Monthly ArchiveJune 2010



Commentary & technology 28 Jun 2010 01:42 pm

Amazon Kindle

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I’ve had a week to play with the Amazon Kindle (a birthday gift from my wife), and here are my thoughts.

First, the bad:

1. Amazon didn’t see fit to bundle the Kindle with the latest software upgrade, so features mentioned in the digital handbook (5.0) weren’t available without a free upgrade. Amazon says these upgrades happen automatically on a rolling basis, a few thousand at a time, through the wonders of wireless technology. But if you’re an impatient user like me, you can download the upgrade (again for free) from the Amazon website, using directions that are totally inadequate for the technologically compared.

2: Four days after my wife ordered the device, Amazon entered into a price war with competitors, dropping the price. This was such dirty pool that I sent the company a letter; our account was credited the $70 difference. This should have happened automatically for all buyers, not only those who took the time to complain. Not a good way to do business, although the credit shows goodwill on the company’s part.

3. I’m concerned that I don’t “own” the books I buy for the Kindle; the same Whispernet technology that delivers titles so effortlessly can also take them away, without the buyer’s consent, should Amazon get into a skirmish with a publisher. I also wonder about compatibility issues if I switch from a Kindle to another device: Are my books forever bound to Kindle, or can they go with me elsewhere? And what if Amazon goes out of business? Do I lose my collection?

Now for the good:

1. Despite being skeptical about the whole e-book movement, the Kindle quickly won me over through its no-glare screen and ease of use. Within minutes, I was reading a book on the device. A few minutes after that, I forgot that I was reading on the Kindle and not from a traditional book. That’s really cool.

2. The Whispernet technology makes buying books easy — maybe too easy. I can easily find dozens of books that I would like to read, priced anywhere from free (for out-of-copyright classics) to $9.99 (for NY Times bestsellers) to sky’s the limit. Since it’s all available at the touch of a button, the buyer has to exercise restraint.

3. I love the note-taking capabilities of the Kindle. I like to highlight and notate as I read (although this preference is often at odds with my compulsion to keep books neat and clean), and Kindle makes this easy to do.

4. It’s fun to see passages that other readers have highlighted. This makes the solitary act of reading more communal. If I want to disable the feature, I can do so. The latest upgrade allows readers to share quotes on Twitter and Facebook. Since my Twitter and Facebook accounts are linked, I need only update to Twitter.

5. The varying font sizes allow everybody to read in comfort. The newest software offers eight sizes, two more than the previous update, which is one reason why I was confused when comparing my Kindle screen to the images in the instruction manual.

6. The Kindle syncs wirelessly anywhere I read a digital book, so I can close a chapter on the device, open it again on my iPhone to exactly the same page, read a bit, then return to the Kindle, which “knows” where I left off. Neat.

7. The battery charge lasts a loooong time. The initial, out-of-box charge lasted seven days with fairly heavy use; the company says that with wireless Internet turned off, a reader can go two weeks between charges.

So far, the positives outweigh the negatives. I’m still a traditionalist, but given the convenience of carrying around multiple books on one thin device and the price savings (not to mention ecological benefits), it doesn’t take a genius to see that the e-reader is quickly coming into its own.

Books & Comic books 28 Jun 2010 10:48 am

Criminal Vol. 5 — The Sinners

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If you’re a fan of hard-boiled fiction in any medium — books, movies, comics or whatever — and you’re not reading Criminal: Why the hell not?

Ed Brubaker and Sean Phillips continue to produce compelling stories about flawed people caught up in events they can’t easily walk away from. In the latest collected volume, The Sinners (out this month from Marvel Comics/Icon), the focus returns to Tracy Lawless, the protagonist of volume two, who now finds himself working as a hit man for the mob. While Tracy is not too ethical to kill, he is too ethical to kill just anybody; some of his hits get off with a warning, much to his boss’s chagrin. To better utilize Lawless’s talents, he is put on investigative detail instead, assigned to learn why other high-ranking criminals are turning up dead around the city.

And that’s just the setup to another twisting, turning tale set on the seedy side of life, in the parts of cities that tourists don’t find on promotional maps, the parts we all lock our doors when driving through as we hurriedly look for the exit ramps. It’s vicarious thrills that Brubaker and Phillips are selling, and they do it well.

My only criticism with this volume, as it has been since the beginning of the series, is that I set out to read it slowly, wanting to savor every detail, and end up gulping it down compulsively in one sitting. It’s that good.

 

Comic books 27 Jun 2010 07:24 pm

Jurassic Park #1

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If my goodwill toward IDW’s Jurassic Park #1 were a professional football team, it could win the Super Bowl.

