Thursday, May 23, 2013

Book Review-Zits: Chillax

Any similarities between the character on the cover and the author of this blog are (hopefully) coincidence and (hopefully) unintentional

I was probably in grade six when my parents called me over to look at a comic strip. In it, a teenage boy was chained in a dungeon while a voice off-panel asked him how his day at school was. The next four or five panels featured something similar: An exercise in torture with a side of everyday questioning. The last panel showed the teenager looking physically spent, sitting at a table with his parents simply saying they weren't holding an inquisition. 

Since most of the questions from my parents concerning school and the like felt like that to me when I was that age-and to this day-I instantly knew that I had found something special. This was the comic strip Zits

Like any junkie, once I had something I enjoyed, I wanted more of it and wanted to immerse myself in it. I bought the collections of strips they released every year, cut out certain strips from the daily paper etc etc. Though for a while I was considering suing the creators Jerry Scott and Jim Borgman for stealing my physical appearance and using it for their own means. Come on, tall, white kid with a large nose and a near anorexic frame-who else would could they have modelled the main character, Jeremy, after?

However the strip was always a daily fixture of my newspaper reading back then and even today. Despite being ten years older than Jeremy is now, I still read it, buy the treasuries now and then and can't think of a time they failed to bring a smile to my face. 

Sometime last year, I was checking Amazon to see when the next collection would be out and found that there was a Zits novel in the works, titled Chillax. I left a comment on the comic's website and to my surprise got a reply from none other than Jerry Scott giving me a few details about the upcoming novel. And if the creator was willing to email me, then I think the least I can do is pick it up. Plus there's an endorsement from Stan Lee on the cover.

I really enjoyed this novel. Sure, I'm way older than the target audience for this but considering I was finishing Ian Fleming novels before high school, I think a little regression is fine once in a while. Jeremy and best friend Hector have scored tickets to their favourite rock group, Gingivitis. It also turns out that their friend Tim, who gave them the tickets, is also donating bone marrow to his cancer-stricken mother that same night-hence why he gave them the tickets.

The guys intend to go to the concert but also plan to get Tim a memorable souvenir. This proves to be much more difficult than originally thought and results in a very non-after-school-special roller coaster of ups and downs. Like me, it seems that Jeremy is a permanent student of the School of Hard Knocks.

I'm not going to say much more about the plot because...spoilers. First of all, the plot of the novels is actually recycled from previous strips but in it's defence, those storylines are over ten years old and totally separate from each other. Jeremy and Hector did go to Gingivitis concert in the daily strip, but there was nothing about Tim's mother related to it. Scott and Borgman took different storylines and wove them into something funny, charming and emotional.

So yeah, it's something done before passed off as something new but I'm not going to fault the book in any way for it. When you make something three or four panels into something over two hundred pages of written word, it's not going to be the smoothest transitions. Besides, when your main character stays the same age for over 20 years, you're bound to get worse continuity than the James Bond film series.

And yes, I do recognize all the sub-plots from previous strips without having to go back and look them up. I'm sure those of you reading this are having the following thought and if you are, I give you my most likely answer.

"Wait, you remember plots from a daily comic strip even if you haven't read it for many years?"

Me: "Uh...yeah, more or less. I mean, I can't recite them word for word but I pretty much get the gist of it."

"Oh. So what can you tell me about the Pythagorean theorem you were taught in high school math?"

"The Pytha...? Who do you think I am, Stephen Hawking?"

"No, it's just-"

"Oh, so you think I'm Data from Star Trek. I'm just an android who does billions of calculations per second with unlimited memory recall?"

"I don't know how you can't-"

"Look, that's very interesting but this has gone on long enough. I have to finish writing this review and I don't think I'll have to 'Solve for X' doing so."

To sum it up, bizarre memory happens to be my superpower. That and the inability to gain any weight.

I think the best part of the novel is Jeremy's narration. It's not too detailed and not too brief and the prose he uses in describing some of the everyday aspects of his life made me chuckle and green with envy-I want to write that well. 

Also the pictures by Jim Borgman are brilliant as always. I recall my Dad (Who could have been the model for Jeremy's father, Walt) laughing a few years ago about the noses in particular on most of the characters. The drawings are all new and original and help the story in terms of comedy. 

If you're a parent and want to pick up Chillax for your child, teen, tween (What are those, anyway?), I say do so. It's not too short, not too long and the dialogue, narration is something that any writer would like to be able to pull off. 

Oh, and since this is a book about teenagers, narrated by a teenager there is a bit of...colourful metaphors, shall we say. The words "wanker", "damn" "pissed" and various forms of the word "crap" are used but here's the thing: Your kid probably uses all these words already when you're not around. And if you think they don't, congratulations, you're clueless.

There is another book in the works and I look forward to reading it and giving it a review like this one.

