Monday, January 27, 2014

Monday Magic

In which Tim explores the world of Magic: The Gathering one
card at a time, courtesy of Gatherer's "Random Card" button.

Autochthon Wurm (Ravnica: City of Guilds, 2005)

Now that's a big-ass creature.

For those of you who may never have touched a Magic card in your life, allow me to explain. I've mentioned previously that the numbers in the bottom right corner of creature are the creature's power and toughness. This means that our friend Autochthon Wurm can do nine damage and can take up to thirteen damage before dying. (Damage disappears at the end of the turn, when the creature "heals," unless you have another effect or ability that causes damage to stick around such as Wither or Infect.) That's huge. The biggest creature in the game (barring the ever-adorable B.F.M.) is the Marit Lage token that Dark Depths creates. The biggest non-token creature (prior to Return to Ravnica, for reasons that will become clear in a moment) is, I believe, our old buddy Emrakul. (My personal policy is that I scoop the moment Emrakul hits the table. I've been able to survive against other Eldrazi, but never Emrakul.) So, even if he's not the biggest monster in the multiverse, he's still pretty awesome. The Trample makes him especially appealing (Trample is an ability that allows the remainder of any damage directed to your opponent's creatures to be carried over to your opponent, instead of only killing the creature in question.)

At first I was confused as to why this creature was multicolored. We haven't seen a multicolored (Gold) card so far in this series, so I'll take a minute to explain: Gold cards are cards that require more than one type of mana to cast - in this instance, two White and three Green. Flavorwise (which means, essentially, conceptually), Gold cards have to draw equally from both (or more) of the colors that comprise their casting cost. (Gold isn't the only type of multicolor card, there are also Hybrid cards, which are - to my mind - a little bit more complicated in terms of design, in that I don't always understand the difference between Gold and multicolored, even though Magic R&D asserts that there is a difference.) White doesn't usually produce giant monsters - White is the color most commonly associated with smaller creature types like Soldiers and Warriors who can gang up en masse, with the most notable exception being Angels, their most prominent and iconic "big" creatures. Green is all about giant monsters - that's more or less Green's defining characteristic, and the Wurm is one of the color's defining creature types. So how does our friend here rate as both a Green and a White creature?

There have been two blocks devoted to exploring the plane of Ravnica: Ravnica: City of Guilds from 2005, and then (naturally) Return to Ravnica in 2012. The gimmick behind Ravnica is that the plane is a giant cityscape dominated by ten guilds - each guild representing a different two-color color combination. The challenge for designing these sets has been the difficulty of creating abilities that satisfy the needs of both colors involved in the guild. Convoke, which we see on Autochthon Wurm, manages to present itself as both a Green and a White mechanic by focusing on the number of creatures you have in play. Both White and Green tend to build strategies around playing many creatures, so the idea of a mechanic that rewards you for doing just that by making it easier to cast otherwise prohibitively expensive spells is a natural in terms of flavor crossover. As I mentioned above, Return to Ravnica printed another 15/15 creature to keep Emrakul company, the impressive - if slightly less psychotic - Worldspine Wurm, undoubtedly a callback to this earlier card. Let me just say, I bet it really sucks to live in a city that's constantly under threat of giant wurm rampages.

The word "autochthon" means that something or someone has emerged, parentless, from the earth itself - "chthon," from the earth, and "auto," self, or itself. The Spartoi of Thebes were supposedly autochthonic because they emerged from the ground after the fields had been sown with dragon's teeth by Cadmus. Similarly, Athens boasted of being an autochthonic nation because they believed that the city and its denizens had never moved or immigrated - hence, a warning to all potential conquerors or rivals that the city and its citizens were firmly rooted and could not be easily defeated. In this instance, however, the Wurm in question is a giant monster who apparently emerges from the depths of the city to fuck shit up. If you can't make it out from the tiny picture, the Wurm is demolishing buildings and completely outclassing the little winged people floating around its head. This is one wurm with whom you do not want to fuck.

Friday, January 24, 2014

Let's Rap With Abhay

When I realized the tenth anniversary of this blog was fast approaching, I tried to think of something special for the occasion. It didn't take me long to realize that in all this time there was one thing I had always wanted to do but had never actually got around to doing: have a conversation with Abhay Khosla. I've never made any secret of the fact that Abhay has always been one of the biggest influences on this blog, one of the inspirations behind me even starting The Hurting to begin with (along with the often-dead-but-sometimes-not Gone & Forgotten). But in all the years I've been doing this, I had never actually had a conversation with Abhay longer than a couple lines here and there. Truth be told, I've always been a little bit intimidated . . . but I've been doing this for ten years, so I felt mildly justified in taking the opportunity to bug him to assent to my prodding.

I would hesitate to call this an "interview" - I talk too much to ever be a good interviewer. Let's say it's a conversation. 

This conversation was conducted online via Google Drive during the week of January 12th.

Monday, January 20, 2014

Monday Magic

In which Tim explores the world of Magic: The Gathering one
card at a time, courtesy of Gatherer's "Random Card" button.

Renewing Touch (Portal Second Age, 1998)

Huh, another Portal card. Statistically speaking, the odds of two cards from the Portal sets popping up within a couple weeks of one another seems small. My challenge for myself in this exercise is to never gin the selection: whichever card comes up when I press the button - with the sole exception of basic lands, for obvious reasons (and if you don't know Magic, well, trust me that it wouldn't make for an interesting column) - I will write about that card. Just in case you were wondering.

Portal, as we discussed last time, was a series of beginner's-only set published in the late nineties. The sets had simplified rules, and the cards themselves had simplified effects. One of the side-effects of this simplification is that a few cards in the set appear to be significantly more powerful than they would have been had they been costed to be played in a normal environment.

