Our Reading Lives: Dig Deeper

It kind of started with Poison Ivy.

Like a lot of kids growing up in the 90s, my first exposure to anything comics adjacent was Batman: The Animated Series, and for that I’m grateful. Bruce Timm and Paul Dini’s take on Gotham City was an animation landmark that more than holds up today, and I have no trouble tracing the start of my interest in superhero-type-things back to them. And, ok, also to Darkwing Duck, if we’re taking note of everything that made up my cultural soup at the time (which is worth noting if only because, contrary to what I assumed, Darkwing Duck premiered a year earlier).

But mostly Batman.

Somewhere in there my Uncle, who’s a cool enough guy to have actually watched a lot of cartoons with me, must have thought it would be nice to show me where these characters came from, so he gave me some Batman comic of which I don’t have nearly enough specific memories to track down. What I do know is that it featured Poison Ivy, um, rather heavily, and was way too sexually explicit for me at whatever age I was at the time.

I wasn’t scarred or anything—my appreciation of Uma Thurman remains unvarnished—but I think from that point on I made my first mistake by passively assuming the comics themselves weren’t for me, no matter how devoted I remained to the DC animated universe as it spiraled off into Batman Beyond and Justice League. I’ve found that’s a pretty common sentiment, unfortunately. “Comics aren’t for me.”

I didn’t change my thinking until Nolan came along, and thanks to him and the massive hype he generated around Batman I was compelled to give comics another go. Because that’s the thing I’ve found about myself, I tend to dig deeper. To read the book first, to research what I like. I like knowing, I like finding out about stories and the shapes they take, and that’s an instinct that’s always led me to good places.

Sure enough, this time went much better thanks to the internet and the ridiculous number of good Batman stories out there. I read Year One, The Dark Knight Returns, The Long Halloween, and Arkham Asylum, and I was surprised by how much I enjoyed them, not just as stories but as comics. I looked up what other works were considered essential and that led me to what became my trifecta for a long time: Preacher, Watchmen, and above all Sandman. These were some of the best things I’d read in my life, huge influences to this day, that among many other lessons taught me one thing I try to remind myself constantly, especially in regards to the popular consensus of what’s niche and what isn’t.

Comics are just a medium.

It’s a small market, and comparatively few people read them, but otherwise they’re no better or worse than books, films, television, any of it. They have their own strengths and weaknesses, and everyone can enjoy them if they know what to look for.

The looking, unfortunately, is the hard part, and that’s why I enjoy recommending comics to friends who want to dig deeper as well. Whatever problems there might be with the current superhero movie trend, there’s no denying it helps bring awareness to the books themselves, and for all the industry’s problems with the over reliance on cape stuff, I’ve found at the very least it works great as a gateway into the medium. It was mine, and it continues to be that for others.

As I’ve read more over the years I’ve learned and relearned plenty of basic lessons. It turns out Marvel comics aren’t too complicated to get into. It really is worth reading a series that isn’t over yet. Creators are everything. And still I’m digging deeper, every day correcting one of my earliest misconceptions, that it would be easy to read all the great comics.

The more I read the more I realize I haven’t read, and that’s exciting, because learning is all about getting a better sense of how much I don’t know.

Which is what I want other people to feel, when it comes down to it. Don’t worry if comics seem daunting. There’s no wrong way to do it, and not knowing anything is a lot of the fun.

Why Über Matters

Screen Shot 2015-02-14 at 5.56.25 PMHistory is written by the victors, and oh do they have a tendency to soften things up. Clear stakes. Heroes. Cut-and-dry victories. A flair for the romantic.

Kieron Gillen (Young Avengers, The Wicked + The Divine) harbors no romance toward the Second World War. On the contrary, one of his goals with his epic-in-the-making Über seems to be sanding off the greatest generation’s sheen and reminding us of all the violence, fear, and desperation involved in a conflict on that scale.

