Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Happy birthday, Superman!

Last Wednesday my friend Jay asked if I would be going to work today, suggesting to me since February 29th doesn't "really" exist, we shouldn't have to work. I answered, "But Superman's birthday is February 29th! That's like saying Superman isn't real!"

I don't know why this day of all days has been designated as the Man of Steel's date of birth... but what the heck, it's an excuse to eat cake. Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster's Superman has come a long way in these last 74 years: radio, television, movies, cartoons, video games... I hear he might even be appearing in comic books!

Although he owes a debt to the likes of John Carter and Hugo Danner, and while masked men like the Phantom and the Shadow preceded him, Superman is essentially the first super hero. Therefore, today is really the birthday of the super hero. As someone whose spent nearly all of his life admiring super hero fiction, I'm pleased as punch to give Superman - and thereby all super heroes - his due.

Mmm, punch...

Tuesday, February 28, 2012

Review: Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend

When I was young, comic strips from the first half of the 20th century weren't very appealing to me; as I've grown older, I've realized I simply wasn't seeing samples of the best strips from the early days. One of my favourites is Winsor McCay's Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend, so I was pleased to find a decently-priced collection of this work in-print.

The nature of this collection is certainly worth commenting on - it's published by Dover, not a publisher I know for their comics-related work. The actual book is a reprint of a volume first printed in 1905, then reprinted by Dover in 1973 and still being reprinted to this day, like most books in Dover's library. The collection features 62 examples of Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend with an informative introduction explaining the history of the comic strip.

The quality of the strips reprinted is not the greatest; in a way, it demonstrates how much has changed in terms of archiving this material since the 1970s; the 1973 edition ommitted some strips from the 1905 book because they were apparently too racist; today's archivers of comic strips include everything for the serious scholar. There's also no source on when each of the strips were first published and no particular sense of why these 62, of all those which could have been printed, were the select few.

Regardless, Dreams of the Rarebit Fiend's quality shines through. Putting aside the racist strips, the violent content is definitely beyond today's newspaper strips (see above). Each strip follows a character into a dream world, sometimes beginning in a realistic or at least subdued fashion, then growing more and more wild until the character wakes up in the last panel, just like McCay's Little Nemo strip. It's interesting to see McCay played with the readers' expectations at some points, such as making you guess which character in the dream is the one having the dream. Each one follows dream logic so perfectly, in such a haunting, ridiculous fashion; you could probably write an essay on each one. This is the second McCay book for my shelf - I hope to find more in the future!

Monday, February 27, 2012

Amazing Race recap: 20-2 "You Know I'm Not as Smart as You"

My current series of comic book reviews will resume tomorrow; for now, I'm looking over last night's episode of the Amazing Race; as always, you can catch up on the series at CTV or CBS.

After the previous week spent most of its time introducing the 11 teams, this week we get a better look at the remaining 10 teams, witnessing their personalities and style of game play.

We pick things up in Salta, Argentina as Rachel & Dave are the first team to exit the mandatory 12-hour Pit Stop; the first clue directs them to the town square to receive another clue from a chasqui; teams still have their SUVs from the previous leg to provide transportation. Rachel & Dave fear they might have a target on their back for coming in first, but they hope having the Express Pass and its ability to eliminate one challenge they don't want to face will help keep them in the game; Dave hopes they won't use the Pass unless it's absolutely necessary. In the previous three seasons, I think the Express Pass was only spent in one "necessary" circumstance, but we'll see if they hold to this declaration.

Brendon & Rachel leave before Art & J.J., yet wind up following the border patrol agents, who are evidently better at navigation. This irritates Art & J.J. a little, with J.J. remarking of Brendon "He's a UCLA student, what do you expect?" By now, Rachel & Dave have discovered the chasqui won't arrive until morning, so all ten teams will wind up together in the town square; the 2.5 hour lead which the top six teams had in the first leg is about to be nullified.

Nary & Jamie reveal during the first leg they told other teams they were schoolteachers, believing if they said they were federal agents, it might hurt them. What, unlike the US Army combat pilot and border patrol agents? This is the second time I've seen a team lie about their occupation: it's what professional poker players Maria & Tiffany did in season 15, posing as schoolteachers... except pretty much no one believed their cover story and because they're famous poker players, they were recognized within days of the Race's start. I suppose Nary & Jamie have the advantage of not being famous, but I don't think their occupation would make them enemies and I doubt the extra work it takes to maintain the lie is worth the dubious advantages.

Other teams depart, including Vanessa & Ralph, Elliot & Andrew, Kerry & Stacy and Dave & Cherie; Dave reveals he's beaten Hodgkin's cancer twice and they feel they can beat anything in the Race. Bopper & Mark and Joey "Fitness" & Danny are the last teams to arrive at the town square.

When the chasqui arrives in the morning, all ten teams crowd him, but he takes his time, slowly drawing one clue at a time for the teams. During this tumult, Art & J.J. allege Brendon snatched their clue out of their hands. The chasqui's clues introduce the first Detour of the Race (we only had a Roadblock on leg 1): the options are "Boil My Water" or "Light My Fire." In the former, teams build a solar oven then use it to boil a kettle of water; in the latter, teams collect firewood and clay, load them atop burro, then lead the burro to a potter's home. There was a time when the Detour options were between tasks where one was obviously faster but potentially riskier; gradually, the Detour challenges have been between tasks where the teams can't tell which they'll find easier - they don't get the full instructions on how to perform the task until they arrive at the challenge location. Every team likes the sound of "Boil My Water" except for Art & J.J., who want to take "Light My Fire." Seriously, rather than build something you'd prefer to make a burro cooperate with you? Their justification for this choice is that it's still early in the morning and they think it will take too long for the kettles to boil water on solar power.

