29 September 2011

"Action Comics" #1 (Nov 2011)

Action Comics #1
"Superman Versus the City of Tomorrow"
Grant Morrison - Writer
Rags Morales - Penciller
Rick Bryant - Inker
Brad Anderson - Colorist
Patrick Brosseau - Letterer
Rags Morales & Brad Anderson - Cover
Jim Lee, Scott Williams & Alex Sinclair - Variant Cover
Wil Moss - Associate Editor
Matt Idelson - Editor
Superman Created by Jerry Siegel & Joe Shuster
Date of Publication: 7 September 2011
$3.99, 40 pages

I hadn't planned to even read this issue.  When I bought Batgirl #1 two weeks ago, Barnes and Noble had plenty of Action Comics #1.  I didn't even look at a copy.  I dig Superman, mind you.  But the idea of a young, edgy Superman just seems laughable to me and I wasn't drawn to a Superman wearing jeans and a T-shirt with a short little cape and at $3.99--a full dollar over the cover price of most comics--I had Action Comics firmly in my "pass" list.  Since passing on the issue, though, I heard a lot of favorable reactions and on my subsequent visit to Barnes and Noble, I discovered one solitary copy remaining.  It seemed serendipitous and, since I'm impetuous I splurged.

In this first issue, Superman confronts a Mr. Glenmorgan, a guy so powerful he's referred to as "Mr. Metropolis."  The police have been hunting Superman for six months by this point, during which his powers have grown.  He's bulletproof, but not invincible; he's still at the "able to leap tall buildings" phase of strength and has yet to reach actual flight.  In addition to the police, the military is after Superman.  General Lane--Lois's father--leads that task force, aided by civilian contractor Lex Luthor.

The basic elements of the Superman mythology are present, from a reference to growing up on a farm in Smallville to the Daily Planet (where Clark Kent is not an employee) and it's a fine first issue.  Character introductions aren't conspicuous and expository dialog is fairly organic (unlike, say, Batwoman #1).  The art by Rags Morales, Brad Anderson and Rick Bryant looks great, the layouts are clean and the pace of the issue is brisk.  It took me 14 minutes to read 40 pages, though, and that's a little light by my standards--particularly if I'm to pay $3.99 an issue.  I might buy issue #2, but if it doesn't wow me, I'll likely stick to my original plan to read Superman ($2.99 a pop) instead.

27 September 2011

"Batwoman" #1 (Nov 2011)

Batwoman #1
"Hydrology, Part 1: Leaching"
J.H. Williams, III: co-writer & artist
W. Haden Blackman: co-writer
Dave Stewart: colors
Todd Klein: letters
Janelle Asselin: assoc. editor
Michael Marts: editor
Batman created by Bob Kane
Date of publication: 14 September 2011
$2.99, 32 pages

I've never read a Batwoman comic before, but I knew that a few years ago, DC had decided to update the Silver Age character.  This Batwoman is Kate Kane, and all I knew before this issue was that she had red hair and made some waves a while back for being a lesbian.  Story-wise, I was peripherally aware that she had some kind of ongoing story involving her family and the military.  Since the Bat-family of books were selling well enough to satisfy DC's bean counters, they've been largely unaffected by the establishment of the new continuity and it shows.  This first issue tries to catch up new readers like me along the way, but the exposition is fairly awkward to read; there were whole pages that felt like illustrated editor's notes more than dialog.

Some spooky ghost woman who looks like Helena Bonham Carter is going around kidnapping children, and Batwoman is on her trail.  We open with a near-rescue, and then the Hispanic parents recounting the incident to Detective Maggie Sawyer.  (She was a cop in Metropolis once upon a time, but sometime after I stopped being a regular reader, she came out of the closet and moved to Gotham City.)  Kate and Maggie seem to be on the verge of courtship, but before that goes anywhere, Kate is taking her cousin Bette out for sidekick mentoring.  Bette had been Flamebird, but Kate has decided to demote her to "Plebe," complete with generic uniform devoid of any personality.  I suppose their quick night out and about roughing up some guys in a bar had something to do with tracking down the kidnapping ghost woman, but I had to fill in that gap myself since no one ever asks anything like, "Where are the children?" or "Who's the creepy ghost woman?"  They just fight.

The dialog between Kate and Bette primarily serves as a pretext for introducing newbies like me to the back story of the Kane family drama, involving Kate's military dad covering up the fact that Kate's twin sister, Beth, was in fact still alive but had become insane and surfaced as a super villain, who then perished for real.  If it sounds convoluted in my summary, I can assure you it's not made any more palatable in this issue.  Oh, and some skeleton guy working at a government agency is looking into both the Kate family and Batwoman.  So there's that.

