Thursday, March 29, 2018

The Packet at 50

I got tagged by my former editor Barbara Dean-Simmons a few weeks ago. The Packet's 50th anniversary was coming up on March 28 and would I, and some other former staffers, like to write a brief note about our experiences with the paper.

I laughed because my writing at The Packet could be described as many things, but rarely was it brief. So Anyway, my... ahem... award-winning column normally clocked in around 1,000 words. The travel pieces I've been writing for Barb the last few years normally coming in around the same length despite her frequently pleading that 300 words or so is more than enough.

I like writing long when I write for Barb. What can I say.

But then some numbers started jumping out at me. If it's The Packet's 50th anniversary, that makes it Barb's 38th year of working with the paper. Which is a feat as remarkable as it is marginally masochistic. It means she's been editor of the paper for 28 years, which honest to god probably has to be a record for journalism in Newfoundland and Labrador and might be up there across Canada.

It occurred to me to send Barb a friendly mocking note about these numbers when it dawned on me that it means this year marks the 20th anniversary of when I joined the paper.

Ahhhahahahaha.....oh god.

I ended up writing 300 words for Barb and spent about an hour cutting and crafting to get it just right. And 300 words is nothing. In the depths of my hard drive is a failed attempt at a first novel. Its fictional but anyone who spent time with me at The Muse or The Packet would certainly have no problem recognizing people or events. And before it died about three-quarters of the way through that first draft was 120,000 words long.

So yeah, I can write a little bit about my time there.

I'm not saying The Packet saved my life, but it certainly changed it significantly for the better. My 20s were a mixed bag. As awesome as my time with The Muse was, I probably stayed a year longer than I should of (glad I did, I would have missed some amazing people), then I struggled at King's (15 stitches in your lip, strep throat, the flu and almost having to have emergency dental surgery in the space of 6 weeks will wreck some serious havoc on your academics),  followed by unemployment, short term contracts, a mildly disastrous attempt at being an English teach in South Korea....

By the time I was 28 things were grim. Journalism wasn't working out and I was considering going back to school....law school. Gah.

So the offer from The Packet was a big deal. Well, as big a deal as making $18,200 a year can be. As horrifying as that number is, it could have been much worse. Community newspaper reporters in the prairies were making less than $15,000 a year and expected to have their own car and camera. The Packet had a work mini-van and cameras (the glorious Pentax K-1000s. I was nearly murdered by one. More later.)

I have limited photos of Barb. This is the one least likely
to get me murdered.
I'm sure I was a cocky townie and came out with attitude. Barb, to her credit, didn't kill me, but did set me straight. I have many Packet stories, but perhaps the most important one came early when I went to take a picture of five women for a story. She hated it. I shot them from too far away (pre-digital, remember). So I had to call them, ask them to gather again and retake the picture. Barb still hated it and made me call the same five women and take another picture. They, quite rightly, thought I was an idiot. I was furious at the time.

But Barb was right. The photos were lazy and shit. You can be assured they got better after that.

And that's where things shifted with me. I hate to say I grew up, but I stopped being....complacent. I think I've always had some writing talent, but I was lazy with it. Talent is nothing if you don't develop the discipline to utilize it. At that point in time, I needed more structure. And I got it. I was a much better person and reporter when I left the paper in 2001 then when I joined in 1998.

As for Packet stories....

1. Barb and office manager Roz Smith "ambushing" me in the interview with the hardball question if I would mind using the Packet van to drop off papers on Mondays. It's a community newspaper. It's all hands on board. In turns out the Clarenville to Southern Harbour and all stops between run was one of my favourite things.

2. Going to use the only washroom in the paper's office to discover a metal sign that said "Women" and underneath, a sticky note that read, "And Craig". Just so I knew my place.

3. Tea breaks at 10:30. Religiously. Jokes and horrific puns included.

4. After my lamenting the quality of drivers in Clarenville (they're awful) and baymen in general, our ad agent Bonnie Goodyear responded with a venomous "you...miserable...townie... bastard." I recall not being able to breathe from laughing so hard. And so, a minor legend was born.

5. Barb calling me and asking if I could pick her up some Mary Browns and bring it up to the hospital to her. You see, she'd just given birth and was putting the final touches on the paper's editorial that week and was hungry. Yeah.

The photo I won my award for. 
6. Winning journalism awards. Reporters get cynical and downplay them, but I remember getting so excited by them. I had produced content that was good enough to win an award. I was proud of the times my column won awards because I worked hard at it. I was proud of the business journalism award because it came with a $500 check that I really needed. And when I won a national journalism award for....sports photography...I think even Barb got a laugh out of that one.

I kept winning them for the Packet even after I left. In 2014 I won an award for the travel stories I was writing for the paper. Huge smile on my face. Felt as good as winning the first one.

7. My running war with then Mayor Fred Best. God that was fun. A tip of the hat to my friend Pat for coming up with the phrase "Fillergate" during a particularly epic run of stories involving the mayor using municipal equipment to work on his private property.

8. When I found writing a weekly column challenging, Barb came up with a fantastic solution - we'd alternate weeks. She'd write one; I'd write one. And we'd be constantly trying to top each other. It brought out the best in both of our writing.

   A. One week when both of us were driving back from the set of The Shipping News which was filming near Trouty I made a....poorly thought out remark concerning actress Julianne Moore and that it was hard to believe she was still that hot at 40, which was around Barb's age at the time. Barb told me later, "I thought about slamming on the brakes and just sending you through the windshield but you had your seatbelt on. Then I thought about beating you to death with camera (Pentax K1000!) but I love that camera and your thick skull might break it."

Instead she achieved her revenge by writing about the incident for her column in the paper. For months, every woman in the region over 30 shot me dirty looks or huffed as a walked by.