I really wanted to like the book. Michael Crichton’s novel is a one of my favorites, I enjoyed two of the three movies inspired by the concept , and  the JP comic books from Topps Publishing back in the ’90s, while hardly classics, were fun extensions of the theme.

But this latest iteration is tepid stuff, indeed.

Opening installments of all stories are long on exposition, setting up scenarios that will pay off later. Unfortunately, long-time editor and first-time scripter Bob Schreck has confused the action-adventure world of Jurassic Park with a political thriller.

Siblings Alexa and Tim Murphy, who took the thrill ride of their lives as children in the novel and first film, are all grown up now. Alexa spends her time heading up Lexxcrops — “the leading supplier of the world’s organic vegetable products,” as a voice-over television reporter helpfully relates — and pleading with the United Nations to keep Isla Nublar permanently closed. Tim, meanwhile, is apparently negotiating with some shady business opportunists to breed more dinos, provided they promise not to clone the really nasty raptors.

All this goes on for far too many pages, relieved only by the occasional visit “elsewhere” to watch biochemists at work on new dino formulas and a sadistic animal handler use a Taser on a brontosaurus. We’re even treated to an infantile visual gag where a pachyderm sticks his trunk between a senator’s legs, creating what looks like a huge … you know.

To make matters worse, artist Nate Van Dyke flounders on the visuals, both with the human characters and the dinosaurs. Everybody and everything looks stiff and poorly rendered, and too many scenes are told too far away from the main action, as if he were photographing the story with a telephoto lens. He uses a very thick line on the dinosaurs, maybe to make them stand out, but the effect almost looks like the creatures have been Photoshopped into the panels.

It’s a shame, because IDW has obviously spent time and money to attract top talent to the book’s covers (this issue has different covers by Frank Miller and Tom Yeates), but not as much time making sure a good story is told inside.

Maybe things will get better next issue. If nothing else, it had a nifty cover by Arthur Adams, but it would be a shame if the best part of the series is the part readers can see from the outside, while their money is still safely in their pockets.

Commentary 25 Jun 2010 01:58 pm

Don’t touch that soap — it’s a cramp reliever!

This week’s Alliance Review column, dated June 24, 2010:

Back in the days when I really worked — “real work” defined as being on my feet and delivering meals in a restaurant and not the mental lollygagging I do for a paycheck these days — I would sometimes get terrific leg cramps in the middle of the night.

The cramps were so bad that they would send me lurching around the bedroom, stiff legged, like the Frankenstein monster in a black-and-white movie. Sometimes, they would start in one leg and move to another (I imagined tiny crimson cramp creatures in race cars, goggles down, scarves streaming, burning up the nerve highway to get from one side to the other), but most times they’d strike both legs at once.

The pain was so severe, but the situation so ludicrous, that I would find myself halfway between tears and hysterical laughter. Because my standard response to any situation is to imagine the worst-case scenario and then be pleasantly surprised when things aren’t that bad (call it reverse optimism), I imagined what life would be like if the pain never went away and I was forced to live with two legs that perpetually felt like they were being stuffed into a meat grinder.

So I read with interest last week the Readers Tell Us advice that suggested placing a bar of soap in bed to ward off leg cramps.

The suggestion raises questions, not the least of which is, “That can’t possibly work — can it?”

Also: Is the soap wet or dry? Wrapped or unwrapped? Dial or Dove? Does it go on top of the bed or beneath the fitted sheet? Do you need a new bar every night, or can the same one be used indefinitely, like a gigolo who never loses his mojo?

The caller didn’t address my concerns, and it’s possible I’m over thinking things, which is appropriate because the soap remedy has less to do with the legs than with the brain.

At least that’s my belief. My go-to source for all things urban legend and old wives’, the website snopes.com, is more charitable. While the authors classify the claim as “undetermined,” they also note, “perhaps the soap releases something into the air that is beneficial to those predisposed to this condition, with the bed sheets working to contain the helpful emissions to the area where they are needed.”

Snopes doesn’t discount the possibility that the “cure” works mostly as a placebo, either, similar to the effect that Ernest Angley has on the people he conks on the forehead and heals of various afflictions. (”Heel and heal!” might be his mantra, the former to show one’s obedience and the latter to reap the prize.)

Soap in the sheets — which sounds like a DVD that comes in a plain brown wrapper, billed discreetly to a credit card — makes more sense than home remedies for other ailments. For example, I’ve heard that to get rid of warts, the sufferer should slice open a potato, insert a quarter, and bury the potato. Not with full Scottish rites or anything, but simply in the backyard.

