Tuesday, February 15, 2005

Taking a break from the workload...

I probably won't get around to making any more long-winded posts for a while, since I'm in the middle of the "7th week sprint" here in school. With only 3 more weeks left in the quarter, time management becomes the key to getting all of the projects, homework, and tests done while still making time to see my beautiful wife and keeping my sanity.

A few random thoughts, though, before I dive back into my work:

  • LISP really is an elegant language. I've done a bit of dabbling with it in the past, but never really hammered on it before. With my Programming Languages class this quarter, though, we have a project to write a scaled down LISP interpreter. It wasn't until I really got to work with the inner guts of the language that I began to see how beautiful it really is. I can understand what the few LISP-heads I've known see in the language now, and I hope that I get to work with it more in the future.

  • My manga adventure continues in fits and starts. I've gotten a number of different volumes from the library in the last couple of weeks and I've been reading them when I've needed some kind of break from CS texts and programming. So far, a few gems and a few that have made me want to, as my brother Ed once put it, "invent a time machine to go back and stop myself from wasting my time with them". I'd especially like to get back the time I spent reading the first volume of "Fairie's Landing" - a book that I just didn't like at all. I'm glad it was free - I don't have to rant about how I'd like my money back.

  • On the other hand, the good ones have been REALLY good. The best of the bunch so far, in my opinion, is "Hikaru no Go", a book that has me wanting to learn how to play Go. It's funny, dramatic, and definitely different from a lot of other stuff I've read. This was probably the best comic book I've read in a long while. I suppose I'm getting cynical in my old age.

  • Mister Miracle and the New Gods animated on Cartoon Network last week made my night. I'm not a big fan of the Virman Vunderbar character - I would have liked to see a different villain there as a foil against Granny - maybe Dr. Bedlam or Tigra or something - but I loved the episode anyway.

That's it for now. Back to the grind.

Friday, February 11, 2005

Comics: Runaways v.1 and v.2

So, as I posted before, I picked up copies of Runaways v.1 and v.2 from my local library branch. Now I can see what the hype was all about. I had picked up an issue of Runaways after hearing some good things about it (I think it was issue 8), but it didn't grab me at all. I couldn't figure out what was happening and I didn't feel compelled to go back and get more issues.

But, whoa, after reading the first volume "Pride & Joy" all the way through I can definitely see what people like about this book. The characterization is great, the premise is quite original, and the story is genuinely fun. I grabbed the second volume as well, and while it isn't quite as good as the first one, it continues to be a fun ride.

A spoiler-ish summary for those who haven't read these books:

"Pride & Joy" is the first volume of the series. We are introduced to the six kids who are the cast of the book, along with their parents. In the first chapter we see snippets of their normal home lives, only to have the rug pulled out from under us when the kids discover that their parents are actually a group of super-villains called the Pride. They see their parents kill a young woman in a secret ceremony and decide that they need to turn their parents into the police. Of course, it turns out that the police are corrupt and in the back pocket of the parents, and the parents use the cops to frame one of their own kids for the murder that the Pride committed, so the rest of the first volume involves the kids getting away from their parents, keeping ahead of the cops, and finding a place to stake themselves out while the figure out what to do next. We also discover that one of the kids is actually sympathetic to his parents and is working as a "mole" for the Pride within the group.

"Teenage Wasteland" is the second volume, and its not as cohesive as the first. Its made up of two story arcs - "Teenage Wasteland" and "Lost and Found". The first arc involves the kids finding another super-powered youth with criminal parents and the repercussions of inviting him into their circle. "Lost and Found" is a guest appearance by Cloak and Dagger, as they are brought into town by one of the Pride's minions to hunt down the kids.

I wasn't expecting to like this book nearly as much as I did. Like I said, I'd picked up an issue before to try it, and had been underwhelmed. Nothing much seemed to happen in it, and the characters were not developed enough in the one issue for me to really care to seek it out again.

But, reading it in its collected form, I can really see where the appeal is. The introductory chapters in "Pride & Joy" are must-reads for the kids character development. And while the plot in the issue of "Teenage Wasteland" that I read moved slow in single issue form, the pacing in the collection is perfect.

