Tuesday, 9 October 2018

Out of the Pan and into the Pit (Part 2)

Still not the collection cover.

I'm back with more horror for you today! After last week's trio of stories, it was pretty clear Mr. Paget would really have to outdo himself here to keep up with the craziness. But these stories are not as insane as those were, though a few have some issues of their own. Let us continue the spooky fun with my ongoing look at The 27th Pan Book of Horror Stories. It promises to be an interesting ride.

First let's look at Spiders by Buzz Dixon. This one centers on an unattractive lower middle class man named Marvin who has a phobia of spiders. The plot has Marvin seeing spiders, calling an exterminator, dealing with his woman, and then dealing with more spiders. I'm simplifying it a good deal, but its a pretty typical monster tale, and not too badly done. There is some decent creature craziness here. But the bigger problem is how nasty it is.

In around the 1970s, horror began to change from being about fear of the uncertainty and sin to being about how normality is just as bad as the unknown. Every character in this story is a dirtbag. Every single one. You don't feel anything when bad happens to them because they're such bad people, and when the ending comes you simply shrug and turn to the next story. This obsession with staining normality with "Realism" and making the people just as bad as the monsters is what killed horror in the mainstream to where all that is left are these sorts of stories.

Horror is supposed to be about dread and terror, and the hope of escape to something better. Even Lovecraft didn't have to rely on normal people being terrible to get his point across, and they still held the hope that maybe they could get away from the terror. A fundamental rule of the universe is broken and the protagonist has to get it back in order. Whether they succeed or not is up to the author.

But if there's nothing to fight for? If there is no one to fight for? If nothing matters to begin with?

And there is the problem with modern horror.

The next story we'll look at is J. Yen's A Weird Day for Agro. A man hears a story in a pub from a guy with a nigh incomprehensible accent obscuring most of the anecdote.

I'm not a fan of frame stories. If a writer is telling me a story, I would like to get as close to the action as possible. This was my problem with Abraham Merritt's Through the Dragon Glass. He was telling a story from the point of view of a man telling a story to the main character. It pulls me too many steps away from what is going on. That said, I can deal with them.

The bigger issue is the accents. If you write that the character has a brogue to him, I can use my own imagination to understand his voice. Writing out incomprehensible words to mimic an accent is torture for the reader. Any writers out there, please take my advice. Do not write out accents unless they are a word or two every now and then. Few things will completely take readers out of a story harder than not understanding what the heck you just wrote.

All that aside, those two devices work against anything this story has, which is a horror that isn't well explained at all.

Lastly, there is Pebbledene by Alan Temperley. A convict gets released from jail and, because he has no family, gets taken to a farm to work and gets pampered by the women living there. You probably already know the ending to this without knowing the rest of the story. It's a really long piece despite having such a predictable plot and characters. Any chance the author has of using a Chekov gun to take a detour into an interesting direction is never fired for barreling to a conclusion that I'm sure readers in the '80s already saw coming.

There isn't really a point to the story except to see an ex-con have sex with random women and then get his just desserts in the end. There's nothing here.

And that's probably the most disappointing part of this batch of stories. There's nothing really to talk about because there's nothing scary or interesting here. I thought horror was supposed to frighten or shock? Well, I'm still waiting. So far, about halfway through and I've laughed far more than anything, and I don't think I'm supposed to. Hopefully the second half of the collection delivers.

In other news, StoryHack #3 is out today, and I have a story in it! My piece, Inside the Demon's Eye, is fantasy quest inspired by the likes of CL Moore. An adventurer gets dragged into the Black Lands in his hunt for a treasure, but a mysterious creature is also in pursuit of him. Can he make it out in one piece, or his destined to die like so many others have in the land under demon eye?

I had a lot of fun writing this one, so I hope you enjoy reading it. This was really new territory for me, and I would be grateful to hear your thoughts.

And that's all for today. Until next time!

Friday, 5 October 2018

Out of the Pan and into the Pit (Part 1)

No, I'm not posting the cover. Too graphic for this blog.

This Halloween season I am going to try something a little different. I will be creating a series of posts centered on one small short story collection I acquired. The book is The 27th Pan Book of Horror Stories first published in 1986.

For thirty years, from 1959 to 1989, Pan books put yearly collections of horror stories based on the best of the year. There were 30 volumes, originally edited by Herbert Van Thal before his death in 1983. Clarence Paget edited the last six volumes before the series finally ended, coinciding with the the ultimate death of short stories in the western world by '80s end.

And this was no small series. It ran stories from writers like Muriel Spark, C.S. Forester, Ray Bradbury, Lord Dunsany, and Basil Copper throughout its lengthy run. For those who recognize these names, you should know why this series interested me for this post. However, the issue is that not every writer up there was writing in the 1980s.

For those who were around in the '80s, horror was possibly at its most popular, but definitely not at its best. It was the decade of slasher movies, after all. This series, however, has a pedigree that extends further back than just that small period, which means it should be an informative read. If nothing it will prove to be a fun time capsule.

I recently found volume 27 of this series in a used book store and wanted to do something different for Halloween season. Therefore, I've decided to read and talk about each of the twelve stories here over the month. Both to compare current to older horror, and to see just where short stories were at in that period of the '80s when they were all but gone.

In this post I will focus on the first three stories.

The first piece is On the Fisherman's Path by Chris Barnham. The plot centers on the main character backpacking through Europe. People are dying in places he left behind, and he soon meets a woman also traveling alone. After a fling, he finds dead bodies and thinks the woman might have something to do with it. She then vanishes after he finds some dead bodies. The end.

Very well written, if a bit slow, with effective language. Unfortunately, it's boring and the atmosphere feels far more like a romance than horror until the very last page.

The problem I had with this story was that it reminded me of Shambleau by CL Moore stripped of all terror and romance. For those unaware, Shambleau deals with manly chad Northwest Smith rescuing an alluring woman from a bad scene and ends up oddly attracted to her as he takes her in. He is then pulled into a nightmare far beyond his senses can understand. The trip is quite evocative and horrific.

In this story, the woman is not particularly attractive and she has no dynamics to her to clash with the main character which leaves the reader wondering just what he sees in her. When people end up dying near the main character (at the very end) there still isn't any hint as to what she's doing or what her purpose is. She just ends up disappearing. We don't even see anything happening until near the end. It's just not as exciting or interesting as that earlier classic.

