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Archive for the category “Hobbies”

Thoughts from a first-time Korra-watcher

So, I finally sat down and watched the full series of Legend of Korra over the course of several evenings this last week. I’d heard a lot of excellent things about the show from various people and for a long time had been curious about it. I agree with several other people that it seems an odd fit amid Nickelodeon’s fart-joke and booger-humor lineup. Since I’m not a Hulu Plus or Netflix subscriber, I watched the series on YouTube, with all of the sound issues and sketchy video quality that this entails (I never did find versions that weren’t cut off at the top and/or bottom). All around, I found Korra to be a smart, well-written saga full of lively, interesting characters. (Warning: contains spoilers.)

I think my favorite aspect of the show is that nowhere during the series does anyone make an issue of the fact that the new Avatar is a girl—Korra included. While characters’ skepticism toward her youth and inexperience come up periodically during the first couple seasons, no one ever suggests that being a girl makes her less an Avatar than any of the previous. Nor does Korra display a need to prove that she’s smarter, tougher, or in any way better than all the boys. From the start I felt like she stayed focused on learning and understanding who and what she needs to be as the Avatar. There’s little I appreciate more in a heroine. While Korra starts out pretty brash and overconfident, occasionally assuming that her Avatar status should automatically command others’ respect or warrant her special privileges, she really grows as a character over the course of the series. My hat goes off to creators Bryan Konietzko and Michael Dante DiMartino for doing it so smartly and believably—in an era where children’s shows thrive on characters who are stubbornly and stupidly resistant to character development, it was genuinely refreshing to watch Korra and her friends grow and mature over the 50-odd episodes.

Nor do Korra or Asami or any of the other women protagonists ever really serve the function of “damsel in distress.” Sure, Korra gets captured several times in seasons 1 and 3, but each time she makes her captors work to subdue her and on several of these occasions she manages to get herself free without help. I respect that in a heroine.

I like as well the overall level of competence shown by the primary villains of the story. I grew up with cartoonishly incompetent villains like Skelator, Cobra Commander, and the Shredder—characters so unrealistically foolish that the heroes defeat them by virtue of having double-digit IQ points. The masked villain Amon is charismatically evil, with an insidious plan to take over the city and destroy the Avatar—one that allows him to paint a heroic image of himself in the blood on his hands. Not only does he nearly succeed, he defeats Korra at least three times, even succeeding in taking her powers away. Korra’s evil uncle Unalaq may be crazy and obsessed, but he’s still cunning enough to use is superior knowledge of the Spirit World and its lore to stay ahead of our heroes for all of Season 2. It was the dictator Kuvira, however, who quickly became one of my favorite antagonists in all of television. I absolutely love a well-written villainess, as well as intelligent and militant evil dictators. While I’d rather not live under her reign, I respect the way that Kuvira isn’t afraid to use force to unite the squabbling factions of the Earth Empire and put down the thugs and bandits plaguing the countryside.

Nor are Korra’s enemies the sort of villains who lose by surrounding themselves with incompetent help. I liked that even the fight scenes against enemy henchmen and faceless minions tend to be tricky, hard-hitting fights for Team Avatar. The Earth-, Fire-, and Water-Bender bad-guys are all highly competent at their crafts, using their powers in creative and effective ways, forcing the good guys to think on their feet and adjust their tactics to counter their enemies’ fighting style—and even then the heroes don’t always win. Meanwhile, the non-Bender lackeys and henchmen are no slouches either, often expert martial artists and using specialized weapons and technology to make up for the lack of bending. The fight scenes are generally well-done with Anime-style action that I rarely felt was over-the-top.

I was also mostly impressed with the romance in the story. In general I tend to have a preference for tales where romantic tension and drama are secondary (or even tertiary) to the overall plot—thus I appreciated the minimal focus on these relationships throughout the series. The Korra + Mako relationship was one I didn’t really believe in, and I honestly felt like Korra seemed to have a much more fun on the one date she went on with Bolin than all of the time she spent with Mako. I typically hate love-triangles as such an over-played trope, but for the most part I was okay with Korra/Mako/Asami. I wasn’t overly surprised when Mako picked Korra, but I also wasn’t too surprised when they broke up. But I like that they don’t let their personal drama obstruct saving the world.

As far as Korra and Asami’s relationship at the very end of the series, I’m pretty okay with it. I thought ending the series with the two of them holding hands was tasteful and believable—a charming first date between two likeable, mutually-attracted ladies. Admittedly, the evolution of Korra and Asami from buds to potential girlfriends is subtle, but I think I like it better that way. Rather than the flirtation, awkward dialogue, and furtive glances we’re used to with marginally experienced couples, we see a mutual respect and sense of teamwork between two smart, capable heroines. Beginning early in season 3, we start to see a stronger camaraderie between Korra and Asami, influenced in part by their respective past relationships with Mako. I kind of got the feeling that both heroines grew up surrounded mainly by adults and thus neither has ever really had a gal-pal to hang out with before. To me the hand-holding marks the start of a relationship: both of them interested in ‘testing the water’ romantically and wanting to see where this goes.

