Fridge Logic

Hey, it’s about time we threw down another book review, right? And let’s make it a good one — time to take a look at The Refrigerator Monologues by Catherynne M. Valente.

So this book takes much of its inspiration from a specific bit of pop culture. Way, way back in 1999, comics fan (and future comics writer) Gail Simone, along with a larger group of comics fans, set up a website dedicated to “Women in Refrigerators” — women characters in comic books who got killed off, maimed, and abused solely as a method for giving male superheroes angst and drama. Gwen Stacy, Karen Page, Alex DeWitt — all killed off so the lead character would get a chance to grit his teeth and swear vengeance.

That brings us to this book, published in 2017, where author Catherynne M. Valente introduces us to a group of women, some superheroes, some girlfriends, some a combination of the two, who all end up in Deadtown, filled with dead people and gargoyles, where all the food comes from extinct animals and you never get to change out of the clothes you were buried in. These members of the Hell Hath Club meet and tell the stories that never managed to make it into the comic books.

So we meet Paige Embry, girlfriend of (and accidental creator of) Kid Mercury. She gets between her beau and an angry supervillain and gets thrown off a bridge.

We meet Julia Ashe, massively powerful mutant who gets edited out of the universe because her power scared her teammates and mentor.

We meet Pauline Ketch, high-spirited and psychotic girlfriend of the murderous Mr. Punch.

We meet Bayou, princess of Atlantis, shipped off to an undersea mental hospital because she dared to mourn her child.

We meet Daisy Green, promising actress driven to destruction by her relationship with a hero called the Insomniac.

And we meet Samantha Dane, the newest member of the Club, butchered by a manipulative villain and stuffed into a refrigerator to get back at her superhero boyfriend.

They’re all stuck in Deadtown for the rest of eternity, unless some superhero decides to get off his butt and restore them to life, and they’re not very happy about that.

Verdict: Thumbs up. The book is wonderfully written and grand fun. It’s great to see these characters — who are normally remembered almost entirely as “That One Superhero’s Girlfriend Who Got Killed by that One Supervillain” — given the opportunity to tell their own stories, explain their own viewpoints, and vent their own anger about being killed off and forgotten. It’s very much like reading “The Vagina Monologues” for the goddamn furious superhero set.

And yes, with enough comics knowledge, you can recognize nearly all the characters in the book as the characters they’re supposed to represent from the comics. But that isn’t necessary to enjoy the book.

In fact, there are plenty of fun changes made to the personalities. For example, in the Aquaman comics, Mera is an Atlantean of human appearance, fully comfortable with her roles as both a warrior and a queen; Bayou, her counterpart in this book, looks much less human and has a much more punk rock attitude, preferring to escape from her palace so she can raise hell with her band in sleazy Atlantean nightclubs.

If you love superheroes — and especially if you crave an enthusiastically angry and funny antidote to the Women in Refrigerators phenomenon, you’ll certainly want to read this book.

Also, they say Amazon Studios is working on an adaptation of this book, to be called “Deadtown,” so keep an eye out for that somewhere down the road…

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The Chilling Sound of Your Doom

Hello, kids, I live in Texas, and if you’re paying any attention to the news, you’ll note that we’re having one of the biggest cold snaps on record! The entire state is under a winter storm warning — from the Panhandle to the Gulf Coast, from East Texas to El Paso!

We hit -15 degrees last night. It was genuinely horrible. No power outages for us — yet — and not much snow, but it’s almost impossible to get warm when the weather is this bad.

And it’s really hard to get much writing done on the blog, because my computer is right next to the coldest window in the house.

So I’m getting a quick blog post out right now, featuring a few people who feel even colder than I do right now.

Now I’m off to put on another two coats and cover up with another three blankets. Everyone stay warm!

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Never Too Early for Love

Alright, I’m early for Valentine’s Day, but who wants to post a blog on a Sunday? Not me! So you’re getting this two days early — two extra days to read this post over and over while snarfing down cheap Valentines chocolates.

So let’s get down to what this holiday is all about: comic book covers!