It might be unfair to compare the two, but they fundamentally are about the same thing, only the more recent story has modernism replacing the gothic romanticism and supernatural wonder. So you get a serial killer, a plain looking woman, wandering a typical city in a typical summer, and an ending that doesn't solve anything. I don't even think it's a bad story, but it is hard to not be disappointed after reading a masterwork like Shambleau. It's undeniably a step down.

The second work in this collection is Harry E. Turner's Ms Rita & the Professor. This is a story about a radical feminist (we're talking shooting Andy Warhol level crazy) and her professor friend who is losing parts of his body. The main character, an ethical journalist with a love of plain-looking animalistic women (his words) tries to stalk her for purely innocent reasons. At least, we are told that. The character is a bit unclear. He then learns the truth about her and the story flips on its head.

The pacing flows well, going from one scene to the next, and the build up works because of it. Like the first story the prose is strong and descriptive. But the horror just isn't very interesting. However, as satire (which I fully believe this story is) it is hilarious. I was laughing throughout the entirety of the story once the reveal happened. There is no way this would ever be printed today for the outrage it would cause from certain camps. Still, despite that, this doesn't really fit a horror collection as it is far too funny and not very horrific.

I just can't imagine reading this and not busting a gut. It's just strange that an obvious comedic piece would be put in here. It's good, it just barely fits with the genre its supposed to represent.

Also, this is the second story in this collection about a "normal" man lusting after a not very attractive woman (again, in their words) and the horror coming from them not realizing said woman is disturbed until it is too late. I'm not sure if Mr. Paget had a particular love for these sorts of stories, but to front-load an anthology with two very similar stories like this, even if one is a comedy, is bizarre. There's not much horrific here, either.

That said, they are different enough that it will make reading the rest quite the experience. Two stories in and I began to wonder just what else will be on offer. Thankfully, I was not disappointed with the next one.

For the last one I will talk about today is Medium Rare by Samantha Lee. This is only a page long, but well worth mentioning. Simple story, simple length. A communist in the Spanish Civil War gets tortured and ends up eating his son's left buttocks.

That's really the whole story. I was rolling on the floor after this one.

I'm sure it's meant to be very serious social commentary on the horrors of fascism against communists (as much sense as that makes) but the brief length and sudden reveal after the main character was revealed to be guilty of what he is accused either means the author was serious and the story completely misses the mark, or was not and this is an uproarious comedy piece. I will charitably assume the latter.

If true then I admit confusion. That then leaves two out of the first three stories as comedy pieces (in a horror anthology) each dunking on feminists and communists. For an anthology in 1980s Britain, I find that strange.

But I'm not going to complain. I'm having a good time.

And that is only the first three. There are still nine left to go which I will cover in the weeks to come. So stick with me on this. If the rest of the stories are anything like these, it should be fun.

Tuesday, 25 September 2018

Triumph of the Werewolf Warrior ~ A Review of "The Snake-Man's Bane" by Howie K. Bentley

I'm not the most well versed on the Sword & Sorcery genre, mostly for simply not having much of it available as I grew up, at least, in literary form. I was stuck with Epic Fantasy and little else, and I've never much cared for that genre. However, I have grown quite the taste for the old pulps and have quite enjoyed the appeal of tough swordsmen dealing with wily sorcerers in a world as mysterious as the threats they face especially from old comics, cartoons, and video games. It's been fun finally reading where they came from. Robert E. Howard might be the most famous writer of these stories, but there were also others of high quality. However, finding them in a purer form after the 1980s is a difficult task.

But that appears to be the case with a lot of older genres. They get co-opted or streamlined out of existence and replaced with . . . nothing, really. Those who enjoy the classics are stuck with revisiting older works, or nothing at all. There isn't any in between.

Until recently, that is. Given the recent revolution of newer writers ignoring tropes and genre conventions, and going back to the well that has been so ignored, readers are no longer at a loss as to newer works to pick up. Things have changed in a positive direction.

I was lucky enough to be given a copy of The Snake-Man's Bane by the author, Howie K. Bentley, for my honest opinion. I welcomed the chance to read more in this genre, and I wasn't disappointed. You can find it here.

This collection of six stories, mostly from various magazines and anthologies, is a simple 200 page book like the old anthologies, which helps add to the sharpness of the stories. Because Sword & Sorcery works best at shorter and more violent lengths, this was a nice touch. There are also a few surprises within its pages, but I don't want to spoil them here.

The first story is the titular title, The Snake-Man's Bane, which is also the longest piece included. A full novella about a man named Vegtam who gets himself involved with a plot involving a sorcerer and serpent men. This story is a bit too long for my liking as it takes a while for action to begin, but the writing pops and pulls you along for the ride as the plot gets weirder and more strange the longer it goes. And seeing that it starts with actual snake men, that's saying a lot. You will see battles with sorcerers and plenty of dead snake men by tale's end. Pure sword and sorcery, pure excitement.

Second is All Will be Righted on Samhain (co-written with David C. Smith) which starts with a bit of Roman history, mostly their conflicts with the Kelts, in a decently long prologue that is probably a bit different than the history you've heard of. Imagine a mad pagan world, and you'd be pretty close to it. The story starts off in present tense before thankfully ditching it in the first chapter after the background has been dispensed with. I can't say it wasn't distracting, but that is a personal taste issue. This is quite a dark fantasy tale focused on the aforementioned history between the two opposing forces, and quite a lot of sinister magic. A woman dabbles in dark forces and calls forth something rather disturbing . . . and dark. This was my least favorite story included here, due to a lot of events unfolding to where the reader already knows the forgone results, but it does end on a high note.

Following on that is The Heart of the Betrayer, a story that hooked me quite fast. In this one a warrior is betrayed by several of those he considers allies and ends up going on a quest of revenge. It is also in this story that we learn the previous stories are both related. I was unaware every work in this collection would all be linked, but that added wrinkle was nice. Otherwise this tale has a lot more action-packed than the last, with a protagonist I liked being around a bit more, and intriguing supernatural events with a vicious conclusion. It also leads into the next tale, the one story of these I have read before.

We then come to the story that was a part of Cirsova Issue #4. That might have been my least favorite issue, but it certainly was not because of this tale. . . . Where There is No Sanctuary was one of the best stories there and it fares no less worse here. The hero from the last story gets pulled into a demon-haunted tower from out of time. The ending is easily the best of any tale so far, but if you have not read it I don't want to spoil it. If you have not read issue #4, then you simply must read it here.

