Thursday, December 24, 2020

Santa Claus is (Still) Coming to Town!

Covid-19 has made this year into a bit of a nightmare for many of us, but, just as the Grinch attempted to do away with Christmas only to discover that Christmas is rather tougher than he'd imagined (V in V for Vendetta notes that "you can't kill an idea"), so have I discovered a bit of Christmas spirit at the end of the year.  It was unexpected but a small, bright beacon of light in an otherwise largely dreary season.  I've gotten to enjoy time with my family, including my wonderful new son, and although some things have changed (we met with Santa on Zoom instead of in person), others didn't (we still sent an obscene number of holiday cards - you're welcome, USPS).

Because I love both Christmas and "fictional" science (aka "comic book" or "super-hero" science), I decided to round out the year with a beloved topic of mine crammed through a pseudo-scientific lens: the topic of Santa Claus.

I've been a big fan of Santa for over 30 years and this year was no exception.  I wrote an article explaining how Santa is handling the Covid-19 pandemic and what various Santa experts (including Santa's elves) have informed us about Santa's annual gift-giving journey.

If you'd like to know about how Santa is managing 2020, click here!  Don't worry, kids; he's still coming, and he's being extra safe!

Merry Christmas, everyone.  May our 2021 days be more merry, and brighter.

Thursday, December 17, 2020

Good Reads: Skyrim Edition

Did you know that the video game Skyrim has over 300 readable books?  They don't do a thing except tell you a story and you can, in game, open them up, flip through the pages, and read a story.

Most people don't take the time to read every volume, but yours truly did, and wrote a massive, 10-page article summarizing the best books AND personal journals in Skyrim, for the curious readers who wonder which tomes are worth their time.

Check out my article here!  (Spoiler alert: No, "Palla" isn't #1, though it did make the top five.)  This article details the best Skyrim reads, where to find them, if they confer any special skill points to your in-game character, and offers a broad plot summary so you can choose if you want to track them down and give them a read yourself.  Enjoy!

Friday, December 11, 2020

Dualing Banjos: Two Portrayals of the American Hillbilly

On July 7th, back in the days before I canceled my Amazon Prime account, I saw a documentary called The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia. It's about the White family, a self-proclaimed clan of hillbilly redneck ne'er-do-wells. I wanted to write a review for it, but got waylaid. In a note to myself, I wrote simply, “It's at times funny, but mostly heartbreaking. It's a great look at how America has let down its people and why white supremacy is flourishing. These people are so destitute, so despondent, and yet so resilient. An amazingly insightful film.”

With the Netflix release of the Oscar-bait movie Hillbilly Elegy, I decided now is the perfect time to revisit my review The Wild and Wonderful Whites, which didn’t get nearly as much attention as it deserved. It got a lacklustre response and mixed reviews. This isn’t surprising to me, though, because it’s by no means a feel-good movie. It’s simply a year in the life of people, and it’s generally a hopeless sort of film that seeks only to give a realistic portrayal of the American hillbilly. It’s a hopeless kind of film, one in which sympathy is tempered by the up-front awareness that many of the struggles faced by the family are self-inflicted wounds.

Yet there’s also an understanding that the poverty, mental illness, and drug abuse that plagues the family is so thoroughly ingrained that it’s almost impossible to change. One small part of the family moved away from West Virginia in an effort to “start over.” It is made clear that this was a difficult decision, one that stripped the people of their very identities, and that many members of the family lack the resources to make a clean getaway.

Near the end of the film, one of the central subjects of the documentary, Mamie, confesses that she feels like there is no hope for her or her generation; they are not only mired in poverty and ignorance, but doomed to hell. She says she only wants more for her children and grandchildren; there’s a brief cut of her smiling, laughing, and hugging one of them, only for her expression to fall into one of despair the moment the child runs off to continue playing. The utter hopelessness of these people, and the idiosyncratic self-awareness they have of their situations combined with a paralyzing inability to alter them (call it fatalism, or nihilism, if you insist on assigning it an -ism), really affected me.

This film was a portrayal of “hillbillies” in a way that was both sympathetic but unflinching. Certainly, one could easily dismiss the Whites as the main perpetrators of their own abuse, and one would not be wrong. But at the same time, I found myself rooting for them. I wanted them to get better. And I wanted their efforts, however small, however late, however utterly stupid, to succeed.

Hillbilly Elegy, by comparison, is a sneering, derisive work that aimed for the same tone as The Wild and Wonderful Whites but misses its mark and ends up caricaturing its subjects in an inexcusable way.

The thing you should know about Hillbilly Elegy is that the movie is based on a book, and that book is a memoir. The author of the book was born into a family of hillbillies not unlike the Whites, who suffer similar problems: severe drug addiction, untreated mental health problems, dire socioeconomic circumstances. The author proceeded to go to Yale. That’s pretty much the entire plot arc, which is a bit dull and self-congratulatory, in my opinion. But it’s also the sort of thing that you would write a memoir about. My problem is not with the plot but the conclusions drawn from it. Author J.D. Vance blames the people in his life for their own circumstances in what comes across as bitter libertarianism that’s the direct result of the familial traumas he suffered in his pre-college years. The general disdain Vance has for his ex-peers precludes any possible sympathy or understanding. And the generalizations he makes are sweepingly broad.

In short, the problem with Hillbilly Elegy (as a book) is that it falls victim to a fair world fallacy in which all people who are poor are poor because they are lazy; all victims of drug addiction are simply not trying hard enough to get clean; the world is populated only by pathetic losers and Vance, who heroically discovered that the secret to success is pulling oneself up by the bootstraps.

