Before we begin, let me warn you: there are some mild spoilers below for a number of TV shows, and a LOT of spoilers for The Walking Dead in particular. Carry on at your own risk.
Lately, I’ve expressed to a lot of people my absolute disdain for AMC’s The Walking Dead. Meanwhile, I expressed my absolute adoration of HBO’s Game of Thrones and The Walking Dead’s counterpart on AMC – Breaking Bad. I tried to explain WHY I hate The Walking Dead so much in comparison to those other shows, and I think I did a decent job. Still, I’ve given it a lot of further thought, and I thought I’d try to clarify, and to broaden the discussion a bit.
So let’s talk about The Walking Dead, about Game of Thrones, and about Breaking Bad. And to make things even more interesting, let’s throw in another highly influential (and controversial) show from recent years: Lost.
Why do I think Breaking Bad is the best of these shows, followed by Thrones and then Lost? And why do I think Walking Dead has become a heaping mess of dogshit?
It’s all about the planning.
From my perspective, that’s the difference between all four shows – each show’s ability to engage me, thrill me, surprise me, and please me directly correlated to the amount of planning the show’s creators put into it. I get the distinct impression that Vince Gilligan always knew more or less exactly where he was going with Breaking Bad. Sure, there were some gray areas that needed to be filled in, and he had to react to his audience and his investors to some extent. But he had a plan.
On the other hand, I think that the show runners and producers of Walking Dead have so deviated from Robert Kirkman’s original comic book (which I don’t think is that well planned itself) that it’ll take a Herculean effort to turn the mess they’ve made into anything cohesive and satisfying. I see the show petering out into oblivion as other, better shows come to the fore. All it takes is someone producing ANOTHER zombie apocalypse story (or something similar, since zombies are getting played out) which is better written and better structured. When that day comes – and I have a feeling a script is out there somewhere – it’ll be the bullet to the brainpan that puts Kirkman’s creation down for good.
In between lies Lost and Game of Thrones, and I mention them here to demonstrate how varying levels of planning contribute to a show’s ultimate success.
Anyone who’s read the books in George R.R. Martin’s A Song of Ice and Fire series knows that HBO has done a remarkable job in staying true to the books. Again, that’s a qualified statement – there ARE differences, as there are wont to be when you’re adapting page to screen – but as much as I think they can, the show’s producers are not “interpreting” Martin’s vision, but genuinely sharing it. Thank God for CGI. (On a side note, I think the new Hobbit movies, while enjoyable, are shitting on Tolkien’s quaint little book).
The problem with Thrones lies with Martin himself. I believe in my heart that he, too, has a plan – but he’s writing the series awfully slowly, and I think the scope of what he envisioned now scares the crap out of him. His “plan” is for two more books, but holy cow he’s got a lot of terrain – both figuratively and literally – to cover. And he’s running out of time.
The power of Thrones SO FAR is that there are existing books that will carry the series forward for three, maybe four more seasons. That gives Martin some time. Also, the show’s producers haven’t deviated from his existing storylines, so they’re on track and everything makes sense. Sure, that means those of us who’ve read the books weren’t that surprised by things like Eddard’s execution or the Red Wedding. But so what? It was still great television, and think about all the people who WERE surprised.
The only problem I foresee is if the show catches up with Martin. Then what? I hope to hell that doesn’t happen, but it could derail Game of Thrones, especially if they start making stuff up as they go along, the way Walking Dead seems to be doing now.
It’s been well documented that Damon Lindelof, J.J. Abrams, and Carlton Cuse had a plan for Lost’s early seasons. And it showed. The show was tight, fascinating, exciting, and profound. But in the end, the mythology behind the mysterious island was murky, and the plot and pacing suffered. I personally stuck with them until the end – and what an ending it was – but was it an ending the show’s creators had planned? From everything I’ve read, the answer is no. They had a plan for the beginning, and they stuck to it. But eventually they were winging it, and that showed as well.
Which brings us back again to The Walking Dead.
