Monday, February 17, 2020

Marvel Immersion Project: The Amazing Spider-Man #13-17

My Recent Reads

The Amazing Spider-Man #13
Originally Published June 10, 1964
Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Steve Ditko
  • Villain: Mysterio
Image result for mysterio
via Marvel Database

The Amazing Spider-Man #14
Originally Published July 10, 1964
  • Villain: Green Goblin, backed by The Enforcers
Image result for green goblin
via Wikipedia
  • Crossover: Hulk
  • It's 1964 so I suppose it's not entirely surprising that the story should include a Beatles reference.  Interestingly, this single was released in the UK on the same day this comic was published in the US.  No song is more emblematic of the mania:

The Amazing Spider-Man #15
Originally Published August 10, 1964
Image result for kraven the hunter
via Wikipedia
  • Villains: Chameleon and, introduced for the first time, Kraven the Hunter.
  • First mention of Mary Jane Watson, though we don't actually get to see her yet.

The Amazing Spider-Man #16
Originally Published September 10, 1964

Image result for circus of crime
via Marvel Database
  • Villains: The Ringmaster and The Circus of Crime, all of whom made their first appearance in The Incredible Hulk #3
  • Crossover: Daredevil 
The Amazing Spider-Man #17
Originally Published October 10, 1964
  • Villain: Green Goblin
  • Crossover: Human Torch
  • James Bond reference!  At one point, a classmate makes a joke about Peter Parker reading a "James Bond Mystery."  The novel You Only Live Twice was published in March of 1964.  The film From Russia with Love was released in the United States in April of that year.

Friday, February 14, 2020

Star Trek: Symbiosis

Episode: "Symbiosis"
Series: Star Trek: The Next Generation
Season 1, Episode 22
Original Air Date: April 18, 1988
Image result for tng symbiosis
via Memory Alpha

The Enterprise rescues a freighter crew and its apparently precious cargo, though in fact, it turns out, they've thrown themselves into the middle of a drug deal.  T'John and Romas are two rather unkempt representatives of Onara, a world whose entire population has grown addicted to Felicium, a narcotic produced only on the planet Brekka.  The role of pushers is filled by Sobi and Langor, the more refined Brekkians seeking to be paid for their merchandise.

The relevance of the storyline hasn't diminished in 31 years.  If anything, the role of Big Pharma in the current opioid crisis fits the "Symbiosis" allegory even better than that of the crack dealers of the late '80s.  However, as is often the case with Star Trek, the messaging is far too heavy-handed.  The cast expressed strong objections over a particularly eye-roll-inducing Just-Say-No lecture with which Tasha burdens Wesley.

That said, I always enjoy a solid Prime Directive dilemma.  Even in the decidedly uneven first season, TNG delivered some good ones.  The question of whether to interfere with an obviously destructive relationship is tricky in light of the policy.  Picard's sparring with Dr. Crusher over the matter is especially interesting.  A medical doctor's approach to problem-solving: find the cause of suffering and eliminate it.  Heal the patient.  A Starfleet captain's responsibilities frequently obligate him/her to ignore the issue.  Picard's ultimate decision is reasonable, yet it doesn't actually make anyone happy.  So it goes.

Image result for merritt butrick
via Memory Alpha

A sad real world note: the part of T'John is played by Merritt Butrick who some may remember as David Marcus, Kirk's son, in the Star Trek movies.  In 1988, Butrick was dying of AIDS.  He had no health insurance so he was cast in this episode to help him pay his medical bills.  He passed away in 1989, age 29.

Acting Notes

Image result for judson scott
via Charmed Wiki

Judson Scott (Sobi) was born July 15, 1952 in Azusa, California.  He holds a BA from Cal State-Fullerton and a Graduate Diploma from Julliard.  During his student days, he entered the American College Theater Festival and was named Best Actor in the Western United States.

Like Butrick, Scott also appeared in Wrath of Khan as Joachim, Khan's sideman.  As a result of a spat between his agent and the film producers, he is uncredited in the film, even though his is a rather prominent speaking role.  In television, he has been particularly successful in scoring guest star roles with the sci-fi franchises including V, Voyagers!, Babylon 5 and The X-Files.

