Friday July 25, 2014
Two of this this weekend's new releases are based on popular mythology. One of them takes its chosen myth completely seriously, doubling down on it all the way to the end, and never leaving anybody convinced. The other one throws stones at its myth for pretty much the whole movie, but at the end you really want to believe.
I saw Lucy last night with Sandra. I had hoped that the "you only use 10% of your brain" myth bandied about in the trailer might be something they refuted in the film, but if they didn't I figured I could just treat it as a superhero origin story starring Scarlett Johansson. Unfortunately that is not how it went down. Morgan Freeman lectured for several agonizing minutes on the subject, and even though his lecture was interspersed with some cool imagery and tense plot-advancement, the effect was that Morgan Freeman was talking during a movie I wanted to watch.
Who doesn't love listening to Morgan Freeman talk? His voice is delightful. Which is why any movie that makes me want Morgan Freeman to JUST PLEASE STOP TALKING has gone tragically astray.
Public Service Announcement: We use our whole brains. Getting smarter is not the process of unlocking unused brain cells. It's the process of activating unused hours of your day, with studying, problem-solving, socializing, and hundreds of other varieties of focused thinking. And understanding this simple principle is the first key to actually getting smarter. If you believe you can strengthen your brain, you are more likely to stretch yourself and actually do it.
I could have rewritten the central conceit of the film pretty easily. Luc Besson was already committed to very hand-wavey science, so I'd just invoke a little bit of brain chemistry terminology, and posit a drug that accelerates certain chemical reactions. Sure, real neuroscientists would cringe, but this film is already lost to them. I could have saved it for the rest of us.
There were other problems, though. All the murderous villains were Korean*, which gave the film a seriously racist ring. Yes, ethnic gangs exist, but they can be portrayed better than this. Also, our heroine was very morally ambiguous, but the film failed to properly explore that. The one guy who called her on it didn't try hard enough. Missed opportunity, at best.
Hang on, though: I had fun! The action sequences were great, the tension during our inciting incident was delicious, and throughout the film we were treated to genuine on-location filming and a broad diversity of background players (even if pretty much all the evil ones were Asian.) It wasn't the same old places and faces we're used to getting from Hollywood, and I loved that.
But doubling down on a disproven, debunked, and potentially damaging myth? Really annoying. I guess the movie was a little bit like being at a fun family picnic while there's a nail in your foot. "This potato salad is delicious, and it's wonderful to see all of you, but there is a nail in my foot." Lucy failed to clear the Threshold of Awesome. I'm putting it just below Transcendence, because that one did the future of human evolution much more convincingly.
On to Hercules.
I went to this show just to clear my palate of Lucy. A dumb, fantasy-mythological action flick seemed like just the thing.
You know what? This may be my favorite cinematic treatment of Hercules ever. I was surprised. I had one moment of action-movie fatigue during the first big battle scene, but then the story of the battle advanced a bit, and I got back into it. The battle was not a montage of crunching. It had tactics. Some good, some astoundingly bad, some competently depicted, some utterly ridiculous, but there was a STORY in that fight. And in the other fights. In almost all the fights, now that I think about it.
Hey, Hollywood! Put more stories inside of fight scenes! I can totally take it.
You know all those "Labors" scenes from the trailers (the lion, the boar, the hydra, etc), the ones that look totally over-the-top fantastical? Yeah, they were done in the first three minutes, at which point our first reveal was that Hercules is, at least to every measurable outward appearance, a man. Oh, and he has some really cool friends with whom he adventures. At that point (five minutes in) I felt like this movie maybe had a story to tell that I could get into.
Yes, the Amazon archer's "armor" was one of those ridiculous bare midriff outfits, and the film had plenty of other problems, but I still had a great time.
This Hercules film is loosely based, with no small contractual dispute, on the comics created by the late Steve Moore. The saga in which comic book creators lose any rights to their creations, and somebody else gets rich, plays out yet again. As a comic book creator it frustrates me. It might frustrate you enough to stay home, and I won't blame you for this. But if you do go, I think you might enjoy the movie. Hercules clears my Threshold of Awesome.
(*Note: Regarding the race of the villianous mob in Lucy, Choi Min-sik, the leader, is Korean, and I'm told that the language they were all speaking was Korean, but the only English identifications of foreign language in those scenes led me to believe they were Chinese. I don't know for sure.)
Wednesday July 23, 2014
Scrapyard of Insufferable Arrogance, the fifth volume of unabridged, uncurated Schlock Mercenary strips, is now available as a DRM-free PDF for just $8.00. This 170mb file delivers the pages of strips at a delightfully crisp resolution, ideal for tablets and computer screens, and includes everything the paper version includes except a place for me to sketch in the book. That means re-colored images, lots of neat margin art, and the "Hot Commodity" bonus story that helps explain where Schlock got his deep pockets.
