Christmas Movie Ever Made

'Tis the season for Christmas movies and specials, and we've seen our share of them during the past few weeks. We started with the Grinch and Charlie Brown, which we've owned for years. Then we picked up a DVD set with Rudolph, Frosty, and Santa Claus is Comin' to Town. It's a Wonderful Life will have to wait until after Sera goes to bed, but the greatest Christmas movie of them all is, of course, Die Hard.

My wife laughs at me whenever I make mention of this, but it's absolutely true. Released in 1988, this movie made Bruce Willis a star. Yes, it came out in the summer, but the setting if you'll recall, is a Christmas Eve party in Los Angeles, where New York detective John McClane, is reunited with his estranged wife, Holly, played by Bonnie Bedelia. No sooner does McClane arrive at the party, but a group of criminals takes the building by force. McClane hides in his wife's office, and then escapes to the unfinished upper floors, armed with only his nine millimeter semi-auto, he wreaks havoc on the operations of the villainous Hans Gruber (Alan Rickman) and his accomplices.

The great thing about this movie is the very thing that made Live Free or Die Hard such a bad movie. There is no leaping from the tail of a crashing jet. There is no explosion that doesn't belong in the movie for plot reasons. It's just McClane, running around an office building barefoot with an increasingly dirty tank top, mixing it up with the bad guys and actually getting hurt. He doesn't shrug off bullet wounds. Like Indiana Jones, McClane's pain isn't ignored. He's slowed by injury. He gets punchy from blood loss. And the misdirection by the bad guys was completely fresh and novel at the time.

One of the bad things about Die Hard is going to be a problem for movies (and novels) from now on; current technology dates the story badly. If McClane had posessed a simple cell phone, events would have been drastically different. One of the weaknesses the bad guys capitalize on after they cut the phone lines is the lack of information about them that the police and FBI have. McClane could have changed all of that as well as the timing of their arrival by being able to identify himself as a police officer when calling in the emergency.

Despite any of its problems, Die Hard remains a top-notch action movie--no, make that a top notch Christmas movie, indeed a prototype for what action movies should be and so seldom are.

Yippie-Kay-Yay--er, you know the rest.

Brad Bird on the Spirit? Oh, What Could Have Been!

I read on Mark Evanier's site this morning that we could have had a great Spirit movie over 25 years ago by the director of the Iron Giant, the Incredibles, and Ratatouille, instead of Frank Miller's (per)version:

Thursday, December 11, 2008

The Faucet

I stayed home with Sera today, and it was just wonderful. She's sick, with her nose running like a faucet, but her appetite is unchanged. Ordinarily, she wakes up at 6:00. Today, she didn't wake up until 7:30, and was ravenous. My little girl ate about 3,200 grapes, and then an entire banana, followed by a piece of bacon, a piece of toast, and some of my eggs. Feed a cold, starve a fever, I guess!

While we sat together on the couch with her tucked in next to me watching Wonder Pets or one of the other awful shows she loves, I watched the most recent episode of Chuck on hulu on Magi's laptop. I plugged in my headphones, which she of course wanted to try. So I hooked up my splitter, which we got for traveling to China, and she listened on her own headphones while still watching her show.

Searching through the channels, I saw an opportunity to watch a movie uninterrupted during her nap. Live Free or Die Hard was coming on at 11:30, so all I had to do was put her down for a nap a half hour early. I did that, and she thwarted me by staying awake until 12:15. Ladies and gentlemen, always respect the schedule! After a two-and-a-half hour nap, she was up and wanted a bath. Yes, you read that right. She wanted a bath. It's high recreation for Sera, and who was I to deny her?

By the time Magi got home from work, we had gone through half a box of tissue, but we had a great time together. Whether we were drawing on her easel, or watching the Little Drummer Boy on DVD, or just playing kitty cat, this is truly the way to spend a sick day!

Saturday, December 06, 2008

Watching the Watchmen

I told Magi that I wanted only one thing for my birthday (yesterday; I'll blog about it someday), and it was this book.

It is everything I hoped it would be. Watching the Watchmen includes character studies, notes, breakdowns, color roughs, original script pages, and colorist notes for the greatest graphic story of all time. You can literally see how Dave Gibbons worked out the visuals for every character, major and minor; how he laid out scenery so that it was consistent not only from page to page, but from issue to issue. He even includes the original graphic schedule he made for himself to keep himself on task. As I pored over every detail, I gained a new respect for comic book artists. The good ones really don't just sit down at the table and knock stuff out. They think about everything, and the speed at which they actually draw is secondary compared to the process of even getting to the point where they are ready to draw the page. Dave Gibbons goes through several steps between thumbnail breakdowns and the inked page. I had no idea how laborious it actually is and I admire him for his efforts, especially on this wonderful work.

Thursday, December 04, 2008

What's Wrong With This Picture?

Oh, no, the Spirit really does say the movie trailer:

Unfortunately, you have to watch the whole thing. It's near the end.