Literacy 2021: Book 16: Sex Criminals

Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky’s comic series about people whose orgasms stop time.

Sex Criminals by Matt Fraction and Chip Zdarsky

30 issue comic series (with a finale issue 69) collected in 6 compilations (or, recently, 3 larger editions).

A woman whose orgasms have the power to stop time happens to meet a man with the same ability. They decide to use their power to rob banks.

Smart, mature, and respectful, while still frequently being laugh-out-loud funny. Pretty good balance between high-brow and low-brow, and often jumps seamlessly between the two. Frequently resists the story’s natural inclination to go towards action or violence, instead having characters resolve conflicts by talking to each other. Casually breaks the fourth wall from start to finish, and it somehow works more often than you’d expect. Great sound effects throughout. Does a good job of capturing what the honeymoon/infatuation stage of a relationship feels like, without being overly twee. Suzie and Jon are genuinely charming, and it’s easy to get invested in their relationship. One extended fourth-wall-breaking sequence could’ve been insufferable if not for increasingly over-the-top jokes depicting Zdarsky as a comics superstar. The alternate cover with Fraction & Zdarsky in a family portrait is an all-time classic.

Extremely pleased with itself. A little too much of the fourth-wall breaking is clever enough to work (e.g. speech balloons so full of text that they’re crowding out all the people in the panel), but still comes across as annoyingly defensive. The supposedly “highbrow” stuff feels really over-written, and lampshading it doesn’t help much. Gets weaker the longer it goes on — it’d be unfair to expect a series that ran for seven years to keep up the potential energy of its first issues, but man, reading it all at once really makes it feel as if it’s crawling up its own ass. Resolution felt extremely anti-climactic (ironically). Has extended parodies of other comics that could’ve worked as gags, but feel obtuse when stretched out over a full page or even an entire issue. Even as someone who likes Queen, I don’t see the point in spending an entire half of a comic just devoted to a character singing a song.

A Bigger Con
Every one of the male/female relationships has a weird dynamic: the women are generally treated as blameless, and everything that goes wrong with the relationship is treated as the man’s fault. There’s no sense of partnership; when there’s any conflict, the woman is free to be as caustic as she wants, and it’s up to the man to recognize and acknowledge what he’s done wrong. Suzie doesn’t appreciably change over the course of the series; she learns more about herself, but I get no sense that she’s felt any obligation to change her behavior at all.

Smart, clever, genuinely funny, and deservedly one of the classic comic series of the 2010s. I just think its defensiveness about being too “on the nose,” its weird relationship dynamics, and its somewhat lackluster conclusion kept me from being completely satisfied.

Libby, Get Your Ebooks Here

I’m late to the party on checking out ebooks from the local library.

Likely old news to everyone, but since I didn’t hear about it until a week or so ago, maybe it’ll benefit someone out there:

The Libby app for iOS, Android, and web browsers lets you use your library card to download ebooks and audiobooks. I always had a vague idea that this was possible, but I assumed that it would involve going to a local branch to set everything up, or at best going to an archaic website and using QR codes or something to get books locked to a proprietary, inferior e-reader.

After a week, here’s what’s impressed me most about using Libby:

  • They start by helping you get set up with a library card, if you don’t already have one. Here in Oakland, I did the whole process on my phone and got a digital card within 24 hours, on a weekend.
  • The app is really good-looking and pleasant to use, completely unlike the outdated experience I’d been dreading. It’s odd to see such a polished app not being used to sell stuff or make me angry.
  • The app has an interesting design not quite like anything I’ve seen before. It seems to combine a library-style interface with the AI messenger fad that blew up a couple of years ago, but in a way that actually works.
  • You can choose the format you want to borrow the book, including Kindle, the app’s built-in e-reader, or in some cases downloading as an e-pub. This is the main draw for me, since reading on the Kindle has honestly gotten me to read more.
  • I haven’t yet used the in-app reader, since I’ve gone all-in on Kindle, but from what I’ve seen on the website, it looks professional. (Compared to less-than-great experiences I’ve had with other readers, or badly-formatted books on the Kindle).
  • Once delivered to the Kindle, a book borrowed from the library is treated identically to ones that I’d bought. Synced across devices, readable from multiple versions of the Kindle app, integrated with Goodreads, and so on.
  • Placing a book on hold, when it’s not immediately available, is very easy. You’re given an estimate of how long it’ll take for the book to become available, and how many other readers are waiting for how many available “copies.” In my case, a book became available weeks before the estimate, and it was easy for me to reschedule it for later.

