Wednesday, November 19, 2014

Stevenson 35, Misericordia 14... BUT WAIT, There's More!

 
As I expected, Stevenson handled Misericordia last Saturday to finish 7-3 and in fourth place in the Middle Atlantic Conference -- not bad at all for a program in its fourth season of existence.  The Mustangs, however, got an unexpected bonus when they were invited to play in something called the ECAC Southeast Bowl.  The game will be this Saturday at Stevenson against Bethany (WV).  It's not exactly the Division III playoffs, but, hey, who's complaining?  Especially when Nicky and I, as season-ticket holders, are getting free admission to the game?

Happily, the weather on Saturday promises to be warmer than the arctic conditions we've endured the past few days.  We're still going to, as Nicky likes to put it, "dress in layers" for the occasion.

Monday, November 17, 2014

Comics Review: MY LITTLE PONY: FRIENDS FOREVER #11 (IDW Publishing, November 2014)

FRIENDS FOREVER gets back on the beam with issue #11, doing what I always hope that this title will do... namely, use a limited cast of MLP characters to allow for a focus on certain aspects of a character that have never been examined, or perhaps even clearly defined, before.  The task is trickier here than it might appear at first glance, certainly more so than when Katie Cook and Andy Price cast the hitherto characterization-challenged Princess Cadance and Prince Shining Armor as refugees from a John Hughes movieSpitfire, the Captain of the Wonderbolts and thus something of an "aspirational peer" for the gung-ho Rainbow Dash, has a problem opposite to that of the Princess and her hubby; she has literally gotten a different characterization every time she has appeared on the show, and most of those did not exactly put her in the best of lights.  Somehow, writer Ted Anderson manages to cut through the muck and give us a new take on the character that feels believable and does not entirely abandon what has gone before.  It helps that Rainbow Dash, whose various foibles have been the subject of televised dissection more than once, gets one of her best "supportive adult" moments in any medium here.

** SPOILERS **

Think I'm kidding re: Spitfire?  Glad-hoofing celebrity and partygoer ("The Best Night Ever"), bumbling co-conspirator in a surprisingly incompetent group of supposedly heroic pegasi ("Sonic Rainboom" and "Secret of My Excess"), bland sideline-watching executive ("Hurricane Fluttershy"), hardass drill instructor ("Wonderbolts Academy"), conniving bitch and colleague-betrayer ("Rainbow Falls")... Baskin-Robbins would be hard put to top the variety in that list.  My hopes here were that Anderson would (1) not add to the damage caused by the character derailment in "Rainbow Falls," (2) bring Spitfire back to something resembling the "authority figure" setting of "Wonderbolts Academy," where I think she works the best, and (3) give her some relatable foibles without making her an overt figure of fun.  All three missions accomplished!

Spitfire invites Dash to be an instructor at a "Junior Flyers Summer Camp" because... she simply isn't good at dealing with kids (beg pardon, fillies and foals).  It seems that she doesn't know how to temper down her "mean" behavior as a Wonderbolt D.I. (I'd call it "demanding" rather than outright "mean," but potato, potahto...) and thus lets the littl'uns walk all over her.  Dash suggests being "tougher" with the kids, but Spitfire promptly overdoes it, treating them just like adult recruits.  Spitfire, however, does have a legitimate, inherent ability to motivate others -- though, as we are told in a flashback, it took a while for her to assert herself when she was a new recruit -- and Dash cunningly gives Spitfire a chance to literally show the little(r) ponies how it's done by whipping up a tornado for the Wonderbolt Captain to disperse before their eyes.  (The meteorological danger is perhaps a bit extreme for the purpose, but, then again, this is Rainbow Dash we're talking about.)  The "practical lessons" finally take, and Dash reminds Spitfire that the latter can always get better at working with kids by herself, yet still ask for a helping hoof when needed.

The plot is handled spot-on perfect.  We get a look at what makes Spitfire the entire character, as opposed to Spitfire the icon/buffoon/meanie/bitch, tick.  Anyone who has ever had to wield authority that they have earned, as opposed to authority that they have been awarded, will be able to both understand Spitfire's pride in her capabilities and recognize that any leader must be willing to keep learning, just as Spitfire does here.  And all credit to Dash for being so understanding, thoughtful, and (what else?) friendly while playing a lower-key role than the "cheekily bombastic" one at which she normally excels.