Let me unpack that statement for any of you who may be lost. Magic is partly a game of resource management. You start off with the same amount of cards as your opponent (or opponents) and from that point it's a race to see who can build the best defenses or mount the biggest offensive threat. Every spell you cast has to be paid for, and the cost of that spell can be read in the little cartoon symbols in the upper right corner of the card. This is a green card, meaning that the casting cost must be paid in green mana - only one of them in this case. The number of symbols on the card is the amount of mana you need to pay to create the effect - that part, at least, is fairly straightforward. You get mana from lands - to which I alluded above - which can be "tapped" (turned 90 degree clockwise) to produce one mana of the kind that land produces. There are five types of basic lands - Plains (not to be confused with Planes), which produce white mana; Islands, which produce blue; Mountains, which produce red; Swamps, which produce black; and Forests, which produce green.

This is what a forest looks like, although every basic land has hundreds of different versions with different art. They all do the same thing, though.

Since this is a green card that requires one green mana to play, you would need one Forest in order to be able to play it. You can (usually, although there are effects which can change this) play only one land a turn, so it is extremely important to make sure you can place a land every turn, or almost every turn. Since Magic is also a game played with randomized decks, figured out how to ensure you pull sufficient mana can be challenging. For people with more time on their hands than I, figuring this out can even involve math. As much as Magic is a strategy game, there is also a significant amount of luck involved in terms of card draws. Figuring out how to manage and minimize this risk is one of the most challenging aspects of the game.

(Also, it occurs to me to point out at this point in the series that I was / am a terrible Magic player. Even though I know a fair amount about how the game works it's still very hard to implement these ideas effectively, which is why the top-level tournament players compete for many thousands of dollars - you can read all about the money prizes here, in case you think I'm joking. I quit the game again a couple months ago - I had quit in the buildup to my Prelims because I find myself prey to compulsive behavior, especially when I'm procrastinating doing something else - like studying - and having Magic on the computer was too much of a distraction. After my Prelim was done I put the game back on my computer and lost a solid week to it before I took a step back and realized, wait a minute, I don't have the impulse control to properly resist this temptation. So its gone, probably for good, and I don't plan on playing again soon unless I can find time to do it in real life. In case you're wondering, my "replacement" for Magic as something to do when I talk on the phone or watch TV is Civilization - which, um, maybe not the best idea to replace crack cocaine with heroin. Purely a lateral move.)

So, long story short: this is an extremely powerful effect put on an almost comically underpriced card. When creatures die or are otherwise taken out of play, they are put in the graveyard. There are a number of ways to get them back, but usually they require a significant investment. This card, however, just lets you shuffle them all back into your deck in one fell swoop. Say it's late in a long game and you're running a creature-heavy deck. Your opponent has good removal and has maintained a good tempo, so he's been able to effectively parry all your thrusts. Suddenly, whoops, these ten awesome creatures you thought were dead are back in my deck, and I may well pull one of them next turn. And since I'm only putting creatures back, and I've already pulled a significant amount of land and spells that aren't going back in the deck, the odds of me pulling a good creature are a lot better than they were ten turns ago. (Remember what I mentioned about math?)

"Renewing Touch" isn't the only card to have this effect, but it may very well be the cheapest. This is not a card I can see them reprinting in a Standard anytime soon.

Anyway, the other interesting thing about this card is that the art was produced by Rebecca Guay. She did a lot of art for the game in the last decade, although don't recall seeing her much in the last few years. She is very good, definitely a disciple of the Pre-Raphaelites - you can seen Rossetti and Waterhouse, as well as N. C. Wyeth, although he was too late to qualify as Pre-Raphaelite. (As well as being American.) Looking through her page I especially like this and this. Her more recent gallery work, if her page is any indication, appears to be moving away from the heavy Pre-Raphaelite influence - this could almost pass for Yoshitaka Amano. She is a talented artist and I wouldn't blame here if she had higher aspirations for her art than providing 2"x1.5" illustration for a piece of cardboard.

Friday, January 17, 2014

Ten Years of Terror

Ten years ago, it was cold. It was bitter cold. I was living in a shack on the outskirts of Rutland, Massachusetts - and I say shack because that's what it was, really. The cabin was sixty or so years old. It didn't have any heat or insulation. It broiled in the summer (central Massachusetts can be very humid and there was a swamp in the backyard) and froze in the winter. We didn't have a bathroom - just a toilet on a bare wood floor. All the other bathroom fixtures had been torn out because they were rotten. We bought a gym membership in Worcester so we could drive 20-25 minutes to bathe. A wing of the house was closed off because it had been destroyed by water damage.

January 2004 was a very cold month. (Did I mention it was cold?) The temperature never rose above freezing for the entire week of the 17th. My wife (now ex-) had been hospitalized, and I was alone, freezing, with just our dogs for company. I read Journalista! every morning and followed every blog to which Dirk Deppey linked. I was bored, depressed, lonely, looking for something to keep my mind off the cold. I don't remember the exact moment I made the decision. But somewhere along the line on Saturday, January 17th 2003 I registered for a Blogspot account and began The Hurting. The name fit my attitude at the time, and I guess it still does - even though I'm no longer living in a shack in the woods and my life has improved by every conceivable metric, I'm still as mordant and droll as ever. When will the hurting stop? Good question.

In the beginning there was Neilalien. Neil was not the first person to write about comics on the internet, nor was he first blog, but he was the first person to blog about comics regularly. Not only was he first, but he was also happy to be something of a mentor for younger comics bloggers (younger in terms of blog years, I have no idea how old he is in real life, or whether or not he is even a being who measures "time" as we do). As you might have guessed from my proudly decrepit blog template, I'm not a big computer guy, and Neilalien gave me an immense amount of technical help in the early months and years of The Hurting. I also know I'm not the only person he helped. Neilalien closed up shop in 2010 (mostly, although he still posts news on his site's sidebar), but he posted regularly for ten years. He was first: before Dirk started blogging for the Journal, long before Tom Spurgeon began The Comics Reporter, before Mike or Dorian or Sean or Laura "Tegan" or Kevin or any of the other crew who I think of as being the "Old Guard," there was Neil posting news and opinions about comics in general and Dr. Strange in specific.

