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Strange Reports from Sector M: A Self Interview

My anthology of short, speculative fiction came out recently. I call it Strange Reports From Sector M. Customarily when a bestselling author releases a book, there’s a press tour, complete with personal interviews. Now this may come as a surprise to many of you, but I am not a bestselling author. Shocked face, right?

Since there aren’t a myriad of people busting my door down for an interview, I decided to do one on my own. The purpose of any one-on-one with the author is really just to let people know about the book, what’s it about, and why people should check it. I’m going to do that for you here, right now. So, look at it as glimpse into my pet project, or a strange sort of FAQ. Either one is fine.

Alright, let’s get this show on the road!

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Thanks for joining us here on Sector M, Matt.

Um, thanks? This is weird. I’m not the only who thinks so, right?

No idea what you mean. So, about your book. What is Sector M, exactly, and why are we getting strange reports from it, hmm?

Right, so Sector M has been my creative umbrella for a few years now. It covers all my social media, my books, even my wacky fanboy videos on Youtube. The name “Sector M” is a reference to my office, which at various times in the past has been called “The Museum of Matt” or “Sector Matt.” It’s my sanctum sanctorum. You know, just like Doctor Strange.

Okay, so Sector M is really just a proxy for saying “Matt Carson.”

In a way, yeah. I also set one of my earliest military sci-fi stories in a sector on the fringes of civilized space. The first surveyors had named all the star systems with words that began with the letter “M.” Thus, Sector M.

And is that story included in this anthology?

It is. It’s called “The Foeman’s Chain” and it’s the last one in the book.

What about the reports? Why are they strange? Do tell.

The stories in this book are pretty varied. Overall, it’s sci-fi, but there’s a bit of urban fantasy and horror mixed in as well. They all have some sort of anthropological or sociological theme to them. Humans are strange beings when you think about it. I’m perhaps a little stranger than most, so these resulting stories (or reports, if you will) are bound to be a bit ‘out there.’

Fascinating. Well now we need to take a quick break to learn an important fact about llamas!

Wait, what?

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And we’re back!

What was that all about?

Just trying to break up the text with some graphics. Now, how is the book structured? Or is it all just sorta willy-nilly?

The stories get progressively longer from beginning to end. The first few stories are really short. The middle of the book has a few stories of a more “traditional” short-story length. At the end, I have two novellas or novelettes, depending on which definition you use. So, if you’re in the mood for something quick, look in the front. If you want something more substantial, go to the middle or back. You can read them in any order.

And how many stories are included, total?

There are 13 stories, all told. That seemed like a decent variety of different types of stories, lengths, and genres. Some are standalone stories, while a few others take place in a shared universe.

Do you have a favorite? I bet you do.

They all have a special place in my heart. No, I’m serious! I certainly don’t have an overall favorite among them, but I would say I’m particularly partial to “The Gossamer Thread” and “The Mundanity of Miracles.”

What are they about?

If you buy the book, you’ll find out. *wink*

Real subtle, Matt.

Just kidding. “Gossamer Thread” is about aliens who view us, the humans, as the ineffable ones. It also deals with society as a fragile construct, and trying to do what’s right when everything is falling down. “The Mundanity of Miracles” is about how the lines between reality and fiction are blurred in the future, and the problems that may come about as a result.

You mentioned societal themes before. Is there an overall theme for the book?

Interesting question. I wrote these stories without ever dreaming I’d assemble them together, so there’s no intentional theme to the book as a whole.

Wait, so you’re saying there’s an unintentional theme?

As I put it together, certain themes began to appear to me, like a Venn diagram overlapping at various points. But, much like when I see a cloud that looks like a duck, I may be seeing a pattern that isn’t really there.

See a lot of clouds shaped like ducks, do you?

Uh, sometimes, yeah.

Like this one?

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Yeah. Just like that one. *mutters to himself.*

Well, what is this unintentional theme of which you speak?

No spoilers, for real this time. I’m going to leave that up to the reader to decide. I don’t want to bias opinions ahead of time. Come on, I have to leave at least a little mystery.

Isn’t that a bit of a cop out?

Maybe, but here we are.

Tool.

Oh yeah, and what does that say about you, then?

Good point. So shall we talk about the elephant in the room?

Sure…

Why is this book $12.99, huh? Who do you think you are, Dan Brown?

Not at all. This is a print-on-demand situation, which means the individual print costs for each book are  higher than if it were a large print run. I realize I’m not an established “brand” when it comes to authors, but when all was said and done the minimum cost to print each book was over $12. For now, I like to think of it as 13 stories for 13 bucks.

Cute. Did you practice that little catchphrase?

Maybe a little, yeah.

What if that price point is just too much for people?

The Kindle version is also out. Since it’s just electrons, those minimum print costs are no longer an issue. With Kindle, readers can get the book for $5.99.  That’s about one trip to Starbucks, and my book will last you a lot longer. *wink*

You’re winking again.

Oh, sorry…

If you’re gonna wink, at least take a lesson from the best.

And who’s that, pray tell?

So glad you asked…

Oh, here we go.

