To Get Ahead, Get a Hat*

Guest post by Arlys-Allegra Holloway

Ione D. for Tea

Photo by @ for book 1 of the Steampunk Adventure Series of Professor Ione D.

Hats were crucial to a respectable appearance for both men and women in Victorian times. To go bareheaded was simply not proper. The top hat, for example, was standard formal wear for upper- and middle-class men. Women’s hats were designed to match their outfits and changed greatly over time. From the top hat and the bowler to a plain straw hat, women redesigned the “manly headwear” of the time to make artistic one-of-a-kind creations.

A woman’s hat in the Victorian era portrayed the very essence of who she was. Many women had a say, if not a hand in their design and construction. Milliners with the experience to please their customers with original designs were highly sought after. Most hat shops were women-owned and operated. Their original creations could cost anywhere from $8 to over $30, which was an extravagant sum at the time.

In the early to mid-1800’s, voluminous skirts held up with crinolines, and then hoop skirts, were the focal point of the female silhouette. To enhance the style without detracting from it, hats were modest in size and design. Straw and fabric bonnets were the popular choices. Poke bonnets, which had been worn during the late Regency period, had high, small crowns and brims that grew larger until the 1830’s when the face of a woman wearing one could only be seen directly from the front. They had rounded brims, echoing the rounded form of the bell-shaped hoop skirts.

The Ultimate Steampunk Hat

Steampunk photo collection of @ Model- Arlys Endres

Now in the 21st century, zteampunk couture has resurrected these wonderful fashions! This science fiction genre and subculture have had the amazing ability to combine the romance of the Victorian era with steam-powered gear-driven vehicles, elaborate weapons and all types of gadgets. Only in the world of steampunk can a girl be coy, sexy and deadly!

In the second book of our steampunk series, Professor Ione D. and The Epicurean Incident, the ladies’ hats are remarkable and match the characters’ personalities to a T. You must read this amazing adventure to discover which lady wears which hat. This exciting novel is scheduled for e-book release on Amazon on May 24th, 2017, Queen Victoria’s 198th birthday.

* Slogan is from a hat company advertisement, circa 1897

Hats, hats, hats!

Photo Collage by @, Hats created by @ for the “Ione D” Steampunk Adventure Series by Vaughn Treude and Arlys Holloway.

Author’s Note:

Please peruse my other articles on Victorian Fashion, cooking and all things Steampunk on vaughntreude.info.

Sources:

Wikipedia.org/wiki/Victorian_fashion#Hats

The Parisian Hat Company History

Media Monday: Review, Rogue One

Rogue One movie poster.

Rogue One: A Star Wars Story

Rogue One was a pleasant surprise. I must admit that my expectations were low, due to the disappointment that was The Force Awakens. I hadn’t been paying much attention to the media, so going in I didn’t know where it fit in the Star Wars time line. Though it’s being billed as a “stand alone” film, Rogue One fills in the gap between the 1977 first movie (also known as Episode IV) and Revenge of the Sith (Episode III.) It’s exciting, action-filled, and best of all, it’s original.
The screenplay was written by Chris Weitz and Tony Gilroy, based on a story by John Knoll and Gary Whitta. Yet another director, Gareth Edwards, takes the helm for this installment, and he does an impressive job. The story line is fairly straightforward: the characters find out about an insidious Imperial plot to build a “planet killer,” which turns out to be the original Death Star.
One of the more satisfying things is how the movie explains one of the most glaring flaws in Episode IV: why does the Death Star have an explained weakness?
Like the force awakens, there’s a spunky female protagonist, Jyn Erso, played by the always delightful Felicity Jones. Unlike Force’s Rey, Jyn doesn’t benefit from a sudden unexpected blossoming of Jedi powers. She has to use her brains and daring to achieve her goal, to steal the plans for the Death Star.
It also introduces an endearing non-human character: the cynical android K-2SO voiced by Firefly alumnus Alan Tudyk. Maybe this is because, as our society becomes more automated, we need to give machines a personality.
According to Wikipedia, one of the film’s controversial aspects was the use of computer-generated imagery to portray the deceased actor Peter Cushing, and to show Carrie Fisher as a much younger woman. I expect we’ll see a lot more of this in the future.
I’d also like to comment on another controversy that’s arisen in the alternative media: that Rogue One serves the “social justice” narrative by casting non-white and Hispanic actors (such as Diego Luna as Cassian Andor) in the heroic roles, while the bad guys are all white. If this was indeed a goal, it didn’t detract from the movie. After all, the Star Wars saga is supposed to take place “long ago in a galaxy far away.” The fact that the characters are even human is one of those unexplainable coincidences of science fiction.
I’d like to close this review by wishing the great Carrie Fisher a speedy recovery from her recent heart attack.