On the whole, there’s a lot more I could (and would like to) say about Legend of Korra in terms of story, characters, and a lot of the very adult issues that the creators bring up in this truly well-written children’s saga. But I’ll leave off for now with a last set of compliments to the creators. Korra is a genuinely smart, well-constructed story and I offer my thanks for sharing it with the world. As always, thanks so much for reading, folks. Take care, stay awesome!

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Role-Playing as Girls

MMORPG: Many Men Online Role-Playing as Girls.

Pirate Queen

“Pistol-packin’ mama, won’t you put that pistol down?”

I’ll admit, I’m one of those guys. One of those dorky guys who builds and plays female characters in various video and computer role-playing games. This isn’t to say that all of my characters are ladies, but a good percentage are. Four out of my seven Lord of the Rings Online characters are women. Three of five of my Guild Wars 2 characters are. About half of my Knights of the Old Republic 1 & 2 characters are. Admittedly, most of my Neverwinter Nights 2 characters are ladies. (In my defense, do you have any idea how hard it is to make male characters that aren’t stupid looking in NWN2 without them all looking alike? With the exception of the dwarves, it just isn’t worth the effort.) I’d have to look, but I’d guess that my ratios for Dragon Age: OriginsNeverwinter Nights 1Titan’s Quest, and other games are similar to LotRO or GW2.

Lady Highwayman

“Many a young maid lost her baubles to my trade. Many a soldier shed his life’s blood on my blade.”

Guys like me take a lot of shit for our willingness to roll and play fem characters. The fact that so many of these games are willing to pander to the pocket-mining demographic by designing impractically revealing women’s armor and allowing players to strip their characters down to their underwear really only gives these critics more ammunition. (One big shout-out I’ll give to both Neverwinter Nights 2 and Lord of the Rings Online is that neither does this. Unequipped characters wear conservative under-tunics and none of the armor features exposed midriffs or cleavage.) I seriously hate this kind of cheesecakey pandering. Not that I lack interest in cleavage, I just find it kind of insulting that they’d think any reasonably competent warrior woman would want gaps in her armor just above her heart and entrails. (I’ll probably discuss this pet peeve further in a future post.)

Drow Warrior

“Such a coaxing elf, I’d to pinch myself to make sure I was standing there!”

I guess the most obvious reason I tend to build and play lady characters is aesthetics: I just find women more interesting to look at than men. After all, most of these games are third-person POV, and I’d much rather follow a gal’s backside around than a dude’s. And, honestly, I just like the look of smart, self-sufficient women in commando’s armor or a ranger’s cloak or a rogue’s cowl or a Jedi’s robes. I feel like smart game designers have figured out that women’s armor can be both protective and sexy—that chain and scale mail can be delightfully form fitting and that leather and plate armor can feature appropriately feminine curvature. As far as science-fantasy RPGs go, I’ve been similarly impressed with women’s armor in the Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic series and with the Mass Effect games. In both series, our heroines’ armor manages to look protective and practical, yet feminine at the same time.

Shep

“They locked you in the tower and they threw away the key,
But this tower’s no match for a wag like me.”

I think, too, that women hero archetypes are fun both to play upon and play against. In Dragon Age: Origins I had as much fun playing the quintessential skinny, bow-toting elf maiden as I did playing a skinny elf maiden with heavy armor and greatsword. (That, and I found the elf dudes to be a little on the derpy-looking side in that game.) And while my champion from Lord of the Rings Online typically wore a suit of battered dwarf armor, it was amusing a couple times to put her in an elf gown and pick fights with swamp trolls. My favorite party build from NWN2: Storm of Zehir was six bat-shit-crazy Dark Elf maidens. My Drow fighter with the bastard sword took one level of sorceress (for the Dragon Disciple prestige class), and to go against the grain, I gave her a bunny rabbit for her familiar. I just don’t think the sentiment would have been as funny had I instead used some tough-guy Drow soldier instead.

Ice Hunter

“‘We come from the land of the ice and snow,
From the midnight sun where the hot springs flow.”

Indeed, one factor that defines the role-playing game genre as a whole is story-telling. From the epic saga to the basic dungeon crawler, every game tells a story. Thus each player becomes the character or characters in the story. The classic figure of the handsome knight in gleaming armor on a quest to save his kingdom has certainly earned it’s right to be a classic, but what of the beautiful knight in gleaming armor on a quest to save her kingdom? I think I’d rather tell her story. I’ve beaten the main story for Dragon Age: Origins on four of my characters, but only one of them was male. The stories of the exiled sorceress, the noblewoman seeking to avenge the murder of her parents, and the elf-maiden on the run after killing the lord who raped her friend: all were more interesting stories to me than were the dwarven thug escaping his former employers or the pretty-boy forest elf trying to remove an evil curse.

Dragon Food

“This dragon had a plaguey hide,
fa la lanky down dilly,
That could the sharpest steel abide,
fa la lanky down dilly.”