I’ve been living in Oakland for years, but I just have never been able to drag my ass to the library to get a library card. (I never got one for San Francisco, either, come to think of it). I don’t usually read enough to warrant one, plus I’m spoiled and don’t have the patience to wait if a book I want isn’t immediately available. I worry that my years of laziness and eagerness to take the path of least resistance has ended up paying for Jeff Bezos’s in-flight magazine on his peen rocket or something.

Maybe reading library books delivered online isn’t as novel (sorry) for everyone else as it is for me, but I can’t help feeling as if I’d unlocked a hidden secret I haven’t been taking advantage of for decades. This system isn’t perfect, of course; it’s got artificial scarcity built in, to mimic borrowing a physical book. And there are going to be plenty of titles that aren’t available at all.

But in just over a week, I’ve already finished one book and am a quarter of the way through another one. Both were books that I was curious about, but hesitant to commit to if it meant buying them outright. It seems dumb and obvious written out, but having to pay publisher prices for everything imposed this bar on anything I read: it had to be good enough that I’d be willing to “own” it. And that was lurking in the back of my mind while I read everything, making me a little more subconsciously hyper-critical.

If I’m just borrowing from the library, though, I can go back to reading trash without guilt or remorse!

Friday’s All Right for Getting to the Other Side

The Friday link post that asks have I been missing out on the joke my entire life?

A few weeks ago, I read a comic strip about the classic “Why did the chicken cross the road?” joke that mentioned that the joke had a double meaning that had gotten lost over the years. The claim is that in addition to being a nonsense joke, it was kind of a double-entendre about “going to the other side” as in going to the afterlife. It was convincing enough that I started to wonder if everybody got both meanings, and I was the only one who’d gone since childhood assuming that it was funny only because it was a non-joke.

(Asking around to some friends and former co-workers online, I learned that none of them had heard of the double meaning, that it seemed an unlikely “retcon,” and as Dave Grossman pointed out: if one of the first appearances of it in print was as far back as 1847, that was before roads had a reputation for being dangerous or getting run over. So it’s very unlikely part of the secret double meaning. But I already spent minutes making the image for this post, dammit).

  • Pre-orders for the Playdate started on Thursday. They went through the initial batch pretty quickly, but orders made now will deliver next year. It’s good to see so much interest around it, since those guys have been working super-hard on this thing forever. (While backing up stuff the other night, I saw a bunch of early art assets for my game, and I was stunned to realize how long I’ve been working on the thing!)
  • As part of opening pre-orders for the Playdate, Panic released a new episode of the Panic podcast, interviewing a lot of people involved with the project, from initial concept to software development.
  • For the record: I’m 100% Team ScarJo. (Actually, I didn’t care all that much until I read Disney’s public statement about the suit, which was hell of gross).
  • Speaking of gross: Activision/Blizzard has been sued by the state of California for a long history of sexual harassment and discrimination. What’s been remarkable to me is how awful Blizzard’s response was — and yet 100% in line with what you’d expect from rich white men in Orange County, CA. NPR, as usual, both-sides it into an innocuous non-response, but the full text is just dripping with indignation and passive-aggressive blaming California liberals. Instead of making even a token attempt to address the allegations. I’m impressed that so many employees were outraged by the response, enough to make a statement and schedule a walk-out for earlier this week. Meanwhile, Activision Blizzard keeps digging their hole deeper and deeper. It would be very satisfyingly ironic if the arrogance of Activision Blizzard’s exec staff is what finally spurs a “Me Too” moment in video game development.

Literacy 2021: Book 15: Devolution

Max Brooks applies his World War Z style to Sasquatches instead of zombies

Devolution: A Firsthand Account of the Rainier Sasquatch Massacre by Max Brooks

After an eruption from Mount Rainier wreaks havoc on the Seattle and Tacoma area, residents of an experimental village of self-sufficient homes find themselves completely cut off from the rest of civilization. Their story is recounted via interviews with people familiar with the incident, and the found journal entries written by one of the residents.