If you like science fiction, you’ll enjoy my novels and stories on Amazon.

TECHNOLOGY TUESDAY: Introducing the Alt-Internet

The Gab.ai logo

The Gab Logo (Ribbit!)

The greatest thing about the Internet is the free informational tools. It’s difficult to remember what life was like before convenience of Google, Wikipedia, Twitter, and Facebook. Lately, though, these sites have been the focus of controversy. Conservatives and libertarians have long suspected them of left-wing bias, and the leaked Clinton emails have confirmed it. Yes, they’re private companies that can set their own rules, but they need competition. Recently, alternatives have appeared: Gab, a free-speech version of Twitter, InfoGalactic, a dynamic fork of Wikipedia, and Duck Duck Go, a privacy-focused search engine.
I heard about duckduckgo.com at a libertarian conference in 2012. Its motto is “the search engine that doesn’t track you” the way Google does. It has a number of other handy features that Google doesn’t. The best thing is the consistency of its searches; it doesn’t consider your previous searches when returning results. I’ve used it for a while now. It’s just as useful as Google, without the creepy suggestions based on my search history.
InfoGalactic debuted recently as an alternative on-line encyclopedia. Currently, most of its pages are clones of those on Wikipedia. This is legal because of Wikipedia’s Creative Commons license. Infogalactic’s administrators are attempting to create an environment free of bias. They’re replacing Wikipedia’s community-editing feature with a more sophisticated set of tools and algorithms. In place of Wikipedia’s ideologically motivated editing staff, they plan to introduce personalized content controls that will allow each reader to select their own viewpoint. This could be useful for debaters looking to hone their arguments. It would also meet the needs of people who might want to filter their information, for example, devout Muslims. So far there’s not much divergence from Wikipedia, and its servers have been rather slow. I’m looking forward to seeing major changes in ideologically sensitive articles.
Gab, the Twitter alternative, is still in beta. Its address is gab.ai, “ai” being the domain of the island of Anguilla. Gab aims to provide an alternative without PC-based censorship. It forbids only material that is legally problematic: child pornography, incitement to violence, and unauthorized release of personal information. The frustrating aspect is that there’s currently a waiting list, but I only waited a few days for my account. At present, I’m using Gab as an opportunity to gain followers as an early adopter.
Facebook will be harder to replace. A promising site called “this.com” started last year but already went belly up this July. () The best alternative seems to be Disapora.com, which debuted in 2010 and is based on a decentralized server model. Like duckduckgo, it pledges not to abuse personal data. It hasn’t yet lived up to its hype, but it’s hanging in there.
In the coming months, I plan to use these alternative sites as much as possible. I encourage you to check them out. I’ll keep you posted on my experiences.

If you’re into alternatives, you’ll want to read my stories. Check them out on Amazon.

Review – Throne of Bones

I first heard of Vox Day in conjunction with the #Gamergate scandal. Day, also known as Theodore Beale, is a writer and game developer who’s become controversial for his outspoken conservatism. My first encounter with his work was a short political book called SJW’s Always Lie, a harsh critique of the so-called “social justice warriors.” The book outlines a simple strategy for protecting oneself from the fanatical progressives who try to silence anyone to the right of Bernie Sanders. Despite his tendency for hyperbole, I enjoyed Day’s abrasive style, and decided to take a look at his fiction. I selected his 2012 fantasy novel Throne of Bones, Arts of Dark and Light, Book One.

In its print version, Throne of Bones is approximately 850 pages, almost as long as a George R. R. Martin work. Due to my busy schedule, and the fact that I’m always reading several books at a time,it took me several months to finish it. But I persevered, and I found it quite enjoyable.

My biggest complaints about Throne apply not to this specific work but to the fantasy genre in general. I prefer novels of about half that length, so I can finish them in a reasonable about of time. There are also too many point-of-view characters and story threads. Just when I get caught up in one of these narratives, it switches to another. If there were just 2 or 3 threads, I’d read on, expecting the author would get back to it soon. When a novel has 7 or 8, I become frustrated.

Nevertheless, there is a lot to recommend this book. Of the plethora of characters, most are well-rounded and interesting. You might expect a notorious radical like Day would create characters who are purely good or evil. Thankfully, he does not. In that way, he’s a lot like (he’ll wince at this comparison) Game of Thrones Martin. This depth of character is complicated by their mores of their world, which are nothing like our modern, tolerant ways. Take for example the general Valerius Corvus, who has his own nephew executed for disobeying orders during a battle. He is a tough, unyielding bastard but is also one of the book’s most sympathetic characters.