The art is particularly solid; there is a nice blend of imagery that looks like painted work alongside traditional pencils and inks.  It was a little jarring at first, but as the issue unfolded I found I really enjoyed the effect.  It gives the story an aesthetic ripe with atmosphere, but a certain sense of old school comic book kinetic energy that I can see being enjoyable on an ongoing basis.  I did have a problem with the proliferation of splash pages, however; six of the first eight pages are splash pages, and there are only six single pages in the entire issue.  They look great but there's a sense of story decompression here.  I feel like J.H. Williams, III and W. Haden Blackman must have had a conversation that either involved Williams pleading with Blackman to back off on story content so he could show off his art, or the two of them deciding that Williams had to do 18 splash pages because they didn't have enough material for a full issue.

Also, I would be remiss not to comment on the fact that we see Kate and Bette change into, and then later out of, their costumes which seems largely a pretext for showing us Bette in bikini briefs with some side boob.  Is dressing for a night of costumed vigilantism an obvious, practical step to take?  Sure.  Is it reasonable they would chat while getting changed?  Absolutely.  Relative to the other notorious, egregious issues of the New 52, this hardly seems worth mentioning but it does feel a little gratuitous.

All in all, I'd say this is an average, three-star issue.  It was clumsy at times and lacked enough substance for my taste.  I found it a cut beneath Batgirl and Detective Comics, but at least I wasn't outraged like readers of Catwoman or Red Hood and the Outsiders.

I liked the ghost woman part of the story, which is surprising given I'm not generally big on superhero stories involving the supernatural; I like my costumed people to fight other costumed people, or mobsters.  I prefer to let Mystery, Inc. investigate ghosts.  With the Kate family drama, I feel like I just started watching NCIS in the middle of its fifth season.  Sure, I can glean what I need to know (especially when it's all spelled out for me like it is in this issue), but do I really care?

This opening story arc runs five issues, and I think for the time being I'll commit to reading the next four and then reevaluating the series.  I don't have an instant need to keep up with this book, but I also recognize that some of what bugged me may have been obligatory first issue housekeeping.  I'm interested to see how subsequent issues read, now that Williams and Blackman shouldn't be so boxed into providing such forced exposition into their script.  (I'm also hoping for fewer splash pages; this issue only took me about 12 minutes to read, and that's much too low for my taste.)

Incidentally, the first printing is sold out.  I just happened to find one at Barnes and Noble.  A second printing will be available at comic shops on 12 October, the same day that issue #2 hits shelves.

26 September 2011

"Detective Comics" #1 (Nov 2011)

Detective Comics #1
Written and Drawn by Tony Salvador Daniel
Inks - Ryan Winn
Colors - Tomeu Morey
Lettering - Jared K. Fletcher
Cover - Tony Salvador Daniel
Assistant Editor - Katie Kubert
Associate Editor - Janelle Asselin
Editor - Mike Marts
Batman Created by Bob Kane
Date of publication: 7 September 2011
$2.99, 32 pages

I hadn't even intended to buy this, but after spending most of the day with my wife babysitting for a friend of ours, I felt entitled to splurge on the way home.  Barnes and Noble still had this on the shelves, along with one remaining copy of Action Comics and the one book I hoped they'd have: Batwoman.  It was storming late tonight/early this morning and since I was still wide awake, I decided that the storm would make for the perfect ambiance for reading 'Tec.  Turns out, I was more or less right.

In a recent discussion on his blog, Ty Templeton lamented that this character calling himself The Joker bears little resemblance to the character as he has been presented and known for the last 75 years.  He's right.  Despite using a high voltage joy buzzer and popping off a couple of bad puns, there's no sense of even dark whimsy about this character.  He's a pure sadist, committing acts of violence befitting a character wishing to be taken seriously by an audience that has grown up with the Saw movies.  I'm not that audience, but I confess: I kinda dig this issue.  It calls to mind some of the Legends of the Dark Knight stories I used to enjoy in my youth: gritty, without advertising in every panel that they're gritty.  Tony Daniel has written and penciled a striking first issue for Detective Comics's relaunch; it moves at a great pace and, like Batgirl #1, it took me a solid 20+ minutes to read so I felt pretty good about the amount of substance here.

I do hope, though, that Daniel shores up some of the cliches in future issues.  For instance, when Batman and The Joker are finally face to face on page six, the former announces, "Forget about it, Joker. You can't run. I own the night."  I'd already seen The Joker butcher a dude, and it was Batman who made me cringe.

Perhaps the greatest microcosm for the small parts of this issue that didn't work for me is that before Batman can rescue a little girl, the Gotham City Police Department storm in and pursue...Batman, who has to lead the dimwitted cops out of the building to safety.  It works to extricate The Joker and frustrate Batman, but it doesn't feel terribly new.  We've seen the police chase Batman umpteen times; in three of the to-date six live action movies and the animated Batman: Mask of the Phantasm, to say nothing of countless TV episodes and comic books before.  How familiar is it?  Familiar enough that Daniel can show the entire chase on two pages, told mostly in shorthand.  We don't need to see the whole thing; Batman can narrate his irritation, tell us what he's going to do and then pull into the Batcave on the next page.  It's all too perfunctory; Daniel himself knows this isn't the real action of the story, but rather an obstacle that allows the antagonist to escape.