The Netflix screen adaptation, directed by Ron Howard, dilutes Vance’s problematic, right-leaning ideals, making its central focus the portrayal of his mother and grandmother. Played by Amy Adams (a rich Hollywood woman in “poor face”), Vance’s mother steals the spotlight with her hysterical antics. Though I didn’t like Vance’s memoir, one thing I can say about it is that it had a point. The movie, in forcing Vance to play a milquetoast “straight man,” ends up being nothing more than an invitation to gawk at a caricature. It has no lesson. The book did, and while I disagree with it, I can at least say it was pushing forth a story that the author felt had meaning. The Netflix movie trades in cheap emotional clichés, with its characters oscillating wildly between screeching at each other in over-the-top, fake southern accents (Vance is from Ohio) and nauseatingly gooey speeches set to rousing orchestral music.

It invites the audience to gawk openly at the poor yokels with smug satisfaction and the security of knowing that the actors themselves are not real people, only pale imitations of real people. It’s a voyeuristic film that comes across as the highfalutin final project of an insufferable film student, and it would be utterly unremarkable if not for the “based on a best-selling memoir / based on a true story” tagline.

I know it’s a bit of a banality to see a film based on a book and to say afterwards, “The book was better.” I read Vance’s book in 2016 and I strongly disliked it. I disliked its cruel, pitiless, snide tone and its ham-fisted lessons on self-actualization that seemed rooted in personal scorn. However, in this instance, I’ll resort to the film’s strategy of trading in clichés and say it: The book was better than the film. And neither holds a candle to the stark, raw, provocative, and terribly under-valued documentary that is The Wild and Wonderful Whites of West Virginia.

But when you get right down to it, that is how Americans as a whole regard the iconic hillbilly. We want to stare, to spurn, to point and laugh, and we want to do it without feeling bad. J.D. Vance’s book and the film based on it both allow us to witness the spectacle without being touched by it, and to be reassured of our own superiority to the hapless hicks we’re observing. It’s a modern freakshow. The Wild and Wonderful Whites does not strip the Whites of their humanity and, in doing so, demands that the audience confront the horrible realization that, there but for the grace of God go we. You don’t feel good watching it, and nor should you. The Wild and Wonderful Whites is a lens into an uncomfortable reality that, unlike Vance’s book, doesn’t extend itself into the realm of judgement.

Hillbilly Elegy robs its characters of their dignity with the weak excuse that hillbillies have none. As a result, it’s exploitative and mocking. The Wild and Wonderful Whites, on the other hand, lets its subjects speak for themselves; they are both pathetic and proud, forcing the audience to accommodate their oxymoronic nature in what is an uncomfortably close depiction of complex, wholly realized people. This is where Howard’s film failed. His characters, based on Vance’s memoir, are one-dimensional and shallow. They don’t deserve your attention; the Whites do.

Wednesday, December 2, 2020

Content Dump: Animorphs and Elliot Page

Yesterday Elliot Page, one of the stars of Umbrella Academy, came out and as the "resident Umbrella Academy fan" of the Grand Geek Gathering I was asked to whip up a press release.  You can read it here.

I had actually spent all weekend writing a 9-page listicle about the best books to read in Skyrim (spoiler: Palla v2 only made it to the #4 slot) but this was deemed more timely, so you'll have to wait for next week.

Also this week, I wrote up a brief review of the new Animorphs graphic novel adaptation.  I don't like it as much as the books but in fairness, it would have been hard to live up to my eight-year-old enthusiasm for the original book series.

Click the links for my writing or don't.

Friday, November 20, 2020

Loki is an LGBTQ+ Icon (And Actually, Always Has Been)

Today is the Transgender Day of Remembrance. 

If you'd like to read a light-hearted and validating post about Loki, the character of Norse mythology, Marvel comics, and Marvel Cinematic Universe fan, check out my most recent post  published by the Grand Geek Gathering on November 18th.

Tuesday, November 10, 2020

“You Look Like Death” Prequel Breathes Life Into Umbrella Academy Series

 Originally published by Grand Geek Gathering, Nov. 11.

If you discovered the Umbrella Academy comic book series through the Netflix screen adaptation, and only picked up the source material afterwards, you might have found yourself confused or disappointed.  The Netflix series is only a loose adaptation of the graphic novel by Dark Horse, and the truth is, the comic is very different.

A recent spin-off focusing on fan-favorite Klaus premiered this year, and it’s clear the Netflix show helped writer Gerard Way sharpen his vision.  You Look Like Death is a prequel that occurs about a decade before the events of Apocalypse Suite (from which the Netflix series draws its inspiration), and after reading the first two issues, I have to say, it looks promising.

My impression of the original graphic novel was that the story was choppy, poorly paced, and often confusing.  The characters weren’t very well-defined and the story seemed to move between action sequences without much glue to hold it together.  I did get the impression that the writers and illustrators had spoken, at length, about the plot… but that plot was lost in translation, as the comic seemed desperate to highlight the coolest action sequences without investing much in back story.

You Look Like Death builds wonderfully on both the original graphic novel and the TV series.  The story arc and pacing has a much cleaner, well-defined quality.  The issues are short, but what they lack in quantity they make up for in quality.  The linework is less “sketchy,” the colors brighter, the backgrounds more detailed.  One of my biggest complaints of the original graphic novels was that all the characters look alike; in You Look Like Death, the characters manage to have actual faces that one can readily tell apart, complete with expressions and noses (something that was occasionally conspicuously missing in Apocalypse Suite).  And it’s not just their faces that are more distinguishable; the personalities of the characters are, too.  Perhaps it’s because we are focusing on a cast of one instead of a cast of seven (well, six, since poor Ben is dead throughout the series).

In Issue One, Klaus is kicked out of the Umbrella Academy due to his drug use and general delinquency.  Sent out into the wide world, he engages in a series of zany gimmicks to try to make his way, including such hijinks as putting himself up for adoption.  He steals a massive stash of drugs and experiences a high like no other, unaware that he just ripped off an incredibly powerful chimpanzee vampire drug lord, The Shivers.  Moving to Hollywood, he happily discovers a wider world of mind-altering substances than he ever could have imagined.  The issue ends with Klaus dancing at a Hollywood party, having recently made the acquaintance of a wealthy but washed-up actress, Vivian.