According to the acknowledgements, Brooks had conceived of and pitched this as a movie, but then reacquired the rights and released it as a novel. That’s evident, since this is 100% plotted and paced as an action horror movie, but delivered in the more introspective oral history style.

Smart and confident in its tone and its level of research. Has a strong message about human arrogance and hubris, and the folly of seeing ourselves as set apart from nature. Also has a strong message about over-reliance on, and confidence in, technology. Captures how 21st century tech culture combines a lot of societal failures: over-reliance on convenience, lack of understanding of the supply chain and its consequences, the cult-like worship of prominent figures in technology, and the arrogance of businessmen who act as if they’re saving the planet. Exhaustively planned and plotted, with convincing explanations for almost every single detail and event.

Brilliantly paced in the build-up to the point at which the action first breaks. I had to stop reading before bed and finish the book in the daylight, but even at mid-day, I felt my heart racing and my palms getting sweaty, even though I knew pretty much exactly what was going to happen. It’s so good at reproducing that feeling of terror and vulnerability that came from watching the In Search Of… episode about Bigfoot in the 1970s, that I knew instantly that Brooks must be the same age as me. (He’s one year younger than me, as it turns out).

The oral history format just doesn’t work for this story; instead of adding a sense of verisimilitude, it just draws attention to how false the format is. The protagonist’s long passages quickly start feeling less like journal entries and more like a novel, both in tone and in level of detail and memory. And that would’ve been fine, except by repeatedly mentioning that this was a journal, it just drew more attention to the fact that it’s clearly not. One of the characters, whose “interviews” make up a significant chunk of the books, is written in an affected trying-too-hard-to-sound-casual voice that comes across as jarringly clumsy compared to the other voices. None of the characters are likable, which is probably to be expected in a horror movie in which most of the characters will die, but frustrating when it seems that the book wants me to like some of these characters a lot. Needlessly and excessively fat-shaming of a character who we’re supposed to despise for being weak, selfish, and gluttonous. Two characters’ descent into insanity is bizarrely over-the-top and unbelievable in a story that’s otherwise so grounded.

My biggest gripe is actually the tone of arrogance and nastiness that’s always lurking in the middle of a well-paced and well-researched story. It often feels like a doomsday prepper pitching a monster movie to you. It’s weird, because it’s too intelligent, well-written, and inclusive to be lumped in with other testosterone-heavy B-movie action stories. But I still couldn’t shake the feeling that if it had the option, the book would sneer at me and call me a pussy.

One of the most well-crafted books I’ve read this year, perfectly capturing the feeling of a well-made horror/action/monster movie. But I’m also glad it’s over, because I can’t shake the creepy sense that if I spent more time with it, it’d start trying to sell me on crypto-currency or libertarianism, or drag me into an argument over the failings of electric vehicles.

Tuesday Tune Two-Fer: Ain’t No Brother Like the KID

In honor of Biz Markie, two tracks from one of my favorite albums.

“Intergalactic” from Hello Nasty (as opposed to the video version) ends with what sounds like Biz Markie demoing the style that the boys kind of ended up using in the song. (“Is that an echo?”)

Hello Nasty is easily my favorite Beastie Boys record, and it’s one of my top 10 of all time, so even if I’m mistaken and that’s not what was going on, nobody tell me. I like the memory better.

Biz Markie died last week, from severe complications from diabetes. The memorials I saw online all talked about his hit “Just a Friend,” but I’ve always thought about him in relation to Hello Nasty. That’s not back-handed or condescending. It may not be his album, but the album wouldn’t have become such a classic without him. He’s got such an outsized presence — or at least my favorite tracks — that in my mind, it’s a collaboration, not a guest appearance.

Maybe even more than “Body Movin'” and “Intergalactic,” I think my favorite track on Hello Nasty is “The Grasshopper Unit (Keep Movin’)”. On the Deluxe version of the album, there’s a neat outtake called “The Biz Grasshopper Experiment” that gives an idea how the track came together. You probably can’t go wrong if you’ve got an echo delay effect and Biz Markie as your hype man.

Literacy 2021: Book 14: The Caledonian Gambit

A cold-war sci-fi novel by Dan Moren

The Caledonian Gambit by Dan Moren

In the midst of a galactic cold war, a janitor from a remote outpost on a frozen, secluded planet is enlisted to return to his homeworld to investigate a secret weapon being developed by the oppressive Illyrican Empire.