"Boil My Water" has three different locations where teams can assemble the oven; Rachel & Dave, Dave & Cherie, Nary & Jamie and Vanessa & Ralph are at the first location, Elliot & Andrew, Kerri & Stacy and Joey "Fitness" & Danny at the second, Bopper & Mark and Brendon & Rachel at the third. Teams quickly realize the oven has to be assembled using the completed picture on the box... well, every team except Dave & Cherie realizes this. As Joey "Fitness"/Danny set to work they're confident they can defeat Kerri & Stacy because "they don't know how to build," unaware Stacy is actually very tool-proficient.

Rachel and Dave have some minor gripes with each other as they build; Art & J.J. are still trying to find the location for "Light My Fire" and it's looking like a bad call all around. Mark really takes charge of the oven-building, comparing it to his son's Legos; Bopper is impressed, saying "You're skills are surprising me here, brother!" Mark, sounding a little embarrassed, replies "Man! Can't believe you talkin' 'bout my skills!" Nearby, Rachel apologizes to Brendon for being "just a girl" as he seemingly does most of the work; Brendon isn't complaining, but if Rachel were in eyesight of Kerri & Stacy or Nary & Jamie, she might check that "just a girl" business.

Art & J.J. completely miss the "Light My Fire" location and have to backtrack, but finally reach the location. Rachel & Dave are just about done their oven, while many teams struggle; some funny lines ensue as Racers try to avoid swearing on camera:

Ralph: "Oh Shi- Nikes! This has to connect somewhere!"

Vanessa: "Oh, son of a monkey's uncle!"

Jamie: "Boy, this is hotter than... shenanigans."

Danny cuts himself while assembling the oven; he and Joey "Fitness" are having trouble so they approach Kerri & Stacy, suggesting they work together; after Stacy explains what they don't understand, the boys run back to their oven; Kerri notices this "alliance" didn't earn them anything - they simply helped the boys. Rachel & Dave finish their oven and wait for their kettle to boil as Dave & Cherie come looking for help; when they find out from Rachel & Dave about the picture on the box they return to their oven, chagrined.

Bopper & Mark are the first team to finish the Detour! The next clue directs teams to travel via bus to Buenos Aires and retrieve a clue from Mercado de Hacienda de Liniers. They have to travel via bus, an eighteen hour trip! Buses are surprisingly good at mixing up teams on the Race; just last season we saw teams catapult ahead of their competition because a later-departing bus arrived sooner at the destination.

Vanessa and Ralph note Art & J.J. completing their Detour while the other teams wait for their kettles to boil.

Vanessa: "They're sweating their asses off."

Ralph: "And their burro."

Art & J.J. wind up finishing the Detour next, with Rachel & Dave soon after them; Art & J.J. drive their SUV past Brendon & Rachel and honk their horn as a childish sort of revenge for the earlier clue-snatching. Joey "Fitness" & Danny wind up boiling their water before Kerri & Stacy; Nary & Jamie are the last team, saying they waited 45 minutes for the kettle to boil.

Teams wind up taking three different buses to Buenos Aires; Bopper/Mark, Rachel/Dave, Art/J.J. & Brendon/Rachel on the first, Dave/Cherie, Vanessa/Ralph, Joey "Fitness"/Danny & Elliot/Andrew on the second; Nary/Jamie & Kerri Stacy on the third bus. The latter bus is a little nervous about their place in the race, but Nary remarks "We're just gonna hope their bus breaks down." It's like she's seen this show before!

In the middle of the night, the bus carrying David/Cherie, Elliot/Andrew, Joey "Fitness"/Danny & Vanessa/Ralph gets into an accident, with something having collided into the side of the vehicle! The bus pulls off the road for some ad-hoc repairs. I had some serious deja vu at this development - it's very much like the bus accident which occurred in season 3's 2nd episode (except the earlier Race was in Mexico at the time). As the four teams fret over the damaged bus, we see the bus carrying Nary/Jamie & Kerri/Stacy drive past; the latter teams don't even notice they've passed their nearest competition, but the other four teams see the bus and realize they're in trouble.

The damaged bus resumes moving, with a few shots of the seats where the windows have been shattered; at first I thought it was good to see no one was using those seats, then I realized they were probably the cameramen's spots.

The first bus arrives in Buenos Aires and teams race in taxis (the first taxis of this Race!) to retrieve their clues from a pouch on a statue of a horse. This leads them to the leg's Roadblock, which declares "Where's the beef?" Teams are supposed to head into the world's largest cattle auction yard, where one team member will have to obtain the weight of a lot of cattle by listening to an auctioneer, then without using a calculator, estimate the average weight of the cattle and present the correct number to a gaucho. It's interesting to note the "no calculator" rule is in effect - earlier seasons had teams solve math problems by bringing calculators on the race, or borrowing them from locals.

As Brendon & Rachel head to the clue location their taxi lets them out far too soon and they run themselves ragged while every other team gets out directly in front of the clue. J.J. sees them running on foot and remarks "We're not gonna follow those two nimrods." The two Rachels, Mark and J.J. are the first four to tackle the Roadblock.

Kerri/Stacy & Nary/Jamie have just arrived in Buenos Aires and are racing with an intensity you'd expect to see from teams in the back of the pack, not the middle. They have no idea where they are in the Race and it's kind of refreshing to see them push themselves so hard. In the last bus, Ralph estimates they lost two hours because of the accident.

Just as Art & Dave worked together on the previous leg's Roadblock, Dave's Rachel winds up allying with J.J. to find the correct number; thus, those two teams finish the Roadblock first. J.J. shrieks out a truly hysterical "Oh! Arthur!" as they run to their taxi cab. J.J. notes how the other Rachel asked him for help, but he says "I'm not going to help her run the race. I mean, I'll help Rachel from Major Dave because we reciprocate. The Big Brother they're tag-alongs, solely. We just blew by her. Sorry sucker, we're out of here! I don't feel bad about that, not one bit." It's weird to see such a heated rivalry appear out of nowhere so early in the Race.