Mostly, these are minor quibbles.  The real dilemma is what to make of the darkness of the plot--involving a mass murdering Joker who now apparently hacks away at his victims in the nude and seems to have begun hiring challengers to try to kill him.  For a lot of readers, it may work as a Batman story, but leaves a lot to be desired as a Joker story.  I'd be lying if I said I was in love with a Joker without much of a sense of humor, but I'm sufficiently intrigued that I'll likely buy the second issue to see where this is going.

"8 1/2" Criterion Collection Blu-ray Disc

Otto e mezzo [8 1/2]
Starring: Marcello Mastroianni, Claudia Cardinale, Anouk Aimée, Sandra Milo
Story by Federico Fellini and Ennio Flaiano
Screenplay by Federico Fellini, Tullio Pinelli, Ennio Flaiano & Brunello Rondi
Created and Directed by Federico Fellini
Cinescopes Personality Types: Charismatic Performer, Existential Savior
Blu-ray Disc Release: 12 January 2010
List Price: $39.95
The Criterion Collection #140
Criterion Themes: Federico Fellini, Oscar Winners, Allan Arkush's Top 10, Chris Hegedus's Top 10Götz Spielmann’s Top 10

The Film
I streamed this from Netflix in February, and was left feeling a respect for the obvious craftsmanship and artistry of 8 1/2, but the truth is it left me somewhat cold.  I was amused, intrigued and impressed, but I was not entertained, engaged or amazed.  I was content to chalk it up to my pedestrian taste and a failure to properly get into the milieu of Fellini's work, until I happened upon the Criterion Blu-ray on sale at Half Price Books over the summer for a paltry $12.00.  For that irresistible price, I elected to revisit it this month as part of the second annual DVD Talk Criterion Collection Challenge.  Since my previous viewing, I've gone through some important stuff mentally and emotionally, and it is to this more than anything else that I attribute the fact I have discovered I am in love with 8 1/2.

The premise is simple enough: director Guido (Mastroianni) is supposed to be working on his next masterpiece, but finds the pressures of the business and his personal life weigh upon him so severely he cannot function.  "What's the story?" he's asked, and he honestly doesn't know.  He can't not make the movie; he's too prolific for that.  Yet, he has no idea what story he wants to tell--because he has no sense of himself.  Fellini himself is said to have made 8 1/2 as an autobiographical catharsis and nearly a self-satire depending on your perspective.  It shows.  8 1/2 could only have been made by a man who knew what it was like to have the entire world ask you questions about yourself you cannot answer.  Guido is inundated with reminders of his past, searching various stages of his growth for clues about what to do in the present.  Nearly all of his recollections lead directly to a woman in one way or another, from his mother to his wife, with mistresses a-plenty along the way.  Are there lessons to be learned from the failed relationships of yesterday, or do they compound Guido's sense of disarray?
Marcello Mastroianni proves Italians can rock a cowboy hat.
Far better qualified people than me have dedicated whole volumes to analyzing and criticizing 8 1/2, so I won't bother with that myself.  Rather, I will merely say that of late, I too have felt pulled by various people for numerous reasons, as though they looked to me for something I wasn't sure I could provide.  I've been quite humbled to find in recent months my blog posts about Crohn's disease, depression and LGBT issues resonating with an expanding readership.  It's the most rewarding thing in the world to have people who don't know you from Adam say to you, "Thank you for writing this..." and then sharing the most intimate stories you might imagine.  Those occasions make this entire blog worthwhile, and I am thankful for every such interaction.  Yet, I'd be lying if I didn't feel inadequate to the praise.  There's a sense that I have that these readers are hoping to find something poignant and inspiring from me, and instead all I can bring myself to churn out lately are comic book posts, it seems.  I very much empathized with Guido, avoiding the producer and mollifying actresses that, sure, they'll have plenty of lines in a screenplay he hasn't actually written.

The message of 8 1/2, I believe, is that there can be art even in a state of chaos.  We may not even find answers to our questions--not in the past, nor in the present--but that asking them in the first place can lead us along.  Perhaps not to anything meaningful at the time at all (Guido eventually does find a direction for his film), but in life we cannot withdraw until we are ready to proceed.  We must constantly move forward, for that is the nature of our linear existence.  8 1/2 is a comforting reminder that it's okay that we may not know where we're going, or even sure where we've been.  I may have recognized but dismissed this in February, but here in September it was a godsend for me.

The Supplements
The Criterion Collection is renowned for its wealth of bonus content and 8 1/2 is as fine an example as you'll find.  Here are my thoughts on the exhaustive supplements to be found on this spectacular Blu-ray Disc.

"I, Fellini" [excerpt] - Federico Fellini interviewed by Charlotte Chandler ****

Fellini recounts the genesis of the film, including an anecdote about being invited to a birthday party for one of the grips or electricians in which it became apparent to him that if he didn't make some movie, those people would be out of work.  It's exactly the kind of motivation that resonates so powerfully with me at present.

