Monday, June 25, 2012

Homosexuality and Established Characters

Oh boy, this is going to be a minefield of a post, but I still want to talk about it.  Also, sorry for the delay, but I had to wait until I had some time before I could really sit down and talk about it.  I didn't want to rush it.

Now, I'm posting this video again because it is VERY important to my reasoning in this post.

As I explained last time, the lesson here is that just because every part of a character's backstory is not detailed or explained explicitly to the reader, viewer, or gamer, this does NOT mean that a creative team can just do whatever the hell they please when making a new game/movie/comic with a character.  Using the example in the above video, some one could NOT just make a new Zelda game with Link being an obnoxious asshole, just because we have never heard him say he WASN'T an obnoxious asshole, and the fact that he is a silent character allows the designer to place any characterization he or she wants.  Any Zelda fan could tell you that Link, despite his lack of speech, does have a personality.  He is a patient, brave, heroic young man with a steadfast resolve and just an all around nice personality.  We can tell that he is sometimes naive and even disturbed by the oddness that surrounds him (such as his trek to the Gorons in OoT), but is still always willing to help.  With this in mind, one can't just add anything they wish, such as an asshole personality, or, as discussed here, homosexuality.

Now, take a look at the two links below, which I came across/referenced in a debate on Facebook with my friends (Special thanks to Jackson, Mike, and Josh).  

http://www.dailymail.co.uk/news/article-2147928/Is-Batman-gay-Major-DC-Comics-character-come-closet.html

http://www.mcsweeneys.net/articles/metroids-samus-aran-speaks-out-about-gay-marriage

The first is a Daily Mail article speculating on DC's "Major Hero coming out of the Closet" reveal we discussed last time.  In our discussion, it sparked quite the controversy on the concept of Batman being (possibly) gay.

The other is...well, I don't know what it is.  I guess we'll call it a fan fiction for now.  Whatever it is, it features an article written from Samus Aran's point of view as she discussed her life as a lesbian and her support for gay marriage.

Now, these seem like completely different articles, but they both raise the same problem I referenced before.  Both articles violated the rule of an established character by just inserting whatever characterization they damn well please into the character.  Now, I would have no problem if these characters were gay if these characterizations were done well (which we will see in the next post), but the idea of these characters in particular being gay just baffles me.

Let's start with Batman.  Now, if done well, I would actually applaud the idea of Batman being gay.  You know why?  Because he's the goddamn Batman.  He would probably play it off completely calm, leading to an ultimate badass moment where Superman or someone would ask if Batman was gay, and he would just say, "Yes, I am.  So what?"  And then he would punch Darkseid in the face.   Or something similar to that.

However, even with DC's New Universe, Batman, up to this moment, has not been established as gay. In fact, quite the opposite.  In Catwoman #1 of the DCnU, we have a moment where Batman and Catwoman have awkward, weird sex on top of a building.
The anatomy of this scene just makes me cry.  
OK, now, since I know the history behind these characters, I can't say that I really have that much of a problem with this scene.  It's stupid and out of place and mostly used to titillate teenagers and basement dwellers who haven't discovered internet porn yet, but we'll save that discussion for another time.  But, this moment lets us know something about Batman (besides the fact he can't...let's use the word "last" ): he is in love with and is sexually attracted to Cat-woman.  Now, unless they wanted to reveal he had an experimental phase much earlier in life (as suggested by another friend of mine), there is no way that they could have made Batman gay without making millions of readers scratch their heads and wonder what the point of his love for Selena Kyle or Talia al Ghul was.  Just making him gay all of a sudden would contrast years (or, in the case of DCnU, months) of evidence of Bruce Wayne's heterosexuality.  Now, a writer could have pulled the bullshit move of saying Bruce Wayne was just hiding his homosexuality really well (because he can do everything else well) just wouldn't work, for two reasons.

The first is that Bruce Wayne is never ashamed of who he is.  He only hides the fact that he is Batman because he wants to protect the people he loves.  BUT, if it came to anything else, from his sexual orientation to his political party to even his favorite sport team, Bruce Wayne would have no problem talking about it openly.  He would probably hold a big gala in support of gay and lesbian rights.  In addition, he would never second guess outing himself, because he has the resolve in everything that he believes and everything that he is that he wouldn't give two shits if someone said he was going to hell for being gay.