As of now, the comic book on which the TV show is based is up to around issue 115. It’s been around for almost 10 years. If you read the letters pages in the back of the comics (I have) as well as other things Kirkman has said about the book, you get the impression that his approach was similar to the one the Lost guys took: he had a plan that would sustain the book for quite a while, but after a point it became really, really vague. Kirkman admitted several times that he wasn’t sure what would be happening a year ahead of wherever he was then. He sort of knew what he wanted to accomplish, but he didn’t know the details.
Now this next part is just my impression, and if I’m wrong, then correct me in the comments: I believe that he had a DISTINCT plan that would carry him up to the prison, and the survivors’ experience with The Governor and Woodbury, but after that… nothing. Since that point in the comic, I think he’s been winging it.
After the prison, I stuck with him, hoping some forward movement would happen. After all, there are only so many people in the world who could become zombies, and over time wouldn’t the zombie numbers grow less? Despite the tyrannical nature of The Governor, wouldn’t other, similar pockets of humanity and civilization eventually rise up and prevail?
I can tell you that as of issue 100, there have been gleams and glints of it, but they were all quelled and destroyed by a horrifyingly bleak outlook on mankind’s capacity for compassion and peaceful coexistence. In Kirkman’s vision, the zombies are only the initial threat – tyrants, demagogues, and murderers are abundantly able to finish what the zombies started.
Kirkman has said repeatedly that no character was safe, with the possible exception of Rick Grimes. Trust me, he meant that. But what THAT means, folks, is that there IS NO POINT in investing emotionally in anyone (except Rick, whom I HAVEN’T been able to invest in because I don’t like him). It is my opinion as a writer that the most engaging literature requires you to emotionally invest in someone. Again, that’s qualified – you can have literature that contains no one worthwhile, but the best literature does.
I quit the Walking Dead comic book when one of the best characters was senselessly pulverized. Not just killed – pulverized. I won’t tell you who.
Adding to the problem inherent to the book itself is what the show’s producers are doing to the existing material. Did you know that at the point in the comic book that the show has reached, Andrea was still alive, and she was one of the book’s best characters? She wasn’t the annoying, indecisive creature Lauren Holden was required to portray. Dale was still alive, too, and he was also very likeable. Sophie, too.
You know who’s dead? Tyrese. Carol. The baby Judy. Lori. Herschel. THE GOVERNOR. Shane died early in the mix – before he became so unlikeable we WANTED to see him die. And every single one of their deaths were affecting and powerful and even meaningful.
At this point, what we’re seeing on AMC is resembling Kirkman’s already chaotic vision less and less. If the show’s producers and show runners had stuck to the script the way the Game of Thrones producers have, you would have been terrified of The Governor. You would have been shocked at what Michonne did to him. And you would have been as horrified and surprised by the end of Woodbury and the time in the prison as so many people were when the Red Wedding happened, when Charlie drowned, and when Todd visited Jessie’s ex-girlfriend and her kid.
All that opportunity for good, even great television? Gone.
Kirkman said that he wanted to change things up, to add a few surprises, but I think it’s gotten out of hand. For instance, I LIKE Daryl, and I liked Merle – he was actually a better right hand man to The Governor than Kirkman’s Sanchez was – but now I think they’ve gone too far. I think they’re spiraling out of control.
And when you let things spiral that far out of control, when you deviate from the plan too much, you lose it. The writing itself gets sloppy. You lose continuity and opportunities for solid story-telling. You have actors who become unsure about how to play their characters. I see all of this happening to The Walking Dead, and just like Kirkman’s zombie apocalypse, there’s no end in sight.
And now I’ve had a chance to play the new board game based on Firefly. It’s fun, and interesting, and worth the money I plunked down on it. Mostly though, I’m glad I played it because it makes me feel really good about my own endeavors in designing games.
While I was playing it, I couldn’t help but compare it to one of my designs – a lengthy adventure game that is very similar to Firefly in many ways. I think those similarities are the reason I was drawn to the game. They’re certainly what prompted me to write this latest post.
