Tuesday, December 25, 2012

Draw, Draw, Stop

My wife's grandmother invented a game called Draw, Draw, Stop. It involves two people and drawing materials. One person starts a drawing, and the other person tells them to "stop," then finish it themselves. Yesterday, while we carpooled with my mother to a family get-together, my wife and I played Draw, Draw, Stop in MS Paint. The results are as follows.

This one was going to be a truck. It became a classy whale with a tophat:

In this one, the fuzzy edge that was going to be the fur on a Santa hat became a cloud, which led to this:

The mouth of this eel was going to be the back of a guitar. Remember that all of these were drawn by two cramped people using a touchpad to draw in a moving vehicle:

This one was actually going to be a ballerina, so the dashboard hula girl it came out as is actually pretty close to the mark.

This one was going to be just a pair of giant eyes. Now it is, according to my wife, two jolly fruits singing to baby banana Jesus. I agree with her assessment that this is better than the pair of eyes.

And, finally: This sea turtle was going to be a helicopter, and the Mad Hatter was going to be a blender. See if you can guess how

Monday, December 24, 2012

Unto Madness, 2013

I don't even want to talk about all the stuff in the news lately. Just... take this. You'll need it where you're going.

Sunday, November 4, 2012

Curiosity of Politics: Vermont

I'm in the middle of packing my life into boxes, but there's something I've been meaning to share. I don't have as much time or battery life as I'd like, so I'll have to be quick, but I want to show you something strange: This.

That is the list of presidential election results, by state, for every election ever held in the United States of America. There was a version of this chart in one of my history books in college and then, as now, it fascinated me. See, the state I'm currently moving out of is Vermont, and Vermont has the longest party loyalty streak of any state for any party: from 1856 through 1960, Vermont voted Republican. In case you were wondering, this is what the electoral map of 1856 looked like:

There were 31 states that year. And Vermont remained a Republican stronghold for 104 years. Even when the cool states were voting Democratic, Vermont voted Republican. Even when it was FDR in World War II, Vermont voted Republican. In fact, even after going for LBJ in 1960, Vermont went back to being Republican until 1992. Now, it's one of the bluest of the blue states, with there being no indication of anything about that changing in this election. Why?

It's complicated in ways I wish I had the time to get into. The Republican and Democratic parties performed a very slow waltz over the course of the 20th century in which the two traded places as the liberal and conservative voices, and that had a lot to do with race. In the last few years, the remaining handful of conservative Democrats and liberal Republicans have either jumped ship or died from old age.

One might think that that's what happened with Vermont: The conservative generation has passed on, giving way to liberals. But what I, personally, have seen is nothing like that: I went to an Occupy march last year at about this time and most of the people there had probably been college kids when Vietnam was happening. The liberals here are young and old.

More than that, however, is that the Republican Party here in Vermont looks nothing like the Republican Party nationally. There are different strains of Republicanism nationally - the Reaganites, the neo-cons, whatever Mitt Romney is classified as - but I'd say the Republicans here are Coolidge Republicans, taciturn to the point of being spartan and concerned with function over style for everything. At the height of Tea Party mania during the midterm elections of 2010... nothing happened here.

I'm too young to really know if they've stuck by their guns the whole time or if they've retracted from the high-water mark of Reagan flamboyance in the 1980s, but either way, they're not the rest of the party is nationally. Just a thought worth sharing as we head into an election in which both sides are convinced the other party's candidate will run the US into the ground.

Monday, October 15, 2012

Felix Baumgartner, You Rock

There's only so much to say when we all saw the same thing, but DAMN, it was one cool thing, huh?

Yesterday, Felix Baumgartner rode a balloon up into the stratosphere, completed an elaborate and not entirely clear checklist (what was switch F6 for? did he turn it on or off?) and stepped off the railing of his capsule and into the waiting arms of gravity.

I don't think I'll ever forget watching the capsule's odd hatch roll away, pocket-door style, revealing the ink-black sky and the glowing color of the Earth. That part, in addition to everything else, was especially amazing.

Watching it live, and even though it wasn't in any way a surprise, I still had a very real heart-in-throat moment watching Felix just... step... off. It was the capstone moment to a weird trip that had just previously featured Felix awkwardly moving around in his space suit to fulfill the commands being given to him from Joe Kittinger, the old holder of the high jump record, from the ground. There would be long, agonizing pauses between orders when I, personally, was afraid it was all going wrong somehow. Kittinger, at least, shared my feelings: He always seemed relived when Felix got back to the radio to ask for the next step. "Attaboy," he said a few times, and it was odd to hear him use such Americanisms in talking with a man whose radio circuit and Austrian accent made him sound like Microsoft Sam.

NASA watched the whole thing with interest (in case their people ever have to reenter the atmosphere under less-than-ideal conditions), but ultimately it was a civilian effort. Kittinger's record was set as part of a US Army project; Bumgartner's, in contrast, was done for the sake of doing it, watched by the world and financed by Red Bull.

If it had been done by the Army again, or by NASA, it would have been cool, but it's hard not to think it's so much cooler THIS way, simply as one man's crazy dream and the huge crew of people who wanted to help him make it happen. Felix's mom, Eva Baumgartner, was there in the control room. Kittinger was there too, and he smiled when things went right. And that is as it should be.

Tuesday, October 9, 2012

Felix Baumgartner, Legend in Training

This is sort of a placeholder, because the real event hasn't happened yet. But it's going to, soon. All the smaller variables have been worked out, and we're just waiting on the last great unknown: The weather.

Felix Baumgartner, amateur projectile and professional lunatic, is going to throw himself out a balloon in the stratosphere over New Mexico. It's believed his unaided body will crack the sound barrier on the way down. His chief adviser is the current record of the atmospheric high dive, conducted on behalf of the US military back in the 1960s. This couldn't be made more awesome.

And so, out in the desert, they wait for low wind, of all things. And we wish them luck.

Friday, September 14, 2012

Ayn Rand Was a Terrible Person: A Short Essay

Shared cultural experiences are one of the strongest ties people can have. A Star Wars fan is going to be fundamentally the same regardless of location or age, because you and he saw the same movies. Kuurion and I, living at either ends of a large-ish continent, have a few such shared cultural experiences. For instance, we both thought Atlas Shrugged was a terrible book. The key difference is that I called bullshit after 82 pages and he read the whole thing.

Atlas Shrugged was written by a very angry woman named Ayn Rand. Rand hated the idea that anyone in this world should have any more or any less than exactly what they worked for. Atlas Shrugged was her dense, heavy-handed, wrathful sermon on how most people in society are parasites sucking off of the creative power of a very few.

But that's not the worst of it. Rand's idea of the cultural hangers-on wasn't simply that they mooched off those who were better than they. She viewed them as anti-progress, and depicted them as such in a way that was the single most offensive thing in the part of the book I made myself read.