"When 'He' Became 'I'" by Tullio Kezich ****

Fellini's biographer summarizes the evolution of the film from concept to legacy.  What I found intriguing was to learn of Fellini's rather contentious relationship with writers--myself having the utmost admiration for the craft.

"A Film with Itself as Its Subject" by Alexander Sesonske **

The weak spot in this booklet, Sesonske lavishes praise upon 8 1/2 in the way that only someone writing decades after critics have changed their minds about a film can.  For Sesonske, time has vindicated Fellini and it's time to crow about it.  I'm sure it's a valid argument to be made, but it doesn't make for particularly compelling reading.

"I, Fellini (Reprise)" ***

Fellini's work creed is spelled out, articulating his need for malleability.  Nothing eye-opening, but it does include the following gem:
"Understanding what makes a thing difficult doesn't make it less difficult, and understanding how difficult it is can make it more difficult to attempt."
Disc Supplements
Commentary - Audio essay read by actress Tanya Zaicon; interviews with Gideon Bachmann and NYU film professor Antonio Monda. Recorded in 2001. *****

It's always nice when a commentary track goes beyond idle praise for those on screen and haphazard recollections of what took place behind the scenes.  This commentary track is devoted to a scholarly interpretation of the film's surreal narrative, relying partly on several primary sources to help place the production in the context of Federico Fellini's life and state of mind at the time of production.  Maybe it's just that I'm at a point in my life where I feel as clueless and as overwhelmed as I'm told Fellini felt throughout the production of 8 1/2, but this commentary track greatly endeared me to the movie.

"The Janus Films Director Introduction Series presents Terry Gilliam on Federico Fellini's 8 /12" (7:30) ***

The nature of this introduction is too brief to allow for much substance, though it's interesting to hear Gilliam cite specific parts of 8 1/2 that influenced him as a storyteller.  I suspect this is more appealing to fans of Gilliam than to fans of Fellini or this film.

"Fellini: A Director's Notebook" (51:16) **

A TV special depicts the process of preparing and casting for a film.  The A/V quality would be fine if I was fluent in Italian and/or Latin, but I'm not and so it was difficult for me to follow some of the nuances.  My initial reaction is that the concept was more interesting than the actual product of this piece.

Fellini Letter ****

Text translation of a letter sent by Fellini to producer Peter Goldfarb in which he describes his idea for the TV special, inspired by the various larger-than-life people he had met and experiences he had in preparing his films.  Verbose, certainly, but it makes clear his enthusiasm for such interactions.  If I had received such a letter, I too would have wanted to produce the TV special.

The back side of Claudia Cardinale
"The Last Sequence" (50:24) *****

A documentary produced in 2003 to explore what is or was known about a different ending for the film, set aboard a train.  The footage is lost (likely destroyed by Fellini himself), and not every participant even recalls filming it.  It's as interesting a study of Fellini as it is of film-making in general.  A brief passage dedicated to the sound design of the excised train alone was worth the time of viewing.

"Zwischen Kino und Konzert: Der Komonist Nino Rota" ["Nino Rota: Between Cinema and Concert"] (47:28) *****

This 1993 German documentary that explores the professional career of composer Nina Rota is absolutely terrific.  His legacy of work stands as evidence to support his thesis that there is dignity in all works of art, and I found this particularly engaging.  A must for anyone interested in music of any style, genre or medium.

Sandra Milo and Marcello Mastroianni
Sandra Milo (26:37) ****

Milo's reminisces as an actress aren't terribly important, but her perspective on Fellini as his mistress of 17 years are quite engaging and touching.  One gets the sense that she has romanticized Fellini after all these years, but there's an emotional vulnerability that makes this interview captivating.

Lina Wertmuller (17:28) ***

Wertmuller shares her recollection of working with Fellini on 8 1/2, mostly in the context of being a peer.  Nothing particularly stood out here, perhaps because Wertmuller shares more nuggets in other bonus content elsewhere.

Vittorio Storaro (17:24) ****

Cinematographer Storaro breaks down the evolution of the use of light in film, and touches on 8 1/2 largely as it relates to the craft of film-making.  He speaks English, so there are no subtitles but his accent is strong enough that I wish there were subtitles anyway.  Still, these are the kinds of things you need to pay attention to if you're interested in learning about film-making and if you can overcome the accent you'll find he does a great job being accessible.

Trailer (3:09) *** 1/2

Wow.  Just...wow.  The trailer makes it look like a sexploitation movie, but also like a chaotic train wreck on the order of, say, the 1967 Casino Royale.  I'd love to hear what people who saw the trailer before seeing the movie felt about it.  Incidentally, the finale of the film was originally shot to be the trailer, until Fellini decided instead to make it the ending and abort the aforementioned originally planned and shot conclusion.

Photographs by Gideon Bachmann ****

There are only about a dozen photos, and frankly I'm not a fan of viewing stills on a TV screen, but they're gorgeous photos nonetheless.  I'd love to see a coffee table-sized book of Bachmann's work (which I suspect exists).

