Wednesday, September 10, 2014

Mind of Steel

I used to view Superman's super-intelligence as one power too many, a silly relic of the Silver Age, like super-ventriloquism. It's mostly a consequence of growing up with and idealizing the Byrne-era Superman.

The last time I really remember feeling that sentiment was when the power was reintroduced back in "Up, Up, and Away." Busiek & Johns did a great job of making the power make sense, and the more I've thought about it since, the more I think that Superman needs to be super-intelligent.

I think about superheroes a lot, and something I find particularly fascinating is the concept of auxiliary superpowers: abilities that don't show up in the Who's Who or OHOTMU lists, but are necessary for the character's other powers to work.

So, for instance, anyone with super-strength must have some degree of invulnerability, because otherwise their tendons would tear and their bones would break every time they flexed. The Flash must be able to selectively alter friction and relativistic effects, or he'd catch fire and approach infinite mass every time he got moving fast enough1.

Superman's super-intelligence is a similar ability. Consider super-speed: the Flash can shift into a sort of "speed mode," where he perceives everything moving at a crawl. Superman, presumably, doesn't tap into the Speed Force, and we have no indication that he has that ability. In order to accomplish feats at speeds similar to those traveled at by the Flash, his brain would have to have super-fast processing ability. This gives him super-fast reaction time, and explains why he can do things like read and type at superhuman speeds. Without this aspect of super-intelligence, his super-speed would be useless at best and dangerous at worst.

I dislike the tendency to treat Superman's super-senses as things he can turn on and off, though I understand why especially early writers would treat them as such. You can't consciously decide to stop seeing the color red, for instance, or to stop hearing certain frequencies of sound, and I don't know why we'd expect Superman to have that ability either. But what we can do is focus our eyes on certain things in our field of vision, depending on distance, and we can sometimes tune out noises and sounds, especially constant, repetitive ones. So the No-Prize explanation is that Superman has learned to mostly tune out the sounds of insect wing-fluttering and the continental plates shifting, focusing his hearing on the sounds that are less constant.

In order to do this, his brain must have super-executive functions, able not just to process that information quickly, but to make sense of it, assigning degrees of importance and drawing Superman's attention to where it's needed. Part of that process is done by comparing sensory input to prior inputs--to memories.

The process of memory formation is complicated, messy, and dependent on the kinds of memories being formed, but part of the process of changing something from short-term to long-term memory is repeated passes through certain structures of the brain. There is a certain logic to thinking that this process would happen faster for Superman, given his brain's faster processing speed and increased need to sort through sensory input, but I'm no neurologist, and I'm getting into the area where I feel like I might just be pulling stuff out of my red shorts.

The case for Superman having perfect recall is shakier than any other part of his super-intelligence, but that also allows for a little flexibility in storytelling. It's easy to imagine that Superman can hold more things in his short-term/working memory--even if he couldn't necessarily hold more items in said memory at once (and I think he probably could, given the usual attention issues he already has to deal with), his processing power means he could be switching between items in his attention fast enough that it would seem like he was holding more items in his working memory. But as with humans, not everything necessarily makes the transition from short-term to long-term memory. So maybe he doesn't remember in issue #647 how to do a surgery he performed back in #328, but it's the same way you might have to look up the phone number for the pizza place every time you call.

From a narrative and theme perspective, I do think the idea that Superman has perfect recall of everything that happened anywhere around him on Krypton is pretty eye-rollingly silly. Remembering the minutiae of Krypton since infancy robs some of the tragedy of Krypton's destruction, and distances Superman from his human roots2. As much as I've come to embrace the Bronze Age, I'm still a firm proponent of the idea that Superman's powers should grow as he does, rather than having full-powered Superbaby on day one. His memories of Krypton, of his parents, should be fragmentary and fleeting, like any person's memories of early childhood. Krypton, for Superman, should be a place that he's studied, but not one that he remembers thoroughly.