Alright, everyone run to the store, get the last of the Valentines candy and wait for them to stock the new Easter candy!

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Beauty and Sorrow in the Collapsing Future

Okay, I’m ’bout to recommend you a book that I think is unquestionably beautiful and also deeply, desperately saddening. Let’s review Random Acts of Senseless Violence by Jack Womack.

Some spoilers for the book will follow.

So this is a sci-fi novel, written back in 1993. It’s part of Womack’s “Dryco” series, but you don’t have to read any of the other books to enjoy this.

The story is set in the nebulous near-future, in a United States beset by high unemployment, riots, and a rapidly decaying national government and society. Our lead character is a 12-year-old girl named Lola Hart. She goes to a prestigious private school for girls. Her father Michael is a screenwriter struggling to sell new scripts. Her mother Faye is a teacher who can’t find a teaching job and uses Xanax and other pills a bit much. Her little sister is Cheryl, but everyone calls her, for unspecified reasons, Boob. (Boob’s nickname for Lola is Booz.) They live in a nice apartment on 86th Street in New York City. Lola is keeping a diary, addressing every entry as if she were writing a letter to a fictional person named Anne. Lola has two best friends, Lori and Katherine.

Lola’s life is about to go straight to hell.

So we follow her over the course of a terribly and shockingly short five months as the Harts lose more money, take terrible jobs, and lose their home. Multiple presidents are killed, either by assassination, accident, or “accident.” The riots get worse, the government crackdowns get worse, and a new monetary system is created that seems to be designed to make everyone less secure.

Lola loses friends, explores her sexuality, and gains new friends who bring her into a new, more dangerous lifestyle even while they treat her with love, kindness, and support. She loses her family, too, bit by heartbreaking bit. She loses her new friends, too, and she loses the girl she loves most in the whole world. And she loses herself — or at least gains a new self.

And through her diary, we watch Lola gradually change from a typical prep-school teenager to an angry, murderous street rat. She gradually picks up new slang and attitude as the months pass — if you read the last page before you read the rest of the book, you may not understand what she’s saying. But when you follow along with her life, you learn the slang as she uses it, and by the end, you can follow almost everything she says.

Verdict: Thumbs up. It’s a tragedy and a deeply disheartening story, and it’s also a glorious and beautiful book. Lola’s life and passions, her friends and family, her downward spiral, and her joys, even amidst her new life, are all portrayed with compassion. This isn’t tragedy porn — no one exults in Lola’s pain. You feel her losses as you’d feel your own because Womack clearly loves Lola, her family, and her friends. But tragedies are not unheard of, in either fiction or real life. The history of war, refugees, dictatorships, and poverty are littered with people like the Harts.

The book is not well known among sci-fi fans, which writer Jo Walton attributes to a combination of the book’s unwieldy title, cover art that was considered unappealing, a release schedule that allowed it to be overlooked during awards season, and the fact that it didn’t really fit in with the most popular brands of science fiction at the time. But Walton and many others love the book dearly and can easily be encouraged to evangelize about its greatness.

I can’t recommend this book for everyone — it’s a heartbreaking tale, and not the sort of thing you want prowling in your mind as you contemplate your children’s futures. But it’s a beautifully written character study of a girl on her way over the edge, and if you can find it, it’s worth a read.

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Scholars of the Superhero

Every once in a while, we get to talk about serious, scholarly nonfiction. What, scholarly works about comic books? Yeah, they’re out there, so let’s talk about a book that collects a lot of academic works on comics and superheroes: The Superhero Reader, edited by Charles Hatfield, Jeet Heer, and Kent Worcester.

So a reader is basically a collection of short articles, often written from an academic or scholarly viewpoint, that detail a broad selection of information, history, theories, and research on a specific topic. The audience for these are generally professors, students, or dedicated fans of the topic — they’re rarely of much interest to the general public. I’ve got a small selection of other readers — one on horror movies, another on horror movies about ghosts, one on Halloween, and one on lycanthropy.