Second, to just say he was hiding it really well sort of ignores how homosexuality, and people in general, work.  No matter how controlled Bruce Wayne is, he would somehow show his inner workings and machinations.  There is no way Alfred or Selena would have never noticed something peculiar in him.  Somehow, in some way that would only be noticeable to those closest to him, Bruce would show signs of homosexuality.  It's like if a person was secretly colorblind.  They could go through life acting like they know what people are talking about, but sooner or later, he would be placed in a situation that would give hints to his condition.   Something like that just doesn't get hidden. Now, I know this paragraph may make me come under fire.  I am not saying homosexuality is a "condition" or anything negative.  I am simply saying that, like all personality traits, it would manifest itself in some form, and it is something that not even the goddamn Batman, could truly hide.

Now let's talk about Samus.  What do we know about her?  Well, excluding the disgraceful Metroid: Other M, which even the most devoted of Metroid fans disregard as non-canon, we don't know anything about her sexual proclivities.  Now, I would make the case she isn't sexually active, since she is so fucking badass she doesn't need a man or woman weighing her down or the fact that she is so busy kicking ass she doesn't have time to date or do the deed with anybody.  But...we could also make the case that she might be sexually attracted to the Chozo, the odd-bird people who raised her, since one could make the case that if you are raised among a group of people different from your own, you might develop a sexual attraction to them.  And you know what?  I would buy that!  In a strange way, that makes sense.  One could provide evidence to prove that.

And, that, my friends, is the central problem of this concept.  EVIDENCE.  If you want to make Samus or Batman gay, I'll be perfectly game for that if and only if there is evidence to make me believe it.  To just insert a trait like homosexuality into an established character without providing evidence to make us understand the writer's logic isn't good writing, and one should not be considered prejudiced if they cry foul.  Once again, I wouldn't give two shits if these characters were, in fact gay, but I would need some kind of hints or moments in the characters' histories that someone could point to that would justify such a change.  A character needs to gay from the moment the author conceives them.  The reader/player/viewer may find out the truth later in the story, but creator himself must have that plan in mind.  And we will see examples of these GOOD, well-crafted homosexual characters in my next post.

Saturday, June 16, 2012

The Problem with a Gay Green Lantern

In the following weeks, I plan to have a long series of posts focusing on sexuality and gender in the media.  We'll be looking at cases where people are using these ideas in a flawed manner, then looking at some potential avenues of how to use these very important concepts in a correct and meaningful way.  Let's begin with the concept of sexuality, in particular, homosexuality.  


A few weeks ago, DC Comics built up a huge controversy over the announcement that one of its "main" superheroes would be revealed as gay.  It caused quite a stir in the media, but was eventually revealed to the comic reading public to a lukewarm reaction.  To be perfectly honest, no one really cared.  And, to me, that shows how accepting the new generation has become.  This "big reveal" that DC planned was only met with indifference only shows how engrained the ideas of homosexuality and acceptance are in modern society.  And, if this "big reveal" was done in a different way and at a different time, I would have had a similar indifference.  I don't really care if a character is gay, straight, bisexual, or whatever.

But, the fact of the matter is that, when you look closer at the timing and style of this this "big reveal," you will realize how shameful this change was.  It seems to be that this "reveal" was not done in true, genuine respect for the idea and trials of homosexuals, but in a poor, half-assed marketing ploy in order to compete with Marvel comics and to reap the benefits of a recent cultural event.  Now, I have read that the writer of the new, gay Alan Scott wanted to create a positive gay role model in the new universe, but the timing and manner of Mr. Scott's eventual revelation just smacks of editorial mandates.

