art & arcana
art & arcana
Just getting started

Art & Arcana: A Visual History is a huge, gorgeous compendium of what helps make Dungeons &Dragons so wonderful. Leafing through it brings up so many memories that I can’t gush adequately about it. The art is all so familiar, evoking the glorious campaigns our DM ran, the several editions I played, and the characters I created. I recognized the covers of the paperbacks my friends and I read, and the box art for the coveted miniature sets which I still have, and still use.

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“It all started with one thousand curious boxes marked with unfamiliar symbols and verbiage.”

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This is not merely a coffee-table art book.  Art & Arcana fully lives up to its subtitle as a rich and thorough history of Dungeons & Dragons. Interspersed with and guided by the lavish artwork is the narrative of the rise and fall of Gary Gygax and TSR and the game’s renewal under Wizards of the Coast.

art & arcana
All you need to know

Art & Arcana incorporates the several attempts to portray D&D as some sort of Satanic cult into its history, and the changes made to the game’s art and advertising in order to counter those smears. This leads into the many attempts TSR made to branch out into the mainstream.

D&D was adapted into handheld electronics in the early 1980s, with all the wonders of that era’s graphics. Somewhat more sophisticated computer versions followed in the late 80’s. Along the way, Dungeons & Dragons ventured into records, candy, coloring books, Viewmaster slides, Colorforms, a Saturday morning cartoon that spawned a board game, and even a pinball machine.

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Of course Art & Arcana is thick with profiles of the artists, from the early, often teen-aged illustrators to the professional artists TSR and later companies eventually hired as D&D grew. Some examples of my favorites include Erol Otus and his classic cover of the original Dieties & Demigods; Clyde Caldwell’s iconic original art for 1983’s Ravenloft; and Darlene’s epic map of Greyhawk. In addition to the instantly-recognized classic art, the beautifully realized D&D variations found in Dragonlance, Forgotten Realms, Pathfinder, and Spelljammer are all included here as well.

art & arcana
Tiamat through the years

The development of the classic sets and modules, and how the maps and character sheets became refined over time, are explained as well. Two-page spreads detail the changes in how orcs, dragons, beholders, mindflayers, and other terrible beasts were drawn over the years, from the amateurish early versions to the vivid, polished monsters of today.

Even the influence of the indispensable miniature is covered, from the first cheap plastic monsters to the original MiniFigs and Grenadier figures, and on to TSR’s own official Advanced Dungeons & Dragons figures. There is nothing about how hard it is to paint the eyes, though.

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“This game lets all your fantasies come true. This is a world where monsters, dragons, good and evil high priests, fierce demons, and even the gods themselves may enter your character’s life. Enjoy, for this game is what dreams are made of!”

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art & arcana
Behold! The Beholder

Authors Michael Witwer, Kyle Newman, Jon Peterson, and Sam Witwer have done a spectacular job of showing the history of Dungeons & Dragons in all its colorful glory. Anyone who has played any of the editions or variations will find something in Art & Arcana to reminisce over. It is a beautiful book that I will be going back to, over and over again.

 

fledgling

fledglingFledgling, Octavia E. Butler’s final novel, is a disconcerting read that takes on vampires, racism, and cultural creation myths in one long gulp. Told entirely from the viewpoint of an amnesiac child of a symbiotic species, Fledgling challenges the reader to accept an alien physiology and culture and its unusual intersections with human lives. While imperfect and at times jarring, it still has vital points to make.

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Butler’s version of the familiar vampire is faithful to the folklore without embracing the supernatural. Her blood-drinkers are the Ina, an ancient, separate species that are not simply predators. The Ina are nocturnal, photosensitive, and long-lived, and do require human blood to survive. But the Ina need their humans alive and healthy, for more than just food.

The connection between Ina and humans is complex and symbiotic, with the depths of it only partially revealed over the course of the narrative. To ensure a steady food supply, Ina bind chosen humans to them using the venom in their bites. After several such bites, a human becomes physically dependent on its Ina and will die if separated. The Ina’s bite also confers exceptional health and extended life on the human recipient. In return, the Ina requires an intimately physical, as well as nutritional, relationship.

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Part of what makes Fledgling so intriguing to me is its in medias res quality. It begins with a mystery, and ends with potential about to be tapped.

The novel is the story of Shori, a genetically altered Ina whose very existence is considered an abomination by certain other Ina families. Shori’s mothers, skilled scientists, inserted human DNA into the genetic code of Shori and her siblings with the hope of giving them the ability to withstand the sun and to function during the day–and to be able to pass those traits on to their own offspring.

