Favorite artists — Rockwell and Ross

On the way home from Thanksgiving, Janice and I stopped at the Norman Rockwell Museum in western Massachusetts. We’re both fans of Americana, so it was fitting to see Rockwell’s paintings around that holiday.

While classified as more of an illustrator than a fine artist, Rockwell showed an idealized version of the U.S. in the early 20th century that was nonetheless influenced by the old masters. He also celebrated the common man and woman, small-town life, and the idealism of presidents Franklin D. Roosevelt and John F. Kennedy.

Comparison of painters Rockwell and Ross
Truth, justice, and the American way

I was also pleased to catch an exhibit about Alex Ross, one of my favorite comic book artists. Ross’ superheroes are more Reubenesque than Rockwell’s figures, but he also shows a timeless version of ourselves as we wish we could be.

Ross has combined his childhood love of Challenge of the Superfriends, an awareness of classical mythology, and an intimate look at Marvel and DC icons to help renew the medium’s optimism. His paintings also demonstrate that four-color, spandex-clad people can look impressive rather than just silly.

Like Rockwell, Ross uses models for photographic reference rather than painting directly from life or imagination. Both painters have been criticized for the practice, but I think their finished works show that imagination, accuracy, and expressiveness are all parts of their artistic process.

On a related note, here are the comics titles I’m currently reading monthly:

DC:

  • Batfamily: Batgirl, Batwoman, Birds of Prey (to loan to David I.S.)
  • DC Nation (for nephews), Green Arrow/Arrow (to loan), Green Lantern: the Animated Series (for nephews), Justice League, Wonder Woman, Young Justice (for nephews)

Marvel: Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes (for nephews), Captain America, Oz (Shanower/Young; trades only)

Other publishers:

  • Fantasy: Avatar: the Last Airbender/Legend of Korra, Conan the Barbarian/Queen Sonja/Red Sonja (to loan), Dresden Files, Pathfinder
  • Space opera (to loan): Battlestar Galactica, Doctor Who, Star Trek: the Next Generation, Star Wars: Agent of the Empire, Clone Wars (for nephews), new classic ongoing, Warlord of Mars/Deja Thoris (to loan)
  • Pulp: Rocketeer Adventures, Shadow: Year One/Masks, Sherlock Holmes (assorted titles), Steampunk/Gearhearts/Steamcraft, Steed & Mrs. Peel, Warehouse 13, Zorro Rides Again
  • Trade paperback collections only: Age of Bronze, Astro City (to loan), Indiana Jones Adventures, Liberty Meadows (to loan), Mouse Guard (for niece), Muppets, Peanuts, Powers (to loan), Star Wars Adventures (for nephews)
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Blast from the past: What is steampunk?

In preparation for this coming weekend’s third annual Watch City Festival, here’s a look back at a post that didn’t get transferred from my previous blogs. Janice and I enjoyed last year’s International Steampunk City in downtown Waltham, Massachusetts, and we plan to check out this year’s events with friends.

It is a period of incredible progress and terrible destruction. Communications and transportation grow ever faster, but they also hasten the spread of wars and disease. Old tribal rivalries and nascent social consciousness challenge vast aristocratic and mercantile empires, and urbanization and industrialization make life easier for millions but condemn millions more to seemingly inescapable poverty. The arts blossom as alliances tighten and harden, leading to what many believe will be a “war to end all wars.” It is the Victorian era, the setting for most steampunk.

MVS-Whitby-3-Wallpaper800
Gears and gadgets

Steampunk is a style of speculative fiction that has been growing in popularity in the past few years. It has literary roots, readily incorporates elements of other subgenres, and is well-represented across media.

Steampunk is alternate history. Much steampunk starts with the premise of “What if everything that authors Jules Verne, Edgar Rice Burroughs, and Arthur Conan Doyle wrote about was true?” From a North America where the Union didn’t win, to humans hunting dinosaurs (and vice versa), to trips through the ether to a verdant Mars, steampunk combines their wildest dreams.

Examples: The League of Extraordinary Gentlemen, graphic novels by Alan Moore and Kevin O’Neill; Deadlands (role-playing game)

-Steampunk is romance. The novel, classical and revived folk music (the opera, waltz, and polka), Pre-Raphaelite and Impressionist painting, and modern theater all took shape during the 18th and 19th centuries. The swashbuckling stories of Walter Scott and Alexandre Dumas reflect this era as much as the ones they were set in, as does the “noble savage” described by James Fenimore Cooper or Rudyard Kipling. International cuisine, celebrity fashion, and travel for pleasure (and the first amusement parks) are all things we now take for granted that started during that period.

