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Tuesday, September 02, 2014

Player's HandbookPlayer's Handbook by Wizards RPG Team
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

Dungeons and Dragons, the granddaddy of all role-playing games, has finally released its long-awaited fifth edition.  The new rule set provides the perfect opportunity for lapsed players to return to the game, as well as allowing new players to get in on the ground floor.  The new edition takes a back-to-basics approach, returning to an old-school feel while maintaining the best game mechanics from the last few editions.  The rules have been streamlined without being over-simplified, making the game more inviting than ever for new players of all ages.

And new, preferably young, players are needed if the hobby is to survive into the future.  Tabletop RPGs have always been a niche market, and while D&D enjoyed a brief period of mainstream popularity, it has had a difficult time competing for the attentions of the youth market.  Video games, television, and movies have largely replaced board games, books, and table-top RPGs as their primary sources of entertainment.  But if any edition of D&D has a chance to recapture some of that market, it is this one.

The new Player’s Handbook, the first of three core rulebooks for the new D&D, is an exceptional product.  It provides an excellent introduction to playing the game, with simple, clear rules for adventuring and combat.  It provides details for the major player character classes and subclasses, along with all their abilities as they advance from levels one to twenty.  All the classic classes and races are represented, as well as a few of the newer ones from third and fourth edition.

The writing is top-notch, with a lot of flavor and description provided on top of the necessary crunch of the rules.  Far from a dry listing of rules and tables, the books is actually enjoyable to read.  The artwork is fabulous, and its diversity should be applauded.  Characters are male and female, black and white, and all the fantasy races are well represented.  As others have pointed out, there are no gratuitous pictures of female warriors in scanty attire; all characters here are appropriately dressed for adventuring, not the boudoir!  It is as if Wizards of the Coast has finally realized that D&D has a very diverse audience:  male, female, black, white, Asian, gay, straight, and all permutations thereof.  Instead of catering to one group, they have made an effort to be inclusive, and that can only be a good thing.

New in this edition are “backgrounds,” which is a profession you practiced or life you led before you started adventuring.  From criminal to noble, soldier to acolyte, these backgrounds provide additional skills, proficiencies, and role-playing hooks to help you get into character.  Along with your class and race, your background rounds out your character into a life-like persona.

Races include your standard human, dwarf, elf, and Halfling, along with more exotic choices such as gnome, dragonborn, and tiefling.  Classes are the classic fighter, wizard, rogue, and cleric, joined by the druid, sorcerer, bard, warlock, and more.  Each class has two or more sub-classes (archetypes) which allow you further customize your character.  Further, an optional feat system and the ability to multi-class can provide players with everything they need to make their character unique.

A great many spells are included in the book, and many of the classes have at least some spell-casting ability.  Cantrips, or zero-level spells that can be cast at-will, provide wizards and sorcerers with useful powers they can use any time, so they won’t find themselves relegated to throwing daggers once their sleep spells and magic missiles are exhausted for the day.

Combat is greatly simplified and will move much faster than it did in fourth edition, or even third.  Gone are the slew of modifiers players and Dungeon Masters were forced to keep track of in previous editions, replaced by the Advantage and Disadvantage mechanic (roll 2d20, take the highest roll if you have Advantage on an attack, save, or ability check; roll 2d20 and take the lowest roll if you have Disadvantage).  It is elegant, easy, and in practice, fast and fun.  Using a grid and miniatures is optional, and combat in the imagination, called Theater of the Mind, is completely viable.  Many players and Dungeon Masters will still prefer to use a grid to keep track of position, but it is not required since combat is not as tactical as it has been in the past.  Or rather, it can be, but that is completely up to each individual group.

The rules are simplified, and intentionally left open to interpretation in places.  This is because fifth edition is returning power to the Dungeon Master, or referee, as was the intention in 1974 when the game was created.  Adding optional modular rules from the Dungeon Masters Guide and other sources should be simple with this system, as should creating house-rules.  Each game will be different, and, depending on the skill of the referee, fast, deep, exciting, and unique.  Role-playing and exploration are emphasized as much as combat (the Three Pillars of Adventure), and there are plenty of rules and suggestions in each category.

