Wallpaper of the Week: Wolverine vs. Hulk

October 8, 2009

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FROM JASON’S DESKTOP — Well, that was a nice break.

I didn’t mean to take off the entire month of September. Sorry ’bout that. It’s not my fault — the siren lure of Netflix¬† is entirely to blame. I joined up in late July and, well, you’ve seen the posts slip.

There was also a slight obsession with Team Fortress 2. Expect another absence in November when Left 4 Dead 2 drops.

Netflix, though, has allowed me to catch up on a backlog of movies that I had wanted to see. Because I have been working nights, getting to the video rental store wasn’t an option. With streaming movies and delivery to my mailbox, that’s no longer a problem.

A few weeks ago, the mail brought me Hulk Vs., a double-feature released in January by Marvel. One flick shows Wolverine taking on Hulk while his old Department K enemies interfere. The other story on the disc has Loki possessing the Hulk in a plot to overthrow Asgard during the Odinsleep.

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The animation of neither is stellar; however, the action is something of a fanboy wet dream. The Wolverine tale is a throwback to the characters’ first run-in back in 1974 and features Lady Deathstrike, Deadpool (whose dialog was spot-on), Sabretooth, and Omega Red. Thor’s story is full of rainbows (oh, I hate the Asgard designs), and features the Enchantress, Sif, and even a trip to the underworld to visit Hela.

I was surprised to see a 7.1 rating for Hulk Vs. on IMDB. Personally, it was a guilty pleasure — a callback to my infantile love for the old Hulk television show. I would have rated the double-feature at about five out of 10. Maybe the Marvel fanboys have skewed the data. But I’d say that if you enjoyed some other direct-to-video comic adapatations (Ultimate Avengers, The Invincible Iron Man, Dr. Strange: The Sorcerer Supreme), then you’ll probably get a kick out of this one, too.

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Now, it took me a while to find some decent Hulk vs. Wolverine wallpapers, so enjoy these ones, aight? As always, click the thumbnail to enbiggen.

Part of the problem getting higher-quality desktops involved the demise of a certain chan aggregator — you might remember I was a fan — called 4scrape (RIP). Since it went belly-up, some brilliant netizens have delved into the source code and compiled their own 4scrape clones. The one I’ve latched onto is 4walled, which does the job pretty well despite some load time and formatting issues.


Wallpaper of the Week: Batman

June 19, 2009

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FROM JASON’S WALLPAPER FOLDER — There used to be Hercules, Arthur, Marduk, Beowulf, Conn of the Hundred Battles, Odin, Samson, Huangdi, Odysseus, and all the other heroes of ancient legend.

When you think about it, Batman is cut from the same literary cloth. Comic book characters are just modern mythological warrior-heroes. It’s enough to make you wonder whether Zeus was just a very popular-selling title of the time.

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And why does the Dark Knight resonate so well with us? Probably because he embodies good intentions clothed in lawlessness. Batman is an ends-justifies-the-means personification. He’s the animated Jack Bauer, carrying out swift street justice using the tools of evil — fear and pain and malice. He’s a natural (and as a vigilante, wrong) reaction to our overburdened, over-bureaucratized system.

So, because his goals are so honorable, we find ourselves rooting for Batman’s antisocial behavior, ignoring how illicit are his activities, how every criminal he captures would be released due to lack of proper arrest and Mirandizing, and how he quite possibly has split personalities or other forms of schizophrenia. We even justify his actions as moral instead of reclusively egoistic and dangerous.

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But that’s television for you.

It was that medium that lured me to Batman in 1992, with Batman: The Animated Series‘ “dark deco” styling and gritty storytelling. Here was a cartoon with noir pacing, relying more on the Bat’s detective skills and character development than explosions (though those were to be found as well).