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And, back. If we’re going with the “5 Ws and H” approach, what haven’t we answered yet?

Hmmm, let’s run them down:

Who: Me, Matt Carson.

What: A trade paperback book of short stories, all speculative fiction. Also on Kindle.

When: It’s out now! 🙂

Why:  See below.

Where: Amazon and CreateSpace. Links below!

How: CreateSpace Author Services.

Ah, so it’s the Why that we need to talk about. So why did you decide to put this book together?

These stories are a part of me, and I wanted to share them. While I’m glad to have The Backwards Mask out there for folks to enjoy, I realize its length means that it’s quite an investment of time. So, for those who don’t have time for a 309,000-word novel, here are multiple stories you can read in a single sitting. There’s also something about holding a physical book in your hands that cannot be overstated. It’s the first time my fiction has appeared in print, so that’s exciting.

But why should the readers care about it?

I see what you did there. *approving nod*. This book really has a little something for everyone in the geekosphere. There’s plenty of action, but also introspection about our strange existence. I talk about war, cruelty, courage, and humanity’s unconquerable, if wildly contradictory, spirit. If you like any of the speculative fiction genres, there’s something here to scratch that particular itch. And if you like all of them, so much the better.

Anything you’d like to say to all the folks out there, then?

Yes, please support my work and consider picking up a copy. AND please leave a review on Amazon or Goodreads. Those are the two most important things you can do for any indie author—buy the book and leave a review.

In that case, where can we procure said anthology?

Right now, there are two places: Amazon and CreateSpace, directly. The text on this blog can sometimes obfuscate links (they don’t always stand out in blue), so please click on the word “here” in all three cases.

For Amazon, click here.

For CreateSpace, click here.

For the Kindle, click here.

Well, Matt, thanks for stopping by Sector M. We should do this again sometime.

What are you talking about? I’m here all the time on Sector M. I’m you.

But are you? Are you really?

Yes…?

Sorry, rhetorical question. So, that’s all the time we have. Check out Strange Reports From Sector M on Amazon and CreateSpace!

Until next time, see you around the Sector!

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The Mountain and the Sector of M

As I was doing research on Neil Gaiman for my last blog post, I came across a clip of him giving a commencement speech in 2012. Clad in an academic cap and robes, Mr. Gaiman gave an interesting thought model for how he steered his way forward, creatively.

I’ll be paraphrasing from that speech in just a moment. You can find it here in its entirety, and it’s well worth a listen. It’s the part about the mountain, that caught my attention. It’s a simple way of looking at things for a writer, or indeed any artist who wants to pursue art. As we explore the idea, I’ll tell you my own thoughts and goals.

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Only the road will not be as flat or straight.

So, imagine a mountain in the distance. That mountain is your goal, whether it’s to become an artist, write a novel, a screenplay, learn to play the trombone, or what have you. Whatever it is you’re dreaming of, it’s there in the distance, waiting for you. In my case, it’s to become a professional author, and be able to devote myself to writing fiction full-time.

Now, think about the best route to get to the mountain. It’s deceptively easy, and often easier said than done. What would it take for you to follow that route to the mountain? What it means in my case is to make enough of an income from being an author that I can pay the bills. I never write my stories with dollar signs spinning in my eyes like Looney Toons. And yet, if I am going to pay the electricity bill by way of my stories, money has to enter the picture at some point. (Unless the electric company starts accepting speculative fiction as currency, so yeah.)

Let’s say that you’ve clearly identified what life goal your mountain represents AND you have mapped out the best way to get there. If you’re at that point, you still have to actually get to the mountain, right? You still have to walk that path. This part is perhaps the hardest because no plan survives contact with the enemy. There will always be setbacks and obstacles, no matter your course, and along the way you will need to make choices.

And it’s here that Mr. Gaiman really nails it. Whenever you’re faced with a decision, ask yourself this: Does this move me towards the mountain, or away from it? He mentions that there are lucrative jobs he passed up because he felt they wouldn’t bring him closer to the mountain, jobs that he might have taken earlier on his journey, since those opportunities were closer to the mountain than he was at that time.

It’s a pretty beautiful way of looking at it all. Envision the goal, plan your way forward, and make choices with the goal in mind. And if you ever do reach the mountain, look for the next one.

Truth time, folks.

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He’s going to tell! He’s going to tell!

I’m on the third leg of that journey, the making choices part. I see the goal in front of me, I see what it’s going to take to get there, and I’m making far-reaching life choices to bring it about. What I realize, however, is that I will need help along the way. After all, a writer without a reader is almost nothing at all.

If you read this blog on a regular basis, or you are familiar with my work, I ask that you support what I do at Sector M, in whatever form you’re able. I’ll have plenty of links at the end of this post for your consideration.

The best way to support me as an author is to buy one of my books. Obvious, right? My novel, The Backwards Mask, has just been re-released in e-book format, and we’re working on a print-on-demand version. If you haven’t read it, now is an ideal time to check it out.

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Find it here.

