At some point in the last five years I started listening to podcasts more than I listen to music. It began with Serial (more on that below), and then I tried a variety of genres before solidifying my subscriptions. There are some I used to listen to that are now defunct (Why Oh Why and A Cast of Kings), and there are some mini-series I’d recommend (S-Town and The Dropout). The list below is narrowed down to ten, but I also subscribe to WTF with Marc Maron, ChallengeMania, and On the Line (they’re good, just not my favorites).
With that out of the way, here are my favorite podcasts, ranked from good to better.
Monsters, ghouls, aliens, they all fascinate me. Start telling a scary story and I’m all ears. Host Aaron Mahnke gleams history to find the most interesting stories to capture and disturb his listeners, and he’s an excellent storyteller. He’s the trusted voice speaking over the campfire assuring you this really happened. And if it didn’t happen, wouldn’t it be crazy cool if it did?
Listen to: “Episode 137: Elusive,” a retelling of the Kelly–Hopkinsville encounter when aliens invaded a farm in 1955 rural America.
With its first season Serial introduced thousands of people to the world of podcasts. The murder of Hae Min Lee revealed cracks in the criminal justice system and launched dozens of true crime podcasts. Seasons two and three didn’t recapture that same magic, but not every hit can be a grand slam. I would like to hear more of Sarah Koenig’s long-form reporting, so hopefully 2021 brings about a new season. At least for now we have Nice White Parents.
Brian K. Vaughan is my favorite comic book writer, and that’s saying something when writers like Alan Moore exist. BKV has received lots of positive attention for books like Y: The Last Man and Saga, but Ex Machina doesn’t get talked about much. Let’s change that right now by diving into the story of Mitchell Hundred, aka “The Great Machine.”
Ex Machina has one of the best comic book hooks I’ve ever heard – the world’s only superhero saves the second tower on 9/11 and thereafter becomes the mayor of New York City. Before the story proper begins, a mysterious object explodes in Hundred’s face, and he becomes a bumbling superhero who can speak to machines and control them to a certain extent. Though he’s a pitiful superhero, the publicity of 9/11 is enough to win him the mayor job (unless he rigged the election… it’s one of the lingering and intriguing questions of the story). Ex Machina follows Mitchell’s time in office, and it’s interspliced with flashbacks of his jetpack misadventures.
Tony Harris’s art is fantastic when depicting action scenes, and it makes the political conversations – of which there are many – much more interesting. Moreso than the art, the origin of Hundred’s powers and the reckoning they foreshadow are my favorite part of the book. Despite how often he uses them, Hundred is completely disinterested in his powers, but the more we learn about them, the more frightening they become. The flashbacks to 9/11 are also quite affecting. The tragedy of 2001 was a personal event for BKV, and the references to Hundred’s PTSD are haunting. Seeing a panicked Hundred trying his best to catch people falling from a crumbling building, knowing he will surely fail in catching everyone, are the kind of comic panels that stick with a reader.
The politics aren’t my favorite part of Ex Machina, but that doesn’t mean they’re not appealing in their own way. Sure, some of the political debates may seem dated now (e.g. gay marriage). But without the politics, we wouldn’t witness the political machine grinding Mayor Hundred into a worse version of himself throughout his time in office. I won’t spoil the ending here; suffice to say Hundred’s best friends are not campaign contributors by the closing issue.
Science fiction is one of my favorite genres, and the way it bleeds its way into Ex Machina is fascinating. I won’t say it’s “realistic” (that’s a bridge too far when a man flies around like the Rocketeer); the build up is gradual though, so the wild revelations make sense within the context of the story. There’s no Twilight Zone quick twist, more like gradual waves of uneasiness and nightmares preceding the demons. Ex Machina isn’t as fun of a romp as Y: The Last Man, and it’s not as addicting as Saga, but its well deserving of a read.
In early 1998 my brother and I had a debate over which video game earned the championship belt between two heavyweight contenders – the RPG Final Fantasy VII and the strategy RPG Final Fantasy Tactics. In the years between then and now, history has decided for us. The Final Fantasy VII universe has accumulated spin-off titles, an anime feature film, and it is being remade as another big budget production. Meanwhile, Final Fantasy Tactics remains relegated to the past, for the most part. I tried playing one of the Game Boy Advance spin-offs, but it paled in comparison to the original.