Moren’s years of experience as a tech journalist are evident here, as the craft of writing throughout is smart and accessible. Embraces most of the elements of the capital-ships-and-dogfights-in-outer-space school of current popular science fiction, but puts most of its focus on cold war-style espionage. Having a planet that’s a colony of Earth founded by Scotsmen is a novel twist I haven’t seen before. Pretty well paced, with a balance of fight scenes, dialogue, and espionage that all builds towards a climax that bumps up the scope without losing focus. It’s evident that the world-building has been mapped out beforehand, and we’re only seeing a piece of a larger story. Sensitive to its main character and treats PTSD as an obstacle instead of a weakness. Feels very much like a years-long passion project, and I’m just happy to see someone have his dream of having a novel published come true.

Feels very much like a first novel. Relies far too heavily on cliches, from settings to events to dialogue to character backgrounds to character descriptions and even character mannerisms. Dialogue isn’t very strong and often feels forced or stilted; one of the main characters’ constant “wisecracks” are particularly grating. Emotional moments often don’t feel earned, or the “heat” of a scene suddenly escalates for no other reason than to generate drama, and it sometimes feels as if it would’ve felt more resonant had there been simply more action. One of the main characters’ key relationships, that’s built up throughout the book, is left jarringly unresolved, as a death happens “off screen.”

Feels like a novelization of the pilot episode of an obscure series on the SyFy channel. Which I imagine was the goal.

Tuesday Tune Two-Fer: Groovies

If ever this country needed Cartoon Network to be cool again, that time is now

If I were to tell you that there’s a piece of music that’s running on a constant loop in the background of my brain, it’d be reasonable to assume that it’s the Innoventions Area loop from Epcot, or the theme from Space: 1999, or even Pump Up the Jam.

And those do frequently take over my capacity for thought for weeks at a time. But the one tune that lies, Cthulu-like, in the depths of my subconscious, waiting for its time to strike, is That Time Is Now by Michael Kohler. It was broadcast as a commercial bumper in the golden age of Cartoon Network, when all of us nerds of a certain age were so happy that a bunch of hipsters had gotten control of the Hanna Barbera and Warner Brothers libraries.

That remix of the Superfriends theme is what I heard in my head as a child, all the power and bombast and excitement of a show that simply didn’t warrant such cool music or Ted Knight voice-overs.

There were a ton of other impossibly cool ones, and it’s hard to pick a second favorite. The collage video warning that Atom Ant was the only thing saving us from nuclear annihilation? The impossible board game with Jonny Quest? The one that takes Josie and the Pussycats through various stages of music from the 60s to the early 2000s? I mean, their Betty Boop video for “Rolling” by Soul Coughing is what made me love the band.

But I think the one that made me feel like there was infinite potential for creative people to remix and re-imagine was Jabberjaw Running Underwater, with a song by the band Pain and a video re-imagining the Neptunes as hipsters on a lunchbox.

Another Thing I Love About Black Widow

More thoughts about Black Widow, and how clever it was to pit Natasha against the Taskmaster.

It’s a little frustrating to see so many reviewers dismissing Black Widow as being too overloaded with Marvel Cinematic Universe action to have any depth — or worse, dismissing the entire MCU as commerce — because it’s a sure sign the reviewer is just phoning it in. Some of them seem to be pre-written like celebrity obituaries, making the same predictable complaints with each installment, just copy-and-pasting in a new movie title to maximize search engine optimization.

It’s frustrating because we’ve all got assumptions about how super-hero movies work, but I think Black Widow shows how super-hero movies can work. It is undeniably packed full of over-the-top action sequences that, especially towards the end, strain any notion of believability. But it’s also completely aware that those action sequences are at the core of a super-hero movie. Instead of trying to compartmentalize them away from the “real cinema” of thematic exploration and character development, it’s really clever in how it uses the action to introduce or reinforce the themes.

One of the best examples of that is how it introduces a new incarnation of the villain The Taskmaster to the MCU. In the comics, it’s a character from the 80s who trains other mercenaries, and whose super-power is being able to reproduce a hero’s abilities and fighting style just by watching them. In Black Widow, the character’s super-power is being able to perfectly encapsulate a hero’s character development and personal growth.

