The Flash: Doing Super Heroics Right on TV

 

Full Disclosure: The Flash is my second favorite super-hero (Superman being my favorite) as well as the one that got me into reading comics. Way back in 1990, I was in love with the John Wesley Shipp Flash television show. During its run, I found a copy of Flash #50 on news stand of my local general store.

As you can see, that is quite the cover. Inside, I was not only introduced to the wonderful world of comic books (sure, I had read a few here and there, but I was a scie-fi, fantasy and gaming geek, dammit, not one of those comic book nerds) but given my first lesson in the rules of adaptation: that is, nothing is sacred. On television, the Flash was Barry Allen; in the comic, the Flash was Wally West. There was a relationship between the two, something familial, even fatherly, but I could not parse it from the limited information provided. Some support characters were the same, or at least had the same names, and the TV Barry had some things in common with the comic book Wally (needing lots of food for energy, for example) but it would be months before I figured out which were chickens and which were eggs. In the end, though, none of those details mattered: a comic book reading, super-hero loving geek was born! It was as if I looked at my D&D books and fantasy novels and thought, “Nope, not enough, there is still a chance I might accidentally get laid.”

 

Flash forward (I am SO sorry) 25 years and The Flash is once again on television and is once again fueling my comic book super-hero nerdity. I never stopped reading comics and I have maintained a pull list at the same awesome Cave Comics for well over a decade now. That said, for the last few years I have been estranged from the majority of super hero comics, including my beloved Superman and Flash (among many, many others). Long story short: the Event Treadmill that consumed DC Comics for years starting with Identity Crisis, moving through Final Crisis and finally rebooting the Dc multiverse entirely with Flashpoint wore me out. I just wanted good stories starring the heroes I loved, not universe shaking event and universe shaking event. After all those, I dropped DC Comics entirely, never moving on to the New 52. Marvel, which I had read only intermittently anyway, was in the throws of its own Event Treadmill, from Civil War to the Secret Invasion and beyond, so I decided to take a year hiatus from both companies. When I did return, I followed creators instead of companies, picking up Mark Waid‘s Daredevil and Indestructible Hulk as they debuted with new Marvel Now #1 issues, as well as the return of the amazing Astro City by Kurt Busiek.

 

But I am nothing if not a fickle nerd and first my pull box and then my “to-read” shelf started to fill up with unread comics. It is something of a pattern with me. I will cycle between geek preferences, from video games to table-top games to comics to prose sci-fi and fantasy and back again. This time, though, my time away from comics was longer than it had been for any number of these “cycles.” Judging by the number of Astro City books on my shlef, unread, it had been at least a year since I had read any of the books I bought (and probably longer if the number of Waid’s Daredevil issues were any indication). That is a long time and a lot of comics.

 

In the last two weeks I have cleared out my to-read shelf and even started looking for new and interesting super-hero titles to start following. Why? The title of this post may be a hint: The Flash on the CW.

 

The Flash is not the first comic book super hero TV show to recently attract first my attention and then my slavish dedication. I am a fan of the Marvel Cinematic Universe, as it is called, and therefore started watching Agents of SHIELD with great expectations when it premiered last fall. Also last year  I started watching Arrow, which I had avoided in its first season because it was a CW show (I watched Smallville for 6 seasons before the pretty people soap opera was too much to bear). I started watching Arrow exactly because it promised to introduce Barry Allen early in its second season, so I figured I could give it a few episodes just to see. Very soon, I was hooked, in no small part due to the depiction of Slade Wilson, aka Deathstroke the Terminator. Rarely has a comic book adaptation nailed a character so perfectly. Also, I just liked Arrow. It was the best Batman show we could hope for. (Come on, the main villain organization is Ra’s al Ghul‘s League of Assassins and it is about a revenge driven billionaire with mommy and daddy issues.)

