Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Join the Elite Guard!

CGI is a time-consuming process, so I appreciate it when little bits like this are done:

Monday, March 30, 2009

The Hard Life of Professor Martin Stein: Part One

My favorite comic book hero isn't Superman, or Batman, or Spider-Man, but a hero created for DC Comics in the 1970's named Firestorm. Firestorm was (comparatively, if not utterly) unique among the roster of superheros in that he wasn't just one person, but the fusion of two separate people. When the character was introduced, these two people were high school student Ron Raymond and Professor Martin Stein. Firestorm has been through a number of changes over the years, but until fairly recently, one or both of these men could be argued to have been a part of the Firestorm persona. When current character Jason Rusch took over the role of Firestorm a few years ago, and Ron Raymond was killed off, there was a tremendous outcry, which hasn't entirely died down to this day. This article isn't really about Raymond, though. It's about Stein, and how he's gone through some hardships that rival the difficulties of even Marvel's favorite whipping boy, Peter Parker.

When we first meet Professor Stein, we learn that he is the winner of a Nobel Prize, and he is attempting to prove to the world that nuclear power can be a safe source of energy by opening a completely automated and fail-safe nuclear power plant. We never get the chance to learn whether or not the plant truly is safe (even in the fictional universe of DC Comics), as the plant falls victim to multiple levels of sabotage, and is destroyed when a bomb placed by a violent anti-nuke activist goes off. One "happy" result of this explosion is the creation of Firestorm, as Stein and Raymond are fused into one being, but because Professor Stein was unconscious at the time of Firestorm's "birth," his persona is passive to Raymond's active control. This has the added side effect of causing Stein to be unable to remember his actions within Firestorm when Raymond allows the two of them to separate to their civilian identities and, frightened by these unexplained "blackouts," Stein develops a drinking problem.

Although the drinking problem is eventually confronted, and Stein quits this self-destructive behavior (and he eventually gains the ability to remember his experiences during his time as Firestorm), this is just the beginning of Stein's problems. The very action of becoming Firestorm is a constant source of difficulty--if Raymond summons the fusion when Stein is not physically present, Stein simply disappears from wherever he happens to be at the time, causing Stein to have to come up with many awkward explanations for his unexplained absences. This has the further effect of making it difficult for Stein to hold down a job, his "unreliability" being coupled with rumors arising out of the destruction of his nuclear power plant.

Stein's love life is a mess, too. One of his former students turns out be a psychotic with an unrequited crush on him, and she ultimately becomes one of Firestorm's first major enemies. Stein's ex-wife turns out to be a leader of "the 2000 Committee," a shadowy organization with the goal of overthrowing the US government by the year 2000 (this was back in the 1980's when the year 2000 was still a hard-to-imagine future...). There have been a few other attempts at romance, but even when they don't end tragically, they never seem to last very long.

All of this pales in comparison to the eventual discovery of a tumor growing inside Stein's brain. This tumor is deemed inoperable, and Stein is given less than a year to live.

But, as it happens, all this is only the beginning. I'll be back with more of the trials and tribulations of Professor Martin Stein next Monday.


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Friday, March 27, 2009

Weekly Transformers Feature: Prowl (Reissue)

Way back in 1984, when I was still in elementary school, Prowl may have been the very first Transformer our family ever picked up (I can't really recall if we got Prowl or Bumblebee first). My brother still has that Prowl, but the toy's definitely seen better days, and I still recall with horror the time when the family babysitter accidentally snapped the roof right off of Prowl in front of our eyes. A traumatic experience for any Transformers fan (and, from what I can tell, one similarly shared by most fans who owned either Prowl or Bluestreak...).

That old Prowl looks pretty depressed now. Other parts have long-since been broken off, and the whole thing barely holds together any more. Here are other pictures, where you can see both modes from various angles. Needless to say, although that Prowl is a toy both my brother and I remember fondly, and wouldn't dream of selling (as if we could get any money for that wreck!), we both have since gotten specimens that aren't in such sad shape. My brother's is another G1 original, but I snatched up the reissue when it came out a few years ago.