Let's look at the timing of the reveal.  DC co-publisher Dan Didio revealed the announcement of a gay superhero to a convention audience in the month of May.  However, this was around the time of an announcement by the Marvel company that one of its already established gay superheroes, Northstar, proposed to his long-timed boyfriend, Kyle (could they think of a more boring name?).  Now, I must admit that I don't know which announcement came first, but the more important thing to note is that BOTH of these announcements were announced mere moments after President Barack Obama announced his support of gay rights.  To me, it seems like  Marvel and (more importantly) DC were just trying to ride on the coattails of this announcement.  Now, I am always one to admit good business sense and this was a good business move.  Before Obama'a announcement, producing such story lines would have been a huge gamble, but after the acclaim of Obama's speech, every business could have jumped on the gay rights train.  However, when it comes something like writing a character, adding something as important and life-changing as homosexuality to a character is not something you can just add.  It requires planning and dedication.  When a character is announced as gay, we have to look at the surrounding evidence and go, "yes, that makes sense."  It can't be thrown in on the last minute.  And, as much as Marvel is riding on the coat tails of Obama's announcement, I at least have to give them credit for making their character (Northstar) an established homosexual.  His marriage may have came out of the blue, but not the character himself.  Alan Scott, on the other hand, is just all the sudden revealed to be the gay.  No lead up.  No establishment.  He's just...there.  It's an alternate reality where he's been gay for years.  But we have no lead up to that either.  It's just introduced.  Well...OK.  Not much we can say about it.  It sounds like a bullshit surprise reveal, but whatever.

But that's not the only thing that bothers me about DC's reveal, as opposed to Marvel's.  You see, Marvel was just building off a character that was in their main universe and making a natural progression of character.  In addition, Marvel's announcement of the marriage, while poorly handled (they announced what happens in the comic before it even goes on sale...so what's the point of actually buying the comic?), was relatively low key.  DC made a huge deal of the announcement.

In addition, at the convention, Didio said that the character to be revealed would be a "major superhero."  To every person who reads comics, and even to those who don't, a major superhero means someone we all know.  Superman, Wonder Woman (who I would have expected), maybe even Hawkman.  Sure, I could accept a B-lister.  Booster Gold?  Blue Beetle?  Maybe, with some good writing, I could see that.  But then they announced it was Green Lantern, but not Hal Jordan.  It was Alan Scott, someone who can barely be considered a "major" hero in the DC Universe.  But then it was revealed that this wasn't even the "real" Alan Scott, but an Alternate Earth Alan Scott.  OK...so the "major superhero" is an alternate reality version of a C-List, Golden Age Superhero?  Does this sound like DC wanted to make a character gay without affecting their main universe to anyone else?  Seriously, it sounds like they said "Well, we need to make a character gay, but let's do as little damage to our established characters as possible.  Let's create an alternate universe."  This, to me, does not seem like they really wanted to make a change.  It seems like a half-assed cop-out.  This screams an editorial mandate rather than a moving statement on the acceptance of gays in modern culture.  It seems more worthy of condemnation than praise.

But what bugs me the most about this reveal is that DC already has gay characters.  Detective Renee Montoya (aka the Question) and Batwoman have been lesbians for years.  Well-written, well-established, lesbian characters who live in DC's main universe.  Would someone tell me why these characters are simply ignored?  Is it because they aren't controversial enough?

DC Comics and their characters have been the victim of idiotic editorial mandates for years.  But this strikes me as just dumb and insulting to the gay movement.  A character being gay should NEVER be a marketing ploy.  They shouldn't be a form of controversy for advertising.  This does not show respect to gay and lesbian rights.  It just shows that DC is willing to exploit the lives of real people for a quick cash grab.

However, next week, I'll be discussing another instance where the idea of homosexuality is wrongly implemented.  That time, we'll be talking more about established characters...

Saturday, June 9, 2012

Update and My Top Ten Protagonists (Part III)

So, yeah, it's been ages since I have updated this blog, but now that my summer has become fairly regular, I can now have regular updates.  Expect to have at least one every Saturday or Friday, depending on work schedule.  I was going to have a video up last week of the entire countdown, but considering I am, frankly, awful with Apple's iMovie (all of my training has been in Final Cut), I had no idea what to do.  So...no videos until I can use Final Cut (maybe when the new school year starts?)

Now, to finally finish up this countdown, so we can move on to more important and relevant topics.  I must admit that I do not like doing lists that often, but I felt it was a good way to get people introduced to what I like and what I like to see in video games.  Hopefully, these last four entries to the list will show my preferences in character and in video games.  