In Issue Two, Klaus basks in the attention of the Hollywood elite, summoning long-dead sensations to dance the lindy-hop at parties and impress various creative types with “his” talents.  Unbeknownst to him, Shivers the vampire chimp is hot on his trail, and is moving in to take his revenge.  Meanwhile, Vivian, Klaus’s patron, introduces him to heroin and begins making demands for Klaus to summon various ghosts for her.  We’re treated to some flashbacks of Klaus’s childhood and Reginald’s A+ parenting, and the issue ends with Klaus possibly making a big mistake with his powers.  (No spoilers; you’ll have to read the issue if you want to know what happens!)

Although I was never a fan of the original Umbrella Academy graphic novels, You Look Like Death: Tales from the Umbrella Academy is a fun series.  The attention to detail, color, and design is far superior to Apocalypse Suite, and perhaps because of the influence of the screen series, the characters seem better written and well-rounded.  There’s more humor (Klaus, of course, has always been the comic relief) mixed with intense angst-filled darkness (Reginald scraping up Klaus’s dead cat is nothing short of hair-raising).  For the price, I would definitely recommend You Look Like Death.  It’s an improvement upon the original comic series and, for those who prefer the Netflix series, a faithful expansion on a beloved character, with explorations of both his lighter clown-like side as well as his disturbing, traumatic past.

You Look Like Death doesn’t take itself too seriously, one other complaint I have about the original Umbrella Academy comics.  The dark themes are present but they are only lighted upon, which, in my opinion, gives them a little more impact.  Apocalypse Suite and subsequent issues of the central series read, at times, like a soap opera, with the comedic backdrops feeling out of place and poorly timed.  You Look Like Death makes comedy the main focus, with Klaus’s trauma always lurking just out of reach, giving it a rightfully ominous feel that doesn’t bludgeon the reader over the head.  Given the short length of the issues, and the limitations of the medium, sometimes, less is more, and suggesting meaning is better than showing it outright.  The fact that Gerard Way was able to accomplish this in You Look Like Death demonstrates a degree of maturity in his writing, and I’m hopeful that it might carry over to the fourth volume of Umbrella Academy, currently in production.

Wednesday, October 28, 2020

The Perfect D&D Homebrew Formula I Never Realized I Was Using

 Originally written and published on the Grand Greek Gathering.


The first-ever D&D game I played was homebrewed, and I didn’t know that this was unusual.  I was a poor college student and I didn’t have the money to shell out for modules.  What’s more, my college was in a small town and there was no local comic book shop that would have sold them, anyway.  So when I began DMing my own campaigns, years later, I too made homebrew campaigns, unaware that pre-made modules even existed.

I was lucky in that my first DM was a talented storyteller.  They say that one of the marks of an expert is to make their craft appear easy, and my DM certainly did.  It was only after I became a DM myself that I discovered the enormous amount of work he must have put into his campaigns, which, from a player perspective, ran so seamlessly.

No easy feat when players insisted on such allowances as “being a sentient chair.”

It would be well over a decade before I discovered the formula both he and I had unwittingly been using in our homebrew campaigns.  I stumbled upon it while trying to coach a friend of mine (a seasoned player but a new DM).  I’ve named this formula the Triple Diamond Structure, and you’re about to see why.



A good homebrew follows a thread, but the thread cannot be too obvious or the story feels rail-roaded to the players.  D&D is ultimately a sandbox game, so the players should be able to explore and have plenty of room to breathe.  But aimless wandering gets old, fast, so the role of the DM is to facilitate the characters through a choose-your-own adventure story.

Like all stories, the DM needs to establish a conflict, rising action, a climax, and a resolution.  I have found that every single-session quest I’ve ever taken my players on was a play in three acts.  Identifying the acts allowed the story to be paced properly, to offer changes in scenery, and to offer three separate win conditions (one per act).  Each act begins with the conflict, then bulges into potential actions, then resolves at a single node.  In other words, the flowchart of the action looks like a diamond.  And if there are three acts to the story, the story will look like three stacked diamonds, with the nodes being “known” plot points that the players will light upon as they play.

This is a single-session arson quest. More on this later. Note that I write out my campaigns by hand, but you might prefer to use a digital tool to create neater structures.

In other words: the players, as they interact with the world, will go in all sorts of directions.  The DM offers them a hook, and if they take it, the subsequent action can go in many directions.  But since the hook has outlined a clear objective, the players will come back to that objective.  The story will bulge and pinch.

For some DMs, the “bulge” is where the campaign unravels and becomes a meandering mess.  To keep the players on track, anticipating actions and how those actions will lead to the next node can help.

In order to build a Triple Diamond Structure, the two most important things for the DM to be able to articulate are what type of quest the players are on (because this will determine the win conditions), and what type of actions they can perform.



I’ve heard it said there are anywhere from three to seven basic “types” of quests.  I believe there are fundamentally four:

  • Kill quests.  (This includes killing a beast, subduing a wizard in battle, or beating up a bad guy.  The win condition involves winning at physical combat.)
  • Retrieval quests.  (This includes collecting items, finding items, or fetching items.  The win condition is that an item is obtained/moved/interacted with.  Note that the item might be an NPC; for example, rescuing a princess from a dragon.)
  • Movement quests.  (This includes escort and delivery missions.  The win condition is locating and/or going to a place.)
  • Information quests.  (This includes mysteries, lore, and background quests.  The win condition is obtaining information.)

Needless to say, quests can be mixed-and-matched.  For example, an information quest can easily devolve into a kill quest, and a movement quest might be combined with a retrieval quest.  (Some call a movement-and-item quest a “push the button quest.”  Players go to a place and interact with an item.)

The point of outlining these basic quest types is to determine what the story arc and win condition is.

For illustrative purposes, let’s say the mage in your party, who enjoys using fire-based spells, was recently accused of arson.  This quest is an information quest, whose ultimate goal is to clear the mage of the charges against her.