One of the major characters is an industrialist named Henry Rearden, a man who has created a metal alloy that does the work of steel, but better. Protagonist Dagney Taggart, sister to a buffoon who controls a railroad, wants to use it to make rails. Nobody else in the industry will touch the stuff, and her brother fights her on it. The gist of the argument against "Rearden metal" is that the railroad people dare not touch anything new.

That's really it. I know that's really it because that single point is harped upon in a way that goes beyond beneath subtlety. Industry leaders fear change.

That would be a really potent message if it were even remotely true. In practice, industry people cannot wait to get new ideas out the door. Look at thalidomide, for God's sake. The people who made that stuff pressured for its availability in the United States in the and didn't apologize for the things it did to people until three weeks ago. Thalidomide came out the same year as Atlas Shrugged, just for comparison.

Rand's book is populated by straw men who are shown to be retardant to progress. Her arrogant opinions, when transposed onto the real world (where they are indeed embraced by certain people), are the most unapologetic kinds of dangerous. Her ideal of growth and independence is the tumor.

Monday, August 6, 2012

I'm Gonna Be an Olympian

I've been holding off on blog posting because what I want to do is write another review of "Homestuck," which Kuurion reviewed back in June. I had originally hoped to have a review ready a month after his, but Homestuck is loooooooong, and it's slow going. But anyway: I'm going to be in the Olympics in 2016. You just wait. They had a thing on the Weather Channel today where one of the WC guys was shown how to throw discus by Olympic people (a trainer and athlete), and that looked doable, but there's the whole "aerodynamics" thing, which I know I'm bad at with frisbees already. So: shot put. Just throwin' a heavy ball around. I'm going to get my own and start practicing.

Wednesday, June 6, 2012

Webcomic Wednesday Review #7: Homestuck

Homestuck review

It has been too long since I wrote one of these. I wanted to keep up a schedule of one every 3 weeks at least when I started. That sure didn't pan out.
Regardless, I want to share my most recent read with you; one that, chances are, you're already familiar with as it has a MUCH larger fanbase than Our World. I daresay it is the largest and most popular comic on the web right now, and is my new favourite. It's called Homestuck, and I don't have a goddamned clue where to start
Warning: This review will contain harsh language and very minor spoilers.


Is not really a comic at all. It is sequential art, but not arranged in pages or strips as is the norm. Every page consists of a single static image, or several animated frames, with accompanying text located below the image. This text can be in the form of narrative commentary, or delivered via Pesterlogs, Pesterchum being the Instant Messaging program that the main cast uses to communicate. Nearly all communication is done through typing and chatlogs, thus each individual's typing quirks become associated with and are an expression of, one's personality. It's very clever and I cannot say whether it was intentional or not (it may have originally been just another way to differentiate characters, due to lacking speech balloons), but the effect is there and it is great. Even when just talking to each other.

DAVE: gimme the pen
DAVE: yes
DAVE: yes
DAVE: no
DAVE: were still drawing
DAVE: are you kidding this is a fucking masterpiece we have to see this through
DAVE: we are in the shit now
DAVE: we are motherfuckin entrenched in this bitch
DAVE: were running out of room rose can you turn the page for us

So the plot of the comic is basically that there is a game to be played. This game draws its players in, literally, while Earth gets destroyed by meteorites coming from the game world. There's just an obscene amount of smaller details that I can't even begin to detail here, but the point of the game is essentially to create new universes through the breeding of frogs. Plus enemies, minions, and bosses and levels to be gained, all that good stuff. What's great about it is that everything in every universe is linked up in so many coils of paradox time travel that none of it starts to make sense after a while.

And YOU DO NOT CARE. It's all introduced bit by bit at a time, with the kind of silly randomness humor that hooks you immediately, that even when you get confused it doesn't matter, you assume it'll all come in due time and keep on keeping on anyways. Eventually the craziest parts do start to make sense.

Every now and again there will be a short flash animation to stand in for a page. These are typically done with no words or dialogue at all, and it was during one of these animations that I realized this comic is more than just awesome, it is an incredible and unique experience. Nothing else on the net is like this. The internet seems to agree with me: this one broke newgrounds when it was originally hosted there through the sheer volume of his fans' traffic to see it. These short animations have given me a kind of pause to stop and think about what I just saw - the same kind of pause I tend to get after a very emotionally charged film, such as Schindler's List. How Andrew Hussie manages to pull this off, I have no fucking clue, but I imagine it has something to do with the legion of fans he has to contribute original art and originally composed music to these animations. (Yes, original music - to date, 24 albums exist with the Homestuck logo on them. TWENTY-FOUR.)

I even paid for this one. Seriously. I PAID for music, it's so good.

The art of the main comic is itself not all that impressive, but the simple graphics lend themselves well to the .GIF loops often used to hilarious effect.

All that said, there are qualms to be had. I did have to drag myself through a few sections of the archives as I was reading, before the comic had me truly hooked. There are a lot of character introductions - an almost absurd amount as you enter into act 5 and the trolls begin taking the stages. 12 trolls exist, and are all introduced with the same formula within one act's opening. Additionally, some of the trolls' typing quirks can get in the way of legibility - one iin particular liike2 two do thii2 thiing whiich 2lowed me down two almo2t a crawl, aNd ThEn ThErE wAs ThIs GuY wHo WaS eVeN wOrSe, SoMeHoW.

Oddly enough it seems almost all of my qualms are with the trolls, which could just be because I think there are too many of them. There are 4 main kids, but 12 trolls, and the kids are the main characters. Making everybody unique in their own way is bound to create some stretching of the limits, but every character has their fans. None of them seem haphazardly cobbled together, which is a good sign.

Final words: you need to check this comic out. I'm not just suggesting it, I am commanding it. (admittedly I have no way of enforcing this command, but you can't prove that I DON'T know where you sleep!) Homestuck is one of the few truly unique experiences out there, and the fact that it has gained such a following in 2 1/2 short years is only more evidence to its gripping power. I shared this comic with CV with the words

"You should read Homestuck."

He responded the next day with

"Dude, what did you do to me? This has eaten up so much of my time that I haven't written you that script. Which I have to work on. Right now."

You should read Homestuck.
Right now.

Monday, May 7, 2012

Where the Infrastructure Ends

I live in a small New England town at the end of a street nobody uses. There is a sign at the intersection saying that "This is Not Route 12," thus strongly implying that anybody going this way is probably doing so by accident. For those of us who live here, it's like a delightful look into the future when a combination of decaying hardware and rationed resources have lead to spotty service all around. This is Where the Infrastructure Ends.

After Hurricane Irene came through parts of the road caved in, and because this isn't a high-traffic area, those holes were covered with huge pieces of sheet steel that were sort of welded in place with asphalt and left that way for the winter. I suppose that they'll be taken away this summer and the hole filled, but if they aren't there isn't a thing I can do about it.

Utility service is, to be fair, usually good, but that's gauged against 100% service, as opposed to those rolling blackouts they have in North Korea. Measured up against any other service I've had in the United States, we lose power a LOT more than is normal. I've had the wires yanked off the side of the house by a falling tree, and it didn't even fall there. It feel farther up the line, yanking the cables so tight that the whole connection point, including some of the wood, came off the side of the building.

