Thursday, June 09, 2016

DOW Breaks 18000!

I don't know if this is the weakest recovery from a recession, but it sure is the grumpiest. When confronted with good economic news of any stripe, we tend to view it in the worst possible way. It's too small. It's too weak. It's good but its temporary. Reminds me of an old joke.

Grandmother and her grandson were at the beach. Big wave comes in and sweeps the child out to sea. Grandmother falls to her knees and prays "Lord, please bring back my beautiful grandson. I will honor your name. I will pray daily. I will volunteer weekly. I dedicate my life to your service. Just bring back my grandchild!"

Another big wave comes in, and when it recedes there is her grandson, unscathed, with his sandpail and little plastic shovel. The grandmother looks up to sky and says. "Lord,  when he LEFT, he had a HAT, you know."

That's sort of the way we look at economic news. He had a HAT.

More later,

Monday, June 06, 2016

Comics: Uncivil

Civil War II #1, written by Brian Michael Bendis, Art by David Marquez, Marvel Comics.

OK, Jeff. You're intrigued by DC's Rebirth and impressed with the new Captain America. Is there anything that gets your dander up in the current universes?

Well, this.

Civil War II is the latest of the big Marvel cross-overs. They are coming so fast and furious these days that they don't even bother to clean up the mess left from the previous cross-over. The old order keeps changing at a rate that most of the supporting books are continually derailed into the current crisis, not allowing them to build up much of a head of steam. No sooner than the universe get remade, than suddenly SHIELD was locking up supercriminals using a newborn Cosmic Cube, and the dust hasn't really settled from that before we're looking at another big epic and mores super-hero punchery.

OK, here's the Spoiler Upon Spoiler Summary for Civil War II #1:

A  young Inhuman is discovered who can see the future. He warns everyone about a big attack. All the superheroes get together and save the day. Then they have a party. Tony (Iron Man) Stark freaks out about an Inhuman who can see the future, leaves in a huff. Later, the Young Inhuman has another vision, about Thanos coming back. The Ultimates, headed up by Captain Marvel go up against him. In the battle, Tony's best friend Rhodey (War Machine) is messily and permanently killed. She-Hulk is last seen going into cardiac arrest. Tony freaks and flies off, intending to "do something" about all this.

First thing you'll note is that the summary is a lot shorter than the ones I did for Captain America and Rebirth. That's because, while there is a lot of action and explosions and banter, there isn't a lot happening here. It's a first issue, but it doesn't really lay a lot of ground work. The assumption is that you already know these guys (Labeling is a big thing these days, just in case you don't). I could probably shorten that previous paragraph down to: "Tony Stark freaks out about something, intends to do something about it."

Dream Girl - Freaking out
Tony Stark since 1964
Is Tony Stark freaking out his new super-power? It seems that this and making poor personal choices are more his power than repulsor rays. In the original Civil War, he freaked out and ushered in Super Human Registration Act, which pretty much trashed Reed Richards as a heroic character. I'll grant that in the most recent Captain America movie, Tony's freaking out is pretty much justified, and there he actually generates sympathy and shows some character growth. And now here he is, freaking out about a new Inhuman with a new power.

And it's not that amazing a power. Dream Girl from the Legion of Super Heroes has this power, and you don't see her team freaking out. She's never wrong, but she's often mistaken. And we know from the front end of the book that the Young Inhuman's predictions are not foolproof, and can be avoided.  Yes, people died when they tried to be pro-active about it, but that's not exactly the Young Inhuman's fault.

And let's talk about the deaths, because that is what ultimately grinds my gears - permadeath for established characters as cheap rationalizations of actions. James "Rhodey" Rhodes was introduced back in the seventies, and took on the Iron Man suit when Stark was unavailable/ unwilling/ drunk. He got his own suit, and actually had a personality and some character development (with bonus points for dating Captain Marvel). He even earned a place in the movie universe. In a genre where the "fill-in guy" usually has a lifespan measured in mere issues (often dying just to have justification for the hero to take up the mantle again), he was a success story.

And She-Hulk? Sheesh, she was an excellent character in her own right. Like Rhodey, she was a character existing in the shadow of a more marketable hero (she was Bruce Banner's cousin, injected with his blood), and to be honest, she did better. Her original run wasn't particularly sharp (Her big enemy was Man-Elephant), but as a member of the FF and in her later book, she really took on her own nature and blossomed. She was comfortable in her green skin, was a professional woman, and looked like someone who could actually fight. And when she didn't have her own book, she was part of team or a great supporting character, currently in A-Force and Hellcat. And she was often the grown-up in the room, neither cosmic nor grim.