To explain why requires lots of spoilers, though, so don’t read this unless you’ve seen Black Widow.

Credit goes to Ryan Arey for his video giving his take on “the real meaning of the movie and her journey in the MCU,” which if I’m being honest, is a little too reductive for me, but does a great job making explicit a lot of aspects of the movie that I appreciated, but couldn’t put into words how and why. Watching that video, and a re-watch of Captain America: The Winter Solider, which I highly recommend to get more out of Black Widow, helped clarify it.

Read More if you’ve already seen the movie

One Thing I Love About Black Widow

I mean, it’s Florence Pugh, 100%. But also, the tone.

I admit I was skeptical about Black Widow, and I’d been assuming that it’d be the first MCU entry (apart from The Incredible Hulk, which has never seemed like it really counted) that I didn’t see in its theatrical release. But the combination of mostly positive reviews, and the chance to see a movie in a theater for the first time in over a year and a half, made me change my mind.

Good call on my part, as it turns out, since the movie is fantastic. I might still be in a post-action-movie high, and I’ll change my mind as time passes, but right now it’s one of my favorite entries in the entire series.

The reason I was skeptical was probably common to anyone who’d pre-judged it based on the trailers: Marvel spectacle inflation. This looked like a spy-themed, entirely Earth-based action movie. The MCU is pretty good at those, but it’s hard to get super-enthused after they’ve had super-powers, aliens, Norse gods, space travel, and wiped out half the population of the universe.

Captain America: The Winter Soldier has been a favorite of mine for the way it integrated a Marvel super-hero movie with the feel of a paranoid 1970s spy thriller, but I still have to admit that it only really picked up for me when they had super-villains embedded in old computers. Natasha is allowed to be an absolute bad-ass in that one, but it still feels as if she’s supporting the super-heroes.

That’s one of the things Black Widow makes fun of, the idea that Natasha is one of the “lesser” Avengers. The character who’s keeping her in her place — which includes mocking her well-known three-point landing as “posing” — is Yelena Belova, played by Florence Pugh in a performance that threatens to steal the whole movie.

She’s sardonic without ever completely giving in to bitterness, tough without seeming invulnerable, irreverent without seeming glib. All with an accent that is probably accurate but still feels like it’s from a cornier spy movie, but still somehow true to the character. She makes it an outstanding hero origin story, because she so thoroughly inhabits a comic book character without letting it veer too far into realism or too far into camp.

That perfect balance of tone is carried throughout the movie. This has some of the darkest material of any of the MCU installments I’ve seen, with ever-present reminders that this is a story about betrayal, paranoia, abandonment, abuse, and human trafficking. But it treats everything with what I think is an appropriate level of gravity, without letting it become completely bleak and somber.

From the trailers, I’d been worried that it would be just another wise-cracking action movie. The scene of Natasha’s family getting back together was highlighted in the trailers as a bit of comic relief at Alexi’s (David Harbour) expense. That turns out to have been a bit of a bait-and-switch, since in the movie, it’s an extremely sinister moment with an extremely sad undertone.

The Breakfast All Day review mentioned one moment that I think illustrates the balance in tone perfectly: in Avengers: Age of Ultron, Natasha explains that she was sterilized as part of the Widow program, in a scene that’s played for maximum emotional impact. In Black Widow, Yelena describes her hysterectomy a lot more bluntly and matter-of-factly. As Alonso Duralde points out, not only is it less about equating a woman’s worth with her capacity to bear children, it’s truer to the characters and the way they would think about what’s been done to them.

It’s also truer to the tone of the movie overall: this is a movie about characters surviving and fighting against the trauma they’ve gone through, not using it to manufacture pathos. It’s tempting to join the dogpile on Joss Whedon for setting up powerful women characters just to put them through torture, especially since WandaVision showed how her character could’ve been handled so much less clumsily. But really, it’s a problem throughout a series that has never been quite sure how to handle characters who aren’t super-powered.

The trailer including that scene at the dinner table, with Alexi stuffing himself into his Red Guardian suit, is also a bait-and-switch because it implies a break in the action. But the action in Black Widow never completely lets up. It’s relentless without being exhausting. People complain about the dominance of the MCU, but one of the advantages is that it can include one of the most exciting car chases I’ve ever seen — which would’ve used up the entire budget of a normal movie — and it’s still just getting started. “I could do this all day.”