Like Firefly, the game I designed is based on an intellectual property. I’ll make no secret about it: the property is a Stephen King novel which, like Firefly, has a large following that would absolutely be interested in purchasing the game based on their love of the source material alone. Right now, my game has been tentatively accepted by a major game publisher, contingent on us getting permission to use the license. Further, I have a lawyer employed who’s trying to cut through the red tape to find out who can give us that permission, if the rights are even available, and how much it’ll cost me and/or the game publisher to obtain the rights.
Like Firefly, my game is a mission-based adventure game, where you play a specific entity, and as that entity, you travel the fictional game world trying to fulfill those “missions.” There are cards you collect, there are “ability” checks you have to pass, there are hazards that will impede you, and there are rewards for finishing the missions.
I have a roster of over 50 “playtesters” so far, and any of those people who’ve played my game who also play Firefly will certainly see similarities. To them, I have to say this: even though Firefly is published and my game isn’t, I had my design first. Really, there aren’t any game mechanics which are so similar as to be a “copycat”, and let’s face it, there’s a LOT of overlap in game mechanics everywhere. But I just want people to say that Firefly is similar to MY game, and not the other way around. An ego thing, really.
Speaking of ego, though, and this is where the gist of this post lies: I think my game is a better game than Firefly, and here’s why.
First, my game has little or no “down time.” What that is, for you non-gamers out there, is the time that you spend waiting on other people to finish their turn, without doing anything except wait. There’s down time in most games, and the down time usually increases with more players. Some great games have A LOT of down time (Arkham Horror, Merchants & Marauders, even Twilight Imperium), so it’s not a deal-breaker, but I think it should avoided as much as possible. Firefly has almost as much down time as the games I just listed. Because of a mechanic I have in my game, you have to do stuff during other people’s turns, so you’re not sitting around waiting on them to finish.
Which brings us to number two: my game has A LOT more player interaction than Firefly. A lot of “Euro” games actively avoid having players interact directly with other players – you’re essentially playing your own strategy without interference from others, and the winner of the game is basically the person who has the best strategy. In those games, the only way you “interfere” with other players is by beating them to resources you both need. Again, a lot of great games play this way, and there’s nothing wrong with that style of game – it’s a taste thing, really – but one thing about those games is that there’s usually little to no down time. In a game like Firefly, which has significant down time, I think “playing solo” with little player interaction can be detrimental. In Firefly, there’s a race to certain resources, sure, but other than that, there’s limited ways to interfere directly with what someone else is doing. There ARE ways, but 90% of the time, you’re in the sky alone.
My game has significant player interaction. In fact, there’s a mechanic in which the person who’s losing has access to a deck of cards that does NOTHING BUT screw with other people.
Finally, although my game is long – three to four hours depending on things – Firefly looks to be longer. I played a two-player game, and we finished in just under four hours. That puts it at anywhere from a half an hour to an hour longer.
All this is not to say that Firefly is a bad game. I’ve played much worse. I even like a few games that I consider to be in the same vein but not as strong (I’m looking at you, Runebound). I’m just saying all this because I’m encouraged. If Firefly can get published, then certainly my game was a worthwhile investment of my time and energy, and I think Stephen King and my potential publisher will be satisfied with how the game does if it ever gets to market.
To that end, if anybody out there knows a way my lawyer, my game publisher, and I can get some attention from Mr. King’s literary agency and maybe cut through some of this red tape, e-mail me. It’d be a shame to leave my design in the dark. Especially when it could be out there competing with Malcolm Reynolds and company.
Sometimes I get jealous of my gay writer friends. I think that compared to me at least, they have such a rich life - filled with things that I can never experience since my sexual orientation is NEVER called into question, never outlawed, and mostly never prosecuted. They have this whole world of things they can draw from to write about which I simply… lack.
Then I think about the things they have to put up with which make their lives so full and rich, and I decide I’m not so jealous after all.
Now, I don’t know if my friend Eric Sasson has been to all the places his characters visit in his short story collection Margins of Tolerance - although I know he’s well traveled. But if he’s been to even HALF of them, then I’m jealous once again, and not of his experience as a gay man, but of his experience as a world traveler. I’ve been a LOT of places, but now that I have two school-aged kids, I don’t get to go to far away places so much anymore.