Another time, the power went off with the sound of a gunshot. It turns out that's the noise the breakers they put on the poles (yes, apparantly they put breakers on poles) trip. Gunfire. Because that sound coinciding with total darkness isn't alarming in any way.

The phones work alright.

Right now, a water main in front of the house is bleeding water into the street. This is Monday and it started leaking on Friday. They put a cone on it and left it. Apparantly losing thousands of gallons of water isn't a big deal, but okay, everybody needs some time off. As Monday turns into Tuesday, however, I'm wondering if anybody is ever actually going to come deal with this leak. However, like the steel places five hundred yards up, I must admit that it's interesting to see what happens when people just take a problem... and leave it.

Sunday, April 8, 2012

Thoughts for Your Pennies

On March 29, 2012, the Royal Canadian Mint announced that it would discontinue the country's penny. In part, it reads "'The Mint will continue to develop new strategies and technologies to meet current national and world market demands,' said Ian E. Bennett, President and CEO of the Royal Canadian Mint. 'The Mint's Winnipeg facility has produced coins for over 75 countries in the past 35 years; therefore we have a solid reputation on which to build a future without the penny.'" That's sort of a ridiculous basis for reassurance - in effect, "We've given you useful things for a long time, so you won't mind if we take one of those things away" - but Canada is moving forward into a penniless future. Will the United States follow?

The last generation of Canadian pennies is being struck out of copper-plated steel. The American penny is made of a similar structure, copper-plated zinc. In both cases, the corrosion-resistant copper is used to shield a less durable metal from the dangers of the outside world. The problem is that it now costs both the Canadian and American governments more than a cent to make a cent. According to the report cited above, the Canadian government pulled the plug when it cost 1.6¢. However, the US mint is grimly plugging along when it costs 1.92¢ (as of 2010). They're also losing money on the nickel (9.22¢ to make), something the Canadian government proudly boasts is not a problem.

The US mint is looking at again reformulating the penny, which was 95% copper until 1982, when it switched to copper-plated zinc. Meanwhile, there are people hoarding the old pennies, waiting for the day they can legally melt them down for the copper content.

Zinc is a light white metal usually used in galvanized steel, bulk castings and roofing. Both zinc and steel are used as fillers in pennies because there's more than a penny's worth of copper in a copper penny. While zinc is used to protect steel as a sacrificial coating (think the short-lived shininess of new guardrails on the interstate), it is not particularly durable in and of itself, and will develop a crusty white coating of zinc oxide. For that reason, pure zinc wouldn't work for a coin that's handled regularly. Nor would pure steel or regular iron. That leaves only one metal cheap enough: Aluminum.

That's what an aluminum penny would look like. A test series was struck in 1973 when copper became too expensive. If the US Mint hangs onto the penny much longer, it will probably have to resort to something like this again, although it's hard to say. The problem with the nickel might be a bit easier to solve; the nickel could just be made from zinc and nickel plated.

For now, it's all talk. But sooner or later, something is going to have to give. The Canadian method, interestingly enough, is to leave the pennies as legal tender and let people decide what to do for themselves.

Saturday, March 31, 2012

The Most Fascinating Bad Movie Ever Made

Parody is hard to do right, a fact complicated by the fact that it's often quite hard to tell when people in the genre are trying and when they aren't. For every "Airplane!" there are five "Scary Movies"; for every good Mel Brooks film there are three bad Mel Brooks films. Parody is hard to make appear intelligent and virtually never ages well. And that brings us to the morbid curiosity piece that is "Not Another Teen Movie."

First off, let's look at that movie poster. Click on it; it gets bigger. Movie titles started becoming logos sometime in the late 1970s or so, and in the time since there has never been one that looked less finished than this. The gradated colors of the block letters and the bad shadowing effects point to somebody taking skills learned in Microsoft Excel and transferring them to Corel PhotoPaint. Even if this was 2001/2002 (and it is; note the top billing for the VHS format), that's pretty bad.

The movie itself is a whole other can of twisted aircraft wreckage you pulled out of a swamp. See, although the bulk of what we think of as teen movies came out in the 1980s, the single most definitive entry ever made into the genre - "American Pie" - had come only two years before, although you can see the full list of references here. The amount of material in that list suggests that somebody with a misspent adulthood watched all of these movies, noted things worthy of parody and then built a script around them. The plot line follows this.

Leading lady Chyler Leigh plays Janey Briggs, which was basically the beginning and end of her in movies. Janey is the "pretty-ugly girl," who simply needs to take off her glasses and let down her ponytail to become gorgeous. Her father is crazed alcoholic Vietnam vet Randy Quaid, whose bizarre acting talents were never better used. Janey and her horny younger brother Mitch (Cody McMains) attend a school populated entirely by teen-movie stereotypes. Popular kid Jake (Chris Evans) accepts a bet by other popular kid Austin (Eric Christian Olsen) that he can make any girl prom queen. Janey is chosen.

Other plotlines swirl beneath the surface. Jake's insane pervert sister Amanda (Lacey Chabert) is trying to get him to sleep with her, and later makes out with the elderly undercover reporter who is somehow passing as a teen. Janey's brother and his friends are the stereotypical sex-crazed teens who pack for a crazy trip (that never leaves the neighborhood). Randy Quaid is still Randy Quaid.

Remember how I mentioned earlier that this was 2001/2002? The movie came out in December 2001, which means the home video release (on VHS, you guys!) would have been in 2002. But that also means that this is one of the small crop of films that were made before September 11, 2001 but released after it. Despite all the very real problems with Not Another Teen Movie, it can probably get a better reception now than when it came back. Goofy in a quintessentially American way, this couldn't have played particularly well to people who were sitting in theatres trying to remember what it meant to be American. Having adjusted over the ensuing decade, viewers can now appreciate the lack of quality with clear eyes.

What's really fascinating is that the people who made this film wanted - really, really wanted - for it to work. Ron Lester, the guy who played Reggie Ray, said on the DVD featurette (because there was a DVD featurette, and, God help me, I watched it) that he wanted to be the guy who played a parody of his own role as Billy Bob in "Varsity Blues." He's happy about it (something I suppose I would have never known if I'd bought the VHS copy).

This man's IMDb page shows that at the time, he had been in three feature movies and one of them was "Good Burger." But he wanted to make fun of himself. To continue focus on his character, there is a slot on the scoreboard in the school stadium that shows how many concussions Reggie Ray has left, and it grimly counts down as the movie goes on. There's nothing funny in that when you hear it explained, but seeing it happen you feel a sense of distant and morbid humor, and that humor is the life-giving ichor that stops this film from being totally unwatchable.

