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All posts for the month April, 2018

Comic book TV is everywhere these days, and it’s happening all year. So I’ll hand out awards and rankings in June, but in the meantime, we’ll be reviewing shows one by one as they wrap up.

Last instalment: C-list X-Men characters gathered for a tale of family, bigotry, and what it might be like if America’s law enforcement agencies were openly and dangerously racist.

This instalment: DC characters gather for all of that exact same stuff only it’s actually good this time.

Short version: With Black Lightning, the Greg Berlanti Mask-Based Action Fun Factory tries something different, and boy howdy it works out.

Premise

As a teen, Jefferson Pierce developed lightning-based powers, which he would learn to use to protect his home of Freeland from local gang the 100. Nine years ago, Black Lightning and the 100’s leader, the super-strong albino and City Councillor-turned-criminal Tobias Whale had a vicious supposedly-final battle which both men limped away from thinking the other was dead. Badly wounded, Jefferson put Black Lightning away for the sake of his young daughters and in hopes of repairing his relationship with his soon-to-be-ex-wife Lynn… against the advice of his mentor and surrogate father figure, tailor/hacker/designer of superhero costumes/possessor of some suspicious skill sets Peter Gambi.

Today, Jefferson serves Freeland by shaping the minds of the black community’s youth as principal of Garfield High School, believing he can do more good steering kids away from gang life. His daughters are flourishing (Anissa is pre-med, Jennifer is still in high school and the more rebellious one), he’s inching towards reconciliation with Lynn, he hopes… but the 100 is stronger than ever, with such control over Freeland the good people of the city are forced into protest marches against the local crime lords. Which is risky business. I mean, think about how the cops respond to protest marches… Anyway, Gambi pleads with Jefferson that the city needs Black Lightning, but Lynn has him refusing to return to action… until the 100 come for his daughters. Jefferson comes out of retirement to save Jennifer and Anissa, but when he’s asked (and rightly so) why only his children were saved, Jefferson makes a choice…

“It is time that people know that Black Lightning is back.”

From there, he’s taking on the 100, their chief pimp/dealer Lala, a still-vicious Tobias Whale, and the sinister cabal that they’ve been reporting to… a cabal with which Gambi has an uncomfortable familiarity.

Also… habitual protester Anissa is developing powers of her own, and has some thoughts about how to use them.

And they’d better get their heroic ducks in a row, because there’s a new drug circulating called Green Light that’s highly addictive, and is giving people powers. Powers mixed with PCP-like rageouts.

Sidebar: Is it part of the Arrowverse or not? Who knows at this point. Black Lightning is its own thing for the first season, but I feel that they’ve left the door open for crossovers with the Flash, Green Arrow, and company should the desire strike them later. They establish that other superheroes exist in other cities, but don’t mention Central or Star City in particular. They name drop Vixen, who exists on Earth-1 with everyone else, but also Supergirl, who merely visits Earth-1 on special occasions.

And those name drops aren’t definitive, since they also established that superhero comics exist in this world, in an amusing Easter egg where Anissa and love interest Grace discuss comic characters the Outsiders, the superteam where their comic incarnations met. So is Vixen a legit hero, or a comic book character? Do the people of Earth-1 know Supergirl from the 2016 alien invasion and the 2017 alt-Earth-Nazi invasion, or are we somewhere else, somewhere with a Supergirl and a Vixen? It’s unclear, and will remain unclear until someone in the Berlanti group says “Screw it, put Black Lightning in the crossover this year,” or Team Flash makes it clear that Black Lightning is on Earth-47 or whatever. Until then, Black Lightning stands alone, but luckily, it’s more than capable of doing so.

Strengths

What we have here is the bulk of Luke Cage’s debut season polished up and done better.

Cast: There are some strong performers in this cast, most notably Cress Williams as Jefferson and Nafessa Williams as Anissa. China Anne McClain does well as the younger, brattier sister, though I do not comprehend why she’s second-billed instead of Nafessa Williams. Better agent? Anyway, by and large, the Pierce family kills it on a weekly basis, as does Damon Gumpton as the closest thing Black Lightning has to a friend on the police force. He’s neither racist nor on the take, so that’s a big advantage over most of the cops we meet in early episodes.

The 100: How fortunate for the series that Marvin ‘Krondon’ Jones III exists. Black albino actors who look capable of hoisting a grown man in the air and killing him with one hand cannot be that easy to come by, but Krondon is basically perfect for this role. Tobias Whale is a destructive force, a black man who hates other black men… well not exactly. As he explains to a henchman that’s been screwing things up, “No, I love black people. I hate incompetent, thick-lipped, scratch-where-it-don’t-itch Negroes like you.” If not on network television he might have used a different word than “Negroes.” He’s got a lethal assistant calling herself Syonide (who’s kind of fun to watch in a fight, if I’m being honest); gets his hooks into Jennifer’s boyfriend, a track star named Khalil; and later on has links to a difficult-to-kill gangster he calls the Tattooed Man, who has himself an interesting arc. Tobias Whale builds himself a small legion of super-goons, and they’re all pretty great, save for Khalil, who for the most part is just… eh.

Tobias is also well-developed beyond “evil drug dealer.” His childhood begins to explain how he came to be how he is, and he does have some moral lines. In one memorable scene, he executes a henchman for overstepping. “You killed someone’s mama?” he asks. “Any man that’d do that has no morals, no principles to live by, which means there’s nothing you’re not capable of, including becoming a rat.” And now he’s growing tired of being treated like a henchman by cabal leader/creepy mortician Lady Eve, and has thoughts about climbing the ladder.

Rise of Thunder: Before she even knows her father’s secret, Anissa sets out to become Freeland’s latest hero. There are some stumbles along the way. There’s a regrettable wig, a fun trip to a fetish store for costume pieces when it becomes clear that tights are not good fighting wear for her figure, and guilt over taking on a low-level drug dealer a touch over-zealously. But Thunder becomes every bit the hero Black Lightning is, strong, brave, clever, and she’s a gay hero of colour on top of it all.

Racial tensions: Having showrunners of colour means that Black Lightning joins Luke Cage in having the best examinations of the far-from-perfect race relations in the US. Twice in the pilot, Jefferson finds himself targeted by white cops who take an aggressive approach with black suspects. A government agency was using black youths as test subjects. And they touch on black people hating on other black people for not being, in their eyes, black enough. It’s a stark and honest take on American race relations, which is a nice change from having black people be the bigots. Looking at you, Gifted and Jessica Jones.

Vox Populi: The local Freeland news channel (which seems to be blissfully free of the Sinclair media propaganda machine) does person-on-the-street interviews at several major plot points, giving we the viewers a look at what the average people of Freeland think of Black Lightning and his crusade. It’s a fairly effective technique for conveying public opinion. My only beef is that the text crawl on the bottom of the screen never changes. Which… I guess it means you never have to pay attention to it, so that’s okay. Just saying, if one were to try to slip in a subtle reference to The Flash or Arrow that doesn’t get in the way of their own story, that would have been the place to do it.

Pacing: The multiple acts of Black Lightning’s first season help provide a steady clip for the show’s pacing. The season doesn’t lag the way Marvel Netflix shows tend to. Streaming shows are great for bingeing, but for strong episodic narrative it’s hard to beat broadcast.

Despite the fact that we’re not starting at the origin, but are in fact meeting Black Lightning nine years after he retired, the world of the show feels remarkably natural and lived-in. The history of the characters makes sense, and we understand the key relationships quickly. The people’s love for Black Lightning is crystal clear when he goes to storm Lala’s penthouse apartment, and the doorman not only sells out Lala without hesitation, he opens the door for him with a “Black Lightning! My man!” Someone else offers to hold the elevator, but Jefferson feels like taking the stairs, in order to stomp a few more gangsta asses on the way. 

I like how in addition to disguising his voice, Jefferson changes all of his vocal mannerisms, speaking more “street” as Black Lightning. He could teach Barry “reveal my identity to anyone who asks, except my girlfriend” Allen some tricks about keeping a secret identity.