Back to the main point, I think the trickiest part of "super-intelligence" is actually figuring out what that means--and that goes for the other smartest guys in the DCU too, like Batman and Lex Luthor and Brainiac 5. "Intelligence" isn't just one thing, but a combination of traits, and I think understanding what aspects of intelligence each of these super-intellects excels at is important. Superman's good at problem solving, with strong lateral thinking skills and an ability to make connections, in addition to having a keen journalistic and scientific mind and enhanced processing power. Batman's the world's greatest detective, brilliant at deduction, reading people, and predicting what's likely to happen in any given situation--usually by gaming out every possibility well ahead of time. Lex Luthor is a cunning manipulator, able to identify and exploit weaknesses in anyone, in addition to being one of the most brilliantly inventive minds on the planet. MacGyver can make a nuclear weapon out of some paperclips and rubber bands; Lex Luthor could turn the same materials into a time machine with enough parts left over for a jetpack. Giving Superman super-intelligence doesn't have to diminish these other characters, so long as we actually understand what that entails. In Coluan terms, Superman is probably somewhere around a 7th-9th-level intellect.

The issue of super-intelligence is an interesting one, but as far as I'm concerned, it's a necessary power, and a natural consequence of other powers we take for granted.


1. I realize that canonically, the Flashes have a "frictionless aura," but that wouldn't explain how they're able to get traction or grab things, or do those tricks with rubbing sand at super-speed to make glass. Hence, there must be a degree of selective control over this ability.

2. I also think it removes some of Supergirl's uniqueness. One aspect of her character that has only really been explored in recent years is that she grew up on Krypton, spent her formative years there, was immersed in Kryptonian culture and society. She's a teenage superhero "A Little Princess," orphaned and left to fend for herself in a strange land, without the comforts of home. She should be the one who remembers Krypton, not Superman.

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Sunday, August 31, 2014

Outlander and Time Travel

I saw a preview for the new "Outlander" TV series ahead of "Guardians of the Galaxy" at my local theater, and my initial impression was that it was an interesting idea: having someone from the past travel back in time further into the past.

Upon thinking about it for another moment, though, I realized that's how most time-travel-to-the-past stories are, and how all of them become that in time. I love "Back to the Future," and even though I was scarcely two years old in 1985, I still think of it as a kid from "the present" going back to the past, when we're now nearly as far removed from 1985 as 1985 was from 1955. One of my favorite TV series of all time is "Quantum Leap," and while I still think of Sam's home time as the future, 1995 is twenty years behind us.

It's an interesting wrinkle to the time travel motif, that such stories require the reader to do so much time traveling of their own.

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Monday, June 30, 2014

Review: "Superman" (vol. 3) #32

Let's get a few things out of the way to begin with. First, I'm coming into this issue cold; I've intentionally avoided reading any reviews of it longer than 140 characters, and I'm fairly far behind on the other Superman titles (the only DC book I'm caught up on is Batman, I think). I'm also coming into this issue without too much bias. I quite like John Romita Jr.'s art, but the last series he helped relaunch thirty issues into a major reboot didn't exactly go very well. I've been pretty sour on Geoff Johns since a bit before the New 52 began, despite really liking his earlier work on JSA, Flash, and Green Lantern. His Superman comics have been generally well-regarded, though I never cared for how he discarded character development to tell more nostalgic stories. I did, however, re-read "Superman and the Legion of Super-Heroes" recently, and quite enjoyed it aside from that linked Perry White line and Johns's signature move of having someone lose an arm. At least it didn't feel gratuitous there.

So, "Superman" #32. To begin with, the cover is gorgeous. It's dynamic, and recalls other classic images by folks like José Luis García-López. The background color scheme is similarly evocative, specifically of Neal Adams' classic "Kryptonite Nevermore!" cover. Also, it's just kind of nice to see Superman running. It's not something he's shown doing very often.