Additionally, I have an anthology of short fiction coming out next month called Strange Reports from Sector M. It’s primarily science fiction with a little bit of urban fantasy and horror thrown into the mix. This release will include both an e-book and a paperback version. I’ll post the link here, among many places, when the book debuts next month.

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Coming soon.

If you pick up any of any of my books, I ask only that you leave a review. Aside from buying the book itself, leaving a review on Amazon or Goodreads (or both) is the single best thing you can do for an independent author. I cannot overstate this.

Outside of books, you can buy a Sector M shirt, mug, or the like, or support me directly on Patreon. Or PayPal for that matter, if you prefer one-time contributions.

Beyond that, there are many ways to support me on my journey that are free. For one, if you’re reading this blog, subscribe to it. The same goes for following me on various social media, whether it’s on Facebook, Twitter, or any of them.

And if your mouse finger just can’t quite find the motivation, helping me out can be as simple as telling a friend about my work, or pointing them in the direction of my books and/or this blog. Know anyone who likes science fiction or fantasy? Tell. Them. Word-of-mouth should never, ever be underestimated.

Okay, I’m promised some links. One last time for those in back, please consider supporting my ongoing efforts by any of the following means.

The Backwards Mask — the re-release of my science fiction novel.

Strange Reports from Sector M — Link coming as soon as it goes live.

Sector M Store — T-shirts, mugs, phone covers and more.

Patreon—Support me directly, and get some cool perks.

PayPal— For one-time amounts, use: thesectorm@gmail.

Subscribe to this blog — If you haven’t already.

Like me on Facebook — A good place to start.

Follow me on Twitter and Instagram: @TheSectorM

Join me on Goodreads — See what I’m reading, ask me a question, read my reviews, etc.

Subscribe to my YouTube Channel — More content to come as time allows.

Check out my other works— I have a few stories out that you can read for free on my website, with more of them to come.

And there you have it, folks. My mountain is there in the distance, and its name is Sector M. With your help, I have no doubts that I will reach it.

See you around the Sector!

 

Si vales, valeo.

-MC


I Will Never Be Shakespeare, Tolkien, or Gaiman…and That’s Okay.

Neil Gaiman came to Dallas on the 14th. I’ve read many his comics and novels over the years, but I had never seen him in person before. He went on stage at the Winspear Opera House, answered some questions from the audience, read some of his stories, and it was fantastic. Every bit of it.

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The man himself. 

If you ever get a chance to see Neil Gaiman in person, do it. No, really. DO. IT. He’s funny, articulate, and brilliant. His voice strikes me as a not-as-ominous Alan Rickman. Let’s just say that if he had slowly uttered the phrase “Up…to something,” I would have thought Snape was in room. Or at least Snape’s upbeat, more charismatic cousin.

When you’re a relatively unknown author, and you see a famous author speak, this can cause you to question yourself. Will I ever get to a point in my career where thousands of people might come to see me speak? Could my work ever be a uniting factor for people who are otherwise from very different cross-sections of society? Will anyone choose to cosplay a character that I create? And really, when you’re looking around at a sold out show like that, it’s hard not ask yourself Will I ever get to *this* point.

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Imagine this, but with no empty seats. 

Now, I should point out that I don’t write because I hope to become famous. Far from it; my motivation to be an author stems from a deeply personal need to create and the knowledge that life is short. That’s a tale for another time, though.

This act of questioning yourself can take a negative turn, however, when you encounter someone so wonderfully brilliant like Gaiman. For those who have tried your hand at writing, or aspire to do so, tell me if this sounds familiar:

Gaaah! I just read something truly awful. I know I can write something better than that!

– Yeah, my ideas are coming to me now! See, I knew I could do better than that drivel.

– That doesn’t sound too bad. It’s not Shakespeare, but I think people will like it. Onward!

– I just don’t know. My pace has slowed down a bit now that I’m past the beginning. I need some inspiration to get those creative juices flowing again.

– Oh God, why did I just read Lord of the Rings again? The guy had a working knowledge of like forty languages. FORTY. And he created a whole bunch of languages on his own. There is NO POSSIBLE WAY I could do something like that.

– (*stares blankly at the computer screen*) Why did I think I could do this, again? My ideas are crap, my words are crap. It’s all crap. Maybe I should’ve let my uncle teach me about fixing cars, instead.

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Today’s not your day. Tomorrow doesn’t look good, either. 

Okay, maybe not the uncle thing. Whether you’re a beginning writer or a pro, chances are you’ve had a moment like this, usually as a result of reading something incredible and feeling humbled by it. This can lead to despair. If you can’t be as good as [Insert your favorite author’s name here], what’s the point?

I learned early on that making comparisons to others is an exercise in futility. To that way lies madness. It’s so easy to become demoralized and fall into that cycle of self-doubt. If this has happened to you, just remember what your ol’ buddy Jack Burton says at a time like this. (And by Jack Burton, I mean me.)

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Jack says what the hell…

Neil Gaiman isn’t Shakespeare.