My first year was rocky. Stuck in that shack, left to my own devices, things were pretty bleak. We didn't have a lot of money: I had to throw blog "fundraisers" to be able buy groceries a few times, something I'm not proud of in hindsight, but which kept us fed. Just by putting up a shingle on the internet and joining this thing called the "comics blogosphere," I was a part of something filled with kind people who shared the same interests and were willing to put up with my ranting (and boy, did I rant that first year) - and people would even come out of the woodwork when I needed help, which still blows my mind to this day. The charity I received in the first year of this blog's existence remains one of the most incredible things I've ever experienced. People came and read every day (remember when I posted ever day? ha ha ha). There are probably still a few people reading this now who were reading back then. That's pretty crazy, especially considering how bad a writer I used to be. I even tried linkblogging for a few months after Journalista! 1.0 closed shop - after the putsch that evicted Milo George from his position as Editor of The Comics Journal and promoted Dirk to that same position. I lasted a few months, but serious linkblogging is hard work, especially when you're doing it for nothing.

My first article was published in the Journal in 2001, and I was a regular contributor to the magazine until just about the end of its run as a regular periodical. (I tapered off somewhere around the last dozen or so issues, after I had returned to school and burnt out on writing for anyone other than myself.) When I started The Hurting I at least had the benefit of already having a reputation from the Journal, however small. On a few occasions merely stating that I wrote for the Journal was enough to satisfy a prospective editor. I tried hard in the beginning to keep the blog as diverse as possible, which is why if you go back and read through the first couple years I spend a lot of time talking about "new mainstream" (remember that phrase?) publishers like AIT / Planet Lar and Oni, in addition to the usual suspects like Fantagraphics and Drawn & Quarterly. (Aside: the "new mainstream" appears to finally have come into its own via a resurgent Image comics, and other likeminded publishers, which is great for both diversity of genre and the well-being of creators who want opportunities outside of corporate cape comics.) But eventually, to be frank, I got lazy: keeping up with and writing about non-superhero comics is hard work, even - or especially - when you're on the publishers' mailing lists and they send you the comics for free. I know that sounds suspiciously like whining, but I'm being honest here: writing snark about superheroes is easier by many orders of magnitude than saying something interesting about more interesting comics.

One of the more distinctive - perhaps to its detriment - attributes of this blog is that over the years I've settled into a pretty peculiar rhythm. I don't post a lot, obviously, but sometimes i post more than others. On a good week I'll manage a full essay and maybe a couple other smaller things. I may bewail my unproductiveness, but that's where I'm comfortable, and trying to push for more than that never seems to work out. I got out of the habit of doing shorter text posts a long time ago, for whatever reason - it's easier for me to write at length, as opposed to producing something more concise and pithy. (That's actually something I'm trying to accomplish with the Monday Magic series - working on my concision. You can tell me how well I'm succeeding there.) I've been told point-blank that writing such long essays turns off as many readers as it may attract, but I think that's changing - one side-effect from so many established media companies colonizing the internet (and so many start-ups replicating that format), is that the length of articles and the attention span required to read them online appears to be expanding. That's fine. I do this as much for myself as anyone else, and that's the format in which I'm most comfortable writing. Why have a blog if you can't do what you want with it?

Which is not to say that I don't appreciate all of you, because obviously I do. More than you probably know. I rely on feedback. Although it might not seem like that big of a deal, comments mean a lot to me, as well as to the continued health of this blog. That's another reason why I always seem to come back to writing lengthy takedowns of huge superhero crossovers, for instance - something I realize is as much a trademark of mine as anything else. People like those. (In case you're wondering, I didn't do one for Infinity not because I didn't want to, but because I literally could not think of anything to say about it other than to make a joke about the story reading like a spreadsheet.) If you could see my stats (which I never used to pay any attention to, on purpose, but which Blogger now makes it impossible to miss), there are massive spikes anytime I post anything related to superhero comics. Movies, music, television, other related subjects . . . nothing gets the response, nor the comments, like superhero stuff. So that's what I do, because part of the reason I do the blog is that I like having my writing read and appreciated. Even writing about the stupidest things, it's really awesome to be able to have an outlet for what I want to say, completely outside the realm of my academic day job. I'm going to do it my way, and on my terms, but it's nice to know that there are a few people out there who get something out of it.

(Incidentally, I really miss Graeme McMillan's Blog@Newsarama - not just because he's a good writer (he writes for other outlets now) - but because he was the only one of the major comics linkbloggers who regularly linked to my essays. I really appreciated that, and if he's reading this I sincerely thank him for all the hits he sent my way. I'm disappointed they didn't end up hiring someone else to do his job there, I would have sent a resume.)

We moved out of the shack after a year - almost exactly a year, from October 2003-October 2004. We were doing pretty well by then. I had a job, not a great job, but a job nonetheless. I worked as an awake overnight attendant at a nearby residential children's facility called Devereux. In hindsight this was a terrible job. Working in social services with children is taxing, mentally and physically. Dealing with kids who have been institutionalized for whatever reason - abandoned by their parents, wards of the state, remanded to treatment by court order, or simply unable to function outside a residential context - it can be rewarding in small doses, but over the course of many years tends to wear a person down.

My marriage fell apart the year after we left the shack. There were a lot of reasons, and I'm not sorry at all that it ended - on the contrary, it turned out to be fantastic, I just wish I had seen that at the time. Really intense, painful experiences can either bring people closer together or rupture them entirely, and after the years we spent scraping by, we were different people than we had been when we married. And anyone who was reading my blog at the time got to see my marriage unfold in real time, in much excruciating detail. I spent my days listening to Wilco's Yankee Hotel Foxtrot, the Yeah Yeah Yeahs' Show Your Bones, and Sleater-Kinney's The Woods on repeat. Those are still three of my favorite albums. They're all about breakups and nervous breakdowns, connective tissue I didn't perceive until years later.

