Crash Bang Boom

The first comic book I ever bought was Spawn number one. I don’t recall the exact reasons behind buying it save for the  “Oooooh wow!” factor of the cover: preposterous swaths of crimson, gouts of inky black framed by sharp bands of bone white, swirling green mysts… my god, all that green… conveying a sinister magic that drew me in immediately. I stayed hooked on the Spawn franchise up until the creator, Todd McFarlane, bailed to go do other things like make figurines and what-not. The artist changed, the storyline changed, and I kind of gave up. Alongside Spawn, I followed other Image comics like WildC.A.T.SCyberforce and Gen 13. But when I stopped caring about Spawn, I kind of dropped comic books altogether. I guess I moved on.

To be fair, I’ve always loved comics, even if I’m a shitty collector. I’ve always loved Batman – at first for the visceral joy of him beating up villains like the Joker or the Riddler, and then later for the deeper subtext and moral quandaries his choices bring up for himself and those around him – and I’ve always been keen on the X-Men as well (because Wolverine, god damn it). I suppose that the biggest draw for me has always been the lore, as daft and ever-shifting as it is. Just take a look at any comic book related article on Wikipedia, like this one about The Avengers. “The Avengers? That movie that Josh Wheldon did last year?” you might ask. And after I throw something at you for misprounouncing Joss Whedon’s name, I’d say “yes” and ask you to click on the link. Then when you get there, click on another link. And then another. And another. And so on. The lore for even that one series is dynamically vast, a universe of characters and plotlines and drama that rivals anything out there. And this is just one series; now imagine all the other comic book series out there, even the less popular ones. Crossovers and miniseries and spinoffs and reboots… it just keeps going. It’s impossible to keep track of, it’s impossible to remember, it’s impossible to debate and it’s impossible to forget once you’ve fallen deep enough in to the well. “I wonder if The Avengers 2 will show the Infinity Gems! Will Iron Men get the Space Gem?” Just pondering all of it is beautiful and insane all at once.

I did miss out on comic books, for the most part. I never got in to Sandman or Maus or anything truly revolutionary, at least not when they hit the comic book scene like they were the second coming of Watchmen. My high school and post-high school years were filled with anime, job searching, a growing amount of self-regret and the crystallization of my geekself. Comic books were on the periphery: appreciated, admired from afar but ultimately dismissed. Perhaps the rise of truly good comic book movies changed this: geekdom and nerdery were suddenly in the limelight and characters like Batman and Commissioner Gordon were seen not as two-dimensional stereotypes but as complex, deeply-layered and – most importantly – deeply flawed characters. Sure, the comic book underpinnings showed through: the capes and gadgets and amazing last-second comebacks were still there, but the deeper essences – that damned green myst – became the focus of the story. Bruce Wayne’s rise to becoming the Dark Knight, the choices he makes, the people who suffer as a result. I think that’s what brought me back around. This time, however, I was more scrutinizing of my choices.

I’ve always loved cartoons but a darker side of me has loved when adult things happen in cartoons. I don’t necessarily mean nudity or sex; I think it’s more that when something as profound as death is treated realistically or at least in a fashion parodying reality (AKA “let’s show some blood in this one”). In Looney Tunes cartoons, the coyote always meets an untimely demise via explosion or train or painted-over wall or what-not. We know he gets hurt but we also understand that he won’t die, he can’t die: it’s not part of the formula. We laugh at his attempts to capture that goddamn roadrunner and we laugh even harder when him become a victim of his own machinations. So imagine nine year old me seeing Heavy Metal for the first time late one night on HBO. I was shocked; I was appalled; I was excited. These weren’t the cartoons I was used to seeing: Tom from Tom and Jerry didn’t bleed to death after getting a limb severed by a trap Jerry had set; Baloo from Tale Spin didn’t crash-land his plane on a haunted island and get torn apart by the vengeful spirits of other long-dead aviators; the Gummi Bears didn’t overdose. This was something entirely new to me, and I began to realize that cartoons weren’t just “Crash Bang Boom”. I’ve carried this nascent realization with me all my adult life, and that changed my perspective on comic books.