Although my reissue Prowl certainly looks more confident and powerful, a quick glance will tell the astute observer that this is indeed a reissue, and not only that, but that this is the Hasbro reissue, and not the Takara version. The big giveaway is the fact that the rifle and missiles are black, rather than chromed plastic. Apparently, because of the size of the missiles and rifle, Hasbro opted to go with a more flexible plastic this time around, so as to minimize the potential for child injury. Unfortunately, this flexible type of plastic doesn't adhere to chrome, and so the weapons are left colorless.

Prowl has become rather iconic as transforming into a police car, even though it was by no means common for the Datsun Fairlady Z to be used as a police car in America (Fairlady Z's were apparently used as police cars in Japan, though). This has led to quite a few other police car Transformers over the years being called "Prowl."

The name "Prowl" hasn't been limited to police car Transformers, though, and has been used on quite a number of unrelated (and at least one questionably related) characters, arguably being one of the most "misused" names in the entire Transformers franchise. However, this is the price of maintaining trademarks. If a toy company doesn't keep a name in use, they risk losing the rights to use that name. This problem is even more likely to be an issue if the name is a common word, such as "Prowl." By using the name "Prowl" on lots of different toys, they ensure that reissues like this one can still be called "Prowl," rather than something else entirely. Most fans have come to accept this as a fact of life.

Wednesday, March 25, 2009

Engaging Players & the 2009 Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions

Unlike last year, I didn't get to see the Jeopardy! Tournament of Champions live this year, and so I had to see what happened on TV like everyone else. I have to admit, I was actually disappointed in the outcome, having become something of a Larissa Kelly fan over the past few months. That's nothing against winner Dan Pawson, who truly deserved his victory by getting that last Final Jeopardy! response correct (and who, I thought, was most gracious in winning). I just found Kelly a more engaging contestant. Perhaps that's why she has her own Wikipedia entry, despite a fairly contentious discussion a few months ago debating whether or not she was considered "notable" enough for the online encyclopedia (the final verdict was, "Yes, she is, by virtue of being the all-time highest winning female contestant in non-tournament play, and the third all-time highest non-tournament winner overall.").

As I understand it, the producers of Jeopardy! had a concern when they changed the rules a few years back so that winners could stay on the show, so long as they kept on winning. The concern was that a particularly brilliant, but particularly boring, player could stay on the show for too long, and viewers would lose interest. Indeed, many shows choose their contestants specifically based on their personalities. That is to say, "boring" players are weeded out, without regard to how well they might actually play the game. The nature of Jeopardy! means that such "personality-based selection" is at least secondary to demonstrated ability to answer trivia questions (which, in the case of Jeopardy!, is mostly done online these days). Even so, I can understand the potential for concern. Not all players are equally likable, and although I don't think a potential contestant should be denied the chance to prove themselves on such a basis, I certainly concede that Jeopardy! (and any television show) simply must retain viewers if they are to survive. If the show goes off the air, then nobody will have the chance to play!

I don't know how much "likability" plays into Jeopardy! contestant selection. Perhaps it doesn't matter at all. I certainly wouldn't want to argue that it should take higher priority over the online exam. Still, I'm always glad when a Larissa Kelly or a Ken Jennings comes along: a person who can win big, while still being a fun person to watch. May we see more in the upcoming season!

Friday, March 20, 2009

Weekly Transformers Feature: Machine Wars Hoist

Machine Wars Hoist ArtAfter the Beast Wars line injected new life in the Transformers franchise, Kenner (the subsidiary of Hasbro charged with selling Transformers at the time) found themselves with a few unused small vehicle-type molds, created for Generation Two, and presumably wanted to find a way to make some money off of them. Using each of those molds two times apiece, and bringing over a few molds that were previously used only in the European market, Kenner arranged for a line of vehicle-mold toys to be sold exclusively through KB Toys (*sigh*) in 1997. This was the Machine Wars line.

Machine Wars Hoist Vehicle ModeHoist's Tech Specs bio suggests that he's intended to be the same character as the Generation One version, and the vehicle mode, being another kind of tow truck, would seem to be consistent with this. It's certainly a far more organic match than Hubcap, which is the other Machine Wars toy to share this mold, although to be fair, the Tech Specs bio on Machine Wars Hubcap does not seem to indicate that he's the same entity as Generation One Hubcap. Pretty much all the two Hubcaps have in common is a yellow color scheme.

