DC Comics cleansing fire

WarnerMedia have taken an axe to DC Comics. It is past time. As a multi-decade DC Comics reader, three years ago I found myself in a comics shop facing a wall of trash written by lazy, activist, dilettantes. Those people and all their friends have to go during this industry contraction.

Take the entire comic book industry and cut the number of titles in half. Shrink the current staffing to a quarter of what it is now. That’s the future of the comic book industry.

No one discusses comic book stories on Twitter. They discuss the latest Twitter freak outs by talentless comic book writers. Now is the time to fling those writers overboard and focus on the top selling creators. There is no future in selling pamphlet issues weekly, go all in on digital and put higher quality graphic novels in stores. Pay the artists whose work takes peoples breath away. Focus on the artistry and charge the collectors for it.

Comic books are vinyl records in a world of streaming services. Or they can be assuming the non-value adders are thrown out of the publishing process. This needs to be a cleansing fire that strips away the rot inside the comic book creation process and let thousands of indie creators and smaller publishers bloom.

Lamentations of the Flame Princess

Game books published by Lamentations of the Flame Princess (LotFP) have been something I’ve seen in game stores but not anything I’ve been interested in. The blurbs on the back covers struck me as tasteless and crass. The vibe of their published adventures coming off as nihilistic and provocative for the sake of it. Now they’re in financial trouble I find myself scratching around their online store looking for something to buy. It took the pandcession for that to happen.

I was speaking with someone last week who told me LotFP was facing bankruptcy. With the pandcession across the world I wasn’t surprised their sales had fallen as shipping any product between major markets is a nightmare right now. What was surprising was to find out the publisher was highly leveraged and €100K in debt.

The reputation of their publisher for putting cash on the barrel head is well known. He walked around Gen Con one year with thousands in hand looking to sign creators up to book deals. ‘Here’s your advance, go write me a book.’ When I heard that the warning lights came on. That’s not how you run a business.

The first draft of this post covered everything I thought was wrong with their business approach. Well that first draft was a terrible idea. What I think of how someone runs their business doesn’t matter. The bottom line is a small publisher took a thumping when the world contracted around them. They won’t be the last and the best thing I can do is to offer my money instead of my opinion.

If you run across a similar situation in any of your hobbies consider buying from someone you normally wouldn’t. The economy today isn’t the economy operating as usual. If you can buy something from someone you should consider it. You hobby will be poorer for it if the smaller folks go under. Unlike the financial darwinism of the marketplace we're used to this isn't a normal situation.

A note because it was always going to come up. LotFP’s most sold third party author has had a number of grotesque acquisitions levelled at him by former lovers. I wasn’t interested in him and his harem back when they first started making noise on the internet, I’m not interested in any of them now. Industry people who should have known better envied the life he was leading due to the multiple women he was fucking. As expected it turns out there was nothing worth envying. Those industry people damaged their careers for nothing.

But accusations are not convictions. Social media would have you believe that the accusation is the conviction, social media is Lord of The Flies on a global scale. Notwithstanding the reality bending nature of social media, you should be aware that if you cannot separate the artist from the art then you might consider avoiding things like Vornheim: The Complete City Kit, Red & Pleasant Land, Maze of the Blue Medusa, etc.

I do separate the artist from the art and I’ll strip good gaming ideas from anywhere. His work never appealed to me before so there’s little chance it’ll end up on my bookshelves in the future. I won’t judge you if his work appeals to you and you shouldn’t take judgements from anyone else either.

Another Hugo Awards. Another shrieking ragefest.

I know Worldcon and the Hugo Awards are over when my social media feeds become a cacophony of rage filled shrieking. The sound of tortured air bellowing forth from the World Science Fiction Society membership. It happens like clockwork each year.

Apologies are demanded. The apologies given are said to be insincere or don't go far enough. Someone will write an article or give a speech about the travesty that was the previous Con/Awards ceremony. Attendees will call it "powerful" and the author might walk away with a Rocket the year after.

Same old Hugos, same old tripe.

There's a secret to all this rage. Those who spend time rolling their eyes in YouTube videos as they discuss popular works of fiction or spend their time talking down to other fans on social media end up spending a weekend with one another. The secret is they despise one another.

