Shenanigan: Poison, Dark, Snakes, Bats, and Rats

Let’s take a moment to do some musing on villain stereotyping in the Pokemon series. If you have a life, feel free to disregard this post.

In the first two generations of Pokemon games (Red/Blue/Yellow and Gold/Silver/Crystal), your character takes time away from the gym-badge challenge to take on and defeat the criminal organization Team Rocket*. And as criminal organizations go, they’re not exactly subtle about it: While wearing black uniforms with a red R on, they openly threaten people, steal Pokemon from innocents, keep said Pokemon miserable, all for the sake of amassing further wealth. Everyone hates Team Rocket, but the police are powerless to stop them. Naturally it takes a protagonist whose sense of justice has completely devoured that of self-preservation to confront this syndicate, set them up in a line, and give them the one-on-one righteous whuppings they deserve.

Naturally, when your syndicate consists entirely of the brute squad, their choice in Pokemon will reflect that: snakes, bats, rats, balls with frowny faces, creepy dream-devouring tapirs, globs of nastiness and pollution, the occasional mag-lev creature as a representation of science’s dispassionate amoral side. Almost all of their teams include poison or dark types**. The only exception to this is their leader Giovanni, who must also put up a cleaner public face as a gym leader; his team consists of more “respectable” displays of power and influence (rare species and Nido royalty).

And that’s all well and good, I guess. In kids’ games, sometimes the bad guys need to be obvious. The trouble is that later villainous teams tried to seem more complex in their morals – often claiming the extreme version of a noble and lofty goal – but still fall back on poison, dark, snakes, bats, and rats.

Generation 3 (Ruby, Sapphire, and Emerald) introduced us to polar opposite Teams Magma and Aqua, the leaders of whom honestly believed that they were only doing what was best for the natural world by seeking out ancient supermonsters and setting off catastrophic climate disasters. And it was pretty obvious that they were misguided at best, evil at worse, by looking at the Pokemon they used. Each leader had a companion of his respective elemental goal (Volcanic camel for Magma, torpedo-shark for Aqua) … but they and every other member also had a team full of poison, dark, snakes, rats, and bats.

So we move on to Generation 4 (Diamond, Pearl, and Platinum), where the Sinnoh region is under constant harassment from Team Galactic. The low-level grunts declare that they’re researching new methods of generating clean energy for the world (which for some reason involves stealing people’s beloved companions?) … their boss Cyrus, on the other hand, fully intends to destroy the world and remake it in his sociopathic image. So I can understand why Cyrus has no qualms about filling his roster with a rampaging dragon, a hellhound, a kamaitachi, a mob boss crow, and a vampire bat, but why are the supposedly virtuous zealots of his lower ranks all going around bullying people with poison, dark, snakes, rats, and bats?

Generation 5 (Black, White, and their respective sequels) introduced us to Team Plasma, a hybrid between PETA and those people who think they’re being clever when they say “durr hurr de pokey mans is cock fighting haw haw haw.”*** Your first experience with Plasma is a public speech given by their boss, Ghetsis Harmonia, pleading with the masses to cease battling with their Pokemon and release them from captivity. The entire team operates on the assumption that they’re “liberating” Pokemon from trainers who only make them suffer.

Naturally the whole “think of the poor abused Pokemon” line was a scam; what Ghetsis really wanted was to disarm everyone else and conquer the Unova region unopposed. So of course his team consists of Dark types, an evil ghost, a dubstep frog, and a terrifying electric lamprey. But once again, the alleged footsoldiers of justice and kindness are attacking people with poison, dark, snakes, rats, and bats.

(The naive and saintly King of Team Plasma, Ghetsis’s adopted son N Harmonia, actually has a neat gimmick to his battles: He refuses to capture any Pokemon, so his team changes every time you encounter him because they’re just a group of local wildlife that he befriended. You can even find and befriend some of them as a miniquest in the sequel, and they remember him fondly. So props to Game Freak for that bit of story and gameplay integration.)

The sequels don’t fare much better. The amoral researcher Colress at least follows a theme of technology (and aliens for some reason), but Ghetsis returns with his six balls of evil, and the grunts keep up the grand tradition of poison, dark, snakes, rats, and bats.