Now let’s identify the three acts in our play.  In act one, the mage will be accused and the guards will attempt to take her to jail.  In the next act, the characters will (hopefully) attempt to clear her name by investigating the crime scene, questioning witnesses, or lawyering up.  In the final act, the party is likely to have a confrontation with the real arsonist.

Identify the conflicts of each act, and what actions or triggering events will lead to the next act.

As I have written the story, there are now three mini-quests with three mini-objectives.  Note that the type of quest changes based on character actions.  If they decide, in act 3, to obtain evidence and take it to the city guards, then the mission is a retrieval quest whose win condition is the taking of the evidence to the city guard.  On the other hand, if the party decides to kill the arsonist outright and then turn in his body later, then it’s more of a kill quest.

Identifying types of quests and their respective win conditions will help you construct your diamond and anticipate player actions.



While every DM knows that improv is critical to the game (everyone has that one player who likes to wander off the map or kill a town guard just to see what happens), anticipating fundamental player moves can be hugely helpful.

Actions can usually be broken into either-or conditions.  For example:

  • Physical v. mental.
  • Non-magical v. magical.
  • (If physical): Outright brawling v. stealth.
  • (If physical): Ranged weaponry v. melee combat.
  • (If mental): Intimidation v. seduction.

DMs who have a feel for their players’ characters will be able to anticipate their actions to a degree.  Reggie the Rogue is going to try to break into the library to steal a forbidden scroll with the arsonist’s confession written on it, while Hans the Bard is more likely to walk in the front door and try to charm the librarian.  Characters without money are unlikely to try to bribe the guards (unless, of course, they’re experts in transmutation).  What happens next is up to the dice.  But if the win condition is to retrieve the confession, then that is what the DM should be anticipating will happen, one way or another.

Breaking down the most likely actions your characters can/will take will help you react accordingly. Before you say it: yes, “charm” should be under magic, not mental. I know, I know.



For more inexperienced parties (or any party with a barbarian), missions that require finesse may go sideways.  Never fear.  Anticipate the most likely lose condition and construct a new diamond.

Let’s say Reggie destroyed the confession scroll by accident, making it impossible to clear your fire mage’s good name.  New win conditions might include finding a copy of the confession, repairing the original, and/or keeping your mage from murdering Reggie with a fireball.  The nice thing about the Triple Diamond Structure is that, just like a real crystal, it can be built upon thanks to its regular, predictable shape.

In this example, the possibility of fleeing is added on as a diamond between act 1 and act 2, but it still flows back to the central pathway to allow for eventual resolution of the main conflict.

If your side quests or story arcs seem too linear, tack on some new diamonds and let the party follow those threads.  Since the diamond is really just a fancy flowchart, you can break down either-or actions into increasingly tiny nodes to create elaborate stories.

Here, the either/or condition depends on whether the party wants to act lawfully or chaotically, and then further breaks down potential actions and outcomes. There are diamonds within diamonds!

Ultimately, the goal is to give your players the appearance of ultimate freedom while still following an anticipated storyline.  The characters aren’t being railroaded, because they can choose how to get to the next node of the story… but the story has designated waypoints that create a natural, satisfying story arc.  They choose their own path and consequences, but within a framework that is designed to give the story a natural rise and fall, and lead to a satisfying conclusion.



If DMs don’t like the idea of having a designated outcome, then the diamonds can be separated.  For example, in act 3, the players are expected to solve the mystery.  But they might instead prefer to just skip town.  This is still a resolution and when diagrammed out, will still create a diamond-esque story shape.

Here we have a triple-diamond in which players have chosen NOT to clear their friend for the crime of arson and have instead elected to skip town. There are two potential resolutions now, but if you squint, you’ll realize it’s still three diamonds.  The final node is a resolution which can vary based on player-character actions.


Voilà! There is more than one resolution to our quest, but all outcomes lead to a resolution. This allows the characters to feel a dopamine-rush of satisfaction for completing the quest, and to collect on that sweet, sweet XP.

It is not necessary for players to come to the resolution, only a resolution.  This can include abandoning the quest entirely (see above) or getting the entire party killed by a Minotaur.  The possibilities are endless.  The first node of a story diamond, at its most basic, can simply be called “hook” or “conflict,” and the last node can be thought of as “resolution” or “ending.”  The bulges of the diamond are the player actions; the DM should be ready and able to respond without leading the players to any particular path, with the awareness of how actions will flow down to nodes of the story to eventually reach a resolution.



Just as a single-session side quest can be broken into three parts, a larger campaign can be created, with each “diamond” representing a part of the story.  People are often naturally attracted to the rule of threes, but any number of diamonds can be stacked, and the DM can focus in or out as needed on their story structure, with all either-or options creating smaller and smaller diamonds within the central story structure.

Of course, not all styles are created equal, so your mileage may vary.  I never drew out a diamond until I began trying to help my friend with his campaign.  I’m a highly improvisational DM, and I reacted to unexpected player actions instinctively.  Different people will get more or less out of using this tool to help plan out their campaigns, and some may prefer not to diagram out their story at all.  But if you’re new to homebrew and finding that you’re having problems visualizing your campaign or pacing your stories, try the Triple Diamond Method to simplify how you present your quests.  It’s just another item for you to put in your pocket, and who doesn’t want a handful of diamonds in their coin-purse?

Thursday, September 17, 2020

Why I'm Not Canceling Netflix

I watched the controversial movie Cuties so that you wouldn’t have to.