As a kid, my mom made me gargle with hot butter to cure laryngitis, a process that became unfortunately more convenient with the invention of the microwave. I remember our first microwave was as big as a medium Balkan nation and took up half the kitchen. A German shepherd could fit comfortably inside with enough room left over for two cats and a used-car salesman. Not that we ever tried — at least not with the dog.

Gargling with butter tastes as gross as it sounds, but it really does work. You’re so busy vomiting that you forget all about the laryngitis. The first time I introduced the concept to my daughter, however, she promptly refused to imbibe, something that I, as a dutiful child, never felt comfortable with, but that is, upon reflection, the mark of an eminently sensible person.

Given the taste, you might be better gargling with a bar of soap and sleeping in hot butter, but only to cure throat cramps and soothe hoarse legs. As opposed to horse legs, one symptom of which is standing up in a stall to sleep.

The calorie conscious are free to substitute a spread in place of real butter, but it may not cure the problem. Call it a margarine of error.

Comic books 24 Jun 2010 08:24 am

‘Drac’ redux

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The cover of Dracula #1 (above, minus logo) looks like an obvious attempt by Marvel to cash in on the current Twilight/Eclipse/New Moon sexy vampire craze, or maybe to piggyback on the Death of Dracula event that will run through some of the company’s titles later this summer. (I no longer follow either of the Big Two’s ridiculous crossover schedules.)

Either way, what’s inside the book is decidedly old school — a reprinting of the first part of the 1970s adaptation of Bram Stoker’s novel by comics legends Roy Thomas and the late, lamented Dick Giordano. What separates this four-issue mini-series from the one released just a few years ago (and the trade reprinting of same) is that, this time, it’s in color.

How you feel about art that was originally designed for black-and-white printing — and in a larger, magazine size — being colorized and reduced for this venture depends on how much of a purist you are. Personally, I find the coloring by June Chung to be a nice addition, especially since the monochrome version is still separately available. (I feel the same way about DVD releases that give you both an original and a colorized version of a movie. They satisfy both camps, so what’s the harm?)

Thomas’s adaptation is slavishly faithful to Stoker’s original, replicating it beat for beat. The opening sequence involving Jonathan Harker in Dracula’s castle is my favorite part of the book, so it was a real treat to see it handled so lovingly here. Giordano’s art is a reminder of what a great talent he was; he perfectly captures Dracula, not as he’s been rendered through movies and TV over the years, but the way Stoker originally described him — and certainly not the way the character is rendered on Jelena Djurdjevic’s cover.

If anything, the Djurdjevic image confuses the situation, because people who pick it up expecting something akin to Stephanie Meyers are going to be confused by the interiors, and most of the people who would be attracted to a faithful retelling get no indication of that from the cover. And why didn’t Marvel release this under the company’s Marvel Illustrated imprint? It certainly meets the qualifications.

Regardless, I plan to stick around for the entire mini-series. This is good work by two comics veterans, and the addition of color only enhances the presentation.

Books & Comic books 21 Jun 2010 12:01 pm

Tomb of Dracula Omnibus #1

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For the past four months or so, I’ve been slogging my way through Tomb of Dracula Omnibus #1.

“Slogging” makes it sound like a chore, but I guess the word more properly expresses my speed of reading, both because of circumstances outside my control (work and home commitments) and my own desire not to burn through the material in this book too quickly and thus grow sick of it. Because reading the omnibus has been a real joy.

Long considered by fans as a forerunner to the kind of mature horror that came to fruition in DC’s Vertigo line of comics, Marvel’s 1970s run of Tomb of Dracula  spent its first few issues casting about for a team to do justice to the concept. Writer Gerry Conway set the stage, and Gardner Fox and Archie Goodwin (especially the latter, surely one of the most underestimated writers in comics) added to the emerging mythos of the king of the vampires in the Marvel universe. But it wasn’t until writer Marv Wolfman took the reins that the book really hit its stride.

Of course, penciler-supreme Gene Colan was there from the beginning, and his moody rendition of Dracula is still definitive, decades later. Just flipping through this massive volume, one finds examples of other artists (most of them good at their jobs) attempting to follow the Colan model and failing miserable. Gene’s Dracula is all cape, shadows, and stark angles. Everybody else’s looks like a pervert wrapped in a towel.

