by Catriona Mills

How To Run A Crack Super-Villain Team: A Brief Seminar

Posted 23 October 2008 in by Catriona

Firstly, I want to make this point absolutely clear: we can’t all be Catwoman.

I know Catwoman is awesome. But she’s not the only one who can use grappling pads, swing from walls, or walk along tightropes. You don’t all have to turn into Catwoman every time you need to do one of those things.

Because there’s only one Catwoman, and I get to be her, that’s why.

Yes, I know there’s more than one variant of Catwoman in alternative versions of Gotham City. Yes, I know about Julie Delmar. And Eartha Kitt. And Michelle Pfeiffer.

You know, we’ve all seen the Wikipedia page, Mr Freeze. No, I don’t believe you just ‘know these things because you’re a scientist’—I can see that you have your laptop open under the desk.

Anyway, we’re not those Catwomen. Look, it says “Selina Kyle” quite clearly. And, no, I’m not getting into all this Golden Age/Silver Age/Earth-Two stuff; you know that confuses me.

One Catwoman, and that’s me.

Because I’m human and you are all computer controlled. That means I get to choose.

No, I don’t think that’s particularly speciest.

Well, maybe it is. But I don’t care. I’m not having this argument again. One Catwoman, okay?

But I do admit we need to share the booty more evenly from now on. I agree with all the anonymous notes that someone has been shoving in the suggestion box and, yes, I am looking at you, Riddler.

Because it took me three hours to decode the last “suggestion,” that’s how. You’d think you’d have learned by now that riddles are invariably going to lead back to a villain called “The Riddler.” It’s not a great logical leap, now, is it?

But you’re right: it’s not fair to use another person’s special abilities to open boxes and then switch back to Catwoman to pick up all the loot.

Yes, I know Scarecrow is annoying.

Well, I’m sorry, Scarecrow, but you are. Why do you have to run with your arms held straight out in front of you like that?

I know you’re a scarecrow, yes. And, yes, I know scarecrows usually have their arms held up on poles. But you do it when you’re not in character, as well; does Dr Jonathan Crane also have his arms held up on poles?

Well, stop it; it’s annoying the entire team. You look as though you can’t find the light switch.

Yes, I know Killer Croc runs with one arm held into his body, but it’s not fair to bring that up, now, is it? You know he’s not a well man.

No, that doesn’t mean you can’t continue to pick on Clayface—you know this isn’t the one with hyperpituitarism. Picking on Preston Payne would be just as mean as picking on Killer Croc, but you know this is Matt Hagen, and anyone who steps in radioactive protoplasm is a fair target for mockery. Especially when he does it more than once.

Plus, I’m still annoyed by that bank robbery farce where he just stood there while Batman turned on the sprinklers. You’d think he’d have figured out at some point in the past forty years that he’s susceptible to water.


Well, he should have turned up for the seminar, shouldn’t he? Then we’d be insulting him to his face.

Now, mentioning Batman reminds me of something: we need to start bringing him in on more of these missions.

Just calm down, will you?

Yes, I do know that Batman is the arch-nemesis of most of the people in this room. I do remember that he’s beaten most of us up at one point or another.

Plus, let’s be fair, here: we’ve all beaten him up, too. Bane, you snapped his spine once, so I don’t know why you’re complaining now.

I do remember that he bounced you off all those shipping containers in the Gotham Docks level, yes. I was there, remember? Failing to escape because you kept bouncing off the walls?

Yes, I thought you’d forgotten that.

Look, this isn’t up for debate, okay? He’s a useful member of the team, especially when he’s wearing his glide suit. Yes, Penguin, I know you can glide, too—but you use an umbrella and I worry that it undermines the seriousness of our crimes when the criminal floats away under a purple umbrella.

Okay, we’ll discuss it later.

You have to admit, though, that it’s good for morale to see him beating up SWAT members occasionally.

What do you mean? How could it not be good for morale?


Well, no—it’s not good for his morale. But I didn’t mean that. Did you read the title of the seminar before walking in? It’s written right on the door there.

Damn! Did anyone else see The Joker out in the corridor then? Quick, everyone under the desks before he spots us!

Oh, lord, he’s got Harley with him. And she’s carrying that giant hammer. Oh, this isn’t going to be good.

Who told him this was on today?

Oh, Poison Ivy. Why? You know I always give The Joker the wrong time for these seminars.

Yes, I know he’s technically a member of the team. But have any of you ever tried to facilitate a seminar with The Joker in the audience? If he starts coming to these, we’ll never be able to have a sensible seminar again.

Wait, why are you all trying to open the door?

Why I'm Loving True Blood

Posted 22 October 2008 in by Catriona

I’ve never read any of Charlaine Harris’s Sookie Stackhouse Mysteries (though I might now, if I can ever find a bookshop that stocks the first volume, rather than just, say, volumes three and seven), but I am loving the Alan Ball adaptation currently screening on HBO.

Loving it.

I made something of a parade in the early days of the blog of my general distaste for vampire-themed fiction—and then promptly had to eat my words when I looked at my copies of Hellsing (not Van Hellsing, but the different and vastly superior Japanese anime), Blade, Buffy and Angel, and . . . well, that’s sufficient, I think (and that’s only the DVDs).

But my essential point remains valid: I am not a vampire groupie. Vampires are prevalent enough in popular culture that it would be a miracle if absolutely everything written about them was rubbish, but much of it, frankly, is.

But not True Blood. And my thorough enjoyment of it can only be efficiently expressed in list form.

1. It’s an HBO programme. The vast majority of really superb American television drama in the last decade has been developed for premium cable: Dexter on Showtime, The Sopranos, Deadwood, and Six Feet Under for HBO.

