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How To Fix: The X-Men

This column is intended to be the first of many “How To Fix” topics. That said, it is my solemn vow that I will only cover topics that I feel I know enough about to fully grasp (meaning it will mostly be about comics) and can make cohesive arguments on. The first topic in this series will be The X-Men. Though the X-Men are one of the top selling concepts in all of comic book fiction, they have (and have had) many flaws that hinder the concept in reaching its full potential. It is because of this that I have taken the liberty of summarizing the 5 biggest problems in X-Men lore.

5. Time Travel- While I can’t criticize the tendency of X-Men writers to experiment with stories of a mutant future, I do take issue when characters arrive from the future. The concept of a paramilitary group of political activists defending the public from terrorism is strong enough to carry any series forever. Changes of location, specific threat and political relevance are you really need to keep the plot moving. While characters like Cable and Bishop have had interesting storylines over the years (i.e. Soldier X and District X respectively), they seem to do better when pulled out of direct contact with the prime X teams. While I am rarely supportive of removing characters from the ever expanding stories of either major Comic Book universe, I think these characters should be relocated to their own little corners of the Marvel U.

4. Space- Ahhh, the Shi’Ar, never has a race of bird people from outer space tortured a group of genetic freaks more. More so, without the Shi’Ar we would have never known that Cyclops’ father was an intergalactic space pirate. That is reason enough for the Shi’Ar to never have existed. Quite frankly (Frank Quitely), Grant Morrison did the right thing in his New X-Men by taking the time to write a story in which the Shi’Ar could be removed from X-Men stories without removing them from continuity. Out there in space, the Shi’Ar could have fowled it up (get it, fowl, they’re bird people) to their heart’s content with Drax and Nova. That was until Ed Brubaker brought them back, a move I will never understand. As with the time travelers, these aliens can be interesting but ultimately serve little purpose in perfecting the X-Men concept.

3. Storm- I love comic books, and with rare exception, I believe that most characters serve a genuine philosophical role in their stories. Storm is one of those rare exceptions. If Magneto pushes the boundaries on how powerful a mutant can be, Storm smashes and pisses on them. Storm can control all weather. ALL WEATHER. I don’t care if she’s afraid of being trapped in a box, she rarely is and because of that she should be essentially unstoppable. If Storm is on the X-Men, it basically means that no one short of a celestial would ever go near Xavier’s School, eliminating the types of stories that should be found in an X book. It seems that many writers have shared this opinion and have tried to either move Storm a bit outside of the normal stories or even de-power her. I support the prior, but even that has not been too successful.

2. M-Day- The words “No More Mutants” still ring through my ears. In House of  M, Brian Bendis decided that there were too many mutants running around the Marvel U., and that removing them would make X-Men comics more interesting. He was completely wrong. The entire concept of X-Men relies on the fact that the births of mutants are on the rise throughout the world. By limiting the amount of living mutants to just under 200, you create a population that would not even be recognized in a world where radio-active spider men and super soldiers run around the streets everyday. It completely undermines all of the political aspects of the book since that few would even bother to persecute them. Even with a few thousand mutants in the world, very few humans would have direct contact with any powered being. Not only that, but some of the de-powered mutants like The Blob and Jubilee were popular and useful characters to the basic storyline. While I often disagree with other readers, I acknowledge that you are constantly playing with sacred material if you are writing a long running comic. Making such a sweeping decision can backfire easily. While the more politicized X-Men was made clear to work in New X-Men, something like this was a sweeping change that simply had no footing in the series history.

