Tuesday, April 5, 2011

Today Is the Day

After more than a year and a half since the Twitter feed started, the day has finally arrived for The Bureau Chiefs at @FakeAPStylebook: our book, Write More Good, is officially available.

Some retailers, like Barnes & Noble, jumped the jumped the gun and had the book for sale yesterday, as I found out when I went to my local store:

It was amazingly cool to see the book as a real thing that someone could buy.

Also, in case you missed it, we also wrote a piece on the Wall Street Journal's "Ideas Market" blog. I'm particularly proud of a couple jokes in there.

This thing started out as a way to have fun with a group of good friends, and at its core, it still remains that way. I've gone through the book several times, and there are still many pieces that make me laugh hysterically.

All in all, today is a pretty exciting day, and I hope those of you who get the book enjoy it.

Monday, March 28, 2011

Ask Dr. K: Superman vs. Hercules

I am, admittedly, way behind on answering questions from the young man who sends me questions about superheroes, and for that I'm embarrassed. However, I'm going to try to rectify that situation by answering a somewhat recent question that he sent me.

Before I start, though, I want to mention that the young questioner has taken on the superhero identity of "Icemaker," though I'm not quite sure what his powers are supposed to be. Anyway, to protect his secret identity, as well as the safety of his loved ones, I will be referring to him from now on as "Icemaker."

Dear Dr. K,

If Superman and Batman were fighting all the other superheroes (all of them, including those alien ones that nobody likes), who would win? I think Hercules might win. I mean THE Hercules.


Dear Icemaker,

First, I want to apologize for not answering your questions in a more timely fashion, and I appreciate your persistence in continuing to ask them even in my silence.

Second, I would like to remind you that Superman is, in fact, an alien superhero, so you really shouldn't descriminate against the aliens. They have feelings too, you know.

Unless you're talking about the Martian Manhunter. I think we both can agree that that guy sucks.

Third, your question, on the surface, has an easy answer: Superman and Batman would beat all of the other superheroes. This has already happened many times, so I'm not going to get into specific instances. However, it is important to point out that Batman has already figured out a plan to beat every single superhero, with or without Superman. And as we've established many times, Batman can also beat Superman, if it comes down to that.

So, while this does seem to be an easy question, your inclusion of Hercules adds an interesting wrinkle. I'm glad you clarified "THE Hercules," instead of some random dude that called himself Hercules. But I'd be curious to know why you think Hercules might win this fight.

You see, Superman and Hercules have a pretty longstanding rivalry, and there was a time, years ago, that they used to get into it frequently. And you can probably guess the reason for their fights: Lois Lane.

One time Lex Luthor was in prison, and he built a solar-powered time machine out of a clock, some paper clips, some copper wire, and two aspirin. I am not kidding about that. He then used this "time ray" to pull the demigod Hercules out of time to help the villain bust out of jail and commit some crimes.

Hercules, though, figures out that Lex Luthor is a crook, even though Luthor keeps the classic hero supplied with turkeys and cigars (this is also not made up). Then, Superman and Hercules become friends. Superman, as Clark Kent, even helps Hercules find a civilian identity and a job as a reporter, even though the demigod is horribly unqualified for the job and has no social security number or credit history. In fact, everything that Hercules could put down on a job application would have to be a lie. But covering up fraud is just one thing friends do for one another.

The friendship doesn't last long, however, as Hercules soon falls in love with Lois Lane and hatches a plan to win her love by defeating Superman with all of the powers of the gods.

Now, here comes the part that's relevant to your question: Hercules ends up beating Superman with Apollo's magic flute, which puts the Kryptonian hero to sleep for 100 years. Herc then blackmails Lois: if she marries him, he will release Superman from the sleeping spell.

I think there's a valuable lesson here that I should pass on, even though it takes us a bit past the other valuable lesson about who would win in a fight. You should never do what Hercules does here. Blackmail will never be a sound foundation for a long-lasting relationship. If you like someone, and it turns out that the object of your affection actually likes someone else, just move on.

But back to the main question, Superman is only released from the spell by the intervention of Venus, the goddess of love, who is appalled that Hercules would pervert love in such a way. Superman then tricks Hercules into following him through time, and Hercules gets stuck in the classical era without any memory of his time in the 20th century.

So, although Superman ends up winning this fight, he is only able to because he got help from Venus. Otherwise, Hercules would have won. Therefore, I would have to say that you were right when you thought that Hercules might be able to beat Superman.