Thannhausefeer's Ghost is next which starts with a shipwreck. An amnesiac warrior is taken to the lord, the giant Thannhausefeer, and is forced to compete in games to survive. However, all is not as it appears. The battles get bloodier, and the stakes rise when the protagonist finally remembers just who he is and why he is there. It is not purely by chance. For a hint: the giant is definitely quite the monster. This was another great piece, with descriptive action and sinister villains. Pure sword and sorcery.

The collection concludes with Full Moon Revenant which is a bit different from the last few tales. In this one, a werewolf is running around the countryside causing chaos, and the werewolf warrior king, Argantyr, is the main suspect. He sends out a search party to find the real culprit, and things quickly go sideways. As a surprise, this might have been my favorite story here as it is ostensibly about what makes Argantyr so different from the monsters he fights, and the code he lives by in this demon-haunted world. It's not the most explosive tale in the collection, but it is thematically the most engaging. The perfect ending to this book.

All in all, this a fantastic collection of Sword and Sorcery stories, with all the blood and dismemberment you can expect to see from the genre. There is some sex, but nothing on the level from the George R.R. Martin acolytes where debauchery by the wicked is celebrated. Most of it is merely mentioned, or implied. The action and conflict is the focus. But, thankfully, these stories aren't defeatist in nihilism like many in the genre are today. The main characters act and accomplish things, even when it doesn't work out, and they usually get what they have fought for by story's end. You won't be reading pieces about nothing while the plot moves at a glacial pace. Your expectations for a satisfying tale will be more than fulfilled.

And that's probably the best compliment I can give to this book. Fantasy is about falling into different worlds from our own and going on an adventure, and that is exactly what The Snake Man's Bane promises on and delivers. I fell into this world and enjoyed my time there, smiling when the last story wrapped. If you enjoy action-packed sword and sorcery tales, the kind that has been missing for decades, then this is exactly what you've been waiting for.

Highly recommended.

Thursday, 20 September 2018

Top 10 Anime Licenses

As strange as it is to imagine, now is the best time to be an anime fan. Not only does streaming make just about anything easy to find, ancient series that have never been released overseas have finally gotten official home video transfers. Whether it's long-awaited license rescues such as Armored Trooper Votoms or Zillion (out in mere weeks!) or long time requests such as Xabungle, Galaxy Express 999: the series, or Space Runaway Ideon, 2018 has been the year of the classic.

Much of this is due to the SD Blu-Ray format which allows far more content on far fewer discs which allows cheaper production costs, but also because there is an audience for this material now that didn't really exist decades ago. This is because most anime didn't get TV broadcasts back in the day. If you wanted to get into a series you basically had to hold your nose and dive into the deep end. For longer series this meant being selective with licenses.

But now that the home video and streaming options are so plentiful now, longer series no longer have their length working against him, and the more obscure series have the best chance ever at being found.

And 2018 has shown it with the biggest concentration of classic licensed series in a long time.

But why stop there? Surely there are all kinds of series missing in action that deserve a shot for an overseas audience. Whether classics questionably skipped over back in the day, or good series that have simply fallen into obscure spots, I could list a lot of anime that deserve a new shot at life. But where to start?

So I'll construct a list of two pillars here. The first is of formerly licensed series still waiting to be picked up again, and the second are series that, for one reason or another, never had a North American release to begin with, and desperately need one. Both lists could fill the Pacific Ocean.

I should also mention, I have a list of my own most wanted anime, both licensed and not, that I have set aside to remind me when I have the spare scratch to nab them. I took some of this list from there. This means much of this is personal taste, but I'll try not to repeat myself on previous posts (this means no City Hunter. I've posted about it enough) and put out some surprises. There's plenty of good anime that deserves the spotlight.

You also won't be seeing anything recent for the simple fact that just about everything recent gets licensed. There's really no point listing them. This list will be spanning decades earlier instead.

10. Monster

Not a surprise that it's here, I know. For one, this is one of my favorite manga series that has enjoyed tremendous success. And for good reason: it's fantastic. It even had a recent Perfect Edition re-release of the manga. However, Viz licensed the anime, gave it a great dub, aired it on television, botched the home release (13 episode releases for a series over 70 episodes? Dumb move), and let in fall into obscurity for years afterwards. Monster deserved way better than it got.

Short of someone like Discotek license rescuing this and giving it the full SD on Blu-Ray approach for more content on fewer discs, Monster's long length means it probably won't get picked up anytime soon. But it should be. This series is a masterful cat and mouse good vs evil tale that is rarely matched. It also helps that this remains Naoki Urasawa's lone seinen work to ever be adapted to anime. For some reason.

Short of illegal mean, there is no way to watch this great series legally. And that is a shame.

9. Armored Police Metal Jack

This series is so obscure it isn't even illegally subbed. Being that it is a Sunrise period from their pre-2004 Golden Age, that is quite impressive. I couldn't tell you why this series is listed here except that it's the definition of popcorn entertainment. Essentially a cyberpunk superhero show, it is typical of pre-2004 Sunrise in that it is exciting, dynamically directed, and well worth your time seeking out.

Three men are nearly killed defending a boy from a terrorist attack and are brought into a special project in order to save their lives. They become special agents in the fight on crime and a sinister plot unfolds that goes into some weird places.

I'm a bit puzzled this wasn't licensed back in the day. This would have aired just fine right after Ronin Warriors (another show that should be license rescued, but I digress on that one) on Toonami. Being that this is still hard to find even via unsavory means, it is a good candidate for licensing. I do hope to see it brought over one day in the near future.

8. El Hazard: The Magnificent World

One of the most influential anime, and one of the originators of Isekai explosion in popularity, it is hard to believe this isn't currently licensed and hasn't been in a dog's age. It can't be an issue with the studio. The TV series remake is both licensed and available for legal streaming, but the original superior OVA is still in licensing limbo. It might have something to do with the original licensors for both being different, but that is still hard to swallow. It is absurd that no one has rescued it yet.

Four people from our world are thrown into a distant fantasy land where a war is brewing, and they become involved. Based on the premise you might think this just a typical Isekai series, but El Hazard offers a bit more than that, and at 7 episodes its brief length makes for tight watching. This is one that is ripped off a lot more than its influence is ever cited.