Thursday, February 13, 2020

On the Coffee Table: Dan Barlow

Title: Play Cribbage to Win
Author: Dan Barlow

Image result for play cribbage to win
via Amazon
Few things in the world are more versatile than a deck of 52 playing cards.  You can build things with cards.  You can do magic tricks or tell fortunes.  Cards make for good bookmarks in a pinch.  And, of course, you can use them to play games - thousands of different, enduring, compelling and downright addictive games all from the same deck.  You can play alone.  You can play with groups of variable size.  My basic philosophy of traveling anywhere: as long as I have a good book and a deck of cards, I will never be bored.

I love cribbage.  It's probably my favorite card game.  I don't know when I first learned the rules but I didn't learn to play well until I met my wife 22 years ago.  She plays with muggins (more on that in a bit) which meant I had to clean up the careless mistakes in a hurry.  Over the years since, I'd like to believe I've developed a reasonably sophisticated game.  Cribbage is mostly mathematical - more so than other games - and I'm generally pretty good at math.  Against a phone app, my most frequent opponent, I win a lot more than I lose.

Humans are, of course, more challenging as they are less predictable.  I've recently found an opportunity to test my skills against real people more often.  The Boardroom has started a cribbage league!  We gather monthly.  Last month, my performance definitely left room for improvement.  So, I have revisited Barlow's book, one I first read several years ago.

Before I dive into the specifics, those unfamiliar with the game can learn the basics here.

I am confident in my toss game - the bit where you decide which cards to keep in your hand and which to "toss" to the crib.  That's straight math so figuring out which cards are likely to be most useful to me and least helpful to my opponent is relatively simple.  Computers are brilliant at analyzing such decisions and mine are usually right - or at least not disastrously wrong.  If there's an art to cribbage, it's in the pegging.  Computers are not as good at picking up on the subtleties and are therefore less than satisfying opponents in this regard.  You need real people for decent practice.

Barlow's insights are certainly helpful.  He offers solid strategic advice for each individual card you play from your hand.  There's a lot to remember but I do my best to latch on to a few guiding principles.  The first couple plays are the most important so if I prioritize that for now, I'm hopeful of seeing improvements.

The league is a relaxed one, including both beginners and experienced players.  We don't play with muggins.  That's when you can steal points from your opponent if s/he doesn't see them.  There are some psychological issues to work through, though.  My adrenaline was running like mad last month.  Beer is a decent sedative, though you certainly don't want too much, especially when you still need to drive home afterwards.  Hopefully, that will also get easier as I adapt to the circumstances from month to month.

I will refer back to Barlow, too.  I'll look into other books eventually for a different perspective but his short, 96-page volume packs a lot.  He gets into the endgame also, aka Fourth Street.  He has a whole separate book on the subject.  I'm not even ready to put much thought into that before I master the pegging.

Wednesday, February 12, 2020

Squid Eats: Jules on the Green

Image result for jules on the green
via Jules on the Green

As you may have heard, we got a huge snowstorm in New England last Friday.  As such, by Saturday afternoon we were all pretty desperate to get out of the house.  Why not lunch?

I suppose Jules on the Green is fairly typical of newer restaurants these days: standard American fare with fusion elements, mostly Italian in this case; great beer list; locally-sourced ingredients; friendly but not over-bearing staff.  A couple elements I especially appreciate are the large windows in a relatively small space so you get plenty of sunlight - a particularly nice thing when you've been snowbound - and the fact that they serve breakfast all day if you want it.  I had the creme brulee French toast which sounded more exciting than it actually was but was still perfectly nice French toast, my go-to breakfast in diner-type establishments.

We've been a couple times now, the first for my birthday a couple years ago.  We'll certainly go again.  It's a little further away that our nearest comparable place but also nice for changing things up from time to time.