The novel’s setting is Selenoth, a Tolkien-like fantasy world. It contains the expected races of humans, elves, dwarves, goblins, and orcs, with some interesting twists. In particular, the elves are not noble and pure like Tolkien’s; they possess a cruel sense of humor and have a xenophobic, genocidal history. Humans on Selenoth are organized loosely in three political groups. The first and most prominent in the story are the Amorrans, denizens of a Roman-type empire that speak a Latin-like tongue and practice a strict, quasi-Christian religion. They rule over a vast number of subservient cities and territories, none of whom possess Amorran citizenship. Secondly, there is Savondir, a neo-French kingdom with a complex aristocracy. Unlike Amorr, which forbids the use of magic on pain of death, Savondir employs battle-mages as part of its military forces. In the third group are the barbarian Dalarn, Viking-like reavers who inhabit the Wolf Islands in the far north.

Much of the action consists of warfare within and between the various human groups, as well as battles against the blood-thirsty, cannibalistic goblins. As I said before, Day does not soften these cultures in line with modern, Western sentiments. There is plenty of killing of and by the protagonists. Amorran martial discipline is enforced by the threat of summary execution. Male-female sex roles are similar to those seen throughout human history, with women taking a subordinate (though often conspiratorial) role. Only among the elves do females have a prominent place in society, due to the magic powers of their virginal sorcerer-priestesses.

My biggest issue with Selenoth society is the imbalance that should be caused by the Amorran ban on magic. I don’t understand how they would not be defeated by Savondir or the elves, both of whom have a magical advantage. The long-lived elves are relatively aloof from human concerns, but the Savonner nobles are as cruel, arrogant, and power-hungry as their Amorran counterparts.

Regardless of what you may think of Day’s politics (and I personally couldn’t care less about an author’s ideology,) Throne of Bones is a great read. If I were to subtract a star for anything, it would be the book’s marathon length and complexity.

Review – Star Trek Beyond

Once again, I missed a golden opportunity. I saw the latest installment of Star Trek on the very first night and then neglected to write my review for a whole week.

Star Trek, Beyond is the third in the series since the “reboot” which changed the Trek timeline and replaced the original cast with fresh new faces. I’ll admit that I was appalled at first, but I’ve grown fond of the new cast. Chris Pine and Zachary Quinto do Kirk and Spock really, really well. And tragically, just as we were getting to know him, Anton Yelchin, a.k.a. Chekov died in an accident shortly before the movie’s release.

This story was similar in formula to the previous two post-reboot movies, but a bit better, perhaps because Simon Pegg (who plays Scotty, and also created the brilliant zombie spoof Shaun of the Dead) wrote the screenplay. The pace is less frenetic than its predecessors, and that’s a good thing. It gives the characters more time to spout quotable lines, none of which I happen to remember at the moment. There are of course relationships carried over from previous shows: Spock and Uhura (Zoe Saldana) are on the outs, and their improbable relationship drives much of the story’s interpersonal dynamic. There’s a scene in which we learn that Ambassador Spock (young Spock’s other-dimensional self) has died, probably more of a nod to Leonard Nimoy’s passing than an actual story element.

I’d like to note that Sulu’s character (played by John Cho) is portrayed as gay, no doubt an homage to the original series’ actor George Takei. This fact didn’t affect the story in any way, and the choice struck me as a bit too PC. I’d have preferred they’d selected some other random character to carry the rainbow flag into the 23rd century.

As with the last two Star Trek movies, Beyond opens with one or more of the primary characters doing Something Important. In this case, Kirk is presenting a peace offering from one warring race to its adversary. Unlike the over-the-top volcano incident in Into Darkness, this seems more like something a Starfleet captain would actually do. By the way, the scene is quite funny, as well as relevant (to say how would be a spoiler) to the rest of the story.

The plot revolves around the Enterprise’s mission to answer a distress call from a ship that’s crashed on an isolated planet in the middle of a nebula. This nebula is not the dense, electrically charged cloud as these things have been portrayed in classic Trek. It’s more like Saturn’s rings in spherical form; a huge field of rocks, boulders and dangerous space junk, reminiscent of the classic “Asteroids” video game. I’m no astrophysicist, so I can’t say which of these views is more realistic.

Kick-ass women are a staple in sci-fi these days, and Beyond has one, of course, the black-and-white-skinned Jaylah (Sofia Boutella), the only survivor of a crash on this isolated world. I liked the way they emphasize her intelligence as her primary strength, and the fact that she’s survived on this world for years, which is a more satisfying explanation of her expertise than innate talent. (You guessed it; I’m pointing to the egregious example of Rey in Star Wars The Force Awakens.) Jaylah is also an aficionado of late-twentieth-century earth music; I had to laugh when one of the characters referred to Public Enemy as classical music. This is setup for a battle scene that’s so ludicrous that it becomes ironically cool. I like the Beastie Boys, but to see their music being used as a weapon? I can’t decide whether it’s brilliant or idiotic.