The plot is strong enough by itself, but the artwork, by a newcomer named Jay P. Fosgitt (henceforth to be referred to "Fearless" for blog-obvious reasons), is really something special.  It is at utter variance with any visual depictions of the MLP:FIM characters that we have been given in any of IDW's MLP titles, or on the TV show, for that matter: cartoonier, sweeter, softer-edged.  I would even go so far as to call it "POGO-esque," but that may be setting the bar just a tad high, and, in any event, Fosgitt uses more exaggerated facial expressions and poses than Walt Kelly ever did.  Having seen a preview page or two, I wasn't sure how this style was going to wear in a book-length tale, but it didn't take long for Fosgitt to win me over.  It helped that the story, with its mix of slapstick, reminiscence, and sentiment, seemed to be complemented quite well by Fosgitt's approach.  I don't think that the somewhat stiffer "official" visual versions of the characters would have carried the plot off with such panache.

You can get an idea of the amount of "cartoonification" involved here by looking at the cover at the top of this blog entry and comparing it to the Fosgitt cover.  I hope we see more of Fosgitt in the future; I would be particularly intrigued to see how he would handle a more "action/adventure"-oriented story.

This title continues to mix gems with relative clinkers.  Perhaps I should do some research and try to come up with a numerically-based reason for the inconsistency... you know, like the thing about "original Star Trek movies" only being good if they're even-numbered.

Book Review: THE RETURN OF GEORGE WASHINGTON by Edward J. Larson (William Morrow/Harper-Collins, 2014)

"What?" the reader may ask upon reading the title of Pulitzer Prize-winning historian Edward Larson's new book.  "How could George Washington have returned from anything?"  A good question, indeed... because, as Larson makes clear in this study of Washington's life and public works from the end of the Revolutionary War until he became America's first President under the new Constitution, Washington never truly stepped off the stage or shucked the role of America's "indispensable man," even after he shockingly resigned his commission and retired to Mount Vernon for what he hoped would be a pleasant retirement as a gentleman farmer and land speculator.  Indeed, his influence wound up being a -- Larson would no doubt say "the" -- deciding factor in persuading citizens to accept the paper version of an unprecedented form of popular government.  The belief that Washington would inevitably be the first President and could be trusted to set a good precedent for conduct in office was, of course, widespread, but Larson also reveals just how "hands-on" Washington was in aiding and abetting the Federalist cause "behind the scenes" during the ratification process

The tribulations of the newly independent United States (plural emphasized) under the Articles of Confederation, like the fabled Corleones, kept pulling Washington back into public life even as he insisted that he was "out" for good.  A trip to his western landholdings convinced him that only a strong central government could preserve property rights, protect settlers, and encourage commerce in the back country.  (Washington's hope for a Potomac River canal never really materialized, but he certainly was on the right towpath.)  Interstate squabbles, the inability of Congress to convince states to monetarily support what central authority there was, "hyperdemocratic" and faction-riven state institutions such as the unicameral legislature of Pennsylvania, and, above all, the insurrection in Massachusetts that became known as Shays' Rebellion convinced Washington, and many other "like-minded" nationalists, that a proposed convention to "reform" the Articles of Confederation needed to literally start the process over from scratch, creating a governmental framework for a nation, as opposed to "the several states."

Always expressing his reluctance to be dragged into the world of politics, Washington nonetheless played a critical role as President of the Constitutional Convention, albeit one that hardly ever intersected with the actual debates taking place on the floor.  While both large- and small-state advocates got some of what they wanted in the final document, the sheer weight of Washington's presence -- and the delegates' inherent, and justified, trust in him to do the right thing by the country -- guaranteed that the primary influence would be nationalist/Federalist.  Indeed, Washington appears to have assumed something of a protective role towards the Constitution, believing it to be the only alternative to chaos, and he took a dimmer and dimmer view of the "Antifederalists" as the ratification debates proceeded.  Never to the point of literally trying to ram the Constitution down its opponents' throats, however; Washington realized that "Antifeds" had to have their say, that they would have to be part of the new nation, and that the debates should be conducted with what he called "moderation, candor & fairness."