And yes, killing War Machine and potentially bumping off She-Hulk (simply to move forward a weak plot) bothers me more than Captain America saying "Hail Hydra".

Good things about the book? Well. I like the banter. Bendis banters with the best of them, and I can read his banter all day. But when he gets to people saying things that are important, defending their actions, yeah, we break down fast. Tony's arguments are weak and, in a universe where things get remade on a regular basis, just plain weird.

But for the most part, I'm going to drift through this one. Pick up the books I normally pick up, avoid the other tie-ins. This too will pass, as all things do.

More later,

PS: Oh yeah, and now we're keeping an eye on Captain America. What does he say? What does he do? Is he manipulating people? Handing out Hydra's business cards? That's part of the fallout of messing around with your major characters.

Sunday, June 05, 2016

Comics: Yaheydere, Hydra!

Steve Rogers Captain America #1 written by Nick Spencer. Art by Jesus Saiz, Marvel Comics.

This is the one that has kicked up all sorts of dust. In an industry where bumping off Superman is a semi-regular feature, the reveal at the end of this one has caused massive internet rage. Which is a pity, because it is a very well-written book.

I've been a Marvel fan for many years, though I will freely admit that there are entire wings of the company I don't pay much attention to. I fell out with Peter Parker when they diabolically annulled his marriage to Mary Jane, and lost touch with the X-Men when it seemed like there were just too many of them. But Cap's pretty much been along for the entire ride since college, even including some of the stranger eras. Captain America is a favorite character, but I recognize that one of the reasons is that he is continually challenged, and rise up against those challenges. 

Here's the spoilerful summary. If you don't want spoilers, look away!

We start in a flashback - 1926, where Steve Roger's mom is being slapped around by her abusive husband. Mom and Steve are rescued by a woman with a kind heart and impressive martial arts skills. In the present Captain America fights a bunch of Hydra thugs on a runaway train. Driving the train is a young man who, like Steve, comes from an abusive home, but he ended up in crime, and eventually was recruited by the Red Skull. Cap stops the train, but the young man says "Hail Hydra" and blows himself up anyway. Then, along with two small-time patriotic heroes, Jack Flag and Free Spirit, Cap goes after Baron Zemo to rescue a scientist. Baron Zemo is defeated by Cap and Jack Flag, but Cap is unhappy Jack is there to help. We bounce back to 1926 one more time, where the mysterious guardian angel reveals she works for Hydra, and recruits young Steve Rogers into their ranks. Back in the present, Cap pushes Jack Flag out of the aircraft to his supposed death, then utters in the final panel "Hail Hydra."


So, has Captain America, symbol of liberty, always been a bad guy! Hydra has been taking it on the chin for years, solely to put Captain America in the deepest of deep cover! It is amazing! Exasperating!  Maddening!

And what really is maddening is that this is a very well-written and well-presented book. It moves smoothly, has a lot of character moments, and feels firmly grounded in the Marvel Universe. Parts of the subplot involve a recent pan-company team-up involving the Cosmic Cube (which, um, changes reality, so that may be a hint to what's going on) and also drenches itself deeply with Captain America lore (including the fact that minor hero Jack Flag had been a member of the Guardians of the Galaxy). Also, comparing the situation of young Steve Rogers and the Hydra suicide train driver strengthens the main character, so the final reveal doesn't drop totally out of the blue.

The book is extremely texturally dense. We get a full-page rally speech by the Red Skull that you could actually see someone buying into. A two-page Maria Hill/Sharon Carter debate that frames the challenge of SHIELD in the modern world while passing the Bechtel test. Breakroom camaraderie between Flagg, Spirit, and Rick (Everyone's sidekick) Jones. Even a flippant, almost comic, Baron Zemo, who comes across as playing by an outdated rulebook.

The art is excellent as well. The flashbacks are duotintes in shadows and bright red. There are a huge number of characters in book, and they all have their own feel and personalities. The moment-frozen combat with the Hydra thugs is impressive. Great art here. 

And I think that's one reason that people are upset by all this. Spencer and Saiz sells the idea that Cap is a traitor perfectly. They set it up how someone can go over to the dark side, show the moral qualms with dealing with superheroes, and they deliver that final punch. If it was less well-done, there would not have been so much anger and so many pixels spilled on Facebook.