Stills Gallery ****

More photos, not attributed to Bachmann but just as interesting to view.

24 September 2011

On Comic Books, Feminism and Sexuality

Much has been made recently of the relationship between women and comic books, specifically in the context of DC Comics's New 52 relaunch.  A fretfully low number of creators are women, and even fewer female characters are anything beyond fantasy fodder for young male readers.  Before we even discuss women, though, I'd just like to point out that the slam really ought to be that female characters in comics are portrayed as fantasy fodder for young straight male readers.  It seems in the course of our demographic sensitivity, we forget that not every young male reader is straight.  But, I digress; the nature of LGBT readers, creators and characters will have to wait for another post.  [Note: Bunker, a new openly gay character, will debut in Teen Titans #3.]

The most blatant offenses of The New 52 appear to be Catwoman #1 and Red Hood and the Outsiders #1 in which Catwoman and Starfire, respectively, are both unapologetic sluts, for lack of better term.  Incensed readers have asserted that there is a pointed difference between a woman with a healthy sense of her sexuality and this kind of vapid fantasy girl--disposable, offering her lovers the act itself without seeming to actually value it for herself. It's a fair argument to make, and to appreciate the nuances of this, one must spend some serious time thinking about, and studying, sexuality.  (And, no, just thinking about sex a lot doesn't cut it.)

"What about Samantha in Sex and the City?" you might be tempted to ask, thinking you've got an unapologetic slut from a show loved by lots of women as your ultimate retort.  Firstly, not every woman who reads comic books is a fan of that show in the first place; believe it or not, not all women have the same taste or values.  Secondly, even among those who are fans of Sex and the City, it doesn't follow that they're particularly big fans of that specific character.  Lastly, there is a difference between Samantha and Starfire.  Samantha makes it clear that she has frequent, meaningless sex because she enjoys it.  Starfire, however, appears to offer herself to her male teammates in much the same fashion that you might offer a magazine you've finished reading to someone else in a waiting room.
Do these look like women who read comic books?
Photo: Benjamin Norman for The New York Times
Nelson Blake makes a solid argument amid this outrage that not every New 52 title has been so egregious; Wonder Woman, for instance, doesn't appear to have offended anyone.  The only New 52 issue I've read so far, Batgirl #1, featured a strong, respectable female lead character and nothing that ought to have rankled anyone's sense of gender.  Of course, Batgirl was written by Gail Simone but Wonder Woman came from the pen of Brian Azzarello, so there's that.

Another offending title appears to be Voodoo #1, written by Ron Marz.  Voodoo is a former stripper, as portrayed in the first issue.  I'm going to refrain from commenting on this one until I read it for myself.  I follow Marz on Twitter and he seems a pretty progressive-minded guy so I'd be surprised to discover that he's outright insensitive to feminism.  I suspect, instead, that this background is merely meant to titillate readers into reading the series, in a sort of "come for the former stripper, stay for the thoughtful character" plan.  Marz did write that terrific stuff with Kyle Rayner and Jade rooming together in the 90s, so I'm giving him the benefit of the doubt at present over Voodoo.  (I, personally, am pro-stripper as outlined elsewhere in this blog.)

I had originally planned to blog about the proliferation in the first four months of the new DCU of crossovers and guest-appearances, until I kept encountering tweets and blog posts dedicated to debating the women in comics topic.  Both, however, occasion me to point to the same culprit and the one inherent flaw with The New 52, and that is that Dan DiDio is still at the helm of DC Comics as co-publisher.  I'm sure he's a terrific guy, pays his taxes and helps little old ladies cross the street, but I am convinced the guy is clinging to editorial concepts that the industry should have already outgrown.

Unlike a lot of people, I didn't hate this summer's Green Lantern movie; I'd say I liked it, only just so.  Most of my problems were story-specific, and at first I chalked it up to the fact it was a movie with five credited screenwriters--never a good sign.  But then I got hold of the direct-to-video animated feature, Green Lantern: Emerald Knights and I watched the bonus content.  As I listened to Dan DiDio and Geoff Johns discuss what has taken place in the GL mythology in recent years, it became painfully obvious to me that 99% of the problems I had with the live action movie were things in which the movie had tried to hew closely to what Johns had done in the comics.  No wonder: Johns was a story supervisor for the film.
[Among the troublesome story points: Hal "overcoming fear" instead of being fearless; Parallax as an emotion-based creature and emotions divided along the color spectrum.  Maybe that stuff makes sense in a 20-issue long comic book story, but it just seems stupid in a movie.]
For once, a comic-based movie would have been better off ignoring the comics.
It's clearly DiDio who values massive, sprawling crossovers that "affect" every tertiary character who ever appeared in a DC publication.  It's been on his watch that that kind of "epic" story has become the default for DC, in which readers must buy 20+ issues in the span of eight weeks to follow one story that, really, should have had its fat trimmed and been told in five issues.  That was the business model that chased away readers like me a decade ago--and apparently there were a lot of us who bailed around the same time.  Yet, there's DiDio, the co-publisher of DC Comics speaking on camera at a time when the company couldn't give away 3/4 of what it published about how "exciting" and "great" things like "Blackest Night" were.