Again, that car chase isn’t a shift in tone into action mode. It’s establishing Yelena’s character and her relationship with Natasha. Black Widow manages to do what few action movies can pull off, which is combine character development and plot momentum with action scenes, never at the expense of either. There’s a sense that chase scenes, daring heists, shoot-outs, and exposition-filled mission debriefs are the only way these characters can really communicate with each other.

Early in the movie, Natasha is shown watching Moonraker on a laptop, in a scene that foreshadows the level of spectacle that’s yet to come. It’s a neat inclusion because it establishes Moonraker as fantasy; this movie will soon be hitting (and then exceeding) the scale of that spy adventure, but without all of its camp.

By the time Black Widow reaches its climax, piling spectacle on top of spectacle and stunt on top of stunt, I was a little taken aback. Up to that point, the movie had been smart and thrilling, but relatively grounded compared to the rest of the MCU. But then I remembered: not only is this still the MCU, it’s Natasha’s long-overdue showcase as one of the Avengers. Not just a supporting character. Earlier, Yelena had called her a “super-hero,” but in context, it seemed mocking. By the end, it’s clear that there was no mockery at all. Natasha may not have had super powers, but she was still every bit a super-hero.

Even before the pandemic delayed it over a year, I had been thinking that Black Widow was coming far too late to have any relevance. No matter how much I liked the character, her story was over. While the rest of the universe was mourning Tony Stark and speculating on the fate of Steve Rogers, Natasha Romanoff had simply closed out her story as a self-sacrificing hero. A prequel would add nothing.

I was mistaken. I said that Florence Pugh “threatens to” steal the movie (along with Rachel Weisz, who was perfectly creepy, and who incidentally seems to also be stealing Paul Rudd’s anti-aging serum), because as much as Black Widow sets up her character to be a great addition to the next phase of the MCU, it’s also a fantastic conclusion for Natasha’s character. It takes near-throwaway bits of her backstory and makes them not just trauma she has to overcome, but a cause to fight for. It calls back to her most standout moments in The Avengers, The Winter Soldier, and Civil War, and shows why she wasn’t just Captain America’s or Nick Fury’s assistant, but a key member of the Avengers, and more than just a poser.

I’m sure future installments will be full of action, drama, intrigue, comedy, magic, spectacle, science fiction, lasers, robots, mad scientists, and anything else that can fit into a comic book movie. But they’ll have a hard time keeping all of it in as perfect balance as Black Widow does.

Literacy 2021, Book 13: The Lathe of Heaven

Ursula K. LeGuin’s classic about an average man whose dreams transform reality

The Lathe of Heaven by Ursula K. LeGuin

Seemingly average man George Orr is tortured by the knowledge that his dreams alter the past to become reality in the present. He’s sent to an arrogant psychiatrist who wants to use Orr’s power to rebuild the world into a better version.

The language flows smoothly between dream logic, dystopian science fiction, poetry, and Taoist philosophy, treating them all as parts of the same thing. Manages to be stridently moralistic without lapsing into dogma or a naive story of good vs evil. Has the same aspect that I like so much in Susanna Clarke’s writing, in which the protagonists and antagonists aren’t treated as equal and opposite rivals, but instead as operating with completely incompatible viewpoints. Feels surprisingly modern for a 50-year-old science fiction novel. Takes what could’ve been a sprawling and clumsy story about altering the fabric of reality, but keeps it focused on a few characters and dense with observations from their own viewpoints. Descriptions of an “effective dream” gone wrong, from the point of view of people on the outside, are fantastic.

That density makes it kind of a slow read; although it’s less than 200 pages, it took me forever to make it through. As with any story of oppressive dystopian futures, much of it isn’t a fun and breezy read. Because LeGuin is so effective at writing the inner viewpoints of the characters, the dialogue comes across as a bit stilted and unnatural in comparison. The few but significant pop culture references come across as corny.

It’s easy to see why it’s regarded as a classic; it feels timeless and if anything, more relevant now than in 1971. It takes us through an increasingly wild story to show us the power of inner strength, simplicity, kindness, and companionship, without seeming naive or simple.