There’s also solid action. Fight scenes have Arrow-level fight choreo (not quite Preacher but miles ahead of, say, Iron Fist), with occasional lightning-based effects thrown in.

Weaknesses

The Bigger Bad? Is this show a case of Villain Swap? At first, it’s all about Tobias Whale and the 100, but after Tobias and Black Lightning are briefly reunited, Tobias takes a few weeks off while the show’s attention moves to the ASA (American Security Agency). The ASA is the covert group that created Black Lightning when their attempt at a “vaccine” to make the black residents of Freemont “more docile” (openly and dangerously racist, remember?) accidentally gave people powers instead. Now ASA agent Martin Proctor is back in Freemont and restarting the experiment.

Eventually the show was going to come here. The ASA is a key player in Jefferson’s origin tale. Tobias Whale only became his nemesis because of ASA involvement. Gambi’s ties to the ASA, and through them Lady Eve and Tobias, were going to need explanation. It just… well, for the first few episodes it felt like this was going to be a season two thing. Season one would be Black Lightning taking on the 100, and in future seasons he could move up the ladder to the cartel pulling the 100’s strings. Instead, the 100 stepped aside and Proctor took over as the main villain.

It’s a more natural transition of primary villain than we saw on Luke Cage in its first season, or on Iron Fist every third episode, but it is still a swap of villain, and I did once identify that as a troublesome trend. In this case, though, I choose to defend it: the ASA made for a decent one-arc villain, tying the present say to Black Lightning’s hinted-at past. That’s good for one season. Tobias Whale, on the other hand, is the Nemesis. Black Lightning’s archest enemy.

And you shouldn’t write out the arch enemy in season one. You keep them around so they can go more rounds with the hero(es). And sure, death hasn’t exactly slowed down Reverse-Flash or Damien Darhk (yet), but it’s better to just keep the good villains around.

Other quibbles…

We get it. Thunder’s powers are linked to her breathing. Maybe you can trust us to remember that for a while? Because her big, echoey, “deep inhalation” sound effect is getting on my last nerve.

The Warriors’ James Remar does what he can with Gambi, but as an actor he is not quite on Cress Williams’ level.

Jefferson’s ex-wife Lynn spends a lot of the season being opposed to Jefferson being Black Lightning. As I’ve said in the past, this is rarely an interesting character choice.

I’m all for exposing conservatives as prone to being awful people, but maaaaaayyyyybe having sinister racist government agent Martin Proctor shout “Make America great again” twice in one episode was gilding the lily just a bit? Trust me, the first one landed.

High Point

Either “The Book of Little Black Lies,” in which Thunder suits up for the first time and Jennifer grapples with new knowledge, or “Shadow of Death: The Book of War,” (they’re all the Book of something) in which the ASA finds itself under siege from both the 100’s growing band of meta-villains and the entire Pierce family.

Also worth mentioning: “Black Jesus: The Book of Crucifixion” is less fun to watch than the ones I named, but its examination of the all-too-real threats faced by all African-Americans when confronted by white cops makes it one of the most necessary episodes.

Low Point

“Three Sevens: The Book of Thunder” is our obligatory ride on the “no, Main Hero, killing is wrong!” merry-go-round. Given that later on, they’ll go the same route as Daredevil season two and decide that “killing is wrong, but if you’re working with someone who happens to kill your enemies, hey, that’s okay,” it’s an awkward moral to push. And Khalil proves himself to be a jackass in Jennifer’s plotline, which is some go-nowhere filler stuff involving a mean girl nemesis whose attempts at cyber-bullying aren’t more effective or more interesting than her failed attempts at physically bullying Jennifer the previous week.

Anissa did use her powers to obliterate a Confederate statue, though, and that pissed off some easily-offended conservatives. So that was fun.

MVP

Nafessa Williams as Anissa Pierce. There are times when they’re simply using Black Lightning to tell Thunder’s origin story, and there ain’t nothing wrong with that.

Tips For Next Season

So Arrow has had at least half a dozen archers. Flash has had nine speedsters so far. Black Lightning uses electricity, and a new generation of Freeland youths are being given powers… so how long until Static makes an appearance? And why stop there? Why not bring in more of the Milestone Comics crowd? The 100 could find themselves at odd with the Blood Syndicate, Thunder could track down Icon and Rocket, Gambi could go head to hacker-head with Hardware... if Black Lightning intends to remain separate from the larger Arrowverse (we’ll see), there’s plenty of options for when you’re ready to expand beyond the Pierce family.

Overall Grade: B+

It’s honour, duty, family, and the shoddy state of US race relations with solid action and decent pacing. Not every piece fits together perfectly, but as first seasons go it’s solid and shows a lot of promise.

Might be the last full write-up for a bit. Most of the veteran shows don’t call for one and I’m not convinced Krypton deserves one. Guess we’ll have to find something else to talk about for a few weeks.

Image: CW

Comic book TV is everywhere these days, and it’s happening all year. So I’ll hand out awards and rankings in June, but in the meantime, we’ll be reviewing shows one by one as they wrap up.

This instalment: C-list X-Men characters gather for a tale of family, bigotry, and what it might be like if America’s law enforcement agencies were openly and dangerously racist.

Heh. “If.”

Short version: Fox’s Island of Misfit Toys is a lot less fun than the Arrowverse’s, I tell you what.

Premise

Theoretically set in the same, or at least a similar, world as the X-Men movies, things have taken a turn for the worse for America’s mutant population. A few years back, on July 15th, a mutant rights protest went bad, resulting in riots and violence. And where violence meets a whole bunch of mutant powers, collateral damage happens, resulting in new anti-mutant legislation. Worse still, both the heroic X-Men and the more violent Brotherhood have vanished, so there’s no one left to fight for the mutants in any context. All that’s left is the Mutant Underground, just trying to keep their people alive and out of the hands of the mutant-hunting agency Sentinel Services.

Years of government-mandated prejudice later, the Strucker family finds themselves in the middle of the fight in ways they didn’t expect. Kate Strucker (the delightful Amy Acker) is a nurse, while Reed Strucker (Stephen Moyer, from some obscure vampire show called True Blood) is a prosecutor specializing in mutant crimes. When their son, Andy, is pushed too far by bullies, the Struckers find out that both he and his sister Lauren are mutants. And the incident causes enough damage that the Struckers find themselves targeted by Sentinel Services, especially the dedicated mutant-hunter Agent Jace Turner.

They fall in with the Mutant Underground: John Proudfoot/Thunderbird, whose powers involve tracking, superstrength, and tough skin; Marcos Diaz/Eclipse, capable a firing intense bursts of heat and light; Lorna Dane/Polaris, with suspiciously Magneto-like control of metal, and who’s pregnant with Eclipse’s child; newest recruit Clarice Fong/Blink, who can open portals from one place to another; and several more support mutants. Together they must avoid Agent Turner, break various team members out of various prisons, and figure out how to deal with Dr. Roderick Campbell (Garret Dillahunt) and Trask Industries’ evil experiments on and against mutantkind.

Strengths

Race Wars: There’s a lot of diversity in the Mutant Underground. Hispanic, Asian, Native American… sure, the Strucker family are as white as it gets, but that’s actually better for the story. Only a middle-class white family could be that shocked by systemic racism in the US. Any POC family would see over-aggressive police, or doctors calling 911 on a guy in the emergency room because the woman he’s with is sporting a bruise, or neighbours forming a lynch mob on a dime, and say “Yep, sure, that’s white America for you.”

Which is to say, the first half of the season is an effective examination of systemic racism in law enforcement, corruption in prisons, and hate groups and hate crimes. And the fact that it’s all happening to pretty white people might make a certain mindset take it more seriously.