I went in prepared to tear this movie to shreds, and instead, discovered a beautiful, realistic tragedy that has been unfairly represented in the media. Here's my honest review of the "Cuties" movie:

I accepted Netflix’s challenge to watch the movie [before judging it], and I’m glad I did.  I concur entirely with Tessa Thompson’s opinion: it gutted me.  It’s a beautifully done movie about a sensitive topic.  It’s as tasteful as it can be, considering that the POINT is to make you, the viewer, squirm a little.  The discomfort of the movie speaks to a very real issue not often talked about: how girls grow into women, and how various influences (pop culture, traditional cultural expectations, and peer pressure) guide them.  My takeaway from the movie was that the single biggest problem with Amy’s coming-of-age was the utter lack of guidance.  It was the blind leading the blind; she took her cues from her friends, from online videos, from her own misinterpretation of the world around her.  At no point did her mother (or any other woman) in the movie sit her down and have a frank conversation with her.  She was unable to ask for questions or for advice.  She was isolated, and alone.

The beautiful tragedy of the controversy surrounding this movie is that, by boycotting it, by demanding that it be silenced, the cultural conversation it begs to have is being shut down.  Amy experienced what too many young girls do: a nosedive into an empty swimming pool, from childhood to womanhood, with the nuances of sexuality and maturity being closely guarded, shameful secrets that she is expected to figure out on her own.  The attempts to cancel the movie is, essentially, mirroring the very problem that the movie highlights: that by ignoring a problem or refusing to confront it, we allow it to grow worse.  Yet another case of life imitating art.

For more information about the #CancelNetflix controversy, as well as a play-by-play of my reactions while watching the film, check out my full article on the Cuties movies here.

Friday, September 4, 2020

Rest in Power, King: A Tribute to Chadwick Boseman

 [A/n: This post was written last weekend and supposed to be published on another site Wednesday, but as it is still not out and I feel this is timely, I am reproducing it here.]

"You are a good man with a good heart, and it is hard for a good man to be king." - T’Chaka to his son T’Challa, Black Panther, 2018.

When I saw Black Panther in 2018, I called it “one of the most important and relevant [superhero] films of our generation.”  In my opinion, that sentiment has only grown stronger.  Behind every great movie is a great actor to carry it, and Black Panther owes its success, in no small part, to Chadwick Boseman, who passed away last Friday from colon cancer, which he had been battling in private for four years.

In a statement to the press, Kevin Feige, president of Marvel Studios, described Boseman as a man who “radiated charisma and joy, and… created something truly indelible.”  Former President Barack Obama, quoted in People, said: “To be young, gifted, and Black; to use that power to give them heroes to look up to; to do it all while in pain – what a use of his years.”  Ryan Coogler, the director of Black Panther, described Boseman as "a caretaker, a leader, and a man of faith.".  (You can read his full, official statement here.)

"Always and Forever," by BossLogic

Chadwick Boseman starred in an incredible 15 film roles over the course of his career, seven of them following his cancer diagnosis in 2016.  In addition to starring in fictitious roles, he also took on the mantle of some of America’s influential Black citizens, from major-league baseball player Jackie Robison (42, 2008) to Supreme Court Justice Thurgood Marshall (Marshall, 2017).  But perhaps one of his best-known and most-cherished roles was that of King T’challa, aka Black Panther.  The recurring role (Civil War, 2016; Black Panther, 2018; Avengers: Infinity War, 2018; Avengers: Endgame, 2019) left an impact on both the Marvel Cinematic Universe as well as on the sociopolitical impact of superhero films as a whole.

With a box office at $1.347 billion, Black Panther was the first of the Marvel movies to win an Academy Award (Best Costume Design, Best Original Score, and Best Production Design), as well as the first “superhero” film to get a nomination for Best Picture.  Its commercial success speaks to a deeper cultural impact.  The first Marvel movie to feature a predominantly Black cast, Black Panther offered a generation of Black children the superhero representation that had been lacking from the prior 17 MCU films.  It was a nuanced, emotionally impactful movie that did not shy away from racial topics but treated all of its characters (even the villains) with dignity and honor.  Boseman, as T’Challa, gave power and emotion to a performance that represented important political and social questions within the context of a fictional world, and in doing so, transcended the superhero genre into something more meaningful.  He brought depth and soul to his characters, and in turn, allowed his characters to speak to modern issues and real concerns about racial justice in modern America.

Boseman’s death, at the age of 43, came on August 28th, which is, fittingly enough, Jackie Robinson Day.

At the 2018 Howard University commencement speech, Boseman describes struggles in life as being “meant to shape you for your purpose,” and encouraged the graduating class to “press on with pride and press on with purpose.”  Remembered as curious,  kind, inspiring, and driven, Chadwick’s death leaves an absence in the Marvel Cinematic Universe that cannot (and perhaps should not) be filled.  Yet his legacy remains.  With regality and gravitas, Boseman’s performances left an impact that will survive him for generations to come.  He gave audiences of all colors something to aspire to and embodied his role as the King of Wakanda with the bearing of true royalty.  Graceful, inspirational, and humble, Boseman was not merely a fictional hero, but a cultural one.  He famously said he’d “rather have an action figure than a Golden Globe.”

Chadwick Boseman is survived by his wife, Taylor Simone Ledward, and his parents, Leroy and Carolyn Boseman.

His death has impacted countless fans.  To those fans, we offer this wisdom from King T’Challa himself: “In times of crisis, the wise build bridges, while the foolish build barriers. We must find a way to look after one another as if we were one single tribe.”

Yimbambe.  Wakanda Forever.

Wednesday, August 19, 2020

Review of Season 2 of Umbrella Academy

 I've made it pretty clear that I absolutely love the Netflix show "Umbrella Academy."  I had my expectations for season two set very high; every promo picture and teaser-trailer that came out got me even more excited, because it looked really good.

I was warned by many friends to temper my enthusiasm lest the second season fall short and I end up disappointed.  The truth was, my expectations were so high that such a let-down seemed inevitable.

At midnight I was up with a bottle of wine, ready to watch the ten newest episodes when they dropped.  It was like New Year's Eve.  The energy was palpable; I probably hadn't felt such anticipation since Marvel's Civil War.

In case you are wondering how it turned out: expectations MET.  Expectations SURPASSED!  The second season was everything I had hoped for, and more.