Mark used to work in a cattle yard, but he has some trouble getting the correct figure. Big Brother's Rachel has a lot of trouble with the Roadblock and Mark finally works with her (or, it seems, does all the work and lets her copy). Mark is upset with himself for forgetting to round up the last number; he really beats himself up over this, noting they could have had first place; Bopper doesn't seem to mind, no doubt because going from 9th place to 3rd is still pretty great! As Brendon & Rachel head for a taxi, Rachel's frustration at the Roadblock has seemingly spilled into everything she says; "You know I'm not smart as you!" she whines to Brendon, thus providing the title for this episode (although the producers corrected her grammar). Then this happens:

Brendon: "We only told our taxi to wait five minutes but Rachel wanted to run back and see if he was here and he isn't here."

Rachel: "Please don't blame me! You said you wouldn't blame me! You promised you wouldn't!"

Either we missed something Brendon said earlier, or Rachel is one delicate flower; she's in tears. Brendon quickly apologizes to her, asking her not to cry; as he tries to comfort her she remarks "You have a booger on your nose." Man, why doesn't this happen in more romantic films?

Rachel & Dave reach the Pit Stop at Recoleta first, where Phil waits with a soccer player. Rachel & Dave win a trip to Granada; Rachel again claims they have a target on their backs. Art & J.J. arrive next; J.J. is so upset at not taking first, Phil remarks he looks like he just lost the race! Bopper & Mark take third while Brendon & Rachel are fourth. They declare they'll "move on" from their earlier spat.

Stacy and Nary are well into the Roadblock, still believing they could be fighting for last place. Stacy draws inspiration from her 11-year old child, whose math homework she apparently assists on; this is the second time she's worked through a challenge by invoking her kids. Both teams have finished the Roadblock before the last four teams arrive; Joey "Fitness," Andrew, Dave and Vanessa are the next to tackle the Roadblock.

Kerri & Stacy are astonished to learn they're in fifth place! They do an actual cheer leading cheer to celebrate and it really puts the emotions the teams up front were struggling with into perspective, doesn't it? Nary & Jamie are likewise thrilled to be sixth.

At the Roadblock, Vanessa figures out the math pretty quickly, saying "I'm used to tuning out men." As the noise of the auction seems to be thwarting other teams. Joey "Fitness" and Andrew agree to work together, but outright refuse to help Dave, noting he's self-admittedly bad at math; Cherie notes "We're not making any friends here today." At the Pit Stop, Phil asks Vanessa & Ralph to guess their spot; Vanessa guesses 7th correctly, while Ralph optimistically guesses 5th. At the Roadblock, Cherie again invokes "Tears of a clown" as she watches her husband struggle. Joey "Fitness" & Danny take eighth place and Elliot & Andrew are 9th; Andrew is thrilled to see Phil's Pit Stop greeter, whom he recognizes as a famous soccer player; cut to the two of them kicking the ball around.

Dave finally completes the Roadblock, but the yard looks pretty deserted, suggesting he took quite some time. En route to the Pit Stop, the couple's only hope is that it might be a non-elimination leg; however, arriving at the mat, Phil tells them they've been eliminated. Dave gets a little choked up as he speaks about how much it meant for him to be on the Race after beating his cancer, the couple express their admiration for each other... then they waddle away, doing cartwheels and Chaplin-esque shuffles while circus music plays; hey, it's different from the usual mournful walk-into-the-sunset piece normally found on the Amazing Race!

The preview following this episode promises Rachel & Dave arguing with each other (hooray) and the other Rachel insulting her competition (double hooray). On the bright side, the Race should be moving outside Argentina!

Two episodes in, some of the Racers are starting to shape up; my thoughts on each team thus far:

  1. Rachel & Dave: They've been leading so far and seem very comfortable with each other; based on the previews, they'll encounter some hardship next week and it should be the acid test of how well they really perform.
  2. Art & J.J.: I don't think much of their feud with Brendon & Rachel, but their choice of Detour was surprisingly well considered; they've been at the top consistently and I wouldn't be surprised to see them claim first in the future.
  3. Bopper & Mark: Still easily my favourite team because of their authentic reactions to their surroundings. Seeing Bopper's confidence and Mark's disappointment over the Roadblock helped bring out the strength of their friendship and their underlying determination to win. Win or lose, I want them to race to the end.
  4. Brendon & Rachel: So far from their style of play, I can't tell if they're good racers or lucky racers (what's the old saying? "better lucky than good?"). There are some rough patches in their relationship and an apparent need to snipe at their competition which makes them unpleasant to watch; I'd like to see what their real strengths are, but if the previews are any indication, I'd be happiest to just see them leave.
  5. Kerri & Stacy: Their brief "alliance" with Joey "Fitness" & Danny didn't hurt them, which was nice to see; they're stronger than I first suspected and could go a long way - I hope they do, they're currently my second-favourite team.
  6. Nary & Jamie: I don't care for them lying about their occupation, but they seem to be a pretty decent team; I hope they last long enough to shed their disguises and simply be themselves.
  7. Vanessa & Ralph: I don't have a very good grasp on these two, other than noticing Ralph is very good at describing things to the camera and they've got some decent hustle in their step.
  8. Joey "Fitness" & Danny: A lot of luck has come their way, both good and bad; a little humility would go a long way with these two.
  9. Elliot & Andrew: Wait, you say there's a ninth team? Well, glory be! If they can just get some face time on screen I might develop a fondness for them; siblings are usually among my favourite teams, but these two have been slighted by the cameras. If this team is here to stay, then they're the season's dark horse runners.

Another recap is on the burner for next Monday; tchau 'til then!

Sunday, February 26, 2012

Review: Meanwhile

Today, I'm looking at Meanwhile, a graphic novel by Jason Shiga from 2010. I'd read one of Shiga's earlier books - Bookhunter - and it was a lot of fun. I should have trusted him enough to buy Meanwhile the same week it came out, but at least I never forgot the book and I eventually decided to obtain a copy.

