Thursday, August 19, 2010

So, so low...

I am at my absolute lowest point as a Cubs fan. It has always been a real emotional test, but right now I think it is hitting me the hardest. The team is in the cellar, they traded off two of their starting infielders and have no real hope of redemption for the rest of the season. I think what ices this season as the worst I have experienced is the promise it began with.

Obviously beating St. louis this year was always going to be a chore and I don't know where the Reds came from to be as good as they are. Still, at the beginning of the season it seemed like the Cubs had a team that could compete strongly. They had a good but not great pitching rotation and a very solid infield and outfield group. It seemed they were still better off than most teams in the Central division.

2003 was not nearly as heart wrenching because we were so close to the World Series and the ride had been so phenomenal. It was that short sharp shock that stung, but it was really only one moment. Most of the early 90's were pretty bad, but the team never looked terribly good so it wasn't a case of getting one's hopes up. No, this season takes the cake. It has been a Eugene O'Neil play as they slowly slipped into the abyss.

The Cubs have officially raised the white flag on the season and we are now left to observe the remains for signs of hope. I'm not one for curses, I don't blame Steve Bartman, or goats, or black cats. I just sigh and shake my head as I watch a team that just cannot catch a break run themselves into a wall. I look at the stats and I am just bewildered. It is amazing to me that this team won the NL central two years in a row and then completely bottomed out.

Through it all, I'm still here though. I'll take my castor oil and get ready for next season. This feels very much like a return to the crucible of my youth. The Cubs are the lovable losers once again, but we know that in this modern era that philosophy will no longer stand. The new owners can't be happy with this performance and I hope it lights a fire under them to make some strong decisions that will see the team back on top sooner rather than later.

Friday, August 13, 2010

The heat, oh God the heat!

Just your standard complain about the weather post. The last few days have been in the 100s. Throw in humidity over 50% and a heat index of 117 and you really feel that you might spontaneously combust. Most of Shanghai is doing it's best just to move from shady place to shady place.

Alls well with baby news. Monday marks 34 weeks meaning we have just about six weeks left until he decides to make an appearance. So, is it the same deal as groundhogs day? If he sees his shadow do we get 6 more weeks of summer? Why does that sound wrong? Hmmmmm.

My Cubs are a disaster. They started off the second half with a nice run and then the wheels came off. The part of Chicago that could care less about the White Sox has already begun to focus on the Bears. I'm conflicted about bringing a child into the swirling chaos of Chicago sports fandom. Should I bring a child into this World and try to make him a Cubs fan. Is that cruelty? Is that endangerment? Am I psychologically scarring the child for his entire life? Granted, one World Series win would erase all guilt, but the potential trauma is there.

The English Premier League season opens today. It feels a bit like having the old "hair of the dog" if you will after the World Cup. Don't get me wrong, I am really excited. This was one of the most hectic transfer periods in recent memory with Manchester City loading up like the Yankees. I don't know if that bodes well for my Red Devils over at United, but it is a long season. Chelsea gets off easier if you will with an opener against minnows West Bromwich Albion. I think I might hit the pub with friends and catch some of the early games before heading off to a colleague's birthday party.

Last night saw me attending a "Gentleman's whiskey and cigar night". No ladies allowed. I laughed at the silliness of it all. I am about the last guy you would usually find attending any kind of an old boys club type event like that, but it ended up being a good time as the rep from Diageo gave us a tasting of the Johnny Waker line from Red to Black, to Green to Blue. Having never indulged in the higher end fare, I was surprised at how much of a difference in quality there was as you moved up the ladder. I now understand why the Blue label goes for so much more. While I don't see myself buying a bottle of Blue label every time I need a bottle of whiskey, I know I probably won't be buying the Red label unless I'm buying for mixers. Ironically enough, the rep who gave the presentation doesn't drink a drop of alcohol. Thankfully that last bit of information was not revealed until the end, lest we rebel against him.

Monday, August 9, 2010

The problem with...The Phantom

So what is wrong with the Phantom? Hmmm? The truth is nothing. just like there is nothing wrong with Flash Gordon, Buck Rogers, The Shadow, or any of the other pulp narrative characters that came upon us in the 1930s. Why hasn't this character latched onto the higher tier of popularity like Batman? What separates the A-level characters from the those that hang on with cult followings such as The Phantom? The problem, or rather the truth is that a lot of these pulp-hero characters will never quite reach the apex unless their worlds are expanded and the characters updated.