World Without Heroes: I wasn’t sold at first on the idea of an X-Men show with no X-Men in it. I wasn’t certain about Fox’s apparent lack of interest in a cinematic universe, with Deadpool and Logan and Legion and now The Gifted and soon New Mutants all existing in X-Men-related worlds with no connection to each other or the main X-Men movies whatsoever. And I have concerns that between this, Logan, and the fact that every main X-Men movie since 2006 has taken place in the past, Fox’s endgame seems to be killing off the X-Men at some point in the late 2000s, early 2010s. With the Disney buy-out in motion, one could wonder if Dark Phoenix is their “kill all of the X-Men before Kevin Feige reboots them” movie. But in the case of this show, a lack of X-Men works.

The entire premise, of mutants in desperate straights, hiding or on the run from Sentinel Services, works so much better when there’s no one to call for help. No super team giving mutants a good name by taking down Magneto and fighting villains while wearing colourful costumes. The real-world issues that The Gifted touches on are all complicated, and none have a solution as easy as “Just call the big-name Good Guys for help,” so it works that the Mutant Underground don’t have that option either.

Lovers in a Dangerous Time: Polaris and Eclipse are an engaging couple. It might have been nice if they hadn’t spent so many of the first few episodes apart, as Eclipse made a deal with the free Struckers and Polaris showed us how screwed up American prisons are. It took many episodes for the show to make a case for why the Struckers should be the leads and not Polaris and Eclipse, and it was not 100% convincing.

Blink and Thunderbird work well, too. Together, the mutant underground just about makes a team worth watching, save for the nonsense they tend to get bogged down in, which we’ll get to shortly.

Variety is the Spice: There are an impressive variety of mutant powers in play, and they’re all well-done visually. It’s still network TV-budget special effects, but they’ve got more money behind them than Legends of Tomorrow.

Skyler Samuels acquits herself quite well as the Frost triplets, telepaths with untrustworthy agendas.

If you need an actor to play a modern-day Joseph Mengele with no visible human emotions, you could do a lot worse than Garret Dillahunt.

The mutant riot that caused all of these draconian anti-mutant laws to be passed is rightly referred to as “7/15,” a term Americans would use. It is not called “the occurrence” or “the unpleasantness” or “the whoopsie-doodle” or, for those who don’t see where I’m going with this, “the incident.” Everyone gets this but you, Marvel Netflix.

Also they have yet to do a “forced to fight as underground gladiators” episode, and this show is a high risk for that, because historically rich people love to make minorities fight for their amusement, so every season they resist it is a triumph. Wouldn’t make a wager they avoid it for all of season two, though.

Weaknesses

No Plan: The Underground’s whole deal is that they’re trying to live up to the X-Men, to find a way to peacefully co-exist with humanity… but they never really seem to have a plan to make that happen. They spend the entire season either breaking people out of prisons/secret laboratories or trying to shut down said secret laboratory before it can do any more damage. There is zero plan for improving human/mutant relations, for undoing any of the anti-mutant laws. There is no hint that they might have a plan later. And this is a problem.

Without some indication that they have a plan to improve mutants’ lot in American life, what we have is a bunch of people hemming and hawing about using violence against the fascists, violent bigots, and mad scientists trying to commit a genocide against them, and that is… look, preaching non-violence is fine and all, but we are also back in a stage of history where people need to know that fascism must be fought. Not tolerated while you cross your fingers and hope that maybe eventually they’ll begin to see you as an actual person. As to those bigots…

Agent Turner is the Literal Worst: Agent Jace Turner is an asshole. He exemplifies what’s wrong with the American police. He is actually worse than the racist cops from Black Lightning because at least they’re honest enough to take bribes and be corrupt instead of pretending they’re the heroes. But I’m not convinced the writers know that’s the character they’ve created. Jace’s daughter died during the 7/15 violence, which should make him sympathetic, but it doesn’t. It just doesn’t. In the wake of 7/15, he decides that he doesn’t care which are the good mutants and which are the bad mutants, he just wants to round them all up and lock them away.

Which… this is their only major black character*. It’s not great having the one black guy in the main cast be the huge racist, saying he doesn’t see a difference between the “good ones” and the “bad ones.”

They sometimes seem like they’re trying to turn Jace into a good man unwittingly doing bad things, but he just isn’t. He sometimes furrows his brow in mild concern over the sinister and clearly immoral deeds of Dr. Campbell, but almost never raises a finger to stop them, and certainly enjoys the benefits of Campbell’s evil research. One time, after being shamed by his wife for letting his grief make him a monster and accessory to monstrous deeds, he agrees to trade down from cartoonish supervillainy to mere fascism, but that’s the episode that the Hellfire Club pulls some shenanigans and a whole bunch of his fellow agents end up dead, so it doesn’t take.

He’s a bad man who does exclusively bad things and pretends he’s somehow noble for doing it. Every time something bad happens to him and his, instead of seeing his side of things, I think “You had that coming, you jackbooted asshat.” And it is possible, it is utterly possible to take a character like this and make them sympathetic. I know this because Legion did it last year. In one cold-open montage, they took a clearly villainous character from the pilot and made us see his side of things, showed us how he’s the hero in his own story, to the point where he’s a regular this year and I’m thrilled about it. Sure, not every show can be Legion, but no show has an excuse not to try. Quality-wise, I mean. Not aesthetically. Probably shouldn’t try that.

*Some of the mutants have pretty heavy makeup, and one of them is black underneath it, but he’s not exactly a major character.

Pacing Problems, Always Pacing Problems: Every single plot point on this show takes longer than it needs to because we need to wade through a stream of “This is wrong” and “This is too dangerous, but what choice do we have” and “This is/isn’t what the X-Men would have wanted” and the ever-popular “I don’t want my kids mixed up in this.” There are 13 episodes in season one, and between them they have maybe eight episodes’ worth of plot. The rest is just constant hand-wringing.

Also the Struckers are not the show’s best characters, which is a problem, because they are the main characters. And it pains me to say that, because one of the Struckers is Amy Acker, and to reiterate Amy Acker is delightful. But the generic, cliche dialogue they feed her, and others… oy.

Actually, let’s add that to the list. There is some bland, clunky dialogue all over this show.

High Point

[Deep sigh] Let me think… “threat of eXtinction,” in which Reed discovers some dark family secrets, and some things about his kids’ powers, and he is not happy learning any of it. The Strucker family finally became as interesting as everyone else.

Low Point

I’ll say “eXtreme measures.” Eclipse has to repay a favour to the cartel he used to work for, while Reed and Kate Strucker [gasp] don’t approve of Lauren’s new boyfriend! Honestly, this episode could have been cut and nobody would have missed it. The only lasting thing it accomplishes is making Sentinel Services even more purely evil than they had already been, which just was not necessary.

MVP

Emma Dumont as Lorna Dane/Polaris. This show could have a great deal of potential if they shaved off a bunch of the side plots (I’m counting the main characters as a “side plot”) and focussed on Lorna, Eclipse, their unborn child, and their growing philosophical divide. They might never be Stewart/McKellan Xavier and Magneto, not even MacAvoy/Fassbender Xavier and Magneto, but they could be as close as network TV is likely to get.

Tips For Next Season

Ugh. That asshole evil scientist is going to become an evil cyborg, isn’t he. Damn it.

Okay. So. We have a schism in the Mutant Underground. Some want to follow in the X-Men’s “co-exist” footsteps, some want to join up with the Hellfire Club, go the Magneto route, and start punching back. That’s cool. That’s sensible. That’s a logical direction for the show to go. Classic X-Men stuff right there.

Couple things.

Their opponents were all way too willing to hunt down, lock up, and wipe out mutantkind. So the whole “don’t kill, try to not fight, just pursue peace” thing is already looking like the wrong call. When the Frosts killed a whole bunch of Sentinel Services officers, it was really hard to see why this was a bad idea. I felt about as bad for them as I did any Earth-X Nazis Green Arrow put down back in December. When you’re fighting Joseph Mengele and the SS, damn it, you hit back.

The whole X-Men vs. Brotherhood thing only really works if co-existence is somehow on the table, if humans are willing to accept mutants in their midst. In the wake of 7/15, that seems to be a pipe dream. There’s talk of pro-mutant movements, mutant-rights-friendly congressmen, and that Sentinel Services is on thin ice with the Department of Justice, but… kind of seems like Polaris’ choice in the finale has put an end to all of that. Seems like all the Hellfire Club has accomplished is cranking up the heat on the war between mutants and humans. So for the Underground, well, to quote a certain King of Men… “Open war is upon you, whether you would risk it or not.”

