*Pants not Guaranteed (Sometimes they're Shorts!)

Review: The Lesser Evil

Hey, here’s something completely different! Nothing video game related here, folks.

I haven’t had the pleasure of meeting Shane W. Smith yet, but I’ve known him through the Kotaku community for the better part of a year and I don’t think I’ve gone a week without reading some form of promotion related to his graphic novel series The Lesser Evil.  And in all that time I’ve thought ‘gee Alex, you should get around to reading it someday, support a friend and all that heartwarming stuff,’ but it wasn’t until very recently that I got around to buying and reading the series.

I really wish I’d read it sooner.

The Lesser Evil follows three primary characters; Elam Padakan, Stanley Myres, and Ross Tillman, all embroiled in the same epic, galactic affairs. Smith’s strength lies in the construction of these characters, each being distinct from each other while still carrying an underlying relation in all of their plights. Each of these primary characters has a monologue of sorts to work with, journals or letters to relatives, and it’s through these that the reader gains the most insight into their hopes and dreams. They’re enjoyable sections, and fortunately not overused. There is a great moment at the beginning of the third volume that sort of subverts the expected structure of these monologues, so it all works well together.

There are some great ideas in each of these character stories. Elam leads an assault on the planet Messar, his real intentions hidden from even his brother. Ross is a young adult yearning for a different life, but finds himself almost instantly wanting his old life back as civil war unfolds around him. Stanley, a chancellor of the Senate, finds his actions defined by his past, and in his reflection seeks redemption. These are relatable characteristics, and the character arcs are not only satisfactory and enjoyable, they complement each other. Seeing these characters grow in relation to each other over the course of three volumes was, simply put, the highlight of my reading experience.

Strong characterisation isn’t here limited to these three characters, though. Smith creates a world filled with rich characters, thankfully managing to avoid creating any one-note clichés. There’s a distinct voice given to every character, and each has an important influence on narrative developments, even if it isn’t clear for some time. There are dedicated sections to fleshing out Angus Baxmerian’s character that act as a good break from the important developments in the story. Baxmerian may in fact be the most interesting character in The Lesser Evil, arguably acting as the fourth main character, where the lack of an internal monologue creates an intriguing vagueness around his personality and motivations. Perhaps weighing up the strengths of each character like that is unnecessary, or a little too much, but good writing should provoke such thoughts, and Smith has done a fantastic job in that regard.

The art style isn’t something I’ve ever encountered before, a 3D modelling style implemented by someone who says his drawing skills ‘leave a lot to be desired’. Initially, I had concerns over this style. Flipping through one of the books (which is a silly idea, for sure) it seemed very wooden, or stiff, and I worried that there was going to be a wall between the art and the text, but I was pleasantly surprised upon actually reading it to find my concerns were largely overblown. I don’t quite think the art style works for the more action-oriented scenes – something about the character models doesn’t give force to their movements – but for the most part it simply works. There are a few pages where the quality of the art seems to change dramatically, though, particularly regarding wider shots featuring full character models. The images simply don’t seem clear, appearing rather patchy, faded or rough. Regardless, the art style succeeds at complimenting the dialogue and narration. In a story which relies so heavily on understanding the motivations of each character, emotions are well presented.

While not a fault of the art style itself there are transition points in the story that are a little unclear at times. The fault here may lie with sparse background details in a lot of chapters, which may just be pure black or contain only very vague features. This meant that, a few times, turning the page I had to double back and make sure I hadn’t skipped over a page somehow. Moments like break the immersion of the read, and while those moments were few and far between (perhaps once or twice in each book at most), their presence did detract slightly from the experience. Anything to immediately identify a change of scene, be it dialogue or a text box, would have been very welcome in these instances.

There are a few faults in its presentation, but the story of The Lesser Evil is definitely one worth reading.  While the setting of the story, and the issues of the civil war on Messar, are interesting in their own ways, it is the well-crafted characters that make The Lesser Evil something special. I cared about the outcome of the story, not because of the political struggle itself, but for the implications it had on these characters, and any story that’s capable of making its readers care about the characters to that extent is a successful one in my eyes.

