Tuesday, June 24, 2014

Another World

I was there when it began: the personal computer was still pretty much a gleam in Steve Jobs’s eye, and “Pong” was an amazing New Thing.

My grandparents saw the birth of flight, the telephone, the radio. My parents were there for the beginnings of TV. In my lifetime the home computer and its related sibling the internet changed everything.

I remember my friend Howard coming into the shop with his eyes wide to tell me about Asteroids and Battle Zone. Someone had opened a makeshift arcade in town and it had almost immediately become the focal point for local kids. I was astonished when Howard told me that a mutual friend had put “probably close to a hundred dollars” into the Asteroids machine all by himself.

Of course from there it was Space Invaders and Donkey Kong, and Donkey Kong in particular became a sensation. Arcades — long thought to be an extinct species (at that time no-one played pinball anymore; ironically now pinball is seeing a rebirth… as a computer game) — sprang up all over town. 

We were young men and the Arcade was a place where we could all hang out together. Each of us had our favorites. I loved Dig Dug and Galaga. I began even then to hate what we now call “platformers” because I wasn’t coordinated enough to play them well.

Then came Nintendo and Sega and the Arcades dried up as fast as they had grown. Dead in the water. With the Sega Genesis and the Super NES you could play right in your home games that were more sophisticated and refined than anything in the Arcades. Depending on how much you played, you saved a lot of quarters in the process.

What a long, long way computer games have come since those days. Really, it’s been the needs of gaming and the needs of graphic artists that have driven the never-ending expansion of home computer capabilities. My first home computer had a 180 megabyte hard drive. Back then a megabyte meant something. A gigabyte was unimaginable. You’d never fill up a gigabyte hard drive, right?

Today if you don’t have 500 gigs you’re screwed. Even simple apps like Word have become bloated monsters. As a designer, I frequently work with single images and files that are bigger than my first computer could have handled. A single modern computer game will take up to 25 gigs of your hard drive — in the process, creating effects that were undreamed of when all this began.

I think of Battle Zone, which was the first immersive 3-D game, and it was just green lines on a black screen. Now — all you have to do is turn on your television to see ads for games that are more photo-realistic than some movies. 

In fact, they’re closer to movies now than they are to games. They’re interactive movies. Some offer you more freedom than others. We’ve reached a point where the faces of wholly computer-generated actors can be more convincing and expressive than the faces of breathing ones (especially if the actor in question is Tom Cruise).

Batman. Let’s talk Batman. The Caped Crusader has appeared in video games almost from the start, and in those early days they were just side-scrollers, just platformers dressed up in Batman drag, no different than any of the other home games on the market and not as good as some. A fifty-cent comic book offered you more in the way of content and story, and was more satisfying.

Now we have Batman: Arkham Asylum and its sequel, Batman: Arkham City. Both of these were actually written by Paul Dini, one of the best writers to come out of Batman: The Animated Series, and feature voicework by two other veterans of that show, Kevin Conroy as the Caped Crusader and Mark Hamill as The Joker. Both go way beyond anything that can be thought of as a “game;” they tell complicated stories, Big Stories with a Beginning, Middle and End and characters that you actually start to care about. 

In Arkham Asylum, Batman personally returns the Joker to confinement, only to find that this is just what the Joker wanted and prepared for, and now the Inmates have taken over the Asylum. Mister J has laid his hands on the serum that turns another villain, Bane, into a rampaging mountain of muscle — and he plans to use it on all of the Asylum’s inmates.

Holy Beef Stew, Batman! It’s a more compelling story than the ones in all three of Christopher Nolan’s Batman movies combined.

The game actually manages to put you inside Batman’s skin: you begin to understand what it feels like to be Batman. The Asylum is hugely atmospheric and as detailed as a Real Place, and unlike a film you can walk around inside the set and take in all the sights. The bathrooms even have working toilets.

The game is linear and plot-focused; but without your active participation, the story does not move forward. 

I found Arkham Asylum to be so remarkable that I started looking at what else was out there in the game world. I mean — from the point of view of the writer, this is a whole new dimension and angle to storytelling. It opens up a boatload of new creative possibilities. 

This ain’t Dig Dug.

From there my next move was Borderlands 2. And this completely entranced me.

Fans of the game will tell you “it’s the loot” or “it’s the humor” or “it’s the sheer infinite variety of weapons at your disposal” that make the game so great. They’re all wrong.

Borderlands 2 does have a linear story that you can follow at your own pace (actually more than one — with all the add-ons installed, there are actually about a dozen unrelated stories that you can follow as you wish, how you wish, when you wish), but its magical power lies in the fact that it’s set in a Completely Open world that you can explore at your leisure. And that world is both vast — covering what feels like an entire continent — and finely detailed. If you’re tired of following the story, you can go off on your own to any one of dozens of locations and Hunt Monsters. You can hang out in Moxxie’s Bar, order a beer, play with the slot machines. When you’re ready, there’s a whole raft of colorful characters who will offer you jobs — side missions — for rewards. 