Hydra have become Nazi-analogs for our fictional world. And while they first showed up inspired more by Dr. No than the Third Reich, they were founded/controlled by a bunch of former Nazis like Baron Strucker, so, yeah, close enough to army work.  But what Hydra hasn't had previously has been much of a pre-WWII heritage. Yet here they are in 1926 running the equivalent of the German American Bund. And from some the guardian angel's comments about how Steve will someday be remarkable, I smell time travel. For a story that really did its homework, the timeshifted Hydra is odd.

I was so upset I made a meme about it
The other weirdness is the Red Skull in the basement. The Red Skull is currently one of the most powerful telepaths on earth, having had the brain of Professor X surgically implanted in his skull (don't ask. just ... don't). Yet he's running a rally in some basement? OK, that's weird, but so was Kingpin running a Las Vegas gang for the Red Skull, and that's canon as well.

Now, this may all go away next issue, comics being what they are. But Marvel has been resisting that particular reset button trope of late. They brought the original young X-Men into the present, and everyone assumed they would send them back. They haven't. By the same token, they did an entire universe reset recently where some things changed (Tony Stark was a bad guy, Kitty Pryde became a cosmic became being. Everyone knows that Matt Murdock was Daredevil - none of those things are true anymore). but others did not (Sabertooth is a good guy, Iceman is gay). What this gets as a result is a sense of uncertainty among the fans - How long is this Hydracap going to go on?

Its a good book in that it raises the stakes to an incredible degree. and does it effectively, hitting readers so emotionally that they have have had an amazing reaction, even if that reaction is anger. Now, comic book universes (and Marvel in particular) have been good at setting things like this up, but lousy at resolving them. So I really want to see how they (and Cap) work their way out of this one.

More later, 

Saturday, June 04, 2016

Comics: Relaunching

DC UNIVERSE REBIRTH #1 by Geoff Johns, Art by Gary Franks and others, DC Comics

It's been a long time since I've talked about comics in this space. I've still been a regular reader for decades, of course, and my tastes fluctuate over time. At the moment, I've been reading practically NO DC books, an unhealthy amount of Marvel, and a lot of Indies. So when DC launched a new "reboot"/"relaunch"/"retry" I decided to take a look.

[Digression the First: This article is going to be filled with spoilers. Up to the brim and overflowing with spoilers. Spoiley-spoiley spoilers. Because I want to get into some of the nitty gritty and analyze the bloody thing, both from a standpoint of the meta-universes and the writing itself. I waited a week, but if you want to NOT get your stuff spoiled, banish this article from your computer. I won't mind.]

 I had been drifting away from DC for years, but things really pitched off a cliff with two recent initiatives - Flashpoint and the New 52. Their brilliant idea was to end the current universe and then rebuild it.  New stories! New challenges! New customers! The truth of the matter is that this trick rarely works. Inevitably the inertia of both creatives and fans brings things back to a supposed "normal". For me, this New 52 approach resulted in a lot of characters that were suddenly strangers, and I moved on. That's OK. I have way too many longboxes of the old stories downstairs.

That's where I stand walking into this. Here's the spoilerific summary:

Wally West (once Kid Flash, once Flash) has been in exile outside the current universe, in the speed force (the source of the Flash's superhuman speed). He manifests back in the current universe, re-appearing to Batman, who doesn't recognize him. Wally bounces through the universe, trying to find someone who remembers him in this strange new universe. He despairs. Finally Wally appears to Barry Allen, the once and current Flash, who  recognizes Wally and keeps him from being fully absorbed by the speed force. Wally explains that someone else is responsible for the strangeness of the New 52. Meanwhile, back in the batcave, Batman finds the iconic, blood-smeared smile button from the Watchman series. In an epilogue, we get quoted lines from Watchman indicating that Dr. Manhattan, a godlike being, may be responsible.

[Digression the Second: Back in the eighties, the local paper out of Chicago posted "This Week in Soaps, which tells everyone what happened in the various soap operas ("Monica reveals to Brad her relationship with Candice, while Summer continues to stalk Montgomery"). We really need this for comic books.]

Anyway, that's pretty heavy stuff - the universe is, if not broken, definitely sprained. And the one responsible is from a popular comic series from another DC property that is now part of the DC Universe (maybe).

