I’ve been a FoxTrot fan since mid-to-late 1989, when my Calvin & Hobbes calendar was nearing the end of its useful days and I tapped FoxTrot‘s “Slug-Man: The Calendar” as its successor.
I don’t think our local paper actually ran FoxTrot at the time – in fact, the calendar may have been my introduction to the strip. That creator Bill Amend not only invented a character (10-year-old Jason Fox) geeky enough to create his own comic book hero, but also turned out a series of illustrations and story panels as done by that character just struck me as incredibly original and fun. And since Jason was a Star Wars fan and a computer nerd and a role-playing game enthusiast, it was easy for me to get hooked.
Back in February, this Avatar-inspired strip sparked a goofy sort of thought in my head about how lucky Jason Fox has been, since he’s gotten to remain a young fan over all these years, and he was as excited about Avatar as he was about the Super Nintendo and the Lord of the Rings movies. And then I started thinking about how I’d love to talk to Bill about the geeky aspects of the comic strip, especially since at the time, all the PAX East news was just coming out, and he was going to be there.
So I sent him an email, and he said yes, and though it took awhile to come together, what with the insanity of planning his panel and traveling to and from PAX, and then the launch of the latest FoxTrot book and all, it finally did happen, and the whole interview is up at GeekDad.
I’ve been awfully excited about this ever since Bill’s initial response, but didn’t want to jinx anything by mentioning it. And the guy was so friendly in both his emails and in person at PAX – I mean, he signed my friend Paul’s D&D rulebook with a drawing of Jason as a DM! – and gave some really fun and thoughtful answers for the interview that it was absolutely worth the wait while this thing unfolded, so it would be very cool of you to go read and and share it.
And as an aside, it’s not very often that as a fan, you have a chance to personally thank someone for the joy their work has brought you, so I’m grateful to Bill for both the two-plus decades of FoxTrot (which my daughter has also come to love) and for making that chance to say “thanks” not only possible, but truly enjoyable.
Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks landed on my “I-should-check-this-out” list when fellow GeekDad writer Michael Harrison reviewed it last year. I never got around to it, though – not even after a subsequent GeekDad interview in January brought it back into the “Oh Yeah, I Really Meant to Read That” zone.
Of course, I forgot all about it again until Friday night at PAX East, when Fantasy Freaks author Ethan Gilsdorf joined the GeekDad panelists to hang out for a couple hours. I enjoyed talking with him so much that I ordered a copy as soon as I got back from the convention. It arrived Thursday, April 1, and for the next two days was my “Two free minutes? Gotta read!” go-to book.
I have mentioned before that while I had a huge interest in Dungeons & Dragons and other role-playing games when I was in middle and high school, I never managed to find enough like-minded kids to support a gaming group. Still, I’ve always liked reading RPG reference books and gaming modules and playing with polyhedral dice, even without the Experience Points to back me up.
So as soon as I saw the graph-paper dungeon on the end-papers and Ethan’s hand-drawn fantasy map opposite the Table of Contents, I knew I was in for a good read.
And I loved this book. Part of it’s a generational thing, I’m sure. Ethan’s got a few (not many) years on me, but the cultural backdrop of his childhood – the last years of the Cold War, worries of nuclear war and the Evil Empire, the mind-blowing release of Star Wars – is a familiar one. Even though the book as a whole isn’t a coming-of-age recollection, making that connection at the beginning put me in the right frame of mind for the quest which follows. (For me, this was a bonus, but I want to note that it’s definitely not a book geared solely to the children of the 1980s, so don’t let my nostalgia for that era oversell that angle.)
What you get in Fantasy Freaks is a great story about, well, just what the subtitle says: “An Epic Quest for Reality Among Role Players, Online Gamers, and Other Dwellers of Imaginary Realms.” And it’s not a dry sort of academic journey: Ethan’s in full-on geek mode (albeit sometimes reluctantly) as he revisits the books and games and culture that shaped his teenage years and gets back into their modern counterparts. Then he checks out previously-unexplored aspects like Live Action Role-Playing, convention attendance, World of Warcraft and the real-life tourist draws of New Zealand in the wake of The Lord of the Rings.
Ethan tells the story well, both as a geek and as a journalist, letting his fandom drive the journey without dominating it, and connecting with the real-world characters he meets along the way while never fearing to ask tough questions of himself, too.