From a literary standpoint, I think that adventure games in general owe a certain amount of debt to figures like JRR Tolkien and Gary Gygax. First to Tolkien for giving us a character like Eowyn, a skilled shield-maiden not afraid to disobey orders by donning men’s armor and riding into battle to protect her people. And to Gary and the other Dungeons & Dragons writers for creating a world where women adventurers are in every way equal to their male counterparts. Certainly, there have been plenty of women figures throughout history and literature who’ve demonstrated a woman’s ability to fight in battle beside the men, but I feel it was the works of writers like Tolkien and Gygax and Arneson and others of their respective generations that really encouraged contemporary and modern adventure writers to include strong, smart, independent heroines in their stories. Playing women fighters in video and computer role-playing games is my way of creating my own strong, smart, independent heroines.

dance7.1

“Everyday I’m shufflin’.”

All images are screen shots taken directly from game play.
Image 1: Guild Wars 2. Song: “Pistol-Packin’ Mama,” by Bing Crosby
Image 2: Lord of the Rings Online. Song: “The Highwayman,” by The Highwaymen
Image 3: Neverwinter Nights 2: Storm of Zehir. Song: “Star of the County-Down,” traditional Irish
Image 4: Mass Effect 2. Song: “Scalliwag,” by Gallic Storm
Image 5: Lord of the Rings Online. Song: “Immigrant Song,” by Led Zeppelin
Image 6: Dragon Age: Origins. Song: “Sir Eglamore,” by Kate Rusby
Image 7: Guild Wars 2. Song: “Party Rock Anthem,” by Lmfao
Image 8: Star Wars: Knights of the Old Republic 2. Song: “What a Way to Go,” by Ray Kennedy 

Sabers

“He said, ‘women gonna be the death of me, but what a way to go!'”

Tabletop Dungeon Crawl

I had the opportunity this past spring and summer to try out Dungeons and Dragons for the first time. My cousin invited my brother and me to join in a couple tabletop campaigns with him and three of his buddies. I played Neverwinter Nights I & II pretty extensively, as well as Icewind Dale II and one of the Baldur’s Gate games a little bit, so I felt I had a decent understanding of the game and it’s mechanics. Both campaigns used the D&D 3.5 rules, which I’m more used to through NWN II anyway. The campaigns were set up alternate weekends. My brother played a barbarian in the first and a dwarf fighter in the second. I played a rogue in the first and an archer in the second.

The first campaign was more story-driven. The characters were all sailors on a ship in a world where sailing is powered by magic. Clerics use divine spells to control the wind, thus propelling the boats. My rogue carried a rapier, but since I had little familiarity with how to set up the skill points, I ended up being fairly mediocre at my trade. In particular, as Spot and Listen checks are pretty much useless in games like Neverwinter Nights, I didn’t put any points into them. After suffering the embarrassment of constant failed checks, I put all of my points into Spot at next level and made hearing problems part of his character from there on out in the story. Our characters were quickly built and so not thoroughly researched or thought out. But it was fun. I got kudos from the more experienced gamers in the group by using a fishing net to catch an enemy with Greater Invisibility who’d been tearing us up pretty bad.

The second campaign had minimal plot or story, but was set up as an excuse to play around with level 20 characters. My brother built a dwarf fighter with a spiked chain as a weapon, who had the ability to ‘attack of opportunity’ enemies twice before they could reach him in melee combat. Mine was a combat sniper using a fighter, rather than the traditional ranger build. (It was kind of funny when I had to assure the party’s paladin that I was a combat sniper rather than an assassin. He admitted that it was an important distinction.) I gave my sniper all of the fighter-exclusive longbow and ranged-combat feats that I could find as well as feats to increase stealthiness and awareness. Interestingly, none of the more experienced players had ever experimented with a fighter-archer build. I think I created a certain respect for the build when I wiped out a third of a group of mid-level NPCs in the surprise round.

Both campaigns broke up after a little over five months, due to my cousin needing to get ready for his upcoming wedding and personnel conflicts between a couple of the other players. It was fun, though, and I’d do it again given the opportunity. The strategy in character builds as well as the combat held the most appeal for both my brother and me. I think my brother’s only real issue was the role-playing aspect of it. I think he felt silly trying to get into character. Having had experience in drama and theater, however, I had a lot more fun getting into my character—even adopting a pseudo-Aussie accent for my sniper.

(I’ve looked at some of the rules to D&D 4.0, and I honestly didn’t like it. The combat in particular fees like it caters too much to MMO fans in how it breaks classes down into tank, support, and damage rolls. A: I feel like this limits the scope of how battles can and should function. B: Not having one or more of these rolls filled shouldn’t cripple your ability to function as a party.)

I know blogging’s been slow. Blame Guild Wars 2

I’m not actually sure what this place is. It’s visible from one of the harbor towns, but I don’t know what it’s for or how to get there.

My thoughts on Guild Wars 2:
Very much worth the hype. It’s a streamlined, easy-to-learn, beautifully rendered MMORPG that I strongly recommend for anyone who likes computer action role-playing games. The overall look of the game is stunning. I honestly think I’ve become addicted to taking screen captures of the landscape throughout this vast, beautiful, and dangerous world. The game itself feeds this addiction by providing vista points for players to discover, where by selecting the point, players are treated to a camera flyby of a nearby landmark or landscape.

Milady Greensleeves, guardian and noblewoman, out exploring and rock climbing.