Generation 6 (X and Y) demonstrated a massive waste of potential. Team Flare, the relentlessly stylish criminal organization led by the charismatic Lysandre and secretly supported by Elite Four member and voluptuous celebrity newscaster Malva, proclaimed that their goal was to amass a great fortune and make the world a better, more beautiful place by getting rid of anyone not up to their standards. Surely even the lowliest member of such a tragically hip organization would still fight with– no, wait. Poison, dark, snakes, rats, and bats.****

And here we are at last, Generation 7, with Sun and Moon. And from what I’ve played so far, the villains are … I don’t know what to say about them. Team Skull is, as far as I can tell, a group of upper-middle-class white kids trying to dress and act like the most overblown possible caricature of inner-city minority gangs. They have grabbed Poe’s Law by the short and curlies and are sprinting across The Line waving their arms and singing Al Jolson’s rendition of “Mammy.” And so far they’ve attacked the main character with (everybody sing along at home) poison, dark, snakes, rats, and bats.

So why am I bothering to overanalyze a video game series for children? Probably a fixation due to some kind of neurological defect. But also because this is a game series that’s hit its 20th anniversary and still has die-hard fans who were children when Red and Blue (or Green, for the Japanese kids) first came out. And The Pokemon Company is fully aware of their adult fans, considering the more sophisticated designs on some of the merchandise they offer. They must know that there are fans of the franchise who could really enjoy a game where the villainous team doesn’t wear T-shirts with “Ask me about my bullying and world domination plan!” printed on them. Why not set up a villainous team with more of a knight templar or self-righteous paladin-gone-lawful-mad feel to it, insisting that they’re making their Gardevoir and Lucario and Audino do these cruel things for the greater good? Instead of stealing Pokemon for money and profit, they could be confiscating Pokemon from trainers who they deem insufficiently virtuous.  Maybe they could even turn public opinion against the player character and make NPCs think you’re the bad guy for a while.*****

But I’m not just pining for a complex and satisfying plot. I also want to see the writers live up to a concept that keeps showing up in the games, comics, and anime, and was stated outright in the first movie: “[T]he circumstances of one’s birth are irrelevant. It is what you do with the gift of life that determines who you are.” For the people who use that concept again and again to turn around and use the same poison, dark, snakes, bats, and rats on the villainous team every darn time is just … disappointing.

 


* Fun fact: Team Rocket’s Japanese name, “Rocket-dan,” can be read as either “Rocket Gang” or “Rocket Bullet.” This little pun is kept up with the other villainous groups throughout the series – Magma Bullet, Aqua Bullet, Galaxy Bullet, Plasma Bullet, and so on.

** Fun fact 2: in Japanese, the Dark type is named Aku (evil) type. Notice how most of the Dark moves are based on deceit and undisciplined violence. Night Slash, for example, is “Crossroads killing” in Japanese, referring to old stories that samurai would test the sharpness of their blades by killing peasants at a crossroads at night with no repercussions.

*** The games (and the anime) frequently address this topic: most Pokemon see training and battling as a mutually beneficial arrangement: trainers are able to travel safely to places they otherwise would never see, while the Pokemon is able to unlock greater potential through cooperation and discipline. Personally, I see Pokemon battles as something of a martial arts sparring system, with the gym badges being the equivalent of the different ranks and colored belts. Hence the fights only going to a KO rather than death.

**** I guess, if you wanted to nitpick, you could claim that the ugly and intimidating Pokemon were a subtle hint from Lysandre that none of the lower ranks were intended to survive the awakening of the Legendary of the Game to see the new beautiful world … but I’m not sure the game designers have earned the benefit of the doubt here.

***** Heck, take a look at the first Pokemon Mystery Dungeon games. The villain is a skilled manipulator who not only convinces the town that the player character is the cause of all the recent natural disasters, but also convinces the character of this! You go through a surprisingly tense series of dungeons fleeing from an angry mob that will stop at nothing to see you dead.

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Shenanigan: Insert Labyrinth Reference Here

Gosh, it’s been a while since I’ve written anything worth reading, hasn’t it. Sorry about that. There are various excuses involving stressful jobs and apartment floods and other projects, but it mostly comes down to me having the attention span of a gnat and not much time to review comics anymore. So I hope this bit of writing will at least provide entertainment to make up for my lack of credibility.