You’re reading this on my little blog (obviously), which only seems to occasionally get visits from TAYbies. So, if you are a TAYbie, and you have The Lesser Evil just sitting on a bookshelf somewhere, unread like my copies were for some time, I urge you to read it. It took me perhaps only two hours at most to get through all three volumes, but the journey these characters go on is definitely one worth following. And if, despite Shane’s frequent plugging of the series, you don’t own them yet, get buying!

And if you’re not a TAYbie, and don’t know what a TAYbie means, or what the heck any of this is about, buy it anyway!

 

(Unrelated to anything: I didn’t realise it had been so long since my last post. Time flies.)

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A head’s up: I get the impression that this will come across as me taking this whole thing way too seriously – but I’d rather be doing that than doing a half-assed job of things!

So last weekend was a busy one. The kind of weekend where you’re out from 9am to 6pm, and in bed by 11pm, absolutely exhausted. But you’re exhausted because you’ve been working on set for the first of Hot Shit Productions short films, Julie Vs The Dead. We got a lot done last weekend, and it was an amazing time, but that’s not really the point of this.

At some point in the weeks prior to filming I raised my hand offering to do some behind the scenes recordings, because everyone likes bonus features. I was armed with a less than impressive camera (especially in comparison to the amazing camera Jamie was using to record the film itself) so the sound isn’t the best sometimes, and there are bits of footage that suffer from some serious shaky cam, but despite that and my duties as the clapper I managed to record some fifty minutes of material. It ranges from people pulling awkward faces, or dancing, to more serious things like the makeup process and brief talks about what stage the filming is at.

So, for the past week, whenever I’ve had the free time, I’ve been experimenting with the footage in Windows Movie Maker, which definitely isn’t the best video editing program out there but certainly works as a start for somebody learning the basics of video editing. You can check out one of the smaller samples I experimented with in this handy youtube video below:

It might seem a bit odd that somebody with no video editing experience is handling all of this stuff, but it’s been a fun learning process so far, and there’ve been offers for assistance down the road, so there’s hope for improvement yet! I’m quite happy with what I’ve been doing despite my inexperience, though. The quality may not be the best but it’s been a lot of fun.

I see video editing as a sort of story-making process, a very different but very exciting form of writing, even. When I’m writing with text, it’s often difficult because there aren’t any guidelines; you can simply write about whatever you want. But here, I have a set limit of content to work with. There’s enough fluidity and freedom there, in that no one’s given me a concrete guideline for how I should present the finished video, but there’s also the restriction of those 50 minutes of material. And in a way, that’s very freeing. All of the content is already there. I just have to piece it together.

That’s been a very interesting process, to say the least. The more I dabble with the program the more seriously I find myself taking the whole thing. Beside me right now is a list of ‘montage-able shots’, anything that I can play music over as part of a montage of our sillier moments. A few examples: ‘Hipster Shiggy’, ‘Hollie shakes a tree’, ‘Jamie eats blood’.

But more importantly, a narrative is forming in my head, and it’s coming from fragments of different clips. As a minor example, in the middle of an otherwise normal clip, I suddenly say ‘if we stop for lunch now we’ll never start up again’. From there I can go into a minute-long sequence of people eating lunch. It feels like a very self-aware moment. I like the idea of being able to play with the timeline and sequencing of these clips to tell the story I want to tell.

It’s all been about sorting through these clips and finding those small moments that made the weekend such an amazing time. A well-timed joke, awesome dancing, strange comments, and of course, people preparing themselves for the whole ‘filming a movie’ thing.

And in that regard, if I had one complaint about video editing it would be that I’ve seen the same clips so many times in such a small period. I’ve heard my voice say the same things so often its’ become rather grating. But even that has a positive side, because occasionally I stumble upon something new or different and instantly know what I can do with it in relation to other clips.

As an ending note, it’s nice to feel so excited about a creative project again. I feel too young to be saying this, but my current degree has seen me lose a lot of enthusiasm for writing at times. Having a surge of creative energy again is very welcome, and I hope it stays long enough for me to produce a kickass behind the scenes feature. Because we had a lot of fun, and I like documenting that.

The exciting story of the DayZ-esque evening a bunch of gamers spent in the woods. With NERF guns!