I haven’t played every Final Fantasy game. Seriously, who has the time? But I’ve played enough to feel secure in saying Tactics has to be one of the best Final Fantasy games, and overall it’s one of the best video games released during the original Playstation era. Final Fantasy Tactics: The War of the Lions is more of a re-release than a remake, but its improved translation fixes one of the main flaws of the original game. The battle system is still a bit overcomplicated for me to fully account for every detail (for example, characters’ zodiac signs affect attack damage), but in this case I’d rather the game be more complex rather than less.
The Tactics story itself is quite dense and hard to follow. The sense I had playing it the very first time was, “Man this is epic and cool but I don’t remember who that guy is and I don’t know who is betraying who.” Following the story is still challenging, but I liken it to reading a novel that expects you to pay attention and use a highlighter if you need to help yourself. The main character Ramza is a naïve highborn child who sheds the scales from his eyes as he grows, and his friend Delita is one of the most intriguing characters Final Fantasy has ever produced. He grows much faster than Ramza, playing the political game and using people so that he’s never used as a pawn again. Whereas many Final Fantasy games focus mainly on fantasy adventure, politics factor heavily into Tactics. The marriage of fantasy and politics sounds like a winning combination, doesn’t it? It’s no wonder Game of Thrones caught on like wildfire.
All this writing and I haven’t yet mentioned the combat. Unlike many RPGs, a button masher this is not. Units are moved across a map like chess pieces, placed strategically to inflict higher damage while avoiding attacks from opposing units. It’s addicting gameplay, and matches can extend to half an hour or more. Watching your black mage inflict a death blow just before a ninja is about to strike her down is one of the many small victories experienced on the Tactics battlefield. And thanks to the excellent job system, that same black mage can be transformed into a time mage, a monk, a geomancer, or whatever else you like for the next match. One of the only gripes I have with The War of the Lions is it includes special jobs that require absurd amounts of experience to attain.
I love Final Fantasy Tactics, and The War of the Lions is the best way to experience it. Anyone who enjoys RPGs, epic stories (seriously, I love the church vs. state vs. demons story so much), strategy games, board games, and anything awesome needs to play it. There’s no excuse either, because you can now play it on your phone like I did. Also, Delita is a character who deserves to be mentioned alongside heavy hitters like Cloud Strife. If that’s not enough of a selling point, Cloud also sneaks his way into Tactics as a playable character. There truly is no reason not to play this game.
If you’d like to know more about the game, or if you have already played Final Fantasy Tactics and want to take a trip down memory lane, here’s a great retrospective review by Resonant Arc.
We all have favorite fictional characters. They can be inspirational, sagacious, heroic… or they can be relentless villains who are just so damn charismatic. In this feature I celebrate fictional characters who make their worlds much fuller.
Leslie Knope may have begun her onscreen life as a poor man’s Michael Scott, but she became so much more. She became the noble, tireless civil servant that the citizens of Pawnee, Indiana never deserved.
Leslie loves her friends, her town, and her waffles. Not necessarily in that order. One of the reasons Parks and Recreation is such a re-watchable show is it’s easy to root for Leslie to succeed. She is the rare example of a person who cares more about other people than she cares about herself. Although she makes plenty of mistakes on her path from low level government employee to federal powerhouse, she always bounces back to being her optimistic, altruistic self.
Her relationship with Ben Wyatt is one of the best you can find on TV. Leslie and Ben flip the traditional gender roles, with Leslie being more of the domineering, type-A partner, while Ben often acts as the emotional support (and eye candy) for Leslie. They’re perfect together, and the show’s writers never felt the need to create cheap drama between them.
There are plenty of examples that illustrate the kind of person Leslie is, and one of my favorites comes from the season three episode “Ron & Tammy: Part Two.” Ben and Leslie are both worried that without police officer support at the Harvest Festival, the important event will fall apart. Ben visits with Police Chief Trumple privately to ask for police officer volunteers, and Trumple immediately agrees to help. He says, “Leslie Knope gets as many favors as she needs.” When Ben asks why, Trumple pauses to think before responding, “Because she’s the kind of a person who uses favors to help other people.” That’s the kind of civil servant we’d all be lucky to have.