After literally weeks of playing, on and off, and beginning to feel like Pandora was a real place that existed somewhere in the bits and bytes of my computer, I did finally complete the main story arc; but I’ve only begun to explore the secondary story arcs and am nowhere near exhausting the game of its content.

Then there’s Bioshock. I finished it last night.

It almost completely linear in its play and the way it tells its story… also, its content amounts to flat-out Horror, and it is relentless in the way that it throws its horrors at you. 

But the world that it creates is simply amazing; one of the best, most vivid and mesmerizing Fantasy Settings that I’ve ever encountered in any medium, book - film - game, what have you. This is actually a problem.

The city of Rapture is so engrossing that you just want to explore, to look, to take in your surroundings… but you’d better not. Especially in the later sections, if you stand around in one place too long, or even if you don’t, you will be under attack in no time. The game’s “monsters” — humans who have genetically modified themselves to such an extent that they have all gone psychopathically, murderously mad — are constantly at you, constantly in your face, and they can kill you with two hits. The makers of the game created this fabulously detailed world — and then made it impossible for you to enjoy it.

The story is more ambitious than some you can find in books. An industrialist named Andrew Ryan — a sort of Howard Hughes type — has built an entire Art Deco city under the sea: and has attempted to run it on Ayn Rand’s principles of Objectivisim. Ayn Rand = Ryan… get it? Because Objectivism flat-out doesn’t work as a philosophy, the city has, over the course of ten years, come completely unglued — and now it’s down to Ryan and one other man fighting over the leaking ruins of what remains.

There are wonderful plot twists and embellishments, and for the first two-thirds the story is as engaging as the setting, if you can find the time to think about it between attacks. Unfortunately, it all goes pear-shaped in the final third, as happens often in movies. Many threads are allowed to drop by the wayside. Ryan’s rival is both underdeveloped and uninteresting, and in the end you have to kill him for no other reason than that he’s been lying to you all through the game. His actual demise is satisfying enough, given his crimes, and if you play in such a way as to trigger the Happy ending (there’s an Unhappy ending waiting for you if you are mean to Little Girls) you won’t feel as if your time has been wasted. But overall that final third feels like a missed opportunity. The actual climax of the game is Ryan’s death, and that happens almost two hours before you’re done. 

Which doesn’t minimize the impact of what has gone before: good is good and even the first Star Wars is still a good movie despite all the crap that came after it. But the creative challenge in all mediaforms is still to create a meaningful and cohesive whole: and in games as anywhere else, even with all the power we now have to create fictional worlds that entrance, arriving somewhere and accomplishing something still seems to be the hardest part of all.

— Freder.

Wednesday, June 18, 2014

Look Out!! It's GOJIRA!!

Sometimes the $5 DVD bin gives me unexpected treasures; more often, it gives me curiosities. From time to time, it even gives me guilt: the kind of guilt you experience when you come across something that is so much of a standard that you know you’re supposed to have seen it, but you haven’t, and so you fork over your five bucks just so that you can Join the Club.

In the latter category, a two-disk set of Godzilla, King of the Monsters found its way home with me the other day. The second disk is what decided me: it features the original Japanese version, just titled Gojira.

Watching the American version first, on the theory that I should come to it the same way most Americans did, I was surprised by how much Raymond Burr was added, and how little of the original remains in the American cut. This is obvious even if you haven’t yet seen the original: it has a shorter runtime, and is packed with just huge swaths of Raymond Burr everywhere, cutting into the main story and even making Burr the hero — as if the Japanese were unable to solve their own problems. 

Burr is a taste that I have never acquired. Perhaps by necessity of the times in which he worked, he concealed his homosexuality behind a sham marriage and vocal cruelty to people like Lon Chaney, Jr., who was a little less in the closet but also unable to come to grips with his own sexuality. My father sat next to Burr once on an airplane flight, and came away claiming that Burr was a raving Queen who (and this I really don’t know whether or not to believe) had made an overt pass at him.

Whatever, none of this is really important except for the fact that Burr has always played such forcefully Manly roles, and that as an actor he has always appeared to me to be camping it up, to be Playing Straight, as it were, in Drag.

Godzilla, King of the Monsters offers no exception. Burr postures and camps his way through it like there’s no tomorrow. It his performance that takes what appears, in its American cut, to be an already extremely campy movie and pushes it over the top into self-parody, into farce. Looking at Godzilla, King of the Monsters, I could hardly understand how or why this ludicrous monster movie had caught on with anyone, much less become a classic.