This is the type of book that really should have a broad appeal outside of superhero fans. While it may be a little cliche to talk about kids wanting to read about kids, conversations with my wife (the children's librarian) have convinced me that this is true. The kids in this book feel like real teenagers with real problems, and not just like what some middle-aged guy thinks a teenager's problems would be. [1]

The only issue that I have with the book, and its a minor one really, is the Cloak and Dagger appearance. Now, I love Cloak and Dagger - I think they're an underrated concept and they've been poorly used over the years - and by bringing them in Vaughn establishes a larger tie to the whole "shared universe". This shouldn't bug me, but it does. With the first volume, even though the kids are obviously in the Marvel Universe, you never feel like that's going to help them. Wolverine isn't going to show up and stop the Pride, Captain America isn't going to swoop in and rescue the kids, these kids are on their own.

By introducing Cloak and Dagger, Vaughn introduces a messy element into the mix. Now, with this kind of "in-your-face" example, we have to wonder - how is this city cut off from the rest of the Marvel Universe? Does anyone know that the Pride exists (villains must - the Pride talks about how no villains operate in their city without permission)? If so, why hasn't anyone stepped forward before to stop them? By keeping the Marvel Universe offstage for the first volume, Vaughn sidestepped most of these issues. But, buy pushing Cloak and Dagger into the second volume, these issues become front and center and intrude on my reading of the book.

But, really, its a minor thing [2]. Overall, these are some great books and I cannot wait to pick up volume 3. I'll probably even end up buying it in my February comics purchases, since I think I'll have some room in the budget and I probably won't want to wait for the library to get a copy. I hope that the second series for this title continues to be as fun as this first series has been.

[1] Ah yes, it is ironic isn't it that I, being a middle-age guy, get to comment on what I think "feels" like what a teenager's real problems are. They seem like real kids - okay? I mean, I could see some of them being freshmen in my College Algebra classes. It's more than just the speech patterns (though that helps) - there's something about them that Vaughn captures that just feels right.

[2] And a geeky, fanboy thing at that. I admit it.

Wednesday, February 09, 2005

Comics Industry: Pamphlets, Digests, and Magazines - Oh My!

Allright, so this is a bit of an essay/rant/diatribe that I've been wanting to write for a while. Over at Fanboy Rampage there was recently a post about cheaper comics. The gist of the post was that comics companies (meaning DC and Marvel here) should put their products out on cheap newsprint and price them close to $1, instead of the $3 price-point with superior paper that comics have now. The upshot of the whole thing seeming to be that if the comics cost less, more would be purchased, and the comics industry would be SAVED!

Now, let's leave aside the whole thought about whether the "comics industry" needs saving. Johanna had a good post the other day about why the "comics industry" is actually doing quite fine, if you include manga in that description. I'm going to assume here that "comics industry" means "direct market and the big two publishers", though I agree with Johanna that the actual state of the market as a whole for comics is much better than it has been in years.

So, what about the "big two" then? Would making $1 comics bring them back the fans who had left, drag in new young readers, and generally get the superhero comics back into the limelight that they held in the mythical "golden age" of comics? IMHO, eh - not so much. And it has less to do with whether you could get more people to read comics at that price point (an argument I'm willing to have, but not here), and more to do with how retail works.

The standard retail model works (in a simplistic fashion) like this: Producer of goods sells goods to distributor for a set price. Distributor marks that price up by a percentage, and sells it to a retailer. The retailer then marks that price up again by a percentage to sell to a customer. Everyone along the chain gets a cut of the action.

So, why should Diamond carry and distribute a line of $1 books when they could be distributing a line of $3 books instead? They get more money per book, the retailer gets more money per book, the publisher gets more money per book, everyone in the chain is happier in general. And, since the purpose of this exercise is for each of these companies to make money, you can see which direction things are going to trend.

What about a selection of loss-leader books? Remember, the sales of the books have to support their weight in overhead costs for the publisher, the distributor and the retailer. If a retailer has shelf space for a number of books, and he has to choose between selling 100 copies of a $3 book and 100 copies of a $1 book, you can see what he's going to choose.