This is a launch book, so it poses more questions that it answers. As Wally bounces through time, we get teases for all sorts of stuff that will hopefully be paid off in future parts of the universe. The JSA may come back. Maybe the Legion of the Superheroes. The current Superman is dead (talk about burying your lede) but there is a secret Superman from another universe running around. There are three Jokers running around. The current Robin turns 13. Some guy stares at a fish tank (OK, you got me on that one. No idea what that means).

In researching all this, I discovered
that the WATCHMAN comics button
and the WATCHMAN movie button
were different. Go figure.
Normally such scattershot vignettes are frustrating and smack of plugs for other books, but by grounding it in Wally's story, they pull them all together under the general category of "something is amiss". And Wally's story is what's important here - returning him to the universe, challenging him, bringing him to brink of failure, forcing acceptance of his fate, then bringing him back with hope. Yeah, that's the sort of spirit I miss. Wally's Flash was a favorite of mine, much more so than the Barry Allen Flash I grew up with. It is good to have him back.

One thing of interest in all this. We get a LOT of backstory on Wally here, which makes sense given that he may be a forgotten figure for a lot of fans who have shown up in the past few years. His entire backstory (and that of the DC Universe from the Silver Age to introduction of the New 52) is laid out. But the final tease, laying the responsibility on the doorstep of Dr. Manhattan, relies on not only knowing the unseen Dr. Manhattan character (telekinetic, fascination with watches,lives on Mars), but in knowing lines from the final issue of that book.

Two other small things that I haven't noticed being mentioned elsewhere that happen in this book.

1. Hands. DC has a thing with the hand as a symbol of creation. The origin story of the universe for many incarnations involved a hand (that of god) coming out of nothing, creating the universe. The DC Universe's big bang. Check the cover (above) to see a hand coming out of the lightning. we see another hand, reaching out as a threat, with the assumption that it's Dr. Manhattan.

2. Watches. The story opens with a broken watch (Wally's), and closes with the watch being repaired (telekinetically) on Mars. The thing is, after the watch is repaired, it runs backwards. Don't know if that's a thing, but it seems pretty major, and not a lot of people have noticed.

So now this "soft reboot" and so far doesn't change what has happened in the most recent, "New 52" universe, but it does try to re-steer the tone and conversation of the universe, and bring it back towards a more comfortable, positive edition. The story is solid, even if it has more hooks that a fisherman's tackle-box. It writes a lot of checks, and now challenges the rest of the line to see it they cover them.

And I'm willing to give them a chance. More later,

Tuesday, May 17, 2016

Political Desk: Primaries Matter, or Do They?

So, those of you in Washington State have received (yet another) ballot by mail. This one is for the presidential primary, due next Tuesday, May 24. You should review it, carefully consider the candidates, fill out the ballot, burn it, and bury the ashes in your backyard.

Wait, what?

I know, I know, I'm the goo-goo (good government) type who exhorts everyone to vote on everything. Off-year elections. Hospital Boards. Local taxes. Initiatives. Leader of the Legion of Super Heroes. How can I come before you with a straight face and tell you that you don't have to vote?

Well, to be honest, this really IS a case where your vote doesn't matter. Unless it does. Look, just follow along with me down the rabbit hole and decide for yourself.

Washington State doesn't always have a presidential primary. It didn't have one in 2008, because neither party wanted to spend the state funds on this. And that is one of the problems with primaries in this state - we the people are paying for them, but we the people don't really control them. I suppose it depends on your opinion of how deeply engaged the political parties should be with the actual running of government.

The de jure (by the rules) idea is that the parties are not officially part of the government, but are rather a good or service provided, and as such can choose their candidates any way they see fit, and should pay for the process themselves. That's a good idea.

The de facto (in reality) idea is that parties are an engrained part of the government, and the people support their internal processes with their taxes, and as such EVERYONE should be able to vote in everything. That's a good idea as well.

However, the process we have is that the parties choose how they're going to select the candidates, can exclude or ignore people, and we foot the bill. Sort of the worst of two worlds.

Add to that the frustration the fact that these elections are so far back in the nomination calendar that any choice we have is usually negated by what has gone before. Mind you, the Secretary of State has tried to change this, but the political parties would not budge from the late date. 

So, if all this doesn't convince you to ignore this situation, let's look at the process and how the parties treat the primary.