The villain, Krall (Idris Elba) is at first quite intriguing. He’s powerful, evil, and conniving, with a look reminiscent of G’Kar from Babylon-5, and a Road Warrior kind of presence. However, I found his back-story (which I won’t reveal here) to be an enormous letdown. I suspect that the writers were trying a bit too hard to surprise the audience.

In conclusion, I’d say Star Trek Beyond is well worth seeing for any sci-fi fan with a reasonable sense of humor. This was not the most outstanding of the Trek movies, but it was a definite improvement on the previous one. In these last couple of years the movie business has been plagued with sequels and franchise entries that ranged from disappointing (the aforementioned Star Wars, which I’ve seen) to terrible (Ghostbusters – considering the reviews, I’ll wait for that one to come to Netflicks, OK?) It was good to see a decent one for a change.

Kiznaiver, or “I Feel Your Pain”

Kiznaiver

Kiznaiver, one of the spring 2016 offerings of the Japanese animation studio “Trigger,” just aired its final episode last weekend. It was better than I expected; I’d rate it at least 4 stars out of 5. Trigger is most famous for the cult favorite Kill La Kill, an over-the-top satire featuring lots of gratuitous (near) nudity and violence, the premise being a bizarre conspiracy to rule the world through malevolent clothing. Kiznaiver is nowhere near that edgy, but it maintains Trigger’s characteristic quirkiness in a show that has a much broader appeal.

The story takes place in the fictional Sugomori City, which was founded years earlier to advance the utopian goal of the elimination of war and violence. Though this idealistic vision seems to have been forgotten, a small group of scientists continues to conduct psychological experiments on unknowing, unwilling subjects. They select seven high school students to receive the “Kizna” (Japanese for “connection”) surgery, which leaves no visible sign except a strange mark on the arm. Its purpose is to connect the study’s participants, so that if any of the seven feel pain, they all do. Furthermore, the sensation is divided in intensity as it is distributed among them all. A side effect is to lessen any injury that one of them suffers. In the first episode, one of the seven falls head-first down a long flight of stairs and suffers only a minor concussion.

Despite its weird science-fiction premise, the show’s intriguing characters save it from being dry and contrived. The seven test subjects begin as anime stereotypes: Yuta the playboy, Tenga the thug, Chidori the nice girl, Nico the cute lolly, Honoka the ice-cold bitch, Hisomu the eccentric freak, and Katsuhira the blank-slate protagonist. Though they are classmates, they have nothing else in common. The Kizna experiment forces them to associate and to overcome numerous trials together. In the process, they share their hopes and fears and reveal the true depths of their personalities. The eighth major character is the beautiful, enigmatic Sonozaki, a fellow teenager who acts as their handler. The show hints at her past association with Katsuhira, which he remembers only through disturbing dreams. Both were involved, as small children, in an earlier experiment that had tragic consequences.

As for the seven test subjects, there’s a constant tension between those who crave acceptance and companionship from the group (Nico), those who reject it (Honoka) and those who just don’t care (Katsuhira.) While the teenagers deal with the burden of shared physical and emotional pain, they become involved in a complex romantic polygon, in which everyone’s love interest is focused on someone else. The most prominent character arc is that of Katsuhira, a boy who feels little emotion and no physical pain, who learns to rediscover his humanity.

For all the heavy moral and ethical questions that Kiznaiver explores, it is never preachy. No one is totally good or evil. The emotionally damaged Sonozaki has a good reason for her lack of empathy. Even the experiment’s ringleader, Sugomori’s scheming mayor, and the two high school teachers who serve as his bungling hench-people, seem to have good intentions. As with most anime series, the show has comic elements, including the omnipresent mascots called Gomorin. These anonymous city workers wear suits of bizarre lumpy creatures whose distorted faces resemble the “Kizna” mark. The show’s worst feature are its groan-worthy episode titles, including this gem: “Wahoo, It’s a Training Camp! Let’s Step in Deer Poop and Have Pillow Fights! Go, Go!”

At times, Kiznaiver borders on melodrama, but somehow the show maintains a balance between message and entertainment. I see it as an allegory about what it means to be human, the importance of community, and the ways people deal with loss. Political animal that I am, I couldn’t help drawing parallels to political and economic systems. The Kizna project, by forcing people to share both physical and emotional pain, is a lot like socialism. Both ideas have noble motivations that seldom work out as intended. As for the show’s actual message, that’s for the viewer to decide.