That’s not a shot against the guy in a he’s no Jack Kennedy kind of way. No, I mean they are two different people, separated by space and time. One lived in Elizabethan times and the other is alive today. It’s the same to say that Stephen King isn’t J.R.R Tolkien, and H.P. Lovecraft isn’t Charles V of Spain.

Your very uniqueness is one of the greatest gifts you have as a writer, whether you choose to write or not. You, the reader, are a one-of-a-kind blend of your own thoughts, dreams, aspirations, and experiences. True, none of us will ever be Shakespeare or Neil Gaiman, but that’s because those roles are already taken.

So, if you choose to tell a story, no one can (or will ever) tell it quite like you. And if you are serious and passionate about the work, if you study your craft and pour your heart and soul into it, you have something to contribute to your genre.

43c4960db7c1652cac7dbe97f701b295I encourage people to write whenever I can. It’s a form of self-expression that, as Stephen King puts it in On Writing, is a form of telepathy. And time-travelling telepathy at that, since time will have passed between when I write these words and when you read them.

Writing is the act of sending our thoughts into the future, like so many messages in a bottle. Yeah, some may be thinly veiled cries for help, but the reasons that brought them about are likely interesting, and worthy of a read.

So for all my writing peeps out there who struggle to find their confidence at times (and this includes me), don’t try to be anyone else but yourself. Don’t measure yourself against anyone else, just focus on the blank page in front of you, and work your magic.

That’s the part that really matters.

 

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Some Thoughts On Wonder Woman (With a Tribute to Adam West)

It’s all about DC today, folks. Before I get into my thoughts on the latest entry into the DCMU, I’d like to talk about Batman. Specifically, about Adam West.

I really hate writing tributes like this one. It means that another icon from my childhood, another source of my early inspiration, is gone. The one I wrote for Carrie Fisher was sheer pain. Every. Word.

This one is no different. My lifelong love of Batman came originally from two sources:  the Super Friends cartoon (in all its various incarnations) and Adam West’s portrayal of the Caped Crusader.

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Sure, the ‘60s version was campy and silly as all get out, but there’s more there. Strip away the shark repellent, the Batusi, and the moments of utter cheese, and you still have a character worthy of consideration.

Batman is a hero, not an anti-hero. He works within the law, almost to a fault, and cooperates with the police at every level. He is noble, optimistic, kind, and prefers to handle things without violence, if possible. He’s someone kids can look up to, to aspire to be. That’s the Batman I know and love.

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And I can think of no actor who could have played that role better than Mr. Adam West. For the rest of his life, he was good to the fans. And from what I hear, he had a great sense of humor, about his work, and about himself. I regret that in all my convention-going over the years, our paths never crossed.

As a kid in the country, just struggling to find his place in the world, West’s Batman taught me to always do what is right, no matter the situation, and that even personal tragedy can be overcome and channeled into something positive. Say what you will about the bright costumes and the ZAP! and POW! fight scenes, but West’s Batman didn’t live his life under a shadow.

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And you know, there’s just something about that show, something that gets you right here. (That’s my heart, BTW.) It’s like watching the original Star Trek. They got it so right, even if it may seem dated to a more modern audience.  Give the original Batman theme a listen, and tell me it doesn’t bring a gleam to your eye or a smile to your lips.

For giving us all of that, I say a heartfelt goodbye to Mr. Adam West. Goodnight, old chum. Tell Yvonne Craig we all miss her.

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Thank you.

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And now, Won-der Womaaan! I considered writing my thoughts up in my “Fanboy Review” format, but abandoned that immediately. I want to go more in-depth into what I think of this movie, and the impact it has already had/has now/will continue to have.  Some spoilers ahead. You’ve been warned.

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Stop a bullet cold…

First thing right away: I liked this movie. Really liked it.

I’ll admit that I had reservations since this was part of DCMU. I have not been a fan of DC’s offering thus far on the big screen. I strongly disliked Man of Steel and Suicide Squad, and absolutely hated…the other one, you know which one I’m talking about. I don’t even want to say its name. Hint: MARTHAAAAA!

However, the best part of that one, was Gal Gadot’s inclusion as Wonder Woman. It felt like Diana’s role was pretty tacked on in that story, but at least we got one hero in a movie that was supposed to have three.

This movie, Diana’s origin story, shines were the others in the series fall flat. It’s not caught-up in the ‘cult of the badass’ syndrome that seems to plague the other movies. Diana is certainly powerful, and it’s a treat to see her punch through a tank or take the entire top floor of a building out. But this power is tempered by her humanity and compassion, the very things Ares seeks to take away from her in the end.

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…make the Axis fold…

She’s been sheltered on Themyscira her entire life. That leads to much naïveté, but I loved even that.  Throughout the movie, Diana can’t just sit idly by when something is obviously wrong. She says something about it. She acts when most others would let it go. She hasn’t been conditioned that ‘that’s just the way it is’ or lets anyone define her role for her. Oftentimes she is reacting to injustices that society is content to just sweep under the table. And that makes the World War I setting so perfect for this story.