Examples: Diamond Age, novel by Neal Stephenson; Castle Falkenstein and Lady Blackbird (RPGs)

-Steampunk is science fiction. Just as its sibling cyberpunk examines the relationship of humanity with technology (specifically cybernetics, artificial intelligence, genetic engineering, and nanotechnology), steampunk looks at how the Industrial Revolution reshaped the world. The railroad and the telegraph are only the beginning, with anachronistic conveniences such as personal computers, televisions, and jet packs weighed down by clockwork gears, levers, and dials. Real-world advances in engineering are exaggerated for dramatic effect. Getting there is half the fun, with dirigibles the signature conveyance of the genre.

Examples: The Difference Engine, a novel by William Gibson and Bruce Sterling; Etherscope (RPG)

-Steampunk is fantasy. Like its sibling gothic horror — another product of this era — steampunk often includes elements of the supernatural, just as spiritualism (the forerunner of the modern New Age movement), religious revivals, and utopian experiments were part of the real-world reaction to scientific advancement. Edgar Allen Poe, Lord Dunsanay, L. Frank Baum, and Lewis Carroll inspired J.R.R. Tolkien, Robert E. Howard, and other seminal fantasy authors. Lost civilizations still seemed possible.

Examples: Nausicaa of the Valley of the Wind, anime by Hayao Miyazaki; D20 Ravenloft: Masque of the Red Death (RPG)

-Steampunk is socially conscious. Labor unions, waves of migration, the long struggle for civil rights including women’s sufferage, and the polemics of Charles Dickens and Karl Marx are parts of the wrenching social change underlying steampunk. Unlike the real world, where racism and sexism were at their peak, people of color and women are often found among steampunk‘s protagonists.

Examples: Girl Genius, graphic novels by Phil Foglio et al.; Victoriana (RPG)

-Steampunk is idealistic. Like its cousins space opera, pulp cliffhangers, and comic book superheroes, steampunk roots for the little guy to become the big hero. The American West is full of legends and antiheroes. It’s all about attitude. Anyone can put on a pair of goggles, a bowler hat, and suspenders and attend a steampunk convention. Anyone can be a mad scientist, brave archaeologist, laconic gunslinger, or alluring spy. It’s a century and a half ago as many authors and we wish it could have been.

Examples: The Adventures of Brisco County Jr. (television show); Space 1889 (RPG)

-Steampunk is multimedia. In the actual 19th century, wide literacy made possible the rise of newspapers and “penny dreadfuls,” the forerunners of pulps, current mass-market paperbacks, and online fan fiction. Steampunk has taken advantage of modern media, as demonstrated by numerous Web sites, games, sculptures, and graphic novels.

Examples: Rasputina (musical band); Arcanum: Of Steamworks and Magick Obscura (video game); GURPS Steampunk (RPG)

-Steampunk is punk. Like cyberpunk, which looks at the disenfranchised in dystopian near futures, steampunk celebrates individualism and defiance of the established order. The 1960s weren’t the first or last time a bohemian counterculture was fueled by artistic license, sexual experimentation, and drug addiction. The chaotic mashup of genres, a loose approach to history and science, and an emphasis on fun have attracted numerous fans. Many goth enthusiasts have also embraced the retro styles of steampunk. The apparent contradictions or ambivalence reflected in the idealist/punk or fantasy/science fiction strains are just fine in this genre.

Examples: Wild, Wild West (TV show), D&D4e Eberron (RPG)

-Steampunk is (pre)apocalyptic. The steampunk era roughly coincides with the growth of the U.S. after the Louisiana Purchase to the outbreak of World War I. The so-called Manifest Destiny, the growth of democracy, and the “Gilded Age” would all come to a close as Europe’s dynasties and colonial domination came crashing down after Archduke Franz Ferdinand’s assassination. War machines loom on the horizon.

Just as we today look back at the Cold War or the 1990s with a nostalgia born of post-9/11 fears of terrorism, recession, and ecological catastrophe (floods, epidemics, earthquakes; with the attendant resurgence of zombies and other horror monsters), so too does steampunk look back at the 1800s through rosy lenses. In the 20th century, steampunk gives way to the pulps, noir, and dieselpunk. Who knows what else the 21st century will bring?

Examples: Sherlock Holmes (2009 Guy Ritchie/Robert Downey Jr. films); Forgotten Futures (RPG)

Note: This post originally ran on the “Vanished Lands” Yahoo/eGroup Web club in preparation for the Boston-area group‘s return to my “Gaslight Grimoire” steampunk/fantasy campaign.

Getting our bearings and animation roundup

The Secret World of Arrietty
Image from The Secret World of Arrietty

Janice and I were busy last week with work and more unpacking in our new apartment. We did take some breaks, checking out the Wilson Farm, the Outer Limits, and other shops and restaurants in our area.