Shiga is a mathematician comic book writer/artist; an uncommon combination, so far as I'm aware. Meanwhile is a book simple enough for younger audiences to enjoy, but complicated enough that it took a mathematician to write it. The novel is set up like a Choose Your Own Adventure, following the adventures of Jimmy, whose first great choice is between two flavours of ice cream. Each panel of the book is linked by an arrow to another panel (often a panel on another page) so you follow the paths which interest you.

Consequently, panels don't flow in the same left-right up-down order you expect in a North American book; the arrows can take you left to right, right to left, up to down, down to up. Perhaps the best laugh I had while reading Meanwhile was when I opened up two pages to find they had almost nothing but arrows:

My only quibble with Meanwhile involves the three devices which drive most of Jimmy's adventure; he's given access to either a death machine, a time machine which can travel back in time 10 minutes, or a device which records memories from 10 minutes earlier. The problem is, you eventually get to use each item and essentially retread the same panels over and over (you can create an ouroboros story using this book!). Even though the time machine and memory recording devices have a 10 minute limit, they always take you to the same intersection of "10 minutes ago," even if you took the time to sample the other two devices first. I suppose the book would have had to run about twice the length to fit every permutation of "10 minutes ago!"

I really enjoy how Meanwhile seizes the advantages of comic books being physical items; I know Shiga has a digital version of this book in the pipe and I'm sure it's great fun, but there's a certain amount of fun to be had in following the arrows along the page, especially for tasks like determining which side of a coin has been tossed face up.

Meanwhile is an awful lot of fun; just be careful with those slick plastic pages - they stick together when you first open the book and an over-eager reader might wind up ripping the pages apart.

Saturday, February 25, 2012

Review: Naughty and Nice - the Good Girl Art of Bruce Timm

Of late I've been trying to spend less time and money on Marvel and DC comic books - however, I still want to find entertainment in the comic book medium; I don't offer many reviews on this blog, but over the next few days I'll be reviewing a recent stack of purchases I made on graphic novels, collections and suchlike. First up: Naughty and Nice - the Good Girl Art of Bruce Timm.

This isn't actually a comic book or graphic novel - it's a collection of images by Bruce Timm, an artist best known for his work on Batman: the Animated Series and nearly every other animated DC super hero project of the last 20 years. I didn't quite understand what I was buying, however. Personally, to me the phrase "good girl art" means risque pictures of women; to the editors of this tome, it means any provocative image of females. Consequently, there's quite a lot of full frontal female nudity in this book, much to my embarrassment. Still, it's Bruce Timm, so it looks terrific.

It's interesting to note there are also several female characters from DC on display (all of them clothed), with copyright credit given to their corporate owners; likewise for an image of the Rocketeer. And yet, there are numerous images of Dejah Thoris of the John Carter franchise with no credit given to the Edgar Rice Burroughs estate. Perhaps this isn't surprising, since the Burroughs material is beginning to fall into the public domain... and yet, Timm also has plenty of images taken from Hammer's horror movies and they're still under copyright, yet no credit is given. Peculiar, I call it.

The introduction is by Jim Steranko, himself quite a ladies' man (and a "good girl artist" by anyone's definition). I don't think I've ever read a biography on Timm and Steranko's outline of Timm's career is very interesting; when Timm first became involved in animation he had to learn how to draw with fewer lines, which was against the values he'd learned from comic books where more lines are supposed to equal a better figure. It reminds me of the notion I've seen in a few places about great literature using as few words as possible to tell their story.

In all, it's a handsome package from Flesk; earlier, I enjoyed their books Al Williamson's Flash Gordon and Xenozoic, but those tomes were printed primarily in black & white; Naughty and Nice uses full colour more often than not, sometimes providing Timm's art in the black & white originals opposite the coloured versions; it's interesting to compare the strengths of the two versions and see what the colour adds or removes from Timm's lines. In all, it's a fine book, but not one I'm comfortable leaving on the coffee table!

Tuesday, February 21, 2012

New James Turner comic: Hell Lost!

As Slave Labor Graphics moved away from publishing print comic books, I feared I wouldn't see much of Rex Libris and Warlord of Io creator James Turner; fortunately, he's still in the game, having begun a webcomic called Hell Lost! The series is only a few pages in, but appears to be his take on the Paradise Lost interpretation of Hell; it's a real pleasure to see new work by Turner; hopefully there will be a print collection at some stage in the future.

Monday, February 20, 2012

Amazing Race recap 20-01: "Tears of a Clown"

As threatened, I'm beginning my series of recaps for the Amazing Race season 20; your indulgence is appreciated. If you're not watching the program, it airs Sunday nights on CTV (Canada) and CBS (USA) and you can catch previous episodes at the network websites. This is my first attempt to recap the events of a television program and it's bound to be a bit creaky; further, season premieres of the Amazing Race have 11 two-person teams to introduce along with the first leg of the Race to depict, so you don't get a great sense of how the game is being played or what each team is capable of.

That said, let's begin:

We open at a vineyard in Santa Barbara, California where host Phil Keoghan is bicycling to the starting line of the Race, dressed in an Amazing Race bike suit; behind him are the 22 racers comprising this season's contestants. Phil is a very hands-off host, usually only interacting with the teams at the end of each leg, but he's a beloved institution of the show; I only recently realized I'd first seen Phil in the 1990s when he was a "roving reporter" for FX, appearing on their breakfast & collectibles programs. It's interesting to think just how many FX personalities went on to become television program hosts. Anyway, Phil being a major bicycle enthusiast, this is a nice way to introduce him and it's certainly a different way to introduce the teams, who usually arrive at the starting line in vehicles like buses, cars, helicopters or boats. Of course, since these people we've never met before are garbed in matching outfits, it doesn't help to set them apart.