1. The X-Men are not Superheroes- Okay, some of you are pissed off now, so let me get this out of the way. The X-Men should not wear spandex or have frequent team ups. The X-Men are a politically motivated, paramilitary group who intimidate their opposition. X-Men stories should always be played off the fact that though we, the readers, know that the X-Men are good and would go to great lengths to save both mutants and humans, the public in the Marvel U. sees them as a group of radicals who have the resources to wage war on society. The fear part of “feared and hated” is justified. Let me remind you who some of the X-Men are. They are led by a psychic who has created a computer to monitor all of his race’s activity. Under him is his greatest disciple who cannot control his ability to blow holes in mountains, an immortal soldier with 12” blades that pop out of his hands, another powerful psychic who occasionally goes insane, a guy who looks like the devil and can disappear at will, a giant ex-terrorist who has metal skin and a girl who can take all of your energy. That’s just 7 of them. I admit that I did like Whedon’s take on this topic, that The X-Men fake being superheroes to gain public support, but I don’t think it’s the best way to go. I am patiently awaiting the day that I look at a cover and see the X-Men once again dressed in black leather jackets on their way to smash some terrorist plot and to never be recognized for it.

-Vinny

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The Icon

I have a half written piece sitting on my desktop that was supposed to be finished and published today, but yesterday something more important happened. Frank Frazetta died of a stroke at age 82; nearly a year after his wife, Ellie, died battling cancer. I mention the death of his wife for two reasons. The first is to address the reports that since the death of his wife, Frazetta had slowly been slipping away. The other, and more important, is that all of Frank Frazetta’s fans know how important Ellie was to his work. Frazetta, unlike his contemporaries, portrayed women as strong, capable beings and often attributed his admiration for them to his wife. I typically don’t like to get too philosophical on here, but that relationship strikes me as something to strive for. A passionate artist whose passion is derived from those he loves.

It is truly difficult for me to explain the importance of Frank Frazetta to all of Science Fiction/Fantasy, so I’ll keep it simple. Frank Frazetta was a story teller. Through his paintings and drawings, he conveyed more motion and emotion than most film makers or actors ever can. Frank Frazetta is one of the reasons I am writing this now. Though I now seek to write stories, I first sought to illustrate them. Long before I knew about Jack Kirby or Steranko, I knew about Frank Frazetta. It is Frank Frazetta that gave us visions of Tarzan and Conan, of John Carter and of Dracula. It is Frazetta that first brought many of our imaginations to life.

His powerful women, his enchanting heroes and his grotesque monsters. Anyone who draws (or writes for that matter) should wish to be as good as Frank Frazetta. They won’t be.

-Vinny

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Irony!

It’s been one of those days where I find myself slumped in front of the monitor. This widescreen, twenty-two inch Samsung behemoth is supposed to make things like blogging easier – it gives me more room to lay out work and organize windows so I don’t have to click back and forth between tasks. Yes, it should be a marvel of technology, but somehow it isn’t. Instead, I’m staring at two mostly blank Word documents, full-sized and side by side, with barely an idea passing through my mind. What used to be a potential twenty-two inches of pure productivity now seems a poster sized monument to writer’s block.

Frustration; mind-numbing boredom; a lack of fresh ideas – these are a writer’s worst enemies, so I don’t think I can fully blame the monitor for my troubles. I’ve stared at it for long enough, though, and come to one very big realization. I hate staring at it!

Modern technology is pervasive. I spend an inordinately large amount of time glued to some kind of screen every day. When I wake up in the morning, my waking urge is to open Firefox and check Google News for the day’s headlines, then use my handy extension Brief to keep up with my favorite RSS feeds. Whenever I’m in transit – whether by walking, subway, bus or train, I have an iPod plugged into my ears and a fixed gaze on the two-inch screen trying to decide if I’m feeling progressive enough for Yes or mellow enough for Brian Eno. On those weekends away from my main computer, that gaze is simply shifted to my smaller laptop screen. All that’s missing from this strikingly Orwellian nightmare is someone staring back at me on the other end (although that may already be the case).

Is it that scary, though? Part of me enjoys being wired into the world through computer screens. Take, for example, my awesome (read: better-than-yours) Samsung SyncMaster. It’s pretty to look at, takes up very little desk space, and is basically perfect for viewing anything: documents, images, video, and games – it all gets displayed in immaculate color. It has enough real estate to display full-sized documents and web pages side by side, with room left over for my IM client- all that, plus it’s clean and energy efficient.  Any item on this screen comes across so vibrantly that it’s become difficult to peel myself away from it.