 

All that said, neither SHIELD nor Arrow, or even The Walking Dead, reinvigorated that comics love. The back issues continued to pile up. (I did, however, seek out Walt Simonson’s Thor run after seeing Thor: The Dark World. Weird, that.) No, it was not until Flash premiered a few weeks ago that I got the super-hero big again and started burning through my unread comics, but also firing up my Marvel Unlimited subscription, which had sat largely unused for the better part of a year, to dabble in various series. (As an aside, if DC Comics would create a similar service, I would be an instant lifetime subscriber. There are so many great DC Comics not collected in trades from the 70s, 80s and 90s that it would take a lifetime to read through them all.) The strength of the show is its unabashed love of the genre. Where Arrow tries to bring super heroics down to the ground and revels in its gritty (dare I say, “Batman-esque?”) tone, The Flash on the CW is openly and proudly a comic book super hero television show, bright red costumes and villains with goofy code names included. But it is not a joke or a parody or even particularly self referential. It knows what it is, knows that its audience appreciates what it is, and treats both with both a wink and respect. By contrast, the other new DC comics inspired show, Gotham, is confused in its tone, part noirish Nolan-Batman and part weirdo Burton-Batman. (I love Gotham, too, but despite its tone, not because of it.) None of which would matter if star Grant Gustin did not infuse his Barry Allen with such charm and depth.

 

If you have not given The Flash a try and you love super hero comics and television, I implore you to do so. It really is a great achievement in the genre and for me at least, the shot in the arm an old comics fan needed to remember how grerat comics can be when they are about great characters in great stories, not just big events.

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Wicked Wednesday: Monster Manual Impressions

It has been a couple weeks since I finally got my hands on the Dungeons and Dragons 5th Edition Monster Manual. While I am not going to do a full review, I do have some thoughts on the book as I prepare my convention hexcrawl The Valley of the Tombs for the Carnage Convention in Killington, VT next month.

 

First and foremost, the book is beautiful. The art is top notch (although there are a few re-used pieces, which is not necessarily bad but was unexpected) with a vibe that, like the PLayer’s Handbook, evokes AD&D 2nd Edition more than it does 3.5 or 4th Edition D&D. Just look at this Dragon Turtle illustration:

That’s not to say there aren’t more modern styles of images, such as this ghoul:

 

but the vast majority of monsters fit the high fantasy novel cover vibe of 2nd Edition rather than the video game concept art (and I absolutely DO NOT mean that in a negative way) of 3.5 and 4th Edition. As a lover of 2nd Edition, this pleases me. There is enough variety, I think, to keep everyone happy, though individual illustrations may or may not please. For example, I pretty much hate the Kraken:

It is ugly and doesn’t look a thing like a Colossal Squid of Doom.

 

One thing I found problematic with the 5E MM, especially as I worked to populate the above mentioned Valley of Tombs, was the poor indexing of the monsters. There is no list of monsters by terrain type — or even type in general. Nor is there a list of monsters by Challenge Rating, though a PDF is available on the Wizards of the Coast Web Site. Above all else, a game manual, particularly a Monster Manual, is a tool and it should, in my opinion, be designed for maximum utility both in play and during preparation.

 

On the subject of utility, I really like the statistic (stat) block layout for the 5E MM. It is clean and easy to read with minimum need for reference to other books outside of spell or spell-like ability descriptions (which is a fault, but a minor one). Even high level, highly dangerous monsters are described in relatively simple stat blocks, as evidenced by the Tarrasque:

Compare that to the Pathfinder RPG Tarrasque and you can see what I mean (note the list of Feats you have to look up in addition to all the basic monster stats).

 

The addition of an animal/beast and an NPC appendix are also great, except that it is difficult to find what you are looking for sometimes based on the alphabetizing choices made (ex: all the giant versions of regular animals are listed under “giant x” rather than “x, giant”).

 

One place where the 5E MM pales in comparison to the AD&D 2E version is the lore, or “fluff” that it presented. Lore is certainly presented, and some of it is good, but it does not evoke the complex quality of the old 2E flavor text. I understand that books are different now. If nothing else, layout is different and far fewer words fit on a page. The 2E MM was crammed full of text under a very brief stat block and a small illustration, while the 5E MM uses larger fonts and bigger spacing and much far bigger illustrations. Therefore, in order to fit as many monsters as possible in the book, the text sometimes suffers. That said, so far I have not run across any flavor text I feel is objectively poorly written, though I do find some changes in the lore to be circumspect (Merrow are now demons, rather than aquatic ogres?).

