Currently Distracting Me: Halt and Catch Fire

I’m moving along pretty well on my author projects this winter, but I’ve also been enjoying some shows, books, and games in my bits of free time.

Today I want to talk about ‘Halt and Catch Fire,’ which I’ve been bingeing on Netflix over the last two months. It’s been awesome! It’s been a long time since I’ve looked forward to a show so much that I would shudder giddily before each new episode. Even now, just hearing the theme song kick in is enough to trigger Pavolvian glee.

Over four seasons and forty epsiodes, the show follows four brilliant characters (4.5 if you count Toby Huss’s character!) through the personal-computing and networking boom of the 80s and early 90s. Each character brings different skill-sets and philosophies to several different startup ventures, and although the characters are fictional, we see them have a hand in several real-world advancements.

Lee Pace

Season 1 is all about the four characters trying to create the first laptop. (Eventually, Macintosh eats their lunch.) Season 2 is about creating a fledgling online community. Season 3… well, I don’t want to give away the plots for all four seasons. But I will say that part of the wonder of the show is seeing one character come up with the germ of an idea and then see another character building on it, (or screwing it up in a way that gives birth to something completely new). Eventually the idea takes shape and you recognize it as something we all know (anti-virus software, a version of Craigslist, etc.)

I’m going to recap all four characters, but I’ll use the actor names, because the cast is absolutely awesome and they deserve as much name-recognition as possible.

Mackenzie Davis

Lee Pace plays the entrepreneur of the group, he’s the iconoclast who brings people together and pushes them to disrupt their normal ways of doing things, although he’s criticized for never actually coming up with any ideas on his own.

Mackenzie Davis is the genius programmer and game developer. Her weaknesses are that she can be ridiculously stubborn and idealistic.

Scoot McNairy plays the engineer (the hardware guy) who is a married father of two. I think I related the most to him. His character flaw is that he can be manic (at home and at work).

Finally, there’s Kerry BIshé, who plays the sleeper-hit best character on the show. She has a mix of I.T. and business skills, and she’s the voice of reason and backbone of several of the team’s endeavors. She’s can also be a lethal, c-suite cutthroat (to friends and foes) when she thinks that’s what’s required.

 

Scoot McNairy

The four main characters clash a lot—end up in out-and-out conflict, fall in love, fall out of love, reunite, separate—over the four seasons of the show, The character arcs and realistic conflicts in Halt and Catch Fire really make each season crackle with energy, even if there are no hitmen or gangsters anywhere in sight.

Not to make this post any more geeky, but again and again I kept thinking that Marvel/Disney should hire the show’s creators, Christopher Cantwell and Christopher C. Rogers to reboot the Fantastic Four with the same sort of team and family conflicts that they bring to HACF. Hell, they could even use the same cast with some of the same character traits in place. Lee Pace is Mr. Fantastic. Mackenzie Davis could be an excellent gender-flipped version of the hot-headed Human Torch. Scoot McNairy is Ben Grimm and Kerry BIshé is the Invisible Woman.

 

Kerry Bishe

I looked it up, and it seems that the producers and writer of HACF knew that their fourth season would be their last, before they started it. Because of that, the creators had an entire ten episodes to build to a proper conclusion for the series. That gift of time and consideration really shows.

If you working in the technology sector, or if you’re a fan of Mad Men or Silicon Valley, I’d say you should give Halt and Catch Fire a try!

Series Condition: Black Hammer

For casual readers of comics, a series like an ‘analog’ Black Hammer can be great. It’s a standalone story (no other back issues to track down, no Wikipedia pages to research) that features ‘analogs’ to well-known archetypal characters.

I love a good ‘analog’ comic story, by that, I mean a fresh story that takes on the expected archetypal superheroes, slaps new names and costumes on them, and deconstructs them in new ways. Kurt Busiek’s Astro City is a great example of a long-running city that any casual reader can pick up and totally get. Each issue of Astro City showcases a new hero or villain, like Samaritan, the Confessor, and Winged Victory, who are instantly recognizable as analogs of Superman, Batman, and Wonder Woman, respectively. Watchmen, Squadron Supreme, and Irredeemable are two other great examples of superhero analog series where you don’t have to wade into decade’s worth continuity in order to enjoy the story. (Although, to be honest, it does help.)