Take a look at my (rather meager) collection of comic books and one thing will definitely stand out: I don’t own many “big name” comics. It’s not that I don’t like them; I’ve reiterated my love for Batman already. It’s more that I’ve been drawn to less well-known titles that tend to dig deeper or go further or, in many cases, completely up-end the entire superhero mythos. These kinds of comic books don’t insult their predecessors, not by a long shot. They don’t mock Superman for being a superficial demi-god, they propose that he’s in fact a reflection of the best aspects of humanity; they don’t tear apart origin stories or mock the oft-used trope of “the multiverse”, they embrace that idea and reach in to it, pulling out rabbit after rabbit. These kinds of comic books are “post-superhero” books, I suppose: they’re less about saving the world and more about asking why the world is worth saving and whether or not those people in charge of saving it are truly up to the task. Sometimes they’re not even that broad in view; sometimes, they’re about a guy trying to right whatever wrongs he can find, even if the biggest wrong he knows of stares back at him when he looks in the mirror. There’s depth and wonder and terror and sadness to all of these kinds of comic books, and that’s why I think I fell in love with them all over again.

I mentioned Heavy Metal and how it affected me. The tie-in here is that a lot of the books I read are not necessarily fun or easy or even adventurous in nature; they are not always happy. But I suppose that reflects on the reader, doesn’t it? I’m not always happy either. But if I can dive in to the latest issue of The Goon or pick up an old copy of Transmetropolitan, I feel at least satisfied to some degree. The world of comics covers every possible subject on every possible level, with a scope as deep and as varied and as frustrating as clicking through Wikipedia articles about The Avengers. I won’t ever hope to scratch the surface of that continuum but then again, I’m not really trying to. I’ve found my little corner, I’ve piled my collection together and I’m more than happy to flip through the pages of what I’ve got.

2012 Games of the Year – Hotline Miami and Skyrim

Hotline Miami

I’m not even sure where to start with this game. It looks like a simple shoot-em-up with a splash (okay, a wave) of blood and violence. You play an anonoymous hitman-type character tasked with, well… killing a lot of people. The top-down perspective betrays deep tactical strategies required to stay alive, and staying alive is the hardest part. You will die in this game, oh yes. You will die a lot. Death is the goal, the motive, the result and the consequence of all of your actions. Mysterious masked figures prod your character on through each mission and as you finish each chapter, you’re awarded with various animal masks that give you powers – start with a gun or kill with a single punch or see further – and choosing which mask to use for a chapter can drastically alter your strategy. Starting with a gun is fine but all that noise will draw the attention of the automaton-like guards who will respond with overwhelming violence, leaving you splattered and dead on the neon carpet. While the goal is the same – kill everything that moves – the path and plan of attack changes from moment to moment. Hotline Miami takes twitch action shooting to an altogether different level, splashes it in 80s neon and deep crimson, mixes in a creepy subtext of a possibly mentally-disturbed protagonist and wraps it all up in a driving, pulsing soundtrack.

And the soundtrack… it’s just perfect. It hums and pulses and throbs in glorious 8-bit, matching the labored, bloody footsteps of your character as he slaughters everything in his path. What starts out as a seemingly simplistic twitch shooter reveals deeper levels of the nature of the very kind of game you’re playing, the consequences of mindless slaughter and the question of whether or not your actions are your own. Get this game and get it now.

Skyrim

Okay, so Skyrim came out in 2011. So what? It’s still amazing. The modding community has extended this game both graphically and gameplay-wise to an almost absurd level. Mods designed for aesthetic and graphic enhancements take the already beautiful realm of Skyrim and turn it in to a postcard-worthy adventure, with just about everything you see worthy of a screenshot. Other mods address and fix the magic, crafting and levelling systems while some mods add new quests or homes or modify the NPC behavior to make mundane things like selling loot far more compelling and essential to the game’s overall experience. This is a game where you can get absolutely lost for hours or days as you explore dark caverns, invade bandit-controlled fortresses or fight merciless dragons to consume their souls. The Choose Your Own Adventure feel lets you determine how to play: are you a fire-wielding mage or a crafty sneak-thief? Maybe you want to don heavy armor and smack some Draugr with your hand-crafted Daedric sword. The world of Skyrim is your’s to enjoy, a snowbound playground of magic and death.

