Wednesday, October 26, 2016

Superhero Media: Voltron - Legendary Defender

Confession time; I never watched any Voltron series growing up. Really, I know it must have been in re-runs, but I guess I just never came across it. When I saw this series come up on Netflix, I though I'd give it a go and see how I felt about it, free from nostalgia or any major preconceptions. It was alright, not amazing, but entertaining enough, certainly better than some of the things I've reviewed here. The space battles, though a bit sparse in the series, look really good and the characters manage to be more than a collection of cliches, though not by much. Perhaps I'm a little spoiled by children's television like Gravity Falls and The Mr. Peabody & Sherman Show, but I guess I was hoping for just a little bit more than what I got. If all you need for a good time is giant robots beating the living hell out of each other, then strap in and prepare to assemble Voltron, because this series will deliver. 

The one thing that really knocked my socks off was a character named Pidge, a slight, nerdy, science expert with a secret; he is a she. What is good about this is that Pidge's ruse is done not to avoid misogynistic policies in the military, but as a masquerade because she has already infiltrated them more than once and is seen as a menace. Best of all, when the truth is revealed, Pidge doesn't suddenly change into a different character, she comes out of her shell slightly, because the ruse is no longer necessary, but mostly remains unchanged. The idea that personality is not defined by gender identity or sex is not explored in enough children's entertainment, but hopefully this example sparks others and characters like Pidge become the rule rather than the exception. 

This first series is definitely setting up for the second, the enemy is too big to deal with in the episodes allotted and the team spends a great deal of time learning how to get their Lions working properly. There is potential here, for something perhaps more than a programme about five giant robot lions coming together to form Voltron and smack down alien monsters. Will it get there? Who knows? I'm not even sure if I'll check out the second season myself, but for those who want to see Voltron fly again, with new animation and deeper characters than the '80s sub allowed for, then this may just be the ticket.

Tuesday, October 25, 2016

Thinking Out Loud: The View from the Trenches

Something that keeps popping into my mind from time to time is the idea of what it must be like to be "on the ground" during a superhero fight and how that can be replicated on the tabletop, be it with miniatures or in a storytelling game. Some recent superhero films have tried to capture this, noticeably Dawn of Justice, The Avengers and Chronicle, with civilian death-tolls reaching Emmerich levels in a genre previously reserved for children's entertainment. A line from Ultimates 2 keeps popping into my head; "Super-people break normal people's bones", Hank Pym retorts to Loki as the collateral damage ramps up. Just take a look at Man of Steel, the bodies pile up quickly in the Supes/Zod fight, but it's not until Dawn of Justice that the weight of rubble and death is laid out in the unvarnished light of day. If we're to elevate superheroes out of the sub-genre ghetto and tell truly adult stories with these characters, shouldn't the human cost of battling evil be truly examined? And I don't mean a The Boys style look at human foibles played to superhuman levels, I mean an honest look at what a world populated with heroes and villains looks like for the ordinary people just trying to get by without having a car thrown at them. 

The (almost blindingly) obvious suggestion that springs to mind is Marvels, the Marvel limited series showing the Gold and Silver ages of their comics through the eye of Phil Sheldon, freelance photographer for the Daily Bugle and war correspondent. The iconic image of Giant Man stepping over a New York boulevard that Phil shoots really captures the scale and power of the heroes that stalk Manhattan. Also worth noting is that Phil loses an eye early on in the piece as a result of the major Human Torch/Namor fight that forms the climax of Issue #1, yet Phil is not made bitter or resentful by his experience, he, in fact is resolved to be the greatest proponent that the "Marvels" have in the press. Although having a civilian in the MU actually like heroes is somewhat unique, I get the feeling that it still doesn't capture the whole story. What is it like to be meters away from a man just hanging in the air, or a woman crushing a car with her mind, or an alien fading from view? I'm not certain that my Aquaman Underoos would survive intact, know what I mean? Is there anything out there that can covey those feelings of powerlessness and fear yet still be engaging as a narrative beyond personal horror? 