From its opening frames — with Big G roaring at us out of the dark — all the way down to the final bubble of the Oxygen Destroyer, the original Japanese version, Gojira, is altogether a better movie, shaped entirely differently than the American cut and much more straight-faced, much more considered. Gone is the unnecessary, back-tracking narration… and while the plot unfolds in more or less the same order, it is much fuller, with more interesting characters, and a much more obvious resonance to Hiroshima.

By my guess, almost a full third of the original movie was cut from the American release. Even the scenes of Gojira destroying Tokyo were dramatically shortened, with all shots of identifiable individuals suffering — the only shots that give these scenes any emotional weight — removed. The only other time I’ve personally seen a movie damaged this badly in its American release was with Roberto Benigni’s Pinocchio. Disney was responsible for that one: not content with lopping vast chunks of footage out of the movie, they completely reshaped it in the cutting room. The original is charming; the American cut turned it into an inedible and nonsensical cupcake laced with Sominex. Benigni was blasted by the critics — unfairly, because the movie that got released in this country was not his movie at all.

Of course the classic example of this kind of treatment was Fritz Lang’s Metropolis, which I’ve written about elsewhere on the site. This was reshaped, rewritten, and cut by more than forty minutes by its American distributor, and was never fully restored until quite recently.

But Gojira in any form is not Metropolis, nor even Benigni’s Pinocchio. Where the American version is pure camp, the original becomes too ponderous and collapses under its own weight. The jiggly rubber lizard suit doesn’t help; and the whole sub-plot with the scientist and his oxygen destroyer (which is about the only part of the narrative that the American version retained) is so overtly silly with its scarred scientist character looking like something straight out of Tetsujin 28-go) that it undermines the picture’s otherwise serious intent.

King of the Monsters? I’m afraid not, and not even close. I suppose its no wonder that studios are remaking it again and again to this day; and they still can’t get it right. Gojira is too big, too rubbery, and in the end, no matter which version you’re looking at, too tedious and tiresome to be taken seriously.

— Freder.


Friday, June 13, 2014


People are starting to say nice things about my TAROT of the ZIRKUS MÄGI -- now funding at Kickstarter, not by coincidence. 

Here's a link to a Brazilian Tarot blog by Luciana Onofre. If you're like me, you'll need to plug the text into Google Translate... the results come out garbled, but one thing is clear: the language of both the Circus and Tarot is spoken and appreciated all over the world!

Here's a photograph of a real-life three-card reading pulled by Kim A____, an anthusiastic supporter of the deck from Australia! This was a big thrill to me when it turned up on Facebook... it's been one of my fondest hopes that the deck is actually used by professional and novice practitioners alike, and this is a great start! Click on the photo to enlarge,

And... whoops, it looks like her site is down just at the moment, but Lisa Frideborg Lloyd also had some nice things to say about the deck at the Taror Collective site she shares with Janet Boyer. Here's the link, anyhow... maybe it'll be fixed by the time you read this: http://janetboyer.typepad.com/thematictarot/2014/06/c-is-for-circus-and-not-so-much-for-clowns.html

Anhow, I quoted extensively from the page at the Kickstarter page, so you can see some of what she had to say over there,

Card images from the dark are starting to pop up all over the internet, at places like Nancy Antonnucci's Tarot School, and among the tarot deck collectors who like to list their collections online, my deck is starting to appear among them. I counted a quick four without even trying. Here's a nice example, complete with picture.

Last but not least, I'd like to share a pitch made by loyal Lia K____. When she shared the link to my Kickstarter project on her Facebook page, she didn't just share it... she gave it a full-on Carny Pitch that I just LOVE:

"As a former carny in practice (and always one at heart), I've wanted to see a circus-themed oracle deck come to fruition since the late 80s. When the Zirkus Magi majors only deck was announced, I followed its progress daily, and snapped up a copy the minute it was released. Now, at long last, the COMPLETE deck is in the first stages of production, and while its got lots of dedicated fans, it needs a wider audience to see it through. So STEP RIGHT UP, LADIES AND GENTS, AND SPEND A FEW DOLLARS TO PEEK BEHIND THE TENT FLAPS AND GLIMPSE THE FABULOUS, THE FREAKISHLY FORBIDDEN AND THE FANTASTCALLY FORETOLD FUTURES YOU HAVE IN STORE! Become a part of the show, and I PROMISE you won't go home unsatisfied!"

Thanks, Lia, Thanks, everyone! Heaven knows I needed a morale boost, and all this makes me feel happy and humbled.

-- Freder.

Wednesday, June 11, 2014

Kickstarter Funding for the Full TAROT OF THE ZIRCUS MÄGI has begun!

