Wednesday, January 30, 2008
You know, I'm a geek. That's no secret. At best, I'm a dork. I don't think I quite make nerd because I'm not smart enough. Or at least not smart enough in any specialized area. In any field that I feel myself to be fairly well versed, I can think of several personal friends of mine who are more so. That suits me, actually. 'Jack of all trades, master of none' may unfortunately describe my life sometimes, but I've always preferred to be a bit eclectic in my interests. There are too many wonderful things in the world to limit yourself to just one field. And still, there are many more things out there that I have no real experience in. With this blog you've seen me attempting to stretch the boundaries of my cultural knowledge, and today I make another little nudge at that amorphous wall. Today I take another step into the depths of geekiness, boldly going, you might say, into a new, if not final, frontier. Yes, today I review a Star Trek novel.
Now, there are probably a few people who recognized todays subject from the title line alone, and to them I say 'Welcome! Greetings, member of my tribe!' The Kobayashi Maru, as any geek worth his salt knows, is the name of a Starfleet Training exercise first mentioned in Star Trek II: The Wrath of Khan. The test has since been mentioned in every subsequent Trek television series, as the Star Trek equivalent of 'damned if you do, damned if you don't.' Basically, the test involves the cadet acting as ship's captain, and receiving a distress call from a civilian ship inside the Klingon nuetral zone(a no-fly zone for both the Federation & the Klingon Empire, for those not in the know). If you ignore the distress call, the civilians will almost certainly die, but if you attempt a rescue, you will be risking intergalactic war. Indeed, immediately upon entering the Neutral Zone in the simulation, three Klingon Warbirds appear and open fire. The cadet can choose to fight back, but the computer has stacked the odds, and for every warbird you destroy, 3 more appear, until the ship is destroyed. Basically it's a no-win scenario, designed to test a command officer's ability to make tough situations that very realistically could kill his entire crew.
In The Kobayashi Maru, the first Trek novel by Julia Ecklar(she would go on to write 10 more), we get to read how most of Kirk's commanding officers handled the test. Returning from an away mission, Kirk, Sulu, Chekov, Scotty & McCoy are stranded when their shuttle hits a gravitic mine(it doesn't matter what it is) and their shuttle loses all power. With no way of contacting the Enterprise, and no way for the Enterprise to find them(too much debris and interference), the group passes the time by recounting how their Starfleet days, specifically in relation to the Kobayashi Maru simulation.
We all know how Kirk dealt with the test-it was revealed in The Wrath of Khan that he reprogrammed the simulation so that the Klingons feared him, and refused to attack. The book breezes by this, but spends even less time on how Chekov passed his test, putting considerably more focus on what came afterwards. It turns out Chekov was a bit of a career-minded dickhead in his academy years. After self-destructing his ship during the Kobayashi Maru simulation, Chekov and his class are sent off to an empty space station(closed for repairs, as it were) for a 24 hour test. The premise is simple; there is an assassin on the station, all you have to do is stay alive for one day. Immediately the cadets begin to form alliances and wage war on their fellow students. Imagine a futuristic version of the movie Battle Royale. Chekov, after betraying/killing his friends, then takes out the few remaining cadets by once again 'committing suicide', taking everyone else out when he sets off a bomb he'd been carrying. In the end it's revealed that there was no assassin, and they were being tested on their ability to find peaceful solutions to problems. The Kobayashi Maru, this test, and then that one episode of The Next Generation where Wesley was tested when Starfleet pretended a bunch of his classmates had died in an explosion. Starfleet are a bunch of douchebags.
Sulu is next, and his story begins slightly before he enters Command School, setting up his loving relationship with his great-grandfather, who is dying(slowly) from some unnamed illness. When Sulu finds out his great-grandfather has discontinued treatment, he stops talking to him. A few months later, after a training exercise, he is informed that his great-grandfather has died. The day after this is when he takes the Kobayashi Maru. Still reeling from the news, Sulu takes a completely non-violent approach to the test. When he receives the distress call from within the Nuetral Zone, he sends word back that he will contact Starfleet and they can contact a Klingon ambassador who will, hopefully, facilitate a rescue. This is, by far, the most logical response. After all, what was the freighter doing in the nuetral zone? Without being able to scan the area, how can he be sure it isn't a trap? Also, I found Sulu the most likable character in the book, and his relationship with his Great Grandfather felt authentic. Kirk was, even back in Starfleet, prone to an irritating sense of entitlement, Chekov was, simply, an anti-social jerk, and Scotty, as a character, was almost an afterthought.
Scotty's story walked that line between character drama and science jibber-jabber that has been the bane of the Star Trek universe almost from the get-go. The original series always had better ideas than execution, but as soon as the movies and Next Generation rolled around, the superior execution brought with it an increased focus on fake science. Really, when I watch Star Trek, I don't really care about dilithium crystals or warp cores or how the transporter works. All I need, when watching a science fiction show, is to know that the technology exists. After getting that out of the way, it's time to focus on some character development.