I'm not sure what odious licensing games allowed the TV series to be picked up, but not the original, but that has to change. El Hazard deserves rescuing.

7. The King of Braves: GaoGaiGar

I'm puzzled that I even have to write an entry for this series. GaoGaiGar is one of the last pure super robot series, and one of the last done in traditional cell animation, at the tail end of the 90s near the end of anime's golden age. It's a very important series, and very well loved. With that pedigree you'd figure it would be easily available to find. And yet it has not been picked up for release since its original license over a decade ago during the dark days of licensing.

Explaining GaoGaiGar would take more space than I've afforded here, so I'll be brief. The series essentially is a super robot show blown up to eleven, long before Gurren Lagann was a twinkle in Gainax's eye. The action is intense and gigantic and characters contribute to a large cast that all influence the story in important ways. It represents everything people like about super robot shows in one package. In many ways it is the ultimate mecha series.

But as of right now it floats in limbo. At least it doesn't have Aniplex chaining it to absurd prices like Gurren Lagann which is locked out of affordability due to it. Still, it should be licensed again. And maybe with the recent wave of old licenses it will finally get the shot to succeed overseas it always deserved.

6. Daitarn 3

Yoshiyuki Tomino is one of the most respected directors in anime, even beyond his Gundam franchise. Despite that, his track record of licensed series isn't the best. You see, Gundam doesn't have much in the way of licensing issues these days, and several of his non-Gundam series have been seeing release (Xabungle, Aura Battler Dunbine, and Space Runaway Ideon) but his pre-Gundam works have been widely ignored. While Brave Raideen and Zambot 3 are both important in their own ways, and probably more than this one, I would like to see Daitarn 3 get the respect it deserves out of obscurity.

This is actually Tomino's most classically pulp series. It's also his most straightforward. A super-spy super robot mecha series with fast paced action and with zippy pacing, it's also one of his easiest to get into. Of course, it's still Tomino, so you can expect certain . . . things to happen at certain points, but that isn't necessarily a problem. It just means it keeps you on your toes.

Hopefully now that more of his more known work has been released overseas, this older overlooked title can finally get the time in the sun it deserves. With series like the original Mazinger Z getting released, it sure has a great shot.

5. Fang of the Sun Dougram

Next to Tomino, Sunrise had another director of mecha series during the '80s, and in many ways he is more up my alley than Tomino is. Ryosuke Takahashi is that man. He tended to have more adventure style series, where the plot is focused on a point A to B storyline and the obstacles that get in the way of the protagonists. The most popular of these series is Armored Trooper Votoms, one of the best mecha series ever made. However, his first series, Dougram, was quite a powerhouse itself lasting 75 episodes and becoming a phenomenon in Japan.

Dougram is about guerrilla fighters taking on a corrupt governor that declares himself dictator. This series details the conflict between the two sides above as the skirmish heats up and explodes. If you know Takahashi then you can expect a lot of overwhelming darkness before the light cracks through in unexpected places. He also has a bizarre sense of humor that manages to never break canon of the serious moments. Nonetheless, his themes are universally positive despite what you might think about mecha from that era.

This has never been licensed, and, unfortunately, I find it is the least likely Takahashi series to be licensed since it is the longest. But that doesn't mean it should be passed over. Mecha series today could stand to learn a lot from Dougram and it being licensed would show more people why.

4. Ashita no Joe (Tomorrow's Joe)

One of the single most influential series to ever come out of Japan, I am still floored to this day that it has never been licensed outside of the movies. No manga, no anime series. We're talking decades of anime and manga rising, crashing, and rising, in popularity and not once has Ashita no Joe ever been given so much as a test run. Despite that, it remains one of the most sought after licenses for readers and watchers to this day.

The series follows nobody orphan Joe Yabuki as he scrapes by to find a way by in the brutal modern world. Boxing finds him and gives him a way to fight back and build something for himself. And that's what he does. The series catalogs that journey to find a brighter tomorrow. And depending on your view of the world, you might say he finds it in the end.

Ashita no Joe is a tight sports drama series with a message that either frightens or intrigues people depending on how they view where the world has gone in a modern post-WWII society. Needless to say, its overall theme has not dated, which means it is always perfectly relevant for licensing. Here's hoping that happens soon. I'll be waiting.

3. Panzer World Galient

As I said before, Ryusuke Takahashi was an interesting figure in the mecha world. Between Dougram and Votoms, his most popular and enduring works, he made Panzer World Galient. This was a gem. Here he created a sword and sorcery giant robot story with legendary mecha, a medieval pulp world, and an evil army hoping to dominate everything. As you imagine, this is pure classic anime.

An usurped king, a lost prince who must reclaim his throne, and a quest to destroy the evil that threatens to overturn order. This is a sort of pure pulp experience that anime reveled in long after mainstream publishing had forgotten it. And now anime itself has also lost its roots in much the same way. I can't say that isn't a bit of a letdown, but this series certainly is not one.

Still, the day for this to be licensed is hopefully not far away. Other Takahashi series have been licensed (Votoms, Gasaraki, and Blue Gender) and this one is better than at least one of those were. Surely this would have a better shot than a series three times the length like Dougram would. This is the sort of thing Discotek would revel in.

2. Space Battleship Yamato

Also known as Star Blazers, the series has also been remade into animated movies still being made now, and the manga by Leiji Matsumoto is also coming out this year, but the original series is in a bad place, licensing-wise. It's the only piece of the franchise not readily available. And considering it is the original space opera anime, that is insane. It is the reason most of the best anime even exist.

Aliens invade Earth and use radioactive meteorite bombs to send humanity underground. There they remain, trapped. The humans build a ship called the Yamato to try and bring hope back to humanity. This is their last stand. Space opera greatness ensues.

It doesn't have quite the problem with licensing that something like Macross has, but it should be more easily available, especially with the movies and manga coming out and being quite successful. The series that started it all should have the same availability. Hopefully with the recent licenses of other parts of the franchise means it is a sign it will be made readily available once more. It really should be out there for everyone to see.

1. Blue Comet SPT Layzner

I'm not going to pretend this is the greatest anime never licensed, or even Ryusuke Takahashi's best series overall, but it is my favorite unlicensed series. It was even almost licensed back in the day, but the deal fell through for whatever reason. This adventure series is split into two parts with an ending OVA that is really dynamite.