If you get the chance, check out the opening hour of Metal Gear Solid V: The Phantom Pain; it features an amnesiac Big Boss fleeing a hospital as a team of mercenaries and two superhumans chase him. For the first time, I experienced the kind of fear that I always imagined shot through the poor bastards that just got splattered with brains as the Green Goblin lobs pumpkin bombs into the crowd to distract Spider-man. Scrabbling around, unarmed and outmatched as a flaming monster in the shape of a man shrugs off bullets and punches through brick walls, it doesn't matter how strong, fit or deadly the Big Boss is, he is but an ant next to someone with that much power. Is that what Snyder was trying to capture in his grim-yet-bland DCU films? Now I want to go back to Marvels and other sources and see what else I can find that builds on this idea. How scared would the average person be in the presence of Green Lantern, let alone Thor, Invincible or Stardust the Superwizard? Most importantly, how can I capture this on the tabletop? Plenty more consideration of this to come. 

Monday, October 24, 2016

Superhero Media: Dragonball Z - Season 3

This time, I'll admit it straight out, there's an elephant in the room and his name is Frieza. Don't get me wrong, Frieza is easily one of the best villains in the entire Dragonball canon, he has a good backstory, motivation and is both smart and powerful enough to legitimately threaten any of our heroes. The problem is that mistranslation, both in terms of language and cultural tropes, renders the ultimate fight between Frieza and Goku overly long and repetitive. I get it, when you were watching this on a weekday morning before school, this fight didn't just go for a couple of hours, it went for a couple of weeks and you felt gypped that it never seemed to end. Frankly, grow up. You're not an awkward tween anymore, you can stream or binge all the television you want, when you want, so grow the fuck up and binge DBZ out again and take a second look, it's actually pretty good. 

What many forget, and I confess I had forgotten, is that the Frieza saga and Goku's transformation into Super Saiyan is not merely the culmination of the 100-odd episodes of DBZ that have come before it, but also of everything that has happened since Bulma hit Goku with a car back in the very first episode of Dragonball. It's the next major step in a 20-odd-year journey and is a big damn deal for a little while. All that taken into account, I will admit that the Frieza fight drags on far too long, but, then again, I'll say that about most fights, even Goku/Vegeta and Gohan/Cell. The Frieza "five minutes" comment is annoying, and not easily ignored as it keeps getting hammered home like a major plot point, it's a shame because Frieza is really one of the best villains in the programme. A super-powerful space dictator whose strength as meant that he has never truly been challenged, his ego is such that he cannot even contemplate defeat and still refuses to admit that he's beaten when cut in half and bleeding out. That massive ego up against Goku's natural humility is a great match-up, no wonder he keeps coming back. 

As much as I love Dragonball Z, the Frieza saga drags, not as much as all the Buu stuff later on, but still. However, unlike some other parts of the programme, there's pretty much no work-around, you have to watch it to get the story, even many of the episodes that drag on far too long. Frieza and Super Saiyans are important yardsticks for the rest of the series and the title fight is actually really good, just padded out the wazoo. Not much more to say here, I like it, I don't love it, but it's pivotal and if it's a deal-breaker for you, maybe just give DBZ as a whole a miss and try something else, One Punch Man maybe?

Thursday, October 20, 2016

Coming Soon to a Table Near You!

Reposted from my wargames club's Facebook group: 

In order to get some people playing some SuperSystem, I'm proposing a little "mini-campaign" in the months of November and December. Nothing terribly involved, just teams of three characters and playing a handful of games over the seven meetings that fall in the given months. Think something along the lines of "Contest of Champions" or "Secret Wars"; a big goofy crossover relying more upon showy splash-panels than actual plot. I'll be posting up on my blog about the games we play and probably laying over some Silver Age justification. 

As I said, we'll start with three-character teams, so easy to build up a team or find some already in your collection. I'm happy to help with some of the stats, but I'm not doing it all for you sorry. 

Need some inspiration? I dug through the web for some "left-field" team ideas and put them here.

 Nazi Occultists, classic pulp villains, ready to menace the free world! 

 The Ghostbusters (any version) make a perfect team, the similar power-set can be used with slight differences to have a team that work well together. 

 Voodoo priest, cultists and zombies, not only a lot of fun, but there are already heaps of comic examples to draw on. 