Black Hammer
Writer: Jeff Lemire
Artist: Dean Ormston
Colorist: Dave Stewart
Publisher: Dark Horse
2015-2017
14 issues (the series entered hiatus, but is supposed to return in 2018)

Black Hammer is the latest analog universe that I’ve dived into. It was a memorable experience, although I have to say I wasn’t completely blown away. The story follows a collection of superheroes who find themselves trapped in some sort of pocket universe that resembles a tiny farming town. How did they get there? What is the force that kills them if they try to leave? Unfortunately, none of these questions are answered before the series went on indefinite hiatus in 2017.

The best thing about the 13-issue series (so far?) are its character concepts. I’ll list a few of my favorites.

  • Abraham Slam is an obvious Captain America analog, but he doesn’t have a super-soldier serum or the benefit of being frozen in ice to help him fight off ravages of time. As the Black Hammer story begins, he’s already the oldest character and quite a bit over the hill.
  • Golden Gail is sort of Shazam character in reverse. Shazam was an ordinary boy who turns into an adult superhero when he says a magic word. Gail is a normally aging woman who has become stuck in her eternally prepubescent, super-powered form.
  • Talkie Walkie is a robot sidekick character with an awesome name and an even more awesome character design.
  • Madame Dragonfly is the mystical, unpredictable superhero (think Scarlet Witch or the X-Men’s Magik) who also acts like a host character from the 1950s EC Comics. (Think the Crypt Keeper.)
  • Black Hammer is a character who seemingly died trying to escape the pocket universe. At first he seems like a 70s-blaxploitation hybrid of Superman and John Henry, which cool enough. But later we learn that his origin veers toward Thor and Jack Kirby’s New Gods.

The characters have a lot of potential, and the series has already spawned an excellently named spin-off, Sherlock Frankenstein. I was disappointed, however, that we didn’t get any kind of resolution for the main characters. In issue one, we find out that the heroes have been trapped in this bucolic setting for ten years. And yet it takes a newly introduced character to start showing them clues that might help them out of their predicament. If these are Earth’s greatest heroes, then why have they given up so easily on finding a way out? Also, Gail’s best friend is a gay team-member who doesn’t seem particularly closeted. And yet after ten years of living in close quarters, Gail is shocked to find out he’s gay? There are some plot points and character interactions that seem paper-thin. Maybe some of these troublesome issues could have been resolved if the characters had been trapped in the pocket dimension for one year instead of ten. Also, some of these issues seem to be exacerbated as the last three issues of the series seem to slow down and drag, plot wise.

Dean Ormston’s rough-hewn art is charming and expressive, but there are some panels where his backgrounds and his faces seem a too flimsy for Black Hammer’s more horrific or cosmically-scaled scenes. For instance, when one character enters a Lovecraftian dimension of “unspeakable angles,” where a mortal man could go insane. The background of that scene simply shows sketchy alien eyeballs floating in space.

With all that said, I truly did enjoy the series. It’s brimming full of cool characters. And some fun experiments in comics deconstruction. In one flashback, we see a Golden Gail adventure told through that overwrought tone of 60s comics. I already mention how Madame Dragonfly re-creates an EC Comics feel. Another story shows Abraham Slam take on an ‘Extreme’ 90s-era makeover. It’s moments like these—and some fantastic David Rubin fill-in issues—that I’ll remember most about the series. Here’s hoping one day we’ll get some answers about everything else.

State of my writing: Oct 2017

It’s been five months since I started Book 1 of my new fantasy series, and I’m currently making my way through a nearly-final edits. But at the same time, I’m working through the first draft of Book 2!

Way back in 2014 I posted about my method for ‘gap-writing’ a first draft. But with these two books, I’ve been experimenting with dictating the draft into my phone. I’ve been hearing more and more about the pros and cons of dictating technology. I don’t really do anything special with. I just turn on my ‘Notes’ app and click the mic button. There’s LOTS of correcting afterward, but I think it’s worth it to be able to freely record my ideas and lines while I’m feeling creative.

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I’ve been enjoying so much, that during a recent weekend trip to Jekyll Island, I spent a good deal of time roaming the beach and dictating passages into my phone. I’m sure any other beach-goers thought I was a little silly. Or a workaholic using his phone  to take care of business on the beach. And they were probably right.