So this one is, obviously, a reader about superheroes. And you’ll note it isn’t a reader about comics. Comic book history is obviously a big chunk of anything having to do with superheroes, but this is a book about guys and gals in capes and spandex — not underground comix.

Anyway, the book is divided into three major sections, with eight essays in each. The first is “Historical Considerations,” followed by “Theory and Genre” and “Culture and Identity.”

The historical section is probably the most straightforward, as it focuses on the history of the superhero. Some of these essays detail the proto-superheroes who came before Superman’s debut in 1938, the early lives of Jerry Siegel and Joe Shuster, the creation of Wonder Woman, and the first comics fanzines. But what really makes this section interesting is the inclusion of historical documents, including an excerpt from Philip Wylie’s novel “Gladiator,” which influenced the creation of the Man of Steel, and a chapter from Dr. Fredric Wertham’s discredited “Seduction of the Innocent,” which nearly killed off the comic book entirely in the 1950s.

The “Theory and Genre” section seems like the most complex, with dueling essays from the 1970s to the present hashing out the borders of the superhero genre and the relevant tropes from the Golden Age to the Dark Age and beyond, as well as thick discussions of Jack Kirby’s contributions to the Marvel style of storytelling, the concepts of the multiverse as addressed by different comics creators, and the iconic use of cities as superhero settings.

And finally, the “Culture and Identity” section addresses the impact superheroes have had on Western culture and how they’ve been adopted and adapted by marginalized groups. We get essays about Batman and camp, the Invisible Girl as Marvel’s first important superheroine, superheroes of color at Marvel, DC, and Milestone, and even an essay by Gloria Steinem on Wonder Woman’s influence on feminism.

Verdict: Thumbs up. This definitely isn’t going to be for every reader. It’s a thick book full of academic-level discussions of complex topics. If you’re not up for serious scholarship on comics history, sociology, theory, and more, you might want to give this a pass.

But honestly, for most of us who are serious fans of comics and superheroes, this is fun (though sometimes difficult) reading. It’s a great place to get some historical documents that are hard to come by nowadays. It’s a great way to immerse yourself in serious comics theory in a way you just can’t get arguing with fans at the comics shop. And it’s a great way to expose yourself to new viewpoints that can challenge the way you view superheroes.

The essays are sometimes a mixed bag — some researchers argue for views that are now considered dated, particularly in the “Theory and Genre” section. Scholars in the ’70s generally felt that superhero stories were no different from Westerns, science fiction, or cop dramas — simple tales for children, never real literature. And of course, Fredric Wertham’s essay is full of rhetorical acrobatics designed to tar all comics as poisonous to children. But it is important to see the full scope of comics history and theory, to see where we came from and where scholarship needs to evolve further.

Again, if you can handle a lot of challenging reading (and a bit of a high sticker price), this is going to be a rewarding book for any fan of comics and superheroes. Go pick it up!

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One Hour Photo

Goldurnit, I’m apparently way too lazy to write reviews of books or comics, so I guess I’m gonna just keep posting roleplaying game characters. Y’all love RPG characters, right?

(crickets)

There, see? The crickets love me!

So we’re doing another GURPS character, and this time, we’re using a fairly normal modern-day character. But before we get too far, let’s review the usual GURPS background material.

GURPS is a point-based character system — stats over 10, advantages, and skills cost you points; stats under 10 and disadvantages get you some points back. Quirks are worth a negative point each (and limited to five) and must be roleplayed. Numbers in the square brackets are how many character points were allocated to each item. This is all done in GURPS 3rd Edition, ’cause 4th Edition was garbage.

In GURPS, 100 points is considered a good starting point for beginner-level, unpowered characters, being significantly above the average person, but not strong enough to power through every obstacle. Some campaigns, particularly those dealing with high-level fantasy or superhero games, can be much stronger, up to 500 points, 1,000 points, or even more.

This is Callie Angstell, a newspaper photographer.

Name: Callie Angstell
Total Points: 100 Points
Appearance: White female; Age 22; 5’8″, 145 lbs.; dark blond hair, worn shoulder-length; blue eyes; usually wearing comfortable clothing and a photographer’s vest; usually carrying a camera.