Kiznaiver can be seen on Crunchyroll.com and numerous other anime websites. Kiznaiver promotional image is from wikipedia.org.

Why Steampunk?

Steampunk Frog

Illustration: Steampunk Frog by Kyle Dunbar. Kyle now has his own tattoo business in scenic Cave Creek, AZ, be sure to check it out!

Note: WordPress won’t let me put a link in the caption, so see Kyle’s Instagram Page here.

For those of you who are wondering, what the heck is steampunk, there are plenty of definitions but I’ll give you mine. Steampunk is a sub-genre of science fiction set in the past, generally in the period of the late 1800’s we call the Victorian Era. England was at that time the world’s ruling power, and its monarch, Queen Victoria, reigned from 1837-1901. Personally, I would include the reign of her son Edward VII, extending the period to 1910. In America, it was known as the Gilded Age, the time of industrialization and progress when steam power ruled the world.

In one sense, steampunk is historical fiction, but it’s more correctly a form of alternate history, which is why we add the “punk” suffix. According to Wikipedia, sci-fi writer K.W. Jeter coined the term to classify his works. The term was a pun on the term “cyberpunk,” a popular sci-fi subgenre of the 1980’s, which was in turn associated with the “cypherpunk” political movement of computer hackers. In the beginning, “punk” signified the anarchy and decadence of the musical style by that name. Eventually, it was broadened to include any genre in which history is skewed or twisted, giving rise to “dieselpunk” fiction set in the period from around World War I to the 1950’s.

What makes steampunk so popular? I believe it’s because the Gilded Age was a time of great optimism about humanity’s future and the advancement of technology. This is when writers like Jules Verne and HG Wells invented modern science fiction – though admittedly not all their works were optimistic. In our uncertain and decadent times, this era seems inviting, even refreshing. Courtesy was an essential character trait, and honesty and hard work were widely admired. The positive outlook of that time provides a welcome contrast to today’s bleak economic and political outlook. The class distinctions and rigidity of Victorian society, which would be stifling to our modern sensibilities, can seem reassuring when viewed from a distance.

One thing that has surprised me about the steampunk movement is its longevity. At first, it seemed it might be a transitory fad, more about the fun of wearing “high tech” period costumes to conventions than the stories themselves. Perhaps costuming and art are indeed steampunk’s more popular aspects and we have a lot of that in our house, but the literary movement is going strong as well. This is one of the reasons I’ve been writing in this genre- its current popularity, combined with my own fascination with history and technology.

My first exposure to steampunk fiction was the novel The Difference Engine by Willliam Gibson and Bruce Sterling. This alternative history about the rise of mechanical computers in the 1850’s helped establish some of the archetypes of the genre. Alternate history, including the steam era, were frequent themes in science fiction (such as Michael Moorcock’s Warlord of the Air) but only recently did it earn its own category. Since then we’ve seen talented young writers such as Cherie Priest (Boneshaker) and Scott Westerfield (Leviathan) emerge to further develop this trend.

Some of its devotees say that the steampunk genre is much older, going back to the 1960’s sci-fi TV western called The Wild Wild West. It’s set in the 1870’s, when Secret Service agents James T. West and Artemus Gordon have their own train car HQ and lots of proto-James-Bond gadgets. It was one of my favorite shows as a kid, which unfortunately gives away my age.

Though I’ve always been fascinated by history and period novels, alternate history, such as the works of Harry Turtledove (Guns of the South) are even more fun. This kind of writing provided the inspirations for my second novel Fidelio’s Automata. In this book Nikola Tesla did not leave Colorado in 1900, staying to play a part in the Colorado Labor Wars, which pitted radical miners against the companies. I set another part of the story in my home state of North Dakota, involving the real-life characters the Marquis de Mores, an eccentric French nobleman, and his liberated American wife, Medora. In real life, the Marquis’ meat-packing business failed, he returned to France, got involved in extremist politics, and died violently in North Africa. In Fidelio, his business did not fail, and he stayed in America and lived to see the twentieth century.

My latest foray into steampunk is the novella Miss Ione D. and the Mayan Marvel, a collaboration with my writing partner Arlys Holloway. She invented Ione D as a Facebook persona to promote Fidelio’s Automata. I found the character so intriguing that I decided we had to create stories for her. We began with Professor Ione D and the Epicurean Incident, but decided instead to start with Ione D in her younger days, exploring the pyramids in Tikal, Guatemala. (Don’t worry; Epicurean Incident is next!) Ione is the daughter of an American diplomat and a French actress and grew up in the US embassies in Paris and London. She’s a brilliant young woman who travels the world looking for adventure and exciting new recipes, while solving mysteries in the process. Mayan Marvel is a short work and as such it is (in our humble opinion) a good introduction to the steampunk genre. Check it out on Amazon; it’s currently free to Kindle Unlimited members.