What Eric has done with Margins of Tolerance is brilliant. He’s taken those two things I’m jealous about - his experience as a gay man and his experience as a traveler - and combined them into a rich and varied commentary on things which transcend ALL experience.
Two common threads run through each of the stories contained in this volume: the first is that every protagonist is a gay male. (I think that’s obvious from the things I’ve implied so far.) But if these stories focused solely on what it’s like to be gay, then I think it would be easy to dismiss Eric as a writer who’s found a comfortable niche - something to fall back on and rely on and repeat. I know some writers who happen to be minority, and who inhabit THAT personae in all of their writing - to the point that, even though I sympthasize with them and support them, I sometimes find their reliance on their status tiresome and uninventive.
Eric doesn’t do that. The SECOND thread which runs through Margins of Tolerance is how very DIFFERENT each story is. The protagonists are all wildly different - the only things they have in common are their gayness and their maleness. Other than that, they’re a different as anybody you can imagine.
The settings are also all different, ranging from a cheap hotel in Peru to a bar in St. Petersburg, Russia to a writers’ conference in Lake Tahoe. Eric has evidently visited many of these places, and if he hasn’t then he’s done his homework - he KNOWS these places in a profound and intimate way, and he uses them to great effect.
Not only are the characters and settings varied - even the style and language change from story to story. This is no small feat, I can tell you from my own experiments in changing style, voice, and cadence between stories. It’s very difficult to be tongue-in-cheek and sassy in one instance, then somber and melancholic in another. Many writers can’t pull off first person, and others revel in it. To see a single writer pull off such a variety of styles in such a small space is somewhat astounding.
Finally, the themes in Margins of Tolerance vary as well. I recently reviewed a book of short stories, that while enjoyable and worth reading, did dwell a lot on a number of contained and related themes. Margins of Tolerance defies that as much as it defies any other border. It’s a great irony and a triumph of sorts that this book, which sets itself up to be about the lines we as humans draw in the proverbial sand, crosses those lines again and again.
The power of Eric’s stories here are that each disparate piece - the characters, their situations, the setting, and the themes - are perfectly put together. Like a talented confectioner building the perfect cupcake from scratch, Eric somehow knows that THIS person experiencing THIS emotion and circumstance in THIS particular place will yield THIS transcendent message for the reader.
Some of these stories will disturb you - especially if you’re homophobic. Some of these stories will offend you. Some of these stories will make you cry, some will make you groan, some will make you shiver, and some will make you stand up and say “FUCK YEAH, that’s how it is!”
All of them will make you think - about your own person, about your own surroundings, and about the margins which you have established regarding your own tolerance.
And if you’re me, they’ll make you jealous.
Jay Magidson has dwelled in the art world for years, dealing with the artists and the buyers of some of the finest contemporary art in the United States. From his own gallery in downtown Aspen, CO, to his current position at Ann Korologos’s gallery in Basalt, Jay has had a long and successful career using his skilled eyes and vast knowledge of art. He seems to have a strong notion as to what works and what doesn’t in the visual realm.
Jay also happens to be a writer, and in everything I’ve read by him, I get a distinct sense of Jay’s visual sensibilities and acumen. His writing is among the most vivid and visually STUNNING of all of my peers. And in his current collection of short fiction, Colors, he hits SEVERAL monumental pinnacles in portraying scenes and scenery like no one else I know.
Does it always work? Well, no. But does it work enough to make Colors a worthwhile read? Absolutely.
Thematically, Colors varies. One of Jay’s favorite settings is in the dystopian future, but his vision of the days ahead is not singular. Using different versions of the future as a backdrop, Jay posits a variety of questions about man and man’s place in the universe: In one story, life in the future boils down to a day-by-day routine that everyone follows unquestioningly. There is no room for creativity, deviance from what is expected, or even the consciousness that one is an individual. In another story, the world is in ruins, in the dark, and we get a view of the post-apocalytic moral afflictions of one of the men who plunged it there.