This book, which reprints TOD 1-31 plus various giant-sized and crossover titles (such as an issue of Werewolf by Night) introduces the reader not only to the title character, but also to a wealth of supporting characters, the vampire hunters whose humanity is at such odds with their foe. Many of these characters have ties to Bram Stoker’s original cast, including Quincy Harker, aged son of Jonathan and Mina Harker, confined to a wheelchair but with a brilliant mind and knack for gadgetry; Frank Drake, a descendant of the infamous Count himself, a child of privilege with serious self-confidence issues; and Rachael Van Helsing, granddaughter of Dr. Van Helsing, armed with a totally ineffective crossbow.  

Of the cast members without direct ties to the original novel (and there are many), the best known is easily Blade, the black vampire hunter who went on to star in three motion pictures and a TV series.

Wolfman does an admirable job of juggling among the extensive cast and bringing out their strengths and frailties, albeit through the kind of purple prose and soap-opera dialogue that characterized so many comics of the time. Dracula himself is especially apt to soliloquize, often at the expense of the plot.

Periodically, the vampire mentions his master plan for enslaving the human race, but it doesn’t seem to involve much more than biting the random pretty coed or barmaid on the neck, and even that seems mostly designed to slake his thirst. Every now and again he alludes to this plan, but still spends most of his time trying to rub out the band of vampire hunters instead of taking over the world. Maybe this flaw wasn’t as apparent when reading these issues separated by two months, but it becomes obvious when reading them closer together (even if it did take me longer than usual).

Overall, however, the book holds up. The characters are intriguing; the situations that Dracula finds himself in are novel, sometimes forcing him to play the role of the anti-hero; and the art — especially once inker Tom Palmer joins the book around issue #11 — is among the best to ever grace an American comic.

Up next, Tomb of Dracula Omnibus #2, reprinting the second half of the series. It’s been sitting, unopened, on my bookshelf for months, and now I can finally — you’ll pardon the expression — sink my teeth into it.

Commentary & Family life 18 Jun 2010 08:21 am

The only way to travel

Here is my June 17, 2010, column from The Alliance Review:

Whoever said getting there was half the fun likely had access to a teleportation machine or a transporter room from the Starship Enterprise.

The truth is that travel — whether by plane, bus or automobile — is a drag. It would be a lot better if you could close your eyes, count to 10, and open them again to find yourself magically at your destination.

(An exception to the “travel sux” rule is bicycling, enjoyable but impractical for most destinations, unless it’s around the corner for a loaf of bread. Even then, the bread gets squished, unless you let it dangle from the handlebars, in which case the bottom of the bag gets chewed up in the tire spokes. But I digress.)

The reason travel is such a chore is that every trip longer than, say, 100 miles involves the same scene: Stopping at a gas station to ask directions from some toothless person whom Fate plops at the door solely to vex wayward voyagers.

My usual method is to ask the most-normal looking person if he or she knows how to get to such-and-such. Inevitably, this person directs me to old Zeke, or the local equivalent, who remembers the days “afore the new-fangled highway come through and wrecked all hereabouts.”

In ancient times, the god Hermes directed lost travelers, but if any remnant of the deity peers out at me from beneath the shaggy locks of some human door mat at these petrol palaces, I’ve never recognized him.

The directions I get would sound perfectly natural in “Deliverance,” punctuated by dueling banjos — “Just go down thar aways, past one, two, mebbe three traffic lights and bear left by what used to be the A&P before (insert rambling reverie about the Old Days here), then take the second right to get back on old Highway 25 (a designation not seen on any road sign or map since Nixon was in office), which will take you back to the freeeeeway.” (This last is pronounced the way your grandpa might pronounce a multi-syllabic, deadly disease: haltingly, distrustfully, as if the word is dynamite that could blow the roof off his mouth at any time.)

No sooner am I back on the road than I can imagine Zeke & Co. laughing at me, pulling out a rubber stamp like the one the Red Baron uses to notch another kill on the side of his plane, and tallying his latest victory in a corner of Service Bay No. 2, just out of my sightline.

With the prevalence of online navigation systems and cell phones, maybe you believe such scenes just don’t play anymore.

Wrong.

All that online navigation systems have done is transplant Zeke to the dashboard, where he offers his spurious advice on a computer screen or in a monotone, robotic voice. Call him Zeke 2.0.

“Turn - left - next - 2.5 - miles,” offers Cyber Zeke, “onto - Route - 7-slash-11 - bearing - north,” indicating a road that does not exist, and a turn which, if taken, would plunge the unwary driver over the side of a cliff and down, down, down to a hideous death.

As we head into this Father’s Day weekend, I’m painfully aware that dads are supposed to have an inborn sense of direction and the knack of finding polar north even when locked in the hold of a pirate ship with a bomb ticking nearby, like MacGruber in a Saturday Night Live skit.