On Saturday, 10 March 2012, we screened The Secret World of Arrietty, which is loosely based on the children’s book The Borrowers. The latest Studio Ghibli movie featured the animation style and gentle pace familiar to fans of Hayao Miyazaki’s works, decent voice acting, and a plot that was somewhat more faithful than other adaptations, such as Howl’s Moving Castle or Tales of Earthsea.

The Secret World of Arrietty follows a 14-year-old girl who is a member of a diminutive family of “Borrowers” living beneath the country home of modern humans. Arrietty’s adventures are both charming and perilous, as she has bittersweet interactions with a human boy named Sean.

The U.S. English voice cast includes Amy Pohler and Carol Burnett, but the celebrity casting isn’t distracting. The movie may not be as action-packed or high-concept as other Miyazaki films, but it’s still entertaining and a nice antidote to the recent overload of loud, computer-animated flicks. Overall, I’d give The Secret World of Arrietty, which is rated G, 7.5 or 8 out of 10, four out of five stars, and a B+/A-.

In other animation, Janice and I recently watched our DVD of Azur and Asmar: the Princes’ Quest, which follows two boys from their childhood in medieval France to the deserts in search of a fairy princess. Like Sita Sings the Blues, my first impression of the flat computer animation was that it was crude, but the detail and style grew on me as the characters and story developed.

I thought the movie did a nice job of depicting the conflict and synergy of European, North African, Arabian, and Persian styles and folklore. I’d give Azur and Asmar an 8 out of 10, four out of five stars, and an A-.

I have yet to watch Justice League: Doom, and Cartoon Network’s “DC Nationblock has just started on Saturday mornings, with a mix of Young Justice, Green Lantern, and humorous shorts aimed at younger audiences. It’s a little disjointed so far, but I like the shorts. Disney XD will be starting its own Marvel Universe programming on Sunday mornings, including The Avengers: Earth’s Mightiest Heroes and Ultimate Spider-Man.

And that’s not even including upcoming animation such as Star Wars: Clone Wars, Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles, Avatar: the Legend of Korra, How to Train Your Dragon: the Series, and Pixar’s Brave! I’ve given up for now on trying to keep up with the latest TV iterations of G.I. Joe, Transformers, and Kung-Fu Panda, although they all seem decent. In comedy, I find myself more interested in The Looney Tunes Show, Metalocalypse, or Archer than in The Simpsons or Fox’s Sunday night animation block.

One final item (for now) of news: Sadly, Jean Giraud, also known as Moebius — borrowed from the mathematician — died last week. I discovered his art years ago in Metal Hurlant/Heavy Metal magazine. As with the recently deceased Robert McCall and Ralph McQuarrie, Moebius shaped generations of science fiction and fantasy creators and fans. Examples of Moebius’ influence include the distinctive looks of Alien, Blade Runner, Dune, The Fifth Element, Heavy Metal, Tron, and Willow. All of these artists will be missed, but their visions live on!

Catching up from Christmas

A Star Trek holiday
Happy holidays!

I hope that all your holidays were happy and that you have a healthy and Happy New Year! Janice and I drove in my new car to her family in Upstate New York for Christmas. The capacious Honda Fit served us well, even if it got its first ding (in the windshield). Fortunately, the weather was mild and traffic was relatively light, even if children and skiers were disappointed by the lack of a white Christmas.

Among other things, I received more reference books on Arthurian lore, some cool Star Wars and gamer garb, food baskets, and a toaster oven. As usual, we also ate very well, caught up on Disney/Pixar movies, and played with my nephews’ superhero action figures and Lego sets. My thoughts are with ill relatives and friends.

Unlike several of my friends, I was busy with work in the week between Christmas and New Year’s, so I was unable to post to this blog. However, I don’t foresee any shortage of genre entertainment, food and travel, or politics to talk about in 2012!

In between work and the holidays, Janice and I ate at our usual haunts: Wild Willy’s Burgers, Acropolis, Subway, Chipotle, and the Ninety Nine (I’ll have to work it all off). I met fellow role-players Beruk A., Brian W., and James B. for lunch in Central Square, Cambridge, as well as fellow blogger Thomas K.Y. with his brother Tony and girlfriend Kai-Yin at Elephant Walk in Waltham, Massachusetts. I’ll look more at recent movies, comic books, and games in upcoming posts.

For New Year’s Eve, Janice and I walked to the First Night events in Needham, Mass. We enjoyed listening to the West Newton Ceili Band, Melodius Funk, and comedian John Colliton. In addition, we saw the newly renovated town hall, melting ice sculpture, and the colorful Quinobequin Quilters show.

This morning, Janice and I watched the annual Rose Parade, and we’ll be taking down our decorations as the holidays wind down. I hope that the global economy improves, people strive to peacefully overcome their differences, and to find time for all my friends and interests!