Machine Wars Hoist Robot ModeTransformation for all of the small Machine Wars robots is essentially the same. Flip the front end down (with the aid of a lever in back, in the case of Hoist), and the toy essentially unfolds into robot mode on its own (although not quite as dramatically as toys such as G2 Roadblock). Pretty much all of the smaller Beast Wars toys of this era transformed in this way as well, and fans have taken to calling toys of this transformation style "flipchangers." In the case of Hoist, there's technically one more step: remove the grille from the front of the vehicle, which can then become the robot's weapon. Honestly, though, I often ignore this step. The robot transforms just fine if you leave the grille in place, and I don't always want Hoist to be holding a weapon. On the other hand, I do appreciate this trend, which could be argued to have started with these very designs, (although the Beast Wars toys were actually released first), of incorporating all of the parts (weapons and all) into both modes in some way, so that there are no parts left over. It certainly makes keeping track of everything easier!

One further note should be made about the Machine Wars character art, especially since I've started including such art in these features. Most of the Machine Wars art wasn't created for these toys at all, but in fact reused art for completely unrelated toys, retouched just enough to kinda-sorta resemble the new toy. In some cases, such as with Machine Wars Mirage, the result is pretty laughable (the face, for example, isn't remotely right), but Hoist didn't fare so badly. In fact, Hoist seems to be the only one in the entire Machine Wars line (well, Hoist and Hubcap, I guess, since the art's just recolored, too) who got art specially made for the toy actually in the package!

Wednesday, March 18, 2009

BotCon 2009 Option: In-N-Out in Alhambra, CA

When I was compiling the BotCon 2009 Survival Guide, I was specifically looking to focus on places that one could get to within walking distance of the Pasadena Convention Center, giving places that one would need a car to get to lower priority. Naturally, some other fans who have experience in this part of the country had their own ideas of what places people need to know about, and some of those are in the comments section of the original post.

When I provided links to the Guide on some of the main Transformers message boards, a discussion on the TFW2005 Boards immediately mentioned In-N-Out. I didn't include In-N-Out on the list originally because there really isn't one within walking distance of the convention center, and the one in Pasadena itself is pretty much just a drive-thru (Indeed, most older In-N-Out's are drive-thrus, as the name perhaps implies). However, the one in Alhambra is a fairly easy drive south, and could well be worth the trip if inexpensive but high-quality fast food is your thing. Just take Los Robles straight down until you enter Alhambra by crossing Huntington, and you'll see the In-N-Out just on the left. Turn left onto Huntington, and turn an immediate right into the side-street. Take another immediate right into the parking lot shared by In-N-Out and Twohey's, and you're all set.

The highest-priced item on In-N-Out's menu (the "non-secret" one, at any rate... more on that in a moment) is the "Double-Double," which is less than $3. I really don't know any other fast-food restaurants in the area that even have a sandwich for sale in the $2-3 range. Basically, you have your $1 or similarly-priced "value" items, and everything else is above $3. Sometimes well above $3! As it's name implies, the "Double-Double" is two beef patties with two slices of cheese (and other traditional hamburger toppings). If you're not quite so hungry, you can go for either the regular hamburger or the cheeseburger, and pay even less. Fries and drinks are also reasonably priced, so you can easily get a full meal for less than $6. Since everything's made to order, you may have to wait a bit to get your food, but it's totally worth it, especially if you are at a restaurant like the one in Alhambra that offers actual indoor seating.

One aspect of In-N-Out that not everyone knows about is the fact that the chain puts scripture references on most of the paper packaging. This is done fairly innocuously, and I've never heard a complaint from my non-believing friends. It's a nice testimony to the faith of the founders (members of the family still run the company) that doesn't bash one over the head.

