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A PDF of Lenses

I can't recommend Jesse Schell's The Art of Game Design: A Book of Lenses highly enough if you're in the field of game design-- board games, video games, whatever.  It's very well-written with some great personal anecdotes, and even when the book covered things I already knew, it gave me some new ideas.  Yet it was also breezy enough that I actually read it on a beach in Mexico.

Today the serendipity of the internet led me to discover that the entire book is available as a free online PDF file, so there's really no good excuse not to read it.  Go.

As part of Marvel Comics' 70th anniversary celebration, they ran a customer poll to determine the 70 greatest Marvel covers of all time. When I heard about this, one cover instantly leapt to mind. When I went to their site to see the winners, I was pleased to see that very issue was voted #3. Number two is iconic, I'll grant you, but if removed from its historical context I really don't think it's anything special. Number one is OK, but not something I'd put in the top ten. I agree with the high marks for #4 and #10, but there are covers later in the list-- notably many of the paintings-- that are much better than some of the ones that precede them.

Fun to browse.

Comments (2) | last by Damon, Jun 22, 10:32 AM

Proofreader's Digest

Someone needs to be fired, even if they thought they were cooking beige pants.

Comments (8) | last by Peter, Jan 3, 5:04 PM

The Da Vinci Code

There can't be more than a half dozen people out there who haven't already read The Da Vinci Code. Until this week, I was one of them. It was a breezy and entertaining read, even if Dan Brown's infatuation with the phrase "sacred feminine" grew tiresome, and at least now I can feel a trifle more in sync with the zeitgeist (though my avoidance of all things American Idol keeps me permanently at a distance).

The plotline is, in essence, a Game-- puzzles are set before the protagonists, who must race to solve them before those with less pure motives catch up with them. Many of the puzzles are even solvable by the reader. The success of the novel has been attributed to many factors, including the intricate conspiracy and the controversial depiction of Opus Dei, but I was in it for the quest. Plotlines like this and National Treasure, in which well-established pieces of art, architecture, and history conceal hidden meanings, codes, and intrigue-- are like Dungeons and Dragons modules for adults.

Keeping the pages turning was easy, but in the end I had three problems (and here's the part where, if you haven't read the book, you'll probably want to stop reading to avoid spoilage). First, the ending completely bungles the payoff. Sophie seems appropriately overwhelmed by the discovery of family members she believed dead, but the fact that she's a direct descendant of Jesus Christ is virtually ignored. Perhaps the author felt Sophie's more immediately emotional reaction would be to her living relatives, but as a reader I wanted some acknowledgement from her about the significance of her bloodline, some consideration of the ramifications to her spiritual world-view, something. While we rightfully learn where the Grail is hidden, the human factor is largely ignored.

Second, Brown was unfairly misleading in the way he wrote Rémy's point of view. He not only speaks of Teabing with distaste, but his thoughts echo those feelings. When he first points the gun at Teabing, he says "Old man, I've been waiting a long time to do this." That's simply not something a character in Rémy's position would say, even to try to mislead Langdon and Sophie. It's unnecessary. In the heat of that moment-- when he panics and disobeys an order to remain hidden-- he wouldn't fabricate a lie of emotion. That line only makes sense if it's genuine. Yet Rémy knows Teabing is the Teacher, and he speaks of the Teacher with respect, not disdain. Rémy's lines are written specifically to deceive the reader, and that's dirty pool.

Third, Brown's characterization of Bezu Fache is equally misleading. At one point in the book Fache leaves his number for Bishop Aringarosa. When Aringarosa calls him, Fache says they have much to talk about. We never see that conversation, but the implication is that Fache fills the bishop in on what's happening. There seems to be no reason for him to contact Aringarosa at that point unless he's in on the bishop's plans. In a later phone conversation with the bishop, Fache tells him, "You would do well to remember that you are not the only man on the verge of losing everything." Fache may just be talking about his career, but his involvement with the bishop makes this unclear. In that same conversation they talk of Silas, a name Fache would not yet know from his investigation alone. At this point, all indications are that Fache is in league with Aringarosa. But near the end of the book, we're finally told that Fache contacted the bishop to question him about his connection to the nun Silas murdered earlier in the novel. Withholding that nugget from the reader left us wondering why Fache was so determined to capture our heroes, but it was deceitful. I have no problem with characters' motivations being withheld until later, or with the reader knowing only what the protagonist knows. But this story isn't told only from the protagonist's point of view-- Brown jumps among characters frequently. When Brown jumps to Fache after that first phone call, we should learn that he knows Langdon is innocent. Instead, Brown essentially lies to the reader by omission. In my mind, that violates the rules. It's manipulative, lazy, and completely unnecessary, and left an acrid taste in my mouth.