It'd be different if sales had been monstrous in recent years, but the truth is they haven't been.  Sure, Green Lantern has been one of DC's best sellers.  But a decade ago, it would have been a candidate for cancellation with its recent era sales figures.  I understand times change and businesses must readjust their expectations as the market changes, but there's just no way around the fact that DiDio has bought into his own sales pitch about his big fish in a small pond.  I give him credit for being part of The New 52; at the very least, he didn't quash it when he clearly had the power to do so, and I'm given to understand he had an active role in developing the scheme in the first place, so I do applaud him for this act of boldness.
I like to think in this photograph, Dan DiDio was
reading an "apology" e-mail from Reed Hastings.
But when you take stock of The New 52, it becomes clear that it's not as bold as the marketing sheet told us.  I've already lamented the fact that they've been selective about continuity; Superman is starting over from scratch almost entirely, but Green Lantern--written by Johns--is trudging right along, paying no heed to the reset issue numbering on the covers.  Another problem is that if you look at the DC roster, there are a lot of familiar names and most of them are working on at least two books.  I don't begrudge anyone getting the work, but it seems that if you really want to break free from 75 years of storytelling, you make a pronounced effort to bring in new storytellers.

Right now, DC and the entire industry are just basking in the unqualified success that The New 52 has been over the last three weeks; shops are busy again, and even selling out of new books--many even after dramatically jacking up the prices.  But I've seen the solicitation texts for the first four issues of all fifty-two titles, and guest-appearances and crossovers abound in the immediate future.  Not because Nightwing needs to have a guest appearance by Batgirl in its fourth issue to ensure readers are interested, or that writer Kyle Higgins is already bored and needs to liven up that book, but because Dan DiDio gets excited about that kind of thing.  When this initial buzz subsides, don't be surprised to hear DiDio replace Reed Hastings atop the "What Are You Doing with Your Otherwise Successful Company?" list.

"Harley Quinn: Preludes and Knock-Knock Jokes"

Harley Quinn: Preludes and Knock-Knock Jokes
Written by Karl Kesel
Pencils by Terry Dodson with Craig Rousseau
Inks by Rachel Dodson with Wayne Faucher
Colors by Alex Sinclair
Letters by Ken Lopez
Original Series Covers by Terry and Rachel Dodson
Harley Quinn created by Paul Dini and Bruce Timm
Originally published as Harley Quinn #1-7
Trade Paperback published: 27 January 2009
Cover Price: $19.99
192 Pages

Preludes and Knock-Knock Jokes collects the first seven issues of the ongoing Harley Quinn solo comic that ran from 2000-2004.  Harley originated as a character for the TV show, Batman: The Animated Series but proved so popular that DC subsequently introduced her into the mainstream comic continuity.  This collection and the series from which it was culled was part of the DC Universe proper, though writer Karl Kesel kept it in sort of its own little pocket in the beginning.

The first issue (and hence, this collection) begins with Harley springing The Joker from Arkham Asylum, and the dysfunctions of their volatile relationship culminate with Harley going solo.  "Happy" Jack Happi, owner of an amusement park wrecked by Harley and The Joker, hires investigators of his own to track her down--thereby establishing new adversaries for Harley that don't wear Bat-themed costumes.  The nature of their investigation is to get into Harley's head and profile her, which works well as both a plausible procedural convention as well as a storytelling device for exposition about the nature of Harley Quinn's past and state of mind.

There are more than a few Easter eggs of nods to the 1989 Batman movie, the comics of the Silver Age and comedic movies in general.  I know a lot of fans prefer a "darker" storytelling for the mainstream DCU, but I have to say I found Kesel's light touch well suited for the nature of this character.  It's silly and irreverent; the kind of comic where an experienced Gotham hood goes around sharing anecdotes of when he "henched" for various super villains.  Yet, like Harley herself, there are some startling dark moments and I found them much more effective in a book like this because they're so incongruous with the rest of the story.

The underlying theme of Preludes and Knock-Knock Jokes is to explore who Harley Quinn is; while she grapples to establish herself independent of being known as The Joker's sidekick/girlfriend (or Poison Ivy's gal pal), "Happy" Jack's investigators unearth who Harleen Quinzel once was--and how she became Harley Quinn.  Few questions are answered in these seven issues, of course, but they're fun and move at a nice pace.

Terry and Rachel Dodson's art is terrific from front to back; clean lines, not one panel is cluttered and they infuse a great sense of kinetic energy to the character and her bizarre part of the world.  Facial expressions are particularly noteworthy; each character has a clear personality.  And they delight in showing off the curvaceous titular character in myriad acrobatic positions; nothing too objectifying, but certainly it would be fair to say we're meant to let our eyes linger before moving onto the next word balloon.