A practice I'm a little less enthusiastic about--but which many other people find enjoyable--is the "secret menu." I tend to prefer to see what I can order and, probably more importantly, exactly how much I'll have to pay clearly listed in front of me when I ask for my food. If I had my way, I'd even have all restaurants list their after-tax prices, instead of making me do the math to know how much I'm going to have to pay, but I see little chance of making that happen. On the other hand, the nice thing about In-N-Out's "secret menu" is that you can be pretty sure you'll be able to get the "secret" item at any In-N-Out you go to, provided you know it's there to begin with. A partial list of "secret" items can be found here (sorry, I don't know how much these cost!). One of my former supervisors, who happened to be a vegetarian, ordered the "Grilled Cheese" quite a bit. Perhaps that might appeal to those of you who, reading this but not intending to wait until BotCon to go give In-N-Out a try, aren't eating meat during Lent (or on Fridays). Of course, In-N-Out might get a few more of those Lenten observers if the item wasn't a "secret"!

Friday, March 13, 2009

Weekly Transformers Feature: Generation Two Roadblock

Roadblock character artFrom time to time, Hasbro and/or Takara have experimented with Transformers that have some kind of auto-transforming feature. Although it can be a fun and interesting gimmick, it often leads to robot and/or vehicle modes that are fairly simplistic. This was definitely the case with the Jumpstarters and the Battlechargers in Generation One (the latter of which had no posable limbs whatsoever!).

G2 Roadblock Vehicle ModeFor Generation Two, Hasbro's attempts at auto-transforming Transformers were the Auto Rollers (who, perhaps ironically, were actually Decepticons). Roadblock was one of two Auto Rollers that were actually sold at retail, the other being Dirtbag. There were other Auto Rollers planned and advertised, but these were never mass produced. Both Roadblock and Dirtbag were construction vehicles in what has since been colloquially called "Constructicon Green." However, they are not Constructicons, but all new characters (there was a Generation One Roadblock, but the Tech Specs for the two Roadblocks share little in common, indicating unrelated characters. This kind of thing would become much more common as the years moved on).

G2 Roadblock Activation SwitchUnlike the Jumpstarters and Battlechargers, which both featured pull-back motors and auto-transformed as they raced across the floor, the Auto Rollers featured a switch in back. When the switch is to the left, as seen here, the vehicle will roll freely along the floor. When the switch is moved to the right, pushing the vehicle forward will activate the auto-transform into robot mode. Pulling the robot mode backwards with the switch to the right auto-transforms the toy back into vehicle mode (assuming the arms are put in the proper position first, at least). This makes the Auto Roller gimmick the first auto-transform gimmick that works in both directions, since previous such gimmicks only auto-transformed into robot mode. You still had to return the toy to vehicle mode manually.

G2 Roadblock Robot ModeRoadblock's robot mode, frankly, isn't particularly impressive, but I've always been biased against Transformers with no discernible hands. The buzzsaw on Roadblock's left wrist does spin when a lever's pushed, and the missile in Roadblock's right arm will fire when a button is pressed, but I'd much rather the toy had actual hands! Ah, well. I guess one can't have everything. The arms still provide better articulation than the Battlechargers ever had, even if the legs remain eternally fused-together.

G2 Roadblock Pop-Ups CardThe Auto Rollers were notable for one other "extra." For a brief time, Hasbro experimented with "pop-up" bio cards, and Roadblock was one of the very first toys to be packaged with one. The feature was pretty short-lived, though. Only five toys: the two Auto Rollers, two Laser Cycle toys, and Laser Optimus Prime, were actually sold with these cards.

Monday, March 9, 2009

Offbeat Transformers Collectibles: Tooth Tunes

While shopping at the 99 Cent Store this weekend, I came upon this Transformers-themed toothbrush. Although it's a bit of an offbeat item, I decided that, for only about a dollar, it was worth adding to the collection. The Tooth Tunes line of toothbrushes are designed to encourage kids to brush their teeth for the full two minutes suggested by dentists. The idea is that the brush will play music of some kind that (theoretically) can only be heard while the child is brushing. After two minutes of continuous brushing has elapsed, the music will end.

Tooth Tunes, like Transformers themselves, are marketed by Hasbro, so the fact that Hasbro took advantage of owning the Transformers property to engage in some additional cross-promotion isn't really a surprise.