In a world where the Cold War never ended, a UN Mars base is attacked by aliens. They are fought off by a lone pilot who rescues the survivors and begs them to take him to Earth. An invasion is coming, and they are massively outgunned and outnumbered. Oh, and the man who saved them is half-alien half-human who holds a secret that might unite, or destroy, a possible path to peace. This series is about his journey to Earth and to find the key to understanding both sides of himself.

Not everyone likes this series as much as I do, but Layzner has just about everything I look for in an anime, and Takahashi's tendency for finding a ray of hope in pure despair shines bright throughout the entire run. Were this licensed, I would be first in line for it. It's been a long time coming. And, really, with Votoms licensed, Layzner now has a real chance. And I truly hope it happens.

Those are my picks. If you have any of your own I would love to hear what they are. Japan has quite the backlog of animated shows worthy of being brought overseas, or just re-released at all. And now that more old series are being licensed than ever before, more people can discover just what inspired so many people for so many decades now.

That is what I mean by now being the best time to be an anime watcher. You have new material readily available, but the classics are finally getting their shot at a proper release, and the attention they rightfully should have had to begin with.

If you've been out of the scene for a long time, for whatever reason, now is the time to come back. Your options are better than ever.

And they're only getting better every day.

Thursday, 13 September 2018

Not Necessarily So

There is a common attitude among geekier circles involving normal people and their role in "ruining" said hobbies. You see it all the time. If it wasn't for these people, the loyal's hobbies would be perfectly fine and would be able to go back to the way they were. Things would instantly be set right again. After all, normal people came into the house party and burned it down. Before them, the couch wasn't lodged in the pool and the ceiling wasn't covered with smashed Cheetos.

This isn't necessarily so.

You see it in video game circles all the time. You know, the ones who were never involved with them pre-internet. It's "casuals" or "kids" or "consoles" ruining games and making developers create subpar products and publishers cramming them down their audience's throats. If it wasn't for those people, we'd be in a golden age!

But other hobbies aren't immune. In anime circles there's even a mistaken belief that casuals want to destroy moe in order to make anime palatable for the mouth-breathers. They want to infect it!

You're forgiven for laughing at the last assertion. You clearly haven't fallen for the revisionism yet.

All of the problems these fans cry about are misguided. The complaints are centered on a group of people who have done nothing at all. This is missing the forest for the trees. The only question is whether it's deliberate or not, but I will continue in the hope that the latter is the case.

You see, video games sold millions in the 80s and 90s when the main customer base were kids. Before that in the 70s the Atari 2600 and Intellivision were mammoths. They were always mainstream and aimed at normal people.

Most children played games like Sonic the Hedgehog or Super Mario World as easily as they would play DOOM or Diablo. These were normal games at the time, and the audience had no problem with them or adjusting to their difficulty and idiosyncrasies. The latter two were even ported to consoles with few issues, and original FPSes like Perfect Dark and Timesplitters thrived on controllers without being "dumbed down" for "casuals" because anyone that liked video games before the internet had no problem playing them. If they did, they found another genre. Normal people didn't care. The problem is that with the destruction of the middle market for AAA games and mobile titles, the normal gamers were left stranded and either became retro gamers, or walked away. This isn't their fault, if anything they were smarter than those who stuck around for horse armor and loot boxes. And they're being demonized and misrepresented for it.

This gets to my larger point of the "normal" argument. Normal people are a different group than what the companies (and fans) think they are. Normal people were those that saw the Super Nintendo and how fun Super Mario World looked, and bought it to play it. They then bought games like Street Fighter II and Final Fantasy III because they looked fun. They were not won over by Nintendo using focus groups to fine-tune and sand off the difficult levels like Tubular, or Square adding a newbie mode for harder boss fights. Normal people made the old Warcraft games sell millions. Normal people created the arcade scene. Normal people caused FPSes and adventure games to become huge with Wolfenstein 3D and Sierra's works. This group has been chased away.

Now they've been replaced by a dwindling audience of "Normal" people. "Normal" people are the ones Naughty Dog makes dumbed down movie games for. "Normal" people are the reason every game now needs a half hour tutorial before they start. "Normal" people are the ones who are begging for political commentary despite (allegedly) growing up on games like Mutant League Football and Earthworm Jim. "Normal" people ask for loot boxes in every game. "Normal" people who had no problem with Mortal Kombat or Dead or Alive decades ago are suddenly morally offended at their very existence. It is almost as if these two groups are different people.

Because they are.

The point is that normal people are necessary for success. I'm not even sure "normal" people aren't just infiltrators molding their selected medium to their tastes. The former was chased out which allowed the latter to slide right in. And hardcore gamers? They're normal people, whether they like it or not. Your tastes don't make you special.

You are not abnormal because you like strategy games or mecha anime. That's normal. It was normal for decades to like those things until the industry in question dumped them for an audience that doesn't really exist, for "wider" appeal. Criticizing normal people is a way of putting you in a box and give you the impression that you are somehow special or abnormal for consuming a product millions of others do. They want you to think your identity is shaped around consumer products. These dying companies are manipulating you into this attitude to make up for the fact that the normal audience has been chased off. Don't let them do it. You're the real audience, the standard. You are normal, despite what you might think. You have more in common with the guy who spent $22 in quarters to beat Final Fight in the arcade nearly thirty years ago to the goony bug man who considers Gone Home a 10/10 game as though it offers anything worth praising. The former is who has been chased off. And there's nothing normal about the latter example.

In anime there is another problem that comes with this revisionist attitude. This came about due to people who have apparently never watched a series before 2007 thinking themselves experts in the medium. You see this whenever moe criticism is brought up and the same snarky streamers come up with the revisionist assertion that the accused want to get rid of anime to make it palatable to normal people and lose its flavor. The fact that this backwards charge has never been rebutted should be proof that the normal people left long ago, but let me repeat it for the one hundredth time.

Moe is casual garbage aimed at the lowest common denominator. It is not "hardcore" or aimed at specialized audiences. It is not the baseline of anime, and didn't even exist throughout the majority of the medium's existence. It only exists because lazy corporations want to dig your money out of your wallet without putting any effort into what they make. And in case you don't remember: anime was popular worldwide throughout the mid-80s into the mid-00s. It is only when casual moe came out that the normal and hardcore fans were chased out.