Beyond that, I like this movie for what it isn’t. Gal Gadot is a beautiful human being. There are some shots of her in this movie that are stunning, and yet none of them are exploitative. They simply let the character be, often innocently unaware of just how friggin’ gorgeous she is. Take the scene where Chris Pine falls asleep next to her on the boat. She doesn’t think someone sleeping next to her is sexual in the least, even when Captain Kirk is super nervous and breathing hard. Priceless.

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…change their minds…

Now, can you imagine if a schmuck like Michael Bay had directed this movie? On second thought, don’t imagine that. I think I threw up a little in my mouth. It burns…it burns…

There’s another point here I’d like to touch on, but it requires a short aside. Not long after the magnificent Jessie Graff made her epic run through the American Ninja Warrior course (look it up, it’s incredible), I took my 3-year old to a local playground. There, I noticed a young girl of perhaps eight or nine, who made it her business to climb all the way to the top of the monkey bars, and then make her way up the safety netting, which is not there for climbing.

When she reached the top, she proudly called out: “Look, Mom! It’s like on Ninja Warrior!” I knew immediately what she meant, and who had inspired her to reach for that top height. A whole slew of young girls will take Jessie’s incredible determination and strength to heart and try to find it within themselves. (Jessie is also the lead stunt woman for Supergirl on the CW, BTW. Another DC reference! Zing!)

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She dressed as…you guessed it.

The same is true with this movie. Look, I’m under no illusions that as a white guy I have it pretty good when it comes to inspiring superhero archetypes, both now and when I was growing up. I don’t have to look far at all. Superman, Batman, Spider-Man, Captain America, Iron Man, Thor, Wolverine, the list goes on and on.

And I’ll admit I’ve taken it for granted. But seeing this movie, seeing how well it handled the lead character, it makes me realize how lacking that field of super-heroic role models has been for women. Sure, I’ve always known that intellectually, but this movie showed me that on a more visceral level. We need little girls growing up with the belief that they can do anything, that they can change the world, and fight injustice.

Seventeen years, folks. We’ve had had seventeen years of comic movies in this current run. Kids born when the original X-Men premiered in theatres are now driving. And we’re nine years deep into the MCU. In all that time, with dozens of titles, Wonder Woman is the first major blockbuster release to have a female lead. (Yeah, yeah, I know Catwoman and Elektra exist, but both were more than 10 years ago, and both were half-hearted attempts, at best.)

So as much as the DCMU seems like it’s reaaally trying to emulate the MCU, and desperately play catch-up, Wonder Woman is both the DCMU’s first real triumph, as well as the moment that it surpassed its Marvel counterpart.

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Hey, remember that time when Marvel had an academy award-winning actress as a super-cool character that had been around since Iron Man 2, and immediately decided to give her own movie franchise, so she could have her own awesome adventures and be the lead in her own story?

Yeah, me neither.

But back to DC, Wonder Woman had a lot of pressure placed on it. It had to succeed so that the studios could see that a female lead could deliver a block buster. It shouldn’t have had to bear that brunt, but it did. AND, the movie was way under-marketed leading up to its release. That strikes me as the studios hedging their bets in case the movie tanked – a cowardly move considering how much press that other one got, and was utter tripe.

But Wonder Woman most certainly didn’t tank. And because it didn’t have a swollen marketing budget to overcome, in addition to its production budget, more of the revenues can go back into the coffers. If there’s one thing that speaks in Hollywood, it’s money. At the time of this writing, I believe a sequel is already in the works with Patty Jenkins once again at the helm.  That’s, well…wonderful.

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A new Dynamic Duo.

So, despite adversity, Wonder Woman shattered expectations (from studios and audiences alike). If there was ever a doubt that a super heroine couldn’t hold the field with as much spirit and strength as her male counterparts, Wonder Woman smashed it.

Smashed. It.

In this case, life imitates art, because Diana is all about smashing stereotypes in the comics. You underestimate her, and you are likely to find yourself defeated and huffing for breath in her wake.

Like I said, life imitates art.

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…and change the world!

And so…

Your move, Marvel.


Fanboy Movie Review #7 — Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2

[Note: I do not consider myself a movie critic. What follows is just one fanboy’s opinion based off of a single double viewing of the film. Oh, and there are SPOILERS ahead, so take heed.]

The Guardians of the Galaxy are back for Vol. 2! Has it really been three years since Volume 1? Star-Lord, Gamora, Rocket, Drax, and Baby Groot, plus a number of new and returning characters — the gang’s all here.  Here are my thoughts on the latest installment.

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Yaaaaaas!

First Impressions:  I really enjoyed the first Guardians of the Galaxy. That movie was such an unexpected treasure. It wasn’t without its flaws, but it stands as one of my favorites in the whole of the Marvel Cinematic Universe. James Gunn has returned to helm this new Guardians adventure, so I’m definitely onboard. Let’s see how it goes.

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I’m Mary Poppins, y’all!