Fledgling begins with Shori awakening without her memory, a result of an attack that wiped out her entire maternal family–mothers, grandmothers, and sisters, as well as all their symbiots. When she finds her paternal family, they are assassinated as well. The rest of the novel is Shori’s ongoing recovery and relearning of Ina culture–and how her existence threatens to change it– in order to bring her family’s murderers to justice.

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shoriA great deal of information is funneled to the reader through Shori’s inquiries and explorations. We learn along with her that Ina culture is an intricate thing, with social, sexual, and symbiotic norms that predate humanity’s by millenia. Her amnesia is a fine tool for all the exposition, and is balanced with enough recovered knowledge to keep her from being simply a babe in the woods and her relearning merely an info dump. Shori knows things. She doesn’t always remember that she knows them.

Shori is revealed as an ethical, caring keeper of her human symbiots, with no memory of having learned ethics. But even though she tells her own story, Shori remains at a distance. She is, after all, not a human, as much as she may resemble one.

Which brings me to my visceral discomfort with the novel.

Shori appears to be a prepubescent child, but that doesn’t matter to our Ina heroine or the twenty-something man she first feeds from. He wants to have sex with her, and she is happy to have him. She and her human symbiots engage freely in mutually consensual sex throughout the novel, with varying levels of euphemism to explain it. But the frequent descriptions of Shori as “a lovely little thing”, and the desire of multiple adult males to pull her onto their laps is far too reminiscent of Lolita for me.

While objectively it shouldn’t be an issue for a 53 year old child of an unrelated species to have sex with an adult human, from this adult human’s perspective it feels very wrong.

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Ocatvia E. Butler died too soon, and Fledgling strikes me as a beginning to something that would have been larger if she had enough time. The novel is transgressive and open-ended, with the poisons of racial purity and prejudice laid out in clear and unsentimental language. In the end Fledgling left me unexpectedly and deeply uncomfortable. But I still wish there were more of the story.

automata

automataAutomata, a bit of Spanish-Bulgarian science fiction from 2014, begins in familiar territory. A post-apocalyptic world. A monolithic city with the remains of humanity huddled inside. A vast, radioactive wasteland. And, naturally, sentient robots.

Many films have made these components work. But despite some talented actors, dramatic scenery, and the best of intentions, Automata does not manage to bring its vision fully to life. After a strong start, Automata falls into the trap of easy sentimentality and loses its way.

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Automata is set in 2044, after the world has effectively ended. Humankind has been reduced to a only few million, living in fortress-like cities and served by ROC Corporation’s Pilgrim 7000s–humanoid robots designed for protection and manual labor. The robots operate under two immutable protocols: They cannot cause harm to any living thing, and they cannot repair or modify themselves or any other robot.

And then, one is discovered making its own modifications.

Insurance investigator Jacq Vaucan is assigned to find out who broke the robotic protocols and enabled the robot’s new ability. His search leads him deep into the remains of society’s underbelly, where he encounters dirty cops, dirtier corporate enforcers, child assassins, robotic sex slaves, black market “clocksmiths,” and, eventually, evolving, self-determining robots.

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automataVisually, the cityscape is very much Blade Runner, right down to the rain, but without all the teeming people. The depopulation aspect spoke more to Do Androids Dream of Electric Sheep, while the dull cubicle apartments hearkened back to Brazil.

Yet despite its obvious derivativeness, Automata’s worldbuilding is pretty good. The aged machinery, the old cars, and the ancient tech all contribute to the weariness of the world. What is left is either industrial and dirty, with monolithic structures and walls, piles of garbage, or a bleak, dusty wasteland. The culture is adapted to the conditions without becoming outlandish. The slang seems unforced, with the bulky robots nicknamed “clunkers” and the radioactive desert called the Sandbox.

But Automata is less successful with building its characters.

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automataThe cast, overall, is overqualified and quite good, but many of the roles are flatly written or simply stock-types, too underdeveloped to be fully alive.

Antonio Banderas stars as Jacq Vaucan, an insurance investigator sucked into the heart of a mystery. He is as brooding and mournful as ever, bringing a believable jadedness to his character. Dylan McDermott is threatening, cynical, and wasted as the corrupt cop, Wallace. Robert Forster plays Jacq’s supervisor Robert Bold believably as a worn-down but still compassionate company man. Birgitte Hjort Sørensen plays Jacq’s pregnant wife, Rachel, with convincing frustration and fear. Melanie Griffith, on the other hand, fails to convince as the robot-altering clocksmith, Doctor Dupré, with her baby voice and painfully slow delivery. She is more credible as the voice of the modified robot Cleo. 