I would also like to add that this was not the only time that Superman had a run-in with Hercules, as we can see here:

In this story, the two rivals for Superman's affection--Lois Lane and Lana Lang--do what they do all the time: complain that they cannot trick Superman into marrying them. They are making this complaint inside Metropolis's hall of heroes, in front of the Hercules and Samson statues. They decide that they are no longer going to pursue Superman, but they wish some great heroes like Hercules and Samson would propose to them instead. This makes sense: if they can't get Superman, then their second choices should be even more unrealistic and involve time travel.

Superman, being the ultimate manifestation of Foucault's conception of the panoptic society (if you don't know who Foucault is yet, ask your mom), eavesdrops on this conversation. Because he has nothing better to do, he decides to deliver a valuable lesson to Lois and Lana: he goes back in time and picks up Hercules and Samson so that they can court the two ladies. He even teaches the two heroes English so that they have no communication barriers.

Lois and Lana are so taken with Hercules and Samson, respectively, that the ladies immediately agree to marry the strongmen. Everyone is blissfully happy, even though Lana probably has to give up her membership in the Metropolis Country Club. Superman, being the downer that he is, tells the ancient heroes that marriage isn't all its cracked up to be.

The two couples go to city hall to get marriage licenses, but they find out that they will have to wait a week. That's okay for them, though, because they can start getting their suburban lives set up, and Hercules and Samson can go find jobs.

After just a few days, Hercules and Samson learn that their lives with Lois and Lana are domestic hells straight out of a John Cheever story, and the two heroes beg Superman to take them back to their home eras.

The important lesson here? Lois defeated Hercules with her super-nagging powers. So, if we complete the following syllogism--Hercules beats Superman, and Lois Lane beats Hercules--we can logically conclude that Lois Lane beats Superman. We can also add nagging to the list of Superman's other weaknesses--kryptonite and magic.

Important lesson #2: Hercules loves turkeys and cigars.

Important lesson #3: If you are Lex Luthor, you can build a time machine out of common household items, like a clock and aspirin.

Important lesson #4: Superman does not marry Lois Lane because he knows that he would end up spending all of his time trying to meet her needs, and meanwhile the whole world would go to hell in a handbasket because the bad guys would have free reign.

Icemaker, I hope that answers your question and then some. Please keep them coming.

Your friend,

Dr. K

Cover images from The Grand Comics Database.

Sunday, March 27, 2011

An Open Letter to Pottery Barn Kids

Dear Pottery Barn Kids:

Although it is impressive that you have developed the technology and skills seen in the movie Inception and applied them to marketing your products, I would respectfully request that you stay out of my dreams. I am not going to buy everything featured in this room no matter how much you personalize it.

Except maybe the sconce.

And the decal.

But definitely not the sheets because they don't come in king.

Anyway, cut it out.


Dr. K

Friday, March 25, 2011

Spider-Man: Turn On the Dr. K!

On a recent spring break trip to New York, The Other Dr. K and I saw the Spider-Man musical, on the same night that producers announced they were delaying the opening again, and the next day we learned that director Julie Taymor was leaving the show. The postponement was announced just before the curtain went up, so we didn't hear about it until after the show.

I'm glad I saw it, especially since it may never actually open now, or at least the version that will open will be dramatically different from the one we saw. But, overall, I enjoyed the experience, and I think the show's strengths far outweigh its weaknesses. That being said, I also understand much of the harsh criticism it's received, though I do think that a lot of the negative press has involved a combination of schadenfreude, snark, and pile-on in order to create a story about the "biggest flop ever."

Anyway, for what it's worth, here are my thoughts on the musical. Just to warn you, this is going to get pretty long and spoiler-filled, though that may not matter much.

First, Spider-Man: Turn Off the Dark definitely sounds like a musical that was written by U2. Since I tend to like U2, that wasn't a problem for me.

Second, the technical stuff is amazing, especially the stunts, and that does a lot to overcome the weaknesses, which are mainly in the second act's plot.

Third, the audience really got into it, and they showed an enormous amount of good will, even when a technical problem stopped the play for a bit with the Green Goblin suspended above the audience. The production had worked out a system for the likely event of a technical stoppage like this: after a short announcement about the priority of safety, the suspended Green Goblin did some mugging and clawing for the crowd, and the Spider-Man who was waiting on him from the top balcony waved him off in disgust. The people underneath the Goblin seemed a little concerned, but otherwise the crowd seemed to dig it.