I was never a fan of Six Feet Under, though I’m tempted to catch up on DVD, now I see what Alan Ball can do with vampires. But I adored Deadwood—I bought it for my brother for Christmas, figuring the violence and swearing was his cup of tea. He bullied me into watching it with him, I fell desperately in love with it, and then did my best to force everyone I knew to watch it, though some really didn’t take to it.

It never eases to amaze me how much money these companies are willing to spend on quality script writing, when so many films labour under the well-meaning but disconnected efforts of half-a-dozen different writers. Really, why spend so many millions on actors and then baulk at the idea of a decent writer? Makes no sense to me.

(Of course, this point leads to the one problem I have with True Blood: HBO-style sex. If you’ve seen any HBO programme, you know what I mean by that. Seriously, HBO, some of us are both squeamish and a little bit prudish, you know? And when the HBO-style sex largely involves someone who was in Home and Away for years? Well, I never watched Home and Away, but I’ve read enough TV Week magazines at my mother-in-law’s to find that extra squicky.)

2. It exploits the Louisiana setting in extraordinary ways. There’s an interesting history of Southern Gothic, which was, I suppose, re-vamped (ha! I’m hilarious) by Anne Rice in the 1970s, as was the vampire genre in general.

But it goes back to the nineteenth century, though apparently the two writers I want to mention—Charles Brockden Brown and Edgar Allan Poe—were born respectively in Pennsylvania and Massachusetts.


Please excuse my ignorance of formative American literature.

But Louisiana is the ideal setting for this kind of work: the heat and humidity, the swampiness and decay, the massive cemeteries with their marble mausoleums—it all leads plausibly into questions of what death actually means and how it might be subverted.

Especially when you factor in voodoo.

(On that note, apparently there’s a specific branch of Louisiana voodoo that is “often confused with – but is not completely separable from – Haitian Vodou and southeastern U.S. hoodoo,” but places a greater emphasis on folk magic than Haitian vodou does. I had no idea.)

3. But the Louisiana setting is not just about death, decay, and rich, lush life. There’s also the question of race relations, and True Blood doesn’t shy away from that.

It’s not just the gatherings of people who trace their descent back to the Civil War and call themselves Descendants of the Glorious Dead, or the churches festooned with the confederate flag.

It’s also the vampires.

Vampires in this universe—and this is a mild spoiler, but made clear early in the first episode—have recently “come out of the coffin”—and, oh, the gender politics are an entirely different and equally complex issue in this programme. All of a sudden, creatures who have lived for a hundred years or more are walking around admitting to the fact.

Including those who, in life, were antebellum, slave-owning, plantation owners.

The Television Without Pity recapper mentioned, in terms of this issue, that the vampires are time travellers. But they aren’t. Time travellers are taken out of time: they leap forwards or backwards from their own time, but there’s no continuity.

The vampires here are living, breathing (well, they don’t breathe. But metaphorically . . .) slave owners, walking back into states such as Louisiana to reclaim ancestral properties in light of the coming Vampire Rights Amendment.

And that just opens up a whole new set of problems, activating existing racial inequality—who do you react, as an African American, when you’re confronted with someone who personally owned slaves?—and starting new ones. After all, vampires aren’t like us, are they? As one character says, when her son points out how pale a vampire is, “No, honey: we’re white. He’s dead.”

Oh, yes: I want to see where this is going.

4. Stephen Moyer.

Stephen Moyer was vampire Jack Beresford—the jerk who kicked everything off in Joe Ahearne’s Ultraviolet, back in 1998—and here he is as Vampire Bill. But he’s great fun, shifting easily between a little creepy and downright charming—and if his eyes have always been that colour, I don’t know why I haven’t noticed before.

5. The show acknowledges that vampires are, basically, a bit naff. There’s more than one example of this, but my favourite is still the fact that the vampire club in Shreveport is called Fangtasia. Bill, in charming mode, tries to justify this on the grounds that many vampires are extremely old and that puns used to be the highest form of humour—but we all know that vampires are just a bit naff.

6. The show plays with the notion of addiction: with the idea that vampirism is an addiction, and with human addiction to every substance under the sun, including vampires.

Do you know? At this point it occurs to me that if I go much further, I’ll be giving away spoilers.

And I don’t want to do that—I want people to enjoy this programme in their own right.

(Oh, dear lord. They’re playing Will and Grace on weeknights? Fantastic. Yet another reason to watch True Blood: a gay character who isn’t celibate or a eunuch. Well, another character—there’s always Captain Jack Harkness.)

But, really—you may not trust me on this. But I wish you would. You won’t regret it.

Random Prettiness

Posted 22 October 2008 in by Catriona

I am going to update properly, but, in the interim, I’m so impressed with how pretty my bougainvillea is looking this spring (well, what passes for spring in Brisbane) that I felt it deserved its own degree of Internet celebrity.

(I call it “my” bougainvillea, but the only reason it’s flourishing is because I never do anything to it, ever. If I did, it would die.)

Three interesting points about these pictures:

1. All three were taken from the same location, on various degrees of zoom. The camera was positioned about two metres from the actual plant, but the zoom function is fabulous.

2. I completely stuffed my ankle (or re-stuffed, really, by aggravating whatever damage I caused falling down the stairs on Sunday morning) taking these pictures: firstly, by assuming that, despite the swelling, it was healed enough for me to trot down the garden in the high-heeled wedges that were lying around rather than bothering to put sensible shoes on and, secondly, by kneeling on it to get a better angle on the plant. Now it really hurts again and I think the swelling’s gone up.

3. Nobody tell Nick that I had to take the batteries out of his camera to get these pictures off my own camera, because mine had gone flat. Okay? I’m sure he’ll never find out about it.

