Monday, October 20, 2014

‘Ms. Marvel’, Marvel’s Muslim Hero: Quite Good, But Not As Diverse As Suggested

Marvel Comics’ ‘Ms. Marvel’ series, which has a female, Muslim lead, has been a relative success for the publisher, with the first issue having been re-printed seven times, as well as selling many digital copies. That is part of why I had not read it myself until a week or so ago, though I was eager to see what the fuss was about. Was this series really breaking down long-standing barriers in superhero comics? Not quite … but that does not mean it isn’t a fun read, although probably more for a teenage audience.

A fellow named Chris Sims came up with this theory that Marvel tries to re-invent Spider-Man every decadeNova in the ‘70s, Speedball in the ‘80s, Darkhawk in the ‘90s, and the new, ‘Ultimate’ version of Spider-Man in the 2000s. Alliteration aside, there is more than a touch of Peter Parker about Kamala Khan, our new Ms. Marvel. She’s a bit of an outsider, a bit insecure about herself, and a bit of a nerd – though of the hero fan fiction writing variety rather than a science nerd. And while her heritage is foreign to the US, she herself is very much of Jersey City.

It seems what is meant to make Kamala unique is her growing up in a Muslim family. But, you probably guessed it … that means her family want her to conform to their religious beliefs, do not want her to be around boys, and basically display many other traits typically associated with parents from the Indian subcontinent. The overprotective parent figure is not really that new to Marvel as well – Spider-Man had to tread gingerly around his Aunt May, Daredevil’s father kept him locked up with his law books, and even Thor the thunder god had his father constantly deciding what was best for him.

However all of this is not to say that Ms. Marvel is not a well-written book; just that the Muslim hero angle does not make the book as different from Marvel’s previous output as one might think. Both Kamala and her best friend Kiki, in particular, have dialogue that seems more natural and engaging than most other Marvel books. Also Kamala’s hero worship of the original Ms Marvel, Carol Danvers, and the other Avengers, feels like a very modern type of reverence, reflecting the mind-sets of the fanfic/cosplay generation.  It remains to be seen how well the series can transcend the twelve-issue theory – the series was reportedly meant to end at issue seven. But even if it conks out in its second year, that will not change its historical importance in making Marvel Comics a little bit less ‘male and white’.

Sunday, October 19, 2014

Royals, Giants, and the Randomness of Baseball’s Postseason

Baseball manager Billy Beane was quoted in ‘Moneyball’ as saying ‘My job is to get us to the playoffs. What happens after that is [Beane expletive] luck.’ During this October’s entertaining, but somewhat unusual, Major League Baseball postseason I have often thought about that quote.

The teams with the best record in each league, Washington and the LA Angels, could not even make it to the league championship series. LA Dodgers pitcher Clayton Kershaw, one of the favourites for the National League Most Valuable Player award, went 0-2 in his only two starts. The St Louis Cardinals, last in the league in home runs, suddenly started smacking them out of the ballpark at a furious rate. And the Kansas City Royals and the San Francisco Giants, two teams that made the playoffs on ‘wildcards’, and won 55 per cent of their games during the regular season, are contesting the World Series.

Baseball almost rivals association football/soccer for the extent to which the favourite does not win. (Chris Anderson and David Sally in ‘The Numbers Game’ found that favourites win about 60 per cent of the time in baseball, compared to two-thirds of the time in basketball and American football, and just over half the time in association football.) But in football, the league champion is determined by each team playing 30-40 games, with no playoffs. In baseball, there is a regular season of each team playing 162 games, which determines who qualifies for the playoffs. But then the number of games each team plays to determine the champion is relatively tiny: no team plays more than 20 games, and four teams play no more than six games. With this in mind, you can see where Beane is coming from.

Playoff series are not that good at determining which is the ‘best’ team; if one team has a 55 per cent chance of winning, you would need a 269 game series to ensure that the stronger team won the series 95 per cent of the time. Football, probably unintentionally, has got around that problem by not having playoffs at all. However the World Series is, with the Super Bowl, the biggest playoff institution in American sports, so it is almost certain that Major League Baseball would not abandon it. And plus, the World Series is fun – few baseball fans would be turned off by the prospect of the Royals and Giants slugging it out for seven games. But for those trying their best to succeed, and who then have to weather the criticism following a playoff loss, you could see why the postseason would be a frustrating time indeed.

Tuesday, October 14, 2014

American Novels in the Man Booker Prize

In the past few days there have been a couple of articles on ‘The Guardian’ website about the decision to open up the Man Booker Prize to American novels. Susanna Rustin wrote that, while she loves American novels, she was worried that including them in Booker contention might take attention away from good Commonwealth writing. Australian novelist Peter Carey outright disagreed with the decision, saying that the ‘particular cultural flavour’ of the award will now be lost.