You're the one arguing for casual garbage, not the moral busybodies. The latter has problems of their own, but neither of you are the majority of the audience. Normal people are. If it wasn't for them, you wouldn't have your trash genre to watch in the first place because there would be no scene for it. An entire industry existed before your fetish did. Your hobby exists because of normal tastes, not your niche one.

Moe was invented in 1999 by Azumanga Daioh. The creator of said series doesn't even dabble in that genre anymore. It wasn't until it got an anime a few years later that the medium began to eat itself in order to cash in and endlessly repeat it. Before that it was action, adventure, romance, and comedy series and movies. Once those were ditched, the audience left and the medium soured.

Are you seeing a pattern? Lose normal people, lose your way, lose relevancy.

Moe is the aberration, not the standard. Those "casuals" complaining about it aren't complaining because they're unpure non-weebs looking to ruin your hobby. They're complaining because your fetish took over their medium and almost destroyed it. By the mid-00s when anime was blowing up worldwide, Japan decided to fight piracy and fight declining homeland sales by focusing on a shrinking demographic of anti-social otaku at the cost of the original wider audience. They stopped making shows like Outlaw Star and Patlabor, and the results were felt nearly overnight. Anime's popularity dipped worldwide because the audience wanted hardcore stuff like Cowboy Bebop and not casual fluff like K-On. One goes back to the roots of what made the medium what it is, and the other is a concocted mutation.

This is about corporations constructing custom audiences for themselves at the expense of common people. This isn't about fans against non-fans. If it was, these companies wouldn't have stopped giving audiences what they wanted to begin with. They're not on your side, whoever you identify as.

As an aside, a lot of the conflict in these mediums come from hive pokers without any self-awareness that they are propped up by larger entities in order to morph and meld their target audience's opinions. Whether it's people like SuperEyepatchWolf, Mike Campea, or Anita Sarkeesian, these people all exist to stick their foot in the door and shape discourse to their whims despite their pedestrian opinions not adding anything to the discussion. But they all "coincidentally" hold views that corporations use to advertise their products, and they never rock the boat or step out of line.

Back in the day we called them what they were: posers and shills.

None of these people are "normal" or speak for the common man in their hobbies. They exist to shape the fringe fans and rile them up to sow division, which eventually end up pushing out the normal people who want nothing to do with the insanity. They're trying to be the new normal, and they're coming in the back door to do it. And your favorite corporation is all for it. Why wouldn't they want to tell you what you should like and buy? Why wouldn't they want to own your hobbies and choose who they can sell to?

This is what happens when your religion is not an actual religion. Find something better than a corporation to shine some light into your gunk-filled soul.

Believe it or not, hobbies actually did used to be for everyone. People went to see Blade in droves and no one pretended it was revolutionary when it made bank. X-Men sold over a million an issue at its peak and kids rode to their corner store to buy a copy with a can of coke and some chips. Dragon Ball Z did boffo and had merchandise in places like Walmart. The Legend of Zelda: Ocarina of Time was a multi-million seller that people of all ages played and raved over. People expressed displeasure in the Star Wars prequels without being insulted by LucasFilm or their pet sycophants, and they actually wrote books and made video games that weren't total trash. All this success is due to normal people--the very ones currently being chased out of every hobby by extremist purity tests and empty-soul cultists. Those whipped up fanatics are not the ones that made any of these things successes, and yet corporations are backing them over the ones currently being driven out.

Need proof? Look at comic book sales on comichron. Look at video game software sales from this generation. Look at the billboard chart. Look at Hollywood's box office from last summer. Look at Toonami ratings now compared to its peak. Someone was there in the past that is no longer present.

And who benefits from throwing them out? What do they get in exchange for it?

This whole spiel isn't meant to demonize hardcore fans, because they aren't a monolithic block. This is meant to point out that a shell game is currently being played, and the enemy described is not the enemy that exists. Believing normal people are who's killing your hobby of choice just ain't so. Those are posers, and they've always existed. They don't even have to be casual to be one. Just ask anyone who was into punk in the 1990s and early '00s. Normal people aren't ruining anything, a certain group of parasites are.

There is no enlightened group of superfans that carried your hobby to nirvana, away from the unwashed and into divinity. Those "mongoloids" were what helped bring it to prominence in the first place. They were the marker for success. What is tearing your hobby apart are the wolves in sheep's clothing telling you that your fellow sheep are the real wolves and that the shepherd was always a misogynist/racist/sexist/x-ist to begin with. Now which one of those is working overtime to destroy what you like, and which one isn't? It's not that hard. There's no brain-teaser here.

The fact of the matter is that culture exists to be shared and connected to. That is how things get popular in the first place, by likes and tastes coming together to build something bigger. They're exclusive by nature, not design, as there are always things certain folk will never be interested in. That's okay: reality is not inclusive. No one will like everything. But be wary of the "experts" making up rules and anecdotes to keep out "normal people" because chances are the "experts" are the ones who need to be kicked out. They're the destroyers.

And really, who should you listen to: the ones who left when the punch got spiked, or the ones who stayed through the house burning down around them?

I'd pick the normal ones any day.

Wednesday, 5 September 2018

The Importance of Being Brief

One of the best parts of getting into the pulp era of writing has been diving deeper into short stories. This is speaking as someone who had treated them as lesser for most of my life. From my experience most people don't see short stories as anything more than tiny fragments of fables centered on teaching a moral with a shocking twist ending, and little else. Most of this is taught in school, and very rarely has the form escaped this impression in the current age.

But I'm not going to be talking about that. The fact of the matter is that if you're a reader or writer and refuse to read or write short stories you are limiting yourself. As author Misha Burnett has said many times, the form of the short story has been where every literary movement has started from before rolling out into novels and then other mediums afterwards. That's self-evident. What I want to bring up is a whole other problem, this one is on the writers themselves. This is about the importance of content.

Without naming names (partially due to memory lapses, I'll admit) there are authors that simply treat anything other than novels as quaint or, at worst, a complete waste of time. So many writers will buckle down to write a 100,000+ word novel but can not be bothered to craft a 20k novella or 6k short story and in the process are limiting the type of tales that can tell. And if they do, the tiny piece they crank out is usually little more than a throwaway. But stories need to be important, not quaint or pointless.

Do not confuse this with ideology. Stories do not need to be about Important Things or Current Year social issues which end up dating it out of the box to scratch the itch I am describing. When I mean importance, I mean that the plot needs to be important to the main character in it.