Lessons I Have Learned From Playing Lego Batman

Posted 21 October 2008 in by Catriona

Lego Star Wars taught me many valuable lessons about preventing an evil galactic empire from taking over the universe, by blowing things up and constructing useful objects out of Lego.

I’m still waiting to put these lessons into practice.

But Lego Batman has taught me equally valuable, though slightly different, lessons about alternately protecting Gotham’s streets and menacing them when you are, in both cases, made out of plastic bricks that fall apart under pressure.

1. Batman is terribly serious: he has a little frown on what you can see of his face under his mask and he leans forwards when he runs to make the running seem more serious. (It’s hilarious to have serious-running Batman and waddling Penguin on the one screen.)

This intense seriousness makes it much more fun to take Batman into the Botanic Gardens level and spend a happy five minutes kicking Lego flowers to pieces.

Nothing beats watching a superhero very seriously kicking flowers.

2. I just don’t understand Harley Quinn.

I see the name popping up often enough online to assume she’s a fairly popular character, but the whole notion freaks me out.

She falls in love with the Joker almost instantly? He keeps abusing her, almost killing her on more than one occasion? He decides at one point that “it would be better if she were disfigured”? She believes that the Joker constantly reinvents his personality but argues that his affection for her is the sole constant?

Man, that’s messed up.

However, she does have a giant hammer with which she smashes things. That does go some way towards ameliorating my concerns about playing the character.

(It’s still messed up, though.)

3. Apparently, in Gotham, when your companion rapidly changes their clothes (and, sometimes, their personality) the entire world becomes temporarily fuzzy, often causing you to fall off a building.

At least, that’s what happens to my console when the computer-controlled player changes from one character to another, and I assume it’s an accurate representation of how the laws of physics operate in Gotham City.

4. Part of the fun of being a superhero is having a sidekick. If watching the live-action version of The Tick taught me anything, it’s that sidekicks should be enjoyed, exploited, and ostracised.

(I’m fairly certain that was the lesson I was supposed to take away from that show.)

But the computer-controlled characters don’t understand this, and keep shifting into Catwoman, when I want to play as Catwoman. Surely they must see that two Catwomen just leads to confusion.

They do this regardless of which character I’m playing, but it only annoys me when I’m Catwoman.

5. I don’t know who Clayface is, but I would imagine that being some kind of soil-based being who dissolves in water would be inconvenient.

6. Lego Joker is, if anything, even creepier than actual Joker. I don’t know why. Perhaps because his expression never moves—and neither does his hair? Perhaps because he’s the only villain you don’t get to actively defeat? Perhaps because at one point in the game he runs over his own girlfriend with a roller-coaster car?

I think it might be the last one.

7. I know Batman is a vigilante and often performs morally suspect actions, but I still suspect that smacking henchmen around until they explode into their constituent parts is crossing some sort of line.

8. The game is called Lego Batman, true.

And Batman is one of the great heroes of the comic-book realm, true.

But if he continues to get in my way when I’m trying to execute a tricky jump, I’m going to continue to shoot him.

9. Gotham has confusing architecture. It’s even more confusing when you’re flying through the skyscrapers in the Batwing. That’s why I keep hitting buildings and water towers, then exploding.

It’s absolutely because of the confusing architecture.

Not at all because I’m a rubbish flyer and keep getting lost.

I'm the Goddamn (Lego) Batman! (And I'm Adorable)

Posted 19 October 2008 in by Catriona

Why, yes, I have been playing Lego Batman.

I was certainly intending to spend the day putting my house into something resembling order, but, in my own defense, that was before I fell down the back steps trying to get to the washing machine.

Now I have an ankle that more closely resembles a water balloon than a human appendage, and don’t really feel like cleaning the house.

(I’m also really not looking forward to trotting across the Great Court on this tomorrow morning, standing for an hour giving a lecture, and trotting back across the Great Court for the first of three tutorials. But, firstly, I don’t have a choice so there’s no point whinging and, secondly, it may have gone down by tomorrow.)

It did make a great excuse for lying around playing Lego Batman, though.

And it’s true—I am adorable. Well, Lego Batman is adorable. He has a stern expression and leans forward when he’s running for extra speed. And I’m sure everyone can imagine how adorable a Lego version of Batman running intensely is.

The game still has the same frustrations as the earlier Lego games had; as the Kotaku review points out, the developers don’t seem to have worked out the glitches in the engine—such as falling through scenery or becoming stuck behind something with no way of getting out or, in extreme cases, killing yourself and rematerialising elsewhere—and the camera angles still make it difficult to negotiate jumps.

I also have trouble—though I suspect this is simply my problem—with negotiating Batman’s glide suit; I don’t seem to be able to get enough height, and keep hitting walls. I was also driven frantic by a scene where I negotiated (at great expense—I think I died fifteen times, costing me True Villain status) a series of rolling lasers, only to find I’d gone through them with the wrong damn character and had to go back through twice (once to pick up the correct character, stuck on the far side of the lasers, and once to reach the correct side) in order to open the next door.

Stupid lasers.

But those are fairly minor quibbles. As is Kotaku’s other main complaint: that the game is something of a cakewalk. It is—but I don’t mind. The blog may suggest I spend most of my spare time playing video games, but that doesn’t mean I’m any good at them. I was surprised by how readily I was getting through the levels here, but I don’t object.

Why would I? I’m Lego Batman!

I have batarangs, which I use to hit targets and open doors.

I can change between glide suits, which allow me to negotiate gaps greater than my jumping distance; demolition suits, which allow me to blow stuff up; and suits that allow me to walk through freezing gas. (If I’m playing as Robin, I have two suits: one that’s magnetised and allows me to walk vertically up metal walls and one that allows me to walk safely across toxic sludge.)