As lost as I can get in the verdant greens of my desktop wallpaper, I also know what a double edged sword the display is. It is useful for my projects and hobbies, but sometimes I can barely see past its high walls and into the physical world. It’s dominating, and leaves me wondering what might be happening on the other side.

How many of us are stuck behind it? What happened to face-to-face conversation? What has the ‘civilized’ world come to when half our conversations now happen through Facebook and instant messaging? Are we so busy that going for a walk in the park once a week no longer fits into our schedules? Do we shun old friends because they haven’t texted us in forever? Earth still exists, and physical conversations still happen, but the convenience of technology has lessened the burden on our bodies, the burden that used to force us to pick up the newspaper every day, or go out and buy a book or a magazine. More often than not, our fingers are situated on a mouse and keyboard when we could be walking outside, enjoying the sensation of the bitter cold or the smell of the approaching spring. Technology hasn’t completely done away with personal interaction, it’s just cheapened it.

The internet, cell phones, and even television are all supposed to enhance our lives, making the things we’ve always done better in some way. They shouldn’t replace communication and relationships. Just to be clear – I’m not renouncing technology (though after a healthy dose of Battlestar, I often wonder if I should). I recognize how the web and its many facets keep families and friends in touch, and help tie the world together in a very real way. My gripe (which I place both on myself and on others) is that by allowing technology to encroach so much on our lives, we allow the precious little time we have with the living, natural world to slip away.

Now, for you Twitter-fiends who want everything in a nutshell, I’ll make my advice simple. Quit staring at your screen for a while. Go ride a fucking bike.

-Alex

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Lyrical Miracles

This is a companion piece to Alex’s last post and the first of many shorter, less prose based posts on here. I’ll save most of my words for this weeks big post. Without further ado,  here are my top 5 songs-lyrically speaking.

5. Jenny Lewis- Godspeed

I first started listening to Rilo Kiley because it was a band featuring the girl from “The Wizard” and Pinksy from “Salute Your Shorts”. I now  listen to Rilo Kiley (and Jenny Lewis in general) because I believe John Lennon whispers in Jenny’s ear as she sleeps. As with much of this list, Lewis’ strength is beauty in the simple but direct nature of her words.

4. David Bowie- Life on Mars?

In my opinion, this is Bowie at his best. Bowie combines his story telling ability with an otherworldly vocal, creating a masterpiece both musically and thematically. I am not sure how well this song would have worked if released by another artist, but it surely would pale in comparison to what we have.

3. Oasis- Don’t Look Back in Anger

I have a problem with songs I don’t really believe in, that may be what turns me away from metal and other genres which seem to exaggerate emotion without a pre-existing acknowledgment of the songs unreasonable nature. For me to love a song, I need to believe that the artist is trying to express something real in their music. While I have no idea what this song is about, I believe it’s about something.

2. John Lennon-Real Love

My absolute favorite love song. The fact that this went unreleased in Lennon’s life time is a sad reminder of what we lost.

1.  Bob Dylan-Positively 4th Street

The superior musical cousin of “Like A Rolling Stone”, “4th Street” is for anyone who has found themselves separating from people who once seemed like their friends. Though many vapid pop songs lay claim to the theme of moving on, this piece actually speaks to that emotion.

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Medicinal Music

If it wasn’t evident already, I’m not a huge fan of mainstream music. In a couple of my earlier posts, such as “If It’s Not On The Radio” and “The Mass Market Music Blues”, I discussed my general negativity towards cookie-cutter pop music, and why the artists the mass media doesn’t promote are probably better than the ones it does. All very interesting, right?

In any case, it didn’t allow much room for me to gush about what I like. And though I could talk about Zakk Wylde prancing around stage until I’m blue in the face, I think a little variety in post-types could add another dimension to the Chaos Collage. With that, I give you my first list!