So, story time.

A few years ago, a friend from tabletop gaming group found a pretty awesome game called Dawn of Worlds. You basically play as a pantheon creating a new world and all the races in it, and at the end of the game you have a setting for your next rules-flexible roleplaying campaign. We tried it out a few times, creating different worlds, different ideas, different fiascos.

During one of these sessions, one of the players decided to create a race of Ewok-like creatures called the Woowoos. A few looks of disbelief were shared around the room, but in the end the consensus was that this was pretty harmless.

So then on his next turn, he declared that the Woowoos particularly excelled in archery, and that their military included an elite corps of marksmen (markswoowoos?), known as the Wuhu.

Well now I was tempted.

On my next turn, I spent some points to create a godly avatar among the Woowoos. One who excelled in martial training because of her time spent meditating among the desert rock formations and allowing Loa spirits to inhabit her body and mind.

Or in other words, Lulu became the Hu-Wuhu of the Woowoos because she practiced voodoo among the hoodoos.

This was about the time that the rest of the group said enough was enough. The might of the Woowoos needed to be broken, for the sake of everyone’s sanity. The other races of the world banded together to defeat their archers, and their bruised and broken leader chose to die rather than be taken forever captive.

Which is to say, Lulu the hoodoo voodoo Hu-wuhu bid the Woowoos adieu and committed seppuku.

It took a while for that gaming group to forgive me.

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Metapost: Not all it’s Cracked up to be

Seven years ago, I was a bit of a different person.

I know, it’s a bit of a shock, right? But it’s true. Back in 2007, I was a college student who had just latched onto English as “maybe the major that I’ll actually finish and graduate with.” I still lived in on-campus housing despite being in my fourth year, and I’d been drawing the comic Torio for about two years and filling it with my regrettable opinions on politics and relationships.* I’d joined the medieval club and was about to spend a few years flirting disastrously with heterosexuality.

I also wound up spending a lot of time in the computer lab in the Lee Library, sometimes to work on papers, sometimes to avoid my roommates. And somehow I wound up reading an article on Cracked.com. I don’t remember what the article was, but it was funny enough that I clicked a few of their links to other articles and the next thing I knew, it was midnight and the librarians were playing Apocalyptica over the PA system to shoo everyone out of the building.** It became a daily (or nearly so) habit pretty quickly, reading the new updates and sharing various jokes with whatever unfortunate IM contacts were online at the time. And when I started up this blog, Cracked was one of the first sites I added to my links on the sidebar.

Seven years later, well … life happened. I ended Torio when the amount of writing I had to do in preparation for graduation became too intense. I somehow earned a degree in English with a minor in editing. I stumbled through a few jobs that, in retrospect, were probably bad choices on my part. I stumbled through a couple of relationships that, in retrospect, were terrible choices on my part.*** I got in a car accident or two, spent a little time participating in the Society for Creative Anachronism, resigned myself to being attracted to men, and learned to cook an omelet recipe that even my egg-hating mother can enjoy.

And today I’m removing Cracked from my link bar.

I’d like to claim that it’s not some big statement, but if that were true, I wouldn’t be writing an essay on my defunct blog about it, would I? I just don’t know what the statement’s supposed to be saying, other than that I don’t really enjoy Cracked as much as I did seven years ago. And it’s not because of some big change or something, just a bunch of little annoyances that built up over time.

It started a few years back when someone looked at the margins on the side of the page and said, “Wouldn’t it be more effective if all that white space could be replaced with enormous advertisements? I know I love it when I absentmindedly click outside the article and open up a new tab with something I wasn’t interested in!” It’s not exactly a high honor to be known as “the site that finally convinced me to install AdBlock,” y’know?

They started inserting more “Look at this article too!” links – not just at the bottom of the article, but now in the right margin, auto-scrolling alongside you as you read. And then at the top of the article to remind you of the new articles of the day. And then inexplicably on the left of the article in a separate frame. Add in the size of the title and the opening graphic, and the average reader is lucky if even the first line of the article is visible without having to scroll down. Wait, never mind, it got pushed off the screen by the two-inch-tall hidden ad for their T-shirt shop. (I should mention that this ad loads even with AdBlock installed.)