EDIT: One final note; I think my favourite thing about this book was that it inspired me to write something in this blog that I cared about

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Calgary Expo 2013: Saturday

Last year, I arrived at the Expo only to be turned away along with thousands of others due to the lack of foresight the planners had put into the event. In case you don't recall my post from last year, the highlight of the 2012 Calgary Expo was the full cast of Star Trek: The Next Generation being together at a convention for the first time in close to 20 years. 

Fans were righteously upset and I was among them. I didn't brood about it but at the same time, I knew that if I wanted to make it next year I would have to be better prepared. I bought tickets a month ago for the weekend but there was going to be a slight problem in that I had to work a midnight shift that Friday night. I wasn't going to run home for a nap and risk missing anything important so instead I bought a bag of chocolate covered espresso beans and headed off as soon as I punched out. 

When I arrived at the grounds, I had to go into one building to exchange my ticket for a pass and wristband, only to make my way to the opposite end and stand in a line so massive that I think a good twenty percent of it consisted of people hoping to get in back in 2012.
Yeah...this is gonna take a while

When you're in a massive line with an Android phone that can't pick up an Internet signal, the best thing you can do is browse through the free program which was made to look like a Marvel comic book with the Hulk on the cover. It was full of your usual information, maps, who was going to be appearing (This was made before the kid who played Draco in the Harry Potter movies announced he couldn't attend), where you could find them, thus and so. One thing you can also do is subtly check out hot chicks in revealing costumes.

Very subtly...


Eventually I was getting closer and closer and I remember whistling the theme to Schindler's List as I made my final corner and entered the BMO building. Yeah, I was humming music from a movie about the Holocaust whilst entering what I'd been looking forward to for over a year.

First thing I did once I was inside was scramble around the autograph area, trying to find Nathan Fillion's table. No, I'm not a Firefly fan nor have I ever seen an episode of Castle. Now it's time for a little back story. I'm not going to go over the history of Joss Whedon's cult hit Firefly but it's safe to say that my buddy Aaron is a fan. He's got the whole series on Blue-Ray, he's got the comic books and last year went as far as to tattoo the starship Serenity on his right bicep.

He would have gone only for Fillion and nothing else, would have looked around once but...that's about it. I suggested to him that if he did go, he should go as Jet Black from Cowboy Bebop. If he did that, I would buy the same clothes Spike wears does and go dressed as him.

I could totally be Spike Spiegel next year

Since he wasn't going to go but I was, Aaron pleaded asked me if I would be willing to make the effort into getting the autograph of one Nathan Fillion. And since I don't like seeing a grown man cry, I agreed. Yeah, I'm not a good friend; I'm a fucking awesome friend.

So after wandering around like an idiot instead of looking at the map in the previously mentioned program, I found the line for his autograph...only to find that it was blocked off. Yeah, there was an actual queue...to get into a line. Last year I and thousands of others accused the Expo of underestimating the popularity of getting the whole cast of TNG. This year, I and a few others agree about them underestimating the drawing power of Nathan Fillion.

The guy in charge of the queue didn't want people crowding and blocking other people trying to get by so I waited patiently off to the side. I'm not sure how much time passed but suddenly the guy called out, "Line's open" and I found myself bolting to get in and getting elbowed in side. Needless to say, I was in and I was going to stay in.
The Riker wannabe with glasses was in charge of letting people into Fillion's line. I do not envy his position

The line wasn't moving fast enough to my and others liking and at one point, a guy behind me was offering twenty dollars to anyone who would let him go in front of them so he could make his photo-op. I figured it was a good way to make some money but the man directly behind started to put up a real fuss and was making other people think that I was going to start letting dozens of people get front cuts. The guy was trying to sound tough but he had a voice like his nuts were firmly trapped in his wife's purse.

Not too far from Fillion was the lineup for Peter Dinklage, star of Game of Thrones was starting to grow. As I got closer and closer there was a sudden burst of applause as comic book legend Stan Lee walked by us, flanked by security to discourage anyone who wanted an impromptu autograph. There were also plenty of people on-hand to discourage people from taking photographs of celebrities while you're waiting to see them in line.

Photography while flashing celebrities was also not allowed

As I got closer, we were informed by one of Fillion's people that we were allowed to take photos only while he was signing the picture. If possible, you could also have a friend take a picture of you and Fillion-but only while he was signing. The woman in front of me asked if I would snap a photo of her and Nathan together and I agreed. She offered to do the same for me but I had to admit this was for a friend and I didn't care about Firefly. A quick lie about going to watch the entire series probably saved me from being lynched right then and there.

 According to one worker, flash photography throws them off their game a bit and they want to get as many people through as possible. Just when it looked like nothing could stop me now, who should make her way to the stage but Carrie Fisher herself to make her way towards her own table.