Phil introduces the 11 teams, who each have an introductory clip:

  1. Dave and Cherie: a married couple who are professional clowns with Barnum & Bailey; astonishingly, this is the second time we've had an Amazing Race team comprised of clowns.
  2. Bopper and Mark: two male best friends from Kentucky, one Caucasian (Bopper), one African-American (Mark); although they appear to be middle-aged, they might be the oldest team in this race.
  3. Misa and Maiya: sisters of Japanese descent and both golfers.
  4. Brendon and Rachel: a dating couple who previously appeared on Big Brother; this is the third time the Amazing Race has cast a team out of Big Brother, but neither of the previous teams really made an impact; perhaps third time's the charm?
  5. Joey "Fitness" and Danny: two male best friends and self-described "Guidos" who name check the Jersey Shore, which just brings to mind earlier stunt teams like the glee club singers from season 17 brought in when Glee was a hit. And yes, his name is given throughout as "Joey 'Fitness.'"
  6. Nary and Jamie: two female best friends and co-workers, one Caucasian (Jamie), one African-American (Nary), both of them US federal agents.
  7. Rachel and Dave: Dave is a US Army combat pilot who served in Iraq, Rachel is his wife. Do we need two contestants named Rachel?
  8. Elliot and Andrew: twin brothers, one a rock musician, the other a pro soccer player; in their intro, Elliot describes Andrew as his "life partner - only not gay."
  9. Kerri and Stacy: two female African-American cousins from Mississippi, self-described "country girls."
  10. Vanessa and Ralph: a dating couple who are both recently divorced. Vanessa claims she used to "stalk" Ralph when he was married. Oh-kay. Thanks for sharing.
  11. Art and J.J.: two male best friends and co-workers, both of them border patrol officers. Feds, US Army and border patrol? They certainly won't want for lack of security!

With the introductions completed, we move to the starting line, where Phil and all of the teams have switched out of their bicycling outfits; the bicycling introduction was nothing more than that, just an introduction. Phil gives the teams his usual vague warnings about the challenges they'll face, pleasantries about their travel, a reminder that they're racing for $1,000,000 and informs them that the first team to arrive at the Pit Stop on this leg will win the Express Pass, a recently-added feature starting with season 17 which allows the team who possess it to bypass one task they don't want to finish.

In earlier seasons of the show, Phil would simply direct the teams to their first clues and the vehicles they'll be driving to the airport; however, recent seasons have included an additional task at the starting line and such is the case here; to obtain their first clue, teams must run into a nearby vineyard where 100 miniature hot air balloons have been tethered; 11 of these balloons have clues within their baskets. Phil gives the teams the signal to begin and as the teams race into the vineyard, the opening credits launch.

Returning, teams hunt for their clues and the clue informs them they're travelling from Santa Barbara to... Santa Barbara! Clever. When they enter their vehicles, a prerecorded message from Phil plays in the car's video screen, telling them they're bound for Santa Barbara, Argentina. I was actually a little disappointed that Phil's message explains where the other Santa Barbara is. I like to see teams struggle a little with the clues, not have every location given to them; I feel that navigation should be one of the most important skills in an Amazing Race team. Instead, the flight distribution is determined by luck - which teams are lucky enough to find their clues first?

Most of the teams seem to find the clue very quickly, but Misa and Maiya really struggle; according to a clock, it takes them about 1.75 hours to find their clue! As is usually the case with premiere legs, teams are supposed to travel within a set of prearranged flights; there are two flights set aside for the teams, the first can carry six teams, the other carries five and leaves 2.5 hours later. Getting aboard the first flight on leg 1 of the Amazing Race is a very good sign; usually, whichever team winds up eliminated on leg 1 will be someone from the last flight to arrive. This gives some comfort to the teams out in front as they compete to be first, while it adds stress to those in the back as they compete against being last.

Often we get a little bit of airport drama in the premiere, but this glosses over how teams wound up in each of their particular flights. We can assume some teams got lost on the way from the vineyard to the airport because Joey "Fitness" and Danny are the 3rd team to find a clue and Kerri and Stacy are the 4th, yet both teams wind up on the later flight! It's a pity this wasn't a two-hour premiere so we could have an idea of why some teams fell behind. En route, Rachel (Dave's wife) opines the other Rachel (Big Brother)'s clover-design top makes her look like "Shamrock from Rainbow Brite." I have no idea who "Shamrock" is; neither does Google.

So, teams fly to Salta, Argentina, then drive to the town of Santa Barbara via waiting SUVs; the six teams in the lead are Rachel/Dave, Brendon/Rachel, Art/J.J., Nary/Jaime, Elliot/Andrew & Vanessa/Ralph. As the other five teams arrive in Argentina, knowing they're 2.5 hours behind the leaders and how one of them will almost certainly be eliminated, Cherie begins to crack, crying as she realizes she and her husband have fallen behind the other four teams racing in the back; it's from this that we get the episode's quote-title, "Tears of a Clown."

The first six teams arrive at an airfield where they're given a Roadblock; usually each leg of the Race has a Roadblock and a Detour, but the first leg has only one - either to be easy on the teams or to make it easier to edit the first episode. So, our Roadblock forces one team member to perform the task and they know it has something to do with the airfield (and that the Amazing Race usually has a scary task in the first leg). Teams seem to assume the person on the Roadblock will be skydiving and since they have to pick who does the Roadblock before all the details are revealed, we wind up with some interesting decisions - because the way this Roadblock works, the non-participant goes skydiving, the one performing the Roadblock has to locate their partner's landing site.

Consequently, Art takes the Roadblock, meaning J.J. has to skydive; he's utterly terrified by this while the other Racers on the Roadblock are having the times of their lives. Dave and Art work together to locate their skydiving partners, prompting Dave to quip their alliance was an "inter-agency coordination" between the Army and Border Patrol. As Vanessa finishes her skydive she quips "my uterus is in my throat!"