Physically, the book is beautiful and well put together.  There have been some reports of faulty products, with pages missing, faded, or falling out, but my copy is pristine, as I am sure most are.  If you purchase the book and receive a faulty copy, return it for a good one!

In all, the new Player’s Handbook is a great product, and a must for the serious D&D player, or those wanting to give the game a try.  The rule system is the best yet, and the book itself is a beautiful addition to any bookshelf.  I am more than pleased with it, and highly recommend it to any role-playing game enthusiast.


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Monday, March 25, 2013

Doctor Who: The Silent Stars Go By


Doctor Who: The Silent Stars Go ByDoctor Who: The Silent Stars Go By by Dan Abnett
My rating: 4 of 5 stars

I have been a fan of Doctor Who for several years now. I've been aware of the good Doctor since early eighties, when, as an impressionable youth, I happened to catch a few Tom Baker repeats on PBS, but I never became a true fan until I happened to run across the entire season five (of the new series) on BBC America On Demand. These episodes starred Mat Smith as the eleventh Doctor, and I was immediately drawn in by his madcap energy and enthusiasm. This youthful madman of a Doctor was not quite the Doctor I remembered, but nevertheless I was entranced. I devoured the entire season, and then was forced to wait what seemed an eternity for season six.

As I write this we are half-way through season seven. We've said goodbye to the Ponds, and a new companion is on the way. This year is the 50th anniversary of Doctor Who, and I for one couldn't be more excited. Since discovering the revived series, I have caught up on seasons one through four, and have thoroughly enjoyed both Christopher Eccleston and David Tennant as the Doctor. But everyone has their own Doctor, and mine will always be Matt Smith.

Having enjoyed the show, I finally decided to give one of the books a try. I picked up The Silent Stars Go By partly because it features my favorite Doctor (and the amazing Amy and Rory Pond), and partially because of the clever way the book title and chapters are named after lines from Christmas carols.

The story begins as the Doctor is trying to get his companions back to Earth for Christmas, but, as is usually the case, they end up somewhere else entirely--a snowy planet sometime in the far future. As they explore they become separated. They discover planet has been colonized by people from Earth, who for generations have been maintaining terraforming machines to make the planet more Earth-like (or Earth-esque, as the case may be). These "Morphans," as they call themselves, have become a superstitious, agrarian society, barely understanding the "Formers" they watch over.

Enter the Ice Warriors. Tall, bulky humanoids formerly of Mars, they, too, seek to colonize new worlds. They are trying to make the planet colder and more Mars-like, and their manipulation of the Formers threatens to make the planet uninhabitable by humans. And thus, conflict erupts between the mighty Ice Warriors and peaceful Morphans, with the Doctor, Amy, and Rory stuck, as usual, in the middle.

The story kept me entertained, and Dan Abnett captured the voices of the main characters relatively well. For most of the book, the Doctor and Amy are separated from Rory, which helps keep the tension high. The action really ramps up for the last third of the book as the conflict with the Ice Warriors comes to a head, and another even more fearsome menace appears.

All in all, a great read, and a worthy addition to Doctor Who canon.


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Tuesday, March 13, 2012


WatchmenWatchmen by Alan Moore
My rating: 5 of 5 stars

This is actually a review of the Watchmen film that came out several years ago.  I wrote this review soon after seeing the film in the theater. Since most the material in this review also applies to the book, I decided to post it, unaltered, here.