Jekyll suffered some damage from Hurricane Irma this September. It barreled through and scraped some of the sand from the beach, took out at least one boardwalk, and excavated another old one. (See the pic below.) The weather was a bit overcast, so overall, it made for a bit of a post-apocalyptic feel (if you happened to be in a particularly imaginative frame of mind). Which leads me to one other ‘pro’ to dictating: It unshackles you from writing in your office or your living room. Getting into a wide open space and doing some storytelling in a natural setting was really fun, and it really got my creative juices flowing!

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September TV

September was a busy month for TV, with several shows vying for time to distract me from writing.First and foremost, there’s a new season of ‘Rick and Morty’ on Adult Swim. This might be might favorite show, period. It’s a cartoon, a family comedy, and a sci-fi adventure with enough mind-blowing ideas to make Doctor Who jealous. This season has featured some more introspective themes. What makes Rick tick? How is his megalomania affecting his family? Most of the episodes are self-contained, so you can jump aboard with just about any episode you want and get a complete, understandable story.

Earlier this month, Big Brother ended it’s polarizing, predictable 19th season with a polarizing, un-predictable finale. Personally, I was ‘Team Paul.’ Sure, he was maybe a little more manipulative than he needed to be (although this is Big Brother we’re talking about), but how can you not give props to a guy who, through separate plots, convinced every player to purposely lose a racing competition, so that a woman with a broken foot could end up winning it?

After Big Brother ended, Ozark (on Netflix) entered my life with a blistering first episode. Yikes! It’s fascinating to see Jason Bateman’s character be the financial planner/money launderer using his nerdy bookkeeping skills to hold off hitmen and thugs and drug dealers, episode after episode. The writers of Ozark definitely seem to be asking, ‘How can we add another problem to make this show even more dramatic?’ I was a little over halfway through the season when all the problems piled up had started to make me feel too stressed. So I’m taking a break from the show right now.

Also binged the first season of the Good Place. A very witty show. In between, I watched as many episodes of 30 Rock as I could. (It left Netflix on Septmber 30th). I enjoyed the first ep of American Horror Story: Cult, so I will probably watch more of that. Although a lot of times I don’t end up making it all the way through the AHS seasons.

How about you? What shows are you watching or looking forward to watching now that the summer TV season has ended and the fall season is starting up?

Nevada and Utah trip

Earlier this year, we took a trip out west to explore Las Vegas and Zion National Park, and a few points in between.

Examples of Tafoni in the Valley of Fire State Park, Nevada.

 

Near the Rainbow Vista in the Valley of Fire.

 

4000-year-old petroglyphs on Atlatl Rock.

 

Inside Zion National Park.

 

Looking down into Zion National Park.

 

A shot above the Virgin River.

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Once-a-book word: Nascent

Now presenting a word that will amaze your readers and confound your literary rivals. I beg of thee, use it sparingly!

Nascent. Okay, perhaps this word isn’t quiet at the level of some previous ‘once-a-book’ words: Desultory, Turgid, Sartorial, or Sanguine. But it’s still a word that I love, and whenever I run across it in a book, I always pause for a moment and savor it. Seriously!

Nay-scent. It just sounds nice. Simple but elegant. ‘Nascent’ is an adjective that means ‘just taking form’ or ‘budding.’ It’s a word that is implicitly full of potential; ‘nascent’ brings to mind big cultural forces—technological, political. It means big things on horizon, and who can’t get revved up about that?

Series Condition: Silver Surfer

More and more lately, I’ve been in the mood to read comic books and graphic novels. And more and more, I’ve wanted those comics to be bright and colorful—with fluid line-work and just a little bit cartoonishness to them. I’m really gravitating toward the work of artists like David Rubin and Andrew MacLean right now. But then the other day I realized, ‘Hey, why not check in on the modern master of bold, fun comics… Mike Allred!”