4) Isaac Clarke (The Dead Space Series)
"What're YOU lookin' at?"
Man, do I love Visceral Games.  You can really tell that they really care about their projects and creating full, vibrant worlds to accompany their games.  Looking at Dead Space, you would never expect that a game about splitting up creatures straight out of John Carpenter's The Thing would not only have a fully fleshed out world, including a commentary about cults and religions like Scientology, but there it all is.  It truly is in all of the little things that suck me into Visceral's romps.  Thus, I always find it kind of disappointing that some people hate on Visceral and their well-crafted games for the silliest of reasons.  Yes, they aren't perfect, I would admit that, but I've heard several people say that they disliked Dead Space because of its "Your Mom Will Hate It" Ad Campaign.  To hate on a game because of the stupidly of its publisher (EA especially, whose stupidly can reach baffling levels) seems a bit petty when the game itself is not affected.  It's not like Mass Effect 3, which was, in many ways, ruined by EA's meddling.  Besides, without that campaign, as silly and childish as it was, we would have never been introduced to this woman:

I have no idea who this woman is, but she is the coolest and funniest woman I ever seen.  And my life is only brighter after seeing this video.

But that's besides the point.  We're here to talk about Isaac Clarke, Dead Space's protagonist.  Now, Isaac seems to violate my rule about silent protagonists.  But the thing is...he isn't and never was.  Even in Dead Space 1, Isaac wasn't truly an empty vessel like other silent protagonists.  Not many people are aware of this, but the next time you boot up Dead Space 1, look for Isaac's notes on the Objectives Menu.  It's there  the player learns Isaac's hidden personality.  The verdict: Isaac is a...dark individual.  He's sarcastic, depressed, and even mean-sprited.  He calls people "psychopaths" and "maniacs."  He loathes the Unitologists.  But, unfortunately, this personality was hidden underneath the silence and robot nature, and it's not until the very end of the game that we see that Isaac has more violent emotions that we see in Dead Space 2.  I think the developers wanted Isaac to be a vessel in the first Dead Space, but they realized this wouldn't work for a truly interesting game.  

But, when we compare Isaac from the first game to him in the sequel. Please watch this video from the guys at Extra Credits:


Now, the lesson here is that though you might have a silent protagonists.  That does not mean you do not know anything about him or her, and you can just make up anything you want.  Just because a character doesn't speak doesn't mean that the character has no personality.  Personality is conveyed through actions as well as words.  And the developers at Visceral did a fantastic transition.  They took the little we knew about Isaac from DS1 and fleshed out the character in DS2.  And, yet, nothing was out of place.  I never felt like I was being introduced to a new character in DS2, just the same character finally given the chance to speak.  The dark, confused, sarcastic individual from the original is still here.  

But what makes him a great character besides this transition, is the fact that Isaac, more than most characters I have played, feels like a real person.  He has the same reactions I did to the situations he was in.  Sometimes word for word.  And that's what's brilliant about him.  He not only is a separate and unique personality, but still reflects the personality of the player.  He can be a vessel for the player like originally intended, but still be a unique character.  And that kind of balance makes Isaac such a wonderful marvel of character design.

In addition, the idea of madness in video games is something that has been used often and very effectively, but Dead Space 2 knows how to use this in a fantastic way.  It uses the confines of the medium to truly put you on edge and show you what Isaac is going through.  A great example:

A great set piece and fantastic way to convey insanity and produce horror.  I look forward to what they do in Dead Space 3.  Apparently, they plan to have a "Dark Isaac" who will insult you along your journey, and I think this can not only be a greater opportunity for humor, tension, and more of these kind of QTEs.

3) Dante (Dante's Inferno)
I don't think you can get more badass than this.
Oh Visceral, I wish EA would stop ruining your games with their ridiculous advertising ploys.  But Dante's Inferno has a lot more going against it.  First of all, it's title.  Now, I had no problem with the title. I simply saw it as Visceral presenting Dante Allegheri's version of Hell.  Was it silly to make the Italian poet into a bulky Crusader?  Sure.  I personally think it would have better to name the main character and his love something else, (let's use "Mario" and "Peach" for this whole post, since that's pretty much what the game is) and have you meet the real Dante Allegheri along the way, such as when you talk with Virgil.  And yes, it was a lackluster God of War clone with a half-finished ending.  These are all true, and no matter how much I enjoyed myself playing it, I can't deny that.  (But, seriously,  how fun was it doing this?)