Those were the dark years, which sounds like hyperbole, but hey: I worked the night shift at a children's mental hospital while going through a painful divorce while failing as a writer, in Massachusetts. One thing I've taken from that experience is that nothing phases me anymore. Just tonight at dinner a friend said that what they liked most about me was that I was blunt and honest almost to a fault. Well, that's true. It doesn't always work to my benefit. (Also important to remember: if you approach every situation with the same fatalistic equilibrium, people can never tell when you're lying.)

I don't want to say too many bad things about my experience at Devereux: there are a lot of good and kind people there, working hard to help kids who might not have a lot of options in their lives. But there were also people who had started out with good intentions and been burnt out - and there were people who took the job because they wanted to bust heads and couldn't pass the police exam. After I had been there for a couple years I looked around and realized that I most likely did not have the moral fiber to be the first type of person indefinitely. The third type are obviously beneath contempt, but they exert a disproportionate influence on the functioning of an institution like that. And that left the second type. I looked around and saw people who had been there for decades, good people, who came into work in the morning looking more exhausted with every passing day, or who were less invested this year than they were the year before, and who had been in turn less invested that year than the year before. I didn't want that. But then, I realized, it didn't have to end that way.

Another good thing that came out of that experience is that the years I worked at Devereux marked the high point in the history of this blog. I wrote almost every night, both for The Hurting and for Popmatters. I had a good relationship with Popmatters for a long time; I made it to Associate Editor. But after a while I got tired of the grind - getting free music and movies in the mail is only fun for a while before it becomes a drag, after you come to associate new music less with enjoyment and more with obligatory unpaid labor. So when I left Devereux and returned to school - well, I quit. I regret that things ended the way they did. I burnt all my bridges because I could not stand to transcribe one more interview or write one more 600-word review of another CD that sounded almost identical to the last 50 CDs I'd heard in that genre. I regret it now - if I had just quit on good terms, I might have been able to go back. I would, I think, like to go back to it at some point, although probably not to Popmatters. But without any contacts or connections (even if I had left on good terms, that was seven years ago!), it's impossible to imagine how I might go about doing so. It's not that I don't have enough on my plate.

The Hurting did not lead to very many other gigs. Many other "first wave" (heh) comics bloggers were able to leverage the experience into something else, be it working for other sites, real magazine gigs, comics writing assignments, or even editorial positions. A bunch of people I know even put together a fake Twitter account that managed to translate into a real book. (How they managed to have a secret coterie of comics bloggers without inviting me is another matter.) It's not hard to see why. I'm famously prickly, blunt. I'm the guy who tore the universally beloved Black Hole a new asshole, who repeatedly antagonized Bryan Lee O'Malley in the pages of The Comics Journal for no other reason than because I could. The one outside writing assignment I've got in the last five years is an article I had placed in an Australian literary magazine. I was grateful for the opportunity but it didn't lead to much else.

Things weren't supposed to be this way. I quite college after my first year partly because I wanted to become a writer - a real, professional writer. (That wasn't the only reason, but it was what I told myself.) I worked at it - maybe not as hard as I could have, but I did. I wrote stories that were never bought. I wrote a few novels that were never published. I didn't realize until many years later that I had done the absolute worst thing to myself I could have done if i honestly wanted to make it as a writer: you can't write anything good at the age of twenty, and the effort will instill terrible bad habits that can take years to break. You just don't know anything. I never sold a novel, although I can at least say I got as far as a couple agents reading my books before deciding not to follow-up:
I’m afraid that I did not quite feel that all-important connection with your work that I know is vital in this industry, but please do not give up.

. . .

I’ve now read RAW YOUTH. Please know my delay has only to do with the mountain of reading on my desk and nothing else. First off, I was impressed with the shape and tone of the book. That period in one’s life – when everything is still becoming and anxiety is constant – is a hard thing to capture. Being mid-twenties can be disorienting and the growing-pains (such as issues of identity and social consciousness) were all well drawn and clear. But while there is so much to admire here, I found I was not as deeply engaged as I would have liked with some of the more thriller elements of the story. I realize that within your writing is the deeper philosophical question of what constitutes sanity; though, at times, I felt I had to strain a bit to unearth these ideas. Blame it on my lack of imagination. Fiction is incredibly personal and this is clearly a matter of taste and style. That said, I am glad I was able to get acquainted with your work. I’m so sorry this wasn’t a match.

. . .

Although I felt the manuscript was written fairly well, I will have to pass on representation. . . . Based on our conversation, it was important to me to let you know why I would pass on this story. I think your writing is very promising, though for future reference, you may want to cut down on some of the big words. While you certainly don't want to placate your readers by being overly simplistic, you also don't want to trip them up by using so many words that they might need to grab a dictionary for. Even though the context of the sentence may provide clarity on the meaning of the word, then you've taken them out of the actual story in order to get a definition. I think that Raw Youth has potential, but I think allowing the reader to become a bit more personal with the main character is going to make a huge difference. Personally, I found myself becoming frustrated, and was ultimately unable to finish, because I didn't know who I was reading about.

. . .

I read a good deal of the manuscript again over the weekend, and I'm sorry I didn't get back to you sooner. I understand that you cannot wait on me, and I appreciate your courtesy and patience throughout. Believe me, we editors do know the anguish involved in trying to make a book happen. Every day is a crisis and struggle. Having read most of the book, I can say that your writing is deeply moving and drips with an emotion and gristle unlike any other prose I've had the chance to encounter. The voice of the narrator is powerful, and I can see an elegance in the way you introduce his madness (or growing paranoia.) Yet, I feel that sometimes the seams are still visible. A good editor will undoubted have excellent suggestions for tightening up the book. Unfortunately I do think [sic] I am that editor. I hope you find the right person to distinguish RAW YOUTH, and I'm sorry if I have delayed you unduly.
I tried. I really did. I wrote the best book I was capable of writing at the time, and I sent it to every agent or publisher who would accept it - and when that wasn't enough, I bought an ISBN number and self-published.