As the first six teams complete the Roadblock they're directed to their next location and set out in their SUVs to find Patios de Cafayate Winery; the other five teams are still en route to the airfield. Again, not realizing how this Roadblock will work, Kerry agrees to take the Roadblock because Stacy is terrified by heights. And because the Race is cruel, cruel, cruel, this means poor Stacy is the one who skydives. While the five skydivers prepare, their partners head to the landing site, but Danny, left to navigate his SUV, turns out to be incapable of driving stick, causing him to fall way behind. Y'know, teams always, always, always have to drive stick. On the one hand, teams don't seem to learn from the show's history; on the other hand, at least it means they don't get too comfortable.

As Art & J.J. and Brendon & Rachel head to the next location, Brendon takes the opportunity to rag on the border patrol agents, saying "I'm half-Mexican and I hate them for a reason." I'll never understand why some teams think they have make up excuses to dislike their competition. Anyway, at the next location teams are told to prepare 120 empanadas, which must be judged by a chef. When they're done this task, they'll be racing on foot to Phil at the Pit Stop. Tasks where teams have to be judged are always difficult on racers - it seems a bit cruel to place this before the Pit Stop when the Pit Stop isn't at another location, instead lying within walking distance.

En route to find Misa, Maiya takes a wrong turn off the road and her SUV's tires sink in the soft sand, causing her to fall behind. Elsewhere, Stacy is upset at skydiving but ultimately finds her courage, deciding if she didn't jump, she'd be sending a poor message to her children. These moments come up in the Amazing Race all the time and I'm all for it - I like seeing people conquer their fears and find strength they didn't believe they had. Maiya finally gets out of the sand, but she and Misa are in last place; Joey "Fitness" & Danny are just barely ahead of them.

So, the first six teams struggle at preparing empanadas, some needing to redo their work and fall behind as the judge dismisses some of their efforts. There's no way of telling who's actually nearest to completion, but ultimately it goes to Rachel & Dave, with Brendon & Rachel just a few minutes behind them. Rachel & Dave run outside the building to Phil and receive the promised Express Pass for their efforts. Art & J.J. take third place, Nary & Jaime win fourth, Vanessa & Ralph are fifth and Elliot & Andrew come in sixth place. The next five teams don't even arrive at the winery until all lead six teams have checked in, showing that the 2.5 hour lead wasn't really diminished.

As Bopper & Mark work at the empanadas, this exchange occurs:

Bopper: "This is the first time I have ever made a pinata." Mark: "It ain't a pinata, my brother! It's a emphazz- well... call it whatever you want. I don't know either."

It's very early, but I'm already sensing I know who my favourite team is.

As Misa & Maiya arrive at the winery they wonder if they should bring their bags in from the SUV; they decide not to, thinking, I suppose, that they'll be driving to the Pit Stop after this task. They're the only team present to make this error; teams are often unsure when to carry their bags with them and when it's safe to leave them in the car - some teams won't leave their cars without their bags, just in case. Again, this is a recurring error on the race and one which has seriously cost teams in the past.

Kerri & Stacy make up a bit of lost time by being very good at the empanadas, taking 7th place. By now, Misa & Maiya know they made a mistake by leaving their bags behind. Dave & Cherie win 8th place while Bopper & Mark take 9th. Misa & Maiya finish next, but have to run back to grab their bags. Running back to the winery they search frantically for Phil, but - in a heart-stopping moment - run out to the open, grassy yard where the Pit Stop is located, walk within sight of Phil - who even motions towards them - turn around and leave the yard! Phil seems visibly shocked to see Misa & Maiya walk the opposite way. By the time Misa & Maiya have searched elsewhere and wind up back at the yard, Joey "Fitness" & Danny have already claimed 10th place. Phil informs the sisters they've never had a situation like this before, where a team came that close to the Pit Stop ahead of another team, yet wound up eliminated. It's a deeply, deeply embarrassing way to be taken out of the Race, but Misa & Maiya are the program's first casualties. They say they suffered from "tunnel vision," so intent on looking for Phil directly ahead of them that they didn't look just 90 degrees to the right.

Instead of a promotion for the next episode, the show is followed by a "preview of the upcoming season" with quick clips of teams in exotic locales, dropping objects, falling over, yelling at each other and calling people names. I know some people who watch reality programs thrive on the trash-talking and relationship drama; personally, it's my least favourite part of watching the Amazing Race.

Except for when the premiere episode has been two hours long, I've seldom had a good "read" of who the teams are by the end of leg 1. As noted above, I have some fondness for Bopper & Mark because down-to-earth average Joes with a sense of humour are always a nice contrast to what some of the other teams bring; couples in romantic relationships seem to wind up at each other's throats more often than not and that's certainly what the preview clip promises. I am sorry to see Misa & Maiya go, as I usually like the all-female teams and I sense Joey "Fitness" & Danny are too self-conscious and aware of their image for me to enjoy their race; that said, I really never know which Racers I'll enjoy the most and often even the teams I dislike contribute something to the overall success of the season. I try to see the good in every team because (and I see many commenters on this show don't get this) they're real people, not scriped performers; real people are much more complicated and contradictory than fictional people, even though reality shows are edited to make you feel such-and-such a way about a particular person. The Amazing Race has almost no bad seasons and look forward to seeing how this one plays out.

Saturday, February 18, 2012

"I'm shocked to see you watch the Amazing Race." - a friend

When people who know me hear I'm a fan of television's the Amazing Race, it seems to surprise them. It's a little wonder, I suppose, since I don't like many television programs and I speak disdainfully about the medium. And surely, within the medium of television, no genre is more readily disparaged than the reality-television program.

And yet, here I am, blogging about the Amazing Race, one of the most popular reality shows. I didn't foresee myself becoming a fan; it began nearly 4 years ago as I was finishing a crossword puzzle while the television provided me with some background chatter. I was nearly done my puzzle and was about to turn off the set when the 13th season premiere of the Amazing Race began. Gradually I began to look up from the puzzle until I finally set it aside and watched the show; I was a very cautious fan - telling myself I would quit at the first episode where I stopped enjoying the show - but after four races (they run two races per year) I had to admit, I was hooked. What are the elements which make me enjoy the program?