Statistics:
ST: 9 [-10]
DX: 13 [30]
IQ: 12 [20]
HT: 11 [10]
Speed: 6.00
Move: 7
Dodge: 6

Advantages:
Attractive [5] (Reaction: +1)
Danger Sense [15]
Luck [15]
Strong Will +2 [8] (Will: 14)

Disadvantages:
Curious [-5] (Roll: IQ)
Overconfidence [-10]
Struggling [-10] (Starting Wealth: $7,500)
Stubbornness [-5]

Quirks: Calls her camera “Boomer”; Dislikes children; Snacks on celery; Very serious temperament; Wears her photographer’s vest whenever she leaves her home. [-5]

Skills: Acting-10 [½]; Area Knowledge (Chicago)-13 [2]; Chemistry/TL7-10 [1]; Computer Operation/TL7-13 [2]; Detect Lies-11 [2]; Driving/TL7 (Automobile)-12 [1]; Fast-Talk-13 [4]; First Aid/TL7-13 [2]; Guns/TL7-14 [½]; Photography-15 [8]; Research-12 [2]; Running (Move: 7.375)-11 [4]; Sex Appeal-12 [4]; Shadowing-13 [4]; Stealth-13 [2]; Streetwise-11 [1]; Writing-12 [2].

Languages: English (native)-12 [0]

Biography: Callie is a Chicago native. She discovered her passion for photography early in life, and has spent over a decade building up a portfolio of photos ranging from news photos, art photography, fashion photos, and more. She’s been working freelance news photography for the last few years and has developed a habit of getting in lots of trouble for the sake of great pictures.

Design Notes: Callie is a 100-point character. She is a Chicago newspaper photographer in the present day, though she can be adapted to other settings and genres with little effort.

I could very easily see her in a horror campaign — or conspiracy or modern fantasy. A little fiddling with her skills, and you could transplant her into time travel or atomic horror campaigns — and with a lot of fiddling, you could make her fit into space opera, cyberpunk, psionics, superheroes, and more.

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Comics for Rockin’ Out!

Okay, let’s get another review done! It’s part comic book, part children’s book, part musical tribute, and 100% fun — it’s The Princess Who Saved Herself by Jonathan Coulton, Greg Pak, and Takeshi Miyazawa!

Mayhap you are familiar with Jonathan Coulton, the Internet’s favorite musician, yes? And mayhap you are familiar with his wonderful song, “The Princess Who Saved Herself”? If not, here ’tis:

It’s fun and jaunty! Hit the replay button, memorize the words, sing it all day long!

So writer Greg Pak and illustrator Takeshi Miyazawa decided they wanted to adapt the song as a comic/kids book. But they did something fun with it — rather than being just a straight adaptation of Coulton’s song, we get a bit of an expansion.

Where the original focused on the dragon and the witch, this one gives us a few more complications, including a giant bee, a plague of darkness, and an unexpected fire — as well as a new motivation for the queen, a new resolution for the whole thing, and a truly wonderful name for the princess.

No, y’all, I ain’t offering no further spoilers. This thing is only about 30 pages — the perfect length for a great mid-afternoon read for younger kids — and you should get all the enjoyment you can outta this thing.

Verdict: Thumbs up. It’s frickin’ delightful, people.

The story gives you a nice jolt of familiarity, especially if you know and love Coulton’s song. And the rewritten and expanded tale also gives you some great surprises, too. Pak has tons of fun with the rhymes here.

Miyazawa’s art is lots of fun, too. It’s wonderfully appealing and charismatic, with metric tons of personality, emotion, and action. And it has lots of cute jokes and details hidden away so you can have fun re-reading it over and over. It really is a perfect combination of writing with art.

Also, props to colorist Jessica Kholinne, who helps make everything pop beautifully.

What else can I say, guys? It’s frickin’ delightful. If you’re a fan of Coulton’s music, if you love fun comics, if you’ve got kids who need this fun and inspiring story, you should go pick it up!