I have a Batmobile. A Batmobile made out of Lego. (The best kind of Batmobile.)

And once I’ve worked my way through a level as Batman, I can go through a secret door in the Batcave into Arkham Asylum (let’s just skip over what a ridiculous idea it would be to have a door running directly between Arkham Asylum and Batman’s secret headquarters) and play a slightly different version of the level as The Riddler. Or Two-Face. Or The Penguin, Catwoman, or The Joker.

I have neither the inclination nor the ability to actually set myself up as a Batman-style vigilante.

But then why would I need to? I imagine it would be a dangerous, uncomfortable, and frequently cold or damp kind of lifestyle.

At least this way when I cop The Riddler’s question mark-shaped stick to the head, I just rematerialise slightly further down the street.

Goodbye, Packrat

Posted 17 October 2008 in by Catriona

I’ve mentioned before how much I enjoy Packrat. In fact, I suspect that half this blog’s content derives from my becoming obsessed with some game and then writing endless posts on the subject.

But I think I may have just hit the point of no return in Packrat. And I suspect I’m not the only one.

Because the developers have just launched a new version of Packrat, which runs counter to the game we’ve been playing all year.

To play Packrat, you collect various cards in a themed set, combine some of them to make new cards, scour the sets of friends and the computer-controlled rats to find rare pop-up cards, and then vault all the cards in the set to complete it and obtain a themed “Feat of Wonder” card.

All well and good.

Then frustrations began to creep in. Originally, pop-ups were essentially stand-alone cards: you didn’t use them to make higher-value cards, just vaulted them on their own. So when you couldn’t find them, you couldn’t complete an entire set: frustrating, but, since it was only one card out of fifteen or twenty, not enough to bring the game to a grinding halt.

Then they started producing sets that were dependent on pop-ups: you couldn’t make the higher-value cards without them. When they started this, with the Quest for Montezuma collection, it was fair enough, because they warned us in advance that it was an unusually difficult set.

But then it became the norm: all the sets relied on pop-ups for completion.

And pop-ups aren’t distributed equally: half of the discussion forum posts were people complaining that they weren’t getting pop-ups, while other, smugger players were responding, “Really? I found fifteen of those cards in half an hour this morning. Have you tried navigating through the packs backwards?”

That was frustrating enough.

Then a set came in where the higher-value cards were not only dependent on pop-ups, but didn’t increase in value. Normally, if you combined three 1000-point cards, your resultant cards would be worth 5000 points or 7000 points—something greater than the sum of its parts, anyway. Not for this set: at one point, a 10,000-point card, a 7500-point card, and a 750-point card combined to make another 10,000-point card, which made you wonder what you were doing.

But the new version introduces a number of frustrating ideas.

Normally, you have fifteen spaces for cards in your pack. Once your pack is full, you’re stuck until you can swap something out and vault a set. This made creating some of the more card-intensive high-value cards extremely tricky.

Now we have ten spaces, which makes creating some of the card-intensive cards impossible, especially in Quest for Montezuma.

Pop-ups have been replaced with “bonus draw” cards, which doesn’t seem like a radical shift—except that pop-ups used to appear face-up. You knew exactly which card you were getting, and could choose not to pick it up if you didn’t need it or were approaching a full pack. But bonus draw cards appear face down; it’s pot luck which one you actually get when you select bonus draw.

But the most controversial addition is the tickets.

You used to buy cards from markets for credits, which popped up randomly as you moved through the game. That’s still possible.

But now we have three special markets, in which you need tickets. And tickets are bought for $10 U.S. per 100. This is the move that’s causing people to threaten to leave the game in droves.

The intention, allegedly, is to allow people to buy retired and rare cards. Pirate ships from the original High Seas Rivalry set, for example, have always been in great demand. Now you can buy them in the markets.

For 500 tickets.

That’s $50 U.S.

In the current climate (as people on the discussion boards keep saying), that’s a foolhardy move. But so far, no real harm: these are retired sets, not sets in current play. So you could simply ignore the ticket-only markets and move on.

But you can’t.

Because a fair number of cards for new sets are also only available in the ticket-only markets, including cards that were previously available for credits in the ordinary markets.

Take a look, for example, at the cards needed to complete the new Valley of the Kings set at the Packrat Wiki.

To complete the set, you need six Great Pyramids, both to vault on its own and to make three separate cards. But the Great Pyramid is only available to purchase via tickets: at 50 tickets each, this set is going to cost players $30 U. S.

And that’s just for the Pyramids. Throw in King Tut’s Mask, and you have another $20 U. S. And they haven’t revealed how much the Sarcophagus and Head of Anubis might cost us.

That may not seem like a great deal of money, but I’m not convinced that this is the cleverest move on the part of the developers.

I’m sure the game costs them an enormous amount of money to develop and run. But they did launch it on Facebook. To take it from a free game to an expensive game on a site such as Facebook seems counter productive.

And it is expensive, comparatively. I’m currently wondering whether Lego Batman is within my budget, at around $70 Australian for the Nintendo DS version. And that’s a one-off payment for a game that I can play whenever I like. Packrat fees, on the other hand, look to be an ongoing issue.

Sure, the developers claim that you can continue to play the game without paying money for cards. But their claim is vague:

“Items on sale for Tickets can be obtained in other ways for free. You’ll likely have to exercise a little patience, cunning or ingenuity. Even if you’re unable to spend a dime on PackRat, you should still be able to complete collections and earn your Feats.”