And now, a serious candidate for president.

Triumph the Insult Comic Dog

Triumph for Top Dog

Here in the US, the 2016 election cycle has been plagued by cynicism, as all the candidates for the Highest Office in the Land seem to be puppets of special interests. The only (possible) exception is Donald Trump, whose obnoxious pronouncements have offended half the nation and made him insanely popular with the other half. What this country needs is a combination of the two, someone who is both a puppet AND obnoxious.

Announcing the Puppet Party nominee for President in 2016, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog! He will go the existing candidates one better, in that he (a) is not just metaphorically but literally a puppet, and (b) is at least as offensive as Trump if not more so. His name even sounds a bit like Trump, which, if the Donald succeeds in getting the Republican nomination, may garner him millions of ballots through voter confusion.

A President Triumph would be a dogged, no-nonsense, take-charge kind of guy. Instead of wasting his time hob-nobbing with the high and mighty, the Puppet in Chief would give them what they deserve by urinating on them. Triumph would, of course, make an exception for female politicians, such as former Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, who would instead receive a furious leg-humping.

Selecting a dog for president would also serve the interests of diversity as American’s first non-human President. It would also be a symbolic “bite me” to the world’s dog-despising Muslim theocracies such as Iran and Saudi Arabia. In the troubled Middle East, Triumph’s strategy would be “I poop on ISIS!”

Miss Piggy

Miss Piggy: #2 is #1 plus one!

And speaking of diversity, the Puppet Party’s nominee for Vice President is that indomitable Muppet, Miss Piggy. Unlike Joe Biden, this porcine feminist would not suffer being the “butt” of jokes about vice-presidential ineffectiveness. A few well-placed karate kicks would ensure that the White House Press Corps would grant her the respect she deserves. Piggy’s number two position would also serve to deter terrorist attacks on President Triumph, as no self-respecting Muslim would want to see a female swine with her pudgy finger on the nuclear button.

As a long-time Libertarian activist, I’m accustomed to hearing the argument that a third-party vote is wasted. However, this ticket is sure to Triumph!

Vote Puppet Party, Triumph & Piggy 2016!

Review: Deadpool

Deadpool, Marvel’s (sort of) Superhero

Disclaimer: My son and I saw Deadpool (2015, directed by Tim Miller) a few weeks ago, so this review may not be so fresh, but better late than never.

In my childhood, I was a big fan of superhero comics, mostly from the DC universe (Batman, Superman, etc.) but I lost interest around high school. Since then, my comic reading has been confined to graphic novels like those of Alan Moore, and the occasional manga such as “Death Note.” So I knew nothing of Deadpool except seeing all the related merchandise and fan art at events like Comicon. It seemed he must have something pretty interesting or original to attract so much attention in the crowded universe of superheroes.

Deadpool is one of Marvel’s famously flawed heroes, in fact more of an anti-hero. He’s a mutant with the usual superhuman abilities, but he refuses to join the X-Men, whom he sees as namby-pamby do-gooders. In his previous life, he was Wade Wilson, a retired Special Forces soldier who’d gone to work as a “mercenary,” which in the film consists of hiring himself out to ordinary people with scores to settle. Lest he be seen as a total villain, he only takes on targets whom he feels “deserve” to be terrorized, beat up, or worse. His mutant powers, the result of a very unconventional treatment for cancer, have rendered him practically indestructible.

(By the way, what is it with comic books and alliteration? Peter Parker, Bruce Banner, Clark Kent, Lois Lane…)

The actor Ryan Reynolds (alliteration again!) is a good fit for Deadpool’s wise-cracking, misanthropic character. He alone makes the Deadpool movie worth seeing, despite its standard “superhero origin story” plot. By the way, it earns its R rating with loads of violence, some kinky sex, and a lot of really crass humor. Yes, it’s funny, though it’s nowhere near the top of my list. (Just about anything starring Will Ferrell is funnier.) One of the comic high points was the fake credits at the beginning, which lists the producer as “Some Douche-bag,” the stars as “God’s Perfect Idiot” and “A Hot Chick,” with a script by “An Overpaid Tool.” The hero breaks the fourth wall more often than an angst-ridden Woody Allen movie. And it’s unrelentingly self-referential. When two characters from the X-Men refer to Doctor Xavier, Deadpool asks “Stewart or McAvoy”?