When one is very young, the world is a vibrant, thrilling place filled with excitement and wonder. So too are the fictional worlds one reads about in books or watches in movies. But as we grow older and more jaded, the color and wonder begin to fade. Things begin to look the same, and the world becomes a little more gray and a little less exciting. That view carries over into our entertainments, which have to try harder and harder—to be bigger, louder, and more extreme—to even get our attention. We develop a “been there, done that,” mentality, which is why we look back at the things we discovered in our youth with such affectionate nostalgia. It’s why the thirty-something Star Wars fans panned the prequel trilogy and still hold the original trilogy as the Holy Grail. They still watch the originals with the eyes of their childhood. If they somehow had their memories erased and watched the older films “for the first time” with adult eyes, they would, while perhaps still enjoying them, find them somewhat juvenile and shallow, and certainly not the masterpieces they remember.

All of this is to simply say that I, as an adult, find it difficult to get truly excited about things. I enjoy reading and I enjoy cinema, but the pleasure I usually get from these endeavors is mild and fleeting. I rarely experience the obsessive anticipation for a film that I did while waiting for The Empire Strikes Back when I was ten years old, or even the 1989 Batman film when I was nineteen. I won’t generally keep thinking about a movie or book for long after it’s over, pining to go back and see or read it again so I can relive the experience. I think the last time I had such an experience was when The Lord of the Rings films came out. I had anticipated their release for years, because the books had been among my favorites since I was twelve. I was like a child again, full of wonder and enthusiasm. I love Batman and anticipated The Dark Knight greatly (and was not disappointed), but it wasn’t the same.

Now a film has come around that I have waited years to see. I feel like a little kid again (although I do NOT recommend it for actual kids!) when I watch it or even when I think about it. It sticks with me and I can’t get it out of my head or my heart. That film is Watchmen.

Now, I will admit I do not come to the film fresh. Like those Star Wars fans I mentioned before, my views are necessarily colored by the memories of my youth. I discovered Watchmen when it first appeared as a monthly, twelve issue comic book series released in 1986-1987. I had never read anything like it. It took the concept of superheroes and turned it on its ear. It addressed complex world issues, such as the then-current cold war and the threat of nuclear annihilation. It philosophically discussed the nature of mankind. And the ending presented a moral dilemma that made you second-guess who was the hero and who was the villain. Could a completely horrible act be condoned if it brought about a greatly desired result? Does the end justify the means? If you read the ending of Watchmen and didn’t come away questioning everything you believed about right and wrong, you missed the whole point.

Watchmen, by writer Alan Moore and artist David Gibbons, is a comic book (or, as the pretentious would call it, a graphic novel). It is also serious literature. It was the first comic book to win a prestigious Hugo Award, and it has been named one of Time Magazine’s top 100 novels from 1923 to the present. It certainly has its detractors—those who refuse to acknowledge that the comic book form can rise above its humble roots, those who expect and want a straight-forward, action packed superhero story, and those who simply don’t get it—but for the most part it is acclaimed as a masterwork.

Now, as I said, I can’t completely separate myself from my knowledge of the comic book while watching the film. I can’t discuss it from the point of view of the uninitiated. I hope the movie plays well for people who have never heard of Watchmen before, but I can’t know for sure. All I know is that to me, it was absolutely amazing. I have already seen it twice, and I know in the weeks to come I will see it several more times.

Like the book, the film takes place in 1985 in the midst of cold war paranoia. But it is a very different 1985 then the one we remember, mostly because of the existence of “costumed adventurers,” or superheroes. These heroes, with one exception, have no superhuman abilities; they are simply men and women who have trained their bodies to physical perfection in pursuit of their chosen vocation. They are very flawed individuals, and some take to the streets in their outrageous costumes and masks for reasons less noble than fighting crime: thrills, sexual gratification, psychopathic compulsions, or the desire to scribe their own twisted morality on the world. However, despite these flaws, or perhaps because of them, deep in their hearts they truly do want to make the world a better place.

As I said, the existence of these costumed heroes has significantly changed the world from the one we live in. The greatest bringer of change is Dr. Manhattan, the only one with actual super powers. Due to a strange accident in a science lab, physicist Dr. Jon Osterman was transformed into an almost all-powerful entity, capable of manipulating matter, teleporting, and unleashing destructive energy. He seems to have no limitations and is virtually indestructible. Due to his intervention, America won the Vietnam War. This victory allowed President Nixon to repeal the Twenty-second Amendment so he could run for more than two terms. By1985, Nixon is in his fifth term as president. A law passed in 1977 has outlawed superheroes, except those sponsored by and working for the federal government. Dr. Manhattan and an amoral, violent anti-hero called the Comedian are the only two who choose to work for the U.S.