I’ve been a fan of Allred’s since back in my college days, when he drew Madman and also The Atomics. My favorite series he ever did was X-Force/X-Statix. In that series, he just went ree-dic-ulous when it came to color palettes and character designs. But also Peter Millgan’s plotting and themes on that series were surprisingly topical and hard-boiled, which was a nice juxtaposition to the art. I’d definitely recommend checking that out. But anyway…

I’d heard good things about the Silver Surfer series that Mike Allred had been working on, so I decided I should give it a try. Boy was I glad I did!

Silver Surfer
Writer: Dan Slott
Artist: Mike Allred
Color Artist: Laura Allred
Publisher: Marvel
2014-2015
15 issues (A completed series)

I can’t say I’m much of a fan of the Silver Surfer. From what I’ve seen of him, his personality seems as nondescript as his character design. Also he’s one of those cosmically powered characters who seems to be able to do anything, based on the circumstance he’s been written into. He’s a walking, talking Deus Ex Machina. Where’s the drama in that?

Series co-creators Scott and Allred avoid this problem by introducing Dawn—a plucky-yet-vulnerable earthling girl who becomes the Surfer’s companion on his galaxy-spanning adventures. Does the ‘companion’ part sound familiar? To me, it sounded a lot like Doctor Who. I like Doctor Who somewhat, but the episode ‘Silence in the Library’ kind of ruined the series for me. It was legitimately (and schlockly) scary—which I like—but also it emphatically points out the fact that the Doctor is compulsively putting random civilians in horrible danger, for the sake of intergalactic adventure. Sure the humans are willing participants, but it seems quite neglectful—even slightly diabolical—that the Doctor doesn’t offer much to protect his companions, except for a chintzy ‘sonic-screwdriver’ and the constant advice, ‘Run fast!’

This ‘Silver Surfer’ series avoids this problem of manslaughter-level adventureneering because:
A) It quickly establishes a quirky, swashbuckling vibe, and the dangers never seem that visceral or immediate.
B) The Surfer is always cosmically powerful, so he can keep Dawn safe in just about any instance.

The story begins twelve years before present time, and Dawn is a just little kid wishing on a star. That meteor ends up the being the Silver Surfer, who is in his pre-heroic phase—when we was a enthralled henchman of the planet-devouring god-villain, Galactus. Instead of wishing for something for herself, young Dawn wishes for the falling star—wishes that it will keep flying forever so that it always have the chance to grant wishes to others.

This first connection is never brought up in the series (although maybe it is revealed in the next volume), but nevertheless, the story skips ahead to present-day, and Dawn is abducted as a hostage because some enigmatic cosmic device declares that she is the most important person in the Silver Surfer’s life. How is that possible if they have never really met? The series spend a chunk of time unspooling the Surfer and Dawn’s relationship. And along the way, they find themselves in some pretty zany predicaments.

They tangle with the Never Queen, who is the cosmic entity who embodies of all unrealized possibility.

They go to a planet where everyone is obsessed with being the ONE perfect expert in their profession. On this adventure, they meet Warrior One, Banker One, Ice-Cream Maker One, etc.

They return to visit Dawn’s family just in time to face off against the obviously-name villain Nightmare. Then we’re treated to a classic ‘everybody faces their greatest fear’ adventure.

Add to that a ‘time-loop’ adventure that’s laid out so that the comic book issue can be cut up and pasted together into an real Moebius strip. Seriously.

Along the way there’s plenty of nice, smaller moments. Like the one where the Surfer has to get used to traveling across interstellar distances with a human who has to eat and drink three times a day, and pee and poop out all that stuff even more often.

But the highlight of this run is a multi-part story where the duo find a hidden planet occupied by 666 billion refugees from 666 billion worlds. Hmm, what kind of monster could have destroyed that many planets? (Burp!) and who is the former indentured servant who helped lead that monster to all these worlds? Let’s just say that the Surfer’s past comes back to haunt him, and it leads to a turning point in his Dawn and his relationship. And also a clash of cosmic powers that is actually truly memorable. The story culminates with a ‘I am Spartacus’ moment that ‘calls back’ to the Surfer’s origin story, and that is actually pretty emotional. It’s one of the best pure superhero stories I’ve read in a long time.

I’d highly recommend the series, if you’re looking for comic-book in the vein of Guardians of the Galaxy or Doctor Who. And the good news is that there’s a volume of Silver Surfer with the same creative team, so that means a whole other galaxy of possibilities and adventures to explore!

 

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