I am an immense admirer of Washington and greatly appreciated this discussion of a (relatively) lightly examined period in the great man's life.  Larson's portrait of the general/statesman depicts a man with strong opinions, forcefully expressed, but whose modesty, character, and ethical sense kept him firmly grounded at all times, as he displayed conduct that all too few "revolutionary heroes" have imitated in the centuries since.

Wednesday, November 12, 2014

Book Review: THE COMPLETE DICK TRACY, Volume 17: 1956-57 by Chester Gould (IDW Publishing/Library of American Comics, 2014)... plus RIP Jay Maeder

** SPOILERS **

This latest TRACY collection begins by wrapping up the "Joe Period and Flattop Jr." continuity.  The denouement features one of Gould's most (literally) haunting sequence of images, as the ghost/spirit of a murder victim of Flattop Jr.'s literally attaches itself to his neck and won't let go until he himself is gunned down.  By the time Flattop meets his demise, he is white-haired and completely barmy.  The fact that he is a teenager makes the images particularly compelling.  Joe Period doesn't fare much better, getting arrested by Tracy and crew after scoring his first (and, since he's thereby doomed to the electric chair, only) notch on the old gun-butt.  In another highly effective and eerily mounted series of strips, Joe's grieving mother comes to see him in prison, laments her inability to be a good and responsible parent for her boy... and promptly commits suicide by running out into city traffic.  Gould applies a final twist of the knife when he refuses to let us see Joe's on-panel reaction to the shocking news; all we get is a panel of a guard coming to tell the "juvie" prisoner that something has happened.

The Joe Period/Flattop Jr. tale was the latest one in time order to be reprinted by Harvey Comics' old DICK TRACY COMICS MONTHLY.  From here on in, easily accessible pre-IDW reprints of TRACY continuities will be conspicuous by their absence.  Not quite "uncharted waters," but close enough to smell the salt air.

The year 1957, the very crux of the 50s, was once described as "the year it seemed that everyone graduated from high school -- or at least wished they had."  As for Gould, well, he had certainly had better years.  The Kitten Sisters, a trio of close-cropped, acrobatic, "butch" burglars who take a giant step up on the ladder of crime when they commit a revenge murder, are fairly interesting as characters, but they are almost captured too easily: these are the types of arrogant villains that I would have expected to have gone down in "a blaze of gory."  There's actually more bloodshed in the next continuity, which is supposed to serve as comedy relief, or at least I heard some rumor to that effect.  B.O. Plenty's father Morin Plenty (it only seems as if old B.O. has had as many relatives as Snoopy) spends many weeks of panels touting his amazing new invention, a screw-on shoe heel, only to vow bloody revenge after a pair of would-be swindlers cause the death of his barefooted, teenaged hillbilly wife Blossom.  In his Introduction, Max Allan Collins calls this Gould's worst comedy continuity ever.  I can't bring myself to go that far.  OK, it's far from a laugh riot, but Morin is an engaging, genial sort, with an energy that belies his advanced age, and it's genuinely touching to see him break down after Blossom is killed.  Some of Gould's comedy bits from the 30s -- the ones with half-witted wannabe rube detectives and stereotypical black servants -- were far more annoying than this.  The whole affair comes to a classic DICK TRACY conclusion, with the requisite high body count.  Thankfully, despite his vow of revenge, Morin wasn't involved in any of the carnage.

Atypically, the volume closes on the end of a continuity, the tale of the unfortunate Crystal family and the "mad" mother Elsa.  Child abuse, fire, flood, drug pushing, and a gruesome form of murder all compete for attention in this story.

Several "this could only have happened in the 50s" moments are scattered about.  Tracy and his partner Sam Catchem get crew cuts, and Tracy gets involved in a young men's organization that wants to combat the JD plague by having its members "dress like men," as opposed to outfitting themselves in leather jackets and skintight jeans.  Collins sniffs at the idea, joking that he "must have missed" the day when that was discussed in school.  But now that we have college students routinely coming to class wearing baggy pants and pajama bottoms... who's to say that Gould wasn't onto something?