While the Comedian performs covert military operations for the government, Dr. Manhattan is the crux of America’s military superiority. The threat of his power is what keeps the USSR from attacking the United States. However, experts believe that the Soviet Union will not be cowed forever, and that they will inevitably launch a nuclear assault. Dr. Manhattan might be able to stop ninety-nine percent of Russia’s missiles, but the one percent that gets through will certainly be enough to destroy the country. Nixon’s finger is on the button of America’s own nuclear arsenal, contemplating a pre-emptive strike.

It is difficult to remember nowadays (and impossible for young people who weren’t there) the mortal terror many of us felt at the near-certainty (in our minds) of nuclear war—of mutually assured destruction. But to truly “get” Watchmen, you have to put yourself in that frame of mind. Today our fears revolve around terrorism. Back then, we truly feared the end of the world. Perhaps we still do, but the reasons are very different.

Amidst these times of global tension and paranoia, the Comedian is murdered. Rorschach, a hero who refused to retire in 1977 and now operates illegally, investigates. Rorschach is an obsessive man with a code of moral absolutism, in which good and evil are strictly defined. Everything is black and white; there is never any gray. He also may very well be a sociopath. As Rorschach investigates the murder, he develops the theory that there may be a “mask killer,” someone who is out to eliminate costumed heroes. He proceeds to warn the remaining heroes that someone is out to kill them.

On the most superficial level, Watchmen is a murder mystery. The larger plot becomes evident as Rorschach continues his investigation. There are many digressions and flashbacks, fleshing out the world and the lives of these strange heroes. Some movie goers may be put off by these digressions, thinking they are unnecessary or that they make the movie “slow.” Certainly, this film advances at its own, leisurely pace, but these digressions are character studies which delve into the nature of humanity, which is one of the major themes of Watchmen. Why is Rorschach the man he is? You have to learn his tragic history to know. How did Dr. Manhattan get his powers, and why is he becoming detached from humanity? A lengthy flashback will tell you.

The remaining Watchmen are soon drawn into Rorschach’s investigation. Nite Owl, or Dan Dreiburg, is the closest thing we get to a traditional superhero. He is mostly motivated by fighting crime and doing good, but there is an element of thrill-seeking (and a kinky fascination with playing dress-up) that motivates him as well. He uses advanced technology in his battle against wrong-doers, the most spectacular toy in his arsenal being his flying owl-ship. Silk Specter, or Laurie Jupiter (Juspeczyk in the comic), is a sexy, skilled fighter. She was pressured into becoming a costumed hero by her mother Sally, who was also known as the Silk Specter in her youth. Laurie, who is in a relationship with Dr. Manhattan, has some serious mommy issues to work through. Finally, there is Adrian Veidt, or Ozymandias, who has physically perfected both his body and mind. He is known as the world’s smartest man, and, working with Dr. Manhattan, is nearing a solution to the world’s energy problems. He is creating a free, renewable source of energy based on Manhattan’s powers, which is sure to enrage the pioneers of industry whose bread and butter is the sale of fossil fuels and nuclear power.

In the comic, we get to know each of these characters very well. Each of them gets a full issue to examine their… um… issues… as well as their back-stories. In the movie we see far less of this, but we still get significant glimpses of the histories of the Comedian, Dr. Manhattan, and Rorschach. Sadly, Veidt, a pivotal character in both book and film, does not get much screen time.

Critics have been split over the success of this film. The website Rotten Tomatoes gives it a 65% on the “Tomatoemeter,” which means 65% of the reviews they have tallied are generally positive. A score of 60% or higher qualifies a film as “fresh,” while scores lower than this give a film a “rotten” designation.