Bethesda has committed to continuing to extend Skyrim as well, with two major DLCs already released: Dawnguard and Hearthfire. While those two are relatively minor and do not add to the main plotlines of the game, they add to an already vibrant game world. With the Dragonborn DLC on the verge of being released on Steam, Skyrim’s vast and wonderful world will expand even further. It may be over a year old but it is still a game worth getting no matter what.

An uneven weight

(I originally wrote this a few weeks after Amber and Bobby died but I didn’t publish it for some reason)

Amongst the mourners and tears, while words like “special,” “energetic” and “beautiful” were being applied in spades to a friend who was more than the definitions of those words, I noticed a lack of an element, a keystone in the drama surrounding Amber’s death. Beyond an allusion in the opening of the funeral, Bobby Isley simply did not exist. Granted, it was – and still is – on many peoples’ minds. Yet his ghost found no purchase with anyone that day and it was roundly and silently rejected by all in attendance. It wasn’t right for him to be there and this was made concrete by the fact that the woman he had loved was now in a casket, placed there by his hand.

I would like to make it clear that I don’t hate Bobby for what he did. I’ve turned over the words “Bobby killed Amber” in my head for just over a week now and it leaves no taste of anger or spite; if anything, it lingers bittersweet and fading as each day passes. While neither death has really become true for me, his seems more distant and intangible. I saw Amber’s body, I saw the family and friends alike mourn and celebrate her all at once. For Bobby, the distance is that much more difficult to process, the absolute madness of why I struggle to mourn him in the first place like a fog that he deigns to peer through every so often. I think that between my group of friends who knew both of them, we all try to remember the positive things about him and try to focus instead on the Bobby we knew and not the Bobby he died as.

The thing that bothers me the most is how I celebrate Amber – and rightly I should – but when Bobby’s face materializes in my memory, there’s an urge to regard it for a moment and move on. That uneven weight of memory, tainted by cold fact and detail, makes it hard for me look at him in as light as bright as I do for Amber. It bothers me even more that I don’t want to celebrate his life; it doesn’t seem appropriate. There is a tainted feel to it that directly contradicts my attempts to keep my memories of him in a positive light. All of the little negatives and quibbles I had about Amber are meaningless, yet with Bobby… they remain, question marks in a tragedy with no answers.

I will try my hardest to think of both of them and to focus on how our brief but energetic friendships changed me. I will look through old photos, ponder about the random little circumstances that remind me of them, and talk with my friends about All Those Good Times. Maybe over time, that weight I feel will balance out somewhat but for now, and for a while to yet, Amber will remain in light and Bobby will remain in darkness.

A few words

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A decade out

It’s the same one I’ve been having on and off again for the last ten years: I’m in a crowd, in the city, somewhere, and I see him off in the distance, moving away fast. I start to run, chasing after him, yelling and trying to get his attention but he disappears around a corner. When I finally catch up, he’s gone. There’s nothing there, no one, and I’m left floundering and flat-footed, hoarse and shaking that he’s gone again.

It hasn’t quite been ten years since Aaron died but with the new year on us, I felt the sting of the impending 10th anniversary and felt like I had to get some of this out of me. To be honest, I haven’t thought of him much in the last year or so: I was trying to get back on my feet and stabilize my life and having him at the front of my thoughts was a little too much to handle. I still had the occassional dream, the same one as always, but in a different place or at some other phase in my life. A neighborhood in SoCal, familiar in layout but alien because it feels like a maze; my phone rings and I answer and I simply hear his voice: “I’m at home, in my room.” I’m off and running through the suburban labyrinth and I finally, finally get to his house and barge in, running down the carpeted hallway to his room. And when I get there… nothing. Emptiness, quiet, a stillness that even now, I cannot understand or accept. The only things there are the reminders of him, ghosts that don’t haunt but simply sit on the shelves and remind me, relentlessly, that he isn’t there any more.