It leaks out all over. Reading the coverage every year you would be hard pressed to find a room filled with more people who would prefer that all of those around them fail. Fail badly and fail in public. That's why, every year, someone or other is getting cancelled. It was the dead authors until they ran out of them and now it's the live ones. What the people doing the cancelling try to ignore is that eventually it will be their time to be cancelled.

The bad joke. The inappropriate comment while drunk. The inappropriate comment while sober. The piece of work you wrote 15 years ago. The conversation you had five years ago with the wrong person. It won't matter. Cancellation is coming and it is a lottery they and their peers all get to win if they just hang around long enough.

Don't hang around. If by chance you are ever nominated for a Hugo award do yourself a favour. Show up, be gracious with your win or your loss and then leave. Leave with a smile on your face but leave with speed. Never forget the people in that room will burn you in effigy the next morning if you linger.

You're better off at home in front of your word processor.

Warren Ellis's prick helped others to destroy him

If there was a collection of attractive tattooed alternative models/strippers/cam girls who had an arty bent, Warren Ellis was somewhere around. This was not a secret.

A decade ago if you paid attention to what was going on at parties where creative types mixed with nude models, you would see their photos snapped with him and the joyous references they made about him online. Warren was a superstar comic book author and the arty types who showed their breasts on the Internet were happy to meet him. He made them feel special.

Warren was held in such high regard by some of these people that were it Warren’s birthday they'd make him a sign and publish a selfie with it. Quoting one such starstruck embarrassment of a post where the author was flexing in public to show who she knew, Warren was “a wise curator of the whole wide web, and a lovely [questionably human] being. Pretty sure I could still drink him [almost] under the table though.”

The author of that brainless nugget, now that it does not serve her to flex on who this former friend was, is currently part of a fifty-member group where women just like her complain about Warren Ellis. Warren had a type and now years on something else they all have in common is that when they got too old and too dull he dropped them.

If you want to see a man make a fool of himself put him in front of a good looking woman in her early to mid-twenties. “Warren Ellis, a pleasure to meet you.” I remember reading his opening line and rolling my eyes many years ago at the cheese that followed as a geeky porn starlet recounted meeting her new friend Warren.  It never lasted. Because whatever fame the women had was based on how they looked. Not their boring photos, bad charcoal scribbles or turgid prose. There was always a fresh crop of tattooed young women, who also thought they were rebellious artists, for Warren to meet.

At time of writing there has been no accusation of sexual assault. So what we have is an older man, who was a name in the social circles they aspired to be a part of, trying his hand at sleeping with as many younger women as he could. Not a great look but not a crime. 

Survive could do worse than rip off The Edge

Quibi. Think of it like this, Meg Whitman launched a video streaming company aimed at young commuters at a time when no one at all is commuting. I'll watch their stuff anyway.

Quibi’s video quality is good for the mobile device you’re watching it on but their big technical innovation is in instantly reframing the shot depending on if you are viewing it in portrait or landscape. This is a mobile only app and it’s a nice effect to see when you rotate the phone but you’re going to watch it in landscape because you’re probably not a savage.

Chapters of Quibi produced content come in at under 10 minutes a pop and are posted daily. Because I’m old fashioned and under a national lock in I watched all 12 Chapters of the Quibi original 'Survive' in one sitting..and boy was it garbage!

Sophie Turner plays a disturbed woman with suicidal tendencies who, after being released from an institution, plans to commit suicide on her cross country flight home. Before she can overdose in the toilet, and make herself some airline employee’s next nightmare, the plane crashes in a mountain range and she finds herself one of two survivors. The other being her seatmate who we saw earlier in the terminal. Now both must survive in the wilderness.  

This is a cheap show, which is acceptable when there is skilful use of resources but in a more than a few cases there is no skill. I also started finishing sentences with the worst dialogue I could think of in the moment only to see the characters say the same thing.

What’s annoying is this could have been something more interesting. Dear god, could someone just rip off 1997’s ‘The Edge’, with Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin? Hopkins protagonist is what Hollywood these days only casts as the villain. He’s a smart, rich, older guy. That is, someone you might want on your side in a real pinch.