That he does this by crafting a meticulously researched alternate history in which super soldiers emerge right when the war in Europe would otherwise be drawing to a close (the first proper issue opens on a full page of the good ol’ Führer moments away from blowing his brains out) might make it sound like a typical WWII-with-superheroes story, but Steve Rogers these soldiers aren’t. They’re people transformed into battle-deciding weapons, and their emergence doesn’t kick off a world of slam-bang gee-wiz adventure so much as the most dehumanizing arms race ever imagined, as the Allies scramble to catch up to the German “übermensch” advantage while, on the Eastern front, Stalin applies his favorite strategy of throwing his own people into a meatgrinder the second he acquires the highly dangerous and borderline fantastical means of transforming one person amongst every 5,000 or so into a musclebound mega-warrior capable of generating an electric field that reduces the opposition to a bloody slurry.

Sound fun? It isn’t. It’s high stakes, harrowing stuff, and though the premise might be a gimmick in lesser hands, Gillen avoids that trap by treating his huge game changer with a completely straight face. There’s a definite logic to this approach; WWII was a time of unprecedented innovation, from rockets to the atom bomb to the beginnings of the computer, none of which anyone could stop to contemplate because there was a war on, dammit. The development of genuine superhumans isn’t too far out of step with some of those inventions (in fact it’s perfectly in line with what the Nazis were actually trying to do) and like the rest of them it would have been accepted and harnessed for the total defeat of the enemy.

Gillen, despite allowing this science fiction conceit, still keeps the feet of the genre firmly planted in war, and in so doing captures something that few WWII narratives manage this well, especially when beholden to true events: He summons up the genuine fear that these Nazi bastards might win.

A constant, oppressive sense of encroaching despair hangs over every page of this comic, and I do mean that in the best way. Battles are lost. People die. And at just over a third of the way into a projected 60-issue run, there’s no telling what this world is going to look like when the dust settles.

But it’s not going to be a pretty one, if the gore on display is anything to go by. This is comic book ultraviolence at its most successful, with Caanan White (and in more recent issues, Gabriel Andrade and Daniel Gete) demonstrating a knack for dismantling the human form that would satisfy Cronenberg. It’s body horror that horrifies, with the consequences of every death made into a visceral and disgusting tableau so that the ugliness of war becomes inescapable.

It’s all to serve Gillen’s tangible anger at the sheer scope of dehumanization we’re capable of achieving when circumstances become dire enough. It’s that anger, that passion, that clear and constant bleeding onto the page that marks Gillen at his best. There are some writers where you can just tell how much they care and how much vulnerability they’re allowing into their work, and Gillen does this better than most. He won’t shy away from writing through the pain, and for that I respect him tremendously.

He also deserves accolades for another huge signifier of his work, a commitment to diversity that comes off as effortless and invisible. I’m not sure how far I got into The Wicked + The Divine before realizing I couldn’t name a single white male in the book, and I didn’t notice until Gillen himself mentioned it in an Über letter column (while chiding himself for the lack of characters of color) that the three main perspective characters on the German, Allied, and Soviet side of the war are all women. Again, it’s not about the fact that they’re women, they just happen to be the most important to the story, which really says all it needs to about Gillen’s stance on the general erasure of the role of women throughout history (i.e. screw that). And while the two books couldn’t be more tonally different, the refreshing take on representation is one point I can award Über over The Manhattan Projects, the other, more popular alternate sci-fi history comic hitting the stands.

But Über is the more important of the two. It has a mission. It demands readers get down in the dirt. It cuts open history’s less than pleasant underbelly and challenges our preconceived notions of what was necessary for the world to be where we are today, and it further establishes Gillen as an essential storyteller, who uses his lies to expose greater truth in a gigawatt lightning storm of metal and blood.

My 2013 Media Highlights

I wasn’t planning on doing any sort of year in review post, mostly because (unlike 2010-12) I haven’t been keeping an active list of my favorites. But as the time drew nearer and everyone began posting their respective retrospectives I thought I might as well take stock and see what I came up with.

As it turned out, my top tier of all the year’s media contained exactly thirteen items, and since hey this year had a thirteen in it too I figured I’d arbitrarily rank them and do a little write-up.

There’s plenty I didn’t get around to, not to mention a couple of things I’m probably forgetting, but these were more or less the new releases (across all media, so the ranking is very arbitrary) that had the strongest effect on me over the last twelve months.