   B. A tea break debate over Coronation Street spilled out hilariously into our columns as I argued it was a British soap opera and Barb countered that it wasn't but was, in fact, a long running daytime British drama. Which was totally different. The amount of reaction we got to those columns was hilarious. I still maintain I won that one.

9. Our unofficial Letters to Santa Claus contest.

10. And dozens of more things. The mad dash on Fridays to get copy for deadline. Chatting with Kathy over the top of our cubicles. Getting to talk to people, interview, and tell their stories. Occasionally you got to help people with the stories you wrote. That is a feeling you always remember.

I left The Packet in 2001 and I still have some mixed reaction to that. On the very big upside I met Cathy three months after I moved back into St. John's. So that worked out well.

But the reason I was leaving was we simply couldn't get the publisher to give me a raise. There does come a point where you'd like to move up from sharing a basement apartment and running a dehumidifer 24/7 gets tiring. So a little more money would have been nice. What was more frustrating was The Express in St. John's was able to give me a job with the raise I needed and more. I know it bugged the crap out of Barb.

Plus my time with The Express never worked out right. It was a different atmosphere and environment there that never clicked with me. I liked Donnie, Westcott and Stephanie, but I was never comfortable. It was with relief I left the paper in 2005 and moved to Iqaluit. Also, a good dose of timing. The paper folded less than two years later.

I left in no small part, by the way, by having a conversation with Barb who told me I just needed to move on. Nothing wrong with recognizing it wasn't working. You're not a failure, you just need to do something different that you like. It was like a 10 tonne weight had been lifted off my chest when she said that.

Anyway, I have a lot of fond memories of The Packet. It's a great community newspaper. One of the best in Canada, I would argue, but I am biased. But I don't even know where they store all the journalism awards at this point. And Barb remains one of the best bosses I've ever had the pleasure to work with.

So here's to 50 more. Although, please God, retire by then will you, Barb?

Last Five
1. Don't answer me - The Alan Parsons Project*
2. Travellin' - Matt Mays and El Torpedo
3. Squeeze Box - The Who
4. Songs of love - Ben Folds
5. New Years Day (live) - U2


Monday, March 26, 2018

Five graphic novels to read

Occasionally I'm asked what graphic novels I would recommend to people. I try to keep in mind not everyone is in the mood to deal with decades of bizarro-land continuity. So the recommendations below are not from Marvel or DC and are (mostly) not super heroes. I also like making them reasonably kid friendly.

So here are some highlights for you to read.

1 Giant Days (Allison, various artists) - I am going to keep telling all of you to read Giant Days until you actually listen to me. Three young women facing university in England and all the craziness that goes on with trying to figure out your place in the world. Esther is a goth with a catastrophic drama field; Daisy is dealing with university after being homeschooled most of her life and realizing she might prefer girls over boys; and Susan, the "grown up" except for when it comes to an ex her life that makes her slightly insane.

I can't emphasize enough how funny this book is. But none of the leads are perfect. They do stupid things because they're 19 and that's what you do when you're 19. I love this series as much as anything being published right now. Volume 7 is being published next week, but it's an easy series to get caught up with. Trust me, you'll burn through the books.

2. Delilah Dirk - Written and magnificently illustrated by Tony Cliff, it's the kind of book you would hand to a pre-teen girl, and they would come back in an hour and demand all the books. Sadly, there's only two - Delilah Dirk and the Turkish Lieutenant and Delilah Dirk and the King's Shilling. The good news is the third book ...and the Pillars of Hercules comes out in August.

Delilah is, in no particular order and adventurer, expert swordswoman, thief, hero, petulent, stubborn and sometimes a little too self centred. She's accompanied by Mr. Selim, who she kind of rescued after getting him in trouble in the first place. He's still finding his adventure feet, tends to get himself in trouble, but his heart is in the right place and he makes really excellent tea.

It's old fashion, massively over the top adventure set in early 19th century Europe. Indiana Jones is sometimes cited, but it's more of a weird buddy book as well. Perhaps a bit of Tintin in there as well. I'd actually be massively disappointed in Delilah and Mr. Salim hook up. Their friendship, for all the frustrations with the other, is much more fun. I will cite this one complain - First Second, the publisher, is doing Cliff's art a massive disservice putting it in a smaller, digest format book. I really hope at some point they reprint them in an oversized format to give his art a chance to shine. It's also been optioned for a movie.

3. Goldie Vance (Larson, Ball, Haynes) - Goldie is a 16-year-old who is supposed to be a car valet at the hotel her father manages in South Florida during the 1950s. But she's clever, nosey and has aspirations of being a detective, which tends to get her in trouble.

Goldie, like the previous women mentioned above, are not perfect characters. I'm actually sensing a theme as a write it. Goldie's certainly smart and trying to do the right thing. But that drive often gets her, and people she cares about, in a lot of trouble. It works out in the end (it's still an all ages book), but it's interesting to see how her she tries to learn from her mistakes.

The other really interesting thing is the setting and the characters. It's 1950s South Florida and its an ethically diverse supporting cast. No one makes a big deal. Goldie has a girlfriend. Nobody bats an eye at it. Sometimes the biggest win is just showing different non-white, non-straight characters in normal settings and no one acts like this is revolutionary.

The first three volumes are out now. The fourth is out in May. It's also been optioned for a movie.

4. Injection (Ellis, Shalvey) - My token Warren Ellis, but oh so good Warren Ellis. To my knowledge it hasn't been optioned to be made into a TV show or movie, but like most things Ellis, it's tailor-made to make the leap. Injection is when five very clever people in England came up with a terrible idea to stop the future from becoming boring and then implementing it. After all, what could go wrong with developing an alien AI, infusing it with magic, and injecting it into the internet to see what happens.