Best as I can tell, this can only mean that you may, with luck, find cards that others have spent tickets on floating among the rats’ packs. Perhaps there are people public-spirited enough to spend $10, $15, or $50 on cards and then drop them into the rats’ packs for complete strangers to find, but it seems unlikely.

Perhaps it means that these cards will eventually shift from the ticket-only markets to the credit markets, but if that’s the case, there’s an ethical issue there that bothers me: such a model would take advantage of those desperate enough or impatient enough to pay, rather than making the game even for all players.

And they do have other options. Plenty of people on the forums have indicated a willingness to pay a flat monthly or annual fee. Pogo operates successfully on that model. And iTunes runs more than successfully on a system of micropayments, rather than the macropayments requested here. (And running it via micropayments would be better for the developers, since it reduces bank fees, apparently.)

To be honest, I probably wouldn’t be interested in micropayments, either. I will pay for games; I have a lovely set from Popcap Games, all of which I adore. But I’m not much interested in committing myself to a game that demands irregular payments of irregular amounts.

So I think this is it for me. I’ve enjoyed Packrat, but this new model is not for me.

And I suspect it won’t be for many other people, either.

Horrible Things I Have Seen And Done In Lego Star Wars

Posted 16 October 2008 in by Catriona

I frequently play Lego Star Wars as Darth Vader, because the Dark Side is way cooler. (It blows stuff up. When you use the ordinary Force—does it have a special name? I can’t recall—lights turn on, or plants glow a little and then dispense coins. But when you use the Dark Side, things blow up. Who doesn’t want to blow things up?)

However, I’m wondering if this is why I’m suddenly doing horrible things. And having horrible things done to me.

Of course, it could be that the game is a little mean spirited.

But I do love writing lists.

1. This is actually the event that inspired the post. I was working my way through the annoying arena scene in Attack of the Clones—you remember the one: they’d finally put Padme in sensible clothing, for the only time in all three films, and then a sabre-toothed tiger tore off the bottom half of her top. But naturally! The character is called “Padme (Clawed)” in the game, which always makes me giggle—when I came up against Jango Fett.

I’d almost beaten him, and he turned to run, but a battle droid grabbed him and threw him back into the battle.

I think that’s the coldest thing I’ve ever seen.

(Of course, it might have been a programming glitch. But where would the fun be in that?)

2. The event that annoyed me the most was this one, though. I’d had to shift from Vader to R2. Astromech droids can fly across bigger voids than the Jedi characters can jump. But they can only fly for short periods of time.

So I’d flown across, grabbed what I needed, and was flying back. I’d almost hit the edge when computer-controlled Vader, waiting on the brink, stepped across in front of me.


I hit him and fell in the void. Fair enough: he’s computer controlled and not terribly bright.

Then he did it again.

Hmm. Of course, I’ve always been a little paranoid about the chances that the computer is conspiring against me and favouring its own characters. But, really, when computer-controlled characters behave like that, is paranoia really that . . . paranoid? (Wait, that doesn’t sound right at all.)

3. Even paranoia doesn’t justify my last action, though.

I put an Ewok down.

I didn’t really have a choice. Okay, I did. But he was really getting in my way and annoying me. So, I may have hit him with my light saber.

A little.

And in my own defense, he did rematerialise in a much less annoying position.

And I was playing as Vader. That would warp anyone’s moral code.

For Your Consideration . . .

Posted 16 October 2008 in by Catriona

I’ve not received an official letter, as yet.

But the thesis is uploaded to the library site/digital theses project (and remind me to tell you about that debacle some day). Apparently, since it was uploaded yesterday, that should be the official date of award.

It’s printed and bound (and, yes, there was a debacle there, too, but not the printery’s fault: they’ve been awesome).

And it’s sitting on the shelf at home, next to the M.Phil.

This is the most self-aggrandising blog post I’ve ever written. And that’s saying something.

Now, if you’ll excuse me, I’m off to put my education to good use (having a drink), by spending my evening in quiet, scholarly pursuits (having another drink), thus contributing to the overall state of knowledge in the world (maybe even having a third drink).

I Tried To Stop Posting Animal Pictures . . .

Posted 16 October 2008 in by Catriona

But they’re all so cute! At least this one’s not a lizard:

He was a little shy, though, and flew away every time I moved off the verandah to try and get a closer shot.

Hurray for the zoom function and for convenient verandah railings that can double as makeshift tripods.

Strange Conversations: Part Fifty-Four

Posted 15 October 2008 in by Catriona

A storm-inspired strange conversation:

ME: I’d like to take some pictures of the lightning, but even on continuous shooting, I don’t have any warning. If the thunder only came first, that would be convenient.
NICK: Yes. But then the laws of physics would have to change.
ME: True.
NICK: And then your camera wouldn’t work, because it reacts to light.
ME: And also, I would probably explode.
NICK: Indeed. If, in fact, you’re able to plode in the first place.

No, I don’t know what he meant, either. But it made me laugh.

Further Random Weirdness From The Bookshelf

Posted 14 October 2008 in by Catriona

(I’m going to run out of modifiers if I keep posting random bookshelf weirdness: so far, I’ve used “more,” “yet more,” and “further.” Hmm—I might need to find a thesaurus.)

And I’m blatantly recycling material, here, because I mentioned these Dragonfall 5 covers last time I did random bookshelf weirdness. But I didn’t post pictures, and these covers really deserve immortality.

But I’m going to start with a pretty one: the later ones are all 1980s’ covers (not a great time for the illustrating of children’s science-fiction novels), but this one is a 1970s’ edition, with a gorgeous cartoony cover. It’s only a pity that the paperback is so battered:

Look how fabulous that spaceship is:

Alas, that degree of pretty didn’t last into the next decade. Look, for example, at Dragonfall 5 and the Super Horse:

That is one terrifying super-intelligent cyborg-horse. (Which begs the question of whether there is such a thing as a benign super-intelligent cyborg-horse.)