Warner Bros. let Bruce Timm make a mature, sophisticated take on what superficially could be described as another “underwear” superhero; part of that came from elaborate and often sympathetic retellings of classic villains’ backstories. There were the go-to baddies, sure: Catwoman, Penguin, Joker, Two-Face, Poison Ivy, Mr. Freeze, The Riddler. But some of the best episodes of TAS focused on obscure ones such as the Clock King, Killer Croc, the Ventriloquist, HARDAC, Hugo Strange, Red Claw, and the Sewer King.

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And some of the most interesting twists came when the right question was posed: Was Batman really that different from the criminals he fought? Motive counts for a lot, true, but means and method are also very important. There’s also the Frank Miller alternative to¬† consider: Could Batman actually be insane?

While we’re thinking about Batman and comparative ethics, have some fun with these wallpapers, conveniently sized to 1024×768.


Read This: Inside-Outside by Philip Jose Farmer

June 12, 2009

insideoutside01FROM JASON’S REPLENISHED BOOKSHELF — Take heart, the banana-hammocks shown on the cover are never actually described inside the book. Or if they were, I repressed those memories.

No, what gets top priority description-wise in Philip Jose Farmer‘s Inside-Outside is the vicious, artificial world of Hell, where humans and demons suffer side-by-side.

It’s a cavernous and barren dessert domain, revealed mid-novel to actually be (spoilers here, folks) the hollowed inside of an asteroid where souls are imprisoned more or less as laboratory animals at the whim of a highly-advanced alien race.

In many ways, it’s a pre-treading of Farmer’s Riverworld Saga — not a re-treading, because he published Inside-Outside seven years prior to To Your Scattered Bodies Go. It also seems to foreshadow the route writer-director Alex Royas would take more than two decades later in Dark City (1998).

Farmer gets credit for being a master of American science fiction, but in my mind he’s not so much a crafter of great stories as he is a crafter of great fantasy settings. A good 80 percent of Inside-Outside is spent tromping through the bowels of Hell and meeting its challenges, not actually getting answers to the teleological puzzles the netherworld presents.

insideoutside02This is where Farmer succeeds: His version of the afterlife is like the third panel of Hieronymus Bosch’s The Garden of Earthly Delights brought to life. It’s debased. It’s surreal. It’s pain and doubt and vice at every turn.

But it’s also a tangible world ruled by its own peculiar physical laws, not some protoplasmic spiritual dimension, even though there are unearthly monsters a-plenty.

Corporeal though it is, Hell is lavished with religious iconography. I mentioned the demons; there is also a baffling and perhaps ghoulish Christ figure, stone idols, sewers filled with Inferno-esque denizens, the curse of eternal life through resurrection from the dead, machine-made “souls” reminiscent of Scientology’s so-called thetans, and (for all intents) omnipotent alien “gods” with their own agendas.

As well as Farmer creates his environment, he doesn’t do a terrific job of sculpting characters. There’s nobody to like in this novel. We have a protagonist, sure, but he’s a spiteful, violent, selfish brute. Jack Cull is not really a hero, although technically you could probably say he’s on a hero’s quest.

Cull is looking for hope, but by book’s end he does not find it — in fact, he finds the opposite, that he is doomed to help his masters subjugate other races to a grinding, pathetic Purgatorio for their own supposedly “ethical” but still very, very flawed reasons.

And it’s all due to a big mistake. With a big twist in the final 10 pages (again, spoilers), we find that Hell is not really the afterlife… Cull and everyone else are alien-made souls who have never lived, and who were injected with false memories of time on Earth. The planet has long since been destroyed by nuclear war, and there will never be more human babies born in which Cull and his companions’ souls may be placed.

Which makes for a fun trip down the peroverbial rabbit hole.

It’s a good read for atmosphere, if nothing else. And at just 169 pocket-sized pages, it’s a quick read (I think I buzzed through in five or six hours). That’s not bad for $1 spent on the spinner rack at my local Half Price Books.