Grim one-upsmanship carries the movie like a robot carries an unconscious blonde in '50s horror - stoically, without emotion or the ability to register nuance. Remember the "Czechoslovakian" exchange student in "American Pie," who ends up being an unwitting accomplice in internet sex hijinks? Here they just have an exchange student named Areola, who is naked. All the time. Cerina Vincent, who played her, didn't sound anywhere near as happy as Ron Lester in the featurette. I believe she was entirely edited out of the film when it ran on television, which hopefully helped keep the people who had seen her here and the people who knew her as "the yellow Power Ranger" in separate camps.

I made fun of Mel Brooks at the beginning of this article because I recently rewatched "Robin Hood: Men in Tights," which was clearly made by a comedian at the bottom of his game. But how did that happen? He's a legend; he made "The Producers," "Young Frankenstein" and "Blazing Saddles." How did he sink to making a bad Robin Hood parody followed by an even worse Dracula parody? That last was starring Leslie Nielsen, who rose to maturity in serious roles before taking a permanent turn to comedy with - wait for it - "Airplane!" Why does comedy always seem to strangle those who love it most?

Wednesday, March 21, 2012

Webcomic Wednesday (Mini) #6: A Softer World

Type: Photographic, three-panel, acontextual art experiment
By: Emily Horne (photographer) and Joey Comeau (writer)
Self-described as: "A Softer World is a comic that was created by Emily Horne and Joey Comeau so that people would recognize them as important artistic geniuses."
Website: http://www.asofterworld.com/index.php

If there is one thing that can be said of A Softer World, it is that it never fails to deliver. The series is so totally weird, so completely bewildering that I have yet to understand it - which is really something, after 700 strips made by just two people. One would feel that eventually some sort of pattern would emerge, but at the most I have only managed to pick up sub-currents of dreamlike emotion. It is at times comic, at times tragic; it is polemic a good part of the time, but not always. Sometimes it is perhaps just a little disturbing, and yet it is often reaffirming of the things we would all like to believe are true - in a softer world.

It's hard to attribute credit. Comeau, as the writer, is the driving force - and yet you can't simply stick his thoughts on any old image. They're so off the wall that they can only be paired with something equally abstract yet evocative, and Horne and he are both on the same distant wavelength, one on which I can receive but not transmit.

Oh, to be artistic and Canadian again.

Tuesday, March 6, 2012

Webcomic Wednesday #5: Bastard Who

Alright. This is going to get a bit meta for a moment, so bear with me.

I started writing movie reviews for the local newspaper in 2004, something I still do today. In addition to that, I also also did movie, book and food reviews for the college paper I wrote for in, uh, college. So when Kuurion started throwing the word "blog" around and talking about Webcomic Wednesdays, I was pretty experienced. But there have been stumbling blocks.

See, there's the problem of self-sorting. The theatre here in town has only one screen, and so there's only one movie at a time, so I have to watch what they're showing. Online, it's different: The only webcomics I follow are the ones I think are worth reading, nobody has the time to read all of them, so... self sorting. But now that we're doing the link exchange thing through Ink Outbreak (see the box below the skyscraper ad on the right of Our World) I have all manner of comics thrown at me, and one of them caught my eye. And, contrary to self-sorting for only the stuff I love unequivocally, I found a comic that was (to my eyes) both deeply flawed yet still somewhat engaging. Introducing: Bastard Who.

The thing that needs to be aired immediately for those who didn't pick up on it is that Bastard Who is a bewildering take on Doctor Who, a long-running BBC program that has also attained a cult following here in the US and Canada. I will now give one paragraph synopses of both serials, starting with the show.

Doctor Who is a broad-ranging story of a man who travels in time and space. He is the Doctor, the last of a humanoid race of aliens called the Time Lords, and he travels the universe in a device called the TARDIS, which is disguised as a British police phone box. The other Time Lords were all lost in the Time War, which they fought against the Daleks, raging throughout time and space. Now, the Doctor is a wanderer.

Bastard Who is a broad-ranging story of a man who travels in time and space. He is the bastard, the last of a humanoid race of aliens called the Clock Lords, and he travels the universe in a device called the SARTIV, which is disguised as a refrigerator. The other Clock Lords were all lost in the Clock War, which they fought against the Doll-Ex, raging throughout time and space. Now, the Bastard is a wanderer.

As a big fan of Mad Magazine, I'm quite familiar with the idea of taking a TV show and turning it into a comic in which the characters all have mocking names and the plot is vivisected. But that's not what's happening here - there's far too little humor for this to be considered a comedy.

While there have been eleven Doctors over the run of the TV show - he regenerates instead of dying and gets a new actor and a new personality each time - the Bastard is far less cultured than the three versions of the Doctor who have been on the show since it returned to the air in 2005. I'm not familiar with the older Doctors from the 1963-1989 run, but I'll give the Bastard the benefit of the doubt and assume he's his own man and not specifically derivative of any one Doctor. His good characteristics are matched evenly with shortcomings - a cross between a general idea of the Doctor and maybe a homeless version of Captain Kirk. A little bit spacey, a little bit scuzzy.

It's time to wrap this up, because the temptation to do a point-by-point comparison could drag this on forever. The "New Readers" page introduces the characters well enough, but never mentions Doctor Who. On the other hand, there is a filler image mixed into the run showing the current Doctor standing next to the TARDIS, with the comment that "We’re all Doctor Who fans here anyways, right?" So it's not like author James Riot is trying to pull a fast one on the readers.

The website is a subset of Old Dying Kitty Comics, founded by Riot. Unfortunately, I couldn't find any explanation of what the purpose of, and inspiration for, Bastard Who is. I really wish I knew, because I've reached the end of where I feel comfortable guessing.

The biggest thing that held me on to this was, in fact, that question. The storyline itself never had enough lift, and more than the lightest sprinkling of humor would have been a nice addition to what may or may not have been a parody. Personal verdict: I gave up.

Wednesday, February 29, 2012

Wednesday Webcomic Review 4: Shadowbinders

So a couple weeks ago I attended an online comics convention called WebReef. Not a big event or nothing, but it was a good chance to get some networking, socializing with other comic artists and enthusiasts. It was hosted by the creators of the comic Shadowbinders, (Kambrea and Kneon, unaware of real names) and alongside the other comics I found that weekend I figured I’d give theirs a readthrough as well. And since it’s been a few weeks since our last review was posted, I figured I’d write a review for it as well.

Unfortunately, I have to be honest: I didn’t like what I saw.

The comic starts off pretty good. An action sequence, some interesting-looking characters on a flying ship and a battle. The sequence is brought to an end by a man in red shooting fire from his hands – the man has piercing blue eyes. A mug shot of this man’s face was the host’s avatar at Webreef, and it was those eyes that got me interested in the first place, it was an excellent first impression on a character. There’s no text through the opening sequence of 8 pages, and it’s revealed to be a dream. We enter the life of a teenage girl.