Many critics have complained that some of the acting is far below par. Almost universally panned is Malin Akerman as Laurie. For the life of me, I cannot understand why. The character is not written the same in the script as she is in the comic, but Akerman does a fine job with the material she is given. In one scene in particular, where she experiences a devastating revelation about her past, she emotes powerfully the grief and despair I would expect the character to feel. I agree with most critics, though, that standout performances include Jackie Earle Haley as Rorschach and Jeffrey Dean Morgan as the Comedian. These are, in my opinion, the most meaty roles, and the actors do them justice.

Since it is a murder mystery, a cold war tale, a philosophical exploration, and a character study, there is not much action in the comic. The film is short on action as well, although what’s there is very intense, very violent, and very exciting. If you are only interested in action, you might want to skip this movie. You might also want to skip it if graphic violence disturbs you. Some of the fighting is brutal. Blood flies and bones break. There is one very disturbing scene of an attempted, but interrupted, rape. It is ugly and brutal, but necessary to the plot.

Much ado has been made about Dr. Manhattan’s nudity in the film, but if you are at all mature and can handle the sight of a penis, it is much ado about nothing. Manhattan, having no physical need for clothing and a receding connection to humanity and its mores, does not see the need to cover himself. It is essential to his character and representative of his estrangement from the human condition. The attention many critics and movie goers have given to his nudity is both sophomoric and unwarranted. There is so much wonder to look at on the screen at any given time as to make the appearance of a blue, CGI penis negligible. All I can say is, “grow up.”

Some are disturbed by the fact that there’s also some near-pornographic sex in the film. Now, I think it could have been done more tastefully, but the sex is important to the story, especially as it deals with some of Dan Dreiburg’s hang-ups. Frankly, this is a movie for adults with adult themes and ideas, so the intended audience should not be bothered by a little romp in the sack (or on an owl-ship). Plus, I wouldn’t give up the opportunity to see Malin Akerman’s tits for nothin’.

A major criticism of the film has been that the viewer develops little emotional attachment to the characters. Maybe it’s my recollection of my affection for these characters in the novel, but I truly feel for each and every one of them while watching the movie. The Comedian is an amoral murderer, but he is also a sad, lonely man who uncovers a horrible plot and is killed for it. Rorschach is a psychopath, but his terrible past inspires pity and understanding. Laurie is tormented both by her mother’s control over her destiny and her inability to face the truth about her past. Dr. Manhattan is both more and less than human, and far sadder about that fact than he lets on. Dan is lonely and purposeless, unable to feel alive unless he is wearing a costume. And Adrian Veidt, as the world’s smartest (and probably richest) man must make decisions that torment him and perhaps drive him over the edge of sanity.

The ending of the movie diverges from the book in a significant way. However, the core theme remains. I said earlier that, at the end, the characters face a nearly unthinkable moral dilemma. The “villain” of the film has, by his actions, however heinous and insane, done a greatly desirable thing that will benefit humanity. Should his crimes be exposed, allowing evil to be punished, when to do so would reverse the good that his evil actions have accomplished? By Rorschach’s code of black and white, absolutely. But the others—and the viewers—may have a different opinion. Or maybe not. The beauty of Alan Moore’s story is that it doesn’t decide for us. We decide. If we can.

Since the end plays out differently in the movie, a wonderful, life-affirming scene from the book is removed. It is a beautiful moment that moves me to tears every time I read it. Without it, the ending of the film comes off as much darker. Still, the movie’s ending works and is powerful in its own right. I just wish one of my favorite scenes from the book made it to the screen intact. This is the only real complaint I have with the movie, and it is a very small one.

Visually, the film is dark but beautiful. Director Zack Snyder and his crew of mad geniuses have painted a stylized, gutter-chic tapestry of an alternate New York, and the special effects are out of this world (sometimes literally, as part of the movie takes place on Mars). The costumes are top-notch, as are the sets, both real and CGI. Dr. Manhattan is a triumph of animation. Even if you don’t like the film’s story or characters, you may still appreciate it as a visual masterpiece.