Music Monday: The Gandharvas and The Commodores

December 29, 2008

The Gandharvas — Watching the Girl

I grew up in New York state, right across the St. Lawrence Seaway from Ontario, Canada. So most of my youth was spent listening to Canadian radio, which is required by Big Brother law to broadcast a certain amount of nationalistic propaganda made-in-Canada media content.

Living now in the heartland of America, it’s strange to casually mention any number of Canadian bands — Barstool Prophets, The Tragically Hip, The Gandharvas — and get slackjawed stares in return. A few here and there remember Our Lady Peace, but nobody in Ohio has heard of Econoline Crush or Cowboy Junkies.

So here, American friends. Let me act as an ambassador for my penguin-eating, maple-syrup-snorting, hockey-puck-humping, bomber-hat-and-flannel-wearing cousins in our 51st state to the north. Let me share with you a taste of the boys from London, Ontario, the pride of Toronto’s 102.1 The Edge.

Even in the band’s height (they broke up in 2000, shortly after I headed to college in the Great Lakes Region) they didn’t grab a whole lot of airtime. Watching the Girl seemed to ignite a red-hot fan base for about a month, and then it was gone — which is strange, considering how I always thought its artistic invocation of Norse (Ouroboros) and Greek (Sirens) mythology was extremely attractive.

The Commodores — Lady (You Bring Me Up)

My father is a short, compact, curly-haired white man of German and English decent. If he slapped a yamika on his head, he could easily pass for a rabbi. But that never stopped him from thinking he was black, at least when it came to his LPs.

His vinyl collection (still very much in use to this day, and I am hoping to inherit it) is built around prog rock classics like Styx’s Grand Illusion and, strangely, soul brothers like The Commodores, Earth, Wind and Fire, Stevie Wonder, The Four Tops, Michael Jackson, Smokey Robinson & The Miracles, and Marvin Gaye.

When I was little, he would crank up Brick House or Easy and dance around in a pitiful white man’s mockery of rhythm. The memories of that dancing still burn.

But now that I’m quickly approaching 30 and have lived through a full generational cycle of musical styles, a horrible truth is sinking in: My father, though I rail against the idea, had excellent taste. Lady (You Bring Me Up) probably isn’t the coolest song I could have mentioned here, but Dad would be able to tell you it’s got tight composition, a jumpin’ signature bass line, and just the right mix of brass to make it indelibly good, and a more or less permanent fixture on my iPod.


Read This: The Prydain Chronicles

June 4, 2008

FROM JASON’S ENORMOUS HOME LIBRARY — Legions of the undead. Warlords. Witches. A giant mountain lion. A shape-shifting, evil wizard. Fair folk. Caves. A magic bauble. Potters, blacksmiths, princes, weavers, swordsmen, and enchanters. A mysterious book of destiny. An oracular pig.

Cloaked under the guise of Welsh legend, The Prydain Chronicles gave the 11-year-old me a moral compass toward manhood. I didn’t know it at the time, but the 1960s series — already a fantasy classic when I picked it up wide-eyed at the public library in the late 1980s — was going to teach me a lot about what it meant to grow up.

I can remember it well. I was standing in the juvenile fiction section of the library at Watertown, N.Y., holding a dogeared copy of The Book of Three (the first in the Prydain series) and wondering at the cover. The illustration showed a man wearing a hideous antlered skeleton mask, wearing a red cloak, holding a sword, and rearing back on a black roan. In a nearby thicket hid a young boy.

Author Lloyd Alexander gave me the first literary quest of the hero. Oh, sure, I had seen the old boy-gets-sword, boy-matures, boy-confronts-evil plot play out in Star Wars, but I wasn’t aware that George Lucas was recycling a centuries-old story structure. Alexander showed me his take on The Odyssey, on Beowulf, on King Arthur’s hunt for the Holy Grail — on all that Joseph Campbell summarized as the hero’s journey or “monomyth.”

A bachelor’s degree in English later, and this stuff is transparent. But back then, it was magic. Or at least it was wrapped in enough magic to hide ugly little things like themes and lessons from me, at least until I was hooked. Once I was so vested in our protagonist, a young orphan named Taran, Alexander started teaching me that maturity directly correlates with pain and loss, and responsibility is a measure of how you live with such tragedy.