It almost seems a lost cause to hope that many of these pre-WWII characters will ever find a massive foothold outside of their current fan bases. As the years go by, many of the original fans die off without enough new fans being brought into the fold. It is the task of a few to keep the torch burning brightly so that these characters can survive to greet a new generation of fans. Ultimately, stagnation may kill many of these characters as time rolls on. An obsessive need to pigeon hole a character for the sake of the loyal can only help to weaken the character further. As the memories of the era fade so does interest in it's fiction. It doesn't have to be this way though. The road map is there and is easily traced for anyone looking to follow.

Many of these characters run on a familiar cycle. Years go by, a comics company or a television or movie studio pick up the rights thinking they have a sure fire franchise bought on the cheap. A mediocre effort is put forth, the fervent adoring faithful smile enjoying the fact that anyone has proffered a new story while secretly twisting inside knowing that so much more can be done if only a true creative force were to place it's weight behind it. You can see the pattern. Buck Rogers, Flash Gordon, The Shadow, The Phantom, and now The Green Hornet all received similar treatment only to lapse back into the hands of the ardent supporters as the speculators walk away wondering what went wrong. Granted the Green Hornet film hasn't hit yet, and the new run of comics has only just started to stretch it's legs. The signs are there though. We get a film that looks like a cash grab plagued with trouble and very little respect paid to the original and very little new added to the legacy.

So what do you do? Do you even bother? I mean, let's create something new and move on. Weeeell, let's not yank up the tent posts just yet. Most new ideas are barely even new anymore. Most themes have been played over so many times that we have to distill story ideas past the concepts. If you are like me, then you believe that the way forward is always with the characters. You can mold any concept around a rich cast of characters. Star Wars is a great concept, but what is it without Han Solo, et. all? What is Batman without the Joker? Ahhh, now we are getting to it.

As a sidebar, one of the things that a lot of these top level characters have going for them is fortune. In the last few years we have seen numerous characters dusted off after emerging into public domain. The Green Lama, The Black Terror, have all received a new coat of paint and have been kicked out the door. Batman and Superman had DC Comics which did a very good job of surviving the post-war years and conservative censorship to eventually be picked up by a major media conglomerate which was happy to throw marketing muscle behind it's properties. I dare say that if characters like Flash Gordon and the Phantom hadn't been running consistently in newspapers, they very well might have died out like many of these other pulp-era heroes. So we find that many of these characters exist in a different strata. You have the household name characters like Spider-Man, Hulk, Superman, etc. Then we get our 2nd tier heroes of yore that exist outside regular comic circles but still maintain a foothold in that realm and have also enjoyed a broader media life; Gordon, Phantom, Shadow. Then below them we find all these characters that exist in their isolated media world's like most comic characters yet to have a cartoon or a film such as Iron Fist, Blue Beetle, Grendel and so on.

Let us start with Flash Gordon. A personal favorite of mine, Flash lives on kind of a middle plane between the Batmans of the world, and the Phantoms and Shadows. Part of what creates that buffer is the world created around Flash. He has one of the greatest and most surreal cast of supporting characters you will ever find. Without those, Flash really is just Buck Rogers on another planet. So it is with Batman, Batman has the Joker, Penguin, Catwoman, Two-Face, Robin, Commissioner Gordon and on and on ad nauseam. If Batman didn't have a constantly expanding roster of interesting characters to interact with, he would just be the Shadow.

So now we get down to it. What is wrong with the Phantom? Is it the purple? Nah, my favorite character wears tights and dresses like a bat. Purple isn't the problem. Is it the white horse and the wolf in the jungles of Africa? Well, no, Wonder Woman cruises around in an invisible jet and has a lasso that makes you tell the truth. Bad origin? Nope, His ancestor, Christopher (Kit) Walker washes up on the island after his ship is attacked by pirates and swears to devote his life to eradicating piracy from the Earth. Each generation followed in his footsteps to take on the mantle of the Ghost Who Walks, The Phantom. Sounds cool to me. Daredevil was a blind kid in Hell's Kitchen that got doused with radioactive waste. The Phantom in particular suffers from a lack of really interesting support. We get the Singh brotherhood and that about sums it up.

The Phantom has never really had a great set of friends or a rogue's gallery to help drive his adventures. Moonstone did a really great job of telling traditional modern day Phantom stories. Part of the issue though is the world he was in never grew. Right now African pirates are a great modern enemy but they end up being pretty faceless. The Phantom has always had allies, but never anyone who truly was worth keeping up with. Dynamite entertainment begins their own Phantom comic series this month and it remains to be seen what they will add to the legacy of the Walker family line. The man in charge of writing these new adventures, Scott Beatty, has echoed my own belief in character and talked about the journey of Kit Walker. Can he choose to end the legacy of the Phantom? Sounds interesting, but you have to grow the universe the character lives in. The world is an enormous place and piracy exists everywhere in myriad of forms. I'm not talking about middle aged men with handcarts of DVDs in Shanghai, but you catch my drift. The Phantom seems like a character ripe with possibilities for modern times.