One of the key points for me is that it’s one of the more sand-boxy MMOs I’ve seen. There is a decent amount of territory to get lost in if I just feel like exploring for a while. While this might otherwise suggest that it takes a long time to get from place to place, Arena Net thoughtfully added various waypoints players can teleport to for a nominal fee, simply by clicking on them on their maps. The only stipulation is that it must be a waypoint that their character has visited in the past. I also think Arena Net did a great job of taking into account that players want to explore. We enjoy climbing mountains and dancing on rooftops. Other game makers seem to forget this factor. Whereas Blizzard was long known for suspending World of Warcraft players for getting up onto the roofs of buildings or mountain climbing into closed-off areas, Guild Wars 2 has waypoints and scenic vistas that are only accessible through rigorous mountain climbing or jumping from building to building.

Viarra the Thief. Though not in the first-edition Dungeons and Dragons sense.

Character creation, game play, and customization are about as streamlined as I’ve ever seen in an action RPG. In contrast with my Champion from Lord of the Rings Online, who has at least thirty abilities—only six of which I use in a given battle—my Guild Wars 2 Guardian has around twelve abilities equipped at any given time. Technically she has more than that, but I’m free to equip, un-equip, and customize these depending on the situation. What this essentially allows players to do is specialize their character for a given role. My thief, for example, can be set up as a melee fighter with swords or knives, a ranged fighter with short bow or pistols, or even some of both with sword in one hand and pistol in the other. I can swap between any two combinations of weapons with a keystroke and make more extensive changes on the fly between battles. Perhaps a more effective comparison is the Dragon Age series, where many of the attacks and other abilities depend on what weapons the character has equipped at a given time.

I also appreciate Arena Net’s break from the standard elf, dwarf, orc series of cliches in the character build. Instead we get Humans, ordinary people like you and me; Norn, a race of viking-like giants; Charr, an apparent amalgam of the Beast from Disney’s Beauty and the Beast and various members of the genus panthera; Asura, a grey-skinned cross between the Brain from Animaniacs and Yoda; and Slivani, a race of plant-people with leaves for hair, petals for undergarments, and flowers growing out their butts.

The Charr: Villains in Guild Wars 1, now a playable race.

But the factor I think makes Guild Wars 2 most revolutionary is the questing system. Say, for example, a player character arrives at a farm beset by marauding centaurs. In a standard MMO, there will be three or four NPC farmers standing about, offering quests to do things like repair fences, retrieve stolen crops, and bring back fifteen centaur brains. The centaurs, meanwhile, are milling about in a field and only attack  if the player gets too close (approx. 15 feet). And apparently only 1 in 3 centaurs even has a brain, as it takes killing 40 to 50 centaurs to get fifteen centaur brains. In Guild Wars 2, the player might arrive at the farm to find the centaurs burning buildings, riding off with loot, or openly butchering NPC farm hands. Instead of having to talk to an NPC to get the appropriate quests, a message pops up in the top corner of the screen, letting the player know what needs to be done. Thus players are able to immediately enter the fracas and start rescuing NPC farmers and recovering stolen crops.

In addition, there are random events that occur throughout the questing areas that players can choose whether or not to participate in—assuming, of course they don’t get caught up in the middle of them when they hit. In the human lands, for example, there are areas being fought over by the humans and the centaurs, with outposts on both sides being contested. Players are invited to join in the attack when the humans make a push against a centaur encampment. If enough players don’t join the assault, the attack fails and the human troops retreat. If enough players do come help, the encampment is taken and the humans gain a new foothold. Similarly, if enough players don’t come to help defend a besieged human fortress, it will be taken by the centaurs and players lose access to all vendors, repairers, teleport waypoints, and other facilities until the fortress is retaken. I love this feature in that it creates a tug-of-war dynamic between factions in contested territory. I have, however, been caught outside a besieged fortress just as the defenders slammed the gates shut against the oncoming horde. Hilarity ensued.

There is also a story-based campaign of quests that players have the option of whether or not to pursue. The quests have been only mildly interesting so far, and some of the voice acting is of the mediocre persuasion. I try to keep up with them, though, because they tend to provide decent on-level gear as quest rewards.

An alpine road guarded by giant statues of the Norn spirits, Raven, Snow Leopard, Wolf, and Bear.

A few things I feel could work differently (not that any of these factors ruin my gaming experience):
Mounts would be helpful. Sure, the waypoints eliminate any need for a flight-path system like in WoW or a stable-point system like in LOTRO, but at the same time there is enough open territory out there that I feel it would come in handy to have a horse to ride around on. I get tired of hearing that centaurs are attacking the southern encampment, but missing out on the battle because I had to run the whole way.

I also think a costuming system like in Lord of the Rings Online could seriously benefit the overall look of the game. Yes, there is a civilian clothing toggle, so you don’t have to run around town in your armor, but I felt like they could have done more with the outfit customization. While I like the selection of dyes and the amount of color customization available for individual pieces of clothing, I keep finding aesthetically pleasing armors that I know I’m likely to miss once I update them to a newer set. My other reason is that I have a profound dislike for some of the cheesecakey armor that shows off a lot of skin. Not that I’m particularly bothered by cleavage or bare midriffs, I just find it mildly offensive that Arena Net’s armor designers think a reasonably competent warrior woman would want massive gaps in her armor just above her heart or entrails. (Though Guild Wars 2 is hardly the worst culprit in this pet peeve of mine.) Thus I’d prefer the option to cosmetically substitute some of the more lingerie-ish armor I’ve seen for the more sensible scale and chain mail armor I’ve used so far.