13. Orange is the New Black

This prison drama—er, comedy? Either way it’s by far the most impressive Netflix original content, and the first of their offerings that can deservedly stand beside the best of what the cable networks put out. It’s often described as a secret ensemble piece, with Piper Chapman as our conduit to the rest of the women, and while that’s true to an extent (and the rest of the women are all so fantastic) I still never lost interest in the central narrative’s sometimes predictable but always enthralling trajectory.

There are some amazing casts on TV right now, but in terms of gender diversity Orange dominates them all. A trans character with depth and nuance? And she is played by a trans woman? The air, it is so very fresh.

I’m not sure how the second season will be affected by the departure of Laura Prepon, whose Alex Vause is far and away my favorite character, but for now let’s be optimistic and appreciate a damned fine season of incarcerated splendor.

12. Captain Phillips

From the so-so trailer to the bad-bad title I wasn’t expecting much from Paul Greengrass’s latest, but even if I had been this maritime thriller would have floored me.

With incredible direction, a performance that stands out as one of Hanks’ best, and a near-hypnotic debut from Barkhad Abdi as lead pirate Muse, Phillips ratchets up the tension early on and never lets up until a climax that subverts expectations by foregoing catharsis for daringly realistic trauma.

This is a movie that could have taken the easy way out, but instead gave nuance to a simple story without compromising its breakneck pace. While by no means the more impressive cinematic achievement, when I look back on the year I can’t deny that I found it more exciting than Gravity.

11. Sex Criminals

The current run of Hawkeye proves that Matt Fraction is a pretty excellent comic book writer. But this new series—only three issues in at the moment—pretty much marks him as a genius.

He takes an absurd premise (what if your orgasms could stop time?) and comes up with a story that has a healthier, more honest view of sexuality than almost anything else being produced in popular media today.

It is also laugh-out-loud-yes-audibly-so hilarious. From the intentionally overlong recaps to the background jokes in a sex shop to the wickedly irreverent letters column and the insane fourth-wall-shattering consequences when they couldn’t get the rights to a certain song in time for print, this is easily the funniest comic I’ve ever read, with two of the most believable, likable lead characters you could ask for.

10. Masters of Sex

And on the dramatic end of explorations into human sexuality, we have this Showtime series about pioneering sex researchers William Masters and Virginia Johnson. At first I was worried it would just be an obvious period piece, an attempt by Showtime to piggy back off some of that sweet Mad Men acclaim, but it achieves far more than that.

The show ignores the easy-reach conflicts of its conceit (It’s SEX, everyone! At a time when people were WAY MORE REPRESSED ABOUT ALL THAT) by grounding everything so heavily in character that, yes, their lives and problems are just as relevant today as they were then. Tremendous credit due to all the actors. Lizzy Caplan is so very human as Johnson, who could have easily been little more than a manic pixie dream girl. Instead it’s other characters who objectify her and learn (or don’t) the errors of their ways. Sheen’s Masters effects stoicism, but you can always see the well of emotion just below. Every moment where he lets the wall down really counts.

They gave a great foundation, but this season was never more confident than when dealing with the marriage of Dean Scully and his wife (Beau Bridges and Allison Janney, the latter in particular owning every second of her screentime). It was tender, tragic, and beautiful.

But even without that I’d have to give special mention to the the fifth episode, which just about destroyed me. Let’s hope Showtime doesn’t ruin this series too.

9. The Act of Killing

Documentaries can be powerful, earth-shattering, life-changing. But I’m not sure I’ve ever seen any that evoked an intense, horrific fever dream. This beyond-chilling exploration of former enforcers of Indonesian genocide shows just how true it is that history is written by the victors.

After slaughtering roughly 1,000 people (like cattle, as he’s happy to demonstrate) in the communist purges of the 60s, Anwar Congo went on to live a perfectly consequence-free life, revered as one of the forefathers of the paramilitary organization that came to power in the aftermath of the killings. And compared to some of his friends he seems like an ok guy.

The stories director Joshua Oppenheimer got out of these retired killers are unlike anything I’ve ever heard. Some of the men are boastful, and some are trying to downplay it, but the worst ones? They shrug and tell it like it was.

The good news is this movie is creating some real change in Indonesia, but it still contains some of the most unsettling truths and upsetting quotes I’ve ever heard. It’s proof that we can soak in blood and go right on living.