There’s a lot of cultural crossover in geekdom anymore, with comics and science fiction and fantasy and gaming all appealing to a pretty broad group of people, and I think maybe that’s why someone like me, who’s never even played a true game of D&D, can still get so much enjoyment out of a book like this.
A couple weeks back, I started reading the D&D Fourth Edition rules at the invitation of some friends who run a semi-regular game and tell me it’s casual enough that I’m welcome to join in for a session and see how it goes. And when we were at PAX, I will admit that I looked maybe a little too long at some of the dice tables…
Every so often, whether it was while visiting the Aladdin’s Castle arcade at Belden Village, or the Goodtime Pizza place next to Children’s Palace, or even among the two or three periodically-changed video games inthe youth lobby at the YMCA, I’d see something magical on an unattended screen.
A quick look around – just in case someone had put a quarter in and then taken a few steps away to grab their jacket or a Coke or something – and if nobody seemed to be Next In Line, well, then FREE GAME ON!
And it didn’t matter what the game was: If it was free, I gave it a shot, even if it was something I never played or that I sucked at. A free game was a quarter saved, and a few extra minutes of video gaming I couldn’t have bought for myself.
It was its own particular sort of thrill – different, somehow, from finding a quarter or a token, which gave you a free game of your choice, sure, but you still had to turn around and spend that coin.
Twice in the past two weeks, I’ve been reminded of that eye-widening moment of fun: Free game!
The first was at PAX East, in the American Classic Arcade Museum‘s room. I took a quick look into the place on day one, but didn’t get to go back and play until Saturday afternoon when Paul & Wendy and I went up there to spend some time. When we asked one of the staffers just inside the door “Quarters or tokens?” he grinned.
“None. They’re all on free play.”
I froze and looked around. Dragon’s Lair jumped out at me. Ms. Pac Man. Holy crud – a Flash pinball machine. We beelined for the first machine we saw open: a sit-down Buck Rogers: Planet of Doom.
I jumped in, and my blocky little fighter was screaming through space, and then over a dizzyingly-green-striped featureless landscape, where I had to swing back and forth between pylons that looked straight out of a 1950s sci-fi B picture. I don’t remember the game sucking this bad, I thought, but who freaking cares – FREE GAME!!
We hit Atari’s Food Fight next, and then Paul and I teamed up for a go at Joust 2. (Joust was a game I was never really good at but loved like hell to play.) We’re in there mashing buttons, swearing good-naturedly half under our breath – incidentally, my quip of choice when I’ve knocked off a video game enemy, flying bird or otherwise, comes from Die Hard: “Eat it, Harvey!” I find it underappreciated. – there’s eighties music playing, the room is bathed in that dim red-orange glow and the swirled reflected light of the screens.
Wendy took this shot of us playing, and while I could have adjusted the color levels and brightness, this really kind of captures a feel I like, of remembering hours spent in this kind of place, watching over someone’s shoulder, waiting my turn to play.
Then, last weekend, we went down to my mom’s house for an Easter dinner.
A couple years back, my mom inherited a house and a couple actual arcade games therein. The Baby Pac-Man machine has worked since day one, and while we’ve gotten a lot of use out of it, I was always much more hyped about the Black Knight pinball machine.
The first time I remember being really excited about a new pinball machine was when the YMCA in North Canton brought in a Williams’ Flash like the one I just saw at PAX. I remember two things about this game that made it supercool: One, it had all these really bizarre sound effects, not just the bells and buzzers and clatters of a typical pinball machine. (According to the Internet Pinball Machine Database, Flash “was the first game from any manufacturer to have a dynamic background sound during gameplay. It is also the first game from any manufacturer to use Flash Lamps, which provide a temporary burst of flashing light intended primarily for the sake of its visual effect…” So yeah – awesome.)
I also remember that it had a third flipper, way up on the right side of the playing field, which I’d never seen in a pinball game before, and that was cool, too. I remember racing from the locker room after swim lessons hoping to get in a game or two – or even just watch some older kid who was, you know, good – before mom or dad would come pick me up.
And then along came Black Knight. Honestly, I can’t remember where I saw it first – I think it may have been on a family vacation to Florida with my friend Jacob along, but I’m not sure.