The series is them trying to contain the fallout. But it's also Ellis playing with tropes and digging into weird English folklore. Book one is Dana Scully going not so quietly mad with guilt. Book two is Cumberbatch's Sherlock, except he's black, a bigger asshole, knows what human flesh tastes like and is omnisexual. Book three is Dr. Who except she's black from Ireland and says fuck a lot. There are still two books left to come.

I have a deep and abiding love of Ellis, simply because he has so many clever ideas, but his characters simply work. A few lines and you know who they are. It also helps to have an artist as good as Declan Shalvey who illustrates the madness with flair. Unlike the previous three, maybe you don't give this one to your kid.

5. The Wicked + The Divine (Gillen, McKelvie) - You know you're on to something when the blurbs on the back have fellow creators cursing you for coming up with the concept. Every 88 years Gods return to the Earth. They merge with teenagers and then become incredibly famous and incredibly powerful. In this case, they're all music stars.

Oh, and you're dead in two years. Guaranteed.

There's a lot unpack here. The Gods tend to look like popular musicians. Lucifer looks like 80s Bowie. Amaterasu looks like Florence Welch. Woden like Daft Punk. There are questions about exactly how much are you willing to sacrifice to be famous. Are you willing to die at 19 knowing that for two glorious years you're famous and will become culturally immortal?

Plus, they're gods. So there's sex, drugs, in-fighting and death. Imagine Fleetwood Mac but you gave them super powers. What could go wrong?

All of the books here are well drawn, either cartoon-style like Goldie Vance and Giant Days, or more "serious" art like Cliff and Shelvey. But it's worth saying that McKelvie (and Matthew Wilson on colours) are what make or break the series. The books are gorgeous and it's possibly the best colouring of any comic on the market.

There are six volumes out, with two more (at least) to come. Be warned, Gillen is a bastard at cliffhangers. The one at the end of volume 6 had people screaming at him for weeks afterwards.

Last Five
1. Spring haze (live) - Tori Amos
2. Sailing to Philadelphia - Mark Knopfler*
3. PrimeTime - Janelle Monae
4. Daughters - Lissie
5. Night drive - Tom Petty

Thursday, March 15, 2018

How to fix the Brier

For a lot of years I gave Brad Gushue crap. He was undoubtedly a fantastic curler, but his ability to make the Brier play-offs but being unable to close the deal was frustrating. Even winning the Olympic gold medal....there was an element of luck there and I think he's admitted that himself. Having Russ Howard there to help guide the team over the finish line was always going to be an element to that win. I thought he was going to be one of those players who could never get it done. There are plenty of athletes who, as great as they were, never won championships. Gushue was feeling like that.

But two Briers in a row? No, that cements your ticket into the Hall of Fame. They looked absolutely in control every game I watched. Even the last couple of ends of the Final, when they let Alberta back into it, they didn't crack. Five years ago they would have found a way to choke on it. So congrats to him and his team. It's a hell of an accomplishment.

But the other thing Gushue did last week was express his displeasure at the format change this year. Instead of the standard round robin where you play every team, there were two pools, and then a crossover playdown, then playoffs. A lot of curlers grumbled about it but it was devised so that every province and territory could compete. And to balance things out, a Team WildCard was created. And the old standards of Northern Ontario and Team Canada. So 16 teams overall.

Gushue didn't like the format, didn't like Team WildCard, didn't like Team Canada (even if he was Team Canada) and wasn't exactly subtle in expressing his annoyance about the quality of competition. This was a not so thinly veiled shot at teams from Yukon and, more particularly, Nunavut.

I can't link to them because they're behind a paywall, but News North didn't like Gushue's comments. No less than two opinion pieces politely told Gushue to shove it. That Nunavut has the right to be at a national championship along with every other province and territory. And that the only way Nunavut curling will improve is to go to these events and get better.

Also probably riling them up was curling reporter Terry Jones of PostMedia taking shots at Nunavut being at national events. I mean, every single piece he wrote leading up to and during the Scotties and the Brier contained a shot about Nunavut being undeserving of being there. I'd get annoyed too.

(How can I possibly know this? Because part of my job involves putting together a news scan. Take a guess at how much I love doing this during the Scotties and the Brier when the number of stories featuring keywords like Yukon, NWT, and Nunavut effectively doubles. Also, I fucking hate the band the Arctic Monkeys.)

So, a couple of things to unpack here.

First, good on Gushue for actually having an opinion. He's one the premiere curlers in the country and the world right now. It's easy to be quiet and just take the endorsement money, but he doesn't like the format and has no problem letting people know it. I'm sure Curling Canada would prefer he shut up about it, but he's speaking his mind. I rarely have a problem with athletes speaking their mind intelligently on a subject.

As for Nunavut being at events like the Brier and Scotties...

Look, this sounds a touch egotistical, but if I hadn't gone into semi-retirement from curling a few years (that's another story) I might have been good enough to have been on that team. I was, by Iqaluit standards, pretty good. Teams I skipped won league finals, I won bonspiels, I shot second stones on the first men's team to compete at a national level event - The Dominion (a national championship for "rec league" curlers) and we finished 3-3.

So yeah. Maybe I could have gone to the Brier. That would have been cool. But getting whipped almost every single game (they did almost beat Yukon)? Getting outscored 80-28 over the course of the Brier? I'm not sure how much fun that would be.

I know one of the guys on the team. I really must remember to ask him what the experience was like. Maybe it was a blast and he can't wait to go back next year.

Going to the Brier or Scotties annually is never significantly going to improve teams from Nunavut. The skill gap is simply too vast. There are plenty of logistical challenges for developing curling in Nunavut that I'm not going to get into here. Perhaps they're underway. As I said, I'm semi-retired from it.