I'm not whining: I know full well the book wasn't perfect. (You should, however, see the books that preceded it - or not, please.) That's the problem: looking back, I can see the gaps between conception and execution. But at the time? That was rough. The rejections for RAW YOUTH were pouring in during the middle of my tenure at Devereux. I think I was already living on my own by then. Attempts at starting another book (which would have been the fourth) floundered. It was easier to write a blog post or a CD review than another chapter in a boring book that I realized was basically just going to be a long jeremiad about my divorce. Mercifully, I don't think I have any drafts left from that . . .

I was basically the worst writer ever. I don't mean in terms of the quality of my writing - heh, no, although you can make your own judgments on that. I mean in terms of the way writers should behave. I was prickly, dismissive, and openly antagonistic in my public persona, actively pushed away my editors with lazy and irresponsible behavior, palled around with bad influences, and then had the gall to act offended when the offers failed to come pouring through the inbox. I did everything possible to derail my career as a writer, everything short of actually being a bad writer (knock wood). I was, in short, the perfect Journal writer, and accordingly the only people who liked my writing seemed to be other Journal writers (hi, Tucker!). But that didn't leave me qualified to do much else. Being the comics critic's comic critic isn't much to put on your resume. (How does Jog do it? Does he even sleep? I'm not even playing that game anymore.)

I failed. That's kind of rough to admit, and it's only been recently that I've been able to admit that to myself: I failed as a writer. There, I said it - it feels good to say it. I failed as a writer because even though I'm temperamentally unsuited to be anything but a writer, I'm even more temperamentally unsuited to making myself presentable to people who would hire me to be a writer. I failed because by the time I got to the end of the cycle for my third book, I was just tired, too tired to go through whole thing again. I failed because I gave up, basically.

And so I ran headfirst back in to the welcoming arms of academia. I looked around me at Devereux, saw what could have been my future, and realized I was still young enough that there was no damn reason why I couldn't go back to school. So I did. I applied to the University of Massacusetts, Amherst and was admitted. I had no expectations whatsoever before I returned to school, really the only conscious thought going through my head was that it wasn't Devereux. I had no idea what I was in for.

And then a funny thing happened. All those years I spent trying to be a writer, all I did was write and read books. I took a terrible job specifically because it gave me (on most nights) eight hours free and clear to do what I wanted. And it turned out that all the skills I had cultivated when I was trying to be a writer were really useful when I stepped back in the classroom. So it didn't take very long - really, it wasn't even the end of my first semester back, when a professor told me I should go to grad school. Or rather, I remember this person saying something in passing that indicated that they just assumed I was already planning on going to grad school, based on my performance. At the time I barely knew grad school was a thing. But suddenly that was the plan, and I haven't looked back since.

So in 2007 I finally figured out what I was really good at. There may have been some blips in the years since, but honestly, even on my worst day I still know I have the best job in the world. I teach and I study and I get to wear jeans to work and stay up all night and sleep in most days and bloviate as much as I want in front of impressionable young adults. I don't make a lot of money and the career prospects for Humanities PhDs are . . . not so hot . . . but I wouldn't trade it for anything.

Well - that's not quite true. I would still love to be a professional writer. I haven't written any fiction pretty much since I returned to school, and I haven't worked an actual writing gig besides this blog in a long time, but it's not like I forgot how. On the contrary, I think I may have picked up a few tricks over the years. When people want to be writers, people tell them they have to start. You can't be a writer if you don't write, and most people, even people who say they want to be writers, never start. Well, I already started. I am a writer. I teach writing. I know how it works. I failed in my first attempt, and that was most of my twenties. But I've learned a few things since then. The challenge facing me is not to start writing, but to go back. Someday. Soon.

I am halfway through my PhD at the University of California, Davis. I passed my Preliminary Exam in November, and have my Qualifying Exam to look forward to this Fall. After that, I spend two years (hopefully not much more than that) writing a dissertation.

My life today is unimaginably different than it was ten years ago. I started this blog at perhaps the single bleakest moment of my entire life. It never went away. Through the year in the shack, through Devereux and Worcester, through UMass, through my return to California, and to today, it's the one constant. This is my home, more than anywhere else I've ever lived. I've maintained this blog for longer than I've done anything else. It has officially lasted twice as long as my marriage. I have met so many people through this blog, good people who have made this blog one of the most enriching experiences of my life. I've never met Mike Sterling in real life, but we're brothers-in-blogging - he started his blog one month before mine, so I know whenever his anniversary comes around, my own is just around the corner. I send him an e-mail once in a while asking if he's planning on quitting any time soon - a message to one distant outpost from another. He always answers, "not yet, not yet." And that's good. For whatever reason, Progressive Ruin landed as the first blog on my blogroll many years ago, and it's never left that spot. His blog is still the first page I look at every morning, after my e-mail and Twitter. That's just how the universe is supposed to work, I guess.

I can count on my fingers the comics blogs who have been at this longer than I have. I can't begin to count the blogs who have fallen by the wayside - in some cases, like Neil, honorably setting down their staff and drowning their books . . . in others, just fading into the mist. (What the fuck ever happened to Dick Hyacinth, anyway? Seriously, did he die?) I don't linkblog. I don't blog every day. Hell, sometimes a week goes by without so much as a peep. But I'm still here. Just when you least expect it, here comes the 3,000 word takedown of the latest crossover, or here's the greatest gif known to man. I've got my fans, I've got people who try their best to ignore me, and I've got a whole lot of other people who turn up now and again to gawk at the wreckage. That's fine. I wouldn't have it any other way.

Ten years is a long time. Ten years of insults, argument, passive-aggressive sour grapes masquerading as critical profundity - but also ten years of good conversation, good friends, and maybe even some good writing. (Man, that sounds corny - but what the hell, I guess I earned some corn.) Blogs aren't supposed to last this long, right? They're supposed to be these funny things that come and go in a few months or a few years, that run their course according to their owners' moods or the whims of fashion. Who blogs anymore, anyway? Seriously, it's like the CB radio of the 21st century. Every smart person figured out something better to do with their time years ago.