This thing was so unlike any pinball game we’d ever seen. It had two levels, with a pair of flippers on each, and tunnels and ramps and these magnets beneath the playing field which I never quite figured out how to use and a thing called “multi-ball” where you could actually have three balls in play at the same time, and did I mention that IT TALKED?!? I mean, it really just blew my whole concept of “pinball machines” out of the water.
And it was gorgeous, all black and red and gold and kind of Dungeons-and-Dragons-esque, and lined up next to other more garish and bright machines, Black Knight just looked like a badass.
Of course, it also cost fifty cents, twice as much as a regular game. And you only got three balls instead of the usual five which I seem to think was the standard at the time. And it seemed really, really hard.
But man was it fun.
Pinball machines got more complex, of course, but I’ve never felt like anything made the quantum leap like this one did, and over the years, no matter where I found an arcade, if this machine was in it, at least two (or three) of my quarters were destined for the Black Knight’s coffers.
So mom’s had this thing in the basement for awhile now,and though I’ve tried to help her with finding a suitable repair technician and all, it’s spent the entire time dormant and silent.
Not anymore. Mom found a guy who did a check, popped in a fuse, and -
THE. BLACK. KNIGHT. WILL. SLAY. YOU. HAHAHAHA!!!
The synthesized speech and the sound effects poured into my ears, struck those chords of memory, and it was on.
Kelsey and my brother and I took turns, re-learned the mechanics of the game, how to get the multi-ball, what targets and lights to watch for, and even how to activate the Magna-Saves which had mystified me as a kid.
It was simply fantastic.
In February 2006, I was staying with my friends Ivan and Alexa while on assignment to cover Toy Fair in New York. The Saturday night before the show’s opening day, while a snowstorm dumped a couple feet on the whole region, Ivan showed me to the spare bedroom and also pointed out a stack of books he figured I might like. They were the first three volumes of Player vs. Player, and reading page after page after page of 1980s pop-culture references and nerd jokes and geek-tuned humor, I was totally hooked.
So it was very cool meeting PvP creator Scott Kurtz at PAX East on Saturday morning, pretty much just a few minutes after getting Wil Wheaton’s autograph. Scott drew a picture of Scratch Fury: Destroyer of Worlds on the title page of the PvP collection I bought from his table, and when I mentioned that my wife and I happen to share a wedding anniversary with Brent Sienna and Jade Fontaine, he actually knuckled up for a fist bump. (Yes, I know May 4 is also the birthday of PvP itself, and that’s why he made it their wedding day. It’s still cool, like having 1138 as a street address would be.)
And right next to him was Bill Amend of FoxTrot, who helped me complete an awfully neat trifecta that morning, signing both a really worn-out book I brought along, and a print of his own Penny Arcade/FoxTrot mashup.
Both of these guys were very generous with their time and I really enjoyed meeting them and getting the chance to tell them in person how much I like their work.
Paul & Wendy and I had spent this whole morning together, and while they were at Paul and Storm‘s table talking about the upcoming concert that night, I saw a T-shirt I wanted, despite having only a little familiarity with the duo’s musical stylings. It just says “cheese” in sign language, semaphor, and French. Nothing else. And I do like me some cheese. And the shirt was on super-sale, so, Bonus.
After a lunch in the food court, Paul & Wendy and I took a stroll through the Expo Hall for awhile, and then decided to hit the Classic Arcade for a couple rounds before I needed to drive back to Rhode Island. Lessons learned: Free-play games are awesome, even when they suck, so I enjoyed the sit-down version of Buck Rogers – Planet of Zoom despite the fact that the game itself was far lamer than I remembered.
We played some Food Fight, and then Paul and I teamed up for a good round of Joust 2: Survival of the Fittest, even if we couldn’t figure out what the hell good transforming into a Pegasus was. (Turns out you’re heavier and can drop quicker for attack purposes. I looked it up for the next time I’m time traveling to the arcade at Twin Pines Mall.) With the ’80s music playing and my fingers mashing the “fly” button and my desperate attempts to avoid enemies and scoop up giant eggs, I could practically hear the whine of a DeLorean revving in the distance, and it seemed as good a way as any to finish up my time at PAX East.