But the way you get good is regularly facing high level competition. It's why teams from Europe and Asia come over and play in Canada for six months. Because they get higher levels of competition. They get better by playing better teams on a regular basis.

So how does Nunavut get good? Four players, out of the territory, who travel a lot and play a lot of Ontario and prairie bonspiels. For several years. If you do that, then maybe you get a team that can win a few games and pull off a surprise.

But I can't see that ever happening because I can't even imagine the financial commitment that will take. Your team winning $5,000 at a cashspiel isn't really going to cut it. We're talking, ballpark, $100,000 for four players for a season (and that's probably low). Travel, accommodations, meals, time away from work. And it's not like Nunavut is a cheap place to travel from and live in.

So no, I can't ever see it happening. And I can't see how much benefit Nunavut curlers get from having your ass kicked. And watching adults get whipped isn't exactly inspiring the next generation.

So my suggestions:
1. Nunavut should absolutely send curlers to national events. But they should be the juniors, mixed, seniors and similar championships. That's a good experience and there's less pressure and spotlight at these events than at the Brier and Scotties.

2. If the Brier is interested in my opinion (they're not)....there's a territorial playdown between NWT, Yukon and Nunavut. Winner goes to the Brier. There was a version of this before, but Curling Canada never did enough to support Nunavut teams to go the event, or the other teams were unwilling to go to Nunavut. Help support it financially.

3. Curling suffers a real outreach problem in Indigenous communities. They're trying with their commercials to get more, well, non-white people involved. But a bunch of communities in Nunavut had curling rinks and they were closed due to lack of interest. The ship has probably sailed, but if you're serious about growing the sport, you have to be serious about improving outreach in the North. A Nunavut team of all Inuit players gets more Inuit interested in the sport. Right now it's barely on the radar.

4. At best nobody minded the Scotties and Brier format this year. But nobody loved it. So a Territories team is fine. But as long as we're pruning, get rid of Team Canada. It's always been a terrible idea and they rarely defend the title. Gushue defending this year is an anomaly. Team WildCard actively annoyed me. And, while we're at it, get rid of Northern Ontario. If Nunavut getting a team is annoying to some in Southern Canada, Ontario getting two teams is annoying to most Canadians.

Do that and you're back to an 11-team bonspiel. Delightful.

There you go. I have solved the curling crisis in Canada.

Last Five
1. Behind blue eyes - The Who
2. Arnie's song - Me First and the Gimmie Gimmies
3. Working on the highway (live) - Bruce Springsteen and the E Street Band*
4. Dance hall days - Wang Chung
5. No jokes-fact - Hot Hot Heat

Sunday, February 25, 2018

When home doesn't want you

I've been struggling with a couple of blog posts, including a review of Black Panther when I got one of those small gifts from the gods....

A story showed up in my Facebook feed on Friday about the Government of Newfoundland and Labrador trying to figure out why people are leaving the province. And if that seems like a joke, it apparently isn't. On any given day I think an easier survey may well be "On a scale of 1-10 how big of a masochist are you for staying?"

But no, money has been spent, admittedly a small amount by government standards, about why expats leave and what it would take to entice them back. And because I'm a curious sort and was, admittedly, looking forward to leaving some really sarcastic answers in response, I clicked the link to take me to the survey.

These are the first three questions:

Are you:

1. Residing outside of Newfoundland and Labrador

2. Between 19 and 44 years of age

3. Not a full time post-secondary student

I am residing outside the province, I'm not a student, however I'm also older than 44 years old. When I didn't check that button I got "Thank you for completing this survey."

I interpret this as meaning if you're 45 years of age and older, the province of Newfoundland and Labrador would like you to fuck off and die somewhere on the Mainland. They don't care why you left, and they certainly don't want you to come back. And they really, really, really don't want you to retire there.

I can almost respect the honesty in that. The province's finances can be charitably described as cataclysmic. When I was in St. John's over Christmas there was the palatable feeling of waiting for the hammer to fall. Open Line shows spoke about when, not if, the province is going to go bankrupt.

I realize that creative political leadership is about as rare as unicorn sightings in the province, but there is again, an overwhelming sense of despair that there is nobody to lead people out of this mess. Not the current Liberals, not the Conservatives and the NDP have never been taken seriously for more than 30 seconds. There is nothing there that passes for leadership.

A few years ago I wrote that I was in favour of a return to Commission of Government, which was a period in the 1930s and 40s when Newfoundland and Labrador was run by a group of commissioners from England. So we have a history of cocking things up and having others clean up the mess. During my more cynical moments I'm in favour of just evacuating the place and nuking it from space. It's the only way to be sure.

(Although if I'm honest, no, that probably wouldn't work. People would land there in protective suits with iodine pills and build cabins by the irradiated sludge that used to be a pond.)

However, I am a kindly sort. Here, for free, is why we left Newfoundland and what they would have to do to get us back.

It should be noted that under current conditions Cathy and I would take a huge pay cut to return. Now, my base salary is standard across Canada. I'd lose certain benefits from living in the North, but that would be the same if I moved to Toronto or Edmonton. So I'm good. However, as a teacher, Cathy would lose approximately two-thirds of her salary. So overall we'd lose about 50% of our income.

Second, there are tax benefits to living in the North. So we only pay GST. That means 5% sales tax vs the ridiculous 15% in Newfoundland. There's a Northern Tax Credit we get each year for helping overcome the higher costs of living. So we wouldn't be making half as much as we have now, it'd probably be closer to 40% of what we make now.

But wait, that assumes we could actually get a job, which....hahahahahaha.....no. I might with some dumb luck, but there are no teaching jobs for Cathy and I doubt she wants to spend the next 10 years subbing her way in. If things were bleak for us professionally in 2005 then they extra special grim right now.