So yes, the big surprise here is that Scotty went to command school before changing his vocation to engineering. He never wanted to be there, though; his mind was always built more for schematics and tinkering than for command. His family, however, viewed engineering as a disappointing career choice, and pressured him into going for a command post. One of Scotty's teachers notices this, and gives him a way to study engineering without disappointing his family; The Kobayashi Maru. Scotty's solution to the test isn't so much a solution as it is a series of increasingly complex ways to destroy Klingon ships. And here's where the science jibber-jabber comes in, because many of the ways in which he destroys Klingon ships involve using the transporter to materialize things like dark matter into a Klingon ship, or causing some weird harmonic frequency between the Klingon's shields that causes them all to explode. I started to phase out a bit, but it also had that unorthodox problem solving aspect that I find oddly satisfying.
Scotty's instructor speaks up and has Scotty kicked out of command school for failing the Kobayashi Maru(apparently the only time this has ever happened). There's some made up reason involving Scotty using a technique that works in theory, but he knew to be impossible in reality, and thus he was cheating. But really, the bigger issue is that his instructor, well-meaning as he might be, thought that the best way to convince Scotty's family that he should be an engineer was to kick him out of command school. Surely that won't disappoint them, right?
In the end, of course, the tale-telling has not only kept everyone's spirits up, but given them an idea of how to signal a rescue. The Kobayashi Maru was a quick read, and all in all I really enjoyed it. I'm not sure if I'm ready to jump into the deep end and commit to any more Trek novels, but it was still a pretty good time.
And it doesn't stop there! After that we can look forward to a remake of Near Dark, a pretty nifty vampire movie from 1987. And, to top it all off(for now), a remake of Alfred Fucking Hitchcock's The Birds.
The man must be stopped.
Monday, January 28, 2008
(as always, if the images appear too small, just click on them for larger versions)
Yep, another Superman cover. Get used to it; I picked up a healthy stack of silver-age Superman comics and picked up a few story arcs off of ebay, so I have Superman backissues to last me awhile. The reason I picked this one up should be obvious to anyone who can see that cover. The story I made up in my head involved Lex Luthor finally snapping, gleefully beating up small children for their halloween candy. I mean, look at that face, notice the pure unadulterated joy. Luthor's having one hell of a time.
Anyone not wanting to be disappointed is advised to just quit while you still have that glorious image in your head, because the story inside is a bit of a letdown. I've actually really been enjoying the silver age stories in the old Superman comics I picked up, but that probably has a lot to do with the writing talents of Denny O'Neil. Cary Bates is the writer of this issue, and I can't say that I was impressed much.
Action Comics #466 is actually a continuation from the previous issue, and begins with Superman already reverted to a Superboy, but luckily there's a lengthy flashback showing Superman meeting up with a 10 year old Batman and a teenaged Flash, who warn him that Luthor is gunning for him next.
I wish I had more to say about this issue, because that would mean that it had been more interesting. The rest of the story involves Superman, Flash and Batman attacking Luthor, who, in a prototype of his armored super-suit, overpowers the juvenile heroes. The fight between the four actually has some pretty cool moments, and it's a bit shocking to see Batman and the Flash die, even if you know it won't last til the end of the issue. After "killing" the two heroes, Luthor puts one of his power gloves on Superboy, forcing the young superhero to punch himself in the face repeatedly.
There's some hokey hoodoo bullshit here that I still don't completely understand, where Superboy's self inflicted beating somehow makes him realize that young Batman and Flash were, actually, robot versions of his friends. He even explains, in inner monologue, how when he used his X-Ray vision to look under his friend's cowls he saw his friend's faces because that's what he expected to see, but in actuality they looked nothing like who they were supposed to be. This is odd because it was never mentioned previously that Superboy had done that, and so it was a completely unnecesary bit of explanation that only makes Superboy seem like an idiot. And a jerk. I mean, way to respect the privacy of your colleagues, Supes.
After realizing his friends weren't actually killed by Luthor, Superboy is suddenly aware that he was never turned into a child after all, but it was only the power of suggestion! Or something like that, it doesn't really say. All that's made clear is that when Superboy makes this realization, he suddenly grows into a Superman, and punches Luthor good. The end.
One interesting thing to come out of this comic is a pretty hilarious explanation of why Luthor hates Superman;
Yes, the official history used to be that Superboy, in the act of blowing out a fire in a young Lex Luthor's laboratory, spilled some chemicals that made all of Luthor's hair fall out. This is probably the most petty backstory in comics. Fortunately DC realized this, and eventually retconned the whole thing so that, not only did Lex go bald, but Superman failed to save a lifeform Luthor had created. That's a little better. Nowadays they don't much mention a backstory between the two, and Luthor is just a power-mad genius billionare who despises Superman for being an alien and holding back humanity by always rescuing it. Or something like that. Really, it depends on the writer.
Bonus; on a slightly more unintentionally humorous front, we get a bonus one page story at the end. Part of a series entitled 'Justice For All Includes Children,' where we see Superman offer nuggets of advice about how to help kids. This issue's story was about physical child abuse, and while it isn't quite on the same level as that mid-80s Spiderman/Power Pack issue about child abuse, I still get a kick out of the father's earnest reply here.