So, while my first day at PAX East had centered on the Bringing Up the Next Generation of Geeks panel and catching Wil Wheaton’s keynote – which I covered in this post for GeekDad – Saturday morning’s sunrise illuminated Me On A Quest.
Because over the past year, my daughter Kelsey has become a major Wil Wheaton fan. It started just before Penguicon 7.0 last May, when we watched video online of him playing Rock Band at a convention, and she has since enjoyed both The Happiest Days of Our Lives and Just A Geek. She was excited to see him show up on The Big Bang Theory and can’t wait for Evil Wil’s return to the show next month.
I was planning my PAX trip right around the time we were listening to the Happiest Days audiobook in the car, and while there’s a lot of stuff in that book she loves, nothing cracks her up like the story “Blue Light Special,” in which Wil relates a childhood trip to K-Mart and his moments of agony and indecision in the Star Wars figures aisle. Of course, what absolutely kills her is this bit of frustration internally voiced by young Wil upon finding a glut of Cloud City figures: “Lando Calrissian? He was a dick in the movie. There’s no way I’m getting him.”
When Kelsey heard Wil was going to be at PAX, she asked if I could get him to sign something cool, and we came up with what we thought he might think was a pretty funny idea: a vintage Kenner Lando Calrissian action figure cardback. A friend in the Rebelscum forums hooked me up with one in a flash, and the task was set. Adding to the pressure on me was the fact that Kelsey had just turned 13 on Friday, and I was really aiming to bring home a one-of-a-kind present from my trip to Boston and garner some bankable Dad Points with my newly-minted teenager.
All the way into Boston, I wrestled with a decision over how to begin my day. Cartoonist Bill Amend was scheduled for an hour-long 10 a.m. presentation on celebrating geekdom in FoxTrot – of which Kelsey and I are also big fans – and I desperately wanted to attend. Problem: Wil had tweeted the night before that he’d be at his signing table from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m., and I just knew that if I made it into Bill’s panel, that by the time I got out, there’d likely be an awfully long line for Wil’s signature, and maybe even a significant risk of not getting one. (I was planning to leave midafternoon in order to get a chance to spend the evening with my friends in Pawtucket, who graciously let me use their house as a base of operations over the weekend.)
In the end, I opted – hoping that Bill Amend would understand a Geek Dad’s dilemma – to aim for an early spot in Wil’s line, and I wound up among the first dozen people or so, along with my friends Paul & Wendy, who showed up not long after I did.
Wil arrived shortly after 11 a.m. – by which point the line had in fact become pretty sizable – and the reality that the Quest’s End was in sight settled over my shoulders.
Paul & Wendy were in front of me, and they have their own superfantasticool Meeting Wil story which they deserve to share themselves if they so choose, and then I was stepping up to the table.
Wil was incredibly kind and enthusiastic and friendly as I thanked him first for inspiring my daughter and me to attend Penguicon last year, and then briefly related Kelsey’s enthusiasm for “Blue Light Special,” handing him the Lando card and explaining that we thought it would be funny and then – “Ohmygod!” he interjected, just grinning and looking at this card and saying how cool it was and he hadn’t seen one in years. Suddenly I felt a little bad because I wished I’d brought an extra one for him to keep, even as he neatly printed “Happy Birthday Kelsey!” and then added his signature, reminding me that I should let it dry for a few minutes to keep the ink from smearing on the glossy card.
He signed a copy of Happiest Days for me, then, and the last thing I did was give him a copy of Collect All 21! His first reaction was to look at the cover and say thank you, and then he flipped it open for just a second, but it was long enough for him to smile and roll his eyes and say, “Of course I open right to the page where you get the Death Star.” (See his story “The Trade” for why this is a bit of a sore spot.)
The whole thing took maybe two minutes, tops, but it was awfully neat.
When I talked to Kelsey the night I got home to Ohio, I wouldn’t tell her whether or not I’d managed to fulfill her request. When my mom brought her back to our house this afternoon, I was greeted with a massive heart-crushing hug (yes, even before I brought out the gifts) and then I threw all my planned teasing delays out the window and just said, “Well, we did it,” and I handed her the Lando card. Moment of Awesome Achieved. (Thanks again, Wil!)
“Well,” as a certain hobbit once said, “I’m back.”