And the cover to Dragonfall 5 and the Haunted World bemuses me:

Now, I could say that science is not my strong point, but it would be something of an understatement. Nevertheless, I have a haunting suspicion that that rocket-powered hang-glider is actually attempting to travel in two directions at once.

Certainly, it looks as though those engines are going to send it flying backwards, not matter how intensely the pilot stares forwards.

But this? This is hands down my favourite cover of the four, even including the lovely 1970s’ one:

There’s a cow at the end of that rope but, oddly, the cow’s not what I’m interested in here.

In fact, I doubt anyone walking into a bookshop in 1985 and coming face to face with this cover would care about the cow.

And, no, I’m not trying to tiptoe around a crass joke.

I just can’t figure out whether man is a space cowboy or a space rodeo clown. Perhaps in the depths of space there exists a civilisation that has streamlined the two occupations?

That doesn’t explain why he has a weathervane on his head, though.

Books We Think We Know

Posted 12 October 2008 in by Catriona

I’ve been pondering that title since I first came up with the idea for this post (yesterday, though I’ve made it sound as though this is a magnum opus I’ve been working on for a decade) and I’m not entirely happy with it now. It sounds patronising.

But what I’ve been thinking about are books that we think we know all about because of the film adaptations, and I can’t think of a better way of putting it.

I’ve mentioned this idea before, back when I was excited about Steven Moffat’s Jekyll, and I still maintain that those are the big three: Dracula, Frankenstein, and The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde.

It’s not surprising, really: the Wikipedia page for Stevenson’s novella lists thirty-six stage plays, movies, musicals, television programmes, and video games based on the work (though it would never have occurred to me that Jerry Lewis’s The Nutty Professor is based on Stevenson’s work. Then again, I’ve never seen either it or the Eddie Murphy remake).

The page for Dracula shows at least sixty-three adaptations (unless anyone wants to double-check my desultory counting), including Bouncy Castle Dracula, performed entirely in a bouncy castle, at the 2008 Edinburgh Fringe Festival and a film described as a “softcore lesbian pornographic semi-parodical film.” (Now that’s quite the number of adjectives. On the other hand, that should bring stragglers in from Google.)

The Frankenstein page lists forty-six movies, and I didn’t even count through the parodies and the television adaptations. The only one I remember is Kenneth Branagh’s Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (which it really wasn’t), and I didn’t care for that one at all.

But, really, with at least 145 movies, stage plays, and television adaptations between them (not to mention countless books), is it any wonder that we all tend to think we know exactly what’s going to happen when we read the books?

This is, I suspect, an area where Pierre Bayard’s argument in How To Talk About Books You Haven’t Read could be misapplied: someone drawing their knowledge of Dracula and Frankenstein exclusively from the “cultural library” is just as likely—maybe more likely—to end up with an entirely skewed perspective on the novels.

Mind, it’s not that I think these films are a bad thing.

Okay, I did think that the recent BBC adaptation of Dracula with Marc Warren and Sophia Myles was a bad thing. A very, very bad thing. But my general point stands: having texts that have so thoroughly soaked into the general culture that they can be performed in bouncy castles at a fringe festival is a wonderful thing.

(That these canonical texts of English literature were written by a woman, a Scotsman, and an Irishman is a bonus.)

But they remain for me the standard of texts whose adaptations are more pervasive than the originals and yet don’t give a fair account of the original.

(Okay, I acknowledge that “fair account” is subject to change depending on the reader, and that my idea of an accurate adaptation—or an adaptation that it, at least, faithful in spirit to the original—is not going to be the same as that of other people. But I’m sticking with that solipsistic phrasing.)

They’re not unique, though.

I’ve mentioned before—in the middle of an Oz kick as I am—that I’m no great fan of the original film. And Katharine M. Rogers makes two excellent points in L. Frank Baum, Creator of Oz about ways in which the film shifted the spirit of the book. She points out, firstly, that Judy Garland is too mature to play Baum’s conception of Dorothy: “She is not a small child who is accidentally transported to a strange land and longs for the security of home, but a dissatisfied teenager who is so critical of home that she runs away and has to learn [. . .] a moral lesson” (253). Secondly, she argues that presenting Dorothy’s adventure as a dream is a falsification (253), and I would agree with that wholeheartedly: Baum’s Oz is distinctly part of the geography of our world.

Rogers also emphasises that much of the Oz mythology can be traced to the film rather than the books, such as the extremely small stature of the Munchkins and the consequent adoption of the word into English as meaning an extremely short person (they are the same size as the child Dorothy in the books) and in the extreme witchiness of the Wicked Witch of the West (253).

Nick also mentioned, when we were discussing this last night, Tim Burton’s Batman Returns, which—to the best of our combined knowledge—was the first text to present Catwoman as a supernatural being, rather than a cat burglar. (I understand the recent Halle Berry film follows this pattern, but I’ve not seen it.)

Sherlock Holmes is another example, and I’m not even thinking of the recent adaptation with Richard Roxburgh, which showed Holmes injecting cocaine in a railway station on the way to Baskerville Hall, where the real Holmes would never have used cocaine in the middle of a case—he only used it as a mental stimulant when he had no cases on hand. The Basil Rathbone films, lovely as Basil Rathbone is (especially when he’s celebrating “pirate fashion”), bore little if any resemblance to the originals—especially since the final twelve, of fourteen, were set during World War Two and involved Nazis.

Will we never be free from inappropriate Nazis?