Let's start with the good: This issue sets up a pretty intriguing story. Ulysses has a cool design, and the mirroring themes of loneliness and loss are played out well. Not surprisingly, the book looks great. A great deal of that is due to Romita and Janson managing to make even the talking-heads pages visually interesting, but Laura Martin's colors really knock this book out of the park. Romita's style can sometimes come off as a little flat, but Martin's subtle variations in shading and lighting make everything pop.

In terms of plot structure, a lot of it feels very old-school. The flashback-to-title sequence bit at the beginning is an artifact of more modern, cinematic comic storytelling, but the way this issue lays down subplot threads hearkens back to the serialized stories of the '80s and '90s. I'm currently working my way through Simonson's "Thor" run, which follows that same style: a few pages of the main story, broken up occasionally (and sometimes suddenly) by checking in on the b- and c-plots. Here, those checking-in moments are more panels than pages, but that's not necessarily a bad thing, especially in this age of shortened page counts. Much as I love Simonson's "Thor," it's still obviously a product of a pre-TPB age, and sometimes the recaps do get a little tedious when you're reading the run straight through.

Speaking of shortened page counts, one of the things I found infuriating about Johns's Green Lantern comics toward the end of his run was his over-reliance on splash pages in a way that felt like he was padding out a too-short script. We get two double-page spreads and a splash page in this issue, but they're all major action or emotional climaxes. Each one feels earned, which is helped by the way that the non-splash panels change in size, growing larger on average as we approach each crescendo in the story. It's a great example of how aspects of the art that we don't normally think about can impact the feel of the story in major ways.

And hey, J. Wilbur Wolfingham makes an appearance! Who could have predicted that?

In terms of criticism, it's what you might expect from Johns: there's no subtlety to be found here. The parents at the beginning, sending their child into another dimension to survive, could only be more obviously allegorical if their names were Jordan and Laura. This motif would probably work a little better if I hadn't just re-read "Superman and the Legion of Super-Heroes," which opened with the exact same bit.

Repetition is working against Johns on a larger level here as well. Mark Waid expressed his relief on Twitter that this wasn't the same story as in "Superman Unchained," where the Man of Steel has been battling with another Superman analogue. Meanwhile, "Batman/Superman" began with a plot where the World's Finest team met their Earth-2 counterparts; we just wrapped "Forever Evil," which featured an evil alternate-universe version of Superman taking over; "Future's End" has an alternate "masked" Superman; we're barreling toward a crossover that's supposed to have Earths at war (inevitably suggesting additional Supermen); and Grant Morrison introduced no fewer than three Superman analogues in his "Action Comics" run, with the Earth-23 Superman, the Superdoom "killer franchise," and Captain Comet. That's a lot of Superman analogues for a universe that's not even three years old yet.

It's nice to see a softer Perry White here, even if he's basically an exposition delivery machine. His discussion with Clark is sledgehammer-blunt telling-not-showing, and while it's nice that it allows us to name-drop some supporting cast members (that line about Jackee Winters is so obviously out of place, oy) it probably could have been cut in half and replaced with a little more of the scenes we get on the next couple of pages, where we actually see Clark's loneliness. It's "show, don't tell," Geoff, not "tell, then show." With a bit more attention to showing, and a little tighter editing, we could have been actually introduced to Jackee and Lois, instead of having that single panel at the bar.

Altogether, it's a positive start. I'm really looking forward to the next issue, especially seeing some development on these subplots. I hope there's some follow-through on the promise of a robust supporting cast; that's an aspect of Superman comics that's too often overlooked to the detriment of the story and the characters. I'd like to see Geoff Johns letting his top-notch artists handle a bit more of the storytelling, especially outside the big action set pieces, but it's just nice to read a Johns comic where no heroes act like jerks and no one has any limbs severed. Definitely the strongest writing I've seen from Johns since the start of the New 52, and Romita knocked this first DC work out of the park. With Pak and Kuder over on "Action," this is arguably the best that the Superman line has been since the last time Johns was writing Superman regularly.