I already own all the Calvin and Hobbes comic strips, in the form of the sixteen collections published over the years. But if I didn't, you can bet I'd have already snagged the new Complete Calvin and Hobbes hardcover boxed set. For those of you yearning to rediscover the rules of Calvinball, Amazon's got it for $94.50, but you should really rush out to Costco where you can pick it up for just $88-- a substantial savings off the $150 cover price.

And Mr. Watterson, I would still gladly pay for a high-quality stuffed plush Hobbes to keep my plush Gromit company. I think they'd get on famously.

Comments (6) | last by antkam, Oct 20, 1:11 PM

There's no way to discuss this book-- or at least, anything I really want to discuss about it-- without spoiling it. Fair warning, then-- spoilers ho! If you're OK with that, click on through the More... link.

Comments (15) | last by goo goo plex!, Jun 25, 5:43 PM

Astonishing X-Men

It's been about 15 years since I've read comic books. Back in the day, I used to read the various X-Men books faithfully. It was a little easier then-- there were only four: Uncanny X-Men, The New Mutants, Excalibur, and X-Factor. Since then mutants have become Marvel's own suburban sprawl. Apparently since I've been gone Jean Grey has died (again!), Colossus "died", Magneto took over Xavier's school, then went evil, then went undercover at the school, then attacked Manhattan, and now Emma Frost is not only running the school but is swapping bodily fluids with Cyclops.

15 years is apparently a very long time.

The only reason I know all this is because I heard that Buffy and Firefly creator Joss Whedon has the reins of a new X-Men series, and that it was getting incredible buzz. I just finished the first six issues of Astonishing X-Men, and all I can say is... wow. The man is good. He's really nailed it. The characterizations are all spot-on perfect. Particularly delightful is Kitty Pryde, who's apparently grown up now and on the senior staff of the school. Kitty is a character who's been grossly mishandled in the past (her ninjafication in the Kitty Pryde and Wolverine mini-series being the most striking example), but Whedon understands and respects the character's roots. The dialogue has the same great touches and pop awareness we've come to expect from Whedon-- when Kitty shows up late to an assembly on the first day of school, she asks if she's missed the sorting hat-- and the scripting devotes more time to character development than pyrotechnics. These X-Men are far more "real" than any incarnation I've seen before. The books read like one of Whedon's television shows, with characters exploring their relationships and wrestling with who they are and what they represent.

The artwork is also rich, vibrant, and appealing, making the product as a whole some of the best superhero work I can recall. If you're a comics reader, or if you used to be, Astonishing X-Men is well worth your time. Borrow the back issues from somewhere and check it out.

Comments (5) | last by Larry, Dec 24, 5:53 PM

As delightful as the Harry Potter books are, they've always infuriated me because all the adults are idiots. Despite the danger to Harry, the serious threat Voldemort poses to him, the irrevocable link binding Harry to Voldemort, and the remarkable capability and valor Harry has repeatedly demonstrated, all of the people charged with safeguarding him treat him as a child and go out of their way to keep him in the dark about matters which directly pertain to him.

Perhaps this very behavior is partly responsible for the books' success. In the real world, adults routinely underestimate the maturity and capability of children. Having the main character go through the same kind of treatment may make him more sympathetic to young adult readers. But I don't think so. When I was a kid, this kind of thing ticked me off just as much as it does today. When the police chief dismissed the Hardy Boys' suspicions despite their impressive track record, it always exasperated me. Kids may be inexperienced, but they're not stupid.

Seeing Dumbledore, McGonagall, the Weasleys, and the rest of the authority figures continually ignoring not only the wisdom of keeping Harry in the loop but Harry's demonstrated ability to handle it always struck me as lazy writing. The characters needed to be stupid to advance the plot. And since the plot was entertaining, I begrudgingly went along for the ride.

In Harry Potter and the Order of the Phoenix, it finally became too much to ignore. The kid almost has his brain sucked out by dementors, and still the adults don't think it might be prudent to let Harry in on what's going on? Un-freaking-believable. Literally. It just wasn't believable. Nobody's that myopic. Did it not occur to anyone that perhaps Harry would be far more diligent about studying occlumency if he knew why it was so vital? The raging stupidity of all the adult characters was just too much to bear, and I resolved that this would be the last Harry Potter book I'd read.

And then J.K. Rowling unexpectedly came clean.