The first four Schlock Mercenary titles, The Tub of Happiness, The Teraport Wars, Under New Management, and The Blackness Between, are still available as DRM-free PDFs through Baen Books, and you can snag all four together for just $50. These, too, contain everything the print versions do, with the lone exception of a place for me to draw picture for you.
If you signed up for the Schlock Mercenary Patreon at the Schlocktroops level, you got this news on Monday, and you also got a coupon!
Here's a quick FAQ:
Q: Will you be doing more ebooks?
A: We plan to. Our schedule depends on how sales of this one go.
Q: DRM-free? Are you crazy?
A: That's two questions. Here are two answers: Yes! No! Without wall-of-texting you, we don't believe that DRM is good for creators or publishers. The overwhelming majority of our readers want to read wherever it's convenient for them without worrying about passwords, cookies, or persistent connections. DRM-free PDFs provide this.
Q: Aren't you worried that PDF sales will cannibalize sales of your print copies?
A: Well, there's overlap between the print market and the ebook market, but there's also a big chunk of the ebook market that we can't reach when we only have print versions out. It's our hope that this will more than make up for a few lost print sales.
Q: Is buying a PDF a good way for me to help support the comic?
A: You betcha. Absolutely.
Q: What does "delightfully crisp" mean in numbers?
A: The comic images in the PDF are two-and-a-half times larger than the ones on the web -- 2000 pixels wide as opposed to 780.
Q: Who blew up Sergeant Schlock?
A: I'm seeing that question a lot. I'd better make sure that it gets answered in the comic...
Wednesday July 16, 2014
Schlock Mercenary is now on Patreon!
Patreon is a crowdfunding website designed to let fans of things become patrons of the arts, or at least patrons of those things of which they are fans. And speaking of fans, many of you have contacted us in recent months and asked how you can support the comic strip without buying merchandise. Some of you have even said "put up a Patreon so I can pay you."
Now we have! So now you can!
The Schlock Mercenary Patreon has two tiers of support: "Patron" and "Schlock Troops."
Patrons spend $1.00 per month, and get regular drops of behind-the-scenes goodies. These will include things from my sketchbook, abandoned strips, abandoned scripts, commentaries on the worldbuilding, and other things that don't make it onto the web. Patrons also get a two-day head start on pre-orders, and upcoming pre-orders will be announced via Patreon emails, so they don't have to check the website every day.
Schlock Troops spend $2.50 per month, and they get everything the Patrons get, plus regular drops of desktop wallpapers, high-res crops of panels, pre-release (potentially spoilery) unfinished versions of strips, and other things that might, in a different context, be considered "digital merchandise." Schlock Troops get the same 2-day head start as Patrons, but they also get access to convention-exclusive merchandise without attending the convention (while supplies last, anyway.) Oh, and quarterly we'll be dropping coupons on Schlock Troops that will save them money on store orders.
Patreon will ask you for a credit card, and will automatically charge that card once per month for the sum of all your patronage that month. You can cancel at any time.
We're new to this system, so we'll probably make some mistakes, but we're hoping to err on the "gave you more than your money's worth" side of things. Eventually we may expand the tiers and the rewards to include things like ad-free browsing, but that's a technological problem we're not in a position to tackle just yet. Currently the rewards are for patrons only.
Let me now speak to the elephant in the room: Isn't Schlock Mercenary too big and too successful for crowdfunding?
The answer is complicated. On a personal level, Sandra and I both work for the same "employer," Schlock Mercenary, and while we have lean months and fat months, Sandra does a fantastic job of managing our budget, so our family of six lives within our means.
On a corporate level, Schlock Mercenary rents a warehouse, pays several employees and/or contractors, and regularly invests tens of thousands of dollars in merchandise projects. The company does not have enough money to run down every avenue for possible growth, however. Last year's challenge coin Kickstarter opened some cool doors for us, but there are still lots of things we want to be able to pay other people to do.
Ultimately, however, the answer to the question lies in the sad truth that no business is too big to fail. We have to keep moving, and changing, and thinking, and learning, and firing up a Patreon is part of that process.
Wednesday July 16, 2014
I'm a week late with this one. Sorry! The Schlock Mercenary colorist, Travis Walton, is heading to San Diego Comic Con, and I needed to restore the buffer a bit so he could color far enough ahead to get a vacation. Yes, the depth of my buffer dictates the maximum depth of HIS buffer. This is what tyranny looks like...