It's a shame that, to date, this is the only collected edition of Harley Quinn.  It means I'll have to track down the remaining 31 issues individually.  I'm not clear at present whether this series is still part of DC continuity in the wake of The New 52 relaunch currently taking place.  I know Harley is now a member of Suicide Squad, having been given the chance to redeem herself for her past offenses by taking on extremely dangerous missions.  There's nothing about that premise that would inherently negate this series, but even if it were established that this one is outside of current continuity, this collection has convinced me it was a fun, playful book worth my time.

Other reviews on Goodreads

22 September 2011

Don't Ask

Here's something I and a lot of people with chronic health problems want you to know: We don't really want you to ask us how we're doing.  Assume that if you're talking to us at all, we're not having a "bad" day by our standards.  Our idea of a "good" day is a day that has come and gone without turning into a "bad" day.  It seems obligatory to ask, "How you doin'?" when you see someone.  For a lot of people, it's a rhetorical question.  To those people I say this: expand your damn vocabulary.  There are myriad greetings you can employ that don't specifically ask the other person to comment on how they're doing.  In fact, it's the only form of greeting that does this.  If you're going to greet people for whom how they're doing is a sore subject, then for God's sake open a damn book and learn some other way of approaching them.

Plus, I frankly get tired of being asked how I'm doing instead of what I'm doing.  It reduces me to a subject to be monitored, like you're asking whether the cake is finished baking.  I readily concede that a lot of the times I won't have an answer because I've been too miserable to actually do anything.  But at least by virtue of asking what I've been doing, you'll have participated in the charade that there's more to my life at this point than feeling miserable.  And while I'm at it, I write this blog as much for anyone who might have reason to ask me what, or how, I'm doing as I do for myself.

I understand I can't go to ballgames and concerts with you like I used to, or stay up all night playing Clue and drinking wine.  It's not your fault I can't be there, I get that.  But this blog is where I make note of things, hoping that you'll actually read it and check in with me here.  Few of you ever actually do, of course, and often whenever I bring up something in conversation that I've discussed in this blog, I get the response, "Yeah, I saw that."  It'd be nice if, once in a while, you took thirty seconds to type, "Sounds good/That sucks/Really?!/some kind of reaction" just to acknowledge that you're aware I've shared my thoughts on a subject.  You get to hang out with real, live human beings for interaction but I don't.  I'm willing to do the lion's share of the work here; you don't have to meet me half way by maintaining a blog of your own.  But seriously, people, unless I hear more from you than a rhetorical "How you doin'?" I'll be left with the conclusion that all I am at this point is a condition to be evaluated.  Believe me, that's a deplorable reduction for a human being.

On the Execution of Troy Davis

Georgia police officer Mark MacPhail was killed in 1989, and Troy Davis was prosecuted and convicted of the murder.  The case rested primarily on a previous history involving Officer MacPhail and Davis and witness testimonies that have since been recanted.  Bullets recovered at the scene matched bullets from another shooting in which Davis was charged but no forensic evidence exists to confirm that Davis held the gun in either instance.  His appeals exhausted, the Supreme Court of the United States denied clemency and tonight the state of Georgia executed Davis.

My feelings on the death penalty are well documented: I'm against it.  Not because I'm a bleeding heart liberal; I don't actually believe that all life is sacred (see my posts on Jack Kevorkian and Osama bin Laden, for instance).  I'm against the death penalty because of cases like this, where the existence of reasonable doubt is contingent upon one's emotional state.  If you believe that Davis had means (bullets matching another shooting to which he was connected) and motive (previous altercation with the victim), then it's pretty easy to connect the dots and content yourself that Officer MacPhail's death has been avenged.

Often, we hear "justice is blind" invoked cynically to suggest that our system is too blind to see the error of its ways, but the point was to guard against bias as best possible.  The consequences of a trial are serious, and the stakes get no higher than death.  These things should not be left in the hands of emotionally volatile family members or communities.  Hence, the blindness.  And if this case had been handled by blind(er) justice, I do not believe Troy Davis would have been executed tonight--certainly not on the merits of the case against him as it stands.

I can tell you, I grew up in a family that had buried a teenage son (my uncle).  His drowning was an accident.  My family has never recovered from his death and continues in its dysfunctional ways to this day.  I can tell you without hesitation that if there was someone to punish for his death, it would not bring my family peace.  I don't care how many Dirty Harry movies you've watched, there's no body count high enough to make the hurt go away.  That's assuming that you execute the correct person, and it's not clear at all that's what has taken place in Georgia.

The grieving process doesn't reach a conclusion with an execution.  Tonight, some will go to bed pleased with themselves and satisfied that a wrong-doer was punished.  But two months from now at Thanksgiving, they'll still have an empty chair at the table where their loved one used to sit.  Troy Davis's execution won't fill that seat.  There's no victory to be had here, unless your objective was merely to see an investigation culminate in an execution.