What I LIKED:

  • YONDU! I think the whistling, blue-skinned Ravager stole the show. Michael Rooker nails it. We haven’t lost many characters in the MCU (so far), so I think that this is the most saddening loss we’ve seen so far. I’m Mary Poppins, y’all! *sniff, sniff*
  • Chris Pratt! He’s as funny as ever, but this is some of the best acting I’ve seen from him. The moment where Ego puts stars in his eyes, his entire physicality changes, and there is an alien sadness and wonder to him that’s fantastic.
  • Awesome Mix, Volume II! Once again, a great pick of classic hits to shade and nuance the story. Fun Fact: Fleetwood Mac’s “Rumors” album is one of my favorite of all time, so I loved hearing “The Chain” during that critical battle was awesome sauce.
  • Kurt Russell! By his very name, Ego is a pretty over-the-top character. The same could be said of many aspects of the story, but I’m okay with OTT in both because it’s Guardians of the Galaxy, AND because Kurt Russell has played two of the most OTT characters in all of cinema: Snake Plissken and Jack Burton. Seeing him in this story was a treat.
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Little did we know that Ego stuck around on Earth, became a truck driver, and had many adventures on the ol’ Pork-chop Express.

  • Drax’s continuous laughter. He was such a dour and serious character in the first film. Seeing him give bellowing, Herman Munster-esque laughs at almost everything was both funny and a testament of how the character has moved past his incredible grief.
  • All the scenes with Drax and Mantis. The best is when she touches him and is immediately overwhelmed with emotion while Drax sits calmly, smiling. I love this scene.
  • Baby Groot. I will miss him when a moody, Teenage Groot is there instead.
  • The art direction in this movie is off the rails. From the golden appointments of the Sovereign, to Ego’s psychedelic landscape, Volume 2 is a visual masterpiece.
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Somebody’s about to start singing “Goldfinger” or “Xanadu.”

  • All the after-the-credits stingers.
  • The end credit sequence, which looks like old album art, and random names that change from “I am Groot.” And Zaadu Hasselfrau, er…David Hasselhoff singing “Guardians Inferno.”
  • Minimal meta-plot. I went in expecting the Guardians to snag another Infinity Stone, but the main story (thankfully) had nothing to do with Thanos. The story could be its own thing rather than being a validation of what has gone before and a setup for things to come (the main problem with Age of Ultron.)
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IT’S ALLEGORICAL…no, wait.

What I DIDN’T Like:

Nitpicks:

  • Maybe it’s just my Dungeons & Dragons roots, but I don’t like it when they split the party. The Guardians are all together at the very beginning and at the end. For most of the movie, they aren’t together.
  • It felt like a few characters were underutilized, like Drax and Mantis. I really liked the scenes they were in, though. Drax’s only real combat scene was at the very beginning, and that was secondary to Baby Groot’s dance number.
  • Speaking of which, I liked the Volume 2 opener, but it seemed like a CGI explosion rather than the fun, live-action dance number at the beginning of Volume I. I will say that it was a good introduction to the spirit of the movie, however, as Baby Groot doing his thing was the focus rather than the battle going on behind him. Battles weren’t the point of this movie.
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Daaaaawwww….

  • Rocket stealing the batteries. They tried to justify this a few times, but there was really no reason for him to do that, except that he had to have them for the end sequence. That felt like a stupid and unnecessary thing to do, even it was pretty funny.
  • The Sovereign, themselves. Gorgeous as their all-gold appointments were (Goldfinger anyone?), with a classic arcade drone pit, I don’t think they added much to the story other than to be another threat. Even though I know it’s a completely different actress, I swear that Ayesha looks like she’s played by Game of Thrones’ Sophie Turner.
  • Taserface. I didn’t find that gag all that great. The disappointed look as a golden-faced lady laughs at his name was pretty funny, though.
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What? No Tango and Cash reunion?

Unresolved Questions (At This Point):

Was Ego a Celestial in the sense of what was established elsewhere in the MCU (the immense armored figures shown in Volume I), or is ‘Celestial’ more of general classification of godlike beings? It’s a little odd that Ego was a giant brain that built a planet around itself, whereas Knowwhere, the home of the Collector, was a severed head of a Celestial, which was itself the size of a planet.

Quill might not be immortal now, but he’s still a half-celestial. Does that mean that he might still have some latent powers because of it? Will this come into play when all the Infinity Stones are brought into one place?

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Sir Not-Appearing-In-This-Film

Also, what part will Nebula play in the coming battle against Thanos? When will Adam Warlock make his grand entrance? (Truth be told, I thought they were going to hand Adam’s role over to Doctor Strange. Guess not.)

What happened to Quill’s ship, the Milano? Did the Ravagers take it with them since their ship, the Eclector, was large enough to accommodate several ships of that type (like the one taken by Nebula), or is it still left in half repair in the forest on Berhert?

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Guardians….gather!

Conclusions:

While I would have preferred to see the Guardians together as a team throughout the movie, I thoroughly enjoyed Volume II. Marvel movies are normally billed as action-packed blockbusters. Volume II has some great action sequences, but it chooses instead to focus on the characters, and how there is more to them what’s simply on the surface.