The art is vibrant, full color, and I cant say anything bad about it. My socks weren’t blown off, but I can tell a good amount of effort goes into these pages, and I have respect for that. But it’s the writing that started to turn me off. We go into Mia’s world at school, her crush on the best-looking boy in school and his girlfriend being unbelievably cruel to her (honestly, I don’t think I ever met a bigger bitch in my own high school, and I was the school-wide target for 3 years). Typical high school girl. It’s not for a little while yet that we get back to the ship, which … is another dimension, or something. It’s not made clear, perhaps that’s part of the mystery. But I’m going to stop myself here from simply recapping the story, because that’s not what a review is supposed to do.

The real cast of Shadowbinders is in the extra-dimensional world. Mia’s friends in the real world seem to lack depth, making it difficult for me even able to remember their names. Unfortunately, the same thing happens in the extra-dimensional world. Of the 4 inhabitants of the flying ship that Mia finds herself stuck on, one is a back-talking rabbit-thing who only ever succeeded in slightly disturbing me, one was a woman whose name escapes me (the cast page tells me it's Elaina, and that's not ringing any bells for me) and who seems to serve absolutely no purpose on the ship at all. Tristan is an engineer of sorts who seems to be the right-hand man, and the ship’s Captain, Rhen, is the piercing blue-eyed man… whose first impression breaks down as soon as he opens his mouth.

Rhen is revealed to be a womanizing scoundrel of sorts. He is the most powerful mage in this world, which I suppose gives him some leeway for being overconfident, however he seems to be unable to keep both his eyebrows on the same level and consistently sports a wide, toothy grin. This is referred to as the “Smarm Brow” and my opinion on it was solidified once I’d seen a Lackadaisy page tackle it. Basically, I can’t take a character like this seriously. He lacks the charm that regularly comes with the womanizing scoundrel, as seen in memorable characters like James Bond and Han Solo. I just can’t like him, and that’s a shame, as he is one of the leading characters.

As for the events in the comic, the one thing about it that stood out to me is that everything seems to be just a little bit rushed. The amount of stuff that has happened in 150 pages (half-pages, actually, by the comic’s format) is a little offputting and nothing seems to organically move from one place to another. Logistically it works fine, but nothing had the time to really sink in, it was just off to the next location or story point. Things begin and end rather abruptly and none of the characters have reacted to something in a way that makes me identify with them. Rhen seemed to take an immediate interest and recognize the ring that Mia uses to travel between worlds, which got my attention, but focus was then taken off of that point and hasn’t been brought up again yet.

All in all, nothing about Shadowbinders stood out to me as original, unique, or risqué enough to become really memorable. I would love to see some moments of long-form introspection or one-on-one conversation between the characters that doesn’t revolve entirely around Mia or her dreams – stuff that lets us see into the characters’ inner lives, their personalities. Something to paint the rest of their actions with, and to identify with, because at the moment the only things I can bring to mind is that Rhen is overconfident and cocky, and Mia is … typical. The others haven’t even shown themselves to be that much. I feel like there’s too much focus on the events themselves, and not enough focus on how the characters react to and are affected by them. Like we’re being strung along through plot points and the people exist only as a vessel to carry us from place to place.

But, that’s just my opinion. With 2,300 likes on facebook at 150 pages (Our World has 60 and our facbeook likes never went above 10, half of which are my own real-world friends who don’t even read comics) they must be doing something right. Kneon is also capable of writing some damn good articles, if his investigation of TopWebcomics rankings is any indication (which can, and should be, read here: http://shadowbinders.com/2012/02/09/topwebcomics-com-the-elephant-in-the-room/) but as for his comic itself, I can’t say it caught me.

Monday, February 27, 2012

Once Upon a Time on the Internet

I follow three websites. There are plenty of websites I read for one reason or another - webcomics, news, video, video games - but there are only three websites I actually follow in the sense that the website itself is such an immersive experience that it can't simply be dipped into, it must be explored.

The most recent addition is Cracked, which trades in pop culture, humor and forgotten obscurities, which I picked up on last year. The second is The Onion, the online arm of a national satirical newspaper, which I've read since 2006.

And that leaves the last one - the beautifully, ecstatically, ridiculously bewildering mess that is Something Awful, where "The Internet Makes You Stupid."

I was introduced to Something Awful in 2003. It defies description now as it defies description then, but the description being defied has changed over the years, sort of like the transformation, under heat and pressure, of coal to slightly more compact coal. This is what the site looked like in early 2003 (specifically March 26, 2003):

And here's what it looks like today, February 27, 2012 (without the ads engaged):

Since it showcases such a wide variety of material, the logical analogy for Something Awful is a television station, but I can't think of any kind of programming block that corresponds. It's sort of like a public-access channel run by middle schoolers inside the Twilight Zone, except the twist is that you've actually dreamed the whole thing and the dreams are coming from inside the house.

How do you classify, say, today's feature article, PC-COP!, in which "International strengthman Hyurgi Tigerwoods endorses his cousin's new PC accelerator and anti-virus software, PC-COP"? In the off-chance that the link doesn't work or you don't have the time to explore, the synopsis is that a Russian Internet huckster, who has previously sourced some of the finest Soviet castoffs for American buyers, is now pitching a poorly cloaked piece of spyware that costs $9.99 per week.

What the hell kind of category do you file THAT under? Going through the archives, it turns out I'm not the only one with this trouble:

From SA founder Rich "Lowtax" Kyanka: "Tee hee. Check out the description of Something Awful over at Backbeat Media (thanks to Kerplunk for notifying me of this):

Something Awful is a news, information, and entertainment site for the PC gaming community. The site features news, columns, reviews, chat rooms, and forums dealing with PC games and game related products. SA's often comic, satirical spin on the gaming industry has built an extremely loyal community of site enthusiasts that continues to grow by the day.

"Poor guys. I can just imagine the meeting when they were trying to come up with an accurate description of this site.

" Backbeat Person #1: Hmmm, so what are we going to write about Something Awful? I mean, our other sites like Firewire World and The Mac Observer are easy to explain; they're about Firewire and Macs. What's Something Awful about?
"Backbeat Person #2: I have no clue (pulling up Something Awful on their computer). He has some 1,000 word diatribe on the front page detailing how he thinks his ass stopped growing around junior high school and now he thinks it's getting larger again.
"Backbeat Person #1: Dear Lord. Oh well, click around the site a bit and see what else is on there.
"Backbeat Person #2: Some person named "Jeff K." is calling all his readers "fagots" and writing death threats to game designers.
"Backbeat Person #1: (kills himself)"

"Jeff K." doesn't update anymore, but he's far from the last fake character to speak through the site, as Hyurgi Tigerwoods (actually long-time writer Zack Parsons) can attest. Joining the ranks of the the active and forgotten are cantankerous bastard Cliff Yablonski, fake lawyer Leonard J. Crabs, a heavily fictionalized version of Levi Johnston, Roamin' Dad and more. I don't even like all of this stuff - some of it is bewildering and some of it is offensive - but I've been reading for nine years now and I still can't tell you what I'm looking at. And it takes talent to keep a person bewildered that long.