In short, you’re going to have to work much harder to make the Underground’s anti-violence stance make sense. If you don’t want us to side with the Hellfire club, then the Underground needs a plan.

Also, you’ve dropped a lot of hints about Polaris’ birth father. Say his name. Say “Magneto.” Say it, or drop it.

Overall Grade: C-

You’ve got the ingredients of a good show here. But a pile of sugar, flour, yeast, eggs, and vanilla dumped on the counter ain’t a cake just yet.

Next time in this feature: the CW breaks some habits with Black Lightning.

Photo: Fox

My dreams get weird. Like, notoriously so. Let’s discuss.

Happy V. Scary, Dawn of Insomnia

I hate happy dreams more than nightmares.

See, if I dream that zombies have overrun the city, or to use a more frequent, more adult sort of nightmare, that one of my best friends died in a car wreck, I can usually wake up pretty easily, confirm that it isn’t true, and shake it off. Said friend is alive, the city is not overrun with zombies, Tom Cruise did not play the lead on Doctor Who for a season (that was the other night), easy to shrug off.

The problem is– actually the Doctor Who thing fell apart mid-dream, so that didn’t even wake me up. It was just a little weird.

The problem is– because I couldn’t think of his regeneration, that’s why it fell apart.

The problem is– look, the moment when a Doctor regenerates, even a short-termer like Christopher Eccleston or Scientology’s own John the Baptist, it’s a huge moment. One of the most memorable moments of their run, their last big speech before the role gets turned over, and the most recent regeneration that came to mind involved Peter Capaldi’s glorious Series Ten mane of silver hair, so there was nothing to do but go back to rehearsing my Five Doctors stage play… but I digress.

The problem is that I wake up from happy dreams just as easily, and when your dream featured getting the girl, winning the lottery, being pals with your favourite celebrities, it can be very annoying when your brain jolts you awake at the exact moment you get everything you ever wanted, and tells you that all of that was a lie. It can put you in a mood, give you an emotional meltdown in the shower, throw off your entire day.

Although I did have to respect the effort my subconscious made into being a dick about it once.

The Cyclone

In the late 80s, I was particularly fond of the video game Bubble Bobble. So fond, in fact, that my mother became convinced for multiple years that every game I was playing was somehow Bubble Bobble. Or maybe it was just an easier to assume that than keep track of them all? I don’t know.

For my younger readers, there was a time in video game history when the newest games (fine, other than PC games) weren’t available at home right away. New video games were found in places called “arcades,” where you’d play them on large machines for the price of a quarter. Or two quarters. Or eventually a dollar. It never got higher than that, though, on account of home consoles rendering arcades largely obsolete before the two-dollar coin could take hold.

Anyway, Bubble Bobble was a fun game about two friends turned into cute dinosaurs who trapped monsters in bubbles and then burst the bubbles, turning them into delicious treats, all so they could save their abducted loves from the king monster, which like all classic 80s arcade games sounds like word salad when described out loud, but was fun enough to play you’d risk dumping an entire week’s allowance into the machine just to make the next level.

So of course I was restless for the day to come when I’d be able to just play it at home. It wasn’t a graphically complicated game, not like the Don Bluth cartoon with a joystick Dragon’s Lair, or the photo-realistic Mortal Kombat that would come later. Surely my Nintendo could handle this one, and I’d finally be able to make it to the end.

Knowing this, my subconscious decided to have a little game.

The part of the dream where we got an actual full-sized Bubble Bobble arcade machine (the dream, back when, because you owned the game and a status symbol) wasn’t the mean part, no. That’s normal stuff. You want a thing, so in your dream you have it. Standard. Boilerplate. Waking up the second I start to realize this is, in fact, too good to be true, also standard. But that’s where things got different. The realization hit… no, this wasn’t really happening, I was just dreaming, wasn’t I? And so I was going to lose all of this.

“And so you are!” cried out a voice. “So let’s take it away NOW!” And a cyclone descended, sucking away Bubble Bobble and everything else nearby, and as the landscape was reduced to a barren wasteland, I woke up.

“Huh,” I thought. “Well played.” I mean, sometimes you have to respect the artistry.

Musical Numbers

Sometimes people ask me why I haven’t written a musical. I explain it’s because I am utterly unable to write music and can only barely manage parody lyrics to a pre-existing song. My dreams have been a little more successful than me, in that twice they’ve managed to come up with songs that stayed stuck in my head for years.

The first time must have been… damn, ten and a half years ago. I hate you, time. The nineties were the previous decade and the 80s were relatively recent, that was the DEAL, but you kept crawling forward and–

Ahem.

So, we’d just finished a production of a play called Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead, an unauthorized look at the teen years of Charlie Brown and the Peanuts gang. The director (and more than one of the cast) were likely moving on to do Cabaret with a different company later in the season. I had a dream about that production shortly after the show, only in this version, the entire Dog Sees God cast was involved, and it was one of those “The play is happening in every room simultaneously, wander around” deals. Clearly the main room was the big draw, because almost nobody was outside watching Sam do her Kit-Kat-Girl number. That may also have been poor direction, because honestly, the big opening number was happening inside, nobody was going to miss that.

The big opening number was not, however, “Willkommen,” the actual opening number of Cabaret. It was a song my dream invented from whole cloth called “Geddamke Monsieurs,” which is a weird title, combining German and French words into one greeting okay this is going to take some explaining, isn’t it.

Yes, I know that “Geddamke” is not… [quickly checks Google] …is not an actual German word. This, like the tune, was an invention of the dream. “Geddamke” was a slang term, a Weimar Germany saying for men out on the town. A way of saying “Good luck, gentlemen,” or more crudely, “Go get ’em, boys,” that was exclusively used in situations where there were women to be courted.

A silly concept, this word. I think we can all agree that if there was a real German word for that, there’s no way it would be that short, it would be “Vielglücksindverliebtschwingschwing” or something like that, but it wouldn’t have fit with the tune.

I still remember that tune, by the by. A piece of it, anyway. Ten years later, I can still recall the actor playing Cliff belting it out, “I may not have been born with an awful lot, but I’m gonna use what I’ve got! Geddamke monsieurs!” Not the worst way to kick off a show.

The other tune was longer, yet somehow still simpler. I don’t remember the verses, but I do recall exactly what it was about. It was part of some sort of sorority girl luau musical extravaganza, on an outdoor stage surrounded by a pool. I feel like I wasn’t supposed to swim through the pool to find a better vantage point for the show, but that’s just another way my subconscious likes to mess with me. Put me in situations that agitate my anxieties surrounding breaches in protocol. Act out the voice in the back of my head that constantly asks “How bad would it be if you stuck your feet out on the stage and an actor tripped?” (Pretty bad)

Anyway, what’s stuck with me over the years is the chorus to this number. The ensemble was mostly off stage, leaving one female ventriloquist onstage with her dummy. She was doing a Harley Quinn bit, with the dummy playing the Joker role. This might have been somewhat inspired by a Cracked article I read about how the camgirl industry gets weird. The number was all about how the ventriloquist knew she’d never really be free of the Joker-dummy, even if it’s what she really wants. Their destinies are intertwined. They were, in the words of the chorus, “born together.”

“Born together, born together, baby we were born together…” This one still gets stuck in my head sometimes. Not hard to do, really, it’s a total of five words and about three notes. I suppose the impressive thing is that I’ve been able to remember not just the tune, but the tragic meaning of the song, like the secret meaning of an obscure German slang term. It would be enough to tempt me to try to write these snippets into actual musicals, if I had any idea how to do that. And, well… as I said… five words, maybe three notes. My subconscious might be a little better at songwriting than I am, but Lin-Manuel Miranda it ain’t.

Also, again… “Geddamke monsieurs?” I know the MC greets the crowd in three languages, but why is Cliff, an Englishman, using a German term if he’s talking to French people? If anyone was going to have a single word that means “Go get ’em” in reference to women, it’s the French.