First off, you have to declare a party on the envelope. And your vote within should conform with your declared party. Really a Democrat but don't like to admit it? Really a Republican but want to vote for the Democratic Party? Kind of Independent? Fine. They've already said they aren't checking. You can be an Independent voter and decide you want to be part of the process, and if they ever check, merely say "Yes sir, I was a Republican when I voted in that primary. It was the worst five minutes of my life."

On the DEMOCRATIC Party side, they have said at the outset that this vote doesn't count - it is effectively a beauty contest, a state-paid poll. All the action has already happened in the caucus system. Under this system, people get together on a Saturday at the local level and chose, by mildly arcane processes, who they will support. It is democracy on the down-low, right in your face, and that's a good thing. It is also a marathon. The first caucus that everyone can attend chooses delegates, who then go to a second caucus, where the process occurs again, and then a third, winnowing the choices down to those who will go to the convention in New York and vote for their candidate.

This makes caucusing an activity for the hard-core - those who believe passionately for a candidate or have been deeply invested in the party for years. Because it happens over series of long, brain-numbing meetings, it tends to self-select even further to the most devoted and dedicated of the group. For the initial caucuses, a number of Facebook friends made the first hurdle, and then a few weeks later regretted the fact a few weeks later when they were trapped in six hours of meetings without break and had not even voted as minutia are being debated. As a result, the winner of a caucus can over time see their support erode or strengthen as the weak fall behind and are devoured by wolves.

The Democrats made an infographic.
At this year's Democratic caucuses, with the non-establishment candidate, Mr. Sanders, took the field, with 74% of the vote. So he'll get 74% of the 118 national delegates, right? Not quite. If everything holds, he get 74% of the 67 delegates that are chosen by this method. Another 34 delegates are chosen by the Washington State Democratic Central Committee, which in turn is made up of representatives chosen by the precincts (which again, are those who are invested in the system). Supposedly these 34 members are supposed to reflect the will of the caucus results as well. THEN there are the super-delegates, which you may have heard of.

These super-delegates of Washington State are 13 in number, and represent high muckities within the party at the state level - congresspeople, the governor, etc.  These folk are overwhelming declared supporters of Ms. Clinton, but there is an off-chance that the primary will have an effect on these votes, because, you know, will of the people and all that.. So your vote may have an influence on their ultimate decision. Or not.

Let me hit the candidates real quick:

Bernie Sanders is an excellent choice, and I respect delegates who are supporting him. I like a lot of what he says, and ultimately he would get my vote in November. Hillary Clinton is an excellent choice, and respect the delegates who are supporting her. I like her experience, directness and tenacity and ultimately she would get my vote in November. And since I WILL be voting for the Democrat this year, that makes the current huggamugga even less of a matter.

You may disagree with my conclusions. This is fine. I encourage you to engage your franchise.

On the REPUBLICAN side, they DO believe in the Primary. Kinda. But they have already had precinct caucuses back in February, and district caucuses more recently, and right after the Tuesday election with have the state convention which will decide who goes to Cleveland for the national convention. What they've done at each caucus is select delegates who who will then vote, supposedly, according to the results of the Primary.

But this applies to just the first ballot at the national convention. After that the delegates are free to vote their consciences, and there was a move afoot to stock the delegation with supporters of one candidate in the hopes that, should the election go more than one ballot, they would be free to change their votes. But that is not happening, in that Donald Trump has an apparent majority and will be the nominee on the first ballot. So right now a good chunk of the GOP is resigning themselves to voting for Mr. Trump, justifying it in name of party unity, of saving the Republic from Democrats, or in the forlorn hope that Mr. Trump might have better advisors to keep him from embarrassing them completely.

So, if you're a Republican, you don't need to vote because things are apparently already settled. Unless you feel the need to register a complaint about the process or the presumptive nominee. This is the political equivalent of a stern letter to the Times, but there are a number of candidates who have officially dropped out of the race, but who are still available to be voted on. Go engage your franchise.

I know what you're thinking - you don't like ANYBODY that is left in this demo derby of a political season. This would be the moment to go elsewhere, like the Libertarians. They have their OWN national convention, not being large enough to rate a place on the taxpayer-paid ballot, and have a slew of candidates, most of whom are still officially in the running. The main ones at the moment are a former GOP Governor of New Mexico, a guy who plays a Libertarian on Fox Business, and the founder of McAfee software, who has just returned from his adventures in Central America. Needless to say, they are all angry at each other. Because that's the type of year we're looking at.