8. BioShock Infinite

Not a big year for gaming on my part. I especially regret not exploring all of the indie titles that seem to have stolen the spotlight from many of the AAA releases.

But of those releases, I’m happy to say my expectations were more than satisfied by the sequel to Irrational’s modern classic tale of a man behaving kindly. The world of Columbia was strikingly realized, with an opening hour or so that served as such brilliant immersion that I never wanted it to end. But when it did, in the best introduction to combat I’ve ever witnessed in a game, I was more than ready to shoot a lot of sky-racists.

Beyond the world, I adored Elizabeth and the infinitely quotable Luteces, as well as a story that was comfortable exploring some truly complex ideas. Perhaps I could have flipped a coin and put The Last of Us here instead…and maybe in some other universe I did.

7. Short Term 12

Brie Larson gets most of the credit for this one (because she’s amazing) but the whole cast really was perfect in this unflinchingly honest look at the staff and residents of a halfway house for troubled youths. It’s a straightforward movie, but one that grabbed me pretty much immediately and took me so far within the lives of the characters that it felt like an intimate experience.

It contains some of the best scenes of people telling each other stories that I’ve ever witnessed, with the fable of the octopus and the shark just about tearing me in half.

6. Game of Thrones

The season I’ve most anticipated since first reading the books, I feel like the show really came into its own this year. Mixing faithfully adapted moments (Jamie in the bath, the Hound and Lord Beric, the liberation of Astapor) without being afraid to flesh out some characters (Margaery Tyrell, Varys, Stannis) for the adaptation, Weiss and Benioff really distilled the lion’s share of Storm of Swords to ten episodes of thrilling television.

And the Red Wedding was exactly the cultural event I was hoping for. In the age of Netflix and binge watching, this is one case where you still need to gather round with friends (be they book readers or no) for some real event viewing. Season four’s going to be wild.

5. Saga

The comic that even people who don’t read comics should be (and many of whom are) reading, Brian K. Vaughn’s weird yet somehow familiar tale of star-crossed lovers trying to keep their daughter safe might be the most compelling piece of graphic media currently being published.

Every character and idea explodes onto the page in strokes of mad genius, a thousand disparate elements blending together flawlessly into a pseudo space opera that manages to be epic, personal, riveting, heartbreaking, and hilarious in equal measure. And that’s not even getting started on the incredible art from Fiona Staples.

This bears every mark of a classic in the making.

4. The Ocean at the End of the Lane

I moved this around the list a lot, because it’s almost impossible for me to compare something from Neil Gaiman to the works of others with any kind of objectivity.

This is a short book, but a brilliant one, and in many ways encapsulates the themes of memory, magic, bravery, childhood, and story that Neil’s explored for his entire career. It can be read in one sitting, making it so easy to return to, and I can confirm that rereading it does yield some very nice discoveries. An elegant and near-perfect tale that I can recommend to basically anyone.

Full disclosure: I type this as I’m looking up at the three signed copies on my shelf.

3. Hannibal

Just when you thought we’d had our fill of serial killers, here comes a take on Hannibal Lecter (of all the tired-out properties) that gives us something we’ve never seen before.

It’s Gothic horror on the small screen, a psychological assault on the senses that manages to transcend exploitation by elevating its violence to the realm of the artful grotesque, with killers who seem to have far more in common with the monsters of Grimm fairy tales than with their would-be contemporary psychopaths on other procedurals.

The most striking visuals on television, a deeply sympathetic Will Graham by way of the stellar Hugh Dancy, and a Lecter whom Mads Mikkelsen plays as if he were the Devil himself. It all adds up to the biggest surprise of the year: A franchise re-imagining that has the potential to become the definitive take on the material (provided NBC keeps it around long enough).

It’s like Bryan Fuller was given an abandoned, hollowed-out gold mine, and with the first swing of his pick-axe struck black oil.

2. Her

Adaptation has forever solidified Spike Jonze as one of my favorite directors, but even then I was unprepared for the brilliance of his latest effort.

So much more than just Joaquin Phoenix falling in love with his phone, this is a sci-fi masterpiece that exemplifies the best of the genre by focusing on entirely believable characters and using their relationship with technology (haha) to show some of the essence of what it means to be human.