There are other themes in other settings - in just a few pages, Jay makes comment on the problem of evil, the existence of free will, the nature of fear, and the consequences of selfishness. There’s nothing new here, but Jay’s approach is made fresh by his eye for effect and his uncanny ability to convey space, color, and detail.
The weakest part of Colors comes with the vignettes Jay uses to try to pull the stories into one cohesive piece. I think he’d have been better off simply leaving each story as a stand-alone, and let us inhabit them as ourselves and in our own way, rather than implying that the vignette character of Paul is there somehow, inhabiting each story’s respective protagonist in turn. Paul’s story, though vividly told - starting off strange, then moving into creepy, then veering off into terrible and surreal - actually lacks an urgency which is desperately needs. It also acts a succinct resolution. I’d be okay with no resolution were Paul’s story simply one of the many presented in Colors, but its position as GLUE makes me expect more from it.
Take Paul’s story away, though, and you have a series of tales that start off rather quiet, then build to a crescendo. And the thing which makes this volume successful, to me, is the visual power of every single scene. Even the Paul scenes are interesting in a visual sense. Jay Magidson convincingly conveys the vast and the claustrophobic, the euphoric and the melancholy, the intricate and the mundane, and he does it so that you can SEE it. Somewhere in his mind, Jay has seen it all - and he can describe it for you perfectly.
Time. Space. Eternity. All in color.
People asked for some pictures from this year’s Dragon*Con, and I aim to please. I won’t comment on them - but you feel free to say something below via the comments link. BTW, you can click on the image for a slightly larger version, if it pleases you.
It’s Friday and I think I have all of the Con Crud out of me. I’ve also had time to organize my thoughts regarding this year’s Dragon*Con. I also didn’t sleep ’til noon today.
All of that is to say I’m ready to tell you the highlights of Will Kenyon’s Dragon*Con 2012.
1) THE CROWDS. I was having breakfast with two good friends (and partners in crime at the Con) Wednesday, when one of them - Eddie - asked if my concerns about the noise and chaos had been justified. I’d expressed some trepidation, you see, about how prohibitive the massive crowds were to getting around, and how the constant noise level could make even a social animal like me look for silence and solitude. Here’s my wishy-washy answer, and little factoid for you: Yes, the crowds got on my nerves. But no, not as badly as I anticipated and not as much as last year. You see, this year the Con and the host hotels were much more strict about letting people without badges or hotel room keys into the hotels themselves.
That means there was likely more than 10,000 potential onlookers - people who wandered in off the streets to goggle at the costumes - who were NOT in the walkways, nor crowding the bars, nor taking photo ops in the middle of high traffic areas.
And you could feel the difference. Sure it was still an adventure to cross from the Hilton to the other side of the Marriott Marquis. But you could do it, and in decent enough time, too. (As a side note, the elevator wait times were down, too - less party crashers hitting buttons for every floor.)
My friend Jay, who works for the Hilton, seems to think there were probably less incidents which required a visit from the police, because the “football” crowd couldn’t come in. Of course, this reflects poorly, but I think accurately, on a certain type of football fan. (I’m sure you’re not that kind of person, dear reader who happens to like American football.)
2. THE DECATUR BOOK FESTIVAL. This is not to say that the crowds didn’t get to me. Au contraire. On Saturday morning in particular I had to fight them, and I almost gave up and just went back to the gaming pit. You see, I had decided to go to the Decatur Book Festival that morning to visit my friend Jason Snape and to hear my friend Collin Kelley read. I’d neglected to take into consideration the parade, however. So it was that I found myself a salmon swimming upstream - one guy trying to get AWAY from Dragon*Con while literally THOUSANDS of people were converging ON IT. Add to that the problems MARTA was having (don’t get me started on MARTA tonight)….
I got to Decatur an hour and a half later - sweaty, hot, and irritable. I was too late for Collin’s reading, so I just hung out with Snape until I was less sweaty and irritable. And until I thought the parade crowds had dispersed back to the suburbs. Then I headed back.