The remaining cast is filled out by Tim McInnerny, Andy Nyman, David Ryall, Andrew Tiernan, Christa Campbell, Bashar Rahal, and, surprisingly, Javier Bardem. The actors’ talents far outshine the scopes of their roles.

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automataAutomata’s plot also has problems. The film wants us to believe it is deep, but it is more stylish than substantive. The story builds steadily until Jacq leaves the city and enters the desert with a group of robots. From there, the plot loses its focus enough that at a reasonable 109 minutes, Automata felt padded. The long, sweeping scenes of desert and sky, the multiple flashbacks to the sea, the lingering close-ups of automata, all add length without contributing any needed development of the characters or story.

For all the visual grandeur, Automata is far less philosophically nuanced than Ex Machina or even Chappie. The robots are credited with incredible intelligence that far outstrips humanity’s. Unfortunately this intellect is expressed in soppy platitudes like, “Surviving is not relevant–living is,” and in creepy human-robot interactions that fail to highlight the intelligence of either species. Characters frequently toss out the idea that someone thought a robot was alive, but the implications of a living robot are addressed in a cursory, melodramatic way. The idea that the automata have become autonomous remains unexplored. The attempted religious overtones are not supported by the underlying themes, and the predictable action and sentimentality of the ending feels lazy rather than revelatory.

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Automata is no classic, but it is not entirely a waste of time. While the plot is thin and the story stretched, the film is still quite beautiful. Banderas turns in one of his reliably lovely, melancholy performances, and the supporting cast is polished. In the end, I enjoyed it for what it is–an average film that wants to be more, but never does figure out how to get there.

Stan Against Evil season 3

 

Stan Against Evil season 3
Not quite the Scooby Gang

Stan Against Evil came back for a third season on Halloween night, and boy, am I glad. The enthusiastically silly and low budget show continues to be a bright spot on IFC’s schedule. It has embraced its humble status and run with it, cementing its place as a goofy and sometimes sweet horror comedy well worth watching.

The show still looks as if all the special effects come from Party City. It still careens cheerfully from one joke to another with only a nod at coherence and character development. But I can’t hold that against it. Because Stan Against Evil is still escapist fun with an occasional dose of sentimentality, and the cast pulls it off without missing a step.

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Former Sheriff Stan Miller (John C. McGinley) and his replacement, Evie Barret (Janet Varney) have become the best of friends, with his curmudgeonly snark nicely balanced by her occasionally off-kilter practicality. Deputy Leon (Nate Mooney) is more loopy and oblivious than in season’s past, but is still a core team member. And Denise (Deborah Baker Jr.), Stan’s daughter, still presents as a thirty year old going on thirteen, crafting, fan-girling, and inappropriately attaching at every turn. Her romantic interest from season two hasn’t reappeared yet, but the season is young. Evie’s daughter, never being much more than a prop, has pretty much disappeared from the show. But Evie’s boozy ex-husband seems to be a recurring character when a random monster is needed to give a plot a boost.

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Stan Against Evil season 3
Romero would be proud

The overarching storyline from season one remains in place: Tiny, rural Willard’s Mill, New Hampshire is cursed. Back in 1693, the evil Constable Eccles burned 172 witches at the stake. Since then, every constable the town has ever had has died in office. Except Stan. Stan Against Evil’s unexpected second season introduced a lot more information about Stan’s late wife and her coven, the Black Hat Society, who protect the town from the worst attacks by Eccles and other evils. And now the even more unexpected season three has the crew still fighting off demons as Constable Eccles’s victims keep returning to exact revenge. Stan is still trying to find a way to bring his dead wife back to life. And the writers still keep everyone off-balance and well-armed with one-liners.

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Stan Against Evil season 3
Nobody wants to believe

Stan Against Evil launches into the new season with its usual verve. Episode one features an undead Stan and an institutionalized Evie in their own private hells (which look remarkably like someone just threw garbage around in the street), learning to work through issues together. There is a bit of random time travel, and some wonderful bedside manner from the resident psychiatrist. Episode two features lessons in how to use evil for the greater good, a knock-off Mulder and Scully, and even Kolchak running around snapping pictures as Stan and Evie try to figure out how most of the Black Hat Society died. Apparently, bringing your own rubber gloves is important in investigations.

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Each season is only eight half-hour episodes broadcast over the course of four weeks. A few episodes are free on IFC, and seasons one and two are available for binging on Hulu. I highly recommend it. Stan Against Evil is a far better treat than leftover candy.