First, I like that the Amazing Race is a little more real than some reality shows; the tasks which the Racers have to perform during the race are often artificial, but the work they do planning transportation around the world and subsisting on a very limited amount of money and food is all real; the people they meet during the race are real people; many of the problems which arise come from the real world environment and have included life-threatening accidents and Racers coming close to being arrested by the police.

Second, I like the competitive aspect of the show. Some people exhibit the worst parts of their personality under pressure, but others demonstrate real strength. I like that the Race often forces Racers to endure their greatest fears and step far outside their comfort zones, demanding they place a level of trust in their teammate and in random strangers which they would be less eager to grant in a more relaxed situation.

Third, I like that the teams of two who compete on the program have existing relationships with each other, so something personal is at stake for them in the competition. I feel strongly for Racers who are each other's family and have long-standing relationships which help or hinder their working together; I feel for couples who find their committment to each other tested or validated by how they race; I like to see friends try to support each other.

Fourth, I like how the program makes me feel about the world around me. Previously, I didn't hold much interest in international travel and didn't understand why I would want to venture outside my own country unless it were to visit a friend. The Amazing Race has helped me realize the real joy of travel is to experience another culture, something I kept in mind when I journeyed to Angola last year. Throughout the Amazing Race, teams have had encounters with locals who are outstanding in their generosity and good intentions; how can you not want to get out and be among people of every nation after this show has demonstrated how easily it can be done?

Tomorrow night, the Amazing Race season 20 debuts on CTV (Canada) and CBS (USA). I've decided I'm going to begin blogging about the series, episode-by-episode. I doubt any of my followers will be interested in these posts, but having had a look around at Amazing Race fandom, I'm troubled by how many people are eager to condemn Racers over their sometimes-poorly chosen words and at their willingness to claim interference by production whenever something surprising happens to the Racers. I'd like to change the tone of response in my own little corner by offering what I hope will be a fairly reasonable take on each episode of season 20. I don't know how this season will compare to earlier years - but who cares? As long as the program delivers on the four aspects I described above, I'll be pleased to welcome it to my home.

Look for my recaps each Monday following the previous Sunday's episode.

Wednesday, February 15, 2012

Appropos of nothing

Do you remember that bartender character Woody Harrelson played on Cheers? You may recall the somewhat dim-witted performance Woody Harrelson delivered? The role which made Woody Harrleson's career? I believe the character was named... Rocky.

Strangely, among the other people who read for the part was Joel Hodgson...

...And Timothy Treadwell.

What might have been, eh? It really makes you think.

Tchau!

Tuesday, February 14, 2012

RIP John Severin

If you're familiar with this blog, then you've noticed my increasingly hostile reaction to the comic book industry. Certainly these past few weeks have been enough to try anyone's optimism; first DC announces Beyond Watchmen; then Marvel sues Gary Friedrich; now word is in about John Severin having died two days ago.

It amazes me that Severin was ninety years old... not that he should have lived so long, but that he could be such a vital talent at his age! His art was simply forever young; with so many artists there's a definite peak in their energy - you might, for example, find the Gene Colan of the 1970s to be his peak and the Gene Colan of the 1990s far from it; Severin seemed to hit his peak in the 1950s then stayed there for sixty years.

As an enormous fan of Atlas Comics, it's sad to have lost yet another of those talents, Severin ranking amongst the most prolific and beautiful of the Atlas artists, easily a peer to Atlas' Joe Maneely and Bill Everett. I love the detail Severin brought to his western and war comics; he composed his pages with such great detail and designed such expressive characters that a Severin feature is always a welcome diversion while rifling through the Atlas catalogue.

I love that Severin had the chops to draw stark and realistic, lush and colourful or cartoonish. I suppose he'd be better-known in today's fandom if he'd spent more time on the super heroes. For years I've thought he deserved more recognition for his work on Nick Fury, Agent of S.H.I.E.L.D. in the 1960s; I loved how his S.H.I.E.L.D. technology was a shade more believeable than Kirby's; check out the design of the I.B.P. for an example of what I mean.

There was only one John Severin; this fan misses him.

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

A few idle thoughts about film scores

I don't spend much time considering music; for many years after I first left home, I almost never put on music. In those days, my old-time radio hobby was running with a full head of steam and what time I didn't spend at home writing, reading or watching TV was given to old-time radio.

Eventually, I developed a fondness for classical music when I discovered it was the most pleasing music to hear while working. It was only natural for me to be inclined to the classics, coming from a home where each of my siblings and my mother played either the piano or clarinet. By the time I was listening to classical music all day, I'd learned how my close friend Craig was something of a classics man... but primarily a fan of film scores.

I didn't give film soundtracks much thought until Craig started initiating such conversations; I think John Williams, Jerry Goldsmith and Bernard Herrmann were previously the only film composers I could identify (aside: as a child, my siblings and I would joke about how Williams' scores sounded alike, before we even knew he was the composer of all the films in question; as an adult, I was seriously amused to discover other people held the same opinion of Williams). Craig loves film scores, to the extent of which he collects soundtracks based on his interest in the composer, not the film itself. I have to admit, despite his best efforts, I can't make that leap - I need to have both seen and enjoyed a film before I'm willing to experience the soundtrack. When Craig moved to Hong Kong he bequeathed his immense soundtrack collection to me, a gesture I quite appreciated.

Craig occasionally writes about soundtracks (often at great length) at his blog; I don't have nearly as much to say about them, but I felt I would share my list of my nine favourite tracks and why I enjoy them; we'll hit this in reverse chronological order:

Avatar: "Gathering All The Na'vi Clans For Battle" by James Horner

Since I became more aware of soundtracks and their composers, James Horner has become one of my favourites - and not just because we share a birthday! This track comes at the point of the film where... well, all the Na'vi clans are gathering for battle. Although there are many tracks on the album which I enjoy hearing over and over - and certainly tracks using less traditional instruments than this - this track has a section I love to hear where the music grows, swells, drops, then rises back up even higher, until it strikes it's highest notes at the climax.