The final point I want to make is that this is not a traditional superhero movie, and it is absolutely NOT for kids. It is violent and sometimes disturbing, and it contains nudity and explicit sex. It’s rated R for a reason, folks. I would say if your kids are at least 14 or 15 and pretty mature, take them to see it. Younger or immature kids… leave them at home! They will be disturbed by some parts and bored to tears by others, and they certainly won’t understand it.

The opinions of naysayers notwithstanding, this is a deep, emotional work and a faithful adaptation of the comic book. Much of the richness of the comic is missing, but such loss is unavoidable when condensing a lengthy work to a two-and-a-half hour film. Watching it, I relived the joy and excitement I was able to feel more often when I was young. Seeing one of my favorite stories play out on screen was an amazing experience, and Snyder has my eternal thanks for having the guts to make this film and do it right.


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Monday, October 24, 2011

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

A couple years ago I was visiting my local Borders (r.i.p., old friend) looking for something to read, and I happened to remember an article I had read on Objectivism and Ayn Rand. The cover of Atlas Shrugged had always intrigued me when I had, on past visits, perused the literature section, so I thought I would give old Ayn a look-see. Of course, a door-stop like Atlas was a little intimidating at the time, so I picked up the thinnest book I could find, which happened to be Anthem.


And short it was indeed. I read the whole thing in one sitting, right there in the bookstore. And then and there, I realized that I really, really liked Ayn Rand.


Now, a lot of folks really, really do not like Ayn Rand. To be sure, she gets a lot of hate. I’m not sure any of it is deserved, but I can understand where the haters are coming from. Her philosophy is controversial, and if misinterpreted (which all the haters seem hell-bent on doing), it can seem like it is condoning unbridled selfishness, which it is not (not, at least, by most people’s definition of selfishness. Ayn Rand herself would have said selfishness is good, but she was talking about rational self-interest, not some sort of Bernie Madoff “let me grab all this money I haven’t earned at other people’s expense” type selfishness. In point of fact, much of her writing is a denunciation of exactly that sort of thing).


A central tenet of Objectivism, and therefore of Rand’s writing, is the celebration of the human spirit—not a mystical spirit or “soul,” but rather that spark of uniqueness that makes us individuals, that makes us thinking, rational beings. Using reason and intellect, humankind can (and should) create great and wonderful works.


Having grown up in Soviet Russia, Rand experienced first-hand how the collective, the State, can destroy the individual. From her experiences, she grew to distrust, even to despise, any government who put the good of the State above the good of the individual. In her experience, Communism, a system that strived to make everyone equal, created only poverty and misery for those it claimed be helping. Its policies hindered progress and stymied innovation. And “equality” was only an illusion, as it always is. Those in charge lived well at the expense of others, as they always do.


Colored by her early experience, Rand declared any attempt at collectivism to be evil. And thus, we have Anthem, an argument of exactly that, as well as an exaltation of the human spirit.


Anthem tells the tale of Equality 7-2521, a man who lives in a world where the word “I” is unknown and unspoken, where the concept of individuality is unthinkable. All men must strive to be like all other men, a concept proclaimed by the words carved over the doors of the World Council: “We are one in all and all in one. There are no men but only the great WE. One, indivisible and forever.” In this world, the greatest technical innovation is the candle, which has not been improved upon for decades.


Equality 7-2521 is not like other men. He is taller, stronger, and highly intelligent. But these things are not looked upon favorably; they are a curse, for one should not be above their fellows in any way. He is ashamed, but even so he questions why things are as they are. He wants to be a scholar (which is bad, because wanting something is committing the Sin of Preference), but when he comes of age the Council of Vocations designates him as a street sweeper.