 

Overall, I like the book very much and it invigorates my enthusiasm for 5E. I am especially excited to be running 5, 4 hour session of 5E at Carnage. If you are in VT between November 7 and 9th, be sure to come and check it out!

 

AFTERWORD: I wanted to apologize to me reader (that’s a joke, son) for the sparse updates. Between taking engineering courses, fall baseball for my son and a little bit of writer’s block/insecurity, I have not been great about updating. I’ll make an effort to do better. Thanks for reading!

Wicked Wednesday: Real World Evil

My original plan, with it being October 1st (the unofficial start of Halloween season) was to produce a Wicked Wednesday based on the imagined evils of the season: ghosts, goblins, witches and the like. However, today a real evil reared its head and I feel the need to talk about it. There’s nothing in here for your D&D game, so I understand if you don’t bother reading this post, though I do think it will be of some value to some of you, anyway.

 

In the case you have never clicked my “About” page, I should tell you first that I live in Newtown, Connecticut and my children attended Sandy Hook elementary on December 14, 2012 when Adam Lanza attacked the school and killed 20 children and 6 educators, after murdering his mother in their home and before killing himself as the police arrived. If you are interested in greater detail about what happened that morning, please read the essay I wrote following the event. Suffice it to say, the day deeply affected our family. My children both survived, but my daughter lost many friends, eight of whom were Daisy Scouts in my wife’s troop. My wife was a first hand witness to the carnage and still deals with Post Traumatic Stress from the incident. Since that day, the Sandy Hook Elementary School has been moved to Chalk Hill School in neighboring Monroe, Connecticut. My son has since moved on the our Intermediate School but my daughter remains at Sandy Hook.

 

Today, I received a panicked phone call from my wife. She could hardly speak, barely breathe. The kids had dentist appointments this morning, and I knew she would be dropping the kids off at their respective schools afterward. (As an aside that I did not realize until this very moment, I had a dentist appointment on 12-14.) When she dropped off my daughter, there were police cars with their flashing lights on. She was assured she could leave my daughter at school, however, and did so with some trepidation. By the time she got home, the resurgent terror and helplessness of 12-14 had bubbled up in her beyond control. That’s how PTSD works. She called me in a full on panic attack, certain that she had made a terrible mistake. Excruciatingly, I talked her down and calmed her. A few minutes after I got off the phone, she called back, her panic returned. The school had sent out an alert: there was a threat and our daughter, who had only a little while before been safe with my wife, was at the school. My wife was both terrified and guilt stricken.

 

It was not long before we received emails and phone messages assuring us of the safety of our child. They had been evacuated. There would be an early dismissal. The threat was of minimal or no credibility. All of that was good news, but of no consequence to already traumatized parent who, like my wife and I, had stood in a parking lot on a cold winter day, holding one another against the horror that our children would not come out of that school alive. And that is where the evil comes in.

 

It is impossible to argue that someone calling in a bomb threat is as evil and monstrous as one who kills innocents. That said, the desire to inflict massive psychic trauma upon innocent people is indeed a mark of an evil and monstrous mind. Someone, somewhere (and we don’t know who yet, and perhaps never will) chose to create panic and terror among traumatized children, educators and parents today. Why? To what end? Entertainment? Revenge against some imagined slight? Perhaps it was a Sandy Hook Hoaxer or a 2nd Amendment Extremist who wanted to harm those who were seen as enemies to their world view. No matter that motivation or the identity of the individual responsible, one simple truth can be ascertained: that individual is evil, in the way the real people can be evil to one another every day.

 

If you have kids, hug them. If you don’t, do something nice for a child you do know. Maybe give a little to a PTSD charity or an organization dedicated toward understanding the roots of violence. In any case, do something to make the world a better place.

 

Oh, and if you are the person called in the threat to Sandy Hook today, go fuck yourself.