The Nightmares

I haven’t had recurring nightmares since I was a kid, young enough to sleep in a double-decker bus bed. Yes, you heard, double-decker bus bed. Not a race car. My brother had a race car, but I had a super sweet bus. Taller, cooler, less mainstream. Absolutely me. As I was–

Fine, yes, I inherited the car bed when we changed rooms in 1987, but I only slept in it until… erm… 1995. And summers and Christmases when my brother was back from Ontario until 1999ish. Shut up. It was covered in nostalgia.

So. Recurring nightmares. Only three, really, and one wasn’t a recurring dream, per se, and the other two weren’t exactly frequent. I had those two nightmares on two occasions each. In one, I was at the zoo, where a giant Frankenstein monster emerged from a large barn and started chasing all of the kids. The dream was the same each time, from the barn, to knowing the creature was coming, to all of the kids running away in a group shaped like a tennis racket (we thought it would help, because… reasons?), to finding it patently unfair that of all of these kids, I was the one Giant Frank grabbed. This was a common occurrence with nightmares growing up: I often wouldn’t realize how scared I was until I woke up, face flushed and heart racing. So it was with candidate number two: the zombie Fraggles.

I’d dream that I was in my bed (the bus), only to have zombified Fraggles (or one, at least) start crawling up the side, lurching towards me. I’d swat them away easily enough, thinking that if I acted like the Hulk I could keep them at bay. Again, these two dreams were identical, right down to calling them “Fickle features” in my best Hulk voice (it wasn’t great, I was under ten years old). “Fickle features” rhymed with their actual name… something creatures. I felt “fickle features” would demoralize them. Of course it would not. You can’t demoralize zombies, Fraggle or otherwise. Nor does swatting them away stop them. Each time I did, it came back. Unstoppable. Undeterrable. Inevitable. Therein, after all, lies the horror of Romero zombies. Not these modern fast zombies.

Although while both nightmares freaked me out, they didn’t cling to me like the time I dreamed that the Count was sucked through a wall into an alternate universe because of sinister numbers. He had one number (a seven, maybe?) that he was quite pleased with, but a bunch of other numbers appeared that terrified him, a rupture opened in the wall, he was sucked through, boom, I’m haunted by the image of the Count clinging to a bannister for dear life for years. All because he was targeted by, I don’t know, evil Numberwang.

But the zombie Fraggles and giant Frankensteins and evil Count-abducting numbers were but rank amateurs. There was only one figure of absolute dread, one figure who could turn any dream into a nightmare. A dream would be perfectly normal, say, hanging out on the set of the Supergirl movie, when suddenly my face would flush, my heart would beat loudly, and I would know. He was here. He had found us. My own personal Freddy Krueger. A spectre of terror known as the Thing.

No, not the classic John Carpenter horror movie monster. That would make so much more sense. No, not Ben Grimm of the Fantastic Four. We’re talking about the Thing from Readalong.

In other words, a beaver puppet who spoke in growls from a daytime TV short program in which a talking boot helps pre-school kids learn the basics of reading. Don’t bother looking for him, he’s basically un-Googleable, but by the time I could ride a bike I learned he was not exactly a figure designed to inspire terror in said pre-school kids so much as a love of literacy. So, fine, not most logical night terror.

You are making fun of the nightmares of a six-year-old, you get that, right?

Speed Round

  • Back in the bus bed days, my dream went to a test pattern. A still frame of my bedroom door open a crack, elevator music, and an announcement that the dream will resume in just a few minutes.
  • In university, a dream involved my friend group being pulled into a pocket universe by shadows. While getting my bearings, I saw my friend Tim had taken a job as a driver for a local gang. There he was, the least gangster person I knew, sporting sunglasses, a gang-colour ascot, and a backwards cap, driving a car of gangsters around with a giant smile on his face. “Huh,” I thought, “Tim’s blending in okay.” Upon hearing this, real-world-Tim thought this was the coolest dream he’d ever heard of.
  • The biggest way my subconscious is a jerk is by creating a dream in which I have superpowers, then refusing to let them work. It takes a sheer force of will to make the characters in my dreams play along and accept that they are, in fact, being shot with lightning.
  • There was an episode of NYPD Blue where Detective Sipowicz is visited in a dream by his recently murdered son and someone claiming to be Jesus. The dream provided a choice between revenge and forgiveness… Sipowicz chose poorly. Since then, if a deceased loved one turns up in a dream, I do not waste it. Just in case. My childhood dog has gotten a lot of posthumous cuddles in dreams.

Comic book TV is everywhere these days, and it’s happening all year. So I’ll hand out awards and rankings in June, but in the meantime, we’ll be reviewing shows one by one as they wrap up.

This installment: the Arrowverse’s Island of Misfit Toys continues to be its best offering.

Short version: Take two parts Doctor Who, two parts A-Team, one part Flash, and a dash of Brooklyn 99, and you get the most fun superhero show on TV.

Premise

The Legends are former assassin and team leader Sara Lance (White Canary); inventor and size-changing superhero Ray Palmer (the Atom); Justice Society of America member and protector of Zambesi Village Amaya Jiwe (Vixen); genius physicist Martin Stein and mechanic Jefferson “Jax” Jackson, who combine to become the nuclear powered Firestorm; forensic historian and metallic metahuman Nate Heywood (Steel, on the few occasions they bother to give him a codename); and pyromaniac former thief Mick Rory (Heat Wave).

They’re a band of misfits, outsiders, and one covert war hero (that’d be Amaya) who’ve made a life on the time ship Waverider protecting all of history, ever since they wiped out the last group in charge of that. (In fairness, they did have it coming.) At the end of last season, the Legends managed to prevent the assembly of villains they called the Legion of Doom from re-writing all of reality, but in doing so employed big enough paradoxes that they shattered all of time, causing countless anachronisms: people, animals, and the occasional building displaced in history. As the third season opens, the Legends are still wrapping their heads around the damage they’ve caused, when team founder/former captain Rip Hunter pops up. Seems that in the few minutes since he left the team, he’s spent five years (time travel) building a new agency to protect time and fix all of these anachronisms: the Time Bureau. And they’re quite adamant that they no longer require the Legends’ help, especially Rip’s protege, Ava Sharpe.

Six months of unsatisfying civilian life later (mostly, Nate tries to stay in the crime-fighting game, but tends to get upstaged by Kid Flash), the Legends decide they disagree with this assessment and steal the Waverider back in order to repair the damage they’ve caused.

But it turns out there’s a greater danger behind the anachronisms. Amaya’s people once imprisoned a demon named Mallus inside of the timestream itself, and the anachronisms are loosening his cage. Mallus recruits a new legion of villains to cause further damage to history in order to free him: returning villain Damien Darhk, his now-grown and similarly magically powered daughter Nora Darhk, Amaya’s least noble grandchild Kuasa, and on special occasions (ie. when the budget allows for it), Gorilla Grodd.

The Legends must occasionally avoid, sometimes work with the Time Bureau to find a way to shut down Mallus and what they tragically never called the Darhk Legion before Mallus conquers all of time. Conquers? Destroys? You know what I’m sure they explained but I kinda forget. Evil demon, needs to be stopped, after that I get fuzzy.

Along the way they pick up a cynical, magic totem-bearing hacker from their future named Zari Tomaz, who’s based on a DC-adjacent character whose superhero name they can’t really use anymore, lose a couple of team members to the annual Arrowverse crossover, and eventually bring Kid Flash on board as the Flash writers found it hard to come up with reasons why any threat they wrote couldn’t be stopped by two full-time speedsters by the second commercial break.

Strengths

Having trouble deciding where to start. So many to choose from.

Fun With History: Legends of Tomorrow has stuck with the one thing that propelled them from the weakest Arrowverse show in their debut season (and this was the same year as Arrow’s least popular season, so ouch) to their best last year: embracing a spirit of zany, time-travel fun. There is very little brooding on the Waverider, just high-energy shenanigans as they blunder through history, hoping that they’re breaking things for the better. (They basically make that their motto.) And they also have even more fun with their historical guest stars.