Funny, true, devastating, and ultimately life-affirming, I believe there’s every chance we’ll look back on this movie decades from now as it becomes increasingly relevant to the times.

1. Breaking Bad

The cultural event of the year. As far as I’m concerned, nothing was more satisfying than seeing this final batch of episodes from one of the best shows of all time enthrall millions and dominate the public discourse…except for the episodes themselves.

Walter White’s saga came to its tragic and inevitable conclusion, as we knew it had to, but the way it got there was just as compelling as it’s always been. Perhaps Jesse didn’t get as much of the spotlight as he deserved, but aside from that this was a final act that will cement the show’s classic status for all time.

“Ozymandias,” in particular, was one of the best hours of television I’ve ever seen, and I’m confident in calling Breaking Bad my favorite thing released in 2013, as well as the greatest show I’ve had the pleasure of watching.

And that just about does it for 2013. Special shout-out to Dexter for the worst final season and series finale ever unleashed upon a civilian populace. As usual, here’s to the stories of 2014, and all they have to teach us.

The Pile

bookpileI’ve long since accepted that I’ll never consume all the media in the world, but lately I’ve become skeptical that I’ll be able to consume all the media on my desk.

I’ve got a healthy penchant for wanting to read things, which I indulge through impulse buying. This means that for a good time now I’ve had a backlog of books I’ve been meaning to get around to. If I had a pile of them on my desk, that would be one thing. But no, what I have are four piles, with what must be at least ten thousand pages between them. Possibly many more. And with my current schedule of work, workouts, and socializing I’m lucky if I can get through fifty pages a day.

Yet if those physical books were all I was dealing with, I would still consider my page debt somewhat within reason. However if you look at my phone notes you’ll find another list of books I intend to purchase once I’ve gotten through the ones looming over me as I type this. Plus, as was clearly necessary to get into this situation in the first place, I have a habit of picking up whatever strikes my fancy. So while I finished Blood Meridian on the way back from San Francisco, I also bought the considerably longer The Golem and the Jinni when I stopped by Booksmith (a crazy cool little shop on Haight street where you can still find signed copies of The Ocean at the End of the Lane. Go purchase them. I might have done so myself, but I already have seven. As in, seven signed copies. Yes I am that bad, even though five are for other people). Like an irresponsible student loan, my page debt only grows deeper.

AH, but then we must consider that I’m no mere bibliophile. My media appetite is all consuming, so if you’ll explore my computer’s hard drive and some of my shelf you’ll find several hundred issues of comic books I intend to read. These go by faster, but I’ve managed to pick up so many that we’re still looking at many, many hours to get through it all. And naturally, there are comics I also wish to get around to and who am I kidding before I sat down to type this I got an Amazon shipment containing Alan Moore’s Promethea and Grant Morrison’s Flex Mentallo. Wonderful.

But wait, of course there’s more. Television, you see, is a great love of mine. I’m currently making my way through Freaks and Geeks by my lonesome, while group watching Hannibal and introducing friends to Veronica Mars. Plus there’s the so-far-fairly-shit final season of Dexter, and when all this is done, wouldn’t you know it, there’s a note on my phone titled “Necessary TV shows I haven’t seen”, containing the names of eight series or—and I’ve just done the math on this one—roughly 380 episodes, give or take a day or two of my life.

I also watch movies.

I’m aware this isn’t really something to complain about, and in fact I should be celebrating. I love this stuff. I’m going to have a great time experiencing all of these stories, and won’t regret a bit of it.

But wow, there’s a lot out there. And being anything close to well-versed in the culture I thrive on is no small commitment. Between this, a summer job, and my dependency on hanging out with friends, I’m sad to say my own writing has fallen catastrophically by the wayside these past few weeks. I know it’s something I’ll be correcting (huzzah to a comfortable fall schedule made up of creative writing classes), but for now I’m just tallying up all I have to get through and asking myself: Why the hell am I even taking the time to blog about it?

Cheers.