So, there we have it. It is convoluted, messy, and in many ways patently unfair. Yet it is the system we have. I wouldn't blame you if you passed on this one - indeed, I will probably vote, out of habit if nothing else. Even though that I am fully aware that this will just encourage them.

More later,

Friday, May 06, 2016

The (Truly Amazing) Return of No Quarter (Part VII)

Before I start in on the quarters from the America The Beautiful series for this year (also called the National Parks Quarters, though most of them are not about National Parks), there's another matter I want to address.

Are quarters getting lighter?

I'm starting to wonder if it is simply nostagia, but it feels like the new quarters really weighing less than their earlier non-state-oriented kindred. Are the old quarters heavier? Is it just an illusion with the new ones being shinier? Or is it that the old quarters have all sorts of patina and junk built up on them over the years?

I don't have an accurate scale, but someone out there does. So really, is the reason we don't feel a comfortable jingle in our pockets because there is less metal in our change?

Anyway, on to this year's crop of collectible quarters. For those new to this (and shame on you, it starts way back here and here ), here's the rating system:

Way Cool =A
Not Bad = B
Kinda Lame (also known as Meh) = C
Very Lame = D
Not even vending machines will accept these = E

Let us begin:

Shawnee National Forest - Illinois

It's a pile of rocks. It's a very nice pile of rocks, as piles of rocks go, but still, it's a pile of rocks. Actually this particular pile of rocks is actually Camel Rock, one of the, um, attractions in Shawnee National Forest on the Ohio River, so far away from the REST of Illinois that it is almost Kentucky.

As a coin, its ,... just all right. I mean, not horrible. The use of white space to frame Camel Rock (which doesn't look MUCH like a camel - on the coin more like an AT-AT, really) is good. And the addition of a hawk soaring on the updrafts gives a badly-needed sense of animation and life.

But, you know, its still a pile of rocks, and the Western states have a lot bigger piles. 

Rating:  C (Just ... meh)

Cumberland Gap National Historical Park - Kentucky

Kentucky returns the favor of Illinois by choosing a location that's almost out of state as well, on the border with Virginia and North Carolina. But at least they have an excuse here - most the early settlers in Kentucky (those that did not come down the Ohio) came through this gap. This is the path that early pioneers like Daniel Boone (not shown) and Father Guido Sarducci (shown w/o mustache) and their ilk took to get through the Appalachians - looking for a bathroom, hence the inscription "The first doorway to the left, after the den."

And before we go any further - yes, he is holding that gun correctly. The whole over-the-shoulder-revolutionary-soldier look worked well enough for parade grounds, but if you're going over rough terrain, having your hand the lock is a pretty safe move. So yeah, that part's not going to get any flack from me. 

The layout is pretty nice, with the open white space forming a nice background for the lettering, One gripe would be that the hills behind Guido tend to blend in with jacket, making the pioneer look a little chunkier than he really is. But that's a minor thing, and may play out in the final carving.

Rating: B (Not Bad)

Harpers Ferry National Historical Park - West Virginia

Well, you have to give West Virginia its props. Not only are they commemorating an event that predated West Virginia's founding, but one that was one of the kick-off points for the Civil War.

Here's the story for those of you who did not binge-watch the Ken Burns series and have been wondering why John Brown's body has been moldering in that grave. In 1859, Abolitionist John Brown launched an attack on the US Armory at Harpers Ferry, planning to steal the weapons there and use them to arm a slave revolt. He had invited Harriet Tubman along for the raid (she cancelled because of sickness), and Frederick Douglass (who turned Brown down, telling him it was very, very, very stupid thing to attack the US Government). 

The raid went pretty much as you'd think it would - early success capturing the armory, followed by the raiders being surrounded and their escape cut off by townsfolk and militia. Brown's raiders pulled back to a more easily defended fire engine house (which is what is shown on the coin as "John Brown's Fort"). President Buchanan dispatched a marine detachment under (then) Colonel Robert E. Lee (on leave from his unit in Texas) . Lee arrived on the scene and sent his volunteer aide-de-camp, "Jeb" Stuart to meet with Brown and secure a peaceful surrender. Brown refused, and the military stormed the "fort". Ten raiders were killed, and seven more (including Brown) were captured and later hanged. The trial and unrepentant nature made Brown a cause celeb and ratcheted up the tension between north and slaveholding south.