It needs to be life or death critical. The story should be a snapshot in a wider landscape where everything that occurs is of deathly importance.

I've seen stories that are anecdotes from larger universe series. A multi-book epic pauses for a short story about how the protagonist got a zombie dog. This is what character X was doing during moment Y in book Z. On his day off the main character deals with a problem far below what he usually does and faster at that which sucks the drama right out. None of these are using the format to its full potential.

And outside of those, a lot of authors simply never write short stories at all. It's disconcerting, but nothing new. There's not much in the way of short story audiences, never mind novellas or novelettes. Many writers simply don't have the incentive to do it.

So this is for those who do.

Every word you write is the difference between life and death, Heaven and Hell. It doesn't matter the length. Editors and writers will tell you to trim the fat in novels all the time. This is to sharpen the prose and the plot to make it easier to pierce the heart of readers. The shorter the word count, the closer the ideal. It only stands to reason that story contents should be just as deadly as the prose. A short story shouldn't be frivolous for the same reason a novel shouldn't. The reader deserves better.

Short stories need to be important because those that read them are, as is their time. They, and the medium, deserve better than cast offs and busy work.

Make them want more. They deserve at least that much.

Speaking of which, I apologize for the lack of a post last week. I will try not to miss one again. I've been trying to get myself back on track again after some recent blunders. That aside, as a reminder, the Heroes Unleashed kickstarter campaign is still going and it has doubled its initial goal! If you haven't thrown in yet, you have less than a week. I promise you that it will be worth your time, as I follow the very same rules above.

That's simply the way writing should be, short stories or not. Sharp and direct. Just like this post.

Tuesday, 21 August 2018

Heroes Unleashed is Here!

Well, almost. But the Kickstarter is! Are you ready for a new shared superhero universe full of good guys, villains, and over the top battles betwixt them? Then this is the project for you.

Here's the official synopsis:

"Here at Silver Empire, we've been waiting nearly a year to bring you the exciting Heroes Unleashed project! We've collected the best up and coming authors to bring you this amazing, first of its kind collection of new, interlinked superhero novels! No, these aren't comicbooks or graphic novels, these are straight up novels, packed with all the superhuman action and goodness you could ever ask for! 
"Authors Morgon Newquist, J.D. Cowan, Kai Wai Cheah, Jon Mollison, and Richard Watts bring the Heroes Unleashed universe to life with their five Phase I novels. Each novel will begin a series of its own that will continue for at least three books."

Yes, that's me. I'm one of the authors involved in this project. My series is called Gemini Man, and the first book is entitled Gemini Warrior. It's been an idea broiling in the back of my head for a long time, and Heroes Unleashed is the place where I can finally let it become a reality.

Matthew White is a young and cynical man, and Jason Vermilion is an idealistic teenager with hopes for the world. When they volunteer for an experiment, they get more than they bargained for: a set of bracelets that bestow each of them a different power! But they also become tethered to each other in the process. Before they can even get used to that, they are thrown into a whole new world of swords, lizard men, and a malignant force beyond what either of them have ever seen. Now not only do they have to get used to their new powers, but also make it out of this strange world before they are swallowed whole by it. Here they will become warriors.

If you've read any of my stories before, then you should know to expect lots of action and a blistering fast pace. This was a lot of fun to write, and I hope you will decide to give it a try yourself!

But that's my work. In case you noticed, there are other authors involved. First up is Serenity City by Morgon Newquist. This is the one that laid the groundwork for this whole project. The description is as follows:

"He wanted to be a good man. Instead, he became a hero
"Imagine Serenity City, a beachfront city on the east coast. For years, the city has been protected by the Triumvirate - three of the most powerful, and certainly the most famous, heroes in the world. Achilles with his super strength. His wife, The Banshee, master of deception and guile. And their best friend Pendragon in his shining armor. No serious threat lasts long in Serenity City under their watch! 
"Until the Rampage - the infamous day when Achilles lost his mind, leaving a half-destroyed city and the body of the Banshee in his wake. 
"Twenty years later, Serenity City is completely changed. Pendragon still reigns as the world's most famous hero, but he reigns alone. Banshee still lies in her grave, and Achilles rots in solitary confinement. Young Victoria, an up and coming hero, finds herself investigating a new mystery. Why are young and forgotten heroes disappearing off the streets? Why doesn't anybody else care? And how is it tied in to those infamous events that brought the city's greatest heroes to ruin? 
"And when Achilles escapes, it throws a wrench in everything! 
"But nothing is as it seems in Serenity City: Heroes Fall by Morgon Newquist. Serenity City will continue after Phase I to be four books total."

I have read this one, and yes, it is as good as you think! Villain onslaughts and desperate hero battles aplenty. There's also a few curve-balls that will take you by surprise and engaging characters to guide you along. If you like your fiction fun and action packed then this is the series for you.

And those are just two of the works in this project!

Kai Wai Cheah lets us follow a vigilante against the whole world (or city) in Hollow City. Jon Mollison contributes a super-spy piece with plenty of conspiracies to go around in The Phoenix Ring. And Richard Watts goes mystical with the last knight of Atlantis attempting to stop the plot to raise a chaos god in Atlantean Archons: Apprentice.

No matter what type of superhero style you like Heroes Unleashed has you covered.

Not to mention, that is only Phase I. There are other authors coming on board, not to mention sequels to the above that will keep your eyes on the page (or screen!) for hours and hours.

Should you want to jump on this train today is the day. The campaign will be running for a hair under three weeks, and has more than enough tiers to choose from in order to pick what suits you just right.

As I've said many time before on this blog: things are turning around. Heroes are returning to the forefront again to beat back the darkness. And now is the chance to show just what we are made of and what it is we really want.

Check out the campaign here!

Friday, 17 August 2018

The Test ~ My Hero Academia Volume 12 and 13 Review

I wanted to wait a bit to cover these two volumes as they work better as a pair. Volume 12 and 13 cover the Provisional License Exam of My Hero Academia, and is most certainly where season 3 of the anime will end. Since that season is still airing, I wanted to avoid spoilers but that's going to be next to impossible.

So if you're only keeping up with the anime you might want to beware of spoilers for the current anime arc.

Volume 12 is a series milestone, as it contains and starts with the 100th chapter of the series. That's right, MHA made triple digits and a two year run so far. The series has been blistering fast since the beginning, and has already covered so very much. This volume, however, starts off a bit slower than the other recent ones.