 I'm not a huge fan of the pop-culture team-up in general, as it often comes across as goofy (see the above LXG April Fool's for example), but they can be fun if they make enough sense.
Problematic recent film aside, the Suicide Squad has an interesting history and the "Supervillain Dirty Dozen" idea has been around in a variety of forms since the Silver Age. If you're better at being bad than good, this is a pretty fun option. 
Movie Monsters have been part of comics since the beginning, getting shoved into the Marvel and DC universes thanks to Lee and Kirby being just the right kind of crazy. They don't have to be Hammer classics either, Aliens, Terminator and Predator have all fought the likes of Batman and the Avengers. 
Sometimes it seems like I'm the only person that likes Martial Arts superheroes anymore. Ok, so Dragonball Z is not to everyone's tastes, but what about Kung Fu, TNMT or Iron Fist? Lots of potential here for fun games and characters. 

A few of other points to note;

1. A typical game of SS4 takes between 30 and 60 minutes if we all know at least vaguely how to play, so we don't have to give up Frostgrave, Warmachine or any of our regular games. 

2. Teams of henchmen run from 5+ and count as one "character". 

3. For those who don't have the book, I recommend Lulu Print-on-Demand, just make sure to get SuperSystem 4th Edition by Scott Pyle and David Lewis. 

4. For those that do have it, try making an 85 point character or two, we can change down the track if we want to, so don't feel locked in to the first effort. 

5. Taking any suggestions for a name for our "Crossover Event", something like the classic Secret Wars or Crisis on Infinite Earths

6. At the moment, I'm considering having a big finale game on the last meeting of the year, let me know what you think. 


Wednesday, October 19, 2016

Superhero Media: Cleverman - Season 1

In Australia, there is a political satire and commentary news programme called Shaun Micallef's MAD AS HELL, which, as well as being on the same broadcast network as Cleverman, likes to poke fun at the quality dramas that said network produces. The parody name for their take on Cleverman was "Too Cleverman by Half" and it turns out they were pretty much bang-on. Before I get too far on with this, there's some background that the international audience need to be aware of, the marsupial lion in the room, the history of genocide and cultural steamrolling of the indigenous peoples of Australia and the Torres Strait. Did you know that it was legal for a landowner to shoot a trespassing Aboriginal Australian in some parts of Queensland until the 1980s? So many lives, so much culture and even whole languages have been lost to colonialism and repeated government-mandated attempts to wipe out the native peoples of the country and an official apology was only issued by the Prime Minister less than a decade ago. So you may understand, that, what is essentially, the first big-budget contemporary Aboriginal Australian television production really needed to be something special. 

So why all the uncomfortable political background? Well, Cleverman isn't really that good, but to say so feels a tad bigoted in a climate where the difference in life expectancy between Aboriginal and non-aboriginal Australians is measured in decades. Set in a dystopian near-future Australia, the emergence of the "Hairy Peoples", super-strong, bestial and slightly-furry humans, from the native population has caused fear and cultural friction. Our protagonist, Koen, makes a living smuggling Hairies out of their ghetto then dobbing them in for the reward money, at least until his uncle turns up and grants him the mantle of "Celeverman", an Australian Aboriginal equivalent of shaman or witch doctor. Koen, of course, does not want the role and spends most of the series avoiding his responsibilities and denying his burgeoning super-powers. Therein lies the true problem of Cleverman, in Campbell's terms, Koen spends the entire series refusing the call to action, at least until the last episode, which plays more like a trailer for season two than an actual finale.

It's frankly a shame that Cleverman turned out the way it did, many elements of the programme are very interesting. The setting, for example, is intriguing, did Australia go fascist at some point? If do, how did that happen? Why are the hairy people being victimised? There are are couple of comments about "Hairy Terrorists", but we're never shown any evidence of this on a large enough scale to warrant such an extreme political reaction. Was there some kind of Australian 9-11? If so, what was it and how does it impact the country? Also, the elements of Aboriginal Australian spirituality are really interesting, but remain unexplained and are mostly confusing, even to a mythology nerd like me. There is potential in Cleverman, but it fails to be realised, hopefully it comes to something greater in the future and an Australian equivalent of The Falcon, Black Panther and American Eagle takes their place on the global Superhero stage. 