Then there’s the link bait. It was innocuous enough at first, just an extra set of links at the bottom of every article, inviting readers to look at “popular articles from around the web.” That would be great if it were more comedy articles like the content of their weekly LinkStorm feature. But it was mostly “Look at this celebrity’s breasts!” and “This one food will melt fat off!” which isn’t so much humorous as merely laughable.

But even that didn’t seem to be getting enough eyeballs to rake in enough ad revenue. The editors started tweaking the article titles, forcibly inserting “mind-blowing” and “horrifying” where they didn’t even fit, turning other titles into inaccurate but titillating husks of their former selves.

And this isn’t even getting into the content of the articles themselves. There’s always been a certain amount of topical articles, finding the humor or brief introspection in current events, and that’s not an intrinsic flaw or anything. But when recent article topics include “We use Redditors as a legitimate example of a movement” or “Here’s your comedy article about rape I guess” . . . yeah, not exactly reassuring. Half the articles have stopped attempting humor outside of an obligatory “ha ha, penis” before spending 2,000 words condemning the human race or talking about how everyone is going to die anyway. Or in one or two cases, attempting to condense a self-help book into that amount of space. The humor articles are slowly getting choked out by the sudden move toward activism.

For whatever reason, the last straw was, of all things, a couple of photoshopping (sorry, photoplasty) contests this week. On Monday, they posted the results of a contest with the title “18 Ridiculously Sexist Modern Ad Campaigns,” full of gripes and outrage about the awful gender stereotypes still present in society. Today, they posted the results of a contest with the title “27 Dumb Things Men Suspect About Women” and gleefully reveled in those same gender stereotypes.

I dunno. There is still the occasional funny article on there, but it’s becoming less and less worth it to slog through the little annoyances to find it, and it doesn’t look like the situation’s going to improve any time soon. It’s a pity, but I guess I’m finally going to have to spackle over Cracked.

* To this day I am torn between removing my old comics from the Internet to spare other people, or to leave them up as a reminder that I am an imperfect human being who has made some pretty spectacular cock-ups in his life.
** Insert joke about Mormon kids here?
*** A word of advice: Just because they claim to have the best intentions for you doesn’t mean they’re not abusing you.

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Metapost: Spammety-spam

Just a heads-up that I’ve installed WordPress’s reCaptcha software to try and stem the tide of spam comments. (Earlier plug-ins were keeping them off the page . . . but dumping them all in my e-mail asking for moderation, which does not a happy administrator make.)

I’ve also gone through the user database and deleted any of the spam bots that I could find there. I’m sure this will get me a number of complaints about being discriminatory against inorganics, but that’s currently a price I’m willing to pay.

On the plus side, though, if reCaptcha manages to keep the spam posts out, then I’ll be happy to reinstate commenting on older posts. Here’s hoping!

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Shenanigan: How not to write a food blog

Picture of food

Source: user Interna, MorgueFile.com

You should start off your food blog post with some sort of attempt at relating to the readers. After all, they don’t read your blog for the recipes, no sirrah! Perish the thought and heaven forfend! The readers want to know all about you, not about your delightful recipe for gluten-free seitan or vegan polenta with meat sauce. Just because you write a cooking blog doesn’t mean you should consider recipes as anything more than a bonus for the readers who love you for your writing style.

One of the best ways to open up to your readers is with a bit of humor. Do you know a joke about fennel? Some charming witticism involving cinnamon and garam masala? A few bons mots with regard to paprika? Of course you don’t, but never let that stop you! Every article should include an abject failure at word play or a terrible forced pun to remind the readers that in spite of your cooking prowess, you’re only human.

You might think this is a good place to share the recipe. You would be thinking wrong. You’ve wasted at least a paragraph of writing without showing them any photos of the food. The readers have probably forgotten what it looks like by now! Refresh their memories with another photo.

Photo of food

This should be a close-up detail of the food, because people sometimes forget what a lime is.