I'm not sure if she planned it this way from the beginning, or if she looked back at the past four books and realized she had some 'splaining to do-- but she finally addressed the issue head-on. The characters actually talk about why the adults-- and Dumbledore in particular-- have been such spectacular morons. And while it doesn't excuse their behavior for the past five books, it at least casts it in a new light and gives me enough confidence in Rowling to continue reading.

Comment (1) | last by Brian L, Apr 27, 8:07 AM

Brillig, Schmillig

In preparation for an Alice-themed puzzle hunt this coming weekend, I finally read Lewis Carroll's Alice in Wonderland. And let me say this: What the f*ck?

It's not just that there's no story to speak of. It's not just that the characters are thin, or that Alice herself is a nattering idiot. What surprised me the most was the poor quality of Carroll's prose. His verse is terrific, but his prose is just awful. Rambling, loose, all over the map, it completely failed to draw me in. Even the wordplay was amateurish. And to top it all off, the brilliant Jabberwocky doesn't even show up until the sequel.

Ugh. I'm crushingly disappointed. Alice in Wonderland! Lewis Carroll! You were supposed to be this colossus; you were this great legendary thing. Only... not so much. Phooey.

Comments (6) | last by George, Apr 4, 8:26 PM

Wilde Digression

Back in junior high and high school, I had a serious addiction. My supplier knew me by name and was always waiting for me. He knew I'd come for my steady fix to satisfy my jones. The habit consumed all my free cash. It got so bad, I did things-- terrible, heinous things, like mowing lawns and babysitting-- to finance my addiction. I was a comic book junkie. "Still only 35 cents!" the covers screamed. A bargain at twice the price. And soon, twice again. And that's when, as a poor college student, I finally knocked the monkey off my back. $1.50 per issue? Excelsior indeed.

DC Comics, with its geriatric residents of Gotham, Metropolis, and Central City, was decidedly uncool. As I got older, I experimented in the DC universe-- Teen Titans, the reinvented Wonder Woman and Superman. But I was mostly a mainstream superhero guy, loyal to Marvel Comics. X-Men, New Mutants, Daredevil, Fantastic Four, Avengers, Firestorm, and too many others to count (the complete run of Micronauts! Oh, the humanity!). I pretty much ignored the burgeoning independent scene-- Elfquest, Zot!, Mage, Nexus. Upstarts with an axe to grind and a higher price tag, both of which I could do without.

With one exception.

Cerebus was an odd little duck. Exquisitely detailed black and white artwork in a world of zip-a-tone color. A talking, sword-wielding aardvark in a world of men. A Canadian comic book going it alone in a world of American publishing giants. The unique artistic style caught my attention. The storytelling and frequent parodies of mainstream comics kept it. Mainstream comics were written for teenagers, but Cerebus was written for adults. I was hooked.

Cerebus got dropped 15 years ago along with all the other comics, and I always kind of regretted that. But I had to go cold turkey. I couldn't bear to visit a comics shop only to limp out with but a single title under my arm. And I couldn't trust myself to do just that. But now, as an adult, I got to wondering what I've been missing. And so last year I got a couple of the "phone book" Cerebus compilations, picking up from where I left off.

Cerebus is a barbarian aardvark who talks of himself in the third person. He likes ale and gold. A lot. In the course of his story he's been both prime minister and pope, devices which let Sim explore the trappings of power. Church & State was classic Cerebus. Jaka's Story was a departure but a welcome and successful one, focusing a great deal on a secondary character's history and less on Cerebus himself. It worked because of Jaka's popularity, her intimate connection with Cerebus, and the quality of creator Dave Sim's story. Good stuff.

And then, last night, came Melmoth. What was Sim smoking? Melmoth consists of 12 issues-- an entire year of the series. Cerebus spends all but the last half of the last issue sitting on a patio staring into space. Wait, it gets better. The bulk of these issues is devoted to a retelling of the final days of Oscar Wilde.

Now, I don't begrudge a writer/artist a bit of artistic freedom. The occasional literary tangent within a comic is to be expected. An issue here or there over the course of the run, to keep the juices flowing. But an entire year? Devoted to a story in which nothing happens, about a character who has no meaning within the Cerebus universe? What was he thinking? Imagine a whole year of Peanuts strips about Issac Newton narrated by Pig Pen, or Sports Illustrated offering 12 months of nothing but coverage of church bake sales. Sim's hubris wasn't in wandering off on a 12 month indulgence, or foisting his Wilde obsession on his readers. His hubris was making an excruciatingly boring comic book in doing so. I paid half price for Melmoth and still feel ripped off.

An entire year. Un-frickin-believable.

Comments (4) | last by dave, Jan 17, 3:36 AM

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