I especially love how characters’ feet actually adjust to sloping terrain—unlike most 3D games where toes disappear into hillsides and wide stances involve one foot buried up to the knee and the other hovering off the ground.

Screen captures taken directly from game play. The images should be full resolution, so feel free to use them as desktop wallpaper. I often do.

Drawrings from High School

This came from a poster I used to have. The hat and bandanna had loud, strange, colorful patterns that were basically impossible to portray in graphite.

I don’t think of myself as a particularly great artist. I can draw most things I see with a certain degree of skill (except cars—I can never seem to draw cars very well), but I’m not the sort who can draw just anything that comes to the imagination. I envy people like that. That isn’t to say that I can’t use other images and modify them to look how I want—I do it all the time—but I look at a lot of the slickly drawn, original images on art blogs and Deviant Art and webcomics, and feel mediocre in comparison.

For my 30th birthday, my mom put together a scrapbook for me, full of pictures, certificates, and other paraphernalia that she’s kept all these years. One thing she made sure to include was samples of my art, mostly from my drawing classes in high school, but also featured a few more recent ones as well as a marker drawing of a tractor from 1st or 2nd grade. (Apparently, John Deere green wasn’t a standard color in marker sets.) It’s been interesting to see how my interests at that time reflected my subject matter for my sketch work. In elementary school, I was into video games and remember drawing a lot of Mario Brothers stuff. I even remember designing Mario levels on long sheets of paper and having cutouts I drew of the Mario characters dodging cutout Goombas and Koopa Troopas. I also remember being into World War II airplanes for a while and drawing many of those during my free time. Unfortunately, very little of my artwork from elementary school still survives. It’d be interesting to look back at those and compare how they look to my later stuff.

I remember being rather proud of this one. And looking back, it’s one of my better comic book drawings. It’s been so long that I don’t remember where I got the image I used for Wolverine here, but having him tearing through the page was entirely my addition.

I didn’t do a great deal of drawing in early high school. Not sure why, either. It wasn’t until I took a couple drawing courses my junior and senior years that I started to draw regularly again. I still have my high school sketchbook and peruse it from time to time. Apparently I was really into comic book heroes back then. Most of my comics sketches were from X-Men, but I also drew a couple Spider-Man drawings, among others. I don’t follow action comics as closely anymore—I even gave my comic books to one of my cousins years ago—but I do still think they’re interesting aesthetically. I think it’s the exaggerated physical features that draw me to them. I’m fairly certain it isn’t possible to be as muscle-bound as the male heroes nor as outrageously sexualized as the heroines. I’m not sure why, but I find these exaggerated images as compelling as they are hilarious.

Based on the MTG card “Goblin Hero,” artwork by Pete Venters. I recall that Venters did a number of great illustrations of goblins for MTG, but this one was particularly effective.

At about this time, Wizards of the Coast’s Magic: the Gathering was also fairly popular at my high school, and so a number of my drawings for class were of the artwork from the cards. One of the things that always impressed me most about MTG is the artwork. I think that more than any single fantasy-based endeavor, Magic cards gave us more of a visual representation of the universe it portrayed. There were sneaky, sinister goblins like the one above. Black and White knights—both male and female. Wizards, sinister and benevolent. Elves, dwarves, orcs. Spells and artifacts that could change the course of the battle. Lions, tigers, and bears. Rotting zombies. Drakes and dragons of all sizes and colors. And of the thousands of individual cards made, each had it’s own painted image. These images inspired quite a few of the drawings in my high-school sketchbook.

I kind of like how the quiver of arrows looks; I think this was the first time I’d drawn one. I also like how it looks atmospherically, with the cloudiness and the rain coming down. Apparently my elf is a lefty? I don’t remember consciously deciding that.

It was also during high school that I first read Lord of the Rings. I’d read The Hobbit a few years previous, but didn’t even know about LotR until I was a freshman. Artistically, one of the more notable results was that I did a series of drawings of various comic book and other characters as elves. Mostly this amounted to me giving them pointy ears and medieval-ish clothing and weapons. The above drawing came originally from an Excalibur comic—I just really liked Rachel Summer’s pose from a particular page and wanted to use it for something of my own.  As with most comic-book drawings, these were mostly cheese-cakey, and I’m glad I’ve outgrown that particular phase in my artistic interests. But that kind of experimentation taught me to use more (and better) embellishments when I draw something from life or from a picture.

I had a lot of homework that week…

Most of my life I’ve loved to draw. It relaxes me and allows me to explore my imagination in ways I might not get to otherwise. Like writing, drawing is a means of communicating and expressing myself to others. Following high school, I only took one drawing class, and so haven’t always had the opportunity to draw when I wanted to. In fact, there are several years since I graduated that I didn’t draw anything—when I didn’t have a single sketch dated from that year. During graduate school in particular, about the only drawings I did were for a zine I worked on with some of my classmates from my Medieval Romances class. While I don’t have a huge amount of time in my life to sit and sketch, it’s something I hope to continue to do in the future.