Mind you, I was thirteen when I started reading this stuff, but I'm still amazed at least every other day by what they come up with. I was devestated when I figured out that Leonard Crabs wasn't a real attorney, but it's okay because he lives on in each of us. Also I probably shouldn't have been reading this stuff when I was 13, but there's nothing to do about it now.

Despite trading on humor, some of the site's best stuff is the really esoteric material Zack Parsons comes up with. He has a deft hand in comedy - as his participation in site projects Fashion SWAT and WTF, D&D!? shows - but his real strength comes in science fiction.

I first took notice of this in a bizarre serial called "That Insidious Beast," which attempts to shake the reader with each new installment by changing formats, narrators and subject matter at a blistering pace. The grainy picture that emerges, of "a world not quite our own," is one of the most beautifully disturbing things I've ever seen.

Parsons is now working on a book called Liminal States, which appears to be even more terrifyingly indescribable than "That Insidious Beast." The title itself is ominous because it doesn't say a damn thing; a "liminal state," as best I can tell, is a period of transition. A change.

I've already seen once that a man who can make something hilarious yet impossible to describe can also take away the "hilarious" part and leave the indescribable behind. Despite the immersiveness of the Internet, and the gregariousness of SA in general, all his science fiction stories make you feel like you're walking home on a rainy day and you've found something by the side of the road - something you're not sure you should touch...

As effuse as I've just been, I don't believe I've ever written about Something Awful before, though I tend to read the Hyurgi Tigerwoods installments out loud to my fiancee. The only thing stopping me from dropping the $10 and joining their forum is that they don't take kindly to furries. I don't actually consider myself a furry, but considering the webcomic I write for, it's a distinction that would be understandably hard to make.

And also I don't have $10 right now.

But when I do, I'm going to snap up a copy of Liminal States. No ebook for me, thanks; I'll take the paperback copy so I can shove it in between Earth Abides and Night Slaves.

I spend enough time around technology as it is. After all, the internet makes you stupid.

Sunday, February 12, 2012

What's in a Name?

Here's an article I've been meaning to write for awhile: Where the characters in Our World got their names.

When I joined the project, the four main characters - Jillian Whitecross, Peter Whitecross, Alexis Wilder and Art Canfield - all had first names, and only Art lacked a last name. All the other characters were named by me, and so they all bear my markings on one way or another.

The last name Canfield actually came from a book I read, called Under a Green Sky, in which author Peter Ward describes an Earth violently different from our own. This Earth is far hotter than our own, and as presented in the narrative as both a kind of Ghost of Christmas Past and Ghost of Christmas Future - what may come to pass if the atmosphere continues to warm. One of the bizarre side effects of a warmer Earth in the past (and future?) is the depletion of oxygen in the world's oceans. Without oxygen, the aerated ocean we know and love gives way to a "Canfield ocean" populated by anaerobic bacteria. The hydrogen sulfide they produce would, according to the book, lead to the green sky mentioned in its title.

When I was reading this, in the spring or summer of 2010, I was still hammering out the details for the first plot arc in Our World, in which we meet Art's uncle Art, the realtor. And suddenly a very oblique joke clicked together in my head: Canfield Ocean Estates.

Don't worry; I never expected anybody to get that; the concept of the Canfield ocean isn't particularly well-known. In fact, it's so obscure that after "Canfield Ocean Estates" went up we actually began getting hits on it from Google. It is, at least for now, on the first page of Google results for the phrase "Canfield ocean." Go figure.

Hank was originally based on a very quiet guy I worked with in 2009 named Henry (hence the name relation; I had to keep stopping myself from calling Henry Hank). Henry, who also worked in the loading bay of a department store, didn't have that undertone of got-to-get-it-done grimness Hank does. I did have a later coworker at a different job who did, though. His name was... Frank. That, at least, is a coincidence. I think.

Lisa and Clyde, Jill's coworkers, were named separately, though I now realize there's a sort of "Bonnie and Clyde" vibe to them. Lisa was named because "Lisa" seemed like a good name, but Clyde was named "Clyde" because I was playing a lot of Pac Man around the time I needed a name for Jill's other coworker. Kuurion picked out last names for them when he did "Meet the Metallurgist," though.

Milo Dedicoat, an apparent prisoner of whatever organization once had custody of Jill, is actually named after a character of the same name in a screenplay I wrote in 2005 called High Panache. (I tried to have my fellow college students make it into a movie that same year, after writing the entire thing during the summer. It almost happened.) His odd last name has its own origin story: My father had found a page in some company report containing a list of ranking company officers, all of whom had really weird last names. Knowing I was a writer, he gave me the page to use for characters. Several of the odd names worked their way into the script at one point or another, but the only one that ended up staying was "Dedicoat" as the last name of the protagonist.

And, speaking of Milo, we conclude with the nigh-unpleasable Trilby Dobler, whom he is shown delivering orders to at the beginning of chapter 2. Her name is what happens when you pencil in a name as a placeholder and become attached to it without knowing. Her name comes from an awesomely bad and spectacularly obscure movie called Lords of the Deep, which is set on the ocean floor in the dystopian future. It features, among other terrible caricatures, Commander Dobler and a control computer called Trilby. I had settled on "Trilby" before "Dobler," but after saying them together long enough it stuck.

That's not all of the names, but those are the ones that have backstories. And there you have it! Get off my lawn.

Friday, February 10, 2012

Always on the Eve of Destruction

According to Wikipedia, the Iraq War lasted from March 20, 2003 until December 18, 2011. On March 20, 2003, I was a student in middle school. On December 18, 2011, I was a college graduate employed in my field and engaged to be married.

I have not known an America without war since my childhood. Even if America is done in Iraq, there is always the question of Afghanistan, a conflict that continues to rumble in the background. But that's for me, as an American; things are far more wretched from the other end of the telescope. Afghanistan has been at war since 1978, against the Soviet Union (1979-1989), the US (2001 - present), and itself throughout. You can read the details here, but basically what we think of as the War in Afghanistan is actually the third act in a very long and bloody play. It somehow gets worse when you find out that the average life expectancy there is about 44 years and you suddenly realize that there aren't going to be that many people who can clearly remember a time before there was war.

If that previous sentence didn't bum you out, you're welcome to look at Wikipedia's list of modern conflicts in the Middle East, which runs from 1918 to the present. War is more common than the lack of war.

And so, at last, we arrive at the present and find that the United States and Israel are engaged in an increasingly tense standoff with Iran over the latter's nuclear ambitions. If you ask the Iranians what they're doing in underground laboratories with uranium, they'll tell you that they're working on a nuclear reactor for the generation of electricity. The other two openly suspect that the Iranians might be building an atom bomb. The politics of it all get so much more complicated after that that nobody really knows what will happen next. And that's bad.

I hope this doesn't sound too detached, but how much more war can this part of the world take? And how much more can the United States take? The 1990s were tremendously dull for me when they happened, but now I can't help but think how nice it would be to live in a country that's not at war somewhere. We have too many problems here at home to afford another war, and yet there is a point beyond which not fighting is worse than fighting. The problem with that is that no two people can ever agree on where that point is - and, in this case, the stakes are exceptionally high.