At the time, I didn’t know how symbolic the novels were. I didn’t care that Taran was a remolding of the old Tara or Terra: Latin for “Earth,” Gaelic for “stars,” Tibetan for “humanist wisdom,” Sanskrit for “heaven,” Punjab for “savior.”

I also knew nothing of the Mabinogion, the Celtic folktales that Alexander remodeled in his own image: Pryderi (or Taran) and his lost parents, his misfortune, his fights with Math and Gwydion (who appear instead as his royal allies in The Prydain Chronicles), and of Arawn the fateful hunter.

Even though I can see the stories now through a literary lens, I still feel slightly childish every time I pick up my hardbound copies because they are clearly written for pre-teen boys. Yet every year I end up doing a four-day blitz through the five books in the series (The Book of Three, The Black Cauldron, The Castle of Lyr, Taran Wanderer, and The High King).

I know part of what pulls me back in is my formative link and nostalgia. But there’s something else, too — maybe it’s the classical medieval mythos. Maybe it’s the balance of comedy and coal-dark tragedy. Maybe it’s the simple naivety of the good guys being unimpeachably good and the bad guys being indelibly bad.

A short synopsis:

In The Book of Three, the forces of Arawn, lord of the underworld, hunt for Hen Wen, the oracular pig. When the pig flees Arawn’s minion, the Horned King, it’s up to Assistant Pig-Keeper Taran to try to track her through all of Prydain. Along the way, Taran joins with the near-Christ-like Prince Gwydion, a beast-like but intelligent creature named Gurgi, a talkative and magical princess named Eilonwy, a king-turned-traveling bard named Fflewddur Fflam, and Doli of the Fair Folk, who has the power turn become invisible.

In The Black Cauldron, Taran and his companions must find the titular Cauldron, which Arawn uses to make an army of zombie slaves from the corpses of slain warriors. He convinces the Norn-ish witches of fate — Orgoch, Orwen, and Orddu — to give him the cauldron, and then he must trundle it through a vast swamp to the safety of the waiting armies of the Sons of Don and Prince Gwydion. Taran discovers too late that the only way to destroy the cauldron and its nightmarish threat forever is for a martyr to voluntarily crawl inside and sacrifice his life.

In The Castle of Lyr, Eilonwy is kidnapped by a spidery traitor named Magg and handed over to the witch Achren, the one-time ruler of Prydain and former consort of Arawn. The companions search for her on the Isle of Mona and encounter Glew the Giant and Morda the shape-shifter. The final confrontation with Achren forces Taran and Eilonwy to admit their feelings for each other.

In Taran Wanderer, there is no overarching evil or antagonist. Instead, the entire novel follows Taran’s travels across Prydain as he searches for himself, for his ancestry, for a profession, and for a home. He leaves Eilonwy behind and travels mostly alone, wandering and hoping to find a destiny and self-worth.

In The High King, Arawn steals the black sword Dyrnwyn from Gwydion and masses his undead army to pour out over the kingdom. A war council is called to oppose him, but a traitor announces he has sworn fealty to Arawn and turns on Taran’s friends. In a desperate ploy, Taran and Gwydion plan an assault on Arawn’s underworld kingdom of Annuvin.

They’re the kind of books that I’ll strategically be placing low on my bookshelf so they’ll be easily spotted when my children get to the right age.

If you’re interested, a pretty good amateur RPG adaptation of The Book of Three was made with RPG Maker 2000 back in 2005. You can download and play it here. Disney also put out a film version of The Black Cauldron in 1985, which has some abysmal parts and some truly scary parts — but all terrifically animated. In fact, the movie was, at the time, the most expensive animation ever produced, with a $25 million budget. It was also revolutionary, inserting Disney’s very first effort at computer generated imagery into animation cells.