Back in season one, what few historical figures appeared were just drop-ins. The child that Martin Stein risks history to save from illness turns out to be HG Wells, which means I guess Stein didn’t need to bother? A student in a science class Ray Palmer teaches in the 50s turns out to be Bill Gates’ father. That’s it. That’s literally the whole thing. There was no payoff. No point. In season two, they started actually having fun with their historical figures, and in season three, they doubled down on it. With historical figures scattered through time, they find all new hijinks to get into.

In season three, Julius Caesar tries to recruit a fraternity’s spring break toga party; PT Barnum gets his hands on a sabre-tooth tiger; Helen of Troy sparks a literal war between studios when she turns up in the Golden Age of Hollywood, accidentally damaging decades of technological advancement by stealing a breakout role from actress/inventor Hedy Lamarr; Napoleon Bonaparte must be prevented from getting his hands on a copy of Abba’s “Waterloo”; Viking explorer Leif Erikson decides against bailing on his new discovery North America when his sister embraces a time-displaced, fuzzy, blue, Tickle-Me-Elmo-esque doll named Beebo as their new god of war, I swear I am not making any of this up. Those are all real episodes* and it is glorious.

(*Fine, the Napoleon thing was a background gag they came up with as an excuse to put most of the cast is disco clothes for a week, but still.)

(This isn’t to say that it’s always fun and games. Legends gets sad too. They cut me a couple of times this season, cut me deep.)

#Avalance: The relationship between Sara Lance and rival-turned-ally Ava Sharpe was well developed, and Ava made a fun addition to the show. She won over the audience for a reason. Also I kind of love that if social media can be believed, actresses Caity Lotz (Sara) and Jes Macallan (Ava) are pals now, and ‘ship their characters as much as their fans do. Also nice to be watching a CW show where a romance plot doesn’t incite riots from a portion of the fanbase.

Keeping Up With the Darhks: Neal McDonough’s Damien Darhk was a delight back when he was trying to kill Green Arrow, but he’s flourished as a nemesis for the Legends. The faster-paced and goofier atmosphere of Legends fits his style of gleeful villainy better than the dour, grounded aesthetic of Arrow. The sheer joy he takes in villainy makes him too fun a villain to ever want to see defeated forever, and Courtney Ford brings the same level of campy fun to Nora Darhk that Neal does to Damien. Throw in John Noble as the voice of Mallus and it’s a stacked deck of evil. Also, and this is important, Damien celebrates being resurrected with both his powers from Arrow season four and his memories from Legends season two restored by having a fight scene choreographed to 90s jam “Return of the Mack,” and it makes sense in context of the episode. Not so much in this clip but here it is anyway.

But other than being delightful menaces played by top notch actors, the villains are also deeper characters than you’d expect. Damien is driven above all else by love for his daughter, compromising his commitment to the plan now and again, and making him more three-dimensional than he’s ever been. Nora is trying to raise an ancient demon and build a relationship with her father, who she hasn’t seen since he was killed when she was a kid. Kuasa, also back from the dead (apparently?) after the events of the Vixen animated series (which I should try to watch sometime), just wants to undo the destruction of her village… and keep her grandmother from continuing to hook up with that nerdy super-powered historian from the future, which could erase Kuasa’s existence. Mallus… Mallus is a literal demon whose unprisoned existence would be bad, I guess? Look, they can’t all be winners.

Zari and Ray: Zari is a fun addition. Actress Tala Ashe has a great dry wit that worked well for the character. She also played wonderfully off of Brandon Routh’s more upbeat Ray Palmer, who this season was tweaked into a perpetually cheerful, unbreakably positive Ray of sunshine (sorry) with a love of musicals and a faith in people that gets him into a little trouble here and there. Together they’re a fun double act, and this has been Brandon Routh’s most entertaining season as Ray Palmer… which is saying something.

Also Zari was rightly praised as a positive, non-stereotypical Muslim superhero, especially for the episode where she tries to explain to perpetual glutton Mick why she’s fasting until sundown. There isn’t another comic TV show with a hero who observes Ramadan.

New Friends: Matt Ryan’s back as John Constantine! Delightful. I wanted this for two years and now it’s happening. Also Kid Flash moving here from Flash is a decent fit.

Weaknesses

WHAT DID I SAY ABOUT WRITING OUT RIP HUNTER. WHAT DID I SPECIFICALLY ASK YOU TO STOP DOING.

Fine, I guess this season they used him similarly to Flynn Rider on The Librarians. He turned up at the beginning, the middle, and the end, and in between was off doing more big-picture stuff while the team chased anachronisms, but I don’t like the way they seemed to be weaning the show off of him. I don’t like it at all.

Okay, fine, sure, with Sara captaining the Waverider and his protege Ava Sharp gradually taking over the Time Bureau, there isn’t a clear need for Rip, so maybe it’s not such a bad thing to… no, no, you cannot make me approve of this.

Moving past that… I love the fun tone, I definitely do, but maaaayyyyybe it undercut the stakes a little? All of time and space was theoretically under threat from Mallus, but I just didn’t feel it, you know? Last season they showed us what a Legion of Doom victory would look like, with Mallus they asked us to take their word for it. (We needn’t discuss Vandal Savage from season one. Ever again.)

High Point

…Man, this one is not easy. Which to pick? “Here I Go Again,” where Zari gets stuck in a time loop? They earned name-dropping Groundhog Day on that one. “No Country For Old Dads,” in which Ray, Nora, and Damien have to team up against Younger Damien? Real-life spouses Brandon Routh and Courtney Ford had amazing comic chemistry and it began the road to possible redemption for both Darhks. “Guest Starring John Noble,” (yes that’s what it was called, yes this is real life, apparently) in which the Legends notice that Mallus happens to sound exactly like Denethor from Lord of the Rings, and recruit actor John Noble to con Nora? That’s a lot of highlights and I haven’t even mentioned Rip Hunter and Kid Flash going to 90s Japan for drunk karaoke.

Forget the goddamned “Snyder Cut,” give me an extended edition of that.

But ultimately it has to come down to one of two episodes. I don’t know for sure that they had Leonard “Captain Cold” Snart’s Earth-X doppelganger Leo “Citizen Cold” Snart stick around for two episodes post-“Crisis on Earth-X” to ease the pain of the crossover’s conclusion, but if they did, it worked, and since Wentworth Miller’s take on the various Snarts has always been one of the highlights of the Arrowverse, the season’s high point can only be one of those two.

(“Crisis on Earth-X” doesn’t count, that really played as its own four-hour event, not episodes of each individual series)

But which to pick? “Beebo the God of War” introduces the cuddly giggling toy Beebo that the fans embraced as their new god, has a great planning montage, and involves Leo providing grief counselling via puppet. That’s a tough line-up to beat. But “Daddy Darhkest” has Leo and John Constantine, and one of the better Ray and Zari team ups.

Tough call. But I’m going with “Beebo.” They were on that week.

Low Point

Also hard. They really brought their A-game this year. I guess… maybe… you know what, I’ll admit it, “Amazing Grace,” in which pre-fame Elvis Presley gains dominion over the dead, ran out of steam partway through. And the white male preacher from 1950s Tennessee being convinced that rock’n’roll music isn’t evil by a black man and a Muslim woman after one speech rang kinda false. That combo would have trouble getting through to white southern preachers now.

MVP

There are so many people doing such good work on this show, and everybody except maybe Kid Flash gets a great spotlight episode (Kid Flash comes closest in his recruitment episode, but drunk Rip Hunter overshadows him. Poor Wally. Always the sidekick), but the heart and soul of this show (plus all of the best fight scenes… save for the final duel against Mallus that cannot simply be described…) remains Caity Lotz as Sara Lance. Oh captain my captain, long may she reign.

Tips For Next Season

You know, Constantine was such a fun addition for his two episodes (and two cameos) that you should consider making him a regular– oh, that’s happening? Huh. Okay.

