Monthly Archives: September 2006

Friday Night Videos: What You Need is More U2

I’m guest-hosting FNV this week. And in light of all the torture talk, well, I thought we needed to mellow out with some classic U2. What am I saying? Everyone knew that if I ever hosted FNV the first one would be all U2 videos. It would just be a matter of which ones…

U2: With or Without You from Rattle and Hum (1988)
Stephen will grouch at me when he sees this because he will say this isn’t really a video and he’s set such high standards of video goodness around here. Technically, he’s right, this really isn’t a video. It’s part of a movie which happens to be all music. But this clip has my all-time favorite added U2 lyric at the end. I’ve even gone so far as to record it off of my VCR copy of Rattle and Hum to tape (no jokes about how old I am, please) so I could hear those extra couple of lines. Also, I saw Rattle and Hum in the theatre with Lana Bob! and about 5 other people. It was almost as good as going to a concert because some nice employee turned the sound up to 11 for the show.

U2: New Year’s Day (1983)
An actual video. A bad one, but still a video. This is from the 80s when someone could say, “Wouldn’t it be cool to make a video in the snow? Does anyone have horses?” The best part of this video is watching Larry bang his widdle drum in the back.

U2: Vertigo (2004)
A better U2 video because they spent more than $3 on it. Also, a lovely marriage of song and video inducing said vertigo. Best line: Your love is teaching me how to kneel. Maybe that’s why I love U2 so much, they pretty much always get my theology right.

Narbonic Rocks My Socks

Here lately I’ve been interested in the process and analysis of creative endeavors: how is creativity turned into something tangible, and how well does it work for the audience? Blame it on the stuff I’ve been doing for Dragon*ConTV and my natural tendency to analyze. For the forseeable future I’ll occasionally bust out with a critical essay like the one you’re unwittingly reading now, in which I take apart something creative and/or entertaining, ignoring E.B. White’s dictum about frogs and humor and blazing full speed ahead.

With that out of the way, let me introduce specimen number one: Narbonic. Narbonic is a four-panel comic strip that’s web-based. It’s about the exploits of a mad scientist and her henchmen, and it is my favorite comic strip ever.

The comic’s main protagonist is Dave Davenport, a computer programmer who gets a job out of college with Helen Narbon. Helen is a mad scientist who specializes in biology and genetics — not the mad scientist specialization I would choose, but I suppose it works for her. They are joined by intern Mell Kelly and by Artie (literally RT-5478), a hyper-intelligent gerbil that Helen created.

Narbonic, like Girl Genius, posits a world where certain people are mad (or have the Spark) and can thus quite literally create world-destroying wonders. Thankfully that hasn’t happened yet, mostly because Narbonic’s mad scientists tend to laziness and sloth and have the attention span of a ferret snorting Pixie Stix.

The art is solid, though not outstanding. Get Fuzzy is, for my money, the best-looking four-panel comic currently running, and Narbonic doesn’t meet that high standard. But over the years Shaenon has developed a clean aesthetic that works well, and she’s gotten better over the years. Consider this example from the comic’s second week:

An early example of art from Narbonic

But now?

A more recent example of art from Narbonic

I love the composition of these frames. The BOOM and POW! coupled with Helen’s and Mell’s expressions are glee-inducing. And the first Sunday comic of every new year is an homage to Little Nemo in Slumberland, showcasing both Shaenon’s art and her terrible and powerful knowledge of comics history.

A Narbonic comic whose style is taken from Little Nemo in Slumberland

The Little Nemo strips also demonstrate one of Narbonic’s two great strengths: pacing. Each Little Nemo comic presages what is to come in the strip. They feed into Narbonic’s giant story arc, an arc that’s drawing to a close. At the end of this year, Narbonic ends. What’s more, Shaenon decided on the story arc early on. In a recent podcast, Shaenon admitted that she had some idea of the end when she started the strip, and had in fact written one of the pivotal smaller story arcs before Narbonic. Everything was mostly determined by the end of the second year.

And yet the giant story arc doesn’t keep the daily strips from often being funny in and of themselves. Below is the comic with, bar none, my favorite joke in the entire run. It works even if you don’t really know the characters. In between the gag-a-day format of a four-panel comic and the six-year story arc that Narbonic has been working towards are shorter story arcs that last from a few months to nearly a year. Keeping up the pace of individual story arcs while simultaneously moving the overarching story forward and delivering a joke every day is not easy, and yet Narbonic does it, and has done it, day after day after day after day.

An example punchline from Narbonic

I said that pacing was one of Narbonic’s great strengths. The other is characterization. The characters began as two-word traits rather than personalities: the mad scientist, the weapons-crazy intern, the do-gooder gerbil, the geeky computer nerd. But the characters have grown past that without losing the core of their identities. It’s tough to balance recognizable and near-stereotypical character traits with individual quirks. On the whole, Narbonic gets it right.