And you can read my comprehensive review of it here. 

Saturday, August 1, 2020

A Surjikcal Approach to Style: A Conversation with Umbrella Academy Director Stephen Surjik

 Earlier this month I scored a HELL of an interview with one of the directors of the Umbrella Academy, two weeks before the release of season 2.  I have been working on getting this interview completed and posted on a larger website to be enjoyed by more people, hence my absence from my own blog.

You can read the interview here.  

Wednesday, July 1, 2020

Ties That Bind: An Unlicensed Umbrella Academy Prequel

Welcome to July!  If  you are a regular follower of my blog, then you might have noticed that I took the month of June off.  After two years of weekly content, I felt that I deserved it.  Also, while I'm certainly well-aware that this blog isn't the most populous corner of the web, I felt that June should be reserved to amplify and elevate voices who needed it.  The world could wait for my Last of Us II review (coming soon).

Rest assured I was not doing nothing.  I was working on a personal project that was a year in the making.  (It would have/should have/could have taken 3 months, but I took a break in the middle to have a baby and get a journalism degree.)

I finally finished it, just in time for the show's season 2 premiere.  The unlicensed prequel for "Umbrella Academy."

It's a full-length novel that is canon-compliant with both the books and the comics.  As far as fan fiction goes, it's probably the best thing I've ever written.

It starts slow, build to a crescendo, and employs heavy foreshadowing.  Early reviews by fellow fans have described it as being "zany and sad," "hilarious and depressing as hell," and my favorite, "exquisite suffering."

Monday, June 1, 2020

A Brief Commentary on "A Few Bad Apples" and Police Brutality from Los Angeles

Today's post will be short, and sweet.  I have a lot to say, but other people who are better educated and more experienced than me have already said it, better than I have.


This weekend, riots broke out due to the (unnecessary, tragic, and unjustifiable) death of George Floyd.  I live in Los Angeles, where:
  • Curfews as early as 4 and 6 p.m. have been used to disperse peaceful, lawful protests.
  • Journalists have been fired on.
  • The National Guard is patrolling downtown.
  • Sirens, flash-bangs, and helicopters are keeping us up all night.
Along with all the protesting, there's been some rioting and looting.  I am inclined to believe that these are all separate groups.  Looting is an opportunistic crime; protesting peacefully is a Constitutional right.  And rioting falls somewhere in between.  When the police are marching through the streets in para-military gear, they're beckoning war, and they're getting it. 

Some photos from this weekend:

And my personal favorite:

Rioting should be a last resort. But then, so should murder, and this whole mess started because the police murdered someone unnecessarily.

Our country was literally founded on destruction of property. I'm not advocating for it, but I'm not weeping any tears for the busted windows of my local Starbucks, either.

 "There is something that Governments care for far more than human life, and that is the security of property, and so it is through property that we shall strike the enemy."
- also Emmeline Pankhurst

Regardless of how you feel about the protesters, your average American mostly deals with cops while getting a traffic ticket, so of course they're not going to like cops.

I have had both good and bad experiences with cops. My best experience with a cop was an instance in which a cop casually and kindly told me to be extra careful because I was in line at a bagel shop holding my motorcycle helmet. My worst experience with a cop was the time my friend, a black man, was thrown to the ground, handcuffed, and had a gun pulled on him because he vaguely looked like another black man in the area who they were searching for. These experiences are obviously not the same; the "bad" cop experience tends to far outweigh the "good" cop experience.

Ultimately, cops are people, people are fallible. I know there are good cops out there. I wish there were more.  But so long as civilians are being needlessly murdered, the "there are good cops" argument drowns in the viscous weight of police brutality.  What is left is the question of how we overhaul a broken system, and how we prevent cops from murdering people, and bring to justice the ones who do.

More on this in a second.

But this post really isn't about "the good cops."  It's about the bad system that all cops are a part of, a system that attracts bad people disproportionately, and warps the minds and ethics of otherwise good people.  Let me explain:

Due to the intense stress of the job and the constant exposure to violence, a lot of cops end up emotionally very volatile. It is not a coincidence that cops have a higher-than-average likelihood of spousal abuse. I would argue that a position of authority tends to attract power-mad assholes, and also that positions of authority can corrupt normal people who would remain normal in another position. I am not justifying some of the awful things cops do, only explaining why they are more prevalent from a statistical standpoint. A job like that is bound to fuck with your head, and I doubt most cops are getting the kind of emotional and psychological support they need to handle it in a constructive manner.

So what's to be done?

Here are two ideas:

First of all, fucking body cams.  Cops need to be held accountable.

Second of all, mental health screening, licensing guidelines, and an end to court protections for police officers.

Third, serious defunding and demilitarization.

Here's a list of five demands from BLM:

What can you do right now?  Consider donating to one of many organizations dedicated to ending police brutality, or at least clicking around their page to learn just how deep this problem goes.

We need to return to the supposed mission of police: to "serve" and "protect."  Police should be peacekeepers, mediators, negotiators.  Not soldiers.

And until we overhaul the way the police act in this country, we need to retire the phrase "a few bad apples."

The full phrase is, of course, "a few bad apples ruins the whole bunch."  This is one of those literal phrases; if you have a single bad apple in a barrel, its production and release of ethylene will cause all of the apples around in to ripen and turn to mush far faster than is normal.  If it's a fungus, or a worm, or some other issues, it spreads.

As I've said, I don't believe all cops are bad.  But as I've said, I do think the system is bad.  And so long as we allow room for the "few bad apples," we can't really excuse any part of the system, including the "good" parts of it, which are complacent in the face of injustice.


Would you eat an apple if it were occupying a bucket with another apple that was covered in fungus, worms, or black rot?  Of course not.  And if you managed an orchard that kept finding bad apples, over and over and over again, wouldn't you, at some point, consider taking action to prevent bad apples in the first place?

It's time to do what we do with bad apples: throw them out, because they are trash.