I’ll just have a Coke, then.

(Also there’s a couple of things in the finale I’d like you to walk back, if that’s okay, thanks much)

Overall Grade: A-

My only concern is that they might go a little too far with the wacky irreverence. Like how Happy Endings started overdoing the rapid banter just a smidge in their third season.

Also...

Also, you can’t kill two of my absolute favourite characters AND my favourite villain in the same season and get a full A, you just can’t, that’s the way it is. I hold that nonsense against Game of Thrones, and I’m holding it against you. That’s three of my original five absolute favourite characters gone, with only three new absolute favourites added. Yes that evens out to the same number, shut up.

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Next time in this feature… either I’ll finally get around to finishing The Gifted, or I won’t and it’ll be time to cover Black Lightning. Only a week left on that one. Maybe hop on Netflix and try it out.

Next time in general: my subconscious is a jerk.

Glancing over recent blog posts, it seems I’m overdue for something non-TV. And glancing outside at the winter that will not die, it is April, move along already… it’s easy to get into a travel kind of headspace. But since my next proper trip (excluding long weekends in Vancouver, which just sort of happen from time to time) won’t be for five to fourteen months, I thought I’d take you on a verbal tour of some of my favourite cities, and how they came to be so.

Let’s start with the April eighth, it is April eighth, stop snowing stop goddamn snowing and be spring sorry, sorry, I’m very sorry, I’ll try that again…

Let’s start with the grand poobah, my number one, the place I will go to die if given the option.

London

The first time I went to London I was fourteen. My dad was heading to Germany for a conference, and he decided to bring me along with him. Just me, not my brother. Maybe because my brother was on the verge of his third school trip to Europe, maybe because he knew I’d been having a rough go of it in junior high and thought a trip would be a nice break. Whichever the reason, the thing that most stuck with me about that trip was starting and ending it in London. Who wouldn’t love that city? They had way more lax rules about nipples in newspapers and there seemed to be a Pizza Hut on every block!

(I have since revised my opinion on Pizza Hut and the necessity of having multiple Pizza Huts within sight of each other, look, I was fourteen, did I mention that?)

We went to a museum on film and television called the Museum of the Moving Image. I loved it. I wanted to go back so bad, but I never managed it. Tried once in 1994, but didn’t get there in time. Weirdly, I don’t think we made it to a play that first trip. One of only two times I’ve been to that city and not seen a West End show.

Two out of three of my high school trips (my time came) also went through London. Sure it wasn’t the only place we went, but somehow it became the only place that my brain translated into “happiness.” When tough times came in the late nineties, I’d have dreams that I was back in London, and the realization hit me like a wave of pure joy, happiness so overwhelming that sometimes I couldn’t stand, collapsing into a gift shop filled with Big Ben slow globes and belt buckles. When times got tougher in the early 2000s, I decided to chase that feeling, and started putting money away for a return visit.

I did not collapse out of sheer joy when I stepped off the plane in 2003, but it was close. How can I explain what this city is to me? Sure, there’s the culture. The West End can go toe to toe with Broadway anytime. Sure there’s the history. Castles, apartment buildings older than my country, landmarks like crazy, the kind you only get in cities that trace their histories back centuries. And sure there are the museums, so many museums… even if the Museum of the Moving Image shut down right when I started saving to go back to it, their most famous museum has been described in places as “an active crime scene,” and the National Gallery won’t let the public see its most important painting, but damned if there isn’t a museum for any taste somewhere.

But it’s really just how I feel the second I step into Leicester Square, or stroll along the Thames, or walk Westminster Bridge, covered as it is in tourists taking photos, street performers, and nut vendors. I feel like I’m where I’m supposed to be. I feel like I’m home. It’s a feeling that has eased heartaches, brought peace of mind, and been bright enough to overcome occasionally spotty weather.

Let’s go there sometime, I can show you around.

New York

Look, you’ve heard songs and seen movies, so there’s not much I need to teach you about the charms of New York. But I had a good enough time there one day in 2016 that it almost single-handedly redeemed a summer that was coming to be shaped by failure, crumbling friendships, financial strain, and deep, deep blows to my own self-image that I lack time or interest to discuss here. Or elsewhere. But let’s talk about one good day.

As I had a landmark birthday that year, I was gifted a long weekend in New York, right when several friends were going to be there. Matt, you see, had long talked about doing a Brooklyn pizza tasting tour, wandering the pizzerias of a borough my two previous trips had largely neglected, save for Coney Island. It sounded like something I wanted in on. Also, I’d learned about a restaurant called Raclette that seemed custom-designed just for me.

Now, the pizza tour didn’t quite work. Turns out upper-tier pizza places don’t sell by the slice, and some of our companions lacked commitment to the journey. So we managed two thoroughly tasty pizzas before the gang decided to depart for Coney Island, where most rode the rides while Matt and I moved from bar to bar in search of beers.

“I suppose if nothing else, we can get a beer at Applebee’s,” Matt said.
“Wouldn’t be the first time I went to that Applebee’s for lack of a better option,” I replied.
“…You’ve been to that Applebee’s?”
“It’s the Applebee’s of Last Resort.”
(It didn’t come to that. My only regret is that we didn’t drink at the bar with the freak show attached that is clearly the inspiration for Harley Quinn’s Brooklyn hideout in her solo comic.)

But the next day, now… the next day was special.

There’s something extra fun about being in a different city with friends. What would normally be just another night at the pub or the rehearsal space is now an adventure. And so this day would be. I was to meet Matt and his wife Kate in Manhattan at Beer Authority, a bar near Times Square so overladen with craft beer options we could have drank there every night for hours and not gotten through them all. But first… first I had a mission. I was going to Raclette and getting myself the cheesiest lunch I could.

Have you ever seen a video online for a place that seemed so cool you needed to go there, but it’s in some other faraway city or country? Have you ever made the pilgrimage there all the same? I’ve managed that on a handful of occasions. The Doctor Who Experience in London and Cardiff. Dismaland. Mr Fogg’s Residence, a Victorian speakeasy in London. Each time it’s been a triumph, a good experience made great by the journey to reach it. So it was with Raclette. It wasn’t just a delicious lunch of gooey cheese goodness, it was an accomplishment of gooey cheese goodness. I saw it, I wanted it, I found it, I rule. So, off to a good start.

I met up with Matt for the first of many delicious beers, and we decided on our course for the day: a Hell’s Kitchen craft brew pub crawl. Beers we can’t get at home, pub experiences that only exist here in Manhattan. We looked up the best in the area, found five to try out, and each one provided a delicious beer I’d never even known existed.

Beer, watermelon, and puns. Triple threat right here.

But we managed to save the absolute best for last… Bar Bacon. Craft beers and artisanal bacons. Sure, by that point we were tipsy enough that anywhere had a decent chance of being a good time, but man, I’d have lived in that bar if it were an option. They even made a kale salad tasty.

Yes I had a kale salad at Bar Bacon, I couldn’t just eat cheese and bacon all day.

That’s the kind of trip that makes a city special forever, even if it only lasted three days.

(Should have used the bathroom before I left Bar Bacon. That was an uncomfortable subway ride back into Brooklyn.)

Las Vegas

Viva.

Look, if you want to cut loose, if you want to have good times with friends no other place can provide, if you want to see a Cirque du Soleil show with a stage that turns into a pool as if by magic, accept no substitutes.

I thought I had a story for this one but what it comes down to is that even though I had the most expensive hospital stay of my life there, I still had a good time on that trip.

Los Angeles

My best times in this city predate digital photos, and I don’t know if I could find and scan a photo that would sum this one up.

Until I was 18, LA was just that place where Disneyland was. We’d been twice, once when I was six and again when I was ten, the first stop on the long road to our seven months living in Australia. But in 1995, it became something else. A magical place.

One of the things I love about Comic Expo here at home is being at a place full of people with the same nerdy loves as me. The first place I got a taste of that experience was FOLCfest in 1995.