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Speaking Geek

I mentioned a few weeks back that I recorded an interview with the Chippewa Valley Geek podcast, and it's up now! Listen to me pontificate, because reading my pontifications was one sense too few!

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Friday, June 27, 2014

5 Popular Movies & How They Should Have Ended

5. Man of Steel
The recent superhero blockbuster "Man of Steel" drew a lot of criticism for its unexpected ending. A lot of people offered their own ideas for how it could have ended instead, but they all got one thing wrong.

How it SHOULD have ended: "Man of Steel" should have ended with a closing credits roll acknowledging all the people whose hard work made the film possible, from the writers, actors, and director to the catering staff and stunt doubles. Despite the criticism, this is exactly how it did end!

4. Flicka
The 2006 feel-good film "Flicka" told a touching story about a girl and her horse, based on the 1941 novel My Friend Flicka. In it, main character Katy and her wild mustang Flicka both help save each other's lives. But is that the way it should have gone?

How it SHOULD have ended: A movie as animal-intensive as "Flicka" should have ended with the note "No animals were harmed in the making of this picture" in the credits. Unfortunately, two horses died in the process of filming "Flicka," forcing the statement to be left out.

3. She's All That
"She's All That" was a popular 1999 teen romantic comedy featuring Freddie Prinze, Jr. and Rachel Leigh Cook. Its classic plot about giving an unpopular girl a makeover was an update of stories like "Pygmalion" and "My Fair Lady." In the end, Cook and Prinze's characters get together, but is that the way it should have gone?

How it SHOULD have ended: "She's All That" should have ended with me and Becky Holt making out and dating for the rest of freshman year instead of her saying "no I don't want to go to the movies with you, loser."

 
2. Transformers: Dark of the Moon
The third installment in the blockbuster Transformers film franchise by director Michael Bay continued the story of Optimus Prime and his Autobot warriors and their battle with Megatron and the evil Decepticons, with humanity--and Sam Witwicky (Shia LaBeouf)--caught in the middle. In "Dark of the Moon," we learn that the Apollo missions discovered alien technology on the moon, which leads to an epic battle and ultimately the destruction of the Transformers' home planet, Cybertron. It's a tragic blow to the Transformers, but that ending could have been very different!

How it SHOULD have ended: With a fire on set, tragically killing the director and star.

1. Back to the Future
Everyone knows the classic movie about teenage time traveler Marty McFly and his exciting adventure trying to return to his own time without accidentally breaking up his parents' marriage and preventing his own birth! We all know Marty was successful in his quest, but what you don't know is how it should have ended!

How it SHOULD have ended: Wait, hold on, Michael J. Fox? Two sequels? No, no, this is all wrong. "Back to the Future" was supposed to be a singular cult classic, the movie that led to the Eric Stoltz geek TV renaissance! Something happened, something changed the timestream! I need to set this right, before... before...

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Thursday, June 12, 2014

Blasting from the Past

I'm conducting a minor experiment, to see if anyone ever bothered to change the most annoying things about the Internet. I mean, animated gifs are experiencing a renaissance, far beyond what we might have imagined back in the days of:


and:

(and on my old homepage):

But I found myself wondering today: do blinking text tags still work? Those were always loads of fun.

(Answer: apparently not in my browser)

Of course the best kind of tag was the
SCROLLING MARQUEE

Oh! What about rainbow text effects?
THIS IS WHAT THE INTERNET IS FOR!

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Thursday, June 05, 2014

An Update

Things have been, as they often are, quieter here than I'd like. I've mostly been busy with work, and the remainder of my free time has been looking for other work. I'd much rather be writing blog posts than cover letters, but that's where I'm at right now. But now I have a moment or two to procrastinate, so have some bullet points! Spoilers for summer movies ahead.