I always found it offensive that there is a view that if you're staying in Newfoundland employers can get away for paying you less. "You love this place and want to stay. Let's take advantage of that fact."

"Ok, sure, but you could retire there maybe one day..."

Well, as you saw above, they don't want us to retire there. Because whatever benefits we might bring to the economy with our pensions and whatnot, would likely be more than offset by the impending tsunami of elderly hitting the province that are going to require extra medical and home care. I will bet you money there's a plan somewhere to export elderly people to a third world country, or a consultant's report that reads "A Cost Benefits Analysis for Displacing Older than Average Residents to Temporary In-Transit Ice Developed Accommodations".

Or perhaps just an outright ban on anyone travelling to Newfoundland who is order than 44 without proper documentation assuring that you're going to leave, and not try to retire there.

Plus, by time time we retire we will have likely spent 25 years living in Nunavut. We love Iqaluit....you don't last if you don't. But when we retire we're moving to a place that has palm trees gently swaying the breeze 365 days a year.

So, to sum up for any Government of Newfoundland officials reading this:

Why We Left
1. Under employed and under payed.
2. Could not envision a future where that would change.
3. Better professional development and personal development opportunities elsewhere.
4. Over-taxed for the quality of services received.
5. Taken advantage of for wanting to stay.

Why We're Not Returning
1. Our life is in every measurable sense much, much, much better in Nunavut than if we were still in Newfoundland. It is a sure bet the travel we've done in the last 12 years would not have happened. Or buying and nearly paying off a house. Or that we're in a good financial position to retire before we're 100.
2. No opportunities for career development that does not involve a 50% pay cut.
3. Significantly higher taxes with services that do not match.
4. Lack of political leadership, Or common sense.
5. The province is doomed and everyone knows its doomed. It's like asking if we would like tickets on the Titanic an hour after it hit the iceberg.
6. They don't want us. Not really.

What You Could do to Entice us Back
1. Find a fountain of youth near Fogo since I'm 48 years old and they don't want me.
2. Import a bunch of Scandinavians to run the place. Seriously, they can really run a country.
3. I got nothing else, really. Because even if a new, magic source of revenue presented itself, I have every faith that the current political leadership in the province would find a way to squander it and fuck it up.

Being able to see the few family and friends that have not fled elsewhere and 10 days of nice weather in September is not the lure it once was, oh government officials.

That's what it boils down to....the Government is asking people to sacrifice a lot to come back to a place that's not functioning, and they not only don't have a plan to fix that, but believe that a cheap survey is a solid way to start.

I'll say now what I've been saying for years....find a place somewhere else and go. Get out while you can. Because it's not getting any better anytime soon.

Last Five
1. Anti-Pioneer - Feist
2. Protest song - Broken Social Scene
3. Somewhere else - Lynda Loveless
4. We are the champions - Queen
5. Walk away - Tom Waits*

Saturday, February 10, 2018

Geek Origins

I'm a fairly huge geek, which falls under the category of the least shocking news about me ever. One day I will do a blog post about my geek office here, in all it's glory. I'm keep waiting because it just needs one or two more things for it to be finished.

I've been saying that for several years now. It's never going to be finished. It will only ever be "done for the moment."

Now the origins of the geekery....that's something a bit more complicated.

Honestly, no one was geeky in my family when I was growing up. I'm pleased that I have cousins who have come after me that are geeks. And if my niece isn't going to be a geek, then she's going to be exposed to it and have the option available to her if she wants to pursue it.

At best the early origins of it come from Archie digests and the comic book publisher Gold Key. They used to print these old UFO and Other Stories comics and digests. I have no earthly idea where they came from. I sincerely doubt my parents bought them for me. I seem to recall them just being there when I visited my grandparents around the bay.
I remember reading this story.


I just did a little research into them online, and there isn't a lot. The Wikipedia article is kind of mediocre. The comics were originally printed in the late 60s, but I doubt that's what I was reading. I think there were reprints in the mid-70s, which was more likely. Back in those ancient days, I could wander down to a convenience store and buy comics. But for an idea what I'm talking about, this article is a good taste. I remember some of those covers and the one page of interior art tripped a memory.

Honestly, I loved those stories. I'm sure I must have bored family with wanting to know about UFOs in the Bermuda Triangle, Area 51 and why aliens kept stealing cattle. I know they probably wouldn't hold up to a reread now, but for a 7 year old, they got the imagination going.

For years I just assumed that age 7 - this would have been in 1977 - was when my geekery exploded. Star Wars came out that year. I'm not sure when I saw it for the first time, but I know I saw it at least three times. And despite having been previous exposed to comics (I think), I mark 1977 as the first year I started collecting them.

And here's where memory gets tricky. The first three comic series I remember collecting (Oh, let's be honest, buying. It's not like I was bagging and boarding these things), were all based are toys and movies. They were Godzilla, Shogun Warriors, and Micronauts. The last two were based on Japanese toys. The first one, well, I think we all know Godzilla.

I would have sworn all three of those comics came out around the same time. They didn't. Godzilla came in August 1977. Shogun Warriors came out in February 1979 and Micronauts came out in January 1979. So I was wrong about the timing. The geekery actually came later than I thought.

But I still have Godzilla. My memory of that is rock solid. Right?

Well, I have a memory of seeing Godzilla movies at the old Capital Theatre in downtown St. John's. I seem to recall my parents dropping me off to watch the movies because they didn't want to see them. But I have no idea how old I was at the time. I keep thinking I was around seven, but I have some difficulty believing they would let me see a monster movie alone at that age.

(Some, but not beyond the realm. My parents gave me a huge amount of freedom at a young age.)