Baldwin’s photographer character, who is having an affair with the protagonist’s wife, has decided to bump the older guy off so he and the merry widow can enjoy the protagonist’s money. A wrinkle in the murder plan occurs when Hopkin’s private plane goes down in the woods with both of them onboard and they are forced to depend on one another for survival.

A story change can’t fix technical problems in Survive but it could make its trite story more interesting. Map Hopkin’s character onto Turner’s and add in a second act reveal of her suicidal ideation. That the person leading you through the wilderness had planned to off herself the day before is a smack in the face at the end of any ten minute chapter.

Survive is done and not to be thought of again but the next show Quibi suggested for me was ‘The Stranger’. Uber driver Claire, Maika Monroe, picks up Dane DeHaan’s murderous Carl E. right after he’s brutally killed a family in their home. I’ve only watched one chapter but DeHaan chews so much scenery when his character’s mask slips that I’m looking forward to the next one.

All of that aside if you ever want to watch a movie where the smart person is the hero do watch The Edge.


Devs [Minor spoilers]

Frustrated by movie distributors writer/director Alex Garland moved to TV with his eight part tech drama mini-series Devs. Watching this many viewers will be frustrated too. Not everyone but it is a long haul. You might like it. Let’s go negative before we finish positive.

This is a four episode series stretched thinly to twice the length. Movie running times force conciseness in scripts. Or they should. Garland, stripped of a cinematic time limit indulges himself at the viewers expense. There is no line of dialogue so clunky that it gets cut, if anything bad dialogue was exhumed from whatever dead letter files Garland keeps and it was placed into this.

Much of this dialogue is delivered in a stilted, halting fashion by the show’s lead, Lily Chan. Sonoya Mizuno gives a charisma free performance here. In an episode we’re told how impressive her character is, which is always a warning sign as it draws attention to the fact the viewer hasn’t been shown how impressive she is. If you don’t believe a character is impressive as you watch a story unfold then they’re not.

The story, that of deterministic systems and the question of free will, is not original and is wrapped in regular TV tropes. Corporate conspiracy, techlash, how grief is destructive, all of these are TV staples that you’ve seen. The idea of the deterministic computer system is the show's novelty. But even that isn’t novel as the Devs machine has a counterpart in Westworld’s Rehoboam. A show airing its ideas on determinism at the same time Devs was. Where screenwriters who see themselves as intellectuals gather big data and analytics must be talking points.

Moving to the positives, this is a well shot show which does its utmost to deliver a number of scenes you will find memorable. The main set is impractical but it’s interesting to look at on a TV screen. The soundtrack is good. Listen to the end of the credits in one episode and follow the music to the start of the next episode. The editing can be clever, you’ll look to see where out of order shots fit and follow the story when it branches. In those shots there are some worthwhile performances.

Nick Offerman does a grief stricken, relentless, Steve Wozniak knock-off well. Offerman playing Forrest, the CEO of a quantum computing giant, is intelligent but he’s a cultural philistine. He’s warm but he dominates his industry like a brute.  He drives a beat up station wagon and lives in the modest Warren Buffett style house. But because he could he raised a garish statue to his deceased daughter that towers over the corporate campus.

His power is also visible in his disregard. To pursue what he wants he’s casual in whom he considers to be disposable. He’ll enjoy a game of frisbee with you knowing what tragedy befalls you next is what he set in motion. He doesn’t take any pleasure in it, he accepts it.

Looking for acceptance and understanding Stephen McKinley Henderson and Cailee Spaeny as the unusual duo of Stewart and Lyndon spark off of one another. While watching I thought there is much that could have been cut to accommodate more screen time for them but now I am left asking myself ‘for them to do what?’

In a way, being two 10Xer developers in the .0001% of best developers is a valid story reason as to why we don’t see more of them. They earn more money than they care to spend. Neither character has anything of value off campus so we rarely see them off campus. I've just convinced myself I saw enough of them and they were worth their screen time.

Is Devs worth your time? If you enjoyed Ex Machina, Annihilation and even the 2002 Danny Boyle movie, Sunshine, you should watch this. You’ll know the Sunshine reference when you see the shots framing of the Devs lab and imaging room. If you like the current season of Westworld and its big idea on free will and chaos you should also watch this. Be aware this is a slower moving show, the big idea alone will need to be enough to carry you though.