Tuesday, October 18, 2016

Guardians of the Frozen City - Part I

The Frostgrave campaign got off to a start, finally, and the Guardians were out hunting for treasures in the ruins. Because of the number of players, I needed to use my necropolis terrain, so not all of the action was frozen and sadly, not too many pictures were taken. I hope the brief description will tide you guys over enough until the second round. 

"What d'you make of this place Warlock?" Peter Quill pulled the helmet from his head and dusted off the rapidly melting snow. 
"Perhaps some kind of lingering enchantment protects this area from the elements?" puzzled Adam Warlock, as he mystically probed the area with his Soul Gem. 
"But why a graveyard?" piped up Rocket, "d'ast creep if y'ask me." 
Before Cosmo could fire a telepathic retort at Rocket, the ground was peppered with arrows and a cry went out from behind a ruined church. 
"Stand thee away, unless thou seekest the wrath of the Eternal Champions!" 
"Did those apes just fling sticks at us?" demanded Gamora. 
"Arm up, Guardians!" Quill slammed his helmet back down and thumbed the safety off his blaster. 

The game was a simple treasure hunt, with six treasures up for grabs, the Guardians were able to grab two before my terrible rolling and the loss of Rocket mad discretion seem like the better option. As you can see, the monsters had a taste for Gamora, but she made a good accounting of herself, taking them all down without a scratch. 
Still not completely sold on the game, but my opponent is always fun to play and I know for a fact that it was my poor rolling that spoiled it for me this time (Adam didn't cast a single spell successfully!). Rocket will miss a game, but I had enough coin to hire on Drax, Mantis and Pip for a full warband. Hopefully the Guardians will be more victorious before too long. 

Monday, October 17, 2016

Superhero Media: Dragonball Z - Season 2

Ok, so here goes, despite your childhood memories of watching this every morning, the Namek and Ginyu sagas are actually pretty good. Sure, next season, we'll see the Frieza saga drag a bit, but the space travel, Dragonball hunting and Ginyu force fights of Season 2 are entertaining enough to warrant watching. There actually exists an element of the classic Dragonball styled adventure to it all, partly down to having Bulma around for the action, but also making a nice contrast to the previous season of grunting and slinging balls of energy at everyone. That said, when the fights do happen, they're pretty interesting for the most part, Ginyu in Goku's body gets a few laughs and Recoome repeats some of the themes we saw with Nappa in season one, right down to Goku taking him out in one hit and Vegeta finishing him off. It's a little disappointing that Namek isn't vastly visibly different from Earth, but the change of locale does cut the characters off from their normal support networks. 

As to Namek and the Nameks, as much as I prefer King Piccolo and Piccolo Junior being evil magical demons, as science fiction concepts, they're pretty unique; essentially a race of plant-based life forms that fit a natural synergy with their planet, growing "crops" not to feed themselves, but to reforest after a natural disaster. The Dragonballs exist not as devices for fulfillment of petty desires, but as a spiritual quest, with each being held by a village elder entrusted to give it only to the truly worthy. The wildlife is analogous to Earth, with giant crabs, dinosaurs and lizards, which give Bulma something to dodge when she gets stuck on her own. Although many find the Bulma subplot annoying, I feel that it marks a nice break from the fighting action because I'm one of those few DBZ fans that actually tunes in to see how the characters are doing. 
Season two of Dragonball Z is not the strongest of the bunch, it does feel padded in places, but overall I feel that it stands on it's own merits. Frieza is still a menacing unknown and the alien setting is brand new, super saiyans are only a legend and Tien, Yamcha, Piccolo and Chiaotzu training with King Kai remind us that, yes, they can keep up with Goku, to a certain extent. I get the sense that the series feels longer because it leads straight into the Frieza saga, so many mistake it all as one chunk from Vegeta fleeing Earth through to the Garlic Junior episodes, which is a mistake, but hey, I get it. If you have bitter memories because you haven't seen this stuff since school, maybe check it out one more time, just make sure you get the uncut DVD versions, not the broadcast stuff.