But my first Godzilla comic was #4. It featured Godzilla fighting a monster called Batragon on the cover. And this is my memory: Going into Trans Canada Drugs at the Avalon Mall (bonus points if you remember that drug store), seeing the comic on the stand and begging my mom for the 35 cents for the comic.

Look at that awesomeness. How can you resist that if you're a 7 year old geek. Oh, and thanks to the magic of the internet I can now say the begging probably happened around November-December 1977.

I don't have the comic anymore. Had it for years, when it was basically tattered pages in a plastic bag before finally tossing it.

There's also one funny story that goes with this comic. In 2012 I went to New York Comic Con and one of the artists I was excited to meet was Herb Trimpe. He drew Godzilla back in the '70. Now Trimpe was one of Marvel's big artists back in the day, and it wasn't because of Godzilla. He did a little thing known as drawing Wolverine for the first time. He was actually selling original pieces of Wolverine art at his table which I didn't buy because:

A. I'm an idiot.
B. I was so excited to get him to draw Godzilla. Which he did. And he jokingly cursed on me for making him draw all those scales.

Herb's Godzilla drawing in my sketch book.

And I told him that he drew the first comic I ever bought - Godzilla #4. To which he very gently pointed out to me that while he drew most of the series, in fact Tom Sutton drew #4 and #5.

Well.....shit.

Trimpe was still awesome. He passed away a few years ago, which shocked a lot of people because he was so energetic and outgoing at cons. It was a genuine thrill to get to talk to him for a few minutes. He also loved baseball and sympathized with my love of the Expos.

This Godzilla series is delightfully insane, by the way. It effectively ruined me for Godzilla for life because nothing was as nutty as this comic. This is a good article explaining why it was nuts, but I think it can be adequately explained by one of the central premises of the comic. That SHIELD, the premiere espionage/defence agency in the Marvel universe, consistently manages to lose a giant radioactive T-Rex. And not it's not like they're tracking him around world or the Pacific Rim. No, the western United States. Could not find him for big stretches. Even at 8 years old I was wondering how hard could it be to find a giant radioactive dinosaur.

I was devastated when they cancelled it. For years I assumed it was for poor sales, but Marvel lost the rights to do the series. However, it was an early lesson on how the people who make the things you love will eventually break your heart.

Michael Golden drawing of Acroyear of
the Micronauts from NYCC 2015,
But by then I was onto Micronauts and Shogun Warriors. Now, you might thing the main premise of these comics was to sell more toys. And I'm sure they did. But Marvel also had another premise - work in their super heroes. So Godzilla featured SHIELD, the Champions, the Avengers and the Fantastic Four. Shogun Warriors featured the Fantastic Four. Micronauts featured Man-Thing, the Fantastic Four, X-Men and others.

You might have come for the toys, Marvel made sure you left wanting to read their superheroes. Perhaps not surprisingly my first super hero comics were the Fantastic Four. And after that, well, I was off to the races.

The comics vary in quality, looking back. Godzilla is goofy fun. The first 12 issues of the Micronauts hold up surprisingly well, mainly due to Michael Golden's art and a fairly dark sci-fi premise. It's sunk a bit by some very clunky dialogue. And Shogun Warriors, well, I haven't read it in decades.

Which is kind of a frustrating thing for me. Unless you want to go back issue hunting, or digging around on torrent sites for illegal downloads, there's no other way to read these comics. Because of complicated rights issues, they haven't been reprinted. I have a copy of Essential Godzilla, which is a cheap b/w reprint which is nice and all, but I'd love a proper full colour HC. Same thing with Micronauts. Marvel owns some of the characters in the book, Haboro the others. Another publisher - IDW - currently prints a Micronauts comic. It'd be nice if they reprinted those old 70s comics.

As for Shogun Warriors, well, if that ever gets reprinted, I'll be astonished.

But effectively I've been at this for 40 years. Digging up some of this was a nice trip down memory lane, but also a useful reminder that no matter how certain you are about something in the past, odds are you're not remembering quite the way you originally thought.

Last Five
1. Big parade - The Lumineers
2. Love me like a man (live) - Bonnie Raitt
3. Kiss that frog - Peter Gabriel
4. We got the power - Gorillaz
5. Striptease - Hawksley Workman*




Wednesday, January 17, 2018

48

Despite the best efforts of the current president of the United States and the early warning system in Hawaii, I've successfully managed to go around the sun one more time.

Let's face it, from a global perspective all but three day of my 47th year sucked. And they were the three days when Obama was still president. After that, well, we knew Trump was going to be awful but this was a touch beyond most people's worst case scenario. Unless you thought he was going to end the world. In which case, congrats, it wasn't as bad as it could have been.

As for things on a personal levels....well, I honestly thought about griping about a few personal things. My 47th year managed to give me a new level of disdain for contractors and insurance companies. The former for managing to spectacularly mess up a bathroom renovation, the later for being not able to master the simple process of taking my money so that my car can stay insured. Those two things caused more than their fair share of stress the last few months.

And I could mope about not being happy with my weight. Right after Christmas Cathy gently nudged me into donating a truly depressing amount of clothing that no longer fits.

But as Cathy says, that's just "Adulting". Everyone has this crap they deal with. And if that's the worse you have, well.....

But I'm reminded of other things. That we had a great vacation, spending time in Portugal, Spain and Gibraltar. They we went back to St. John's at Christmas and I got to spend some quality time with my niece, who has started calling me Uncle Cag, which is just about perfect.

However, there are three specific moments that come to me, and they are small moments. Fleeting, but they stuck in my mind.

1. In the Fall, when all hell was breaking loose around the #metoo movement, Cathy and I were talking about it. We're both on the same page about those men (and more) deserve what's coming to them. But she looked at me at one point and said "You've never been scared to walk alone in a city in your life, have you?" And I had to respond truthfully, "No, I haven't."