And what better group to do this than the beloved characters of Guardians of the Galaxy? In focusing on the people rather than action, we get a chance to hang out with these characters for two hours. The emotion is there, from start to finish, and that is the real victory of Volume II.

And that’s the way this fanboy sees it.

(We Are Groot!)


An Easter Among Lions

Last weekend I took my 4-year-old son to an Easter egg hunt. Like most events of the kind, it involved a basket and brightly colored plastic eggshells. And candy, lots and lots of candy. The difference? The hunt took place inside a tiger habitat. (Thankfully, the tigers were not in it at the time.)

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We were at In-Sync Exotics, a non-profit rescue for large cats in Wylie, Texas. Here they care for lions, tigers, leopards, bobcats, and a host of other animals. The overwhelming majority of the animals at In-Sync are rescues from breeders, sellers, or folks who watched The Lion King one too many times and thought their kid might want a lion cub for their birthday (that last one actually happened). The circumstances of their arrival are generally sad, but once they arrive, they receive love and care for the rest of their lives.

The good folks who volunteer their time here truly care and love these animals. When I say that they treat them like members of their own family, I mean it. While there, I asked one lady about an older white lion I had visited the previous time, a very vocal male with pale blue eyes named Jazz. She looked down and I heard her voice become brittle when she said that Jazz had passed away a few months ago. She said that it had been hard getting over his passing, and seeing his name on the memorial wall. I felt for her.

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Jazz

One point of clarification: It’s not a zoo, where you are far removed from the animals. Think of a spacious cage that itself is inside a slightly larger cage, forming a kind of airlock that’s about three feet across. This is absolutely the closest you can get to these cats. And let me tell you, the experience is one that stays with you.

Between trips to the tiger-themed bounce house and the balloon-pop game set up for Easter visitors, I found myself nearly face to face with a young African lion named Lambert. I found him resting in the grass right next to the inner fence, and I crouched down next to the outer fence. There is just something ineffable and sublime about a lion meeting your gaze. Lambert’s’ eyes are the dark amber of the African savanna.

Stunning.

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Lambert

It’s no wonder that so many cultures have attributed human characteristics to these animals over the centuries. Sitting there, it would not have surprised me in the least if Lambert had suddenly said, “So, Matt, how have you been?”

It’s not lost on me that if those two fences did not separate us, that conversation might go a very different route. The same is true when you hear one of these cats growl. It’s not like hearing the MGM lion at the movies. No, it resonates in your chest, and seizes your attention like a fog horn, both thrilling and a little terrifying.

It’s easy to forget just how big they are, and how casually powerful. When I filed into the tiger’s enclosure for the Easter egg hunt proper, along with dozens of other parents and kids, I stood by a blue 55-gallon plastic barrel that the tigers used as chew toy. We had barrels like that at my father’s machine shop, and they were nearly indestructible. This one had teeth and claw holes in it, hundreds of them, and some as big around as one of my fingers. Whoa, Nelly!

Despite the title of this blog post, I did also spent quite a bit of time around some of the other cats, including a gorgeous black leopard named Sinbad, and a constantly pacing tiger by the name of Apollo. Again, up close and personal—and incredible.

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Sinbad

By the early afternoon, the 4-year-old was wearing down and getting testy, the aftermath of his excitement and exertion. After trading in our Easter eggs for candy, we said our good-byes to the cats and headed on home.

This was one for the history books, folks, and one that will stick with me for many years to come. If you should happen to find yourself anywhere in the Dallas/Fort Worth area, I highly recommend paying In-Sync Exotics a visit. The work they do there is important, particularly now.

These cats ennoble us all. Should you ever need a clear reminder of why preservation of these animals is important, you need only look one of them in the eye.


My Gamer Origin Story

When you hear that someone is a gamer nowadays, it conjures up all sorts of images. Maybe a TWITCH gamer doing livestreams with a headset, or someone who enters a Call of Duty tournament and plays competitively at a local con. In almost all cases, the term ‘gamer’ deals specifically with video games.

Well, when I hear the word, I tend to think of someone who enjoys tabletop role-playing games first, then board games second, and then video games. Maybe I’m just weird that way. Or old-school. Or both.

When I played original NES games back in the day, I didn’t really consider myself a gamer, per se. It was really when I got into tabletop RPGs that I felt that I was truly a “gamer.”

Let me share with you how it all went down. This is my origin story, if you will.

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Don’t forget to add all your miscellaneous modifiers.

The spark that started the bonfire was a set of choose-your-own adventure books called the “Fighting Fantasy” by Steve Jackson and Ian Livingstone. These differed from many of the other books of the day because they had a dice-based combat system to go along with the adventure. You had a character sheet, magic items that you could collect that boosted your abilities or healed you, and all sorts of other cool stuff that really set them apart from the rest.

Being in a small town, I didn’t have access to many of them.  Both of the ones that made an impression were obtained through ‘book club’ newsletters from my school, in this case TROLL and ARROW. Through them, I got my hands on two Fighting Fantasy titles: Demons of the Deep and Rebel Planet.