I loved this film. It had a big hurdle to clear, because I'm familiar with the television series, and if that is canon in this setting, the humans eventually lose and they all become slaves. That meant that I sat down expecting a war in which the humans lose, laying groundwork for the setting us old-timers are familiar with.
I don't mean to suggest that this is where the film makers have to go. They can do their own thing. Maybe they're planning to eventually create a serial called "Planet of the Apes, Moon of the Humans" or some such. Or maybe they're going to do a crossover with H.G. Wells' "The Time Machine," and the apes all evolve into hairless, toga-clad wimps while the humans retreat underground and become morlochs. Seriously, they can do what they want. But I brought baggage to this movie, and they knew it, and folks, they were totally ready for me. Saw me coming, even.
See, the movie isn't about what will eventually happen. The movie is about what's happening right now, with these people (and by "people" I mean "sapient Hominidae," not just humans), and they sold that in the very first scenes.
The opening credits establish that the human world has fallen apart, thanks to a super-flu that makes Ebola look like hay fever (the survival rate quoted in the movie might be a bone of contention for students of virology, but I handwaved that.) Meanwhile, the apes, sapient thanks to the same virus, are thriving.
A small town's worth of human survivors have holed up in an improvised fortress in the ruins of San Francisco. These people have lost family, friends, and their entire way of life, but they're alive and they've found a way to maybe get a leg up on rebuilding. And then they run into the apes, who are currently inventing their own way of life, and don't want the humans to mess with it. That's the first ten minutes...
This is a story about good people ("people," see above) striving to overcome the evils of their time, the evils among their kind, and even the evil within themselves. It is, and I say this unequivocally, a really good story.
It's also beautiful. The forest is lush, the ruins are breathtaking, and the special effects are seamless. Do you remember the tagline for the original Christopher Reeve "Superman" film? YOU WILL BELIEVE A MAN CAN FLY. And back in the 80's we totally did.
Well, it's 2014. YOU WILL BELIEVE A CHIMPANZEE IS DUAL-WIELDING FULLY AUTOMATIC ASSAULT CARBINES WHILE RIDING A HORSE doesn't scan quite as well, but that's exactly how I felt about this film. I couldn't tell where the ape-suits ended and the CGI layers atop motion-capture began. Were those real horses? I don't know! But I believe those were chimpanzees riding them!
This movie fulfilled my desire for eye-candy, sated my lust for sci-fi action, delivered an entire barrel of monkeys*, and told a great story. It underutilized Keri Russell, but partially atoned for that by letting Gary Oldman and Andy Serkis chew on the scenery. It clears my Threshold of Awesome and comes in just behind Godzilla for me this year.
(*Note: No monkeys. APES. But monkey is a funny word, and they come in barrels.)
Wednesday July 9, 2014
Before talking about Hurricane Fever, I need to mention the prequel.
See, I loved Tobias Buckell's Artic Rising, but I felt a tiny bit sad because my favorite character, Prudence "Roo" Jones, Caribbean Intelligence Group agent, wasn't the star of the show. I was delighted when Buckell took us back to that setting with Roo as Hurricane Fever's protagonist. I'm a sucker for sailboats and good secret agents, and Roo is a good secret agent with a sailboat.
I also like near-future science fiction that extrapolates believably from current events. In Arctic Rising, Buckell showed us a world economy turned upside down by the thawing Arctic, which opened up the Northwest Passage. He also gave us commercial arctic airships more than a year before news broke that investors in Iceland and the US were contemplating just such a thing.
Hurricane Fever takes us a several thousand klicks south to the Caribbean, where warmer oceans have increased the frequency, the range, and the intensity of Atlantic hurricanes (a conceit I first saw in John Barnes' Mother of Storms, and which has solid meteorological science behind it.) Those storms are just the backdrop, however, for a piece of spy fiction in the classic vein. Roo has retired to raise his orphaned nephew, but he gets a phone call from a dead friend, and the resulting trip to the post office kicks off a pulse-pounding tour of the islands.
Buckell knows the region -- he grew up there -- and he gets the details right. He mentions the haze of Saharan dust that periodically descends from the skies, and I remember cleaning that very same stuff from my boom box back in 1984 on a Florida beach. His descriptions of hurricanes match my own memories of trying to sleep through a mild one. Oh, and the scene where Roo scrubs the deck? Spot on.
Hurricane Fever is a relatively quick read, but I enjoyed it a lot. You don't need to have read Arctic Rising first, and now that you know Roo lives through that book we've gotten the only potential spoiler out of the way. If you dig super spies, high-tech toys, and heavy weather*, you may just enjoy it too.
*Note: Heavy Weather by Bruce Sterling? Awesome, even twenty years later.