EDIT: I actually wrote this whole thing and somehow forgot about video games. *sigh*, yeah, those too. The Last of Us, Borderlands 2, Deadly Premonition, Hotline Miami, Thomas was Alone, and The Walking Dead: 400 Days. Let’s just call that around a hundred additional hours? I don’t know, I’m trying to do all of the side missions in BL2 and it’s taking a (very fun) eternity. Haven’t played it in months, though.

Why “Blood Kiss” Deserves Your Attention

Hi. I didn’t want to do that thing where I don’t blog for months at a time. Really, I was going to be Mr. Blogs a Couple Times a Week at Least. That’s what they were going to call me.

But then I started a podcast with some friends and it was (and is) a great way to get my opinions on current media things out there in a way that I enjoy. Plus, hey, talking is easier than writing. I should know; I’ve been writing a lot more this year. Yeah that’s right, semicolons. I’m on my game. Except this blog has fallen by the wayside a bit, and that’s unfortunate because blogging is cool, or at least cathartic. What an age we live in, eh? You can express yourself and ramble and get off topic and oh that’s right I had a thing to discuss and that’s why I’m back here.

Blood Kiss is a movie from Michael Reaves about 2/3 done with its Kickstarter campaign. The good news is it’s reached its minimum funding goal, so it’s definitely happening. The bad news—not even bad, really, more of an addendum—is that making a feature length film with only $60,000 isn’t easy. Especially a 1940s noir period piece about vampires. Costumes, effects, locations, behind-the-scenes tributes to the Beast, craft services. Moviemaking is some tricky stuff! And there’s a world of difference between sixty and a hundred thousand where indie budgets are concerned.

So the more people who donate to the Kickstarter campaign the better. I like Kickstarter a lot. There’s been some controversy recently over the studio affiliations of the Veronica Mars project and Zach Braff’s thing, and I certainly have my opinions where those are concerned, but that’s not relevant here. Blood Kiss is as indie as they come, the exact sort of project crowdfunding was originally supposed to be about. The money it raises is the money that will be onscreen, so if you want to see it, hey! Give it some money, and you will. Just to be clear for those new to or wary of Kickstarter: This isn’t a charity so much as a preorder service. You can contribute however much you want, but at $17 you’ll get your own copy of the film. The more you give the cooler the rewards. Nothing weird or charitable about that. You’re paying for things that don’t exist yet, but they will, because the goal’s been reached.

So why this project? Well you should read this or watch this to find out all the details straight from the source, but it’s been written (and will be directed) by Michael Reaves, who I didn’t realize until now was responsible for improving my childhood a fair amount by penning episodes of Gargoyles and Batman: The Animated Series—both formative works when I was a wee thing. He’s suffering from Parkinson’s disease, but because the creative urge transcends such limitations, that hasn’t stopped him from writing. Blood Kiss is a passion project, a vampire noir film set in 1940s Hollywood. Beyond that I only know two things: Its vampires aren’t the loving kind; they feast and murder and repulse major studios. And secondly, the script is good enough that Amber Benson (Tara, from Buffy. As in, that show I just blogged about extensively over seven months? Yeah) and Neil Gaiman (GAAAAAAAAAAAH. Gah) have agreed to act in it. Yeah, that’s Neil “My favorite author/role model/reason for living/I’ve pre-ordered three signed copies of his next book” Gaiman, as the kids are calling him these days.

So I’m INTERESTED. Just a little. You know. It’s not in my top ten movies of all time…but that’s pretty much just because it doesn’t quite exist yet. Wait never mind, stop the presses, just saw in an interview that Amber Benson is singing in this thing, like she did in “Once More with Feeling,” the Buffy musical episode. Her song “Under Your Spell” was a beautiful, catchy number about love, magic, and cunnilingus. And Neil’s a vampire? Yeah wow, screw it, top ten.

Which is why I donated a little money, and if anything I’ve discussed here (or linked to) has intrigued, inspired, or excited you, I’m sure it would mean the world to everyone involved with this project if you were to do the same.

Buffy Reflections: Season 7

All journeys come to an end, now don’t they? Well there are still comics to get to and all that, but this journey, the actual series, and chiefly my experience of watching it over seven beautiful months is through.

So what have we learned? That I like Buffy, mostly.

And that I do not understand how so many people say the show loses it’s way in the final two seasons; I considered them both entertaining as hell.