From that characterization flows the entire strip. Storylines arise because of the characters’ actions, and those actions follow clearly from who they are. Even moreso, the punchlines flow from character, and do so without hitting the same one note over and over.

Shaenon has also let her characters evolve and change. More importantly, those changes matter. Their choices have real ramifications and don’t feel like arbitrary plot devices. Nothing demonstrates this more than the series climax towards which the strip is hurtling. For a long time Narbonic was about wacky mad science, with no one getting hurt, at least not for long. Then we began to see the shape of the overall plot, and shadows crept into the series. Over the last year it’s been growing steadily darker. A major character has become more evil — truly evil — and less sympathetic, going so far as to kill someone coldly and deliberately. Right now the threat of a truly unhappy end hangs over the series, and what’s more, I believe this threat. It’s the corollary to the character’s choices having consequences. Sometimes those consequences are very bad indeed.

Narbonic works because it features believable and interesting characters that I care about. Even in the midst of the wackiest of plots, the characters are grounded. What’s more, I find their story interesting and compelling. Finding interesting characters and a good story within the same work is a wonderful thing.

For a long time, Narbonic was part of Modern Tales. You could read the most recent strip, but you could only browse the archive if you paid for a Modern Tales subscription. Now the strip is freely available. Go read it. You won’t be sorry.

All Narbonic art copyright © Shaenon Garrity. Used with permission.

Do Not Wake the Wallower

Last night Eli woke up around midnight, snuffling and crying. He’s been having some congestion. Is it from a small cold? Is he allergic to the cotton that grows all around us? Who knows! What I do know is that he was having trouble breathing and that woke him up.

We went in and patted him and rocked him and Misty sang to him and put him back into his bed. He continued whimpering, so after five minutes or so we came up with a plan. We would make up the guest bed and he could sleep with Misty.

While Misty made the bed I went into Eli’s room to get him. I would like to state for the record that I haven’t had to deal with a half-awake child in the middle of the night in a long time. I’m out of practice. That’s the only excuse I can come up with for me picking up my sleeping child and carrying him to Misty, thus waking him up.

Things devolved from there. I helped Misty and Eli get situated in bed, causing Eli to sit up and declare, “I wanna sleep in my bed.” We put him back in his bed, where he cried and shrieked for Mommy and Daddy. We went back in and moved Eli to the guest bed, at which point he again said, “I wanna sleep in my bed.” Toddlers! Isn’t it cure when they can’t make up their minds and it’s 1 AM and you know they won’t be happy with whatever decision they make? Ha! Ha!

I began to understand the true meaning of, “I’ll give you something to cry about!”

We made Eli sleep with Misty, which worked out okay until early in the morning when Eli began his morning ablutions, which consist of him winding himself in his blanket and wallowing around, smacking whomever is next to him, and eventually rolling off of the bed and onto the floor. “I fell offa bed and onna floor!” It’s all very cute if you’re not sleep deprived, which I suppose is the motto of parenthood. Kids should come home from the hospital with that tattooed on their diapered rears.

On the Death of John M. Ford

I never met Mike Ford, though my acquaintance with him goes back many years. When I was very young I read the early Star Trek books. My favorite was The Final Reflection, a book that delved into the history of Klingons at a time when very little had been done on the subject.

Later, when I was interested in the role-playing game Paranoia, I picked up a module called The Yellow Clearance Black Box Blues. It was funny as hell, though I expect the Cold War-era humor is now dated to those who didn’t grow up in the war’s long shadow.

After that I read whatever of his I could get my hands on. His second Star Trek novel, How Much For Just The Planet?, was a farce that had Gilbert and Sullivan, jabs at Paramount, and more Klingons. Growing Up Weightless was a beautiful coming-of-age tale set on the moon. The Dragon Waiting was an alternate-history story set during the reigns of Edward IV and Richard III and that involved vampires.

From this you may start to appreciate how varied his output was. It was also much smaller than I would have liked. Fortunately for me, I discovered his postings at Making Light, the blog of Teresa and Patrick Nielsen Hayden, a pair of book editors for Tor. Mike’s posts were entertaining and wild — his knowledge was wide-ranging and astounding, and he weilded language with verve and skill. Occasionally he’d post something that I would force my friends to read, like Harry of Five Points, where he took Henry V and turned it into a gangster play.

He died today, cause as of yet unknown. I’d always meant to tell him how much I enjoyed his books and his posts. Now I never will.

Tagged – Four Words

Jessica tagged me with four words. I’ve always wondered if this is supposed to carry some deep, insightful meaning for the person tagging. Jess, you will have to tell me if you learn something deep about me.

1. Cold – looking forward to it! This summer has been way too hot for me. I especially want to take Eli ice skating this winter. I figure that’s gotta be good for some laughs.

2. Beauty – this one is hard. there are lots of things that I think are beautiful. but probably my favorite beautiful thing is our church. I love the people there and I love that they are honest and committed to living in community with each other and God.

3. Green – my favorite color and what my desktop looks like right now.
womb.jpg
My favorite green though is fresh cut grass.