3. GAMES. All in all, I played a lot less games than I usually do. My trip to Decatur took up over half of Saturday, and being tour guide for my friend Eric Sasson took a chunk out of Sunday. And being an old man now, I only stayed up until 3 a.m. one time. ONE TIME.
Unbelievable, I know.
4) PICTURES. People have requested pictures from me, because Dragon*Con IS an opportunity to see some pretty amazing and amusing costumes. Unfortunately, I’m not much of a picture taker, and after 14 straight years of going to the Con, I’m rarely amazed - not because the costumes aren’t still amazing, but that I’m jaded. So I don’t take many pics. My friends DO, however, and I’m in the process of combing their Facebook pages for the best ones. I’ll compile them, resize them and post them as a gallery in the next couple of days. So look for them. As a teaser, there’s one at the top of this post… Avengers Assemble!
Almost three years ago I posted a review of local poet and LGBT champion Collin Kelley’s first novel, Conquering Venus. Ordinarily, I’d link back to that review, but I’m not going to this time. Why? Because it’s not relevant anymore. That was three years ago, and the way I feel about that book has changed enough that the review doesn’t matter. If you want to go digging for it, feel free, but you’d be better off just reading this - I’ll clarify my repositioning on Conquering Venus in this review, in light of having read the sequel, Remain In Light.
Conquering Venus came out to mostly glowing reviews, and my reviews and attention to the book were mostly positive as well. Retrospectively, I think some of that praise might have been premature - for reasons I suppose I now have to explain. First, though, let me assure you that the impending praise I’m about to give Remain In Light is highly deserved - with this follow-up, Collin has given us a book that deserves as much if not more attention than current books of similar pacing, style, and genre.
Despite my ex post facto misgivings, two things make Conquering Venus a unique and worthwhile book. One is Collin’s acumen as a poet. The other is his position in the local gay community as an adamant and prolific messenger, diplomat, and champion.
Unfortunately, those two things also contribute to the problems Conquering Venus has as well. First, Collin had some difficulty, I think, in transforming the powerfully metaphoric and sonorous language that makes him such a talented poet into the precise and practical language often required in prose. Sometimes his artful phrasing added beautiful layers to his scenes, as with the Prologue, (you can listen to him read it here). Other times - many times - scenes got muddied, became unclear.
Second, and this is just circumstance - it reflects less on the author than it does the world in which we live - the subject matter simply proved unwieldy for people who are not in or deeply sympathetic to the LGBT community. That, BTW, does not include me - I am and for many years have been a staunch ally of my gay, lesbian, bisexual, and transgender peers.
Still, and I am loathe to admit this, but the incontrovertible fact is: if you are not a member of the LGBT community or an ally thereof, you might not find much in Conquering Venus to identify with. It’s a sad fact, but it’s true: although the feelings and angst that protagonist Martin Paige and his lover David experience are indeed universal, and ought to transcend boundaries, we live in a society that finds it difficult to transcend with them.
Conquering Venus was a sort of coming-of-age story, the tale of two boys who need to grow past certain things and become men. It’s filled with all the pathos and emotional upheaval you’d expect from any such tale. Honestly, it’s not the kind of story I gravitate toward, and for many others who do gravitate toward that kind of tale, it’s appeal is potentially lessened by their inability to find commonality with a gay couple in Paris.
Still, Conquering Venus was and is an impressive debut novel. The characters, particularly the chief protagonist of Martin and the two female leads of Irene and Diane, are thoughtful and multi-layered portraits of complex and fascinating people. And the setting of 1990s Paris is a character unto itself - you can sense in every overly poetically-phrased description Collin’s love for the City of Light and the people who inhabit it.
The strengths of Conquering Venus are present in Remain as Light as well. Martin, Irene, and Diane are back and as splendidly portrayed as ever. The weaknesses, however, are gone.