So long and thanks for reading.

Post script:
As a quick question to readers: should I start a separate art blog, on subordinate to this one? It’s an idea I’ve been toying with and I’m curious if it would get a decent-sized following at all. Let me know what all y’all think.

Growing Up a Star Wars Nerd

I met him in the swamps, down in Dagobah

An old drawing of Yoda from my high school sketch pad. Don’t remember for sure where I found the picture it’s based on.

I was born the year that Return of the Jedi hit theaters, so I wasn’t one of the fortunate fans to see the original trilogy on the big screen. In fact, I think my first experience with the films was seeing R2-D2 and C-3PO on Sesame Street. The first time I remember actually seeing the films, I was about four or five years old and we were down in San Francisco visiting some of Mom’s cousins, and they were watching The Empire Strikes Back. I got sent to bed not long after the snow battle, but I remember that I thought the speeders were pretty cool. And I honestly remember thinking that the AT-AT walkers were giant animals. I also have vague memories about seeing part of A New Hope at about the same time. It was during the Sand People attack, and I remember recognizing R2 and 3PO from having seen them on Sesame Street. I also had cousins who owned some of the action figures and t-shirts and posters and such, so I had a vague familiarity with the series from even that early age.

I think I was in about the third or fourth grade when I finally saw one of the films in its entirety. The Empire Strikes Back was on TV, and I was interested enough to insist the folks let me and my brothers stay up late to watch it. (It must have been a Saturday night if they let us stay up past 9:00.) We’ve been fans ever since. It wasn’t long after that the folks rented the trilogy for us—and we wanted to rent it pretty much every time we went to the video rental place after that. They finally had to just buy us the series so that we could rent something else when we went. I’m pretty sure we wore out those three VHS tapes. We also built starships out of Legos and even had an Imperial Walker made from Wonder Blocks*. It helped that I found friends at school who were also into science fiction. We were moderate outcasts, though I don’t remember thinking about it that way at the time. And I think the level of outcast depended on which clique you asked.

When Timothy Zahn released Heir to the Empire in 1991, it was kind of a big deal for me. I’d read the novelized versions of the movie trilogy, which were suitably epic, and Splinter of the Mind’s Eye (which had nothing going for it beyond that hit had Luke, Leia, and Vader in it), but Zahn’s Thrawn trilogy upped the stakes for every Star Wars story that came after. It essentially redefined my perception of the universe that Lucas created. All of the original heroes were involved, as well as new heroes (Mara Jade!) and even a few of the previously unsung heroes from the films (Wedge Antilles). And just as key, it introduced a new set of villains worthy of the Galactic Empire—most notably Grand Admiral Thrawn** who is still my favorite Star Wars villain. It was huge in scale and didn’t limit itself to the scope and settings from the movies. On top of being true to the characters and setting, it included every element that made the movies great: exotic locations, gunfights, lightsaber duels, and battles between fleets of massive spaceships. To date, I’ve yet to find a Star Wars story that’s as amazingly well-done as the Thrawn trilogy—including Zahn’s later novels.

No disentigrations

Another from the old sketch pad. I think the picture I used was from a fan magazine.

The release of the Star Wars Special Edition films in 1997 was a big deal for my brothers and me. Finally we had the chance to see it on the big screen, in full cinematic glory. And we loved it. The folks wouldn’t take us to see it opening week, since they don’t like crowds at all, but we still enjoyed finally getting to see our favorite movies on the big screen. And for the most part, we even enjoyed the changes Lucas made. Showing the space battles with updated special effects only made them cooler for us kids, and I liked how they opened up cloud city to show the sky outside (it felt less sterile and claustrophobic in my view). Adding the scene with Jabba the Hutt to A New Hope added more to Han’s character, and I didn’t really mind the musical scene they added to Jabba’s palace. Though, even then I’ll admit that I thought having Greedo shoot first felt a little weird.***

But the main thing that the Star Wars Special Edition films did was revitalize the marketing side of the Star Wars universe. For the first time my brothers and I were able to buy action figures, as we’d been slightly too young when they came out the first time. The folks got us pretty much the whole initial set—including two Stormtroopers, since you can never have too many of those. And we collected numerous others in the years to follow. We also got our first t-shirts with Yoda or Darth Vader or Chewbacca on them. I even got a baseball cap with R2-D2’s picture on it. I still have the thing; it’s faded and falling apart, but I still have it. We also got games like Star Wars Monopoly or Trivial Pursuit (which was way too easy, in our house the one who lost was the first to get some asinine question, like to name the actor who played General Dodonna’s aide). We also spent several hundred dollars collecting cards from Decipher’s Star Wars CCG, and I think we still have them someplace. And we bought and played to death a number of the Star Wars computer games from Lucas Arts. I doubt any of this would have come about had Lucas not released the special edition movies when he did.