With that photo now fresh in the reader’s memory, you might think that now would be the perfect time to share the recipe with them. You should punish yourself for your impudence. If your readers wanted recipes, they wouldn’t be reading your blog now, would they? You don’t want to be like the Food Network web site, tossing around so many recipes that they even list the ingredients for Dark Chocolate as a Snack. You want to be like the Food Network hosts, regaling your rapt audience with tales of far-off lands like Switzerland, Fiji, Zimbabwe, or Ohio between bites of expensive cheese and delicate sips of the good wine.

So go ahead, spin a long and boring yarn about how you first encountered this dish while you were backpacking your way across Tokyo when suddenly you were urinated upon by a homeless man who smelled vaguely like an aged dalmatian and wouldn’t stop shouting about how the whole world was controlled by the International Dairy By-Products Council and that he and his army of Pokémon would some day rise up and liberate the unsuspecting populace and make them face the truth and by the way have you ever read The Fountainhead because it really changed the way he looked at things and he never wants to have a President who wears magic underwear and that was when your friend, whom you miss dearly (now would be the perfect time to make a private in-joke that only your most dedicated readers and that friend will understand), was finally able to drag you away to a beautiful restaurant built entirely of mud bricks and old casserole lids, situated behind the latrine of a feudal castle and just to the left of some obscure monarch’s favorite linden tree, where the servers were obsequious without being unctuous, and they brought out this dish, this amazing dish, and you were so pleased with it and you pleaded for the recipe and they told you it would cost two hundred and you thought they meant yen but they really meant dollars so as your act of revenge you are now sharing the recipe (which you had to reverse-engineer because they wouldn’t even give you the real recipe after all of that bother) with the Internet so would everyone kindly send this to everyone in their address book right away.

No one will actually read the story, but you’ll have the most wonderfully cathartic feeling at the end of it. And who is this blog for, in the end: you, or those stupid readers who won’t shut up about some recipe?

Picture of food

You should include another picture at this point. Go for a slightly different angle from the first picture, or add some mood lighting.

The readers should be on tenterhooks at this point. You’ve connected with them at a deep level with your rapier wit, and then given them a truly personal reason to want to try the dish. Now that you’ve given them the sentimental desire to eat food,  you should also remind them that it doesn’t taste like crap. After all, there are some Philistines out there who insist on food being delicious in some way if they’re going to try to make and eat it; not everyone is able to sustain themselves on the piquancy of your nostalgia. So convince the reader that this dish is able to set off a party in their mouth. One of the cool parties, with Teddy Roosevelt impersonators and glow sticks (at least I assume that’s what cool parties have). Use all of the fancy words you can, like “palate” and “aroma” or maybe even “mingled”. Try to work the word “sumptuous” into the description if you can – if your readers aren’t reminded of medieval fabric laws when they read about your food, you just aren’t trying hard enough.

Picture of food

Use at least one photo of the food from an “artsy” angle to show how freewheeling you are. Just like Zooey Deschanel!

Your readers are probably ready to garrote you with a long strip of organic cotton cheesecloth right about now, yammering on and on about some recipe you promised them or something. You might as well give the ignorant masses what they ask for, or they might not come back to read more about your later escapades.

Picture of food

But not without one more bewildering close-up of the dish.

Fennel-Rampion Biscuits with Burgundy Beef Chutney on Saffron Rice à la Prager Fenstersturtz

The recipe itself should punish the readers for thinking they could try to cook with impunity. Insist on specialized ingredients that can only be found in tiny specialty shops in your metropolitan area. Any substitutions of common ingredients should utterly ruin the dish and make the reader cry. If you can, make sure that a few ingredients are in fact separate dishes on other pages of your blog, in order to increase traffic and draw new readers into yet another long-winded story with the promise of a recipe at the end.

Leave out a crucial step or two. They’re absolutely integral to the making of the dish, but you’re so familiar with it that everyone else should already know it, so why bother telling your readers? Most of those rubes will just blame themselves if something goes wrong anyway.

End with some commentary about how delightful the dish is, how many it should serve, how it’s so simple that only the most useless dregs of society wouldn’t make it perfectly the first time. Bon appétit!

Picture of food

Is this the same photo as the first one, or a slightly different one? The readers will never know.

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