But in case you haven't figured it out yet, I'm not that smart. I'm still here, even if no one cares to listen, I'm here because what the fuck else would I do? This is what I do: The Hurting is who I am, for better or for worse, and it would be foolish to pretend otherwise after ten years.

When Will The Hurting Stop? Never.

This blog is a cockroach.

I will never die.

Monday, January 13, 2014

Monday Magic

In which Tim explores the world of Magic: The Gathering one
card at a time, courtesy of Gatherer's "Random Card" button.

Myr Battlesphere (Scars of Mirrodin, 2010)

Scars of Mirrodin was the sequel to one of Magic's all-time most popular and best-selling blocks, 2003's Mirrodin. This set marked, I believe, Magic's first true sequel, in terms of being a return to a previous, popular setting years afterwards, as opposed to simply continuing a single story from one set or block into another. (You could make an argument that Unhinged was a sequel to Unglued, but that's not quite the same thing.) Mirrodin sold very well but also created a great deal of problems. There were a number of cards and mechanics in the set that were simply too powerful, and the prevalence of degenerate combo decks created serious imbalances. Historically, whenever the game has been dominated by specific powerful cards and strategies for any amount of time, tournament attendance has plummeted - few players relish seeing endless identical mirror-matches between the same decks competing to get turn-one kills. If anything, Scars of Mirrodin compensated by being underpowered, and reception among long-term fans was mixed.

In case you are completely unfamiliar with Magic lore (and really, why would you be?), Mirrodin was (past tense, since it's since been conquered) an artificial all-metal world created by the artifact Planeswalker Karn after the storyline in the Odyssey block. (In Magic, "planes" are the different worlds that make up the game's multiverse setting.) Creating an artificial plane was a big deal, and it hurt Karn significantly to do so. This is important, because the premise of the Scars block was that partly due to Karn's weakness the plane had been infected by the evil Phyrexians. (It's slightly more complicated than that, of course: the creation of Mirrodin is the end of a long chain of events going right back to the "Brothers' War" between Mishra and Urza which was the main event in Magic history all the way back to the Alpha in 1993. The Phyrexians are Magic's marquee baddies, less a race than an infection that spreads indiscriminately across the multiverse in the form of a viscous black goo that transforms its victims into monsters, kind of like the Borg crossed with the Thing [1982 version, naturally].)

One of the things I like about Magic is the hard work they put into building credible and original fantasy settings. They've gone on record as saying that the contemporary version of the game consciously works to avoid things like your stereotypical bearded wizards with pointy hats. This is done at least partly to differentiate the game from Wizards' other famous fantasy property, Dungeons & Dragons, which has always trafficked more heavily in the iconography of traditional epic fantasy. It's a fine line that doesn't actually signify much in practice - the game is still filled with wizards and dragons, after all, but in practical terms it means that Magic is far more likely to play around with less-traditional fantasy stuff like steampunk, splatterpunk, H.P. Lovecraft, Japanese myth, and now with 2013's Theros block, Greek myth. Mirrodin and its sequel are (so far) the furthest the game has gone into the realms of science-fiction - which means, in the case of our Myr friends, cute little robots who can gang up en masse to present a surprising threat.

Scars of Mirrodin was a fun set, playwise. The problem I had with it was that, story-wise, it was really depressing. The Phyrexians won: even though Karn was reborn and once again became an extremely powerful Planeswalker, Mirrodin was conquered by an army of Clive Barker monsters, and that meant that all those cute little Myrs were either corrupted or literally hounded to extinction. That last link there is seriously upsetting: the cute little robots literally on the run for their lives from an army of fiends. That's sad! Why would you want to play the killing-robot-teddy-bears game?

But it must be said, Myr Battlesphere is a good card. If this thing resolves and is able to attack, and you do not have any removal, chances are good that you will lose the game. Myr decks have a lot of ways to get big artifact creatures on the table prematurely - I think I've seen this guy as early as turn three. It's not very fun to be on the receiving end when this fellow goes rolling down the hill.

Monday, January 06, 2014

Monday Magic

In which Tim explores the world of Magic: The Gathering one
card at a time, courtesy of Gatherer's "Random Card" button.

Fire Imp (Portal, 1997)

Ah, Portal.

Magic is a complicated game. If you've never played, it probably seems like Greek. If you have played, you remember how hard it was to learn. There's a steep curve: once you figure out the basics of turn order and the stack, it's not so bad, but from the very beginning there is such a bewildering variety of card types and possible actions that it's amazing anybody gets past their first game. This is especially true considering that, not to put too fine a point on it, I've seen experienced Magic players try to explain the game to newcomers. It can get pretty ugly pretty fast.

Portal was an attempt to fix this problem by creating an entry-level set with pared-down complexity. Everything any card does is spelled out in precise terms: you will notice that this creature's power / toughness (the amount of damage the creature can deal and receive before dying) has little sword and shield icons next to the numbers. The rules text also clearly states that Fire Imp does the damage regardless of whether or not your opponent has a creature in play. This is important, because this is an example of the ways unwary players can hurt themselves: if there are no other creatures on the board when Fire Imp enters the battlefield, he will kill himself because the two damage he deals has to be dealt to something. If the card was meant to only deal damage to your opponent's creatures, or if the two damage was optional, it would say so explicitly. Magic rules text is very precise, and if it doesn't specifically say you can do something, you probably can't. This is problematic for new players because the idea of one of your own cards working against you if you're not careful is quite counter-intuitive. But that's part of the strategy.