It's been the work of well over a year... but as of today, the TAROT OF THE ZIRKUS MÄGI is just one card away from completion, Crowdfunding -- otherwise known as pre-orders -- has / have begun on Kickstarter. You can see it all from here: circustarot.blogspot.com , or go direct to the Kickstarter page right here. It's a whole new take on Tarot!

Many thanks to all the people who have encouraged me at every step, and helped make it possible ... especially by funding the Majors version of the deck late last year. 

We're almost there!

-- Freder.

Thursday, June 5, 2014

The Month of Dire Wraiths

The month of May was a body-blow almost from beginning to end, the kind of month that, in literature, the gods like to throw at humans for no other reason that to test their resilience. Is it over now? I suspect not. The gods never seem to get tired of dishing out crap.

The month started and ended with deaths in the family. Just after midnight of the 31st, teetering from May into June, my cousin Salle was finally brought down by her heart. As deaths go, I guess you can say that hers was “inspiring;” in September of last year, she suffered a heart attack that nearly killed her and indeed put her on notice that little time likely remained. Post-“recovery,” she used the following months to do things that she’d always wanted to do, including marry her longtime boyfriend. The day after her wedding, she went into hospital again and never came out.

I was always, always closer to the cousins on my mother’s side of the family, and although I haven’t seen Salle since the early ‘90s (don’t ever kid yourself, when you move away from family and friends to another part of the country, that it makes little difference and that things will go on unchanged) she and her family were always the ones I missed the most. Now the trees in that forest have started to fall. With so much death in the family, including my old friend Howard, in 2014 it begins to seem that the gods are developing a scorched-earth policy.

In May I marked the fourth anniversary of my mother's death. Still wondering if I'll ever stop crying over that. I am currently the only person in my immediate family, and the only person on my mother’s side of the family, who has not yet suffered a heart attack or stroke. I’m just waiting for the blade to fall. On my father’s side of the family there is alcoholism, and I’ve added to that legacy. All things considered, it’s probably a good thing that I haven’t reproduced myself (and now, never will).

In the middle of the month there was MeCAF. the Maine Comics Artists Festival in Portland. My emotions were running high about that well in advance; I felt like I had an awful lot riding on it. Everything, in fact. After all, if you can’t sell comics (and to a lesser extent fantasy novels) to a room full of people who paid money to get into a Comics Festival, then who can you sell ‘em to?

It was another kick in the teeth. The event runner put my friend DP and I at a table well in the far back corner, really the second or third worst table in the place. By the time people got to me, their senses were so over-stimulated (never have I seen such a large room filled with so many Really Talented people -- all vying for attention -- little did I know that Maine was such a hotbed of comics talent) that they walked straight past me with their eyes glazed over. A pitiful few gave my wares a sideways glance, and nothing more. I can count on one hand (with room left over) the number of interactions I had that day — not sales, just interactions — and even those were discouraging. As an example, one boxy-shaped woman looked at my tarot decks. She was obviously intrigued, but was much more interested in copping an attitude: her whole body language screamed out, “Well, I’m looking, but don’t for one instant imagine that I think your stuff is actually any good.” I mentioned to her that I was working on the full deck — at that time nineteen cards away from completion — and she threw her head back and to the side and said, in the most condescending tone that you can imagine, “Well, I’d be INTERESTED in THAT.”

When people slap you in the face with words and condescension, it makes no less an impact on you than if they had physically struck you — and I was smacked several times that day. I was smacked down flat by the whole experience. I have not been made to feel so incompetent, so without personal worth, so useless, since I worked for the insufferable bitch who manages the Colby College Bookstore… and that harridan was a good part of the reason why I drank so heavily and often showed up for work with the world spinning around my head. She made me feel so worthless that I couldn’t face the workday any other way.

I reacted badly to the blow of MeCAF, crawled into the bottle and stayed there for several days. But I’ve been sober for long enough now that my body has adjusted to sobriety, or something — living drunk is no longer sustainable for me. Unfortunately, drink doesn’t solve any problems, and upon sobering up I had to face the fact that I’m not going to be able to survive on the work that I’m doing.

And so now I am working exclusively on the tarot deck. It’s the only project I have that has produced any kind of results, elicited any kind of interest, caused anyone to even look twice at Something I Made. It needs to be my focus now, because I need to start paying some bills — and, notwithstanding rude fat middle-aged women who have nothing better to do with themselves than to knock other people down, the deck is the only thing I’ve got that has even come close to helping me do that.

So… all that’s why you haven’t seen or heard much from me lately. That’s about to change — I’m about to launch the Kickstarter project to fund the publication of the complete Tarot Deck — and who knows what will happen then? I’ve done, as always, the best work that I’m capable of doing, and now all I can do is put it out there and cross my fingers. This was not an easy post to write, but I needed to do it. And now back to work: I have six more cards to go, and then the deck will be done.

— Freder.
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