The Dark Knight: "Like a Dog Chasing Cars" by Hans Zimmer & James Newton Howard

It was Craig who made me familiar with Zimmer and Howard, yet this film score doesn't get top marks from him; regardless, it's one of my most frequently-played albums and "Like a Dog Chasing Cars" is a great track to turn on when I want to get some serious work done; it's energetic and frantic, racing, going higher, then lower, then higher which is clearly a musical rhythm I like. I don't even recall where this track appears in the film (during the car chase?), I simply enjoy the sense of desperation the music evokes, that time is running out.

Dark City: "You Have the Power" by Trevor Jones

This music plays over the climax of the film and is about as close to a theme as the movie possesses. It's big and loud and it seems to me it captures the back-and-forth of the film's climactic duel.

Glory: "Charging Fort Wagner" by James Horner

Oh, Glory; your failure to win the Oscar for best score just underlies the unreliability of the Academy's judges. This was the film which really made me take notice of Horner; it's emotionally manipulative, triumphant and tragic, thus fitting the movie perfectly.

Star Trek II: the Wrath of Khan: "Main Title" by James Horner

I don't think I could omit a Star Trek track from my list; Trek has managed to have a pretty decent line-up of musical scores, but just I find this to be the most rewarding of the films, I find the track is also the most involving of the various openings.

Psycho: "Prelude" by Bernard Herrmann

Herrmann's score for Psycho is, of course, integral to the film and it's impact on popular culture, but even removed from the cinema, the heavy string theme which opens the picture - and then keeps reprising regardless of how suspenseful you may judge the events on screen - holds up quite well.

Vertigo: "Prelude and Rooftop" by Bernard Herrmann

Thanks to its appearance in various trailers on my Alfred Hitchcock VHS tapes, this is the music I associate with Hitchcock himself (after "Funeral March of a Marionette," of course). The track conveys an unsettling feeling, one which remains with you through the film as you attempt to understand what's really going on.

The Third Man: "the Third Man Theme" by Anton Karas

I think I could almost hum the entire score* of this film (my personal favourite picture). Somehow, this simple little zither score was the perfect touch to the film. It feels weirdly out-of-place with some of the surrounding scenes, serving to remind you this isn't a typical mystery/espionage story. Perhaps because the zither holds such a jolly, light-hearted feel, the comedic moments feel natural... and the shifts to violence and suffering feel all the more stark.

The Adventures of Robin Hood: "Prologue" by Erich Wolfgang Korngold

A few years ago I felt I really needed to own the Adventures of Robin Hood score, but unable to find a copy I settled on the Sea Hawk, another Korngold score. I didn't even realize Korngold had scored three of Errol Flynn & Michael Curtiz's pictures (the third being Captain Blood), nor who Korngold was (a world famous composer outside of films, as it happens). Korngold's score to Robin Hood is a large part of my childhood memory of this picture, noisy, a little gaudy, romantic and adventurous, but I could have easily nominated the other two aforementioned pictures in this slot; Robin Hood was the first Korngold I heard and the film is certainly my favourite of the Curtiz/Flynn/Korngold trilogy.

Right then, I'm off to listen to some Korngold. I hope you found something useful in this!

*= Yes, both tracks!

Monday, February 6, 2012

On the need to isolate oneself against comics culture

I didn't think I was going to comment on last week's announcement of Before Watchmen because the matter seemed like a non-starter; I can't foresee ever wanting to read it, so what is there to say? All I wanted to offer to the dialogue was itself incredibly oblique - a quote from Aldous Huxley which I thought appropo:
"Its defects as a work of art are considerable; but in order to correct them I should have to rewrite the book--and in the process of rewriting, as an older, other person, I should probably get rid not only of some of the faults of the story, but also of such merits as it originally possessed. And so, resisting the temptation to wallow in artistic remorse, I prefer to leave both well and ill alone and to think about something else."

And yet, the very existence of this project has stirred something in me, pinned to my growing awareness of how blankety-blank awful the majority of contemporary comic books are and how horrible the culture and business is to itself. In other words, I'm becoming a cranky, cynical blogger. Great, another one.

Some time ago I found myself wrestling with the Kirby heirs' lawsuit against Marvel Comics. For all the good will I have to Kirby, my instinctive reaction to the lawsuit mirrored most comic book fans' response: Kirby signed away his rights, the heirs are being presumptuous, the suit doesn't have a prayer, etc. It was only after serious meditation on the subject that I gradually came over to the heirs' side, boiling it down to the most simple creator's rights equation I could: (Kirby did more for Marvel than anyone save Stan Lee + Kirby should have reaped benefits similar to Lee's) + (the company is now flourishing financially + making peace with Kirby's heirs is good PR) = a settlement to satisfy everyone.

As I become increasingly pro-creator, my level of frustration with the business and culture of comic books has simply accelerated; only two weeks ago there was the one-two punch of Brandon Graham being censored at Newsarama - but only censored when his opinions disagreed with editorial (the failure of comics culture) and John Rozum explaining why he left Static Shock - but only because being associated with Static Shock was hurting his career opportunities (the failure of comics business).

A sequel to Watchmen is just about the last thing I wanted to hear about last week; sight unseen, its existence implies failure of content because the creators involved have never attempted to create a project as finely honed and considered as Watchmen - much less on a weekly basis (one creator says he wants to make Watchmen "valid again;" how charming, a man whose books sell 10,000 copies is going to show us how to make a 2,000,000 copy best-seller "valid"); it's a failure of business to see the company exploiting its power over Alan Moore's creation rather than behaving ethically (ethics in comics publishing are improbable, not impossible); and it's a failure of the culture, to see the many fans rallying behind Before Watchmen and against Alan Moore, the man being wronged by this project's existence.

This is all I can bear: no more. I have purged my feeds to eliminate everything comics-related, excepting places concerned with comics history or serious comics criticism. I am done with this - my thoughts and dollars will be spent elsewhere.