The first act is actually pretty great, and this surprised me considering how overwhelmingly negative the reviews have been. It tells a complete story on its own. One problem is that it's a familiar story--pretty much the plot of the first Spider-Man movie. However, there is some amazing stuff in there. The number where Peter discovers his powers in his room is really cool: stagehands carry out four padded walls, and Peter bounces off of all of them, sticks to the ceiling, and runs 360 degrees from floor to ceiling and down again. Also, the wrestling scene where Peter first earns money from his powers is pretty hilarious, with Peter fighting a giant, inflatable opponent. Many of the early fight scenes also use some neat slow motion effects, where Peter dodges a baseball that's been hit at him and then takes down two bullies with their bat.

Also, the play makes one particularly big change to the Spider-Man origin: Uncle Ben is run over when a thief steals Flash Thompson's hot rod. This, however, makes some sense, because we can understand there why Peter would let such a thing happen.

The most amazing stunts in the entire play also take place in the first act, during the final battle between Spider-Man and the Green Goblin. Spidey actually jumps off the third level balcony onto the flying Green Goblin's back, which is incredible. The act ends with the Green Goblin falling off the Chrysler Buidling, and the way the scene is staged, in which we are meant to be looking down from the top of the building, is impressive.

But herein lies what I think is the biggest problem: act one ends with the play's emotional high point, and the rest of the play doesn't even come close to this. They could just add a few more scenes to act one and make it the entire play, and then it would be great. Also, Patrick Page, who plays Norman Osborn/The Green Goblin, is fantastic, and none of the villains in the rest of the play come close to being as straight-up fun as he is.

There is also the thing with the "Geek Chorus," which wasn't as annoying to me as I thought it would be when I first heard about it. The first act is framed by four comic fans trying to compose their own Spider-Man story, which is the play we see. However, this conceit is pretty much dropped somewhere early in the second act, so it doesn't really pay off like it should.

When act one ended, the Other Dr. K and I looked at each other and said, "That was pretty good. I wonder what all the complaining was about?" I was even a little exhausted from the final fight scene.

In terms of story, though, act two is a mess. Early in act one, the geek chorus introduces the myth of Arachne, and she is supposed to serve as some kind of mythical/storytelling force that connects Spider-Man to classical mythology. That makes sense, and it works on that level. In fact, Arachne could serve as the play's narrator, dropping the geek chorus entirely, and that would further reinforce an interesting comic/classic mythology connection. This would especially work because Arachne is not a very mobile character--she's got a woman's torso and a spider's body--and she spends most of her time on stage suspended in the air.

However, the geeks turn her into the main villain in the second act, and this is presents another significant problem. Arachne's motivation is jealousy over Peter's relationship with Mary Jane--she wants Peter to embrace his spider side and reject his humanity. After defeating a bunch of villains, Peter decides to quit being Spider-Man, as it has ruined his personal life. In order to get Spider-Man back, Arachne creates a global threat that only he can defeat: she shuts down the world's power supply and takes over the internet and all other broadcast media. Then, she brings back the villains Spider-Man has already defeated in order to sow chaos and destruction.

We find out, during the climactic battle between Spider-Man and Arachne, that she has created all this chaos and destruction virtually: she's been controlling the information on the internet and television to make it look like the villains have returned and were destroying the major cities of the world. This doesn't make sense, because we see Spider-Man fighting these villains again, though he is punching them as they appear on giant screens. Also, Arachne traps Mary Jane in a web at the end, in a final effort to get Peter to give up his humanity and embrace his spider-ness. When he agrees to do this if she only releases Mary Jane, Arachne realizes that she can never get him to stop being human, so she abruptly gives up, which doesn't make any sense. Then Peter kisses her and sends her away. At least, that's what I think happens--the Other Dr. K and I had some disagreements about they play's conclusion.

Still, the final song, "Boy Falling from the Sky," is really good, and the number is very physically demanding on Reeve Carney. He has to sprint on a treadmill for a big part of the song, and then swing around the theater several times before landing on the third balcony. Then, he returns for the encore by being lowered onto the stage upside down for the final kiss with Mary Jane.

It's clear that the second act is where most of the money is, and it contains the stuff in which Julie Taymor was probably the most invested. The infamous shoe-shopping number with Arachne and her female spider minions is as ridiculous as everyone has said it is, but it's also one of the more technically ambitious numbers:the female spider costumes alone are really complicated and obviously expensive.

So, it seems pretty clear where the problems are, but they are in the areas where one can really see Julie Taymor's signature: elaborate costumes, complex musical numbers, innovative technology. Still, whenever the flying and web-swinging happened, I was blown away, and that made it easier for me to overlook the plays bigger problems. Also, I don't have a lot invested in Spider-Man's origin or overall story, so it was easy for me to forgive some of the liberties taken there. I'm glad I saw it, and I had a good time with the experience. I'd also be curious to see it again when changes are made and if it actually returns in the summer.