Does it have much for anybody else? Probably not.

Would I watch Garland’s next mini-series with this cast? Yes.


The golden age of streaming

We are living through the golden age of streaming content. I know it might not feel like that most of the time. I was lamenting there was nothing to watch as I scrolled through Netflix, but that isn't true. There's too much on offer and that amount of choice causes paralysis. What if you started into something and it sucked? You could have been watching something better. Right now there is always something better.

Never has this amount of premium video content been available on demand at these prices. The major video streaming services are ploughing billions into Hollywood and other international content creators as they compete for subscribers. If you own a studio or already have a deep library of content what you need is access to customers. If you own the customer relationship but don't have the library of content you need to buy it. On both sides of that equation lots of money is being spent

One day many of the current services will see the writing on the wall and will stop bidding on the next big exclusive. They will reconcile themselves to the fact that they can neither be the market leader nor the strong challenger and they will stop burning cash and go do something else. 

To pick out who might survive look at who either has unique popular content that is difficult to replicate or has a global subscriber base. Both of these have a chance at being one of the few industry rationalisation survivors. You need both to have a shot at being the global leader.

When streaming services begin to rationalise investment in scripted television and movies will fall as demand dries up. This will in turn will lower the acquisition cost for the content that gets made. With fewer competitors in the market driving up the price for that content those two major players that remain will be safe to increase prices on their massive customer bases.

It might take a few more years to get there but that is where we are going. There is no future where half a dozen streaming services compete for exclusive content and paying subscribers. The future is where a video streaming service or two gets distributed through multiple channels; installed by your service provider on your phone; comes as part of your Internet subscription; or is built into your set-top box with your satellite/cable TV package. These distributors get a revenue split of each subscriber so it'll be in their interest to prevent you from going elsewhere.

Today we are paralysed by the amount of choice that we have as viewers and that's why we think "there is nothing to watch." When the streaming wars end and the winner starts raising prices while paying less for content you will think yourself that you never had it as good as you did a few years ago.

And you'll be right.

What comes after Dungeons & Dragons 5E

We’re due a new edition of Dungeons of Dragons, D&D 6E. The 3.5 edition was available for five years while the (unfairly) maligned 4th edition was available for six. We’re now closing in on six years since the release of the current 5th edition of the game. I can hear the clock ticking when I think about it.

5E is good but has some things that are clunky and other things that are just..sloppy. Spell levels for example are sloppy. If you’re a 10th level wizard you don’t have access to 10th level spells. Instead you get five cantrips, four first level spells, three second level spells, three third level spells, three fourth level spells and two fifth level spells. That’s just a pain in the ass. Spell casting is already like inventory management and this adds additional complications to that.

Class progression is also weird. Every class inches along together at set points to make the gameplay look fair. Levelling characters in D&D today is like the participation trophy on school sports day. Everyone gets something though many times they shouldn't.

Levelling shouldn’t be fair. Someone who can use a sword well should be able to easily cut down a low level spell caster who is waving their hands and babbling as they try to cast some crappy spell. That said, when a spell caster is moving towards the pinnacle of their abilities they should be able to drop an asteroid on any master swordsman with a hand wave. Don’t bother with the saving throw it’s an asteroid summoned by someone capable of folding the fabric of the universe.

The martial classes should peak early when it comes to experience points, it’s okay to have it take less points for them to increase levels. If you’ve fixed the spell levels a level 10 fighter is a great fighter but a level 10 wizard should be a nuclear weapon. It might take twice as much experience for a caster to get to level 10 but so what if the spells you can get make it worth it?

There are no deep flaws in 5E that would mean I’d be happy to see the end of it but I’ll admit I’ve found many of the source books disinteresting. The product line has been a mix of the kind of useful and the meh. I’ve found the Sword Coast Adventurer’s Guide, Volo’s Guide to Monsters, Xanthar’s Guide to Everything and Mordenkainen’s Tome of Foes to be kind of useful. Let's go through the meh.

-Eberron. This got a 5E setting book late last year which as one of the more popular D&D settings means it was years late. I'd have bought it had it come out sooner but as of now I've given them more than their share of money so I skipped it. Its current Amazon sales rank is 1,545.