Now, it's not like I've strolled solo through the streets of Kabul or anything. But I've walked home from a movie in Iqaluit at midnight. I've walked home from downtown St. John's at 3 am. I've wandered around Manhattan after midnight. Never thought twice about it.

I'm an upper middle class, heterosexual, white male from a Christian background living in a Western nation. My level of privilege is pretty god damn high. Occasionally it's good to be reminded of that and to try and be a better person.

2. When we were back in St. John's there was a Duke night. Which was a blast. My only regret is that we couldn't stay later, but we had a 6 am flight the next morning. There were jokes about just staying up all night, but I said I was getting too old for that shit.

But I was chatting with Jocelyne, who I haven't spoke to in an age, and she was saying how much of a blast her 40s have been. And I was agreeing with her. It was a nice chat about how we were just relaxing and enjoying life more, and trying not to let silly bullshit throw things off course for the important things.

A quick conversation in a bar, but again, a good reminder.

3. And the final one came last week. I was driving to work, running through things in my head when the news came on with the latest inanity from Trump. I just had a moment of exhale. A moment where I went "You're healthy, happy and have a good life. And you're not American right now." I genuinely feel awful for a huge chunk of the country. What doesn't kill you makes you stronger, as they say. Assuming they make it to 2020 those people are going to be the Hulk by then.

So, what to do for my 48th year?

1. Make my peace about getting healthier. Losing nearly 70 pounds in 2012 was an aberration that had as much to do with my mental health at the time as any diet and exercise regime. Just keep going to gym, eat a bit healthier and let the chip falls where they may. Hopefully not in my mouth.

2. Read more. I'm reading lots of graphic novels and lots of news and magazine stories. But I'm not reading enough books. I'm going to try and read 50 this year.

3. Write more. For a job that involves communicating, it's really killed some of my creative writing. So at least 50 blog posts this year. Many of them may involve comics and movies. Sorry, you've been warned. But we'll see. Maybe I should try some creative writing. My friend Seamus is publishing his first novel this year. I'm tremendously proud of him, but it's also one of those things where "I can do that, I just need the discipline." So we'll see.

4. Restrain the geekery a bit. Seriously. It might have gotten a little out of hand this year. I might do a post at some point showing my current geek den/office/sanctuary. I love it, but I know the effect it can have on others.

5. Be a better husband. That's an evergreen resolution.

There's a lot to look forward in my 48th year. We're in the early stages of planning a nice vacation in Europe. Gods willing and no more hiccups, our mortgage will be paid off. Hopefully we'll catch up with friends and continue to be healthy and happy.

As plans go, it's not dramatic, but it sounds pretty good to me.

Last Five
1. Street fighting man - The Rolling Stones*
2. Fallen from grace (live) - Blue Rodeo
3. The Bagman's Gambit - The Decemberists
4. Parts and accessories - Josh Rouse
5. No one - Ron Sexsmith

Tuesday, November 21, 2017

Comic Book Movies 2017

So I've now seen, I think, all comic book movies for the year. I didn't see the latest Transformers or My Little Pony, which certainly have comics based on them, but didn't start that way. And even if they had, I still would have missed them. I'm not sure there's ever been a good Transformers movie (maybe the first one) and My Little Pony just isn't my cup of tea.

It was not a pretty good year for comic book movies. There were also nothing that I would consider an abomination before God (see: Fantastic Four, Suicide Squad, X-Men: Apocalypse). So even the bottom of the list was still a reasonably entertaining movie, if not flawed.

So, here we go. This is my list. Your mileage may vary:

8. Kingsman: The Golden Circle

Any other year this is a perfectly fine movie, and it's flaws would be annoying, but not impossible to overcome. But it suffers from not being as surprising, which the first Kingsman was, and from bloat and poor story decisions. The deaths in the first Kingsman were shocking and served the story. In this one they were...actively annoying. Plus they criminally underused Halle Berry.

It really felt like they needed to another pass on the script to tighten it up. But on the upside it was nice to see an actual romance happening in the movie. And the Elton John cameo was pretty fun.

7. Lego Batman

I don't think there all that much wrong with the movie, actually. I just don't think I was the target market for it. Which as a geek who loves comics and Lego may sound weird. But even with all the pop culture references thrown in (I'm not sure how many 7-year-olds are going to be thrilled to see Voldemort and the Eye of Sauron as cameos), it still skews pretty young. And its message is delivered with all the subtlety of a sledgehammer. Which is fine, it's a kids movie.

But it's telling that we bought the movie but haven't been in any hurry to rewatch it. Batman was a great part of the first movie, but maybe a little Batman goes a long way in the Lego world.

6. Justice League

On the upside, it's not the complete disaster that I thought it was firmly tracking to be. It had every right to be one. Zach Snyder has had virtually no clue how to handle DC characters and his departure from the film for tragic personal reasons should have been one more nail in the coffin. Instead, thanks largely to Josh Whedon's touch, it's a perfectly watchable blockbuster. Deeply flawed, mind you. The pacing is all over the place and Stephenwolf doesn't even count as a F-level villain to rally the heroes to fight. I'm a pretty decent-sized DC comics fan and until this movie I'd never heard of the character. So there's that.

The best that can said for the movie is that it's a soft reset of the DC Extended Universe. Snyder brought the cool, but he never brought the fun. There were a couple of scenes, especially towards the end, that made me want to jump up and go "See, that's who they're supposed to be!" The movie is tracking to be a disappointment at the box office, but it's the first DCEU movie that's given me hope that they're on the right path for future stories. Stick around for both in-credit scenes. One is funny. The other is deeply intriguing.