Despite being battery operated, this isn't an electric toothbrush in the usual sense. Basically, it's just a manual toothbrush that plays music if you use it right. Although the Generation One Optimus Prime on the package, the theme that is played on this brush is the theme to the Cybertron cartoon. There are some Optimus Prime phrases intermixed within the theme tune, and although when I used the brush, I could barely hear them enough to be sure, I'm guessing these were from the Cybertron cartoon, as well, as opposed to Peter Cullen (the voice of Generation One Prime).

My experience with the brush is no doubt colored by the fact that I picked up the brush at the 99 Cents Store, which means that some other store hadn't been able to sell it for a while. In principle, you're supposed to hear the theme playing for two minutes while brushing, but it seemed to me that the theme was restarting at random intervals, and I got bored long before the two minutes would have passed. I think the batteries may have run down while the brush sat on the shelves for so many months. Since the batteries aren't replaceable, I couldn't put in fresh batteries to see if there was any discernible difference.

Assuming that my inability to get the music to play properly the whole way through isn't the common experience of kids everywhere, my main gripe with this product is that it doesn't have a replaceable head. As an adult, I'm sure I care about this kind of thing more than a child would. I expect that a child would probably have long since gotten bored with brushing his/her teeth to the Transformers theme by the time the brush head has worn out, and so making the head replaceable would serve no purpose. Much better to encourage the kid to buy another of the many Tooth Tunes products out there. The fact that the batteries that come with the brush aren't replaceable would also seem to support this assumption.

But I doubt that I'll be using this brush on my teeth again, anyway, as I have a much better electric toothbrush that's not designed for people a quarter of my age. Basically, it will just be an unusual addition to the collection.

Friday, March 6, 2009

Weekly Transformers Feature: Hoist (Reissue)

Hoist art from the DW More Than Meets The Eye seriesSometimes I have these Friday features planned weeks and weeks in advance. Other times, I post something that I only thought about right before the post itself appears. This week is one of the latter. You can blame Jim Sorenson, who posted a review of Marvel issue #14 yesterday. Featured prominently on the cover is Hoist, who was among a number of Autobot characters introduced in that issue. I used to really like Hoist, although I have to confess that my toy has been sitting untouched on my shelf for the longest time. I figured this was an excuse to pull the figure down and clean it up.

Hoist Robot ModeHoist is perhaps unusual among moderately-well-known characters in that, although he is almost always depicted as having only one humanoid fist, his toy is perfectly capable of having two, as the fists and missiles are all interchangeable. This perhaps explains why the artists can't seem to decide whether Hoist is left-handed or right-handed. The art above shows a right-handed Hoist. I prefer a left-handed orientation, as in Hoist's original Marvel #14 appearance. Perhaps the fact that I, myself, am a southpaw makes me a bit biased, but I'm not alone. I've found more instances of a left-handed Hoist on the TFWiki than right-handed versions.

Hoist Vehicle ModeHoist's toy is a remold of the Trailbreaker toy, featuring a different head and with towing gear on the back of the truck replacing Trailbreaker's camper shell. Although the original Hoist was available in 1985, I have the 2003 Toys R Us Exclusive reissue. Like nearly all such TRU G1 reissues of that time, Hoist was priced considerably higher than many people were willing to pay, and thus the reissue became something of a shelfwarmer. Even after TRU slashed prices to single-digit levels, boxes remained unpurchased for quite some time. Good news for me insofar as it meant I could pick up Hoist fairly cheaply, but really bad news in terms of getting other reissues in the future. I blame the costs of die-cast metal.

Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Robot Heroes Packaging Variant

My apologies for the low resolution picture, but my cell phone was all I had with me when I was at the toy store recently. I don't normally make it a point to chronicle packaging variations, but this one was significant enough to catch my eye. Both of these packages displayed here are of the Cheetor/Blackarachnia Robot Heroes 2-pack. If you look in the upper-right-hand corner, you'll notice the difference between the two packages. The one on the left has both Autobot and Decepticon faction symbols side-by-side, while the one of the right has only an oversized Autobot faction symbol. Does anyone know why this change was made? It seems rather arbitrary to me.
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