Total trip time, from leaving the bank on Thursday morning to pulling into our driveway last night: 84.5 hours, with more than a quarter of that time – 22 hours between Canton, Ohio and Pawtucket, R.I., and another 4.5 spent going to and from Boston on Friday and Saturday – spent sitting behind the steering wheel. Total mileage: 1,490.
And completely worth every highway minute and every white-lined mile.
After a late Thursday night hanging out with my friends and gracious hosts Aaron and Jessica, I headed into Boston late Friday morning and – after a maybe 45-minute extended detour due to my missing a massive sign reading, in effect, “BOSTON – THIS WAY” – I got to the Hynes Convention Center just after 1 p.m. and found a hugehugeHUGE entrance queue. (You will undoubtedly read elsewhere about the crowds and lines at the center – honestly, I come to expect them at things like this, so I adjust my expectations accordingly. Also, I know that a lot of people work extremely hard to organize these conventions, and they’re supposed to be fun after all.) Doors were set to open at 2 p.m.
I honestly didn’t expect that by the time I made my way up to the doors of the Main Hall that Wil Wheaton’s keynote speech venue would already be at capacity. I mean, I knew that people would go straight there even though it wasn’t scheduled to start until 3 p.m., but I also figured maybe at some point, since they had divided the queue into “Expo Hall” and “Main Hall” lines, that someone would have established a cut-off point.
So, yeah, I was pretty disappointed, but I didn’t want to let it ruin my weekend, and besides, that’s when I ran into fellow GeekDad writer and panelist Dave Banks. While we were chatting and working our way over to the main expo hall, we caught up with two other contributors, Matt Blum and Doug Cornelius, who had also missed the keynote cut. Just after three o’clock, though, doing a little more wandering, we were passing the Main Hall doors and saw they were letting people in again, so we hopped in line. (Sadly, only Dave and I made it in, since they cut things off again right behind us.)
Wil was only about five minutes into his speech, so we got to take in most of it from our spots standing against the back wall, and while parts of it drew from stories he has told elsewhere, the keynote was by turns hilarious and nostalgic and heartfelt and inspiring.
A note on the convention offerings: Not being there for the video game industry displays and pre-release teasing and craziness, I was much more interested in the panels and kind off lower-key attractions like the old-school console gaming room – a working, playable Vectrex? are you KIDDING ME?!? and I wonder if anyone who sat down at the Atari 2600 actually put that E.T. cartridge in – and the American Classic Arcade Museum‘s free-play collection of games.
After the keynote, I met with my Ohio friends Paul and Wendy, and then it was time to go to dinner and establish what we believe to be the largest real-world gathering of GeekDad writers to date: With Michael Harrison and Natania Barron joining Matt and Dave and Doug and me, the bar is now set at a nice even half-dozen. I mentioned in an email to everyone this morning that it felt very much like we all had met before, even though most of us have only interacted through emails and podcasts.
We talked about a general framework for our 7 p.m. panel and wondered if anyone would show up other than to simply get off their feet for an hour. (A couple of us had peeked into the panel room earlier, and honestly, it looked awful big and seemed to have a great potential to be scarily empty.)
The six of us arrived back at that room at about 6:40 p.m., and figured the crowd in the hallway outside was lined up for something else. Ten minutes later, that line was gone, and we were looking at a fully-packed room of around 250-plus . Truthfully, this was nothing short of stunning, and I’m sure that words will utterly fail in describing how encouraging and wonderful it was, and though I know the odds are against it, if anyone who was in that audience stumbles across this blog: THANK YOU SO FREAKING MUCH!!!! Seriously – we each did a little introduction and talked about our kids and our geeklikes, and then as we started just generally talking about parenting and video games and movies and books and everything, people started raising their hands and asking questions and contributing their own experiences, and it was just a ton of fun. (Matt did a write-up at GeekDad, and Doug wrote a post for his blog, too, and both of them took photos so we know it was real.
Even with 70 minutes to fill – we had started early, since everyone was in the room anyway – the time just flew by, and there were still several hands up when we had to call it quits. Outside the room, a couple people came up to me to talk some more, and I saw other GeekDad writers having similar conversations. It’s almost three full days later and remembering it still makes me a little giddy.