All in all, there’s plenty of action to keep it from getting dull, though as I said, you need to be able to appreciate the cruder bits. Though a surprising number of critics liked it (83% on Rotten Tomatoes) I’d grant this film an average rating, right about 3 out of 5 stars.

Vaughn & Arlys’ Top Ten Anime Picks

Above, the SOS Brigade with Haruhi Suzumiya.

They say television is a wasteland, and although things have improved with cable series like Game of Thrones and Breaking Bad, it’s no secret that America’s entertainment industry gets much of its inspiration from foreign sources. TV executives in America are risk-averse and will always back a proven money maker over an untested concept. Not so in Japan, where a burgeoning animation industry produces dozens of new quality series per year, a significant portion of which are aimed at adults. My son Lowell, who is now in college, got us hooked in Japanese animation, popularly called anime, and over the last five years we’ve watched at least 40 complete series. Below I’ve listed some of our favorites, with brief summaries for the benefit of the uninitiated.

None of the shows in our list are “kid’s” cartoons, and nothing in our list would be appropriate for young children but most would be fine for teenagers. I’ve deliberately omitted any feature-length movies, and we avoid the super-popular teen series such as Bleach or Fruits Basket. Nonetheless, most of our picks are relatively popular within anime fandom. All ten of them happen to be science fiction or fantasy, though there is quality content in every genre.

Most of these shows were derived from manga (the Japanese term for a graphic novel) though neither us have read many of those. We prefer to watch these shows (and, for that matter, all foreign films) with subtitles. After watching a few episodes with English-language dubbing, we decided that the subtitles seem to be better capture the writer’s original meanings, as well as the subtleties of Japanese culture. This glimpse into Japanese life, as well as their view of Western society, is fascinating as well as entertaining.

Here they are, listed in Letterman-style reverse order.

10. Black Butler (2008-2009) – Set in Victorian London, this show’s protagonists are the wealthy orphan Ciel Phantomhive and his guardian/butler Sebastian, who is secretly a demon in human form. My son derides this as a “teenage girl” series but nonetheless it fits our preference for the dark and quirky. The show mixes elements of horror and the supernatural with the slapstick comedy of the manor’s bumbling servants. The intense devotion of Sebastian (his favorite tag-line: “I’m one hell of a butler”) for the angry, brooding Ciel borders on creepiness. Perhaps reading the manga would clarify their relationship.

9. Steins;Gate [sic] (2011) – A sci-fi series based on a visual novel/game that was later made into a manga. It involves a group of teenagers/young adults who stumble upon an ingenious way to alter the past, by inventing a device that let them to send text messages to their previous selves. Much of the story arc revolves around the tragic death of innocent young Mayushii and her friend Okarin’s dogged determination to undo that event. With every attempt he makes, his interventions in the time line have further unintended consequences.

8. The Melancholy of Haruhi Suzumiya (2006) – This seems at first like the typical “slice of life” high school comedy until we realize that the title character, a bright but domineering teenage girl, unknowingly possesses godlike powers over time and space. Upon arriving at her new school, she forms a social club called (for no particular reason) the “SOS Brigade.” Unknown to her, the other club members have been tasked by mysterious entities to keep her happy, so that she won’t accidentally destroy the universe in a fit of temper. The protagonist, the long-suffering Kyon, complains constantly but secretly enjoys his newly interesting life. He is the only member of the club without an extraordinary power of some sort. The show combines adventure, interpersonal drama and humor in a very entertaining mix . The writers make some very interesting choices with the story arc.

7. Bakemonogatari (Ghost Story) (2009) – Translated literally, the name means “monster story.” This is the first of a collection of anime series starring a high school boy named Koyomi Araragi, who was recently turned into a vampire and then “cured,” though her retains some supernatural abilities. The story line revolves around Araragi’s relationships with the many females in his life, including his two sisters, several classmates, the ghost of a middle schooler, and a blonde vampire woman who ages in reverse. All have some mysterious curse to overcome, though some of these maladies don’t come to light until the later series. It’s visually superb, very quirky, and occasionally erotic, though at times the pace bogs down under excessive dialog. The sequels (all with names ending in -gatarai) are also interesting but unfortunately the talkiness increases. This first one is definitely the best.

6. XXXHolic (2006) – Though the name represents a generic term for addiction (alcoholic, shopaholic) such obsessive behavior is not the primary focus of the show. The protagonist is Watanuki, a teenage boy who lives alone, having lost his parents. His curse is his ability to see the invisible spirits (nature spirits, not ghosts) that populate the modern world. While searching for a cure, he comes into the service of Yuko, a mysterious, sultry “witch” who helps clients with psychological problems. When not dishing out advice, Yuko lounges around the house in a kimono, drinking wine, smoking cigarettes and constantly ordering Watanuki around. The characters (which include Yuko’s familiars, two creepy “spirit” girls and a talking rabbit-like creature) have many amusing and sometimes harrowing interactions with the supernatural world of Japanese folklore.