She got a big round of applause but there were two things that surprised me as she made her way to hug Fillion: 1) She's shorter than I imagined and looked way older than I could imagine...and kinda bigger as well. 2) She brought her dog with her. However Fisher's dog wouldn't be the only animal I saw at the convention...

So finally it was my turn. I selected a photo that I knew was from Firefly, printed the name I wanted it signed to on a post-it and made my way to the biggest attraction of the Expo. Even though I didn't follow a lot of his work, I was still feeling a bit nervous.

Nathan looked at the post-it.

"Are you Aaron?" he asked.

"I'm not," I admitted. "Aaron is my friend who wanted to be here today but sadly couldn't. So, I volunteered to get him your autograph because it's something he really wanted."

"That's really nice of you," he said as he started to write his signature on the photo as well as a small message.

"Well, I try to be a good friend once in a while," I joked.

"God bless you," Nathan said as he shook my hand and handed me the autograph.

"You're pretty awesome, Schweitzer-Man. Your friend on the other hand..."

I called Aaron immediately afterwards to let him know how awful Carrie Fisher looks these days and that I was successful in getting his desired autograph. I also called him an 'Irish homo' but that may have been my insomnia talking. I was now free to wander aimlessly as I pleased and I think I earned it after two hours waiting in line. 

I made my way out of the autograph area and towards the vendor areas. I'm always surprised that there's a tattoo area set up where people can just get some ink done while a bunch of people (Some who don't shower daily, mind you) wander around somewhat aimlessly doesn't seem like the best place to get something like that done.

Since I was off from work for the next four days, I didn't have any real goal in mind. It was just after noon and the convention closed for the day at seven so I knew I had plenty of time to do whatever the hell I wanted to do. There was plenty of time to check out Artists Alley, various booths and later as the crowds got smaller, wait in line for autographs. That's honestly, the best time to do it. When there's maybe an hour or so left and if the scheduling is right, that's when you want to line up. Also at that time, the volunteers aren't so worried about you taking photos while in line. In fact, they didn't seem too bothered at all if you took pictures of wrestlers.

"You think you know me?"

Looking through the program, I saw that comic book artist Neal Adams was in attendance and decided to check out his booth. I recently came to love his work after watching a documentary called Comic Book Superheroes Unmasked. Adams himself didn't appear but writer Denny O'Neil (Whom wrote the stories) gave an interesting quote from Adams: "If superheroes existed in real life, they would have to look the way I draw them."

In the late 60's the Batman comics were more or less a reflection of the popular TV show...or was it the other way around? Either way, in 1970 O'Neil and Adams helped the Caped Crusader return to his darker roots and once again became a creature of the night who struck fear into the hearts of criminals. Adams covers have been some of the most enduring images in comic book history. On top of that he was also instrumental in getting Superman creator Jerry Siegel and Joel Shuster a lifetime pension and restored byline on Superman comics.

This cover alone could peak a potential reader's interest

Adams sat at a table with his son Josh at the other end, surrounded by hundreds of copies of his drawings while he sat sketching something-he was taking commissions for fifty dollars so it's possible it might have been that. 
There was so much to choose from, each picture looked beautiful and something that you'd want to have hanging on your wall. Did I want one of Batman and Robin (Tim Drake), the picture above about the Joker being back in Gotham? There was one that had Batman leaping into action but the one I settled on was Batman standing and behind him was his shadow, twisted and demonic looking. To the viewer, we're seeing how the criminal views the Dark Knight; the shadow doesn't look human-almost like a separate entity, more dangerous than the man casting it. 

For just twenty bucks, I got one of the most respected comic artists to sign this picture which I really didn't want to lose so I put it in my free bag and began to wander some more.

When I got to the table for Blind Ferret Entertainment, I was a bit conflicted. Part of me wanted to buy another volume of Least I Could Do but...something was stopping me. Was it the fact that Ryan Sohmer, the writer was absent as his pregnant wife was closer to delivery than expected? The fact that I could read the entire series online for free? I think it might have to do with the fact that while for the most part it's been funny, they also introduce some subplots that don't go anywhere or that they totally forgot about because Sohmer would rather focus on his avatar character the main character, Rayne. 

Sorry but I want to know why John's possibly depressed; I want to know what's happening with Mick's engagement to his girlfriend which was almost two years ago. But instead it's just more stories about Rayne that make him quite the jackass but then insert a sudden shot of his young niece to get the 'Awww' factor for a few strips and repeat. I'm not saying I hate it or that it's a bad webcomic but it just has a lot of potential and I feel that it's being wasted. As an amateur writer, when there is obvious potential and it's not being used at all, it's tragic.