Squid on the Vine

Chateau Cadenette, Costières-de-Nîmes Grenache Blend, 2017
Rather bitter.
Sweeter nose and finish.
A bit of apple.
My rating: 7.8

Tuesday, February 11, 2020

Family Book Swap: La Belle Sauvage

Title: La Belle Sauvage
Author: Philip Pullman
Image result for la belle sauvage
via Amazon
As noted in this post, Philip Pullman's His Dark Materials series was a favorite of my wife's and mine even before we were married.  We listened to the wonderful, full-cast audiobooks on road trips early in our relationship.  So, hopes for Pullman's latest series about Lyra's world are rather high.  La Belle Sauvage is the first volume of The Book of Dust trilogy.  It is set several years before The Golden Compass.  Lyra is an infant and the new protagonist is Malcolm, a young and extraordinary innkeeper's son who is heroically devoted to protecting her.  Malcolm is drawn into a world of simultaneously colorful and terrifying characters.  Some we already know: Lord Asriel and Mrs. Coulter.  Others, like the horrible Bonneville, are new.  Practically by accident, he stumbles into a spy network through which he learns of alethiometers. 

For a different hero, we get quite a different tale.  The new story is a lot darker than His Dark Materials.  The subject matter and even some of the language implies teenagers rather than younger children as the intended readers - not a good read-aloud for the tots.  In parts, the story also tends more to the surrealist end of fantasy than the original series did. 

Malcolm and Alice, his partner in this adventure, are total badasses.  One can't help admiring them tremendously by the end.  There is some untidiness in the narrative.  For instance, at one point Bonneville is revealed to have a predilection for young boys, a fact presented in such a way that one assumes it to be important to the story but then it isn't.  Or maybe it still will be in future books?  Hard to see how but we'll see.  Overall, Pullman's language, character development and world development are all expert level so I'm certainly up for more.  The second volume, The Secret Commonwealth, jumps ahead to the time after His Dark Materials.  I expect my wife will be swapping with me for that one soon, too.

Monday, February 10, 2020

Marvel Immersion Project: The Amazing Spider-Man #7-12

Following on last week's post, I've realized that the Peter Parker story is often (always?) the more interesting side of the Spider-Man saga.  It is certainly the less predictable side.  The basic superhero story is highly formulaic and, certainly in the idealistic early '60s, you can usually count on the good guy winning every time.  The colorful villains add variety from issue to issue but you still generally know what's going to happen.  But the path of the alias is a lot more complicated.  The six-issue stretch I read this week includes meaningful development for several of Peter's "real world" supporting cast.  In fact, it's fair to say at this point that some among them are more dynamic characters than Peter himself.

My Recent Reads

The Amazing Spider-Man #7
Originally Published December 10, 1963
Writer: Stan Lee
Artist: Steve Ditko
  • Villain: The Vulture
  • Peter Parker's personal life gets a little more interesting as he starts putting the moves on Betty Brant, Jonah Jameson's secretary.
Image result for betty brant
via Wikipedia
The Amazing Spider-Man #8
Originally Published January 10, 1964
  • Villain: The Living Brain
Image result for living brain spiderman
via Wikipedia
  • The first major development for Flash Thompson, Peter Parker's high school bully.  The two end up in the boxing ring at school and Flash finds out just how strong Peter is, even when he's trying to pull his spider-strength punches.  Though he doesn't tell his friends of his discovery, Flash's attitude towards Peter has clearly changed.
Image result for flash thompson
via Wikipedia
  • Bonus story with a Fantastic Four crossover.  Spidey actually comes across as the jerk in this one, crashing the Human Torch's party, then picking a fight with him.  Fortunately, the Invisible Woman puts the webslinger in his place.

The Amazing Spider-Man #9
Originally Published February 10, 1964

Image result for electro
via Wikipedia
  • Villain: Electro
  • A good story for Aunt May, Peter Parker's one unbreakable loyalty.  She is badly ill in this issue, enough to require surgery.  The medical bill is expensive and Peter needs to find a way to pay it quickly.