EDIT: I've just learned that Anonymous is reporting (but not taking credit for) the disabling of the CIA's website, which explains why I couldn't use it to check Afghanistan's life expectancy rate a few minutes ago (I ended up using Wikipedia). In the spirit of looking at what a fantastic and frightening place the world is, take a few minutes to read this article about the rise of the Guy Fawkes mask as a symbol of rebellion. It may be coming soon to a street near you.

Thursday, February 9, 2012

Back to Myeh

On Wednesday, the nice people at DeviantArt let me have my account back. After being locked out since 2009, I finally gave up trying to remember which password and email I had and managed to prove to them that I was me.

In addition to some photographs and bad fan art (I cannot, and never could, draw), I produced what is arguably my finest visual creation: A fantasy novel-style map of the Kingdom of Myeh. Behold!

Wednesday, February 8, 2012

Wednesday Webcomic Review 3: Nerf This

I was a fool to think I could escape my own work ethic, even for a weekend. I’m currently in the car on a road trip up the mountains for New Year’s, where 10 people are going to sleep in an area fit for 4 at most. Awesome times – but that damn nagging in the back of my head won’t let me ignore my homework. I blame you for this, mother!

So that being said, let’s launch into my second webcomic review: Nerf This.

First off, this is not a gaming comic. I was a tad confused for the first dozen or so pages when no video game references came up, because to a former hardcore online game player (mostly World of Warcraft) “Nerf” means to weaken through a patch. Nerfing something is making it less potent.

But the comic brought it up in a scene about nerf bats. Good, I was glad to have that cleared up so I could actually read it for what it WAS, not what I was expecting it to be.

And what Nerf This is, is pretty funny. It’s one of those gag-a-day-while-still-having-a-story comics. (I don’t know if actually updates every day, I read comics by the archives) Scott Ferguson is pretty good at injecting a joke into almost any situation, even the tense and dramatic ones where humor doesn’t belong. It definitely breaks the tenseness of the moment, but in a good way that doesn’t feel awkward so much as just the right amount of silly, and in that sense it’s good to see that Nerf This is very self-aware. It’s a joke strip, and he does whatever the hell he wants within it but always gets that laugh nonetheless, on par at least with Jeph Jacques of Questionable Content in that regard. (one of my favourites that I’ll get to one day).

It wasn’t always like that though, there were a few times during the earlier archives when my “I’m not laughing” face came out and had to push forward through the page, trusting that the next one would make it up. This might be because it was relying on the 'safe' bet of over-the-top crazy humor, which (and this is a personal preference) I've seen far too many times. That being said, there were still laughs to be had (particularly with the Koalas – they're on his cast page.) I don’t fault Scott for the choice, start with what works until you can find your niche, I’m just stating it for what it is. The first few pages themselves are interesting, setting the tone as a silly gag strip (by means of a senior’s UFC league) and creates a curiosity for the 4 or 5 pages it goes on, and I'm glad to say that the more recent comics about the main cast seem to be more grounded in realism (or at least the sense of realism that comes with the story.) Soon after the UFC League is the introduction of Monty, who may or may not be the main character, I’m not sure. It’s his mug shot on the logo, and he has the first entry on the cast page, but he’s also a 6-inch tall monster that can only say “SKEEEE”. It doesn’t really matter, because he’s still awesome, and I’m a bit surprised at just how many different things “SKEEEEE!” can mean in context.

Mostly any eye-rolling induced was due to the other contender for main character, Chase Connors. He’s a typical social misfit, typically taken up to the point of being unable to realistically function in society. It’s shocking that he maintains any friends at all, who seem indifferent to his shenanigans at best if not outright repulsed by them, which gives me a sense of inconsistency (a pet peeve). His kind of over-the-top humor usually fails to tickle my funny bone, because it’s not even clever, it’s just weird for weird’s sake (and relies too much on penis and sex jokes, which might work for a younger audience; I’m 22 and gamed online, that stuff is beyond stale to me). Chase works works well as the setup for a joke, and in that he’s valuable, but he doesn’t handle punch lines well. He’s also Monty’s owner, so blegh. Can’t have one without the other. As with the rest of the comic, it does seem to be getting better, but mostly because comics as of late have been dealing with a large story problem and he’s always around other people.

Back to some good stuff. Chase has a girlfriend, and she has a dad. That dad is awesome. Mr. Mills is, if I recall correctly, a lumberjack, (Correction: Upon making it home and editing this with internet access, he's a simple adventurer-for-hire) whose beard is capable of sparkling. Also, he wrestles bears. He seems like the only one who actually outright detests Chase, which leads to plenty of awkward <sigh> moments; a bad sigh for him, but funny for us, because it’s only funny if someone suffers, right? Scott has a penchant for “gentlemanly” humor to boot, and there’s very little that can’t be improved with a top hat and old English mannerisms. And about half the time, it’s done by animals.

On that front, a lot of his comics as of late have been of the non-sequitor type. One side-story tells some of the events around the villain’s origins, using clipped greyscale photos of old Englishmen with eyepatches. The other two are straight-up off the wall, one of which is jokes involving the maker himself and his cadre of gentlemanly animals (and a chicken whore), and lastly a series involving the forces within Chase’s head, appropriately labeled such things as “Emotion” “Logic” and “Repressed Rage”. The fact that base emotions like that can take on characteristics all to themselves (as simple as they may be) is clever and ridiculously obvious once someone else has thought of it. Doubtless caused a dozen or so hands to flail upwards with a “Why didn’t I think of that?!”

Anyways, where was I going with that? Right, these comics have been more common than the story comics lately. I wonder if it’s a coincidence that it lined up with the resolution of the big villain story arc; maybe he’s got nowhere to go from here and is posting silly fillers until he can find a direction? I’ll still keep checking, because it’s still funny as hell, but I hope whatever writer’s block he has gets figured out soon. I miss Monty.

Lastly, since I’m an artist, I can’t let a comic go without a word on the art. Art can legitimately make or break a comic for me; good art will catch my attention and get me started on reading, and bad art can defile my eyes with every page to the point that I cannot go on, regardless of the quality of writing. Nerf This starts out very simple and cartoony (complete with Stretch Armstrong rubber limbs), but it was just talent unrefined. As time has gone on, Scott's style has evolved drastically, but don’t let the beginning art turn you off. It’s pushed forward to something wonderful, with lots of heavy shading and an overall more earthy tone, further grounding the feel in “reality”. The same style is used in another of his comics, Scout Crossing, and perhaps lends itself much more to that environment, where the gritty tones and dark shadows can flourish with full pages as opposed to the physical confines of a joke strip. I am very excited for Scout Crossing and will follow it with high expectations – once there’s a bit more to the archives, I’ll add it to my review list.