And, when we get outside of comic book stores, it gets worse. Look over the magazines at your local newsstand or Barnes and Noble. Check out those cover prices. Do you think with the selection of magazines available, the Barnes and Noble wants to take up precious shelf space with a bunch of $1 comics? That's the whole reason comics got pushed off the newsstand in the first place - magazines were going up in price and the comics companies refused to change their format to allow them to stay in the newsstand market (see "DC Comics Implosion")[1].

So, if I don't think that you can get comics to the masses by making them cheaper, how do I think you can get them out? Simple, make them more expensive. I'm serious. Look again at that newsstand example - the average price of a magazine right now is in the $5-$6 range, with many of them running into the $10-$15 range for some "specialty" areas. How can you get newsstand vendors to put your product on their racks? Make sure that your product is giving them a chance to make at least as much as their average mags are getting them.

Now, the other thing that you have to do is make sure that folks don't look at your magazine and laugh. If you tried to charge $5 for your average 32-page pamphlet, most folks would laugh in your face (or punch you, maybe)[2]. Look at the page counts of those $5-$6 magazines again - they've usually got over a hundred pages, even if they have a lot of ads. People expect VALUE for their dollars, which includes more than page count, but page count is a part of it.

So, what do I suggest doing then? Lets take Marvel as an example. Currently, Marvel puts out some ungodly number of Spider-man comic books and X-Men comic books. Marvel also has two of the most recognizable comic-book movie properties right now with Spider-man and the X-Men. These are the names that COULD be bringing folks into reading Marvel's superhero comics IF they could get them.

I contend that Marvel could easily combine two of their monthly Spider-man books into a single magazine - "Amazing Spider-Man magazine." Charge $5-$6 bucks for it, make it actually magazine sized, and fill out the back half of the magazine with reprints. Fans would still be getting their $6 for two stories, while the format would be more conducive to people picking it up from their local grocery or bookstore newsstand. I would also have some editorial changes to make one of the new stories in the book a "stand-alone" story with the second new story an on-going one, but that's less of a format decision than a "marketing" one.

They could do something similar with their X-Men books - pick two to combine together into one book (say Uncanny and X-Men) and name it "Uncanny X-Men magazine". Charge $5-$6 bucks for it and put reprints in the back.

As time passes and readership builds, Marvel should be able to add more advertising, and maybe offset the costs of replacing the reprints with new material. Spin-off characters like Arana could be tried in the back of an Amazing Spider-Man magazine, instead of giving them a six issue limited series. Stories that really only work well in collected form could be used as backup material with an eye towards getting them into digests, etc.

A similar case could be made for DC. In fact, with DC, Superman and Batman books suggest themselves right away, and with the number of Superman and Batman books on the shelves, consolodating two into a monthly magazine should be even easier than with Spider-man.

The objection that will come to the front is that Marvel tried this just a few years ago - with their Ultimate and Marvel Knights magazine. This plan would be different from that one because this one leverages the existing readership of Amazing Spider-man into the readership of the magazine. You may lose a few, but with format chages you might actually get some back (especially if you combine a serial with a "done-in-one" story). You can then use that readership to grow out to newsstands and subscribers.

Now, I really think that branching out into non-superhero properties is how the big two will survive in the future. But, if they're serious about being in the monthly serial business, the time has come to really re-examine what they are doing and what formats they are using. The direct market is suffering, and without an injection of new readers, bad things are going to happen to it.

[1] Newsstands also have a whole 'returnability' issue that is another reason comics left the newsstand, I know. That's another aspect of the magazine publishing business that the direct market has allowed the comics companies to avoid for a long time.

[2] I could be wrong about this. I never thought we'd see comics get above $2, but here we are. Of course, there's also been a steady drain of readers, so maybe we are approaching some kind of equilibrium point or something.

Sunday, February 06, 2005

Comics: Legion of Superheroes #2 Musings

"Legion Of Superheroes, rather than being a future looking book, reads like a backwards looking one. The characters seem old, safe and dull ... All good sci-fi is never about the future, but about the present. This is sci-fi that's about the past. So traditional. So classic. So Dad's Comics."