True, the setup for this last year had me apprehensive, what with the premiere’s chief concern being the reopening of Sunnydale High. I felt we’d moved past that, and while the fourth season was the weakest, since then the series had found a clear identity outside of its secondary school origins.

My concerns were soon put to rest, as the season’s overall theme of going back to the beginning tied in nicely with the new and improved annex of learning and its notoriously high body count. It helped that—save for the hilarious “Him”—not many episodes actually utilized the setting in the same way as the first couple years of the show might have.

Instead it was all about the Hellmouth, and the incorporeal big bad trying to open it. The First Evil was a risky move, and there were many ways the idea of an antagonist who took on the intangible form of the deceased might have failed, but instead it made for some great viewing. Buffy as its default form (she’s died twice, after all) was a perfect conceit that made sense and no doubt lessened the burden on the guest star budget.

More than any other, it seemed like the seventh season was driven entirely by its central conflict, yet it still managed to have fun and do all of the characters justice.

Willow had to adjust to her life after nearly ending the world, and did so with the adorable charm I’d come to expect (not to mention her incredibly attractive new love interest). Xander never had too much of the spotlight, but anchored the group like always. Giles might as well never have left the show at all, since he was the special guest for something like half these episodes. Spike was far more damaged than I thought he might be after getting his soul back, and the final progression of his relationship with Buffy was absolute beauty. Andrew endearingly and awkwardly earned a place for himself amongst the scoobies after he reached his darkest point earlier in the season (RIP Jonathan). Anya had a sad final few months as she became human for good, but managed to admit her genuine love for our species before the end. Faith returned to take part in the climactic episodes in a manner that felt completely natural and fitting, even if she hadn’t been on the show in three years.

Oh, and Dawn didn’t get in the way too much.

The new characters were able to find places for themselves as well. Principal Wood was a great addition following his wonderfully over-the-top mystique before we learned his history. And though he only had a few episodes, Nathan Fillion’s Caleb was an incredible villain.

Naturally, Buffy herself was the focal point as she became general of a slayer army in order to defeat the forces of evil once and for all (for now). I’m not sure I bought everyone rejecting her leadership at the eleventh hour, but the inevitable reconciliation meant it didn’t matter too much.

This was a fun, thrilling final season to a show that I loved almost from the start. It’s grown to become one of my favorite TV series, and something I now regard as near-essential viewing. Watching it was long overdue, and I’m not sad at all to have finished. Merely grateful I got to go along for the ride.

Neil Gaiman’s Calendar of Tales Review

’twas a special week indeed, for the great and venerable Neil Gaiman (my idol/role model/favorite author who will totally remember me from that one time I met him when we next cross paths) has produced some new fiction.

But this wasn’t anything so conventional as a book or TV episode—both of which, I might add, he also has due for release in the coming months—no, this is a weird artsy project sponsored by BlackBerry that I’m still not sure I understand in its entirety.

A few weeks ago Neil spent an entire day on twitter, asking a different question every sixty minutes about the months of the year. Twelve hours later he’d assembled a massive stockpile of inspiration for potential stories, and, selecting one for each month, wrote a dozen short stories in just three days in order to create a “Calendar of Tales.”

Earlier this week the stories were all released for the next step: People will read them, get inspired, and create their own art that Neil and BlackBerry or whoever’s in charge of this thing will select and combine with the prose to make the actual calendar. Fun stuff.

But my chief concern, of course, is that I just read a dozen new very short stories from Neil Gaiman and now I have feelings about them. After initially tweeting my reactions as I was pouring through the tales a couple of days ago, I’m now ready to go back for a more in-depth appraisal of each of them, and perhaps how they function when viewed as a unified project.

I would of course recommend you first read them for yourself here.

January’s tale made for a thrilling start. I expected we’d ease into these stories, but the response about a veteran and a new recruit that answered the prompt “Why is January so dangerous?” led to a piece on soldiers embodying the years themselves—a very nice little twist—fighting off extra-dimensional beings that want to creep into our reality. It’s the sort of visceral action that Neil rarely indulges in, but here he does so while keeping it distinctly his own.