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The Battle Against Evil

It’s January 20, 2021, and I hope it’s going to be a good day.

We’re going to get a new president sworn in, and a new vice president. And we’re getting rid of the worst president we ever had, who will hopefully be marched directly to his new cell on Rikers Island, where he’ll spend the rest of his life trying to avoid just punishment for his many crimes.

But of course, despite the valiant efforts of the Japanese schoolgirls in “Cabin in the Woods,” the evil hasn’t been defeated. The Republican Party has, by this point, made it clear that they approve of Trump’s attempted coup and that they would prefer an iron authoritarian dictatorship to any sort of democracy.

And it’s very likely to get worse from there. We can expect more neo-Nazi terrorist attacks, possibly focused on Washington, D.C., Congress, the White House, and national landmarks, possibly not.

With any luck, this will soon work itself out once the insurrectionists realize how unpopular this kind of stuff is. If y’all remember the OKC Bombing back in 1995, the goons in the militia movement were absolutely delighted for the first couple of days after the bombing, joyfully anticipating their much-desired race war and overthrowing the government. And then they realized that no one else was happy about the bombing, and that 99% of the country was good and mad. And the militias shut the fuck up and disappeared into the woodwork for another few years.

Americans love violence — on TV, in movies, and in fiction. When it happens in real life, they’re not so fond of it. When it’s mass violence, and when it’s terrorism, they really don’t like it a bit. And they don’t like the idea of a bunch of Nazi dumbfucks taking over the country and deciding what our system of government is going to be.

So far, Republicans and their allies storming the Capitol are gambling that this’ll be swept down the memory hole, and that their next attack will be more successful. Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley are gambling they’ll be able to harness these Nazi goons into a new political power base. In both cases, I suspect that’s a bad gamble.

For now, getting Trump off the stage and getting a new president is a good thing. But it doesn’t mean our problems are over.

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Weird Science

My precious children, I tried all last week to think up something I wanted to blog about and just came up blank. Plenty of books and comics I could review, but just didn’t have the energy to do it. But dang it, I gotta get something up here to keep my legions of readers engaged, so I dug back into my archives to find another GURPS character to post up.

Before we get to this guy’s stats, let’s do a quick summary of GURPS for those of you unfamiliar with the system. It’s a point-based character system — stats over 10, advantages, and skills cost you points; stats under 10 and disadvantages get you some points back. Quirks are worth a negative point each (and limited to five) and must be roleplayed. Numbers in the square brackets are how many character points were allocated to each item. This is all done in GURPS 3rd Edition, ’cause 4th Edition was garbage.

In GURPS, 100 points is considered a good starting point for beginner-level, unpowered characters, being significantly above the average person, but not strong enough to power through every obstacle. Some campaigns, particularly those dealing with high-level fantasy or superhero games, can be much stronger, up to 500 points, 1,000 points, or even more.

This is Dr. Edwin Ezekiel, a scientist in the 1950s.

Name: Dr. Edwin Ezekiel
Total Points: 150 Points
Appearance: White male; Age 26; 5’10”, 155 lbs.; short blond hair; brown eyes; wears slightly out-of-fashion eyeglasses; usually wears comfortable, casual clothing, with the addition of a white lab coat when working in a laboratory.

Statistics:
ST: 11 [10]
DX: 12 [20]
IQ: 14 [45]
HT: 11 [10]
Speed: 5.75
Move: 5
Dodge: 6

Advantages:
Combat Reflexes [15] (Fright Check: 16)
Comfortable Wealth [10] (Starting Wealth: $2,000)
Intuition [15]
Mathematical Ability [10]

Disadvantages:
Bad Sight (Correctable) [-10]
Curious [-5] (Roll: IQ)
Honesty [-10]
Shyness [-5]

Quirks: Always polite to women; Collects old pulp mystery magazines; Dislikes wearing suits; Never eats sweets; Travels to Chicago every year to visit jazz clubs. [-5]