Midoriya has broken his arms so many times that one or two more bad events might cost him the use of the limbs permanently. On top of it, All Might no longer has One For All and the heroes are left extremely weakened from his absence. So the volume's first half deals with two plot threads. The first is what Midoriya is going to do to make up for his screw ups by creating new ultimate moves that utilize a far different approach than what he's used to. The second plot thread is a bit different.

Midoriya has made a lot of new friends since arriving at UA. He's met Ida, the speedster intellect who almost lost his life for revenge. Todoroki, the half-hot half-cold prodigy with a troubled past was another. Even Bakugo, his childhood friend turned bully, has begun to turn a corner of seeing him as more than an obstacle to overcome. But one friend that might feel a bit different is Ochaco Uraraka, the first friend Midoriya made since coming to UA.

When Uraraka first arrived she was only there to make money for her family since Pro Heroes are paid quite well for what they do. But as she has stuck with Midoriya and seen him grow and become a hero who always does the right thing and always does his best, she began to change. Her focus was no longer just to be a hero for money, though that is still part of it, but to try and match up to Midoriya and become as heroic as he is. Her feelings are mixed as to whether she actually just admires him, or maybe thinks of him in a romantic way. Part of her growth in this upcoming arc is parsing out just what she really feels.

Which leads us to what these two volumes are actually about: The Provisional License Exam.

Around 1540 students from across the country compete an earn a chance to be seen as real heroes. Midoriya's class meets up with several different schools, all gunning for the top school. Because, you see, UA is known as the best of the best, so taking them down would put your name on the map and give your cred a real boost. The first test alone will whittle competitors down to 100, which makes them all huge and prominent targets.

So what this ends up doing is making the test about cooperation and teamwork: a theme My Hero Academia has not touched much on before this arc. Those destined to have a rougher time are those unwilling to stand with their allies, and those who do stick together find just how tough a team of heroes actually can be. At the same time it allows certain students, like comic relief Denki Kaminari to show his stuff and prove why he's in the hero course to begin with. This first stage really does a lot to test their mettle and show how far they've come since the series start.

Volume 12 ends with the first test's final moments and the students finally able to cut loose. It leads to the second stage, and the next volume.

Volume 13 is mainly focused on the second stage of the test, and the results which offer a very important coda that will change everything going forward.

This is also whereabouts the currently running anime season will end, so be aware of spoilers for the finale.

The second test involves rescuing civilians. While the first dealt with weeding out those physically incapable of the hazardous profession of being a hero, the second test shows who is mentally prepared to be the person victims of calamities need. This means those who excelled in the first half of the exam are not necessarily going to succeed in the second half.

And some do not.

We also see how far along some of the students have come . . . and how far some have not. Inasa, the one with the wind control powers, has a beef with Todoroki because of his father's reputation as a nasty hero with a bad personality. And Todoroki has the same look in his eyes his father does. Are they really alike? Has he really put his father's treatment of him behind him, or is he just hiding from it? Uraraka has a similar problem with losing control of her focus over her growing feelings for Midoriya, especially after a certain girl tries to accost him. But neither have the time to deal with it as the test just starts and throws them all in the thick of it!

Quickly they learn that dealing with injured civilians is much different than dealing with normal people. It is the hero's job to be exactly who the civilian needs at that moment, and that requires saying the right words, instilling confidence and hope, and basic medical care, all while keeping their cool. In other words, this is more of a personality test than a physical one.

But not entirely, as one of the pro heroes shows up playing the part of a villain. Now the heroes in training have to save people AND deal with a threat at the same time. Heroes have to be prepared for anything, after all.

This volume wraps up this short exam arc, but it also leads to an odd coda to remind those of the darker side of the MHA universe.

What one has to keep in mind reading My Hero Academia is how close to the edge society actually is. In a world where 80% of the population can potentially destroy everything without so much as a blink, rules are needed to hold it all together. All it takes is one bad day and one terrible quirk for everything to be taken apart. In these chapters we see just how delicately balanced society is to keep it in check. That MHA has this reputation as a sunny and Disney-fied series mystifies me. The way the world in this series works is far more fascinating than the newest moe series or comfort food anime. If it wasn't for heroes, the world would be completely leveled.

That is what makes the last few chapters of this volume interesting. You see the world from several of the villains' positions in how they like the natural state of chaos and detest those that would deny them their freedom to act like beasts. The League of Villains might have started as a way for All For One to re-seize control of the world again after his fading power began to escape him, but with him dying it is now about Shigaraki's quest to wipe out the civilization that has failed. And it is all very close to a tipping point. Not to spoil, but the next big arc (and what season 4 will likely be based around) shows this reality in the harshest possible light.

This realization leads to the event that will certainly be used to cap off season 3 of the anime: the second fight between Midoriya and Bakugo.

Unlike the original battle which was one of the defining moments early in the series, this fight between the two childhood friends is not so much about old grudges, but in clearing the air about everything that has happened since the training camp went sideways. Midoriya not only passed the provisional license exam but is also All Might's successor while Bakugo failed the exam and is responsible for his hero losing his powers. We've been told that Bakugo is an unthinking jerk with the personality of a wet cat, but slowly that old arrogant exterior has been shaved off. Where he is now is just a lost screw-up of a teenager no better off than Midoriya, who he had once considered nothing but a pebble in his path. And yet that same pebble keeps tripping him up at every opportunity. What is Bakugo missing that Midoriya has? He still can't figure it out, and he needs to. He can't keep going the way he has: not if he wants to be a hero. But this round 2 of their fight will help clear the air and bring everything out into the open.

Unfortunately, the end of the fight is in the next volume, so I won't quite say what happens, except to tell that it is a very important moment and is destined to be the finale for the third season. It also helps cement Bakugo as a more three dimensional character than many thought he was at the series start. Midoriya is training his newly acquired power, but Bakugo is training his newly acquired soul. It's a strange contrast that is sure to lead to good places in the future.

When we return with the next volume, we will be entering a new and very long arc that is slightly different in what the series has done up to this point. It's also going to encapsulate season 4 as a whole and will introduce some great new characters. I hope you'll join me for it. It's going to be grand.

Speaking of heroes, I should have a very important update for you on that topic next week. If you saw my last post then you have an idea of what I'm hinting at.

Until then, never forget: Plus Ultra!