I was in high school when Phantom Menace came out. I’ll come out and say it: I don’t hate the prequel trilogy. I don’t think they’re as well-written or as entertaining as the original films, but I don’t feel they lack redeeming qualities. I know this will come across as blasphemy to most purists. Sure, Jar-Jar got tiresome quickly and  Medichlorians are kind of a stupid concept. But the Trade Federation Droid army was pretty cool. As were the clone troopers. And we got to see the Jedi at their finest. There was adventure and suspense, as well as the first racing scene in the series (which was structured fairly closely to the chariot race in Ben Hur, watch it on Youtube some time). And like the original trilogy, the prequels included epic battles on the ground and in space. Plus Natalie Portman provided crush-fodder for those of us male fans who were young enough to be Carrie Fisher’s kids.

No, I don’t hate the prequels. But I don’t think they hold up against the original trilogy. The original films were cinematic masterpieces that made movie history when they came out. They combined themes and motifs from westerns, fantasies, Arthurian legends, World War II films, Civil and Revolutionary War movies, and countless other classical and contemporary stories into a science fiction universe. The prequels did none of this.

If you asked me what I loved best about the Star Wars universe, I’d say, hands down, the hardware. The Force was kind of a neat concept before the Medi-whatzits came along, the characters were relatable and likeable, and the galactic politics  and struggle for freedom were all among the qualities that made the films great, I’ll agree. But it was the hardware that interested me most. The lightsaber is still an interesting concept to me, and an R2 unit would be the ultimate Christmas present. It was the weapons and battles that captivated me as a kid. The opening scene of A New Hope really sets the tone for what I love best about the series, the running battle between the Rebel blockade runner and the Imperial Star Destroyer couldn’t have been a more effective teaser for what’s to come. Blasters, X-Wings and TIE Fighters, the Millennium Falcon, AT-AT walkers, Star Destroyers: there was something about the war machinery that I never tired of in the series. (And it’s one of the redeeming qualities about the prequels.)

It's Wedge!

I’m fairly certain I based this one off a picture from one of the character guides to the Star Wars universe. Wedge is kind of a BAMF.

I haven’t watched the films in several years nor collected any of the novels in slightly longer. I went as a Jedi for Halloween a few years ago, and even wore my costume to work in the BSU Writing Center and to class that evening. (My favorite adviser asked if I was an Old Testament prophet.) Occasionally when I’m feeling nostalgic I’ll play Star Wars Battlefront or Knights of the Old Republic or even fire up Star Wars Galactic Battlegrounds. I keep meaning to sit down and see if I can get X-Wing to run on Windows 7 (or that Lucas Arts will release it on Steam).

I don’t follow Star Wars as closely as I used to. I think the mediocrity of the prequels and the many poorly written novels and comics did a lot to temper my interest. I think it was killing off Chewbacca in R.A. Salvatore’s Vector Prime that really wrecked my interest in the novels. And I hear that they’ve killed off various other of my favorite characters since then. One of the troubles with the massive popularity of the Star Wars universe is that a lot of people want to add their own stories to it and/or capitalize on the popularity. With this, a lot of really bad stuff gets muddied in with the good. As a conscientious fan, it got to be genuinely tiring keeping up with all of it as well as sort the good from the bad. It was a combination of this and finding new interests during and after college that gradually caused my interest to taper. I still love the films and follow the universe at a distance, but it’s been a long time since it held that youthful fascination that it did when I was growing up. Hopefully I can someday create a similar fascination in kids of my own. (Episode IV always comes first, though—it’s just good parenting.)

"That's it. The Rebels are there."

This might be the most recent Star Wars drawing I’ve done. I like the contrast here with the mechanical interloper in front of a pristine mountain lake. I believe the background came from a Stan Lynde landscape in one of his Rick O’Shay comics.

As sort of a tribute while I was writing this blog entry, I started a Pandora station dedicated to John Williams. So far I’ve heard a number of his film scores, as well as Pirates of the Caribbean, Star Trek IForrest Gump, and an orchestral version of The Legend of Zelda. It seems I’ve created a station of soundtracks. Not that this is unexpected or undesired. (Some of these songs are over 10 minutes long!) I find it mildly hilarious that I’ve heard the theme from Star Wars at least six times.

*Wonder Blocks were hollow plastic blocks with two nubs on top that fit together like Legos, but were bigger and lacked sharp edges. I think they were a Discovery Toys product.

**I’m not into cosplay—I don’t really even dress up for Halloween all that often. But if I picked a character to go to a con as, I’d totally try to find a way to be Grand Admiral Thrawn.

***I’m of two minds on Lucas’s constant alterations of his films. On the one hand, it is his creation, he can do what he wants with it. In an interview for the Star Wars Special Edition, Lucas once stated that “films are never finished, they’re simply abandoned” and that he really wanted to “go back and finish them.” I get that, and I respect it. I can think of any number of drawings I’ve done or any number of papers I’ve written where I desperately wanted to go back in and redo various details. As an artist it’s hard not to be my own worst critic. But on the other hand, there’s an adage in the artist world that you’re not supposed to change your work once you’ve signed your name to it. I feel like he’s wrecking a lot of his artistic integrity with his constant decision to go back in and change things. It’s not as necessary as he thinks it is, and what’s worse, I feel it’s off-putting to many of his fans.