While performing his duties, he finds a tunnel, in which he discovers technology of a long-gone time. He begins to experiment with this technology, an electric light source, and teaches himself how it works. When he takes his discovery to the Scholars, they are horrified, and he must flee from them or be punished (perhaps put to death). From there, he goes on a journey of discovery that culminates in him falling in love (the Sin of Preference yet again), and reclaiming the most sacred of all words—“I.”


There are other authors who explore the theme of the individual verses the collective, including George Orwell. In Orwell’s 1984, the world has reached a condition where the State is all-powerful, and the book’s message seems to be this: if we allow the world to reach this point, there will be no hope. At the end of 1984, Winston, a man striving to think and love as an individual, is completely defeated, his will destroyed by the power of the State. It is a depressing and defeatist view. In contrast, Anthem celebrates the individual, leaving hope that, even in the worst of conditions, the human spirit can still triumph.


Ultimately, the message of Anthem is powerful and uplifting. It seems to say that there will always be those individuals, those Howard Roarks or John Galts or Equity 7-2521’s, who will strive against the bounds of society to fight for the rights of the individual and push progress forward. They do so for their own sake (as they must, according to Rand’s Objectivism), but in doing so, as a side-effect, they benefit those around them, and make the world a better place.


Objectivism may not be a perfect philosophy, but there is a lot of food for thought in the writings of Ayn Rand. I recommend them highly, and Anthem is a great place to start.




Wednesday, October 12, 2011

My rating: 5 of 5 stars

I purchased this book because I was curious to learn more about the man behind the legend. Sadly, I am woefully ignorant of much of the history of my country, other than the broad overview I learned during those long-gone days I was but a youthful schoolboy. Since those who don't study history are doomed to repeat it, I thought I'd better start reading up.

I was afraid that the book would would be dry and boring, but I shouldn't have worried. Author Joseph J. Ellis has produced a book that is both informative and entertaining. His style is engaging, witty, and easy to comprehend. He obviously has a great admiration for his subject, but he does attempt to maintain objectivity.

The picture Ellis paints of Washington is that of an ambitious, passionate, yet self-restrained man; opinionated but often reticent, aware of his own shortcomings and willing to listen to those with greater expertise. First and foremost, the author describes George Washington as the central, stabilizing force which both drove the fight for independence, and held the fledgling country together during its formative years.

All in all, an insightful read, and a rare look into the man himself, as opposed to the historical figure.



Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Stanton was a friend. I really liked him.

"Hello," said Stanton one bright morning.

"Good-bye," said I. I wasn't in the mood to talk. Although he was a pleasant enough chap, I thought he looked a little green that day. I wished he would leave me to my private musings.

"What say you?" he asked, cunningly.

I ignorned him and walked to the market. He followed me, descretely. I noticed, but said nothing.

At lunch, later that day, I saw Stanton looking at me over the top of his newspaper. He sat three tables away, pretending to munch on a chocolate biscuit.

"I can see you there," said I.

"It is not me," he said, hiding behind his paper.

"I can see that it is."

"You are mistaken."

"Nay," said I. "I know you, Stanton."

He said nothing, but continued to hide his face. I sighed. I could tell it was going to be a long afternoon.

Saturday, December 17, 2005

The Ultimates is a great comic book. It's just damn good reading.

I've been a fan of Marvel's Ultimate line of comics since its inception. It began with a little title called Ultimate Spider-Man by the popular writer Brian Michael Bendis. It was well written, beautifully drawn, and extremely entertaining. The idea of the Ultimate line was to take old, established characters and throw away their continuity, allowing writers to start their stories over from scratch. So in Ultimate Spider-Man, we have a young high-school aged Peter Parker trying to learn how to be a hero for the first time. Since the line began, we've been introduced to Ultimate X-Men, Ultimate Fantastic Four, and what should be called Ultimate Avengers but has been renamed The Ultimates.