5. Uchouten Kazoku (2013) Translated as “Eccentric Family,” this is probably the most obscure entry in our list. This show is a gem that combines comedy and tragedy in a story line that is surprisingly moving. The primary characters are the Shimogamo family, a dysfunctional clan of tanuki, or “raccoon dogs,” animals who according to Japanese folklore have the ability to shape-shift and live in human society posing as people. The show focuses on Yasaburou, the family’s third-eldest son. His father, formerly head of all the tanuki clans in Kyoto, has died tragically, having been made into hot pot and eaten by humans in a New Years’ celebration. Other magical characters include the Shimogamos’ tutor, a tengu (bird man) called Professor Akadama, and his selfish, manipulative human girlfriend Benten. The show features some interesting gender-bending as the fun-loving Yasaburou, when in human form, likes to switch between male and female identities.

4. Attack on Titan (2009) In Japanese it’s called Shingeki no Kyojin, which means “Advancing Giants,” which is far more appropriate than the English title. Set in the distant future, the last remnants of humanity live in a multi-walled city. Here they take refuge from the Titans, giant mindless humanoid monsters who roam the earth, gobbling humans whole. In the initial episode, an extra-titanic titan breaches the outer wall, allowing the monsters to pour in. The city’s military mobilizes to drive back the creatures and save the human race. The show’s heroes are three teenagers – Eren, Mikasa, and Armin – who enlist in the Survey Corps, the first line of defense against the titans. Having no heavy artillery, the humans must kill these monsters by stabbing them in the back of the neck. Each corpsman wears a harness connected to a series of tethers and pulleys, which allows them to swing from trees and rooftops and maneuver high enough to make the kill. Some anime conventions have rated it 18+ due to violence, though I feel that in its fantasy setting it’s really no worse than Lord of the Rings. Attack has spawned a booming costume business. The tan and white Survey Corps uniforms are very popular at anime conventions. Though we fans are eagerly awaiting the sequel, its release date keeps getting pushed back.

3. Psycho-Pass (2012-2013) – This is set in a futuristic dystopian Japan ruled by an all-powerful networked computer system called Sybil. The rule of law has been replaced by a police state which constantly monitors the mental health of all citizens. The “psycho-pass” is an identification document which changes color to reflect the bearer’s mental state. The show features a unit of the police agency charged with apprehending (and in extreme cases, terminating) anyone whose “psycho pass” shows mental distress exceeding the legal limits. The heroine is the rookie cop Akane Tsunemori, a strong and complex female character who, contrary to anime convention, is not overly sexified.

2. Death Note (2006-2007) – Here’s another mega-popular show that’s been a long-time favorite for conventions and cosplayers. If one disregards the supernatural premise, it’s a crime drama that pits an eccentric detective against a brilliant villain. Death Note considers the question of what happens when a good person acquires absolute power. “Light” Yagami, Japan’s top honor student, finds a mystical notebook (intentionally abandoned by a shinigami, or “death god”) that grants him the power to kill anyone he wishes. All he needs to do is write the name in the notebook along with the cause of death, while keeping the person’s face in his mind (to eliminate the issue of duplicate names.) Light begins with the goal of ridding the world of violent criminals, but at this power goes to his head, his criteria for execution grow ever less stringent. As the police close in on him, he abandons all his former principles, using the notebook to eliminate anyone who threatens to apprehend him.

1. Cowboy Be-bop (1997-1998) – The oldest show in our list is a consistent favorite with anime fans. It’s a space opera series in which the “cowboys” (bounty hunters) Spike Spiegel and Jet Black pursue interplanetary fugitives to a classic jazz soundtrack. During their travels they accumulate a crew of oddballs and misfits, including Faye, a gypsy woman who’s awakened from 50 years in cryo-sleep, Ein, a corgi fitted with electronic implants for smuggling information, and Edward, a genius-hacker kid who has made her escape from the devastated planet Earth. Be-bop endured for just one season, but it has held its fans’ attention for far longer than that.

Bonus: one we’ve barely started:

Arly’s son David recently turned us on to Paranoia Agent (2004), another dark and quirky series that we’ve only just begun watching. A pre-teen boy known as “Lil’ Slugger” skates around on Rollerblades and attacks random people with an aluminum bat. The series appears to focus not on Slugger but his victims and how the “blow to the head” changes their lives. (And no, this isn’t a Will Smith “Concussion” drama.)