All it took was one man yelling ‘Alright, I’m counting!’ and suddenly ten people were charging through the woods, laughing or screaming, sometimes both, as they scattered in all directions equipped only with a plastic gun and the survival skills they’d learned in video games.

It’s difficult to describe the intensity of these first moments. People were laughing and screaming in equal parts because there’s a genuine sort of terror to be found here – even if the whole exercise is just for fun. It was easy to just lose yourself in the moment and act too serious about it. Then you would pull yourself back, realise how seriously you were taking a game, and find yourself laughing. It was a great moment.

’50! 49! 48!’ he counted down to our doom slowly at first, then faster and louder as we moved further away. People disappeared around me as they looked for hiding places off the beaten track. Onwards we charged, through thorny bushes and mysterious cattle bones, until everyone was out of my sight, and all I had left for company was my own heavy breathing and the countdown that ran out all too fast.

Either I moved out of earshot or I was too unfocused, but eventually the countdown ended and I found myself standing alone on a wide pathway stretching to what I assumed were the east and west of the woods. And it was there that I found Shiggy, standing in plain sight on the western track. So west we went, pausing occasionally to look behind us again, pointing a gun at the slightest provocation.

The rules were quite simple. If the zombie got you, you had to yell out, so that everyone knew our numbers were dwindling. It hadn’t been long since the countdown ended, and there hadn’t been a cry out yet. It was, to refer to a very overused cliché, the calm before the storm.

Things heated up pretty quickly. Nearing a fork in the western trail, Shiggy and I paused at the obvious crackling of branches and dried leaves behind us. Not-so-subtly crouched down in the bushes was Serrels, the zombified editor of Kotaku, staring us down.

I waved. And then we ran.

It seemed there was an unspoken agreement that everyone would go all out. Shiggy and I sprinted as fast as we could. I didn’t dare look back more than once, Mark looked dead serious as he kept pace with us. After exchanging a few panicked cries of good luck, we hit the fork in the trail, and as Shiggy went south I headed north and hoped for a chance to catch my breath. I am seriously unfit.

As I rounded another corner I found myself with the height advantage, looking over the area I had just sprinted through. In the distance, Mark had chosen to claim Shiggy as his victim, who to his credit showed no sign of slowing down. While they exhausted themselves and disappeared in the distance I took time to recover, walked the northern path for a while and came face to face with Nova.

Fortunately, as much as it felt like an intense real life game of DayZ, survivors couldn’t be jerks to each other. A Nerf bullet fired at a human was wasted, at worst it might attract a zombie if you yelled loud enough about it. So after a few pointless seconds of aiming our guns at each other, Nova and I teamed up. Before moving east we surveyed the area, spying Doc in the distance, sticking out from the browns and greens of the woods in his bright yellow sweater. It was impossible to tell if he was a survivor or not, though, so we turned and walked away.

We walked together for a good ten minutes, crouching and shushing each other every time we heard a yell in the distance. We’d moved far from the starting point now and, it seemed, far from any other survivors. The yells were audible but unidentifiable. We had no idea who remained on our side.

Hollie was most definitely still a survivor, though. We never saw her, but we certainly heard her, making odd cawing noises in a ditch somewhere to our right. Why anyone would attract attention to themselves like that is beyond me, though, so we left her to what we assumed would be a grisly fate.

There were never any close encounters, but occasionally as we walked further and further we’d spot someone in the distance, unarmed, and assume they had seen us. Backtracking as swiftly as possible, we eventually decided to split up. I told Nova I was going back the way we’d came, waited for him to disappear from my sight, then took a completely different route. I thought it was pretty damn clever: this way, if he became a zombie, he’d think he knew where I’d be. Maybe I was taking this too seriously.

I had to take it seriously though, because for the next half hour or so I was all alone, and I needed some way of passing the time. In hindsight, I’d probably gone too far out. I didn’t see or hear anyone for at least 15 minutes. I thought I heard people, but I’d turn around and meet a bush rustling in the wind or a random plastic bag. That plastic bag was likely the flag we’d used for our earlier games, and it made me sad to think the people I’d been competing with before were now trying to kill me.