But the thing is, if you asked me if I would prefer to play God of War or Dante's Inferno, I would pick Dante's Inferno every time.  And you know why?  It's because "Mario" is just a much more interesting and original character than Kratos.  While Kratos is just a big ball of rage than blames other people for all of his problems (most of which, he himself caused), "Mario" is quite the opposite.  He blames himself for all of his problems, even when they might be other people's faults.  He is the epitome of Catholic guilt and Puritan thinking, whenever something has gone wrong, it is because he has made a mistake or because he doesn't understand.  It is through this self-deprecation that we learn what it was mostly likely like to be a Crusader.  He, like many others, thought he was being absolved for his sins by partaking in his conquest, but he was misled.  I feel like Visceral could have done a better job with "Mario's" crisis of faith, but the fact that he wasn't raging against the machine made him a big step up from Kratos.

But something else that interested me was "Mario's" pursuit of "Peach."  Now, if "Mario" was just another Kratos clone, he would most likely would have just have had a had a sex mini game with her corpse and then continued on his angst filled journey.  No, there was something more to "Peach" that motivated him to trek through nine levels of hell.  If "Peach" was just another set of rocking tits, he would have never have done so.  "Peach" represents the last shreds "Mario's" humanity, the last threshold between a sane, normal life and complete insanity and life as...well...Kratos.  This makes "Mario's" quest seem much more weighty than whatever revenge fantasy Kratos is cooking up.  

But all of this together, the epic quest, the self-deprecation, and the Catholic guilt, make "Mario"a deeply sympathetic and original character.  I only wish he had more to do than his usual "save the princess" quest.  It's epic and significant to him, but they could have done so much more.  He has such a rich personality that we could have had many more deep and interesting tales to tell.  Sort of like our next entry...

2) James Sunderland (Silent Hill 2)

Oh, James, you magnificent, yet miserable bastard.  If only you knew how amazing you and your game Silent Hill 2 was.  Maybe it's because you are Silent Hill 2.  Yes, from the enemies, to the bosses, to the environments, and the Otherworld, all of Silent Hill 2 was designed specifically with James and his fragile psyche.  Now, there are going to be some major spoilers here, so if you don't want to know why James is such an impressive feat, stop reading here and just go to number one.  The big revelation of the game is that James's wife contracted a serious illness that made her face scarred.  Feeling that she looked like a monster, James's wife lashed out at James, verbally abusing him at every chance.  Therefore, James avoided her, turning to drink.  Eventually, due to his sexual frustration and deteriorating patience and sanity, James smothered his wife, putting him and her out of their misery.  Or so he thought.  Unfortunately, Silent Hill has a way of bringing those demons back to light.

Let's just give two examples of how Silent Hill 2 is tailor-made to James's mind.  The first would be the infamous sexy nurses.
Should I be aroused or terrified?  Both?
These nurses aren't just meant to titillate  the teenagers playing this game.  Far from it.  These nurses represent the sexual frustration of James.  It's been years since he has had sexual release and, since he has spent ages in a hospital for his wife, James's libido is all over the place, including a potential nurse fetish.
He is judge, jury, and executioner.  Also... a rapist.
The infamous Pyramid Head, on the other hand, represents James's inner, subconscious desire for punishment for the action of killing his wife.  On the outside, James rejects he did anything wrong, and thus he runs from Pyramid Head any chance he gets.  As time goes on, the monster slowly creeps up on James, just gaining and gaining on him, just as the guilt slowly builds from James's subconscious to his consciousness.  But when he finally faces the truth, when he finally can't deny his guilt anymore, the Pyramid Head monster does not kill him.  Rather, the monster falls on his own sword.  He moves past his guilt, or at least admits to it.  It is then up to the player how James reacts to this.  Does he accept it with grace and move on with his life?  Or does he fall into misery?  Or does he get abducted by aliens or meet a dog in a control room?  OK, those last two might not have been relevant, but you get what I'm saying.  

James and Silent Hill 2 are the perfect representation of how gams can use their own confines of their medium to tell amazing stories.  The game took the basic confines of a game (enemies, bosses, combat) and used them to not only make a terrifying, harrowing experience, to tell the story of a tortured man.  If more games followed SH2's example, more games could tell brilliant character pieces.  Such as my number one protagonist...

1) John Marston
The face of a goddamn American Hero...
If I had the opportunity to make a movie based on one game, it would be Red Dead Redemption and the tragic story of John Marston.  That's how good his story is.

Let's start from the basic level.  John Marston has almost everything I love about a character: sarcasm and a silver tongue, a set of strict principles (which well fits the time, but also allows for player freedom (to a degree, which I mention later)), and a personality that allows for fantastic discussions.