Death and humanism, Part 2: The Muppets

The Muppet Show characters
It’s time to meet the Muppets!

I’ve been a fan of the late Jim Henson‘s creations since watching Sesame Street and the original Muppet Show as a child in the 1970s. Henson’s gentle humor didn’t talk down to children, nor was he afraid of including adult jokes that sailed over the heads of then-innocent younger audiences.

Janice has an Animal puppet, and I have a Kermit the Frog — both from before we met. We’ve attended exhibitions of Henson’s work at the Smithsonian Institution and other museums, and we met his widow and son Brian, among other puppeteers. Henson’s gifts of joy and wonder have continued to appeal for generations, but is The Muppets as entertaining as its predecessors? Also, are we able to enjoy our foam and felt friends as we once did?

The good news is that director James Bobin and actor and co-writer Jason Segal have made a strong effort to be faithful to Henson’s spirit and to keep the Muppets as wacky as ever. The Muppets is filled with celebrity cameos, allows us to revisit familiar characters and songs, and should be fast-paced enough for the children of original fans.

The movie follows brothers Gary (Segal) and Walter (voiced by Peter Linz) as they grow up and eventually visit the dilapidated Muppet Studios. Walter uncovers a plot by evil oil baron Tex Richman (Chris Cooper) to buy and tear down the Muppets’ former digs, so Gary drags his girlfriend Mary (Amy Adams) along for the ride to reunite the Muppets and hold a telethon to save the theater.

Segal’s love for the Muppets is apparent, and Oscar nominee (and future Lois Lane) Adams’ talents, first seen in Enchanted, are put to good use for various songs. The bucolic Smalltown is nicely contrasted with the Muppets’ latest road trip and the glamorous yet seedy Los Angeles. Cooper is surprisingly game as the villain, even breaking into a rap number, and Rashida Jones is an impatient studio executive.

Other cameos include the indefatigable Mickey Rooney, musician Dave Grohl, and actors Alan Arkin and Emily Blunt. Comedians Whoopi Goldberg, Zach Galifianakis, Jim Parsons, Sarah Silverman, and Jack Black also appear, continuing a tradition from the TV series and 1979 movie.

With iconic characters such as Superman, Mickey Mouse, and Bugs Bunny, their supporting casts grow over the decades and often overshadow them, so I was glad to see the focus back on Kermit in this year’s Muppets. Gonzo, Rizzo the Rat, and Pepe the Prawn are all present, but not dominant. I miss Henson as the voice of the friendly frog, but there were numerous visual cues to his ensemble variety show (one of the best, along with The Carol Burnett Show).

At the same time, I understand why Frank Oz — the original voice of Miss Piggy, Yoda, and many more — chose to step away from this production. I think the filmmakers tried to honor Henson’s idealism, but they were a bit down on the franchise, saying, “It has been years since we were together in the public eye,” even though Disney and Henson Studios have put out several Muppet movies.

There were a few times in The Muppets when Kermit seemed even more discouraged or Miss Piggy was even more of a diva than usual, but I think they were balanced out by the overall sweetness of the script and live-action supporting cast. To me, the moments that felt true included a barbershop quartet singing Nirvana’s “Smells Like Teen Spirit” and chickens clucking Cee Lo Green’s “Forget You.”

We also saw The Muppet Show‘s opening credits from a new angle, Animal in anger management therapy, as well as old favorites such as “Rainbow Connection.” Overall, I’d recommend The Muppets to anyone who’s still a kid at heart. (The recent comic books weren’t bad, either.) The movie is rated PG-13 for humor and slapstick, and I’d give The Muppets a B+, a 7.5 out of 10, or about three out of five stars. I’m glad I was able to see the film with fellow fans.

My favorite Muppet movies are The Muppet Movie, Muppet Christmas Carol, and Muppets From Space (I’d put The Muppets on par with the last one). I’m less fond of The Great Muppet Caper, The Muppets Take Manhattan, and Muppet Treasure Island. There are also several fun holiday specials — I’m partial to Emmet Otter’s Jug Band — and other TV shows, such as Fraggle Rock and The Storyteller.

Like Segal and company, I’m not sure that many children with their noses in videogames or being shuttled from soccer to dance practice and homework will appreciate The Muppets, but as with classic Star Trek, I think it’s worth making an effort to expose them to Henson’s humanist values of playful curiosity, determination in the face of adversity, and most importantly, kindness and acceptance of all.

Despite an untimely death, Jim Henson left a legacy of family-friendly entertainment as well as more mythic material, such as Labyrinth, The Dark Crystal, and Farscape. I’ve got posters of the Muppets and Farscape cast on my bedroom walls, “It’s Not Easy Being Green” on my lips, and a little bit of Henson in my heart.