These are some of the words that Rich Johnston uses in his review of Waid and Kitson's Legion of Superheroes #2. I'm not going to dispute all of Johnston's review in general, his opinions are valid even if I feel that he's off on his reading of things - I liked how Waid wrote the precognition scenes and I like how he handled to planet of precogs.[1] But, I do want to talk a little bit about this whole "looking backward" thing.

First of all, I agree wholeheartedly that good sci-fi is about the present. Good sci-fi is really a commentary on what our current world is like, but extrapolated into the future. It gives us a feel for "where we are going" if we continue down the paths that we have set. Books like Neuromancer, The Diamond Age, Snow Crash, and others all give us a glimpse of what the future will be like not just due to advancing technology, but with changing social mores and attitudes.

That is not to say that just because a piece of sci-fi is about the present, it will be good. There are many, many Star Trek scripts that say otherwise (see entire seasons of Star Trek: Voyager for more). However, finding good sci-fi that doesn't reflect on our current culture and attitudes is hard.

So what does this have to do with the Legion? I'd like to know exactly what Rich is looking at and saying its "backwards looking". Is it the futuristic Utopia? This is a reflection of our current attitudes extrapolated out a thousand years. Look at how things seem to be set up in this futuristic "utopia":
  • People go out of their way to avoid human contact and try to only talk to each other through their computer connections.
  • Parents are so concerned about what their kids see, hear and do that they have built an entire "Public Service" that seems to do nothing but monitor their own children for them.
  • A government is so worried about the reactions of their youth population that they censor the knowledge they receive to prevent them from reacting against it.
And these are JUST in that second issue. The first issue contains more, including a government so afraid of losing its grip on power that it turns its army loose on its own children to keep them in line and a United Planets government that is unwilling or unable to step in and stop them from doing it.

If you aren't seeing how these things are related to our present day, then I really don't know what to say. Sure it still has some trappings that "smell" kind of old and musty, especially the codenames, but that's because its not just sci-fi, its also a super-hero book and lately they tend to be musty-smelling all-around.

And its not like Waid is using the Legion as a metaphor for conflicts in our world - he's extending our conflicts a thousand years into the future. The opposition of the idealists versus those in power, the conflict between the need to express yourself versus the need for security and stability, the conflict between society's responsibility to help parents raise their children correctly versus the freedom of the individual to grown and learn on his own. These are all the types of battles that are fought every day now, and the types of things that Waid seems to be looking at with the Legion.

Now, that's not to say that he COULDN'T screw it up and turn the whole thing into a nostalgia-fest. He could, and if it happens I will sigh and stop buying the book (and perhaps grumble about missed opportunities here and there). But for now, its unfair to call this a backwards looking book. Waid is definitely looking into the future, despite the "musty-smelling" superhero trappings, and I can't wait to see where it goes next.

[1] I also agree with Rich that civilization tends to turn out brats and that these kids are a bit on the "nice" side. However, that's partly because we are dealing with superhero fiction here. You shouldn't generally think that your heroes are a bunch of selfish bastards (unless that's the point of the whole thing - see "The Authority"). If your characters are not likeable, its not going to get sales into that mass market of superhero comics (again, unless that's the point - see "The Ultimates).

Also, by making the Legion the sympathetic ones, Waid may be setting things up for the "crush of idealism" in the future. I'd like to see this book run in real-time for 5 years and see what happens to the idealists like Brainiac 5 and Sun Boy as their idealism is crushed out of them. It won't happen, of course, but it would be interesting to watch.

Saturday, February 05, 2005

Book Lists: My Library Reserves

DISCLAIMER: My wife works for the public library system.

I love the public library. Our public library stocks not only books, but also trade paperbacks (including manga), DVD's and even some indivdual issues of comics. The library has been a great way to try some books that I've wanted to read before committing myself to buying them. This is a great way for me to make sure I'm not spending money on something I'm only going to read once anyway.

This year, I've made myself a resolution that I would try to read more manga. I haven't exactly avoided reading manga in the past, and it's not like I refused to read it if someone recommended something to me. I never really sought it out for myself, though. It was always something that seemed like a "specialty taste" before. Now, due to reviews on the web like the ones at Comics Worth Reading, I can see that there is a lot more breadth to the manga being released in this country than there was before. (Or maybe it was just my perceptions that were wrong).