That applies to all of these tales, by the way—they scream “Neil Gaiman” to a one, and this is not at all a bad thing. In fact there’s a lot of variation going on here, but never did it feel like anyone else could have written them. And why would I want that? It’s like an ice cream sampler. The flavors are all different, but there’s no denying it’s all ice cream. And it’s delicious.

Yet I admit the next tale didn’t stick with me that much. The answer selected for the strangest thing that ever happened to someone in February was intriguing, but practically a story in itself, so that Neil mostly just elaborates on it and adds some fantastical elements that I found a bit too confusing for their own good. Not that it wasn’t good—I enjoyed all of these—merely that it wasn’t stellar.

March, though, has pirates. Neil chose Anne Bonny as the historical figure to center this tale around, and it’s quite nice indeed. Jumps around a bit, and maybe it loses something in tying itself to a real person, but when that person is a female scourge of the seven seas I’m not exactly upset. And the stark tone here is wonderful. You can smell the salt in the wind.

April is the funniest. The request for a happy memory received an account of duck feeding that Neil transformed into a father/son con team fleecing the poor mallards until they reveal themselves not so helpless after all and turn the tables. This one’s a punchy good time, and a suitable tale for my own birth month. My favorite whimsical story in the calendar.

May revels in its own nonsense, and isn’t at all what I would have thought I’d be reading after the request for the weirdest gifts people had ever been given turned up an anonymous Mother’s Day card. But this tale doesn’t stay confined to May, instead detailing a bunch of glitches in the matrix suffered by a poor soul over an entire year. Some great, irreverent imagery.

The wittiest of them all is June. Looking back over these three I was disappointed that they were all such light fare, but now I see the (likely unintentional) progression, with a more mature sense of humor each time. As such, the parents’ disagreements in this one are very clever, but in the end I prefer it when Neil takes things a tad more seriously.

He proceeds to do so again starting with July, which turns a suggested igloo of books into a beautiful journey across a paper and ink tundra that conjures up more vivid imagery in two pages than many works manage in their entirety. It’s easy to understand why Neil’s claimed this as his favorite—it’s a story about stories, imagination fueling imagination. What he does best, in other words.

Then August turns the temperature right back up with the best of the chosen responses. What would August say if it could speak? “August would speak of its empire lasting forever whilst glancing, warily, at the leaves cooking on the trees.” Gorgeous. And the fire imagery mixed with biting hubris in the following tale more than does it justice.

September might be the shortest of them all, telling of a ring that doesn’t stay lost. The concept is fine, but it turns dreadful and dark at the end in a way I didn’t find that compelling. A bit too slight to justify it, perhaps?

October is my favorite of the lot. Neil asked for a mythical creature to meet, and it’s no surprise he went with a djinn. That’s the role he’s fulfilling in this project, in a way, bringing to life the wishes of a lucky dozen twitter followers (and likely not in the ways they expected, taking their words and twisting them for his own ends). This tale reminded me of his short story “Chivalry,” in which a kind old woman stumbles upon the Holy Grail. Understated reactions to fantastic circumstances are great, and the romance angle here makes it all the better. A perfect little piece of wonder.

The next month’s prompt is the most personal, expressing a desire to burn medical records, “but only if that would make it all go away.” So Neil grants that wish as would be expected, with a brazier that burns away reality. Couldn’t help thinking about whatever real life sorrows afflict the person who inspired this one, and wondering at the mix of catharsis and pain this tale brought them.

The calendar ends with a woman meeting her younger self as a runaway. That premise is so powerful that it led me to brace for something more heart-wrenching almost out of a sense of masochism. C’mon Neil, make me cry. It wasn’t that intense, but worked well all the same. And I suppose it makes sense that he would want the calendar to end on a hopeful note. It was a fitting December tale.

As a whole, I loved these stories. There was never really a chance that I wouldn’t. And even though I didn’t adore every last one, keep in mind I’m holding them to the standard of my favorite author. Even those I criticized still appealed to me more than almost anything else would.

This was a splendid way to whet my appetite for Neil’s upcoming Doctor Who episode and, more importantly, his first novel since I became such a tremendously devoted fan. I’m not quite sure how I’ll handle it. But for now we’ve got a great collection of stories that’s going to be turned into some kind of calendar. Here’s hoping it’s a physical thing, because I for one would love a copy.