Whereas Conquering Venus was a coming-of-age tale full of emotional circumstance, Remain In Light is a murder mystery and a thriller. The stakes aren’t astronomical here - we’re not talking government conspiracy or secret society adventures that will determine the fate of the world. But that doesn’t matter. What’s at stake is the fate of these characters, and Collin gets us so invested in what could and will become of them that we turn every page with as much interest and involvement as we would any story in a similar vein. And honestly, I care more about Martin Paige and Irene Laureux than I ever have Jack Ryan, Jason Bourne, or Robert Langdon.
Finally, with this second excursion into long prose, Collin has adapted an efficient style which gives you pacing and plot in abundance, but a distinct and cohesive sense of place and time. The little ornamental trappings of poesy are still present here and there, but they add to the story now rather than distract and detract. There is also an air of mystery that drives the plot - something amorphous and enigmatic that hangs around each scene like a ghost, giving you the sensation that someone important was there before you, and that you just missed something that could change you and your perspective fundamentally.
Stronger in voice, more sublime in style, and ultimately more intriguing than its predecessor and many of its contemporaries, Remain In Light stands as a great second entry in what Collin is calling his Venus Trilogy. It’s available now from Vanilla Heart Publishing. Get a copy here from Amazon.com.
I hear people deride Twitter all the time, and I can see their point: What kind of communication can you get done in 140-character sound bites, going out and coming in at you sometimes 10 or 20 per minute? And what do such minute bits of communication mean for our overall ability as humans to convey ideas of complexity and intricacy?
Well, I’ll leave those questions right here, unanswered, because I don’t know the answers. What I do know is that Twitter can be infuriating, tiresome, and inane, but it can also - if you open yourself up to the community it creates - introduce you to things of beauty and substance that you might otherwise miss.
I’ve never met Ben Rubin, who goes by the Twitter moniker of @ghostofthemoon, but as I grew my Twitter community of fellow poets and writers and artists, I came across him, and took special note of the iconography on his Twitter page. Something about it intrigued me.
Now, I have to admit that there’s a lot of noise on Twitter - noise which may be its eventual downfall - and sometimes it’s hard to rise above that noise. Over the weeks after I followed Ben, however, his posts came to the fore for me, and I began to take special notice of him and what he had to say. This drove me to his site, sort of like I hope that my posts on Twitter might have driven YOU here.
And once I was at his site, I was so struck by the book he was offering that I had to have it. And once I had it, I was happy - happy that such a strange thing of beauty could exist in our world of instant information and gratification, happy that I’d taken the initiate to find such a work, and happy that I had found it through such a supposedly unlikely path.
When Comes What Darkly Thieves is a picture book fairy tale, and Ben Rubin is foremost an artist who excels in collage and photography. What makes this entry into literature and art so masterful is that he has established a pervasive mood, which he never deviates from and which never leaves you as the reader (and inadvertant protagonist of the story, since it’s in second person) dissatisfied.
When you see the images (and many of them are readily available on Rubin’s site at http://buttondownbird.com/), you’ll see what I mean. They are a strange mix of chaotic and ordered, exotic and mundane, nightmarish and beautiful, alien and comforting. And while I wouldn’t have made some of the grammar or punctuation choices Ben made in the adjoining tale - which is a surreal mini-adventure involving blind Gypsies, magical moonbeams, swingsets, and lumps in the carpet - it blends fantastically well with the images, which ARE the chief draw here, the main thing that I believe you should be paying attention to.
As an avid reader of WORDS, I don’t have a lot of picture-centric books on my shelves. But I assure that right now, When Comes What Darkly Thieves is there alongside all the other books in my collections, and I will display it proudly, for I think it’s quite a find. And I think the way I found it speaks volumes about how we conduct ourselves in the 21st century - how we go about finding things both beautiful and ugly, assuring and disturbing, humorous and not.
I also think that in Ben Rubin, I found a fellow artist that I’ll be happy to follow (on Twitter and otherwise) for a long time.
You can find When Comes What Darkly Thieves via the Button-down Bird web site in an e-book format, and perhaps hardcover. If you can find a hardcover copy, I recommend it, even in this age of electronics.