In traditional Marvel continuity, the Avengers is a super-hero group consisting of some of Marvel's heavy hitters, including Iron Man, Captain America, and Thor (I'm speaking traditionally, folks, there's a NEW Avengers running around out there with a different line-up). The Ultimates takes these characters and others and spins them in an entirely new and fascinating way. First off, the Ultimates is not just you average, self-managed team of superheroes. They are part of S.H.E.I.L.D., a government intelligence agency, and are under the command of General Nick Fury. The government has been trying to develop a "super-soldiers" program with little success. Back in World War II, there was a similar program, and there was only one success... Captain America. Through an accident, Cap was frozen in a block of ice, surviving in a state of suspended animation until modern times. He was found and thawed out, becoming part of the modern super-soldier initiative. Others in the program include Iron Man, genius billionaire industrialist Tony Stark in super armor of his own design; Thor, who may be a Norse thunder god or just a nut-ball with stolen hardware; Black Widow, ex soviet super-spy; Hawkeye, military crackshot who likes bows and arrows better than anything else; Giant-Man (or Ant-Man, if he feels like being small), scientist Hank Pym who is working on the super-soldier program and, unfortunately, cracks under the pressure; and Janet Pym, Hank's wife, also a scientest and a mutant known as the Wasp. Also working on the project is one Robert Bruce Banner, who ends up testing an unperfected serum on himself, which transforms him into a nightmarish, murderous Hulk.

In volume one, which ran for thirteen issues, The Ultimates have to take down one of their own. The Hulk goes on a rampage through New York, and it takes the full power of the rest of the group to stop him. This is their first mission, and through this initial success they gain the love of the public. Of course, if the public were to find out the Hulk is actually a scientist on the Ultimate's payroll, public perception would be quite different, so S.H.E.I.L.D. covers it up.

Later in volume one, we learn that aliens have infiltrated humanity. They have been here for many years, and Nick Fury and S.H.E.I.L.D. have known about it for quite some time. Fury decides the time has come to take them down, and he sends the Ultimates. The team manages to defeat the invaders, but is only able to do so with the assistance of their first opponent, the Hulk.

The plot thickens as volume two begins. We learn there is a traitor amongst the group as someone leaks the secret of the Hulk's identity to the press. Immediate suspicion falls on Thor, who has left the group for political reasons. Dr. Banner is put on trial for the murders he commited during his initial rampage as the Hulk, and he's condemned to death. Thor denies being the traitor, but the group discovers he may not be everything he claims. A European scientist says that Thor is his brother. He claims Thor was a nurse, and later a mental patient, who has stolen equiptment (a belt and a hammer) that give him his powers. His recent actions seem to be getting reckless and dangerous, and The Ultimates are again sent to take down one of their own.

The Hulk and Thor are out of the picture, and later even Captain America is discredited and taken into custody. By issue nine, with the most powerful of the Ultimates out of the way, the true traitor is reveiled and an attack on America the like of which has never been seen is begun.

This is true dramatic, almost cinematic, entertainment from writer Mark Millar. Long gone are the days of the "funny book" when comics were considered juvinile trash. These comics aren't for kids (teens would dig 'em, sure, but the 8-12 crowd, I don't think so). The heroes are flawed, and topical moral questions are raised. For example, if we had actual superheroes employed by the government, should they be used to solve domestic problems only, or should they be sent to deal with America's enemies? Fury sends the heroes to deal with enemies in the middle-east (Iraq is even mentioned). Thor leaves due to these actions. The government, personified by Nick Fury, covers up things they don't want citizens to know, spys on everyone, and generally tries to police and control the world. Is this America's rightful role in the world as its last and greatest superpower, or have we gone too far? This book raises a lot of questions and makes you think, but it manages to be wildly entertaining as it does so.

The Ultimates is vastly different from The Avengers, the comic on which it is based. Fans of the original might not like this take. Being more of a DC man myself, I wasn't very interested in Marvel characters, so this shake-up doesn't bother me (unlike the horrifying All-Star Batman and Robin comic DC is publishing right now). I started picking up this book because I was impressed with the rest of the Ultimate line, and I am tremendously glad I did. I don't think you could ask for a better written and drawn book than this. Check out the Ultimates... you can thank me later.

Until later,
JNB