Five instrumentals to un-funk your day!

Note: Links to all songs included – plus some extras!

5. Pink Floyd – Any Colour You Like

Believe it or not, I got into Pink Floyd by listening to Dream Theater. After ‘discovering’ progressive rock, I got my hands on all kinds of albums, some of them including bootlegs of Dream Theater concerts. One of those albums was a cover of “Dark Side of The Moon” in its entirety. They really managed to stay true to the original, even with the added embellishments on the synthesizer and guitar. Both versions have their charm, but what remains the same is the spacey, floating first half that transitions into a lilted guitar solo. By the end I always feel like my head has popped out from underwater and I’m taking in a fresh breath. Not too many songs can claim that.

Dream Theater’s Cover

4. Bela Fleck & The Flecktones – The Sinister Minister

There is little chance I’d know of or appreciate this tune if it weren’t for my beardless bass-playing ex-roommate. He just wouldn’t shut up about bassists like Jaco Pastorius and Victor Wooten, and eventually I found myself bobbing my head along to their smooth lines without even realizing it. “The Sinister Minister” is an odd, but endearing blend of instruments that sets an equally odd scene in my mind. The beginning of this reminds me of boredom – kicking around a can on a perfectly sunny afternoon. As the song picks up, that can is kicked into the wrong person’s yard – a person with no love of idle passers-by, and an affinity for shotguns. It gets my mind (and my legs) moving.

3. Bear McCreary – Black Market

Have I mentioned that I love the new Battlestar Galactica? Well, now that I have, I’ll also say that the show’s original score is probably the best I’ve ever heard on television. Composer Bear McCreary takes elements from various forms of ethnic music – Asian, Middle Eastern, Celtic, and so on, blending them into extremely exciting, dynamic pieces that add more to the show than I thought possible. “Black Market” is his take on what a rock song might sound like in the Battlestar universe. It certainly fits that bill, but the use of ethnic instruments allows the song to feel much farther away than it is. The haunting melody builds up into a distorted explosion of guitars, taking you for a journey before leaving you right back where it began. All this has happened before, and all this will happen again, indeed.

Black Market, Live Version

2. Paco De Lucia – Rio Ancho

If a type of music was capable of physically moving a person from a humdrum life to an idyllic spot somewhere along the ocean, flamenco would be it. This tune has a way of making me forget the cold weather and the endless concrete canyons outside my window. I think the music calls attention to itself, if only because it places complexity and accessibility side by side. Playing flamenco requires a lot of practice and even more natural talent, but I don’t think anyone needs a musical ear or an understanding of the culture around flamenco music to enjoy it. Also, where the first three songs all shift lower moods to higher ones, Rio Ancho stays consistent, reflecting its intent as a dance piece. Besides, what better way to escape a lousy mood than by going somewhere foreign?

1. Paul Gilbert – Radiator

Ah, Mr. Gilbert. For anyone that knows me, it’s probably no surprise that he found his way to the number one slot. “Radiator” is off of Paul’s first instrumental album Get Out Of My Yard, which catapulted him onto the stage with other great guitarists of our time, like Steve Vai and John Petrucci. I suppose I’m biased since I saw him play this in the flesh, but I’ve always loved the song for having true rock n’ roll attitude with an underscoring of hopeful sadness. There is a constant struggle between hoping and doing that sets this song apart from the others I’ve listed – the playing is raw and conflicted. Where the first four were escapist, this is more personal. Paul’s playing shifts these emotions around, not letting either one gain the upper hand until the solo section when the attitude takes over for good. The urge one gets at the end is simple – Wake up. Go. Do.

There you have it. Readers, feel free to list and/or suggest your own rainy day music!

-Alex

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Keep An Eye On Your Music

Stage presence and its effect on you!