So, of course, I've turned to the local library to do my "try before I buy" thing. While the library's stock of manga isn't as varied as, say, Borders, there is some breadth to the collection and I hope to find some things that I'm going to like. Once I do, I'll probably end up picking them up do add to my personal library (since I know me and that's what I usually do).

Here are the items I have currently checked out and currently on reserve through the local library:

Checked Out
Runaways v.1
Runaways v.2
Redmoon v.1
Redmoon v.2
Sgt. Frog v.1
Oh My Goddess: Wrong Number
Buddha v.1
Channel Zero

On Reserve
God's Politics - Why the right gets it wrong and the left doesn't get it, Wallis
Going Postal, Pratchett
Kindaichi Case Files v.1
Hellsing v.1
Inuyasha v.1
Maison Ikkoku v.1
One-pound gospel v.1
Nausicca of the Valley of the Wind v.1-v.2
Fushigi Yugi v.1
FruitsBasket v.1
Akira v.1
Shaman King v.1
Superman - The Animated Series DVD collection v.1
Batman - The Animated Series DVD collection v.2

Tuesday, February 01, 2005

Links: Other Legion Impressions

Other folks are talking about the second issue of the Legion of Super-Heroes that I wrote about below. Johanna talks about both the Legion and the final issue of Morrison's We3 at her blog, Comics Worth Reading. Randy Lander and Don MacPherson give fairly thorough impressions at their site The Fourth Rail. And, for a counterpoint to the good reviews the above give, Rich Johnston at HeroRealm has a much more negative impression of the second issue.

If you can't tell from below, I disagree with Rich Johnston's impression. I agree that good sci-fi is about the present and not really about the future. I disagree that these Legion stories are somehow science fiction about the past, even if you take just the second issue in isolation and ignore the first. I'm hoping to get some time later this week to expand on that. We'll see.

Comics: Legion of Super-Heroes 1 & 2

I wasn't originally going to even pick up Waid and Kitson's revamp of the Legion. Initially, I kind of thought this was a "wait for the trade" book for me. While I love a lot of what Waid has done in the past (Empire, his Flash run, his issues of Ruse), he has a strong tendency to cross the line between using the past as a springboard for ideas and wallowing in the past for the sake of nostalgia. I wasn't sure where the Legion book would end up in this spectrum, so I initially decided to pass on it in favor of seeing how it went.

Good reviews, however, can change a man's mind. So, with the high marks that this book received from some of the reviewers at the left, I decided to pick it up and see for myself if it was worth getting.

Some "true confession" time here. I've never been a huge fan of the Legion. I remember getting some old back issues of "Superboy and the Legion" when I was a kid from somewhere, and I thought they were cool, but I never really read the book. By the time I started into weekly trips to the comic book store, Legion continuity had reached the point of X-Men continuity as far as ludicrousness and exclusivity, so I never really got into it then. I DID start picking it up during the "reboot" era, but after a while it felt like the writers were going through motions and maybe "re-telling" old stories with some kind of twist to keep the fans happy.

Given that, I have to say that Waid has sucked me in with these first two issues. I was astounded by how much he was able to cram into just two quick stories -AND that there were actually TWO stories in TWO issues. That doesn't seem to happen nearly as often as it should.

Some semi-spoilerish summary for those who haven't read the issues:

Issue 1 is an "introduction to the Legion" issue, but thankfully it isn't a "origin issue." We get enough information from it to find out that the Legion is both some kind of youth movement and a group of government-sanctioned peacekeepers who work outside the usual police channels. The law enforcement arm of the government (the Science Police) hate them, while the governing body of the United Planets is apparently trying to co-opt their popularity for their own ends. We get a nice snapshot of what life in the early 31st century is like as well as some all-out action sequences and a vision of the lengths that the people of the 31st century will go to to preserve their "utopia."

Issue 2 is a character piece, delving into the characters of both Braniac 5 and Dream Girl. The Legion investigates why the children of Naltor are unable to sleep and dream precognitive dreams. Again we get to see what the people of the 31st century will do not just to protect their utopia, but to protect their children from the real world.