  • Riot Medicine:  For those who want to attend protests as field medics. The police, I've noticed, bring plenty of guns, batons, pepper spray, and shields, but inexplicably do not bring medics. Almost as if they don't care if protesters get hurt.
  • How To Be An Ally: An extensive list by Forbes of documentaries, social media accounts, non-profits, books, essays, websites, and other resources to help educate and guide those who want to fight for racial justice and egalitarianism.
  • Campaign Zero: Some research on how to limit police interventions, improve community interactions, and ensure accountability.
  • Black Lives Matter: Self-explanatory. 
  • NAACP Legal Defense Fund: A way to help out the protesters.
  • A list of local bail funds for protesters.

Monday, May 25, 2020

How The Incredibles II Could Have Been Incredible, Too

There are few things that my husband and I disagree on, but one of them that's been a firm sticking point for over a decade is our opinion of The Incredibles.  It's an animated superhero movie from 2004 by Pixar, and it won two Academy Awards.

And Andrew does not like it.

My initial reaction.

For those unfamiliar with the franchise, the premise is this: a family of people with superpowers are living incognito in a world that demands their normalcy.  A supervillain eventually emerges, forcing the whole family to fight him together and realize how incredibly wonderful their abilities are, and in the end, they embrace their gifts, which were previously sources of shame and conflict.

Here are some things I liked about the film.  I liked that it inhabited a proper world that was filled not merely with superheroes, but also regular people whose jobs were critical to their shtick.  (The best example being Edna Mode, a clothing designer specializing in "super suits.")  I liked the direction, and the acting.  I liked the surprisingly dark moments in a brightly animated film, and the jaw-dropping revelation (for me, at least) that the supervillain was none other than Mr. Incredible's biggest fan, who had been rejected as his "boy sidekick" decades earlier.

Most importantly, I think, the film resonated with me.  I knew how it felt to have gifts that were not nurtured properly.  (I had wilted in a strict private school in primary, where the small class sizes meant that there was no "gifted" track, because everyone was "gifted," in the sense that their parents had money to send them to a school that cared more for the neatness of of uniforms than whether or not their reading primers were hopelessly out of date.)

I understood the frustration of having certain exceptional abilities and then suffering through a public school classroom in high school with a bunch of people far below my level, and the annoyance of being in a world that seemed to cater to the lowest common denominator.  I felt the sting of injustice at the idea that remarkable people could "slip through the cracks," and due to circumstances outside of their control, would not be built up, but instead be forced to languish in unremarkability for the rest of their lives.

In short, I felt like a weird kid with malnourished potential, and The Incredibles offered me a message of hope.

So, when the sequel came out in 2018, 14 years later, of course I went to see it in theaters.

I left disappointed, bewildered... and a little more understanding of my husband's point of view.

Let's first talk about why my husband does not like the original movie, and where the original movie missteps.  The problem with The Incredibles, says Andy, is that it solves a problem that does not exist.  The idea that gifted people are being "held back" in a purposeful and malicious manner seems like a bizarre complaint, when you think about it.  The movie has been criticized by some as being libertarian Ayn Rand propaganda whose central conflict revolves madly around egalitarianism somehow being bad or at least politically incorrect.

I confess I didn't see it that way.  Not until the re-watch.  That's when I noticed the subtle, conservative undertones.  For example:
  • The thing that drives the superheroes into hiding is not, as I incorrectly remembered, the collateral damage of their superhero fights, nor the lack of accountability inherent to vigilantism.  It's actually a lawsuit.  And the resolution is not that any new laws are passed or the superheroes are held accountable at the end.  The public just sort of decides they're cool with superheroes acting with impunity because they're so special. 
"I am comfortable with returning to a status quo in which Mr. Incredible occasionally literally kills other people without any consequence."
  • The villain famously says that "When everyone is special, no one is."  Driven mad by rejection in his youth, the villain has devised a ton of technology so that he can be an "artificial" superhero.  This makes no sense because it's clear to me that Syndrome is special.  He's a fucking tech genius and his talents should have been nurtured.  The strange "stay-in-your-lane" message, that unremarkable people should not try to rise up, that being successful is predicated only on God-given gifts and is pre-determined, rubbed me the wrong way.  At no point does Mr. Incredible take any responsibility for his rejection of Syndrome, either.  Syndrome dies without ever being fully explored; he is not meant to be a sympathetic villain, which is a shame, because he truly could have been.
  • And, perhaps strangest of all, the aggressively gendered nuclear family, in which the men's powers are being strong and fast, and the women's are to be flexible, invisible, and protective.
After a decade, I had forgotten my annoyance with how Syndrome was treated.  The movie was, ostensibly, a movie about people being given room to grow and reach their full potential.  Yet Syndrome was painted with broad strokes as a bad guy for wanting to be a superhero and for "cheating" his way into the role.

I had also forgotten what I considered a big plot hole, or at least a gaping, unresolved conflict, which was that the superheroes were never made to regulate themselves.  In the end, the solution is simply that society decides that a benevolent dictatorship is fine, and superheroes can do whatever they like.  (The subject of accountability is explored beautifully in Captain America: Civil War.)

But after fourteen years, I was hopeful for a sequel that used the world-building of the first movie to springboard into a more complex narrative.  The audience, who were in junior high or high school when it was released, were now in their late 20s and early 30s.  We were ready for a story with more elusive messaging, with moral quandaries and challenging, complex issues that lacked simple solutions or answers.  Surely, after fourteen years, the directors and writers had matured alongside their audience, and so Incredibles II would mend any of the weaknesses of the first, the biggest of which was its ham-fistedness.

Ah, if only.

The plot of Incredibles II doubles down on the needless gendering of the world by positing a conflict in which Mrs. Incredible becomes the breadwinner.  Poor Mr. Incredible struggles to fix the kids their breakfast, help them with their homework, and deal with the baby, who fights a raccoon for no discernible reason whatsoever.