Now let's go through all of those and explore why they make John so amazing.  The sarcasm and silver tongue just make John likable.  But the writing on his wit is so perfect that he has the amazing ability to insult people without them knowing.  He has a perfect was of having barbed language without facing retribution.  But it is also through this wit that we learn that he is probably the smartest and wisest man in the game.  He may not be learned or even literate, but when he mocks the people he comes across, no matter how "intelligent" or "learned" they might be, they are mere children compared to the man who has seen and done all.  There are even times when John can be presented as just plain dumb when compared to Nigel West Dickens or another "intellectual", but never ignorant or gullible.

But, due to his principles and his resiliently kind personality, John never comes across as bitter or as a sad sack, such as Max Payne in his most recent outing.  At worst, John just seems tired.  And this exhaustion is key to his character.  All he wants in the world is to go home to his wife and child, and the government is preventing that.  But he still tries to help everyone he can.  Maybe, he feels, if he helps out these strange people, he can resolve the grievances of his past.  And this is how John can expose himself to a variety of conversations.  Conversations, I believe, that expose the best parts of the game, the writing.  It is when John rides on horseback with the people he serves (and he tends to serve both sides of an issue just because he is that unbiased) that he can hear both sides of the argument.  He can ride with a Mexican revolutionary and hear how Mexico needs freedom.  And that revolutionary can convince you, the player,  that she is right.  But John seems nonchalant and at best amused.  As mentioned before, he has seen too much to truly get excited about every new revolution.  But then he can ride with a member of the oppressive Mexican government, and then that person can convince you that Mexico needs a strong government.  But once again, John just sits there and listens.  He acts a catalyst for conversations, but due to his strong backstory, he continues to be motivated by his desire to be reunited with his family, and nothing more.

But, the principles of Mr. Marston also allow him to be such a well written character that it sometimes feels that you can play the game incorrectly.  Normally, I am against such an idea.  A game should never have a wrong way to play it because that is the sign of bad writing, but in this case, the writing of a character is so well done that it is the gameplay that is in conflict with the story, rather than the other way around (once again, Mass Effect is an example of this.  A friend of min said I was playing the game wrong and thus didn't enjoy it.  If that's the case, then it's not a very well designed game to have several "wrong" avenues.)  The best example of this is doing dastardly deeds as John.  Many people have pointed out that John openly refuses the local prostitutes, as he is a Christian man who is faithful to his wife.  But then he has no problem tying said prostitutes to the railroad tracks and watching them get run over.  However, I believe that John is so well written as a man trying to solely good (or as much good as he can) that tying a woman to the tracks actually goes against the established character.  I feel that Rockstar should have excluded this from the game or at least have John mention how he despises himself for doing something evil.

But the true beauty of John Marston is (SPOILER!) his death.  His death is the only thing in video games that made me cry.  Let me set the stage: you finally killed the last of your old gang, including your mentor and father figure.  You spend a few days with your family.  Reconciling with your wife and son, both of whom are angry with you for endangering them.  You save your son from a bear attack, and he finally admits he forgives you for leaving them for your mission.  It looks like John can finally have the peaceful life he has been striving for for all that time.  But then the government comes.  What?  The deal was finished.  Agent Edgar Ross said he would leave you alone?  But now he asks whether you truly thought he would let a murderer live...even though he made you kill your old gang members.  There is a long shoot out between you and the army, as your friend is killed in action.  And then, as the army closes in, you have this brilliant moment:


I admit, I welled up.  I might have even shed a tear.  This is a character I learned to love over the course of my play through.  And to see that there was no happy ending, no riding into the sunset...it just tore my heart out.  This is something no other game could do.  Not even GTA4.  Niko Bellic was a thug, a man who easily slid back into crime when he claimed he was trying to get away.  John Marston was forced, and when he finally and reluctantly fulfilled his end of the bargain, he was betrayed.  No peace.  No redemption.  Only loss.  And the looming threat of death that hung so heavily over John Marston finally came swooping down.  And you are left there to sit and stare.  

Brilliant, tragic stuff.  Stuff that no other game has been able to do and that no other character was able to convey.  I only hope Rockstar, and any other studio can create amazing moments like these.

I hope you liked this countdown.  Let the normal posts begin...NEXT WEEK!