Summing it up, Nerf This is definitely worth checking out – it doesn’t fall into any one category or niche, and can be enjoyed by anyone with a sense of humor younger than the 70’s. It’s funny, it’s very clever, and is guaranteed to get you giggling once it gets going. (ooh, alliteration. That wasn’t even intentional!) Check it out here: http://nerf-this.com/

Tuesday, February 7, 2012

Felix Baumgartner, Master of the Stratosphere

I'd just like to take a moment of your day to remind you that the human race has never stopped pushing the boundaries of what will kill it. If you haven't bare-knuckle boxed another species today, it's your loss.

Felix Baumgartner will soon be attempting what he hopes to be the longest fall anybody ever survived. The Austrian, who has a history of base jumping and sky diving, will be jumping out of a balloon at 120,000 feet at some point in the near but unspecified future. This according to the BBC. Baumgartner's Wikipedia page has a remarkable number of "citation needed" marks for its short length, probably indicating... something cool, I guess.

I'd never heard of the man before today, and so I'm leery of simply heaping praise upon him, but he's looking to break the sound barrier on the way down, and that is just sweet. If successful, the BBC says, he'll be the first human to do that without the aid of a machine. Here, look at this graph they made:

That old record? Made by a man named Joseph Kittinger, a member of the United States Air Force who set his record as part of Project Excelsior. His Wikipedia page also apparently requires citations. He was a POW in the Vietnam War - and is part of Baumgartner's team. I like to imagine that whenever the two men are in a room at the same time a voice in the distance yells "XTREME!"

Look at that graph again. 120,000 feet is 36.5 kilometers (thanks, BBC). The atmosphere is divided into layers, and we and almost everything else live in the troposphere, the lowermost layer, which has breathable oxygen and weather. Baumgartner will be almost three-quarters of the way through his trip by the time he punches through the tropopause and reenters what we typically think of as the atmosphere. He'll have a pressurized suit and a parachute, but Kittinger says he'll still be saying a prayer. In a slightly earlier draft of the plan, it was expected that Baumgartner would be falling for 35 seconds before breaking the sound barrier, something the human body was never intended to do.

Baumgartner (left) and Kittinger.

The only living things that exist at 120,000 feet are microbes, and it's thought they might just be in stasis. No living thing wants a piece of the stratosphere. Nobody but the humans, and very few of them.

So thanks, stratosphere skydivers. You'll make us look that much cooler when the aliens arrive and we need to present our accomplishments.

Friday, January 27, 2012

The Death of the Zombie

The zombie is one of America's great cultural institutions - and it is dying. Of course, it will never stay dead, but its revival and passing tell us something about the state of our age.

Urban Dead

Malton is dying. For real this time.

A city born in death, the home town of text-based MMORPG Urban Dead is pretty much empty now, seven years after it came online. It consists of a grid of buildings - 100 suburbs in the city, 100 blocks in a suburb. According to the game's stat log page, there are 11,732 active characters, or a little more than one per block. When the game was young there were five times that many. But Malton is dying a slow death, and an odd one at that, because the zombies never managed to kill all the survivors.

On the contrary, the survivors dominate the game in numbers - as they have for most of its run. They seem content to sit out the death of their city quietly as they go offline, one by one. Even the game's creator seems to be losing interest as additions and modifications become rarer and rarer.

Cultural consensus on any one thing is rare, but the internet seems to be leading the way on the death of the zombie. Cracked.com's Dan O'Brien, the site's editor, wrote in May that he felt zombies had jumped the shark because the CDC had written an article on how to best survive an attack by the living dead:


There are all kinds of emergencies out there that we can prepare for. Take a zombie apocalypse for example. That’s right, I said z-o-m-b-i-e a-p-o-c-a-l-y-p-s-e. You may laugh now, but when it happens you’ll be happy you read this, and hey, maybe you’ll even learn a thing or two about how to prepare for a real emergency.

Now, what does that sound like? Exactly: Someone trying desperately to use a "cool" cloaking to teach you something useful. O'Brien reached the same conclusion and was even less forgiving about it:

But here's my question: Why the shit should the Centers for freaking Disease Control and Prevention care about going viral? I get that the Internet is a big huge thing, and a lot of people spend a lot of time online -- but that doesn't mean every business and organization needs to try to connect with the Internet on its level, especially an organization that's genuinely important.

Yes, the CDC broke down and tried to appeal to us on our level, and we spurned them for it.

Generally speaking, a fad collapses when the bandwagon gets so top-heavy that it falls over (graphic). That's what happened here. Mind you, the damage is still fresh enough that a really good zombie movie could save it, but the vultures are already circling. Consider this post from SomethingAwful.com. Unfortunately I can't copy and paste any of the text because everything's in the form of images, but the gist is that the people who still like zombies are idiots.

Something Awful

Also that Cracked (shown here as "Skewed") is the bathroom in the internet's Chuckle Hut. Which is half true, but they're missing the nuance.

The first wave of modern zombie culture was born out of Night of the Living Dead, a movie made in 1968 by a man named George A. Romero in Pennsylvania. It's awesome, and you should watch it if you haven't already. It didn't look like much, and it showed. But the story is somehow that much more unsettling for it.


Romero topped himself a decade later (after a few more horror movies and a purportedly awful comedy called There's Always Vanilla that I dearly want to see) with a sequel called Dawn of the Dead that was everything I loved about the original along with sparkling color and the garish sensibilities of the late 1970s.

These were the golden years of the zombie, and they carried over to 1985 when the last two good original zombie films came out: Romero's Day of the Dead and an odd genre parody called Return of the Living Dead. The zombie concept was concrete enough to allow self-analysis and self-parody. And then it pretty much went away.

And that was the first death of the zombie. It had blended into the popular consciousness enough that me and everyone else in Generation Y grew up knowing that zombies are dead people (Night of the Living Dead) who hunger for brains (Return of the Living Dead). But there was nothing new under the gravestone until 2004, when the zombie rose again.

Romero got back behind the camera and came out with Land of the Dead, and I wish I could say it was good. More importantly, Shaun of the Dead, a send-up of virtually every zombie movie to date (including not-quite-zombie-movies Evil Dead and 28 Days Later) came out, along with an unnecessary but surprisingly good remake of Dawn of the Dead.


The zombie also made cultural inroads to text, with the publication of Max Brooks' Zombie Survival Manual in 2003. I honestly didn't think that much of it, but Brooks knocked it out of the park in 2006 with World War Z. The new wave of zombie popularity even became self-sustaining; in 2009 Zombieland came out, a movie whose creators credited Shaun of the Dead as an inspiration.

But now, at last, the well runs dry. Romero made two more movies, Diary of the Dead and Survival of the Dead, which continued a trend of diminishing returns for him. And that's a shame, in my opinion, because I love George Romero. He's the grandfather figure who also makes horror movies. Zombies just might not be his thing anymore.


World War Z is being made into a movie and there's a sequel to Zombieland in the works, so the zombie might yet get back up, but it seems to be general consensus now that we're as sick of zombies as we are of vampires. But, of course, you can't keep a dead man down. Give it another 20 years; they'll be back.