Old habits die hard, isn’t that right? Well, it applies to this week’s post pretty well, for two reasons. The first, I’m falling back into comfortable territory by writing something music-related. Sorry readers, but I tried with “Learn By Fragging” and though it was fun to write, I’m going to wait a while longer before writing about gaming again.

The other old habit I’m talking about is my propensity towards listening to heavy metal. My musical tastes have matured way beyond my expectations and now my iTunes is filled with varying genres of rock and roll, jazz and jazz fusion, classical, folk; anything you can think of. I come by it honestly, too – I’ve never felt the need to ‘like’ something just to culture myself. But I somehow always find my way back to the shredders I worshiped in high school, though not because my tastes have devolved. After listening to some of those tracks again, I found something new.

My fixation of late came after stumbling upon a live performance of Ozzy’s “Bark at the Moon” on YouTube. It was the type of song I used to load up when I felt the need to head-bang or tune out my thoughts. I’m sure it would still have that effect if I were in the right state of mind, but after actually watching this performance I noticed something wholly different than aggression and torment (Ozzy’s transparent lyrics aside, of course) – I found energy, and positive energy at that.

I’ll get the obvious out of the way first. “Bark at the Moon” is a fast song with rhythm that never really lets up; the drums and bass are constantly driving the song forward. The guitar is also ever-present with its staccato chord progressions and dizzying solo passages. But just listening isn’t enough, and I have definitive proof:

Mr. Your-Body-Is-A-Wonderland John Mayer once experimented (see linked video) with musical “kinetics” by playing Van Halen’s “Panama” whilst standing in place, just to see how much it would rock. It didn’t. Aside from proving that he’s a moron, he demonstrated that motion and the quality of a live performance are directly related; one cannot go without the other, at least where bands are concerned.

Therein lies the gooey, happy center of this Ozzy song, and it isn’t that creepy bat-eating skeleton hovering in the middle of the stage. I like Ozzy, but he’s not the world’s greatest front man, and the onslaught of arthritis seems to have put an end to his on-stage antics. It’s the musicians he surrounds himself with that make up for it by throwing body and soul into their performances. These guys steal the show.

In the back we see Mike Bordin pounding out the beat on his drums like the song is never going to be played again. When the camera actually cuts to his face the intensity is really visible. Some might call that his metal face, but all I see is passion and focus. The same goes for Rob Trujillo (now of Metallica fame) – his body constantly swaying in time, his feet stomping on the stage when the heavy notes of the bridge hit; he is the perfect image of a musician connected to the circular experience of playing for a crowd. It might look metal, but the intention is to transfer his energy and passion to the crowd in a palpable way.

And how could I forget Zakk Wylde? Firstly, I have to say that his down-tuned version of the song really adds some crunchy weight that the original recording just didn’t have. The guitar here sounds bigger – but that’s technical stuff.  As far as performance goes, he adds an otherworldly touch to the scene on stage. He’s the image of a Norse warrior, leaning back with his guitar (in place of an axe, of course), made complete by his long blond hair and beard. He tosses his head back at those moments where the music hits a crescendo or changes suddenly, acting as a visual and quite visceral representation of the music for the audience.

Put these three together, and they completely counteract the effects of the black hole that is Ozzy Osbourne and his immobility. And if the shots of the audience are any evidence, they’ve done their jobs admirably.

Music is meant to be heard and felt no matter the setting, but the feeling needs to be multiplied for live performances. Technique and playing ability are all well and good, but if a musician can’t convey the passion in their music to an audience, then they’ve failed. Metal is a good example because of how visible that passion is, though even then it’s often easy to miss.

If you’re looking to give an old song new meaning, though – find a live performance on YouTube. Then listen with your eyes.

-Alex

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Learn By Fragging

Online gaming can make you a less self-centered douche!

Since Vinny and I began this little ‘project’, all of my posts have dealt with my observations and feelings on music – i.e. what I like, what I don’t; where I think popular music is going, and so on. That’s all well and good, but a comment on my last post (Paul Picks Up The Pieces) reminded me that I’ve got plenty more to say about our multifaceted 21st century culture. As such, I will stick with something I know – something cozy and close to my heart: the endless killing fields of multiplayer online gaming.