The coin itself is a shot of that firehouse (now on that site in reproduction) from its brief time as a "fort". Three-quarters view, it fits the coin nicely, and lacks the animation of other coins, but is still a solide presentation of an important part of American History. Probably the best coin of this year's group.

Rating: B (Not Bad)

Theodore Roosevelt National Park - North Dakota

North Dakota has it rough - all the cool stuff (such as it is) is in South Dakota. They could have shown one of the local hoodoos (a local word for "pile of rocks") but instead managed to put together a nice coin that celebrates Teddy Roosevelt. Which, given the fact that he got this whole National Park thing going as a major franchise, makes a modicum of sense. It makes even more sense when you realize that Roosevelt, though a New Yorker, came out here a lot, and the state is littered with statues, parks, and monuments to the man.

Teddy spent some time in his 20s out in this neck of the woods, in his early, pre-Rough Rider era, post-mustache but pre-spectacles. The coin shows him on horseback because, you know, what else are they going to show? A pile of rocks? The river (That's the Little Missouri, FYI)? Bison from the state quarter that accidentally got all shot up? All the drilling sites that now surround the park, coupled with whiny notes from the companies griping that can't have THAT land too?

The coin itself is not bad at all. The Little Missouri snakes through the landscape, providing a band of white space and allows us to look down from a vista with Teddy. And and putting him on a high point, on horseback, captures the relative flatness of the land, which actually is a sell point for North Dakota, as it disappears in the badland hills far beyond.

Rating B (Not Bad)

Fort Moultrie (Fort Sumter National Monument) - South Carolina

OK, this weird, in that it commemorates something that happened at Fort Sumter, but not the BIG thing that happened at Fort Sumter. There is no Fort Moultrie National ANYTHING, but rather it is wrapped up as a part of Fort Sumter National Monument, and calling the Moultrie piece out monument out for a coin is kind of like praising Dennis Rodman's basketball career with the Chicago Bulls while Michael Jordan standing RIGHT THERE next to him.

What the coin commemorates is this plucky little fort standing up to a naval bombardment by the Brits, protecting Charleston from invasion (for a whole four years before more Brits showed up and took the city anyway). It portrays not a shriner with a Turkish flag but rather a Sergeant WIlliam Jasper returning a home-made flag to the ramparts at the start of the American Revolution. The fort was known as Fort Sullivan  back then, but commanded by William Moultrie, who repelled a British Naval force and had time to create the "Moutrie flag" which is shown on the quarter - a blue field with a white moon in the upper left. Actually, cool flag.  In any event, the Brits came back and captured the Fort four years later, and renamed it Fort Arbuthnot, and held it until the end of the war.

It's not a bad story, but kind of overshadowed by what happened just next door, where less than a hundred years later separatist forces fired on the United States garrison at Fort Sumter, kicking off the most bitter struggle on American soil (Because, as we know, attacking the US Government was a very, very, very bad idea). Moultrie is very nice and all, but given a choice, which would YOU name the National Monument after? If West Virginia can fess up to a heist film gone horribly wrong, then SoCare can at least say - yeah, this was important to history, even if it was not a particularly shining moment.

The coin itself is ... weird. Look at Jasper's feet, and how the rest of his body is twisted in the opposite direction. If he was using the flag as a bat and trying for a pop fly, maybe that pose would work, but rather it is replacing a flag while under assault by the Brits ... who are  ... behind him. It looks like he's leading the attack on the fort, which is not the case.

This is probably the strangest coin I've seen, part for carving, and part for subject matter.  There were other design candidates with a lot more promise (Here's a link to a picture of all the prospective candidates - most cases they have chosen the best of their group, though Shawnee coins are resolutely always a pile of rocks),

Rating D (Even subject matter aside, that pose is just weird)

That wraps this year. Next year is four states and the District of Columbia, where Fredrick Douglass gets the moment he missed when he decided to not go hang out with John Brown at Harpers Ferry.

More later, 

Tuesday, May 03, 2016

Play: Holmes Away From Holmes

Sherlock Holmes and the American Problem by R. Hamilton Wright, Inspired by the works of Sir Arthur Conan Doyle, Directed by Allison Narver

I went to a play on Sunday, and it was OK. It wasn't great, but it was OK, a nice comfy slice of product delivered by a theatrical vector. And I find that frustrating, given the strength of the rest of the season. It's a bit disappointing. And the whys and wherefores take me deeply down the rabbit hole.