Friday, January 25, 2008
I really like this cover because the guy at the top is apparantly punching himself in the face. Really hard. Because clearly the man he's fighting has missed him completely.
Monday, January 14, 2008
Saturday, January 12, 2008
I have a certain soft spot for silver age comic book covers, it's absurdly hilarious the different ways comic book companies tried to entice readers with wackier and wackier images. Every now and then, while working at the comic shop, I run across one that seems especially noteworthy. And, if the price is right, I'll usually pick it up(some of those books from the 70s are a bit prohibitive in cost). Superman #240 is not the silliest or most incomprehensible cover out there, but I still got a kick out of it. From both Superman's jilted, whiny dismissal of humanity to the pure anger and hatred thrown towards the man who's by this time saved Earth countless times. Of course, it's entirely possible that Superman deserves all of the hatred. I mean, what if he failed to save a busload of orphans on their way to Disneyworld from falling off a cliff because saving them would mean dropping his ice cream cone? I could see that pissing some people off.
The book opens on a building almost completely engulfed in flames. The fire crew are helpless to stop the blaze, and would let it burn itself out if not for the woman and her children trapped on the top floor. "if ever there was a job for Superman, this is it" the fire chief tells Supes. Despite the fact that his powers have been weakening lately, Superman does what he always does, and rushes in to save the family. Note the boredom evident in the crowds reaction. A building going up in flames and threatening the lives of a family? Pure excitement. It's a shame they had to call in that killjoy Superman to spoil the bonfire.
So, does Superman's failure involve letting a family burn to death because his powers have failed him? Well... no. Superman saves the woman and her two small children and flies them to safety, but that's not enough for this town. Metropolis has apparently become so used to Superman saving them from everything that they expect it now, treat it as their right to have Superman save them. Look at how the landlord reacts to Superman saving the lives of his tenants:
So there's Superman's big failure. His weakening powers meant that instead of holding the building up while the fire raged around him, the building collapsed and buried him in rubble. Thankfully he was not seriously harmed, but that's not how the citizens of Metropolis see it. 'Superman Fails!' is the headline that day, and he's become a laughingstock.
"Be careful no buildings fall on you!" has got to be the strangest way to mock someones masculinity. The guy flew into a raging inferno, saved three people, and then had a building collapse on his head. And then he walked away practically unscathed. He may not be as strong as he once was, but he's still not a guy I want to be taunting and mocking. Also, what is Superman doing? Does he normally just go for strolls through Metropolis streets in his costume?
But dimwitted construction workers are the least of Superman's worries, for the headlines touting his weakness have caught the attention of the unimaginatively named 'Anti-Superman Gang', who have decided to use this as an opportunity to test their power against Superman. In a daytime bank heist, complete with anti-aircraft guns, they shoot Superman out of the sky and are only stopped at the last moment when Superman hurls a vault door at their getaway vehicle.
Back at work, as Clark Kent, he receives an odd visitor; I-Ching, a blind Asian mystic who is normally seen in the pages of Wonder Woman. He is aware of Superman's secret identity, and of his recent problems, and offers his aid in trying to regain Supes' powers. But the anti-Superman gang is watching, and they follow Kent hoping he will lead them to the weakened Superman.
Now, I can forgive people not recognizing Superman and Clark Kent are the same person. In fact just a few years prior to this comic the official explanation was that Superman vibrated at a rate that made photographs of him in-costume unreadable. And Jeph Loeb made a convincing argument in recent history that no one would assume Superman is Clark Kent because, well, how could they see such a godlike being as just a regular guy? But come on. These guys are idiots.
Caught in the midst of I-Ching's meditative therapy, Superman must fight off the thugs with the lack of any super-strength. Now completely powerless, Superman knocks the anti-Superman gang unconscious while thinking of what his new life without super-powers will be like. And the story ends on a slightly positive note with Superman deciding to live his life to the fullest. If he can't be the best hero on the planet, well, he'll become the best human being he can be.
This is actually part of a yearlong story-arc in 1971 where DC was trying to streamline and revamp the Superman mythology. There was an explosion where Superman got hit in the chest with Kryptonite, but afterwards found all Kryptonite on earth had become harmless lead. However the explosion opened the way for the Sandman, an inter dimensional being that began sapping Superman of his strength, eventually wanting to become Superman he took on his appearance as well. The story(and this issue as well) was pretty cool, and the writing, if you can get past the silver-age obviousness of the dialogue, is pretty solid. It's a shame DC immediately ignored the Sandman character and the events of this storyline, because it's an intriguing arc that could have had a much larger impact.
On a side note, this comic came with a pretty genius bonus story in the back. 'An Untold Tale of the Planet Krypton' that has a very distinct 'Tales From The Crypt'(or Tales From the Krypton, for those of you who love bad puns) feel. In it a scientist's assistant plans to use his bosses time machine to travel back in time 1,000 years with stolen technology where he can rule the planet. He steals and murders for this technology, and almost succeeds in travelling through time. However, the technology he took along on the trip causes a power surge in the time machine that reverses his direction in time, depositing him 50 years in the future. The last panel is of him floating in space, dead, because 50 years in the future there is no Krypton.