The Amazing Spider-Man #10
Originally Published May 10, 1964

Image result for the enforcers marvel
The Enforcers via Marvel Database
  • Villains: The Enforcers, led by The Big Man
Image result for the big man marvel
via Marvel Database
  • Jameson reveals the root of his hatred for Spider-Man: guilt over his life of greed compared to Spidey's selfless devotion to good.  I'm not sure I buy it but it's interesting.
  • The Betty story is getting interesting - she's hiding a shameful secret from Peter but we don't know what it is yet.

The Amazing Spider-Man #11
Originally Published April 10, 1964
  • Villain: Dr. Octopus
  • A brief exploration of vigilante ethics as Spidey tries to prevent Doc Ock being released from prison at the end of his sentence.
  • Betty's secret is revealed.  Her brother is a mob lawyer with a gambling debt and Betty has been caught up in his twisted web (pun intended).

The Amazing Spider-Man #12
Originally Published May 10, 1964
  •  The Doc Ock story continues.
  • We've learned a Spidey weakness as his powers are compromised by a virus.
  • Liz Allan is suddenly and unexpectedly falling hard for Peter Parker.
Image result for liz allan
via Spiderman animated Wikia

Friday, February 7, 2020

Star Trek: The Arsenal of Freedom

Episode: "The Arsenal of Freedom"
Series: Star Trek: The Next Generation
Season 1, Episode 21
Original Air Date: April 11, 1988
Image result for arsenal of freedom
via Memory Alpha

The USS Drake has gone missing and the Enterprise travels to the planet Minos to find it.  They are greeted by a holographic salesman hawking advanced weapons systems.  The system is so advanced, in fact, that it killed all of the planet's inhabitants and is now hunting the away team.  Meanwhile, the Enterprise, left under Geordi's command, is also under attack by the automated defense force.

The story started with promising elements, including development of the Picard-Crusher relationship.  While on planet, the two fall down into a pit.  The doctor is badly injured and the captain, in an interesting role reversal, must attend to her wounds.  The original intention was for Picard to be hurt and for Crusher to confess her deep feelings for him while trying to save him.  Roddenberry nixed the idea and rightly so, I think.  There are several feeble attempts at a Picard-Crusher romance in Season 1 and, while it's sweet in a way and entirely believable, I'm glad the writers never followed that path too far, or made too much of any romance among the principals.  Things do develop for some later on... but it's handled in such a way that it doesn't hijack the entire narrative for the series.

Otherwise, the episode actually gets kind of boring at times, an unforgivable sin for science fiction.  The Geordi story is probably the more compelling one as he is challenged for leadership by another officer, Lieutenant Logan who outranks him but only appears in this one episode so obviously that can't happen.  Deanna also urges Geordi to be encouraging towards those under him, Picard style.  He handles both situations beautifully, just as we all knew he would!

A final story note: in the beginning, we learn that our dear Riker had actually been offered command of the Drake before coming to the Enterprise.  Again, one of our heroes passed up a promotion in order to remain a part of our story.  Also worth noting, this is not the last time a ship Riker was meant to lead is destroyed, in a way justifying his choice.  But again, worth asking, how often do people pass up promotions in the real world military?  At the very least, it defies credibility.

Acting Notes

Image result for vincent schiavelli
via Memory Alpha

Vincent Schiavelli plays the part of the Peddler, the holographic salesman.  Schiavelli was born November 11, 1948 in Brooklyn, New York.  Over a 30+ year career, he established himself as one of the best character actors in Hollywood.  In film, he had roles in several high-profile pictures, including One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, Fast Times at Ridgemont High and Ghost.  I first became aware of him when he made a guest appearance on Moonlighting as the love interest of Agnes, played by Alice Beasley, Schiavelli's real world wife at the time.

He also appeared in a ZZ Top video:

A man of many talents and interests, Schiavelli wrote three cookbook/memoirs and starred in a PBS cooking show called Chefs of Cucina Amore.  His work in food was well-regarded, earning him a James Beard Journalism Award in 2001.  Schiavelli suffered from Marfan syndrome and served as honorary co-chair of the disease's national foundation.

He died in 2005 of lung cancer.  He passed away and was buried in Sicily, the ancestral home of his grandfather.  Schiavelli spent much of his later life there.  Much of his food writing draws from his time in Italy.