Car-Guy at Heart

Stingray

This might be the only car drawing I’ve ever done where I didn’t crumple it up out of frustration. I love cars, but I’m really bad at drawing them

I really wish some gaming system would launch a racing game that used nothing but classic muscle cars. If they did, I’d get it just for that reason. The Gran Turismo series for Play Station does a fair job of including classic as well as modern cars, but like other games, I feel it favors the newest and fastest, most top of the line. (Though that did give me the chance to use a ’69 Stingray to trounce on my cousin’s ’96 Corvette.) I think what the gaming world needs is something that re-creates the classic circuit races from the ’60s and ’70s. While newer, faster cars are flashy and pretty, they’ll never carry the historical significance of the ’65 Mustang or ’63 Corvette. As I think I’ve mentioned, I enjoy studying almost any area of history. Automotive history is no exception. And unlike my history books on the Punic Wars or the Crusades, my books on automotive history come with full-color photographs and charts and graphs and specifications.

Classic cars are the key thing that makes me wish I had money. I’d love to even be that guy with the old GTO or Firebird or Cougar that he babies–right now I don’t even have a garage to park it in, let alone money to buy it and baby it. While my little ’02 Mustang is a sharp ride, it’s still the base model with the 3.8 liter V-6. It’s black, which is an okay color, but there’re other colors I’d like better. But since the black paint was one of several unauthorized cosmetic alterations by a previous owner, the dealer knocked almost $2,000 off the sticker price. So I’m not really complaining. Unfortunately, as I don’t really have a collector car of any kind I don’t know that I can really call my self a “car-guy.” Maybe a “car-enthusiast” or a “car-dilettante” or even a “nominal car-guy.” (Help me out, somebody. Is there a name for poor bastards like me who enjoy classic cars for aesthetic and historical reasons, but can’t afford to buy one?)

GT-500KR

My favorite game we had for the old Play Station was always Gran Truismo 2, and of the various rides I collected, my favorite was always that Shelby GT-500. I was kind of stoked when my brothers found me this 1:24 scale die cast.

Since I can’t afford real classic cars, I feed my hunger by collecting models of them. Some are plastic 1:25 scale models I built myself, others are 1:18 or 1:24 die cast that came assembled. However, as much fun as I had customizing the ones I built, the die cast look so much nicer than my creations. I have 29 models at last count, my nine Mustangs making up the highest percentage. Sure, there are gaps in my collection: I keep hoping to find a ’67 Cougar and I don’t have any British cars to speak of. And I keep meaning to get an F-Series pickup to pull my 1:24 scale trailer–I mean, obviously I’m not going to use my ’37 and ’56 Ford pickups to haul my Chevelle SS down to the racetrack.

Coup De Ville

This ’49 Coup De Ville was the start of my collection. Ages ago, I joked to my aunt that I wanted a car for my 18th birthday. This was what she got me.

Anyway, maybe someday I’ll win the lottery or save a senator’s life or marry a sugar-momma. But until then, I’ll remain a car-guy at heart.

Armor Smithery

Corinthian Hoplite

Greek hoplite in Corinthian armor. (Cue the lame 300 references.) This was another I sketched and inked for my godson’s birthday coloring book.

One of my fantasies for some day when I have money is to own a set of armor. Has been for years, really. Back in junior high and high school, a suit of Imperial Stormtrooper armor topped the list–though these days it’s pretty far down there. Lately, historical armor takes up the highest places for kinds of armor I’d go for. Granted, I don’t know what I’d do with a set of armor–it’s not the most pragmatic of investments–but it’d be cool to have.

If I had to pick a set of armor I’d like best, I’d go with Roman Legionary armor. Preferably a set of lorica segmentata from the Trajan and Hadrian eras, but any style Roman armor would do, honestly. A set of hoplite armor could be similarly cool, but I’d rank it a bit lower just because I’d get really tired of morons shouting ‘This is SPARTA!’ when they see me. I think I’d be a bit fussier with hoplite armor, though. While bronze muscle-armor is the popular style for armor recreations, I like the linen cuirass much better. The only downside I find is that I’d have to wear sandals as part of the Greek and Roman costumes, and I don’t really care much for sandals.

Armor from Medieval or Renaissance Europe could be cool as well. If I had to pick an order to go with, I’d say Teutonic Knight, seconded by Knights Hospitaller, and Knights Templar. Chainmail in general is neat–I wore a colleague’s chain shirt in a couple of Medieval drama productions a few years ago and would wear it again given the opportunity, despite it being heavy and uncomfortable. (I found the best way to carry the stuff is to just wear it.) Full or partial plate armor would also be fun. Scale armor is similarly durable and flexible and looks cool. And, to be honest, leather and padded armors were also very common, and offered better protection than most people realize. And I could see any of it being neat to collect and wear or even mix and match.

Perhaps the most practical method, given my limited budget, might be to buy a simple half-sleeve, chainmail shirt and wear it with whatever costume I want. It could go with a tunic and pair of Medieval trousers (or even just a shirt and khakis). Or it could work with a swashbuckler or highwayman ensemble, or some manner of pirate or corsair. Though it might also be hilarious to wear it with a top hat and brass goggles and call it ‘steampunk.’ Or I could wear it with my kilt just as easily.

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