Whenever this wave washes over me, my eyes sting and my arms hurt and I feel that emptiness. And as much as I try to analyze it, rationalize it and be scientific about it, nothing reveals any new answers and nothing feels comforting. I can’t imagine what he would be doing today, where he would be living and what we would be talking about. Just imagining him is difficult now and I feel like whenever I do try to visualize him as he was, he simply fades away. I guess my memories of him as he was are frozen now, stopped in time the day almost ten years ago.

I’m not sure if I’ve evolved beyond it or grown much out of it. A decade out and I still don’t see how I can let go or let it rest; I feel like I’ve failed him somehow, like he would be disappointed in me for how I’ve let my life turn out. I don’t know any more; I’ve looked in to myself and tried to find him there, ask him questions, but I see fleeting glimpses of him in the corner of my eye and then he’s gone.

Lost in Buenos Aires

I’ve kind of lost track of the days here. I wanted to keep updating day by day but things got a bit smudged together since we’ve been so busy. It’s not a bad thing though, but I’m a bit upset at myself for not being a bit more vigilant about updates. Oh well, I guess summarization and general reflection works in a pinch.

  • Sunday the 24th – The family ate lunch at Palacio de la Papas Fritas; the charlotte was excellent. The puffy french fries weren’t half-bad either. After, we went to the feria at La Recoleta and walked around for a bit. Lots of hippies selling neat handmade crafts.
  • Monday the 25th – Ariel and Jenny went up north to see my uncle Rafa; the rest of us had a great lunch at Rut and Edgardo’s. The asado was excellent and I’m now on the hunt for a few bottles of wine from a bodega called Callia; the Grand Callia was particularly tasty.
  • Tuesday the 26th – Not much going on. Maia, Greg, my mom and I went out for lunch at the cafe down the street, then to a Havanna for coffee and alfajores. Later on, we went with my dad to a great restaurant called Lucio; again, amazing food for very little money (something like $16 per person and that included three bottles of wine!).
  • Wednesday the 27th – I didn’t do much all day except lounge around the apartment and watch subtitled movies on TV. It was nice to relax after a week straight of tromping through the city. We did end-up Vero, Dani and Vero’s boyfriend Francisco later that night at an old billiards place.
  • Thursday the 28th – Ariel, Jenny and I went to the  Malba modern art museum. I’m not a fan of modern art; most of it makes me laugh and a lot of the pieces at Malba were no exception. However, not all of it was ridiculous. They didn’t allow pictures though, so ArteBA is superior in my book. We walked around for a bit after and went back to La Recoleta; the feria is on the weekend only so we went in to the cemetary. It’s a photographer’s dream and I wish I had better lenses and more time to spend there. I hope the pictures I took come out. After a nice lunch, we met the rest of the family to watch Dani play at a neat little club called Vaca Profana. It was amazing and I never realized what a talented musician he is. Well worth it. We went with Rut and Edgardo as well as their son, Joaquin and his girlfriend Eugenia to a restaurant renknowned for their fusilli noodles (basically thick spaghetti but way better). Great food, great wine (Uxmal malbec) and great people.
  • Friday the 29th – Everyone went out to do various things but Jenny and I hung out here and watched “Idiocracy” on DVD. After, Maia, Greg and I went with Joaquin and his girlfriend to see his band practice. Very loud but they were decent. I can definitely hear Jaco Pastorius in the way Joaquin plays. Joaquin’s sister, Irene, picked us up and we had a great dinner at this restaurant chain known for their crepes. The food was great, of course, and so were the cute waitresses.

That’s about it at the moment. I’d love to expound on more things here but I’m tired and my brain hurts. I’m also beginning to miss home, but I can survive the next few days without issue. Tomorrow we’re going to a goodbye asado at Rut and Edgardo’s; I think on Sunday I might go with Ariel and my dad to buy wine to take back home. Hopefully I can find a bottle of Grand Callia as well as a few other good vintages.

I have a lot more thoughts I want to expound upon but again, my brain is sluggish. I think after I get back, I can really chew on what I experienced here and hopefully formulate something that can convey the things I’ve seen and done here. It has really been eye-opening so far and as I settle back in to my normal life next week, I’ll have plenty of time to think and reflect on this latest little chapter of my life.