I think the isolation was getting to me at that point.

It got darker, and besides the occasional, barely audible shout, I heard nothing. Enough time had passed for me to think I could potentially be the only survivor left, so I decided it would be best to head back to the starting zone and declare my victory. Only that proved fairly difficult, because now I was lost, and with each minute I stumbled along the paths it grew darker until I could barely see the ground before me.

That’s when things got genuinely creepy. At that point I’d found familiar territory, but it was dark and progress was slow. Occasionally I spied people in the distance, and despite being unsure if they’d seen me or not I bolted in the opposite direction. It was a strange mix of ‘okay I should probably give up now’ and ‘no, I want to see how long I can survive’.

Wandering the path I’d travelled earlier with Nova, I paused and threw myself to the ground as I saw a figure dressed in black walking with their back to me. They were whistling, a soft tune that might normally be used to casually address a pet. But I couldn’t tell who they were, and I was sure they were after me, so I lay there, terrified, until they’d stopped whistling and disappeared.

The sun had completely vanished behind the hill as I made my way back to our starting point. The voices grew louder as I walked, the dried leaves beneath my feet crunching loudly even if I walked on tiptoes. Surely, I thought, they could hear me coming, and soon I’d be swarmed. I wanted to get as close as possible before they spotted me, but eventually I realised I had an alternate route. With the ground crunching and crackling beneath me I took a sharp left and trudged out of the woods and into an empty gravel field. From there, I could take the footpath and circle around the zombies.

I was halfway through my evil plan when I got a phone call from Shiggy. Turns out I wasn’t the last man standing: Heather and Hollie were still out there as well. The zombies had given up, and were heading back inside. I found them on the side of the road, sitting on the fence and waiting for the ones they missed to make their way back.

As I expected, Flu came shambling towards me, arms outstretched. “You bastards ain’t taking me alive!” I yelled, and fired the only bullet I used all game into my skull. It would have been so much more dramatic if I hadn’t lost the damn bullet, though.

As we waited for Heather and Hollie to return I conversed with the group and found out everyone had a different story to tell, and that was a lot of fun to listen to. I heard of Powalen hiding in plain sight, of Mark trying to climb a tree, Doc spraining his ankle going after Flu, and Nova’s fate after we left each other. The fact that a bunch of people in their 20’s and 30’s could find so many amazing stories in just an hour of running around screaming through the woods with plastic guns reminded me that we’re all kids at heart, and we all love a break from our adult lives every now and again.

LET’S DO IT AGAIN SOME TIME DAMNIT

But you can have too many pants.

What could these mysterious images be? It’s not like they’re very subtle.

It’s no coincidence that the bacon forms an N.

Personally, I like this one more than the next offering, which demonstrates that I have way too much free time on my hands and that I like to waste my time making copious amounts of digital bacon:

By their powers combined…

Yeah, it’s pretty sloppy. But it’s fun, so shutup. I like fun. It gives me the illusion of being productive.

I want pants printed with bacon like that.

Also, wow a post that doesn’t involve much writing? That’s a bit scary, isn’t it? It isn’t? Well it is to me!

BaconPants. Get hype. I know I am.

This might seem like a bit of a weird blog post. Meat-write-ups, if you want to refer to this as such, are usually put on TAY. But I’ve decided to put this here because this is my main, non-academic writing channel, and I’ve always written with the mindset that life experiences shape the way we write. This then acts as a really extensive way of keeping a record of something that I not only found to be a great night, but also consider as something that could influence or shape a piece of writing in future, in one way or another. We write what we know, what we love, so why not get some practice in writing of fond memories?

As I’ve mentioned before, I don’t go out to the city often, so I don’t really have much knowledge of what’s cool and what isn’t and where all the best places to be are on a Saturday night. And apparently, the same applies to our dear friend Batgirl. So, naturally, the first two people Cakesmith wants to hang out with are us, the bumbling clueless idiots who got lost with Rocketman trying to find a museum.

‘Alex, you charming devil you,’ I thought to myself on the train, referring here to me and not my afro brother, ‘you worry too much. It’ll all be fine.’