So, naturally, spoilers follow.

Sherlock Holmes and The American Problem (SHatAP - no, I think I'll find another short-form to call it) is a local production. The playwright is an incredibly talented actor who I have tagged before. The cast have all showed up at the Rep and other local theaters before, with not a "previous worked all in New York and California and an episode of Law & Order and is happy to be making their Seattle debut" in the lot. So I'm expecting a lot from the local team.

In addition, this is a sequel, in that two years ago the same playwright co-wrote The Hound of the Baskervilles a few seasons back, with the same actors returning as Holmes, Watson, and Mrs. Hudson. But Watson is more of a supporting dullard this time out, and Mrs. Hudson lacking her sharp replies to Holmes boorishness and Holmes ...

Well, there are lot of different Holmses (Holmesi?) out in the popular media. Robert Downey Jr's action hero, Cumberbatch's though-palace Gallifreyan, the CBS's irritating detective in rehab. They share common traits and are all fair game in Holmisana.  The Holmes of the American Problem charts his own course. He is a much more emotional, a childlike and childish Holmes, often hoisted by his own petard, outwitted and outfoxed and frustrated.

The trouble is that American's Holmes is different than the Baskerville's Holmes. The Baskerville Holmes delighted in masked deception and could not accurate quote the classics to save his life. The American's Holmes suddenly likes anagrams, and has synesthesia - that is, he smells numbers and hears colors. That last one is a pretty interesting trait to build a play around, but instead, it comes across as Holmes entering a drug-fugue state, as the SFX swells and the color changes onstage to bring us in Holmes mind. OK, I can roll with it - not really the same Holmes, but it is one of several re-adjustments I make as I go through the play.

Our same-but-different Holmes is cast into a whirlpool of clues and happenstance. Plates from the Royal Mint have been stolen. A mystery woman wants Holmes to find her brother. A mechanical digging device is stolen from the docks. Several criminal leaders have been killed. Holmes' brother Mycroft shows up to demand Holmes attend a reception. Earthquakes in the East End. And all this during the Queen's jubilee, which for Homes means that London is awash with foriegners - sorry, with Americans like Buffalo Bill and Mark Twain.

That's a lot of balls to keep in the air, such that the final scene has to sum up and tell the audience what is truly happening. But I'm never sure when Holmes figures out things and why - more often he tumbles into his revelations, searching for one thing and finding another. For a man who hates coincidences, he is confronted them at every turn.

And, all the deductions made or sudden twists don't leave a lot of room for character development. Baskerville had a thematic spine to it, revolving around the Holmes/Watson relationship, and resolves with Holmes trying to be less of an A-hole about things. Here Watson is relegated more to supporting character, faithful aid and person Holmes gets to show off his brilliance to. Pity, that.

And, since it involves Americans, there are a LOT of gunshots in the play, sufficient to carve the queen's initials in the back wall. We've had explosives in Holmes presentations before, but this was a excess.

The actors are fine - Darragh Kennan as Holmes is a more passionate, random sort of Great Detective. Andrew McGinn is a dutiful Watson, and Marianne Owen is a frustrated Mrs. Hudson. Christine Marie Brown is good as the mystery woman, Phoebe Anne Moses, who tries to hire Holmes, and Alex Matthews as a Pinkerton (because, you know, American). Cheyenne Casebier takes on a dual roles as a female engineer (because why not) and a criminal gang leader. Chalres Leggett is an dour undertaker of a Mycroft, one of those flock of Mycrofts released from the Diogenes Club to pester Holmes. And Rob Burgess is a dotty brit pigeon fancier who is more than he seems.

But they all seems like they're struggling with the script, trying to deteremine the levels of mystery, tragedy, and humor in the play. As a result it all feels very thin, almost episodic - indeed, the final reveal almost promises another installment. One of my fellow attendees made the comment "As soon as I decided it was fan-fic, I was good with it."

Indeed. This has the trappings and tropes of Holmes, compacted is a nice, attractive package that will full the seats at the end of a championship season. Yet when all said and done it is aperitif, a pleasant little custard, workmanlike (god, how writers hate that term) but in need of a bit more time in the oven.

More later, but probably not about plays until we kick in the next season, which features a pop opera by David Byrne and Fatboy Slim about Imelda Marcos and set in a disco. May the Lord have mercy on us all.