Buenas noches.

Day 5 (Saturday the 23rd): brunch, Mati y Bernardo, asado with la familia Form

We had brunch today. Maia wanted eggs so we walked to a cafe down the street. It wasn’t bad; nothing amazing but nothing terrible either. The medialunas were decent, at the very least. We went back to the apartment to get ready for the day; Ariel, Jenny, dad and I went to meet some old friends as well. It was nice seeing Mati (Matilda) and Bernardo again; it’s been awhile. I don’t know them very well but they were always close friends of the family and took in Ariel while he was in high school down here, so his connection to them is very strong. I guess the families have grown a bit distant over the years so reforming that bond was good.

Later on, Ariel, Jenny, Maia, Greg and I caught a bus to Rut (Ruth) and Edgardo’s house. Their son Joaquin lives just down the street and we were invited to an asado (a barbecue) with their family. My aunt Anna lives with Rut and Edgardo now; a stroke some years back and Alzheimer’s has robbed her of the ability to function independently. It’s generally accepted in the family that her memory is fractured at best, but when I saw her I almost cried. She was small, hunched and frail but she still had a fierce smile and energy in her eyes. Whether or not she recognized us, she laughed and cried all the same. It was good to see her, as I have some fond memories of when she was in the States with us years and years back. As we said goodbye and headed to Joaquin’s place, it occured to me that we might not see her again. Time creeps up so slowly but when it’s over, things happen so fast. I’m just happy that I saw her again.

The asado at Joaquin’s house was fantastic. Great food with great people (funny how the two always seem to go together here). I brought down a PlayStation 2, Guitar Hero 3 and guitar, two controllers and a Mortal Kombat game to give to Seba’s sons. Of course, Juanse soaked it up. I’m glad the PS2 even worked; a million things could have gone wrong but it all worked out.

So it was another great day. Once again, we met with friends and family, had excellent meals and shared great memories while making new ones. Not even a week in and so much has happened already; it makes me wonder what will happen in the next seven days.

Food.

Food. My god, it never ends. It’s all so good. Let me run down what I’ve had so far:

  • Medialunas (sweet croissants)
  • Pizza fugazetta (pizza with a lot of sauteed onions and cheese)
  • Pizza napolitana (pizza with slices of tomato, cheese and spices on top)
  • Ojo de bife (ribeye)
  • Provoleta (grilled cheese)
  • Choripan (chorizo sausage sliced in a little sandwich, usually with chimichurri)
  • Cafe cortado (espresso “cut” with foamed hot milk)
  • Charlotte (a wedge of vanilla ice cream doused in delicious melted dark chocolate)
  • Helados (ice cream; Argentines are serious about their ice cream)

…and more and more and more. Even the food at mediocre restaurants is delicious and amazing. It’s something I’m going to miss when I leave.

Day 4 (Friday the 22nd): ArteBA, milonga, old people, Marini

More walking. My feet kind of hurt but I figure it’s worth the ache if I get to see the city. We went to meet up with Veronica again to go to ArteBA, a fair of contemporary arts. I wasn’t too enthusiastic at first since I have a rather strong dislike for most kinds of modern art, but this was a huge surprise. One, photography was allowed which meant I got to try out indoor and low-light stuff (a challenge for an amateur photog such as myself) and two, almost all of the art was intriguing, sophisticated and very well crafted. I wish I could have spent the entire day there, taking pictures and musing over the pieces that struck me as the most dynamic and interesting. It also makes me a bit upset because we don’t usually have exhibits that large and freeform in San Diego and if we do, pictures aren’t allowed. I’m going to keep my ears and eyes open when I get home though, just in the off-chance that something similar comes up.

After the pleasant surprise that was ArteBA, we hopped on the subte (the subway) and went to see my parents at a milonga (a traditional place to dance, usually the tango). The milonga was in an old building filled with old people dancing to old music. It was great to see my parents dance. The tango is a very refined, reserved sort of dance: very little happens above the waist and what does go on below is choreographed and restricted to particular maneuvers, giving itself over to a sort of tight, burning passion that neither partner fully acknowledges. Even the music is designed to hold everything back just a bit: staccato, sweep, trail off and fade. It’s a sort of dance between two lovers who have no words for their passion, either due to the overwhelming intensity of it all or the simple inability to express in voice what can be better said with the body.