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This volume is dedicated to NEW YORK DAILY NEWS columnist Jay Maeder, who died in July of cancer.  If any of you are wondering about the origins of my interest in DICK TRACY, you have a combination of Maeder and the first (sort of) incarnation of Gladstone Comics to blame.  Back in the early Summer of 1990, as stores filled up with chatchkas of all sorts touting the Disney-Touchstone Dick Tracy movie and various local TV stations unwittingly set themselves up for various ethnic protests by planning a rerelease UPA's old Dick Tracy Show, Maeder published a paperback biography of the jut-jawed flatfoot.  As fate would have it, Gladstone, trying to keep its hand in the comics game after Disney had stepped in and given the Disney comics license to its own comics subsidiary, had recently started publishing a DICK TRACY reprint title.  Wanting to continue my support of Gladstone, I bought the reprint comics, liked them, saw the Maeder book in a local library, bought it, and thoroughly enjoyed Maeder's virtually year-by-year examination of the progress of Gould's strip.  Having read all of the IDW volumes, I now know that Maeder simplified some things and got some other things wrong, but it was his enthusiasm for the strip and its milieu that grabbed me.  I've maintained that level of interest ever since. 

Some years after writing the TRACY bio, Maeder took over the writing chores on the near-moribund LITTLE ORPHAN ANNIE strip and boldly "reimagined" it for the 21st century -- changing Annie's dress and appearance, giving her a female adventuress for a companion, etc.  That didn't prevent ANNIE from ultimately being "orphaned" for good and all, but it was Maeder's devotion to the idea of the classic newspaper adventure strip that should, and hopefully will, be remembered.  Thanks, Mr. Maeder, for fighting the good fight.

Tuesday, November 11, 2014

Widener 35, Stevenson 23 (11/1); Stevenson 33, Wilkes 14 (11/8)

It certainly appears that we're looking at a final regular-season record of 7-3 for the Stevenson oblong-ballers.  After missing a couple of chances at Widener and losing by 12 -- the best performance they've ever had against the nationally ranked Pride, I should hasten to add -- SU broke open a sludgy contest that was 3-0 at halftime and went on to clinch their first winning season with a victory over Wilkes on a cold November afternoon at Owings Mills.




The Mustangs' last game is on the road but against a team they should be able to beat.  24 seniors, a number of whom were there when the program started, were honored after the Wilkes game. 

Basketball season starts this weekend and I'll be providing periodic updates on the men's and women's progress.  Also, a shout-out goes to the SU women's soccer and volleyball teams, both of which qualified for their NCAA Division III Tournaments last week.

Friday, November 7, 2014

Comics Review: MY LITTLE PONY: FRIENDS FOREVER #10 (IDW Publishing, October 2014)

One of the more... ah... contentiously received episodes of My Little Pony: Friendship is Magic to date was season two's "Putting Your Hoof Down."  The ep introduced a funny and promising new character in the form of the minotaur Iron Will, a bombastic "motivational expert" who frequently speaks in the "third equine" as he uses rhymed mantras to teach crowds of put-upon Equestrian ponies (who knew there were so many of them?) how to be more assertive.  The decidedly nonassertive Fluttershy, who's recently been taken advantage of by numerous unpleasantly rude/bitchy/conniving denizens of Ponyville -- who, quite frankly, just seem to have been created for the specific purpose of metaphorically screwing her -- goes to one of Will's meetings and takes the lessons to heart.  Or, should I say, to spleen... because she abruptly pivots and becomes a bigger asshole than ANY of the folks who'd been giving her the stick.  This spasm of ugliness culminates in Fluttershy, as Youtube reviewer Mr. Enter described it, "attacking Pinkie Pie and Rarity's reasons for living."  Going after the ponies who had earlier given her such a hard time evidently never entered Fluttershy's mind.  No, it's much more satisfying to ream out one's closest friends.  See why a lot of fans may have had a problem with this?



Through some strange alchemy of personal discovery and forced plot contrivance, Fluttershy ultimately figures out how to stand up for herself without being a jerk. She uses this magical newfound knowledge to flummox Iron Will when he comes to demand payment for his services and 'Shy invokes his "you pay nothing if you're not satisfied" clause.  The ep ends about as well as it could have, given its extremely contrived nature.  Evidently, though, someone out there wasn't convinced that any future teamup of Fluttershy and Will would have to be handled v-e-r-y carefully in order to avoid the obvious mistakes of the first encounter.  That someone was Christina Rice, the writer of MLP:FF #10, who blithely ignored the "storm of troubles" that dogged "Hoof Down" and launched yet another frail craft into the teeth of the maelstrom.  The results are not pretty, in more ways than one.