I’m not that kind of dad. My ability to find my way out of any emergency situation is limited to following the Exit signs in a theater. As far as travel is concerned, I’m a hopeless ninny.

All of which explains why I’d be much happier being beamed up from one destination to another through a Star Trek teleporter. With my luck, though, my inaugural trip would be scheduled on a day that Mr. Scott is on sick leave, and his substitute would be — you guessed it — local pump jockey Zeke.

“Now you say you wanna go where?” he asks, just before hitting the button that sends my body to the Outer Banks — and my head to Peru.

Comic books 15 Jun 2010 10:47 am

Stephen King’s N.

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Stephen King’s N. (with a period after the “N”) is an enjoyable ride. I haven’t read the original prose piece, which is something of a rarity for me as far as King comics adaptations go, so I’m judging this not based on its fidelity to the original (although I assume it is), but on how well it works as a comic.

And the answer is: Very well, indeed. The conceit here is to take the concept of Lovecraftian horror — that belief in a world of large, gibbering gods and devils existing in an other-dimensional world adjacent to ours —  and graft it to modern psychological theory. In other words, can mental illness be contagious, brought about by exposure to standing stones in a field in central Maine?

Since this is a Stephen King story, of course madness is contagious. Writer Marc Guggenheim and artist Alex Maleev do a fine job of showing the descent of the main character — known only as N. in the notes his doctor makes — into madness, first through an OCD fixation on numbers and later through suicidal tendencies.

The insanity doesn’t end with N., however, but moves right along to vex his psychiatrist, as well, who eventually succumbs to something straight out of the Cthulhu mythos. (Does anybody know how to pronounce “Cthulhu”? I’ve seen it as kuh-THOO-loo, but I always want to put an “s” at the beginning.)

Stephen King’s N. began life as a motion comic, according to material in the back of the four-issue series. I didn’t read any of the installments online, but the book’s non-traditional origins haven’t affected its presentation in a standard format here. Maleev’s photo referencing is fairly obvious, but unlike some readers who get into a real snit about the practice, I like it. Not on all books, mind you, but only where and when it’s appropriate. It’s appropriate here.

The best indicator of success with a horror comic (or any kind of horror story, really) is to ask if it’s scary. N. doesn’t smack the reader with head-on terror, but it is disquieting, and I imagine doubly so to those prone to OCD-like symptoms or a full-blown syndrome.

The human mind is the scariest place of all, and that’s where Stephen King’s N. sets up shop for most of its run. I’d like to see more of King’s work adapted in this fashion, especially with the kind of care and concern that Guggenheim and Maleev have lavished here.

Commentary 15 Jun 2010 08:43 am

Call Western Union*

What will people who look for messages from God in natural disasters make of this?

Ohio Jesus statue struck by lightning, destroyed

*With thanks to the legendary Samuel Goldwyn

Comic books & Movies 14 Jun 2010 10:36 am

Al Williamson passes

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Probably the first Al Williamson-drawn comic book I ever bought was Star Wars #39, the opening installment of Marvel’s Empire Strikes Back adaptation. The man was a genius at the drawing board, capturing perfectly the sense of wonder inherent in the Star Wars universe. The ’80s seemed to be Williamson’s decade for movie adaptations; his name appeared in the credit box for Blade Runner (written by Archie Goodwin, who also penned the Empire adaptation) and Flash Gordon, as well.

As I learned more about comics in general and Williamson in particular, I found out about his involvement in EC Comics, surely the apex of popular sequential art in the 20th century. His chiseled heroes and beauteous heroines set the standard for subsequent artists.

I only met Williamson once, in passing, at a comics convention in the ’90s where he was promoting his work on a two-issue Flash Gordon mini-series for Marvel. It was his return to full illustration in the “classical” Williamson mode; I recall reading somewhere that he had purposely simplified his inking style to complete enough jobs to make a living.

That wasn’t the case with these two issues of Flash Gordon, which showed that he was still at the height of his game, decades after first entering the business. I believe I stammered something about how much I enjoyed his work before shuffling away from his table to make room for the next slack-jawed acolyte to pay tribute to his graphic genius.

Williamson was that kind of artist.

Word on the Internet today is that Williamson has died at the age of 79. While I haven’t seen that officially confirmed, the sheer number of tributes popping up here and there would seem to indicate that it isn’t a hoax. I wish it were, for a lot of reasons, one of which is that fans usually reserve their outpouring of adulation until after an artist or writer dies, and it would be nice if Williamson could see how much his work meant to so many people.

R.I.P. Al Williamson.

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