If the aim of the Booker Prize is to reward the ‘best’ novel in English then it must include American authors. But I think what most opponents to the inclusion of American authors are saying is that should not be the aim of the Booker. I agree – there was a nice symmetry in the Pulitzer Prize for Fiction (and National Book Award for Fiction) rewarding US authors, while novels from other countries competed for the Booker. Now Commonwealth novels have less chance of winning a major prize.

How much less chance? I had a look over the Booker and Pulitzer winners since 2000 to see which American novels might have taken the Booker home. Given the outpouring of critical adoration for Marilynne Robinson’s ‘Gilead’ (2005 Pulitzer winner) and Cormac McCarthy’s ‘The Road’ (2007 winner), I would have been surprised if either of those had not won the Booker if eligible. Other American novels that I think would have had decent chances are ‘The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier & Clay’, ‘Middlesex’, ‘The Brief Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao’, ‘A Visit From the Goon Squad’, and the-novel-that-probably-many-people-think-won-the-Pulitzer ‘The Corrections’.

Without working out how those novels would have lined up with eligibility dates (the novel that came up against ‘Life of Pi’ would have had a tough contest), there seems to me a good chance that about four or five US novels might have won the Booker over the past fifteen years if eligible. Actually I think that could well reflect roughly how the shares work out going forward – one-third US winners, one-third UK/Ireland winners, and one-third from everywhere else. So if that occurred, about one-third of potential Commonwealth winners would miss out, which is not drastic. On the other hand, those that miss out are probably those that would benefit most from the prize – the consequences of, say, ‘Wolf Hall’ having missed out on the Booker might be less than for other novels.

Overall then I think Peter Carey is right – something unique has been lost. Which is not to say that the US novels that get up would not be worthy winners; I personally loved one of this year’s contenders, Joshua Ferris’ ‘To Rise Again At A Decent Hour’. It is just a bit of a needless change really, even if Australians would crow a bit more if Peter Carey or Tim Winton ‘toppled the Yanks’.

Monday, October 13, 2014

The Wooden Finger Five - October 2014

No. 5 Two Weeks – FKA twigs

My feelings about FKA twigs’ music are I think similar to my wife’s feelings about modern art – sure, it demonstrates talent but it is a bit too abstract for me. And when it is ‘plain’ enough for me to get into it sounds a bit like Portishead 2014. I do like the single ‘Two Weeks’ though; it would be a good tune even without (or in spite of) the dirty lyrics. (Sample lyric: ‘Beep beep beep, I’m healing for beep you’re dealing, beeperbeeper, get your beep beep you know you’re beep … ‘)

No. 4 Carnival of Light (album) – Ride

I love ‘90s British indie rock band Ride’s first two albums: the self-consciously epic ‘Nowhere’, and the looser, lighter ‘Going Blank Again’. And then a few weeks ago I thought, ‘Well, Ride did more albums, didn’t they? … I wonder if they are any good?’ Their 1996 release ‘Tarantula’ I am not sold on, but I have enjoyed listening to 1994’s ‘Carnival of Light’. All of the first five tracks – particularly ‘1000 Miles’ and ‘From Time To Time’ – are all pleasant tunes, though looking over the songwriting credits as I type this I’ve realised that those were all written by Mark Gardener, which makes me wonder if Oasis ended up recruiting the wrong Ride member (Andy Bell). Anyway for anyone who wished the Stone Roses’ second album ended up sounding more like their first, this album might be worth a stream or two.

No. 3 Every Other Freckle – Alt-J

What the hell are Alt-J saying - ? ‘Gonna paw paw at you like a cat paws at my woollen jumper … ?’ ‘I want to do all the things your lungs do so well … ?’ ‘Oh oh oh devour me … ?’ The images used in the lyrics of ‘Every Other Freckle’ might be seen as original or weird, depending on how much you like kittens in your bedroom, but the appeal of this song for me compared with other Alt-J songs is that Joe Newman’s usual reedy vocals are counterpointed here by Gus Unger-Hamilton’s altogether stouter undulations. (‘Stouter’ seems a funny word to use if one has actually seen a photo of Gus Unger-Hamilton.) Novelty point: the band have released two versions of the video to this track – (Girl) and (Boy) – which differ in terms of which gender you get to see a butt-shot of.

No. 2 Cosmic Vibrations – Foxygen
When my wife and I were in Haight-Ashbury in San Francisco five years ago, my wife tells me she saw a guy with a sign that said ‘need money for drugs’. (Two shout-outs to my wife in the same post! Can you tell that we have been together a long time?) Foxygen at times come close to that Californian stoner, hippie cliché, and a single that is called ‘Cosmic Vibrations’ fits right into that image. But as with other good psychedelic revivalists, it ends up sounding like something that could have sprung from their minds only. On the other hand, part of the reason it appeals to me is that it reminds me of one of the best and most underrated Beatles tracks, George Harrison’s ‘Long, Long, Long’ from ‘(The White Album)’.
No. 1 Better Than It Ever Could Be/It Gets Better – The Preatures 
‘Is This How You Feel?’ is probably the Preatures’ best song, but this column is not concerned with 2013 anymore. Oh wait … this song is from 2013 as well? Never mind … I have just got into it though with the release of the Preatures’ first album ‘Blue Planet Eyes’. While Preatures’ frontwoman Isabella Manfredi sang with cool, discoball reserve on ‘Is This … ?’ she belts out ‘Better … ’ with unreserved, morning video show, singing into your hairbrush joy: ‘And in the corners of my mind/ I see reasons I can’t find, sound and vision in my sleep …   it gets better than it EVER COULD BE!’