I don’t play this version of Settlers of Catan anymore with my REAL GAMER FRIENDS. We only play what we call “vanilla” Settlers when we’re introducing newbies to the gaming hobby. Like Wil Wheaton was doing here. And so I wonder: Wil, do you play the Settlers Cities & Knights version? Because you should know that’s the only way to play this game. Really.
Anyway, here is my John Madden-ish rundown of last week’s episode of Tabletop (see my first post about this cool new internet show here), and this time around I think Wil pretty much summed up their game of Settlers of Catan in one profound sentence: “The Robber is a dick.”
The show gave us a statistic about halfway through the episode that I think anyone wanting to play the game should know: seven, the number that makes the Robber do his thing in Settlers, SHOULD only come up about 18% of the time. But these are dice, and dice are fickle, and in this game the Robber reared his ugly head about 29% of the time. Really, the Robber to me represents a negative play experience, but I see no other way to deal with the unfairness that “7″ spaces on the board would represent. So I deal.
But yeah, he’s a dick. And yeah, we’re assuming the Robber is male.
Besides the proliferation of sevens in this particular game of Settlers, three other things struck me about this episode.
First was Wil’s insistence on making the “wheat on” pun work. I’m not going to say anything else about it; it just stood out….
Next was that, after two episodes, Tabletop obviously has a formula: Wil sits down and plays with one white guy, one Asian guy, and one white woman. I personally look forward to when a black dude plays a game with him (although I’m gonna shake my head while simultaneously laughing if they play something like Betrayal at House on the Hill and the black dude bites it first).
Also, I think Wil ought to reach out to the real gaming community and have a couple of fat guys on the show.
Although what he REALLY needs to do is have someone on the show who will laugh at his jokes about having wood. He made the joke that pretty much every person in my gaming community has made at some point, and it fell flat on his audience of fellow gamers. C’mon. “I’ve got wood for sheep” is one of the funniest lines EVER in the world of gaming. It’s a lot funnier than “wheat on” puns… which I won’t mention.
Finally, I’m gonna disparage James Kyson’s game play. I have NO IDEA how intelligent Kyson is in real life, and maybe he was just acting for this episode, but holy shit he played poorly.
Example #1: Early on, Wil was offering him two bricks for one wheat. The camera aimed at Kyson’s hand and we saw that he had two woods, a brick, a wheat, and a sheep. We’d also just seen that Kyson was lacking roads and was getting cut off by Neil Grayston. Had he traded the wheat away for the two brick, he’d have been able to slap down TWO roads and get out of his corner, AND he’d have had three quarters of what he need to build a Settlement once he was out. You have to build roads early on in Settlers, folks, because you can’t spread out otherwise. Kyson neglected to do this and turned down Wil’s generous offer.
Example #2: He says at the end that Neil Grayston came out of nowhere with the win. “I didn’t see it coming,” he said. Well, the episode was truncated, and we the audience didn’t see everything, but even we saw Grayston get:
An additional Settlement for 1 point.
A City for 2 points.
The Largest Army for 2 points.
And the Longest Road for 2 points.
Seven points, James Kyson. You only need 10. You didn’t see that coming?
So… Neil Grayston, the “white guy who’s not Wil Wheaton” won. Which is obviously also part of the formula, because LAST episode Sean Plott, “the white guy who’s not Wil Wheaton” won.
I dunno, man.
I’d like to make one more point, which is effectively a final plug for the Cities & Knights variant of this game: A lot of times in games of vanilla Settlers, we found that once you became a clear front-runner the way Neil Grayston did, experienced players simply stopped trading with you. This gets frustrating to the front-runner, AND it pisses off people if you DO break down and trade with the front-runner AKA The Great Satan. Generally speaking, the person who’s in SECOND place has the better shot - he or she is within grasp of the win, and people are more willing to trade with him or her. There’s a lot of these “hang back a bit” games, and they get old after a while.
With Cities & Knights there are several paths to victory AND there are work-arounds for the front-runner, should the trading well dry up. It’s a more complicated game, for sure, but it’s far less tedious in the end game, and the wins are much more satisfying.
Especially if you manage to get your Wheat On.
Did I say that out loud?