Paul & Wendy had managed to get in, and they joined all of us for a post-panel trek for drinks, as did Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks author Ethan Gilsdorf, who, if I recall correctly, is a friend of Michael & Natania. His book has been on my to-read list for awhile, and even though it’s coming out in paperback this fall, after talking to him for awhile about writing, I couldn’t wait that long, so I ordered a copy this morning. He also bought a copy of Collect All 21!, which was an awfully nice thing to do.
We all went our separate ways once back at the convention center, since it was getting late, and while I was on my way out, I ran into Penny Arcade co-creator and PAX co-founder Mike Krahulik, capping a pretty damn fine day.
I’ll be spending most of my waking hours today on the road back to Ohio after a flew-by-way-too-fast sixty-some hours here in Providence and Boston.
Day Two of PAX East, though it was a shorter day for me, was another treasure chest of Hyrulean Silver Rupees, but I don’t have time to list all the reasons why right now
It has been an awfully fun visit for many reasons, and while I wish it wasn’t coming to an end, it’s also been so exciting and energizing that I’m glad for the road time ahead which will allow me to organize the memories and ideas and inspirations I spent the weekend cramming into the Mental Backpack until I can get home and figure out what to do with them all.
Safe travels today, everyone, wherever you’re going.
Meeting five of my fellow GeekDad writers, thus setting a new record for largest real-world gathering to date.
Wil Wheaton’s keynote.
Standing room only in the GeekDad “Bringing Up the Next Generation of Geeks” panel. (More on this when the weekend is over, but heartfelt thanks to everybody who came, because YOU MADE IT AWESOME.)
Running into Penny Arcade co-creator Mike Krahulik and getting a “special” snapshot for a friend back home.
Meeting and talking writing with Fantasy Freaks and Gaming Geeks author Ethan Gilsdorf.
I have extremely fond memories of family drives to Florida when I was a kid, sitting in the back of our van with a friend, each of us wearing Princess Leia hair bun-sized headphones which we plugged into boom boxes, in and out of which we shuffled tape after tape after tape which we’d bought at the local Camelot or Quonset Hut or blanks that we’d filled with songs recorded from the radio or MTV.
And while I do loves me some driving around and singing horrifically off-key, for the long road trips, I have spent most of the last 20 years preferring non-musical audio accompaniment for the journey. Not surprisingly, I can easily trace this back to the early 1990s, when the Star Wars and Empire Strikes Back radio dramas were released on cassette and I fell in love with them immediately.
Then I started checking out old horror, mystery and science fiction radio broadcasts like Dimension X and Suspense! and The Shadow.
Not long after Jenn and Kelsey and I moved to Ohio and I took a job an hour from home which required a drive through East Rural NoRadioLand, I got hooked on audiobooks. And I mean really hooked: I had a library request in for the cassette edition of Green Mars well before the book’s release date, and as I listened to these, I even started checking out titles based almost as much on the performer – George Guidall in particular – as the author.
Today, I’m packing up the mp3 files for the drive to PAX East.
The Star Wars dramas are still a favorite, and they’re great for the longest trips, lasting close to 15 hours if you include the much later Return of the Jedi addition to the series. But I can only listen to them once, maybe twice a year, really, and since Star Wars Celebration V is coming up in August, I’m holding off on them for now.
Wil Wheaton’s The Happiest Days of Our Lives audiobook would seem an obvious pre-convention psyche-up, and it’s a favorite, too, but my daughter and I just finished listening to it together within the last couple weeks, so I’m not ready to enjoy it again quite yet. Instead, I’ve grabbed a few Radio Free Burritos.
Being a fan of John Scalzi’s Old Man’s War universe, I’ve also downloaded The Sagan Diary, which I’ve never read, and which comes with the bonus of being performed by some remarkably talented women, including Mary Robinette Kowal, whose own short story Evil Robot Monkey will also be making the road trip with me. Other pieces include an old Tor.com podcast and a reading of Jay Lake’s Metatropolis chapter, both of which I downloaded awhile back and never got around to listening to.
Finally, I’ve piled on some podcasts from The Retroist – I’ve already listened to the shows on E.T., New Coke, Asteroids, Vectrex and Tales of the Gold Monkey and as a former 1980s kid, every single one of them has been a blast.
Among those I selected for this trip is the episode about Thundarr the Barbarian, which means I can appropriately close this entry with: “Ariel! Ookla! We ride!”