** SPOILERS **

OK, try this one on for size: Iron Will returns to Ponyville and asks Fluttershy to help him with his family troubles.  Specifically, Will needs to find "his inner pony" in order to reconnect with his "Mizzuz" and stop being so aggressive around the labyrinthMy jaw literally dropped at this notion.  All Will knew about Fluttershy when he left Ponyville was that she had been timid and had applied his "assertiveness training" in a somewhat different manner than he had become accustomed to.  Where in Equestria did he get the idea that 'Shy (1) was some sort of personal counselor and (2) would even be willing to take on his case after the events of "Hoof Down," which culminated with Fluttershy basically blowing him off?  Say it with me, kids: "I'm going to have this thing happen, because I WANT this thing to happen!"  The fact that Fluttershy is good-hearted enough to ignore her friends' warnings and accept the challenge doesn't make up for the essential falseness at the heart of the plot.

We subsequently see 'Shy escorting Will all around Ponyville, encouraging him to perform various tasks that are apparently meant to get him to connect with his "softer side."  These include caring for animals, selling treats at Sugar Cube Corner, bucking apples, and going to the spa.  Somehow, I fail to see the point of this.  Fluttershy should be teaching Will to control and channel his assertiveness, not to polish up his domestic skills.  Oh, right, that "teaching moment" does actually take place... once the domestic misadventures have provided eight pages of what is, for all intents and purposes, filler.  We then get four more pages of comparative dross as Will demonstrates his newfound sense of calmness and respect to the entire "Mane 6" -- his cooking skills, as well, but that field test doesn't go nearly so well -- and 'Shy's friends marvel over her ability to win over "crackpots" with nothing more than kindness and patience.  Which wasn't doing Fluttershy much good at the beginning of "Hoof Down," of course, but that was an entirely different plot contrivance.

I think that what we see here is the danger of using the FRIENDS FOREVER title to amplify relationships that have already been established by the TV series.  Unlike, say, relationships between members of the "Mane 6" themselves, which have much more flexibility built in, Fluttershy and Iron Will originally interacted in a very specific, and atypical, manner.  The very fact that the premise was so lame indicates that the whole idea of reuniting them was probably misguided from the off.  Only a completely different scenario, one that had as little to do with "Hoof Down" as possible, might possibly have justified the return engagement.  

Having Will tangle with one of the other members of the "Mane 6" would probably have produced better results.  Since half of Fluttershy's friends didn't even appear in "Hoof Down" -- and, given that the ep implied that a repentant Fluttershy spent a good, long time in some sort of isolated self-exile, that should be filed in the "Huh?" folder as well -- and all that they actually know about him came from hearsay, it doesn't quite make sense that they all have the same, exact negative reaction to him when he reappears on the scene here.  The excitable Rainbow Dash, for example, might have physically attacked Will for giving Dash's old flight-school pal Fluttershy such a "hard time."  That disagreement would have taken some time to settle, for sure.  By contrast, Twilight Sparkle, thinking of her responsibilities as a Princess of Friendship, might have taken after Will for disturbing the peace of Equestria by implicitly encouraging newly "assertive" ponies to bully one another.  Whichever possible direction strikes your fancy, you've got to admit that any of them would probably have had more satisfying results than 'Shy's turning of Iron Will into some sort of Equestrian "Mr. Mom."

While Rice's plot annoyed me, Agnes Garbowska's artwork made me cringe.  Not because it was particularly poor -- it was pretty much the same slightly clunky, head-shot-heavy, picture-booky art that she's employed from the beginning of her work on the MLP line -- but because she copied panels.  Several times, in fact.  Oh, she slightly changed one or two characters' facial expressions from panel to panel to mask the fact, or she used a different character in the foreground, but, good gravy, does the copying seem blatant.  Perhaps she'd fallen behind with other jobs, or some other emergency came up, and she had to resort to desperate measures to get the work in on time.  But the cheese-paring looks particularly bad when compared with the artwork we've been getting from other sources in these books.  I will say that the opening panel, in which she depicts the Friendship Castle that debuted in "Twilight's Kingdom", looks quite nice.  Since the place is designed as if it belongs in a picture book, it's no surprise that Garbowska was able to render it well.