Even The Princess Bride, adapted by the same man who wrote the original novel, is a lighter, brighter version of itself. A fabulous film, but distinct from the book—and how could it not be, when the books is so heavily concerned with process of writing prose?

It’s not that these films are bad films. They’re not.

And it’s not that I somehow harbour resentment against people for enjoying films instead of reading the original books. I don’t.

But these are fascinating to me: films that owe their existence to books and, for all that the books in each of these cases (except maybe The Princess Bride) are widely reprinted, set on school and university syllabuses, and still read, the films have an extraordinary currency that makes them more potent than their progenitors.

Now I put it like that, Frankenstein doesn’t seem like such an odd choice to head the list.

But have I missed anything?

Why I'm Partial to John R. Neill

Posted 12 October 2008 in by Catriona

I’m been on something of an Oz kick, lately, re-reading some of the later books (well, later than The Wizard of Oz and The Marvellous Land of Oz, anyway).

And it’s reminded me how much I enjoy the work of the later Oz illustrator, John. R. Neill.

L. Frank Baum allegedly quarrelled with the original illustrator, W. W. Denslow, after completing the first book; Denslow’s lovely original evocation of Dorothy and her three friends can be seen here, and it is gorgeous. The film version owes more to Denslow’s conception than it does to Neill’s, though Neill illustrated many more books than did Denslow—and despite the fact that Dorothy in the film is apparently ten years older than the six-year-old girl (or so) girl pictured here.

Denslow’s illustrations were also immensely popular, and Neill’s early illustrations show a degree of continuity, especially in the presentation of Dorothy’s closest companions: the Cowardly Lion, the Scarecrow, and the Tin Woodman.

But I was reading, last night, the eleventh book in the series, The Lost Princess of Oz. After this one, Baum wrote only three more Oz books, so by this point the conception of Oz is both fairly complete and relatively stable. Dorothy is no longer moving between America and Oz, but living in the palace with Ozma. Auntie Em and Uncle Henry have been brought in to live in a small cottage outside the Emerald City. Button-Bright, Trot, Betsy, Cap’n Bill, Hank the Mule, Scraps the Patchwork Girl, Tik-Tok, Ojo and Unc Nunkie, the Nome King, the Sawhorse—all the primary characters are established within the boundaries of the fairy kingdom by this point.

But an essential aspect of the Oz universe is the clash between the mundane and the fairylike. This lessens in later books, once all the primary characters are drawn to the Emerald City and Oz itself is cut off from the greater world. But it’s still part of the essential world-building. Dorothy—while brave, clever, and adventurous—is essentially an ordinary little girl who has extraordinary adventures.

Denslow’s illustrations don’t, for me, quite capture this aspect of the books, because of their cartoony nature. They do capture the whimsical feel of Oz, but not the clash of cultures.

But Neill’s do, as an illustration I found in The Lost Princess of Oz made me realise.

Scraps, as I mentioned before, is the Patchwork Girl, created from an old patchwork quilt by Margolotte, wife of the Crooked Magician, Dr Pipt, to act as a servant. Entirely unwilling to serve, she ends up living in Ozma’s castle.

She’s not a realistic figure and, like the Scarecrow who admires her, she isn’t presented realistically:

But there’s a scene in the beginning of The Lost Princess of Oz where Scraps, having fought with the Woozy and had her suspender-button eyes scratched off, is dragged by Button-Bright to Auntie Em for some restorative stitching, and Neill provides this illustration:

This, to me, is an extraordinary encapsulation of the clash of our world and Oz. Denslow’s world of heavy outlines and solid colours is not suited to such an evocation of the way in which Oz embraces the extraordinary, in the sentient, cotton-stuffed Scraps, and the ordinary, in the worn housewife, formerly of Kansas, and somehow manages to make them operate as part of a single kingdom.

Rain in the Garden

Posted 11 October 2008 in by Catriona

It’s been a lovely, cold, rainy weekend, so I nipped out to take some pictures in the garden.

Morning glory photographs so beautifully; it must be those big, smooth blossoms.

When I came to photograph the bougainvillea, though, the camera insisted that I needed to raise the flash, which led to some odd effects.

So we have bougainvillea without the flash:

And exactly the same flowers with the flash, which makes it look as though they were photographed at night.

I rather like the effect, though.

Fabulous Children's Books: The Slightly Less Disconnected and Ranty Sequel

Posted 11 October 2008 in by Catriona

This is the post that I’d originally intended to write last night, before I became distracted and a little cranky.

This, though, is less ranty. This is a disconnected (though slightly less disconnected than last night’s effort) run through some of my favourite children’s books—only some, but there isn’t room for all of them.

Some of them, though, are not books that I re-read regularly. This one, for example, I haven’t read in years:

Looking the author up on Wikipedia, I discovered he apparently writes “acclaimed spy thrillers,” which makes this book—a strange fantasy in which a boy living in Cornwall begins to experience memories of living in the advanced, subterranean world of Egon—an even odder addition to his oeuvre.

When I did read, though, I loved it. The Egonians are significantly advanced, physically and mentally, compared to humans, but sometimes bring humans down into their world. When they return them, they replace their memories of Egon with false ones, so when the protagonist’s memories start resurfacing, he can initially make no sense of them.

I remember, too, a strange streak running under the story: the Egonians—whose awareness of their bodies is such that they can immediately sense when something is ceasing to work effectively—cannot feel pain, and their reactions to the inherent fragility of humans disturbed me somewhat as a child.

Perhaps I should re-read this one; it has been quite some years.

Or perhaps Lewis Carroll? But I’ve not included Alice’s Adventures in Wonderland or Through the Looking Glass here, though—as a good fantasy fangirl and researcher in Victorian fiction, I love them both.