 

The former dealt with a brave sailor’s trials in Atlantis as he attempts to settle the score with the murderous pirate, Captain Blood-Ax. The latter was about a secret agent among the stars who attempts to unseat humanity’s conquers, the Arcadians, armed with your wits and your trusty lightsaber.

I loved the interactivity of them, and the vibrant writing style.  You could play through different endings if you messed and died, horribly in some cases. The concept really captured my imagination. When I was in 7th Grade, I happened upon a book in the Eustace Junior High library. This one:

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I have a copy of this book in my personal library. It was the gasoline poured on  the fire.

The ENDLESS QUEST series didn’t have the combat system, but it did have some compelling story lines. I remember reading the introduction where you, the main character, are sent to find a way to defeat a dragon whose very shadow can kill all life. When Shen, the eponymous dragon of doom, takes flight across the countryside, you can follow the trail of withered planets and dead animals.

If you look at the cover art, you’ll notice something else:  it reads “DUNGEONS & DRAGONS” in bold letters across the top. My grandmother certainly noticed this, and promptly made me take it back to the library, and explained that I shouldn’t attempt to check it out again.

Dungeons & Dragons barely registers today in popular culture as a thing itself, outside of a few Gary Gygax memes, references in the Big Bang Theory, or Wil Wheaton videos. It still has a geeky connotation to it, but understand that at this time, Dungeons & Dragons had a vaguely sinister reputation. There were some who thought it was outright Satanic.

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Do you want Demogorgons? Because that’s how you get Demogorgons.

Yep, it wasn’t cute and adorable and nostalgic like in Stranger Things. Some groups used to think it was a (and I kid you not here) a way for teenagers to sell their souls to the devil.  Movies like Mazes and Monsters or the Chick tracts at the time didn’t help, either.

Of course, when my grandmother told me to take Dragons of Doom back to the library, she virtually guaranteed that I would go learn more about it. And I did. I was no stranger to comic-book shops, and many of them sold D&D products, as well as a host of other RPGs.  I talked with some of the guys there who played them, and it didn’t sound like my curiosity was endangering my mortal soul.

And then, out of the blue, I found out that one of my friends, Dan, actively ran different RPG games after school. Some of them he made up himself, and others were published, of-the-shelf games. I soon began hanging out at his house after school with his older brother, Jay, and another guy we knew, Donny. Dan was instrumental in forming my early understanding of how RPGs work. He was the first one to explain to me what a d20 was, and what went into building a character.

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The first time I made up a character, it was a home-brewed system that Donny had made up called “The Blade Lords.”  It was loosely based off of the Palladium RPG systems, using many of the same races, but had a focus more on sword-play and arena fighting than magic. The character was a swordmaster named Ulfric and he was from a race of humanoid canines called the “Wolfen.”  I only played him a time or two, and his character sheet is sadly lost to the sands of time.

After that, Dan ran a round of Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles & Other Strangeness, also by Palladium Games. Yes, they made a TMNT-themed RPG, and it was really good. Only this wasn’t the happy-go-lucky ’80s cartoon version of the Turtles. No, this was the original Eastman and Laird version, harsh and unforgiving.

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Everyone wears red around their eyes, yo.

My character was a mutant alligator named Spike, who was also (of course) a ninja. I went on to play many different games with Dan, Jay, and Donny. Sometimes my other friend Cody would run a game. We played all through junior high and high school. I made up many different characters during this time, including one time in the Batman RPG where my character accidentally-on-purpose killed Batman. A dubious honor, to be sure.

I also began running games of my own at this time. One of them I ran in the lunchroom before the bell rang with my friends Robert, Keith, and Cliff. What made this one different was that I had made up the game system. It was a simple d6-based game with heavy emphasis on roleplaying, which I called “RPG To-Go.”

It was also during this time that I realized that my cousin Travis was big into these games. He lived up in the big city of Dallas. Well, big considering the small town I was living in at the time. When I got a car my senior year, a silver ’84 Isuzu Impulse I called the Millennium Falcon, I was able to head up to Dallas on the weekends to game with his group. There, I made many friends that I’m lucky enough to still have today.

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I always thought it looked vaguely like a DeLorean.

Since then, it has been a rarity to not have a game to go to at some point during the week, either playing or GMing. Palladium, Heroes Unlimited, Ninjas and Superspies, Kulthea, Forgotten Realms, Vampire: The Masquerade (I played a Werewolf. Big surprise, huh?), Traveller, MegaTraveller, OMG DRAGONLANCE, Netheril, Valeriand, on and off again, Neverwinter, Storm Watch, The Mean Streets of Thebes, Game of Thrones, Transformers, and hopefully soon…Fallout!

That’s just to name a few.

And now I know enough about RPGs that when I want to play or run one, I kit-bash what I need out of existing systems, or just make up what I need out of whole cloth. Yeah, I didn’t choose the game life…the game life chose me.

Of course, I am a gamer in every sense of the word now. It’s not just tabletop stuff, but also board games, and video games. And while the original NES had a big part to play in fostering my love of video games, I didn’t really accept games as a being a part of who I am until tabletop RPGs came into my life.

True story.