Skills: Accounting-17* [1]; Biochemistry/TL7-13 [4]; Chemistry/TL7-15 [6]; Chess-15 [2]; Climbing-11 [1]; Detect Lies-12 [1]; Driving/TL7 (Automobile)-11 [1]; Electronics/TL7 (Computers)-15* [2]; Engineer/TL7-15* [2]; First Aid/TL7-14 [1]; Guns/TL7-14 [1]; Judo-11 [2] (Parry: 8); Mathematics-17* [4]; Musical Instrument (Saxophone)-12 [1]; Physics/TL7-14 [4]; Psychology-12 [1]; Research-15 [4]; Science!/TL7-12 [2]; Stealth-11 [1]; Teaching-15 [4].
*Cost modifiers: Mathematical Ability

Languages: Arabic-12 [½]; Chinese (Mandarin)-12 [½]; English (native)-14 [0]; German-14 [2]; Greek-13 [1]; Russian-13 [1].

Biography: Edwin was born and spent most of his youth in Los Angeles. His natural curiosity and about the world and keen intellect got him interested in the sciences, though he also developed a passion for jazz music. He served briefly in the Army, and picked up a few degrees in the sciences afterwards. Since then, he’s been keeping busy solving Big Science Problems and getting into Big Science Trouble…

Design Notes: Dr. Ezekiel is playable as either a scientist or a college professor, in either the present-day or the 1950s, though he may be adapted to other settings and genres with little effort.

He’s also a 150-point character. That’s a bit more than the usual for a GURPS character — I decided I wanted him to be a bit more capable — and a bit more cinematic — than a normal character, especially since, if you’re playing a GURPS Atomic Horror campaign, he’ll be dealing with Big Science Trouble pretty much all the time.

Still no superheroes? Honestly, the problem I’ve got when it comes to posting any of my superhero characters on the blog is that I like to have some sort of illustration at the top of all my posts, and while I’m okay with having a generic cowboy or generic scientist for some characters, I’d rather have some sort of unique picture for super-characters. We’ll see if I can devise a way to make that work, though…

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Damn Everything But the Circus

Hey, y’all know I’m always up to screaming about Nazis and how much we really ought to be shooting the hell out of all of ’em, right? But listen, I’m tired. This week has been a lot, and I’m tired. So instead, let’s do a review. Let’s look at The Emerald Circus by Jane Yolen.

Jane Yolen’s long writing career has seen her creating classic works of fantasy, science fiction, children’s fiction, poetry, and more. Here she combines many of these interests and styles into a new collection of tales taking inspiration from the well-loved stories we read as kids, then spins them off in new, exciting directions.

Some of Yolen’s stories in this book include:

  • Andersen’s Witch – A boy from an impoverished family makes a deal to improve his future and the world around him — but what happens when it’s time to pay the witch?
  • Lost Girls – A girl is kidnapped from her world and forced to toil as a kitchen slave for an immortal swashbucking brat. Can she lead her fellow servants to freedom through the power of a union?
  • Blown Away – A girl is whisked away to new adventures during a tornado — but what happens to the family she’s left behind, and how will they react when she returns?
  • The Jewel in the Toad Queen’s Crown – The strange and magical friendship between Queen Victoria and Benjamin Disraeli is explored.
  • The Confession of Brother Blaise – A dying monk reveals the genesis of an Arthurian legend.
  • Rabbit Hole – An elderly Alice plans one final trip to Wonderland.
  • Sister Emily’s Lightship – An isolated poet discovers truth and art from beyond the stars.

On top of that, there’s a lengthy and glorious appendix on “Story Notes and Poems,” which includes some extra details about how each tale was created and a poem to go with each story. Extra value!

Verdict: Thumbs up. There are very few perfect anthologies, even by master writers, but this book seems notable by how few outright clunkers there are. And the less-great stories are certainly drowned out by the colossal volume of amazing ones, including the wonderfully funny (and character-stuffed) “Lost Girls,” the lyrical “Sister Emily’s Lightship,” the sumptuous “Evian Steel,” and the heart-stoppingly glorious “Blown Away.”

If you enjoy clever, humorous, and often beautiful stories, this one’s for you. Go pick it up.

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