Some of my earliest and happiest memories are of squeezing the trigger on a plastic light gun, vainly attempting to kill ducks flying across the small screen in my bedroom. My hand/eye coordination in those days was pretty atrocious, so when I actually took one of the quacking bastards out it was cause for celebration. For the time, it was a blast, but the limitation was how solitary my joy was.

The problem: single player games rewarded you with an ending and games with a 2-4 person multiplayer mode usually had you competing against the other players for a high score. Plus, it didn’t extend farther than one room and one television screen. Mario and Luigi could take turns doing ‘shrooms and making passes at the princess, or if you were cool enough to have friends, you could get a 4-player game of Goldeneye going in your living room. You’d play a few rounds, make fun of the dorky kid who constantly blew himself up with the rocket launcher, then have to stop playing because Mom asked you to explain why Jimmy was in the corner crying. (Who the hell invited him anyway?) When it was game over, you compared scores, and that was it.

Now, a couple decades later, games have skyrocketed in terms of content and complexity, but there’s still one ultimate goal that developers strive to give the player: the feeling of validation one gets after a job well done. That can be accompanied by the gnawing pain of defeat when one’s performance wasn’t up to par – but then, what would games teach us if we always won?

The big difference in 21st century gaming is that a game’s “ending” or getting the best score are no longer the primary points of validation. They’re still part of it, but the most important focus of modern gaming is that feeling you get after capturing the last flag with your squad of 12 through the use of combined arms and superior teamwork. Games have always been goal oriented, but now instead of the Doom one-man-army approach, there’s the Day Of Defeat U.S. Army approach. Gaming is no longer just an escape. If you play from the right perspective, it can be an exercise in humanity.

For simplicity’s sake (and because I have the most experience with them), I’ll only discuss online FPS-type (First Person Shooter) games. To be clear, I will say that many single-player shooters should absolutely be praised for their ability to tell stories, create suspense, and just be fun, but replaying the same campaign over and over will never be as fun as playing on a server full of human players with human advantages and human flaws.

For instance, Half-Life 2 was an excellent piece of gaming and storytelling. HL2: Deathmatch is the multiplayer component of the game, and while it has the expected fragfest-type game play, none of them hold a candle to Counter-Strike’s objective based play, or Day Of Defeat’s territorial tug of war.

I suppose a counter argument might be that circle-strafing a few newbs and racking up kills is a fun way to blow off some steam, but I can’t see how that feeling could last for very long. It’s just point-click, point-click, and repeat. Is it therapeutic? Maybe. But is it mentally satisfying? No.

Where is the tactical depth? Where is the communication? Where’s the suspense of trying to desperately defend the last flag and turn the game around? Racking up kills just doesn’t hold up against a game where relying on your teammates is the path to victory (though playing with a good team and losing anyway is rewarding in a certain way, too.)

I see it every time I log onto a DoD server: one person is the machine gunner, suppressing the enemy team, another is a rifleman picking off targets from long-range, while a third is assaulting a position and capping a flag. Now and then there’s the guy who runs off by himself, trying to be a hero, but his inability to be a team player puts everyone but the enemy at a disadvantage.

Okay, so maybe you’re still wondering what the hell I’m getting at. Yes, I prefer online FPS games where cooperation is paramount to success. But, there is actually an underlying social/cultural importance. (What? Games are culturally relevant?!)

Co-op online gaming is challenging a generation of people to work with players they don’t know and wouldn’t necessarily associate with in pursuit of a common goal. Sure, the goal may be artificial, but the underlying lesson is that “pwning” (while sometimes fun) is much less important than having the ability to effectively think, communicate and work with other people.

So, next time you see a teammate shooting at Nazi’s, be a friend – give him some covering fire.

-Alex

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