-Acquisitions Incorporated. I don’t know who plays this or who played it more than once. This is reflected in its dire Amazon sales rank of 11,935.

-Wildemont. I’m playing in this now because the intro campaign was a quarantine freebie but I pretend the setting is something else in my head so I don't have to buy the book. With an Amazon sales rank of 304 Wildemont clearly has the loyal Critical Role fandom behind it. That interest bodes well for their animated show later this year. For comparison the D&D 5E Players Handbook, the core D&D book, has a sales rank of 314.

-Ravnica and Odysseys of Theros (To be released) are there for corporate brand synergy with the much more popular Magic The Gathering card game. No one I’ve spoken to has expressed a desire to set their game in Ravnica. I bought the Ravnica setting book and found little I was interested in. Ravnica has an Amazon sales rank of 4,086. I deem it a failure as were it popular it would be closer in rank to the Eberron book. Theros’s focus on myths of the ancient world is probably an attempt to be of interest to D&D players rather than an attempt to make D&D of interest to Magic The Gathering players. Which the Ravnica book was. Theros might be more successful as a result.

Looking at the above, while I’m not into Wildemont it’s clearly a hit. Eberron looks to have suffered a bit from being so late while Ravnica and Theros are a corporate strategy tax to be paid. There’s no getting away from cross product promotion so the publisher will keep introducing Magic The Gathering setting books no matter how few people ask for them.

The absolute turd is Acquisitions Incorporated. Whoever made the decision to go with that instead of doing anything else, like publishing a low selling Dark Sun sourcebook, has questions to answer.

The question we can answer is that 6E is coming soon, there are more years behind 5E than ahead. Maybe it’ll fix the levelling systems or maybe it won’t. Hopefully they’ll get a few more source books focused on settings that people are interested in. The books covering the default Forgotten Realms setting do well, there’s no reason to expect an additional Eberron or Wildemont book wouldn’t too.


The perfect Coronavirus lock-in movie

The perfect Coronoavirus lock in movie is Frank Darabont’s The Mist. The ending hits hard. I watched it alone in an empty cinema and thought about it for days afterwards. You partner/spouse will hate you for making them watch it because they'll think about it for days afterwards and they can't go walk it off. It's a win-win scenario. Though maybe just for me.

Thomas Jane is one of the best things in The Expanse and he’s great in this as society in a supermarket collapses around him. It's like watching a play. Jane’s character is rational and smart, the people he’s locked in with are less so. The human drama starts quickly and horrible things happen when people are put under stress.

It isn't all roses as a movie. Some of the characters, while true to the Stephen King cliches about small towns, are a tougher sell to watch than to read about. Just because there are people like the characters out in the world doesn't mean you want to spend any time with them. Cost control was a priority during shooting so you'll see them more than you might like to.

The movie covered its costs and went into a modest profit when it came out but that was down to frugal production more than audience love. Darabont was a Hollywood script doctor for decades before directing The Shawshank Redemption and he decided he wanted to do a small picture in black and white. He knocked out the script, based on the Stephen King novel, and to keep the budget down he staged it to be filmed using a TV crew. The studio insisted it be delivered in colour, this was a mistake in my opinion as the money isn't on the screen.

The BluRay shipped with a black and white version in the case and this is the director’s favoured way of watching it. If you can find it in black and white watch it that way as the CGI, being somewhat cheap, holds up better.

I haven’t watched it in 13 years but watching in black and white tonight it is still a rough ride before the credits roll. 


Westworld. Tricks inside simulations.

Westworld uses as many tricks as it can to try and keep ahead of the audience. Unreliable narrators; out of order timelines; bait and switches; faked memories; all of it. Season three brings a new trick, simulations.

I’m wondering how much of the “real world beyond the parks” we’re getting in this season? It is possible Dolores has already won and we’re seeing some of the journey to that in retrospect? I’m guessing we’re also watching Rehoboam running overlapping simulations and noting divergences between them.

There are minor continuity errors scattered throughout the show that have to be part of its design. What outcome Rehoboam is looking for by running these simulations I am unsure of. Is it looking for a way to stop the hosts? Is it Dolores running the simulations to find the optimal path to success? I don’t know. Yet.

That I’m even thinking about this means the show is still worth watching. So watch it.