Sunday, October 12, 2014

BEER!![17] – Astor Ale

Name:  Astor Ale

Brewery: Mildura, VIC

Alcohol Content: 4.5% ABV.

The Astor Ale is actually named after the old movie theatre in Mildura that is now the home of the Mildura Brewery. But being a Melbournian, seeing it reminded me of the theatre of the same name in St. Kilda that is closing down next year.

My first memory of the Astor is seeing the posters of the movie schedules in the room of my uncle – a big old-time film buff. The Astor was probably something that always seemed a little better in imagination than in reality. Parking there was always difficult for me, even when I lived in Caulfield, and I probably only visited there two or three times in the end. Indeed I can’t recall what I saw there, though I am pretty sure I saw Orson Welles in ‘The Third Man’, a movie that I had seen many times already on VHS, and which my girlfriend at the time found perfectly dull.

But even if I did not frequent it that much, I always liked to think it was there. I liked its art deco feel. I liked the staff’s suits. I liked how each showing was made to feel like a matinee, with an interval in between for the double headers. I liked the fact that they showed double headers, which also looked really cool on the upcoming movie schedules. Drinking the Astor Ale, even if did turn out to be referencing another theatre, made me think of those things again.

I bought the beer however when I saw the recent movie ‘Boyhood’ at the Kino Cinema in Melbourne’s CBD. The Kino is a different cinema to the Astor – the theatre I sat in had only four rows – although both have a reputation for being a cinema of choice for ‘discerning’ movie goers. Watching ‘Boyhood’, which essentially looked back at the 2000s, at a cinema just a few minutes walk away from work, made me feel pretty good about the present era. But sipping the Astor Ale I did long for a little the art deco past.   

Wednesday, October 8, 2014

How Average Is Shane Watson?

From 2005 - the year of Shane Watson's Test cricket debut - through to 2014, the average number of runs Australia has scored per wicket is 36.63. Shane Watson's Test cricket batting average is 36.26.

Over the same period the average number of runs scored against Australia per wicket taken is 30.12. Shane Watson's Test cricket bowling average is 31.96.

Which suggests to me that Australian Test cricket, in evaluating the value of its players, could introduce a variant of the baseball statistic Wins Above Average Player. They could call it Wins Above Shane Watson.*

*In defence of Watson:
P.S. Australia's players have, on average, been better than Test cricket players overall.
P.P.S. An average player is still better than a 'replacement level' player.
P.P.P.S. And anyway, it is quite OK to be an average Test cricketer.

Saturday, October 4, 2014

The Shoot Gamer’s Review – ‘BioShock Infinite’

What be this then? Seems the Man With The Wooden Finger hath travelled back to the dim, distant era of the Year of Our Lord … Twenty Thirteen. Oho! – there’s a rib-tickler! Nay, the first-person shoot-‘em-up ‘BioShock Infinite’ is in actuality (or at least in this actuality) set in 1912 Anno Domini. As former Pinkerton (look it up, curious gamers!) agent Booker DeWitt thou travel to the floating city of Columbia in order to bring back a girl and wipe away your debt. And glory be! – what a beautiful city it is. In a medium that flings off the assembly line one dark, dystopian future after another, this colourful, cravated, barbershop of a game feels like a vintage store dream. I have no love for shooters – and the gameplay in this particular shooter could be described as “no more than adequate” – but I was stuck to my keyboard, driven by momentum across the planks, all the while raiding corpses and pocketing Silver Eagles. (It also helped, that in keeping with my shoot gaming, I early on locked the easiness level on to its highest setting.)

The distinguishing point of ‘BioShock Infinite’ though must surely be the fair damsel Elizabeth (aka the Girl You Must Bring). Blue-eyed Beth is by you for the majority of your journey, tossing ammunitions, salts, and ‘health’ – ‘health’ here being an object you can heave – over to your fingers just at the moment when you are nearing your death-bed. Many of the story’s cut-scenes also revolve around her, including the wit-twisting ending, which me being now in the year 2014 I foolishly spoiled for myself in my obsession with all things Infinite …….. But onward! Blood and organs aside, BioShock Infinite could be just the tonic for the literary-minded that would otherwise dismiss modern arcade games as pubescent tomfoolery. Aesthetically it cannot be faulted; even the moniker Booker DeWitt rolls off the tongue like a silver pearl. Story-wise it holds your interest right until the final door is opened. And that shooting … well, sometimes you just have to shoot your way to where you want to go.