Syfy (that name change still drives me insane.) network just released a new Phantom TV movie that they are hoping to turn into a full series. I haven't seen it yet, and I have to say I was really underwhelmed by the new look of the Phantom costume. Really it was mostly the look of the helmet which resembles a scarf wrapped over a person wearing really big flat sunglasses. I applaud the attempt because I do acknowledge that if we want to throw a superhero into a modern setting, some effort has to go into creating a look that won't get you laughed out of a bar. Not to keep bringing this back to Batman, but Christopher Nolan's The Dark Knight did a great job of creating a functional and cool looking costume that never seemed like a terrible stretch from the original concept Bob Kane came up with all those years ago.

I'd be remiss if I didn't mention the Phantom's International following. It is one of the keys to his staying power and ability to capitalize on a global market. The Phantom is still one of the most popular comic books in Scandinavian countries, along with Australia, Italy and Turkey. While I have to admit a lack of knowledge of their own independent Phantom story lines, it seems clear that there is an audience that cares deeply for this character and is ready to see the character move on the next level.

As I stated, the road map to relevancy is there. Establish a fully realized world for the character to inhabit and journey through. Give the character sounding boards and obstacles to overcome in the face of characters that push the hero to become even stronger. Allow the character to evolve as the times changes knowing that continuity is your friend and not your enemy. Do remember that these characters are popular for very good reasons and that is because they once touched a chord in the public's heart that can still resonate with a modern audience.

Spoiler Alert!

I have nothing to spoil. I just want to talk about spoilers and how you really have to go out of your way to avoid information these days. Especially now that I can't see a film on opening weekend or pick up a game or a book right away, I find myself in a constant game of cat and mouse, except almost in reverse. I am still the mouse, however the difference is now the cat no longer chases me, he just sits in places I have to go except he has no idea I am coming. I run out of my hole to the kitchen pantry and, BAM! Kitty is already having a snack. Such is my life attempting to remain somewhat spoiler free in a world of instant gratification and all enveloping news coverage.

As a consumer of pop culture, and by consumer I mean a mental landfill into which pop culture information is poured by large trucks, I seek out information on that which interests me. As I have spoken to on other occasions, living abroad makes the consumption of such things a bit of an H.G. Wells like experience. I find myself fighting today armed only with last month. My only true defense that keeps me safe from harm is the spoiler alert and I am grateful for it.

Par example, I have not seen Inception. It will not open in "The China" for another month and a half. I am trying to remain as information free as I can. I do not necessarily care about definitive information or answers to plotlines and such. My need to stave off the information wave that crests over my shoulder shadowing it's impending doom is to keep my mind open and experience the images and themes as intended and in the moment. Now surely it should be simple to avoid information about the film by just forgoing any articles about the film, right? Here is where the cat sits sleeping with it's jaw wide open as I plunge into it's open crevasse of spoilery death.

If avoiding information were that easy, I could rest sound. Anymore you have to be constantly on guard, especially if you are me as the information you seek to avoid now filters it's way into all the other media I consume. In the fight to stay relevant, all media devoted sites cross-pollinate. They cover a little bit of everything in addition to their bread and butter. My comics and my film mix on a regular mix. Cool sports journalists use media references to keep a younger audience engaged.

Sports columnist Bill Simmons of ESPN has a podcast that very often touches on television and film. A recent discussion of Mad Men's latest season opener got him on the subject of spoilers and why having to issue spoiler alerts at all seemed ludicrous. He admitted that anyone living overseas obviously does not have instant access such things and often finds themselves in the same predicament I face. Again, if it were just avoiding any bright flashing sign that said "I AM GOING TO DISCUSS ALL DETAILS REGARDING THE THING IN WHICH YOU HAVE SHOWN INTEREST" I could live my life in ease.

How do I avoid these thing when they pop up in everything else I turn to for entertainment? A particular webcomic I read has a penchant for talking about the most spoilery of spoilerishiest information almost the day of or after these things open or air. I had to avoid it like the plague following the LOST finale and found myself having to turn away the other day after I caught a glimpse of the word inception.

Turn back the clock to 1994 even, and we don't have this problem. You are aren't smothered, covered and chunked with every intimate detail of plotlines or revelations. Such is the nature of a life abroad in a modern age. So thank you to everyone who uses the spoiler alert. Your consideration and kindness are greatly treasured.