The rules for the Portal sets (three in total) were streamlined considerably. Interestingly, some of the simplifications introduced by Portal were later incorporated into the rules for "real" Magic. One of the biggest hurdles in old-school Magic used to be the order in which spells resolved. My first year playing Magic, for instance, I had no idea what order conflicting Instants or Interrupts resolved themselves. This was simplified immensely a few years later when a rules change created the concept of the stack. (That the stack shares a name with the computer programming term is no coincidence, since both features are responsible for ordering inputs correctly.) If you're new to the game, it's still pretty complicated, but it used to be even worse. Honestly, the only way I picked up on some of the rules intricacies was to play Magic Online for a few years, where the computer resolves all the spells in the precise order at all times. I think I have a better idea of how these things work now because I know how the computer does it. Anyway, Portal didn't have Instants or Interrupts (Interrupts don't exist in the game either anymore, incidentally), so spells could only be cast during the main phase of the turn when Sorcery-speed spells would normally be cast. (Instants can be cast at any time, when you have priority [another counter-intuitive rule ], and Interrupts used to take precedence over Instants. I think.) Except for a handful of spells that said they could be cast at unusual times. Which is probably complete gibberish if you've never played the game before.

Magic streamlined their new player outreach in 2009 by creating a less complex version of the game (Duels of the Planeswalkers) for XBox and Playstation. It's apparently done a very good job, since the game, both online and in the physical world, is currently bigger than it has ever been.

Anyway. The takeway from this is that Magic rules are complicated, and we know this because even after the game has been simplified multiple times over the last twenty years, it's still pretty fucking complex. You can see just from this explanation why the game attracts a certain kind of player. Perhaps, shall we say, a kind of player with whom social interaction is completely unpleasant, because they will take every opportunity to be as pedantic as possible about the precise meaning of the rules in every situation. If you're interested (and God help you if you are) you can download the comprehensive rules here, in the form of a 200 page (single spaced!) PDF file. That's not even counting the banned and restricted lists for various different formats. Or tournament rules. Or the online Oracle which has updated, streamlined, and corrected rules text for every card ever printed. (Usually they try not to change the meaning of card text after it is published, but there are many examples of "functional errata" that do change the card's function for various reasons.) Basically Magic is not a game that anyone should ever play for any reason, is what I'm saying.

Which brings us back to this guy here. I like the art. Magic has never steered away from humor (they've even made a couple of intentionally humorous sets), and this guy is a great example of the kind of humor at which the game excels. I love the look on this guy's face: he doesn't seem too bright. His nose is on fire and he appears more or less OK with that. He definitely seems like the type of dude who would accidentally set himself on fire because he doesn't know any better.

Strangely, this guy is actually pretty playable. Two damage to an opponent's creature for 3 mana with a 2/1 chump blocker on top of it is pretty decent. He's not going to be lighting up the board in any constructed tournaments anytime soon, but he is a rare example of a pre-2003 creature you can see them reprinting in a contemporary Core Set without too many problems. I can think of many worse cards I've had to play in Limited.

Sunday, January 05, 2014


So in the most inevitable news since the invention of daybreak, the Star Wars license will be returning to Marvel in 2015. Just in time for the release of Episode VII in theaters. Dark Horse Comics has held the license for 23 years, longer than many people reading this have been alive. They've still got another year left, and a raft of high-profile projects to finish, but there was never any real doubt. The fix was in the moment that Disney bought Lucas.

When Marvel was purchased by Disney back in 2009 (five years ago!) a lot of people, myself included, assumed that this meant Disney's comics licenses would naturally devolve onto Marvel. This hasn't really happened, a least not as definitively as many predicted. Marvel publishes some Disney comics, but so far only a few special projects like the theme-park tie-in Seekers of the Weird. It became obvious soon after the purchase that Disney wasn't buying Marvel because they wanted a publishing firm who could take over packaging and production duties across multiple licenses. They wanted boys' toys and action films, and this was a smart decision because Marvel is the best franchise-generating machine in Hollywood. The idea that Marvel would suddenly, say, become responsible for shepherding the Floyd Gottfredson and Carl Barks reprint projects that Fantagraphics oversees is laughable in hindsight. (I asked a high-ranking Marvel rep online years ago if they were planning on bringing those projects in-house and he seemed confused as to why I would even ask such a thing.) Boom published Disney comics until 2011. It's worth noting that since the expiration of Boom's license there have been no new Disney comics featuring Mickey, Donald, Scrooge, or any other of the company's most popular characters.

Star Wars, however, is different. Star Wars is an IP factory that, despite its tremendous success according to every available rubric, is viewed by Disney as underperforming. The lack of new movies, the reliance on small-ball enterprises like The Clone Wars television series to maintain brand visibility, and a basic refusal to exploit the brand's central trademarks to their fullest - from the moment Disney took charge of Star Wars, changing these policies has been their first priority. So, despite the general goodwill among fandom towards The Clone Wars (mollifying many of the same fans who were disappointed by the prequel films from which the series descends), that show got the axe. It is being replaced by another show more proximate to the original Trilogy. I'm certain that Disney, looking over the state of the license in the wake of their purchase, saw a landscape littered with hundreds and hundreds of stories set in something called an "Expanded Universe," filled with characters and ideas only marginally connected with the original movies. I think there's a big and very important difference here between seeing the large and diffuse nature of the Marvel Universe as an asset to be cherished and seeing the diffuse nature of contemporary Star Wars as a problem to be solved. Every Marvel character is a potential franchise, at least on paper (and the proof of concept here is the fact that we have a Guardians of the Galaxy movie coming later this year), whereas every tertiary Star Wars character reflects the progressive diffusion and weakening of the central brand.

Marvel is a fantastic brand, but it's also proven to be a very diverse brand. You can have The Avengers and Thor and The Amazing Spider-Man and The Wolverine and, even aside from the different studios involved in the production of these films, they can be different things while still sharing that tiny red & white logo in the corner of the movie poster. Star Wars is different: Star Wars isn't an umbrella for a number of similar properties, it is the property. And in terms of core strengths, it is unarguably an underexploited property. There have only been six full-length Star Wars movies, but from those six movies an entire universe of licensing has emerged. Disney doesn't want to just be selling Cad Bane toys based on basic cable television shows for eternity. It wants to pump out new movies every year, movies that aim for a far larger audience than basic cable. That's the brand's core strength, and it hasn't been even remotely tapped-out. Say what you will about Lucas, but he only made six movies: he could have made twenty by now, if he'd wanted.