But this is a far more anarchic work than either:

This, alas, is a cut-down version of Carroll’s original two volumes, Sylvie and Bruno (1889) and Sylvie and Bruno Concluded (1893).

The novels take place partly in a fairyland called Outland—where a revolution is underway to oust the Warden, Sylvie and Bruno’s father, and replace him with the tyrannical Sub-Warden—and partly in England, where the highly moral young doctor Arthur Forester is more or less successfully wooing Lady Muriel, daughter of the Earl of Ainslie. The two parts are linked by an unnamed narrator, suffering from an unidentified illness that Wikipedia suggests might be narcolepsy. (They don’t give their source, but it’s an interesting idea, given that the narrator regularly drops into dozes, in which he sees the fairy children.)

This cut-down edition only includes the Outland material, which seems distinctly counter to Carroll’s intentions. Unfortunately, the two novels are rarely reprinted, and this seemed a better cover to include than my Complete Works of Lewis Carroll, where I have the two novels in their complete form. Plus, I love the Harry Furness illustration on the front there.

The novels are odd ones; Carroll himself called them “litterature” (no, that’s not a typing error), according to this fascinating article from Tom Christensen’s Right Reading site. The temporal, physical, and narrative shifting from Outland to England; the long, intruded, moralising passages on inherited wealth, the affectations of High Church practice, or alternative ways of organising the animal kingdom; the highly sentimental plot with Arthur and Lady Muriel, their brief marriage, and Arthur’s eventual fate—all these confused me as a child-reader.

But I was fascinated by the books, nevertheless. And I remain fascinated with them, especially now I have a more thorough understanding of how Victorian literature shifts and develops.

Or L. Frank Baum?

I’ve only bought this edition recently, actually, and now want to collect all of them in these facsimile hardbacks: I also have The Tin Woodman of Oz (1918) in this edition.

Ozma of Oz (1907) fascinates me: I’ve heard The Wizard of Oz (1900) called the first American fairytale (though I can’t remember where I heard that: if anyone knows, let me know so I can attribute it correctly), but the books seem to me to be analogous to Carroll’s Alice books, in one significant way: both books take a distinct step back from the standard Victorian model of immature femininity, of the angelic child, Dickens’s Little Nell or Stowe’s Little Eva.

Dorothy Gale—and, gradually, the other child-characters who are shifted from America to Oz, like Button-Bright, Trot, and Betsy—is, like Alice, unwilling to accept adult authority simply because it is adult authority, especially when the Wizard, like so many of the other authority figures, turns out to be a humbug.

Ozma of Oz was one of the books that inspired the 1985 film, Return to Oz and, while I know so many people hold the Judy Garland film dear, I much prefer the sequel, which seems to me truer to the nature of the books: terrifying, often cruel and arbitrary, and ultimately centred on the bravery, intelligence, and tenacity of a young girl.

Ditto George MacDonald:

There’s little, I suspect, that I can say about MacDonald that isn’t covered by the fact that his devotees include C. S. Lewis, J. R. R. Tolkien, and Madeleine L’Engle.

(Sadly, I haven’t included A Wrinkle in Time in this list, though I should have. Or the Narnia books. Or The Hobbit. There simply isn’t room for everything.)

At the Back of the North Wind seems to be the most frequently reprinted—and perhaps most frequently cited—of MacDonald’s fantasies, where others—such as The Day Boy and Night Girl (1882) or “The Light Princess” from Adela Cathcart (1864)—are rarely reprinted or re-read. But The Princess and the Goblin (1872) is by far and away my favourite, even more so than the sequel, The Princess and Curdie (1883).

On a slightly unrelated note, the other thing that intrigues me about George MacDonald is how much he looked like Rasputin. That’s one intense-looking writer of whimsical Scottish fantasy stories for children.

Do people still read Mary Stewart?

I have another of hers in the same series of reprints: The Little Broomstick (1971). Apparently, this, Ludo and the Star Horse (1974), and A Walk in Wolf Wood (1980) are her only children’s novels. I’ve never read the latter, but I adored the other two, especially Ludo, which tells the story of a young boy living in the Tyrol, who follows the family’s old horse (on which their livelihood depends) out into the snow one night, and ends up travelling with him through the land of the Zodiac.

Nick didn’t care for this book, at all, because it does have a melancholic ending. I still maintain, though, that it’s one of the most unusual fantasies I’ve ever read. (And, yet, part of the reason why I’m so fascinated specifically by children’s fantasy is because it’s often so innovative compared to fantasy novels written for adults.)

But I can’t end without this book:

This picture doesn’t do justice to how battered my poor copy of The Land of Green Ginger is. According to the Wikipedia page, it’s rarely been out of print since it was published in 1937, which doesn’t surprise me, except that I don’t think I’ve ever seen a copy in a bookstore or a booksale. If I had, I would certainly have bought one to sit alongside this beloved paperback, which is more sellotape than anything else.

No one’s bookshelf is complete without the adventures of Abu Ali (son of Aladdin, but too nice to be a satisfactory heir), Silver Bud, Mouse, Boomalaka Wee, and, of course, the Friend of the Master of the Horse.

I wish I had more room here. I haven’t mentioned Tove Jansson’s Moomintroll books, or Lucy M. Boston’s Green Knowe series, or Diana Wynne Jones (though no convincing is required there, surely?), or Mary Poppins, or the Wombles, or Helen Cresswell’s Bagthorpe Saga, or any of a hundred other fabulous children’s books.

But I have talked myself out of the cranky mood that Harold Bloom and A. S. Byatt put me in yesterday.

After all, I have all these lovely books. And no one can actually prevent me from reading them as often as I wish, whatever opinion they might subsequently entertain about my intelligence or my maturity.



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