Here’s how a typical decision was made for us for the rest of the night:
Me: So, where do we want to go/eat/drink/do something? Any ideas?
Cake: I’m good with whatever.
Batgirl: I don’t really mind.

You can switch the names around all you like, the result will always be the same.

And so it was that after saving Batgirl from the clutches of a hobo at Wynyard, we set off down York Street and George Street, uncertain of our fates, or of anything really, because we’re so dense. After 15 minutes walking in one direction, we stopped at a random intersection and spent 10 minutes ‘er’ing and ‘ah’ing as we realised this wasn’t getting us anywhere. We then decided that hey, let’s keep walking in the same direction we were already going, and see what happens, which meant that those 10 minutes were completely wasted.

It literally took us 50 minutes but we finally figured out dinner and it was…Nando’s. All that walking for Nando’s. Amazing. I’ve actually never eaten there before, so hey new experiences and all that jazz. Although I’m not sure I ever want to eat there again, based on their secret ingredient:

Well, do you want to know? Huh?!

The secret is out. Tell your friends.

 

We then thought that it was time to go drinking. Cue ten minutes or more of ‘well where do you want to go?’ ‘I dunno I’ll go where you guys want’. Fortunately I’d previously mentioned the Mojo that we’ve been to a few times recently and since neither of them had been there before it seemed like a good idea. Of course it took us at least 20 minutes to get back there, which is probably good because we’d eaten a lot of greasy food.

I thought that we needed to look more hipster to get into the bar, so I donned a pair of fingerless gloves but they weren’t necessary because the bouncer was all like ‘dude, sweet afro’ to Cakesmith and we laughed our way in and life was good.

I swear that bar changes every time we go. This time it was a bit brighter and there were less people and the music wasn’t as loud but it was still good, so we settled into a little table in the corner before ordering some drinks. The bartender was like ‘so what are you guys up to tonight?’ and I explained that Cake was new to Sydney and Batgirl and I are useless so he and some random folks in the bar were like ‘well you should go here and here but don’t go here and definitely don’t go to Kings Cross you’ll want to go to this place instead’ and we smiled and nodded and feigned interest and I’d already forgotten all the places they’d mentioned except for the Cross because who forgets that?

Drinks were consumed and talking was had until eventually I looked up at the bar again and noticed something familiar taped to the wall beside a shelf of bottles. And at that moment I completely lost it as I realised it was the birthday card I’d made for Rocketman that he’d lost along with some presents in the bar just over two weeks ago. So the next time Batgirl and I got drinks I said to the bartender ‘you see that picture up there?’ and as he nodded I showed him the photo on my phone and said ‘yeah I made that, it was a birthday card for a friend and he lost it here a while ago!’. The bartender laughed and moved to take it down but I refused to let him, because I find it utterly amazing that some silly little drawing I did was amusing enough for these people that they stuck it up on the wall. So I took a photo of it and we returned to our seats.

The card in its original state, some two weeks ago.

Only a little damaged. In fact, all the names have been mysteriously blurred out.

So that was my stupid drunk moment, and now it was Batgirl’s turn. Cue twenty minutes of non-stop giggling at anything Cake and I said or did. Apparently ‘it’s funny because it’s not funny’. I dunno, man. Cake got her a glass of water and that shut her up for a while so we decided to get into some intense spoilerific discussions about Mass Effect and some other games, and Batgirl just nodded in the background regardless of whether she understood things or not.

At some point Cake and I were looking at the drink menu/clipboard of death and as he perused the beer list he exclaimed ‘oh, this beer is from where I use to live!’ and I was like ‘you should order it then!’ but he continued with ‘oh, but it’s really terrible you should never drink it’. We settled on some cider and it was really good. Batgirl kept giggling and there was a bit of worry that she would fall off her chair.

Have you ever been in the bathrooms in the Mojo? They’re freaking swanky. Like, super clean and freshly painted and fancy.

Then it hit midnight and we each realised we had people at home who would probably be unhappy with us if we stayed out much longer, so we parted ways. At this point Batgirl seemed to have sobered up a bit, or maybe she was still tipsy because she kept telling me I would get molested on the train after she reached her stop and left me alone. But that didn’t happen, so suck it.

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