4. Book – I immediately think of this journal that my three best friends and I wrote in in high school. We called it “The Book” for lack of creativity. I made them all copies a couple of years ago when one of them got married. Next, I think that we are being overwhelmed in our house by all of the books. We need more shelving!

And now I’m supposed to tag four people. Ha ha to you, suckas!
1. Stephen
2. Lana Bob!
3. Rachel
4. Amy, cause I know she’ll never do it in a million years.

Your words:
1. help
2. monster
3. yellow
4. fish

In Case of Tumbling, Spread Out

I enjoy reading explanations of how to deal with extreme circumstances like being chased by killer bees or having to jump from a building into a dumpster. I had a good time leafing through various Worst Case Scenarios books in the bookstore. Thus I was pleased to find an explanation of how to survive a long fall.

Relax. Relaxing during a long fall-especially as you near the ground is easier said than done, but try anyway…. One way to remain (relatively) calm is to focus on performing the steps and being aware of your body. Doing so gives you something else to think about besides impending death.

And now you know what to do the next time an evil villian thrusts you from a plane without a parachute.

Book Reviews: Two for the Price of One!

I started to break these two reviews into two entries but then decided it was more entertaining seeing them together. It shows how much broader my reading habits have become over the past couple of years.

Walking the Bible: A Journey by Land Through the Five Books of Moses
by Bruce Feiler

I finished Walking the Bible a while back and at the end, it was mostly a testament of my persistence. The book was long and while it started out and ended strong as with the actual bible, we got lost in the desert for a while in the middle.

For me there are two highlights in this book. One is watching Bruce come to terms with his faith struggle. I had never given much thought to folks of religions other than mine dealing with the same sort of struggles that I do. I didn’t think that people couldn’t have those struggles in other religions, I just grew up in the fairly homogenous south so (until pretty recently) didn’t know people of other faiths to see it first hand. There seems to me to be something unifying for all of us to be struggling with some of the same questions and interestingly enough, occasionally coming up with the same answers.

The other interesting bit for me was watching him try to come to terms with being Jewish and sharing the same holy land with Muslims. He talks about the uneasy cohabitation of Hebron early in the book but is very detached and able to explain it away with a nice metaphor.

After 300 pages of walking in Moses footsteps, he’s not nearly so detached. Bruce and his guide, Avner Goren, have dinner in the desert with some bedouin after a long day of travel and they all start comparing notes on the Bible and the Koran. Bruce gets frustrated with the Koran’s telling of a particular story and has to get up and walk away from the conversation.

For so much of this trip, I realized, I had allowed myself to get caught up in the emotional awaking I had been experiencing. If I could feel a growing openness in myself, if I could sense a similar feeling in Rami, Ofer, Father Justin, and countless other people we met, if I could picture a world full of ecumenical desert people, in touch with their inner selves, riding a wave of sand-hewn memories to international peace and togetherness, then surely it could happen. Surely we could forget the centuries of wars that have been fought over these stories. Surely we could overlook the millennia of bad faith that have been engendered by these stories. Surely we could remove these stories form politics, religion, and geography, and view them instead as a universal sourcebook offering readers a guide to spiritual emancipation and personal fulfillment. Surely, in other words, we could forget the things that drew me into this project—the archaeology and history that firmly anchor them in a time and place—and focus instead on the more universal qualities of reading the book—the internal growth and reaching toward God. Couldn’t we?

After this internal soliloquy, Avner steps out to check on him and offers his two cents.

“Mahmoud said, ‘God created everything,’ and I agreed. So in the end, they are the people of God, and so are we. He said it, and I said it, too: ‘It’s the same God.'”

Were it that the world could be wrapped up so easily as the plot line in books.

Spin
by Robert Charles Wilson

Stephen had already bought and read a copy of this book when it won the Hugo at the end of August. I asked him if he thought I’d like it and he said, “Um, maybe?” Which is to say that after ten years he still can’t peg what I will like short of a bodice buster. So I put it to the Paul test. Our friend, Paul, from college had a habit of reading the first line of the book and deciding from that if he would like it and continue to read it.

Everybody falls, and we all land somewhere.

I decided that I’d read that. And was immediately sucked into the spin. Part mystery, part ill-fated love story, mostly sci-fi, it’s a rocking good time that once you’ve read it, it’ll will have you looking toward the sky in a whole new way.

I am often amazed by the ideas writers come up with. Perhaps it’s because I’ve such limited storytelling capabilities that I become amazed at the simplest of yarns. I’ve decided that I really enjoy novel sci-fi, mostly because even the tired ideas from the genre are new and exciting to me.

Unfortunately, I can’t really talk too much about plot because I don’t want to unravel it if you haven’t read it already. Go read it and then call me!

So I’ll just say: It’s good. I enjoyed it. It won the Hugo this year. Eli can look at the cover, spell out the letters and say, “Spin!” triumphantly. If that’s not an endorsement, I don’t know what is.