First of all, these books are really nicely designed. I love the cover design even if it seems like it SHOULD be screaming "retro" at me. The layouts are clear and crisp and make the story easy to follow. The coloring is a little bland for my taste - it seems like it should be brighter for some reason - but its not really substandard.

The stories in these issues really blew me away. I certainly wasn't expecting anything like what I read despite the reviews I'd read for both of these issues. The idea of the Legion being both a peace-keeping force AND a youth movement is interesting to me, despite me being at the age where youth movements would no longer accept me as a member. Its a tactic that certainly seems like it should lead to some interesting stories, even if the youth movement is basically the superhero universe equivalent of the "Society for Creative Anachronism."

From other reviews that I've read I thought that I might be turned off by the series "looking backward." Some reviewers had made it seem like the Legion was a group of kids who were looking back to "better times" when superheroes roamed the Earth keeping the world safe from harm. I thought that this might be another bit of "navel-gazing" into comic-book history that Waid has done on occasion. While I've enjoyed some of them (notably Kingdom Come), its a theme that I think lends itself too much to "times were better then" thinking that I've come to dislike intensely [1].

Thankfully, though, this does not seem to be the case. At least with these first two issues, Waid seems to be taking a different track than "times were better then." The kids are "bored" with the utopia that their ancestors have built and that their parents and grandparents generation maintain, but boredom does not seem to be the motivating factor leading these kids to become the Legion. Instead, it seems to be the struggle against what their parents have done to keep them safe and secure versus their own ability to express themselves, to be individuals, and to live their lives free.

An example of this is the idea of the "Public Service." Waid hasn't fleshed this out much so far, but it appears to be some kind of network that not only keeps track of where each kid is at all times, it also tracks what they see and what they hear. Given what we find out about the "modifications" that Naltor made to their "Public Service" in issue 2, I suspect that the "big brother-ish" nature of the Service extends to not only tracking what the kids see and do but preventing them from seeing or doing anything that is not approved. Its insidious, but not a stretch to believe that in a thousand years such a thing might be possible. And its also not a stretch to believe that parents would push to have such a thing in place to track their children. Is it any wonder then that the primary use for the Legion flight ring is actually to block the connection to the Service so that the kids can live their own lives?

The book does not seem to be just about young/old conflicts, however. There's a strong political vibe running through the first few issues. The Legion is a sanctioned arm of the United Planets government as well as a youth movement, and there are conflicts from that as well. The arguments between what is "right" and what is "pragmatic" comes to the forefront in the first issue as Cosmic Boy and Sun Boy debate that very issue while Sun Boy and his team attempt to save the youth of Lallor from a very Tienamen Square-like massacre. The optimism of youth wins out, of course, but it will be interesting to see if Waid follows this up with repercussions for the Legion's actions on Lallor [2].

Finally, I want to make a comment on the story structure. Each issue tells a self-contained story, which I think is a great move by both Waid and DC to get folks to read this book. I didn't feel like I had to plan to commit $18 to read the first Legion story issue by issue. Instead, I have a $3 commitment to picking up the first issue. If I like it, I can come back for more (which I will be doing, I think). And, since I know that I'll get a full story for my $3, I'm not really tempted to "wait for the trade" instead of picking up the individual issues. This is really what the industry needs to do if they expect me to pick up single-issues - give me some real value for my money. Don't make it "part 1 of 8", especially when the book is starting out and needs to grow a fanbase.

[1] Mainly because it seems to be coming from the "Baby Boomer" generation who thinks, for some reason, things were better in the 60's than they are now. Look, I've read enough about the era to know that drug use was rampant, teen pregnancy was high, and racism and intolerance were outrageous. I refuse to believe that the 60's (or the 50's, 40's, 30's whatever) were in any way superior to where we are now. In many ways previous decades were far, far worse than anything we have right now, despite the wars, intolerance, bad television, and general mass hysteria the country and the world is going through right now. Because of that, I try to watch out for that kind of thinking coming from folks in MY generation and beat them senseless when I see it.

[2] Not that I think that what the Legion did on Lallor is wrong by any stretch. However, its obvious that given the situation that Waid set up, there SHOULD be some repercussions from this and if he lets those pass by he's missing some good opportunities for stories.