A page from the webcomic 'Gutters', also produced by Blind Ferret Entertainment

There was a webcomic writer/artist there I did want to meet however and gladly give money to: Tyson Hesse, (pronounced 'Hess'-the 'e' is silent) creator of 'Boxer Hockey'. Again, this is another strip that I can read from beginning to end online for free but I really wanted to support Hesse because I do enjoy 'Boxer Hockey' and I think he gets a bum rap for not always having an update each week.

However the program didn't list him and I searched through that thing twice looking for his name or the name of his comics. Nothing was showing up. I decided to check his Twitter account but sadly there was no free Wi-Fi at the Expo. I'd have to find Tyson Hesse tomorrow if that was possible.

I spent the rest of the convention wandering, buying some art and picking up tons of business cards. I found that more people appreciate it if you stop by, look at some of their stuff and pick up a business card than just look and move on.

Part of me was hoping to get the autograph of Calgary's greatest wrestler, Bret 'Hitman' Hart. This was the first convention he had appeared at in Calgary however I saw that the line for his line was longer than most of the others. I don't remember watching too much of him when I was younger but at the same time, my I remember my Dad always reminding me that he was from Calgary.

"4 out of 10."

In fact, my Dad probably remembers watching Bret's earlier work in Stampede Wrestling. By the time I got back to watching wrestling in the late 90s, Bret's talents were being wasted in WCW and shortly after that came his unfortunate retirement. However I've caught some of his old matches on YouTube and really enjoy them.

With a little more than an hour before the convention ended, I went back to the autograph hall and saw that the lines were much smaller and decided to see if there was anyone I recognized and get their John Hancock. People must have thought I was The Flash when I saw that the line for Phil LaMarr was still open.

If you don't know who Phil LaMarr is, let me give you some info: He was one of the original cast members on Mad TV and I grew up watching him making me laugh for years. Aries Spears did a good impression of Michael Jackson in the later years of Mad TV, but in my opinion, LaMarr had Jackson nailed down perfectly to the point where you weren't sure you were watching an impressionist.

He also portrayed Prince, Bill Maher, and perhaps his most famous character, Jack the UBS Guy, who Mad TV's website described as someone who "makes Viagra look like Valium." That and he's done lots of voice-acting since 2000 so I decided to get his autograph.

One of the autograph pictures available which highlights just a fraction of the characters he's voiced

"How much is it for an autograph?" I asked the volunteer at the table.
"Well, it's free if you bring your own item for him to autograph but if it's one of the pictures here, it's twenty dollars."
I don't normally carry photos of Phil LaMarr around so I handed over my money and was faced with another selection of photos. One would have expected me to go with the Mad TV photo but instead, I decided to go with a photo of the animated character John Stewart.

That's NOT who I was talking about...

No, John Stewart is the secret identity of the Green Lantern from Justice League and Justice League: Unlimited. But I'll let you read my conversation with Mr. LaMarr to know what I'm talking about.

"I gotta say, I've been a big fan of yours since I was twelve years old," I started out with probably the biggest, dumbest fanboy smile you can imagine.

"Really?" Phil smiled.

"Yeah, I would watch Mad TV on Saturday nights and my parents would be telling me not to laugh so hard 'cause they'd be worried I'd stop breathing or something."

"That's awesome," he laughed.

"Yeah. I've also been a big fan of your voice-acting work. I only started watching Justice League a few weeks ago but I'm really liking it."

"Oh?" he asked with an inquisitive face. "You've never watched it? Not even Unlimited?"

"Afraid not," I admitted. "I didn't have cable or satellite but I'm making up for lost time."

"Wait until you get to Unlimited," he told me with almost equal excitement. "You're really in for something."

"I just really appreciate you being out here. I think you do such great work in whatever you do and it's great to meet people like you."

"Thank you," he smiled as he signed my picture. "Andrew, it was a pleasure to meet you."
"Likewise," I said, shaking his hand with the same fanboy smile I started the conversation with.

Phil LaMarr's autograph to me

That's what I love about talking to voice-actors; you can hold short conversations with them. With Fillion I felt like I was rushed and that I was just another face to him but chatting with Phil LaMarr was really awesome. One thing I regretted was forgetting to mention how awesome he was in Young Justice, but I'll talk about that show another time. 

I left shortly after, my bag full, stomach nearly empty only to find that the trains going my way were packed with sardines. So, as someone who had been working at a job since the previous night where I was on my feet, walking around for over ten hours and then spent an equal amount waiting in lines and walking through a convention hall, I did the only logical thing: Walked from the station to the mall down town where I could catch my bus.

Not much I can add to this

So I arrived home, tired, aching as hell, more awake then when I left since someone decided they would try to run a stop sign while I was crossing the street which caused me to break out what little sign language I know and very hungry, I went through my purchases and by nine-thirty was already asleep, my dreams planning the next day's events.