  • I started reading Greg Rucka's novel Alpha. It's still pretty early in the book, so not much has happened, but I'm enjoying it so far. There are some interesting quirks with how Rucka describes and words things, and I'm trying to determine what's his style versus what's his choice for the narrator's voice. Aside from the way he refers to military minutiae like a seasoned expert, it doesn't feel much like any of the other stuff I've read of Rucka's.

    The lack of pictures may be a contributing factor to that.
  • I picked up "Scribblenauts Unmasked" and beat it in fairly short order. I was going to outline my thoughts here, but I think I'll put together something more substantial shortly. In any case, I quite liked it.
  • I saw "Amazing Spider-Man 2," and was underwhelmed. I quite liked the first installment, but this one was (as I might have predicted) overstuffed and rushed. The Electro plot, Harry's illness, and the mystery of Peter's parents could easily have taken up a whole flick without shoehorning in the Goblin and the bridge scene as well. I frankly would have liked another movie with Gwen in it before the inevitable end, and especially one without the college girl equivalent of being one day away from retirement. On top of all that, it felt like there was just so much dialogue (the entire graduation speech, for instance) that felt too convenient, too on-the-nose, too plot-driven. Sony's clearly on a mad dash to make their own "Avengers," without learning from the mistakes of "Spider-Man 3" or the successes of "Avengers"--specifically, laying the groundwork for that movie over the course of years, through several other films, where the worst of them also happened to be the one that diverted too much of its energy to laying the groundwork for the team film. Argh.
  • Seeing "Godzilla" made me realize that I haven't actually seen a Godzilla movie outside of the last American Godzilla movie. This new one was better by far. I especially liked how incidental the humans were to everything. They set the plot in motion by unleashing Muto, but humanity went mostly unnoticed by the creatures, which followed the basic drives of nature: mate and eat. Including another monster was a smart choice (making it look like the Cloverfield monster: doubly smart), because it shifts the narrative. When Godzilla is the only monster, the plot becomes humans vs. Godzilla, which in the "Godzilla" franchise, can end in a stalemate at best. "We drove the creature back into the sea! Yay, I guess? But, like, he's still right there. In the sea." Pitting Godzilla against a bigger threat makes us root for the titular monster, and just hope the humans don't screw things up too badly.

    I think the one thing I would have changed is letting the generic protagonist disarm the damn nuclear bomb. They were setting that up for the whole movie, only to have him stymied by a panel that he could easily have pried off with the harpoon he found there on the boat. It was tough to watch the happy ending reunion scene at the end knowing the radioactive fallout from the detonation of a nuclear warhead just off the coast of California was going to render half those happy families dead from leukemia within a few years. I get that part of the message is that nature points up the folly of men, but at least let some men solve their own follies maybe?
  • I was interviewed this weekend for the Chippewa Valley Geek podcast, where I talked way too much and way too incoherently about some topics regarding canon and comics. It was tons of fun, and I'll post a notice here whenever it gets uploaded.
  • I'm still working on that Superman QuizUp question set, though I hope to finally finish it up soon. If you have any suggestions, I'm all ears.

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Saturday, April 19, 2014

New Wallpaper

One of the ways I've been busying myself lately is by building a new desktop computer. It's way faster than my last model, and seems way more stable. Hopefully it'll also be able to run games that are more complicated than FTL. It'd become a bit of a tradition among my electronic devices that I give them network names that are Batman-themed, but make the wallpaper Superman-themed. I was having a bit of trouble settling on a new image that I really liked for the wallpaper this time, so I ended up making one. It started with this José Luis García-López image, which I already have on a fridge magnet:


I was surprised to find that on an image search, since I kind of assumed the weird clipart rainbow was added in by whomever made the magnets. I did a little Photoshop surgery, and came up with this nice, minimalist wallpaper background--sized for a 1280x1024 screen. Feel free to use it, if you like.

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