5. Guardians of the Galaxy: Vol. 2

If Kingsman suffered from not being a surprise and being bloated, so did GotG2, it just handled it better. The first GotG was such a shock, even to me, that I still can't believe they pulled off a great movie from D-list characters. It's impossible to match the surprise of the first one, so director James Gunn falls into the semi-predictable trap of trying to just give more....all over the place. Scenes run longer than they should, there are too many plots going on and, of course, the ridiculous number of end credit scenes.

Having said that, when it works, it works. Yondu is by far the most interesting character in this movie. The opening sequence is great and the last scene is genuinely moving. And you want to see more of them. Now that the "mystery" of Peter Quill's dad is over with and, presumably, the Infinity Stones storyline, it'll be interesting to see what they do in the third movie.

4. Wonder Woman

I will commit the small sacrilege of saying this is not the greatest movie of the year. In fact, I'd consider it mid-tier Marvel in a historical complex. It's just the minor miracle that Warner Bros./DC finally managed to make a good DCEU movie that kind of makes its accomplishments overblown. So what's my problem with it? Well, the third act is a special effects nightmare, don't get me started on defeating the God of War by beating him up, and I'm still deeply annoyed that they completely cut any reference to the Greek goddesses in her origin. There are two versions of Diana's origin kicking around....that the Greek goddesses gave her powers and life, and that she's a demi-goddess daughter of Zeus. For such a feminist icon character, I prefer the former.

But obviously there's a lot to love here. The relationship between Steve and Trevor is great. The Amazons are spectacular and the No Man's Land Scene remains the most emotionally powerful action sequence of any movie so far this year. And Gal Gadot is a treasure. Wonder Woman's quality and it's success make it one of the most culturally important movies of the year. I'm thrilled it did well and look forward to the sequel in 2019. Mainly because I can't wait to see when they're given more room to cut loose. And hopefully design a non-stupid third act.

3. Spider-Man: Homecoming

Exactly no one was in a hurry for another Spider-Man after one mediocre (Amazing Spider-Man 1) and two head pounding against the wall pieces of shit (Spider-Man 3, Amazing Spider-Man 2). But then Marvel and Sony struck a deal. If you ever want proof of what Marvel does looks simple but is in fact phenomenally hard, compare this movie to Sony's last three failed attempts. Marvel knows what's it doing.

It took guts to go "You know what, you know his origin and about Uncle Ben so we're not even going to mention it." Let's cast an actor who looks like he could be in high school and not attending its 10th anniversary reunion. Let's make Queens actually look multi-cultural. And how about making the Vulture....The Vulture... a scary and culturally relevant villain.

It's a fun movie with a charming cast. Yeah, I'm not overly fond of souping up Spider-Man's suit so that he's Iron Man Jr. at times, but it's a forgivable sin and explained well and funny in the context of the movie. Marvel remembered that Spider-Man is supposed to a fun, lovable loser. You'd think that would be an easy trick to master, but the last three Spider-Man movies say otherwise.

2. Thor: Ragnarok

Look, it's funny. Every review says that this movie brings the funny. Up until now the funniest Marvel movies have been Guardians of the Galaxy and the Marvel-but-not-really Deadpool. This is funnier than both of them. How you make a funny movie about the apocalypse does take some skill, and director Taika Waititi has it in abundance. Thank god someone watched Ghostbusters and realised that Chris Helmsworth is better as a comedic actor than as a dramatic one. Plus, everyone else looks like they're having a blast.

But the awesome thing about the movie is all the subtle little things the movie also manages to get in there. Hela's rage about how Odin covered up everything the two of them did together to make Asgard. "You never asked where the gold came from!" Which is a lovely shot at colonialism and as Waititi is of indigenous descent, he would know a thing or two about it. And there may well be no spectacularly gay scene this year than Valkyrie strutting across the Rainbow Bridge with fireworks exploding behind her. My sole annoyance with the movie is cutting a scene which shows a woman coming out her chambers.

It's a fun movie, with great action scenes and some subtext. It makes me want to see Waititi do another Thor movie (maybe with a female Thor, as is now in the comics. That hammer is just lying around, even if it's currently in pieces). Can't say I ever thought I would want another Thor movie before this.

1. Logan

For a beloved character Wolverine has had very few good cinematic experiences. The first X-Men was pretty good. X-Men 2 was great. Days of Future Past was pretty good. That's about it. After that most of his appearances have been blah, terrible or frustrating. The Wolverine, for example, took perhaps his best story based on the classic Claremont/Miller story of the 80s and absolutely lobotomised it in the third act. They cut a scene with Wolverine fighting a hundred ninjas, for god's sake, but left in an idiotic CGI fight was a giant samurai robot.

But Logan does a whole bunch of things right, finally, for Hugh Jackman's swan song. It's R-rated so they don't have to play cute with the violence. It does a seamless job of combining genres, which the best super hero movies do. So it's not Logan in the tights fighting bad guys, it's Logan as the ageing gunslinger who just wants to be left in peace, dragged out for one last job.

And here's the amazing thing. Jackman and Patrick Stewart are fully invested in this movie. They know this is their last go at these characters and want to send them off on a good note. So these are their best performances as these characters. Stewart seems to particularly relish being able to curse like a sailor in the movie. But they are left in the dust by Dafne Keen as Laura. That young woman stole the movie clean out from under their feet. If Fox isn't working on a spin-off for her, they're idiots.

Not everyone gets to walk away from a character on a high note. Very few do, actually. But Logan is not only the best comic book movie of the year, it should get Oscar consideration somewhere along the lines. It's the grimmest and most violent of the list, but the most emotional. If you don't well up during the final scene of the movie, then there's no hope for you....

Last Five
1. Wake me up, when September comes - Green Day
2. The complex - Blue Man Group
3. Night windows - The Weakerthans
4. Back at your door - Maroon 5
5. Sherry Darling - Bruce Springsteen*