Every long-running sci-fi or fantasy series eventually accrues massive amounts of secondary media, but I would argue that the dearth of new Star Wars movies has historically given the Expanded Universe media a prominence in Star Wars fandom that comparable franchises' novels and comics simply do not possess. When Dark Horse received the license in 1991, Star Wars was a dead letter. The "Expanded Universe" was barely a thing, and their first comic books were sequels to the first prose books to prove that post-movie Star Wars had an audience - Timothy Zahn's Thrawn Trilogy. Is it possible now to remember back to a time when Star Wars wasn't ubiquitous? Dark Horse got in on the ground floor of the franchise's long and painstaking resuscitation, a rebirth that occurred over the span of the nineties and culminated with the release of Episode I. That Dark Horse kept the license as long as they did, and even after Star Wars had resumed its place among the first-rank of licensed properties, speaks volumes to Lucasfilm's loyalty (as well as, it must be said, Marvel's general disinterest in licensed properties at the time).

Now, nerds have a long memory. I am dead certain that somewhere out there in the great world there are fans who are looking forward to once again buying "real" Star Wars comics. There are probably even a few brave souls who entertain the notion that Marvel will simply pick up with issue #108 (in spirit if not in deed) as if the subsequent thirty years were just a bad dream. That's probably not going to happen, but I would be surprised if there wasn't still a vocal component of fans who are happy that the books are finally back at Marvel for the simple reason that the books started at Marvel in 1977. Just the fact that I formulated the sentence as "finally back at Marvel" betrays that fact. Marvel is the default.

Marvel almost certainly did not want the license, and all the trouble it represents. For the last fifteen years or more, Marvel has pointedly eschewed seeking out big-ticket licenses, vocally preferring to develop their own franchises. What outside licenses they have developed in the last decade have been literary: authors such as Stephen King, Jeff Lindsay, and Laurell K. Hamilton, genre fiction with a built-in audience and less in the way of red tape in the form of likeness approval and action-figure tie-ins. But Star Wars is unavoidable. The size and importance of the license for Marvel and Disney means that the company is going to have to either expand in order to deal with the specific demands of the license or publish far fewer books than Dark Horse. There is undoubtedly some support for the latter option within Marvel. I would bet anything that part of the company's mandate going forward will be to simplify and streamline the brand's cross-media presence: meaning, fewer (if any) books focusing on characters who haven't appeared in movies. I don't see Marvel being particularly enthusiastic for maintaining a strong backlist of Dark Horse's Star Wars books. If you are still holding out on any Dark Horse Star Wars volumes, now would be the time to track them down, because chances are good that most of the books won't be coming back into print anytime soon, save possibly as expensive hardcover Omnibi. (On the plus side, maybe we'll get reprints of the old Marvel series in a better format than Dark Horse's flimsy softcover Omnibus editions.)

It needs to be said, even aside from whatever changes Marvel represents for the future of the franchise in comics, that the advent of Episode VII will cause significant upheaval across all Star Wars licensees. The reason is simple: as soon as Episode VII hits theaters, a large chunk - if not the majority - of Expanded Universe media will cease to function. So far Lucasfilm has managed to keep their EU timeline relatively clean by maintaining some degree of consistency across different media. (Compare this to Dr. Who's anti-canon canon or the incredibly complex multiverse of Transformers continuity and you begin to see how much effort must have gone in to maintaining the consistency of the EU.) Episode I didn't cause as much upheaval as one might think, for the simple reason that Lucas had long maintained an embargo on most pre-Episode IV stories, based on the fact that he always intended to tell them himself. But that is not the case for post-Episode VI stories. The moment Episode VII hits theaters, every previous Star Wars story taking place after the events of Return of the Jedi fades to white with the finality of the pre-Crisis multiverse after Crisis #10.

My best guess is that the post-Dark Horse, post-Episode VII Expanded Universe is going to be simplified significantly. I would be extremely surprised if any titles carry over from the Dark Horse license, and also surprised if many of Dark Horse's stable of Star Wars creators survived the changeover. I imagine the same goes for any extant novel series or continuity. Marvel is going to want to make as big a splash as possible and that means they're going to do everything they can to differentiate their books from the previous regime. One of the difference between Star Wars and other possible licenses is that I don't see Marvel having much trouble enticing A-list talent to want to work on the franchise. (That might not even be a bad thing: Hickman, for instance, could be uniquely suited to write good Star Wars stories.) I'm guessing that, at least early on, Marvel is going to want to focus on stories directly connected to or adapting movie continuity and characters.

So this is the shape of Star Wars in 2015. Lucas, for all his faults, had a singular vision for the franchise. He didn't flood the marketplace, even though he probably could have. His reticence to make new movies helped maintain a certain cachet, and his willingness to allow the Expanded Universe relative autonomy to explore the mythos appeased an enthusiastic fanbase who might otherwise have grown frustrated by the dearth of new films. This is going to change. Whether or not all of the more abstruse corners of the EU are pared down (and I tend to think they will be, in the name of streamlining the franchise and focusing efforts on supporting the movie continuity above all else), it will change as an entire generation of EU stories are undone with a single gesture. No more Thrawn, I'm guessing, no more Mara Jade, no more Yuuzhan Vong.

I suppose there is a chance that the new Lucas could continue to support pre-Episode VII Expanded Universe continuity, but I tend to doubt it. That's not the kind of thing that Disney tends to encourage. Again, the difference between Marvel and Star Wars here is that Marvel has already shown they know best how to manage their IP, whereas every decision Disney has made regarding Star Wars since purchasing the property strongly implies that they believe Lucas had mismanaged the property by neglecting to exploit it to its full potential. Dark Horse's relatively sleepy and consistent family of Star Wars titles seems to represent a model of precisely what Disney will attempt to avoid going forward.

Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Happy New Year

From your new satanic overlord!