The first two acts are mostly dedicated to showing off how Thicc Mrs. Incredible is and how hapless and incompetant her husband is at raising the kids.  Y'know, 'cause he's a boy.

This scene really sums it up.

In the third act, finally, a conflict emerges that doesn't involve Mr. Incredible getting tangled in the blinds or burning toast in the microwave while Mrs. Incredible learns how to do the splits and eat a banana.  A man named Winston wants to help superheroes by giving them bodycams and recording their good deeds.  I think we're supposed to think he is the bad guy, but then he introduced his Evil-Looking Sister, who is immediately, clearly, and obviously the villain, "Screenslaver," who, like Syndrome, is a "regular" person whose "only" ability is that she is an insanely smart and technologically-savvy person with a chip on her shoulder about people with natural-born powers.

What were the takeaway messages of The Incredibles II?  Well...
  • Women are superior parents to men / men are hapless at raising their own children.  (Sexism!)
  • Bodycams are bad.  (No accountability!)
  • Screens/technology is bad.  (Remember, this is a movie whose main demographic was supposedly Millennials...)
  • Evil people look evil and you can determine who is evil by looking at them.
  • "Specialness" is pre-determined; your gifts are inherent and if you have worked for them, you're not truly talented, you're just uppity.
  • The same tired bullshit about superheroes being superior in every way to regular people - not only due to their powers, but morally, as well.
I left with a feeling of grief for the movie that could have been.  The Incredibles II wasn't merely bad because it missed its mark; it also ruined the first movie by confirming some uncomfortable truths about its messaging.

Fucking lazy joke.

I will tell you the movie I wanted to see, the one I envisioned.  The one I had hoped for when the lights in the theater went down and there was a special message from Samuel L. Jackson at the beginning telling me that this movie had taken 14 years because it was "worth waiting for."

It's a movie about accountability and accessibility, and it fits perfectly with the themes of family, of how different people are integrated vs. celebrated in our society.  And it's a more mature movie than Incredibles I, which was what the audience wanted (an audience including a lot of new parents struggling with questions of how "normal" to raise their child, whether it's more important to fit in socially or stand out at the risk of ridicule or shunning).

Sorta weird how everyone is defined by the mere existence of their powers and not how they choose to use them.
That would've been a great avenue to explore: the question of personal accountability.
Alas, once again, all the "Supers" are good and all the bad guys are jealous nerds.

Here's my pitch:

The movie is, in brief, a metaphor for disability.  The first movie establishes that some people are abnormal (i.e., they are superheroes) and that they struggle to fit in with society.  However, their powers are gifts, not inconveniences.

Enter the baby of the Incredibles family, Jack-Jack.  An infant with out-of-control and dangerous abilities (including teleportation, laser eyes, and the ability to transform into a weird monster-demon), Jack-Jack represents a huge liability.  Jack-Jack is different.  And not in a good way.  His is a power that weighs him down, and holds him back.

Instead of picking up where we left off, I would have liked the movie to have aged a little.  I would have liked it to be, oh, five or six years in the future.

Now we return to the conflict of the first movie.  Violet, the shy elder daughter, has integrated well into society.  A little bolder, she can control her powers, and she is in college, living a "normal" life and enjoying it.  Dash, the middle son, has embraced his powers and is thriving in junior high, where he is celebrated for his abilities and happily, openly demonstrates them.  The conflict faced by the parents is what to do about Jack-Jack.  Can they suppress his powers?  Help him learn to control them?  Should they hide them, knowing what a danger Jack-Jack poses to his classmates?

Violet insists that integration is the best possible outcome, while Dash counters that accommodation and "special treatment" is. 

A frustrated young boy, Jack-Jack struggles in a school that is helpless to accommodate him, eventually becoming frustrated to the point of being a villain and tearing the place to the ground.  His parents leap into the fray to subdue him, but what they bring isn't a big battle.  They lay down their masks and their suits, and they speak plainly to him: "We don't know how to help you.  But we won't abandon you.  We will advocate for you.  We will help you navigate this.  We're not heroes.  We're parents.  We've got you."

This isn't a movie with a clear-cut message, nor is it meant to be.  It's a conversation about disability, about what we, as a society, owe to the people who live on the outskirts, people whose differences are burdens, whose differences pose difficulties or even dangers.  Ultimately, if there's any message, it's that we should try to build up all people, but recognize that people are individuals with varied talents, and varied needs, and that "building up" will look different according to differing circumstances.

What's more, it's a message of love from parents to their children.  It's a message of advocacy, not for people who are "special" (gifted), but for people who are "special" (different).  It's a message that being "special" (gifted) does not make you correct or morally superior, and that parenting is a lot of confusing grey areas, even if you happen to be very talented, because your child might not be as you expected them to be.

Incredibles I was a movie for children and I had enjoyed it, as a child.  I went into Incredibles II as an adult, expecting an adult message, and what I got was not a film that had matured, but one that had stagnated.  Worse, the second tainted the first by doubling down on all the things I had disliked (but missed, or forgotten).  Seeing the first movie with adult eyes made me all too aware that it was not the movie I remembered and treasured.  The messages I had interpreted were not the movie's, but my own.

For a generation of people who grew the fuck up between Incredibles I and Incredibles II, a story about parental responsibility and a thoughtful discussion on disability would have been remarkable.  And frankly it's baffling how they didn't settle on that for the sequel because it was set up wonderfully at the end of the first movie.

Instead, we got a "what if the lady were the breadwinner?" story that felt like it belonged in the early '90s.  It was tone-deaf and tired, a weary repetition of the shitty messages of the first movie, but without the subtly or innocence that allowed me to enjoy the first.  It was a movie that glorified conservatism and upheld the status quo, that peddled in the same themes as the first: technology bad, nuclear heteronormative family good.  It was cut-and-dried, black-and-white, without anything truly thoughtful to say.

There was nothing new here.  There was nothing original here.

Worse of all... there was simply nothing special.