By this point, I was hungry. I hadn’t had much to eat most of the day since I knew we would be meeting with friends at a place called Marini, a buffet restaurant of an entirely different sort. Now, we have buffets and all-you-can-eat troughs in the States: $14.99 for a salad bar, prime rib station, frozen yogurt by the gallon and all the soda you can guzzle. Marini is not like this: it’s a classy restaurant with tuxedo-adorned waiters, real cloth napkins and table covers, fine silverware and good wine. It also has fresh fish, hand-made pastas, desserts to beat the band and one hell of a good fugazetta (sauceless pizza slathered in onions and cheese). Needless to say, for the hungry gourmand, Marini is paradise. The downside? They don’t currently accept credit cards. However, we got the cash together and once everyone showed up (14 in all), the feast begin. I won’t go in to details but let’s just say that I gorged happily and went to bed utterly sated.

That was it for Friday. A great day of art, tango and delicious food with my family. I can’t think of anything better.

Day 3 (Thursday the 21st): La Boca, sin monedas, Vero and pizza

We went to La Boca today to walk around, take in some touristy sites and hopefully get in to a local soccer game. La Boca itself isn’t that nice: it’s a rather poor area of the city and that is reflected in the state of the streets and buildings there. There’s a small bit of curious charm in the raised sidewalks that line the cobblestone roads but the trash, the smells and the general animosity of the people offset anything that could be “kitsch.” Despite that, we wandered for a few hours and ended-up in the touristy area of La Boca where the buildings are painted and decorated in creative ways to attract attention (and tourist money). It was alright, I guess. I’m not big on being labelled a turista here but I lumbered about with my camera slung from my neck, looking mostly like a tourist. I think some of my pictures came out well, at least.

The local team (named La Boca, of course) was playing a team from Uruguay that day and we had to get tickets from a scalper; after haggling, Ariel got five tickets for the “popular” section (where the locals sit). This has upsides and downsides: we were at a local game seeing the local heroes play (Riquelme was there, which was neat), we got to take part in the chanting and jeering and whooping and general revelry Argentine futbol fans are known for around the world and I got to try out my telephoto lens. There was also the fear of being crushed by a mob, getting robbed, being suffocated in the crowd and getting lost in an unfamiliar (and somewhat hostile) part of the city. It was that delightful mix of excitement and “oh shit, we’re going to get the crap kicked out of us.” At halftime, we decided we had had enough of the local color and slipped out of the stadium. La Boca lost 0-1, by the way.

I want to take a moment to point out something interesting: the busses here require exact change. So say we wanted to get back to your apartment: you would need $2.00 (in pesos) in change, not paper bills, to pay for a ticket. Now, you would think “Oh, big deal”, right? We thought so too until we learned that there’s a goddamned shortage of coins in the country. Having coins (moneda) is almost more valuable than having an equal or even greater amount of pesos in paper bills and I heard that people line up for hours at banks to get rolls of coins. Compounding this folly is the fact that we tried to buy small items at various kioscos (basically little mini-marts) in La Boca to get that much sought-after change but mostly came out with more paper bills. It’s almost as if the shortage of coins is happening because people are reluctant to give their change away, which is causing a shortage. Or something.

Anyway… we took a taxi out of La Boca and headed back to where Ariel and Jenny are staying to rest our feet and get some refreshments. After another walk through the streets of Buenos Aires, we ended-up at at Veronica’s place for dinner. She has a neat little apartment on the 13th floor of one of the thousands of nondescript apartment blocks here; the view is spectacular though. We had pizza, faina (a thin garbanzo bean bread that you put on the pizza; very tasty), and beer. It was fun and the food and company were great.

After a full day of being on my feet, though, I was ready for bed. We walked back to the apartment and I hit the bed almost as soon as I walked in. I wanted to get some rest since I knew there would be plenty of walking and site-seeing in the days ahead. If we want to see a soccer game again, I’d prefer to watch from from the safety of a living room.

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