Okay. Let’s rip this bandaid off quick. I did not misspell “folkfest,” FOLC stood for “Fans of Lois and Clark,” an online community I’d been part of almost as long as I’d been using the internet, for fans of the TV show Lois and Clark: The New Adventures of Superman. Look, you know I like superhero TV, you know that even today in the golden age of geek TV I even watch the bad stuff… to entertain YOU… but back in the nineties we didn’t have networks devoting half of their lineup to superheroes or streaming services cranking out other, often more adult fare, good or bad… so we enjoyed what we had. Yes, that show had its flaws, but it was also fun a lot of the time. Although there is a reason the first superhero show I bought on DVD was Arr– wait, Birds of Prey? Aw, man, come on past me… I know it was cheap and all but that thing is still in shrink wrap…

Anyway, the FOLCs, the preeminent online fandom for the show, decided to do an IRL get-together (we didn’t use the phrase “IRL,” people still used complete sentences online back then) in Los Angeles, including a tour of the Warner Bros. lot where Lois and Clark filmed.

This was a magical weekend. Names I had only seen online became real people I could laugh with, party with, drink with… not, like, alcohol, because I was underage in the States and actually I didn’t start drinking for another four years, but I did have plenty of lemonade and whatnot. Between that and the size of the average American cheeseburger, I was constantly full.

We went to Disneyland, and I not only had the best time, I kept “It’s a Small World” from getting stuck in my head by humming the Star Wars Cantina Theme to myself (I had also recently re-embraced Star Wars in a big way). I took my first trip to Venice Beach, and yes, there were, in fact, Lois and Clark fans who looked pretty damn good in bikinis. On the way back to the hotel from one of our excursions, someone in the same car as me said “I suddenly feel like a milkshake,” that craving spread like wildfire through the car, and before you could say “They should never have killed off Lex Luthor at the end of season one,” we were pulling into a cool fifties diner for milkshakes and cheeseburgers.

And coolest of all, our tour of the WB lot ended in the Daily Planet set, where we were greeted by the Lois and Clark showrunners and K Callan, who played Martha Kent… and who was soon joined by Dean Cain, Teri Hatcher, and Justin Whalen (the second Jimmy Olsen, who was not immediately embraced, so it was ballsy for him to come chat with us), who didn’t just do a flyby, they stayed to chat and seemed legitimately thrilled to greet us. K even had dinner with us all at the hotel. My pictures didn’t turn out. Her head got clipped clean off. Annoying. But this was my first encounter with any sort of famous person, other than former Alberta Premier Peter Lougheed, who is at best “cameo on Corner Gas” famous.

There was no chance of me not going back the next summer, none at all. There had been an entire summer’s worth of fun, friends, and good times crammed into one incredible weekend that couldn’t even be ruined by getting incredibly ill the last morning, or my failure to capitalize on being one of the prettiest guys there (damn you Tad Takara, that crown could have been mine!). The buzz didn’t die for weeks.

The following summer, at FOLCfest 2, now that I was in charge of doing the entertainment for the last night, I did capitalize on being at worst the third prettiest guy there (damn you Rob from Vancouver), somehow learned how to flirt, and fell in love for the first real time, enhancing the magic of the city, of the FOLC community, of writing entertainments, of devoting myself to shows about Superman. …Is that why I watched Smallville for a decade? No, no… must have been the lack of other superhero shows… Anyway, sure that relationship didn’t end great, but to quote V For Vendetta, for five years I had roses and apologized to no one.

But that’s a whole other story. Suffice to say, LA is a magical city to me. I should really get back there one of these days. Has it really been 21 years? Goddamn. My memories of LA can get legally drunk in LA…

I wish I was still in touch with some of the FOLCs, but our time as a fandom so well known to the producers that we got shout-outs in the final season (I met the co-creator of Firefly, you guys) came and went a decade before Facebook, and we all lost touch. Even the ones in my city.

Goddamn tragic. Let’s talk about wombats to take the edge off.

Wagga Wagga

Not every quest works out. That doesn’t mean they weren’t worth doing.

In 2010, the entire Gibbins clan went south for three weeks in Australia, the country that had been my home for half of 1987, which I had never made it back to. The only rule for the trip was that, in week three, we all meet up in Brisbane so we could go to Lady Elliott Island together. In the end, I stuck with my parents for most of the time, ’cause it turns out I actually like them, I wanted to do 90% of what they were doing, and doing it all one day earlier or later just to be contrary seemed a weird choice. There was but one exception. Two days when I took off on my own. For I had a crazy quest to see to.

This crazy quest did not involve returning to either city I’d lived in. Darwin was too far away, and I spent three months in Canberra and I’m pretty much done with that.

Back in ’87, we bought two books of an Australian author’s true bush stories too weird for his fiction, The Killer Koala and Wombat’s Revenge. The title story of the second book was about the author being asked to go to a Chinese graveyard filled with wombats, in order to acquire a bull wombat for a friend’s zoo. Like most of the stories in these books, he ended up fearing for his life when an unexpectedly large male wombat shredded his net like tissue paper. The Chinese graveyard full of wombats was said to be on the highway between two towns called Tumut and Jindabyne, not far from metropolitan Wagga Wagga (I swear I am not making any of this up). So my course, crazy though it seemed, was clear.

Drive the highway from Tumut to Jindabyne, find that graveyard, and commune with the wombats.

I rented a car in Sydney, and off I went. Five hours to the city I had chosen as basecamp, a mid-level city called Wagga Wagga. Why there and not Tumut or Jindabyne? Two reasons. First, Wagga Wagga was on the highway to my ultimate driving destination, Adelaide, and Tumut and Jindabyne were not. Second, I really wanted to confirm that Wagga Wagga was a real place. That real people, and not a series of Fozzy Bear impersonators, lived and worked in a town called Wagga Wagga.

I didn’t make it too far past Tumut. Turns out when you have to pull over and search any patch of land that looks graveyardy from a distance, it slows your progress a little. I found great bounding mobs of kangaroos, roaming emus, and a spectacular sunset behind a mountain reflected in a lake. This last thing, while pretty, was the breaking point of the quest. I did not love my odds of being able to spot a graveyard from the highway in the dark. Also I was in the Australian wilderness and was beginning to have real concerns about spiders. And so I made the choice to return to Wagga (as the locals called it, making every address read out over the radio delightful) before I’d completely burned my daylight. That evening I headed out into what passed for downtown Wagga in search of dinner, settling for Australian Subway. I saw the crowds of young Aussies gathering in the streets, which made me nostalgic for being young and… seeing other groups of youths having fun I would opt not to try to join. Being chronically introverted is the worst sometimes.

Maybe I should have found something more adventurous to do. Found a bar, had some beers, seen if locals were up for chatting. I certainly have friends who’d have done that. Who’d have succeeded at that. Not I. I bought my sandwich, went back to my hotel room, hunted and killed the crickets that found their way in (this is Australia, trust nothing that walks or crawls), and discovered that the fourth season of Doctor Who that I’d been neglecting to watch for almost two years was actually really good.

So I guess Wagga is a place where cool things almost happened, but always seemed just out of reach. And as fun as seeing David Tennant live on stage, Hell’s Kitchen pub crawls, Disneyland, or drinking one dollar beers on the way to a burlesque show in a casinoare, can they ever compete with the adventures that might have been? Yes, by and large, they definitely can, but the glimpse of potential still gives Wagga Wagga a place in my heart. Enough of a place that when pondering doing a road trip from Melbourne to Brisbane, I give serious thought to stopping in Wagga again.

Also I did confirm that “Hungry Jack’s” is just Australian Burger King when I was there. One 23-year suspicion proved correct. Go me.

So those are places around the world that have a special meaning to me. Places I’d be thrilled to return to, any time I can. But here… here is home. Here is where I made the best friends I’ve ever had, where I built a theatre company that’s my greatest accomplishment, where my plays received their first productions. So be it ever so humble, there’s no place like Jesus Christ it’s going to go above zero for three days then start snowing again on Thursday? FUCKING HELL JUST BE SPRING ALREADY!

…How much could a trip to LA cost, really…