Tonight, people around the world have expressed outrage over Troy Davis's execution.  I don't know if he was guilty or not; what I do know is that there are reasonable questions to which there are no clear answers.  We cannot resurrect him should evidence emerge tomorrow that establishes the guilt of another party.

Which brings me to one more point, and that's that we really do need to expand civics classes in school.  Here's a mini-lesson for you.

You cannot prove innocence.

This is a sticking point for a lot of people too ignorant of logic and law for their own good.  There is no way to establish that someone didn't do something.  The best you can do is establish that the person did something else that makes it impossible they did something else.  For instance, you can prove I did go Barnes and Noble this past Sunday, and from that you can infer that I could not have also been the one to rob a bank at that same time on Sunday.  But you haven't actually proven I'm innocent of robbing the bank; you've only proven where I was and what I did do.  If this sounds like semantics, then you're not discerning or mature enough to have an informed opinion about something as important as the death penalty.

This is why we do not have a legal term for innocence.  A verdict is either "guilty" or "not guilty."  The question is, "Can you establish that this person did violate this law?"  I bring this up because Officer MacPhail's widow, Joan MacPhail-Harris, declared recently that Davis "has had ample time to prove his innocence."  There's not enough time in the world for someone prove innocence.  The burden of proof is on the prosecution, and Mrs. MacPhail-Harris's sentiment suggests that Davis was presumed guilty and should have convinced someone he wasn't.  That's the complete antithesis of our legal system--not because we're soft on crime, but because we're rational people who understand you cannot prove innocence.

I am alarmed that the outrage over Davis's execution is already giving rise to an anti-police backlash.  Was the investigation of MacPhail's killing likely a rush job conducted in anger and haste?  Almost certainly.  But to allow this to cast a pall over the entire institution of law enforcement would be an egregious mistake.  Police officers work a dangerous, difficult and often thankless job.  Are there abuses of power?  Of course there are, and they should be confronted and exposed.  I'm not excusing the dubious work of Officer MacPhail's colleagues; there are serious doubts about what little evidence they collected, and it's not hard to imagine that Davis was merely a fall guy.  But to conflate anger over this specific case with a broader, anti-police sentiment is a mistake I hope people do not make.

I have nothing but respect for those brave men and women who risk their lives on a daily basis every time they put on their work clothes and leave the house.  They already have remorseless criminals defying them, overwhelmed prosecutors cutting deals that undermine their work and politicians campaigning that they're overpaid.  The last thing they need is for the public for whom they endure all that to turn against them, too.

20 September 2011

On Vinyl

Lately, I've been spinning vinyl records.  Part of what instigated this was that I resumed being an active member of Lost Highway Records's Fancorps promotion team (an unpaid gig in which I share links to their stuff on Twitter, Facebook, etc. in exchange for free stuff).  I received the new Robert Earl Keen album, Ready for Confetti, the day it hit stores and I've also received the Lost Highway 10th anniversary edition clear vinyl release of Lucinda Williams's West, with the clear pressing of Shelby Lynne's Just a Little Lovin' on its way.  Free vinyl gets my attention, y'know?

I don't own much in the way of vinyl myself.  My wife inherited her stepdad's record collection and there are a few things in there that interest me (the original Star Wars soundtrack, for instance).  I have a list of my deceased uncle's records, and I'll be working to get hold of those so I can try to explore his library.  I also have quite a lot of 45s of my mom's.  I went through those in the last week and found some surprises.  I never expected, for instance, to find a George Jones single in my mom's library; she grew up the quintessential suburban girl who lived for malls and lighthearted bubblegum pop.  I've been meaning to ask her how she came to have that, but I keep forgetting to bring it up.

One nice thing about getting into vinyl is that it's pretty inexpensive so long as you're not a collector.  I have no need to track down the most obscure, valuable vinyl pressings.  I'm content to hear whatever I come across that interests me at a price I'm willing to pay.  Half Price Books is a treasure trove of cheap vinyl.  This past Sunday, shortly before hitting Barnes and Noble (where I bought Batgirl #1), we stopped into HPB and I turned up four albums for a combined $3.50.  Not bad!  I scored a pair of Kenny Rogers albums (Daytime Friends and Love or Something Like It), Randy Travis's third album, Old 8x10 and Waylon Jennings's Waylon, the Ramblin' Man.  Waylon was priced at $1.98; the other three were on clearance for 50 cents apiece.
Wanted! The Outlaws - Waylon, Willie, Jessi & Tompall on vinyl
Much has been made in recent years among audiophiles that vinyl sounds better than digital.  I'm not qualified to speak to that, but I can tell you that the kind of music I favor was meant to breathe, and vinyl lets it do that.  Technically-minded audiophiles describe this in terms of compression, and they're welcome to dissect how this all works but I'm content just to know that I can feel the difference.  For some music, it wouldn't be as appealing to me, I don't think; I have a hard time imagining, say, Lady Gaga's Born This Way benefiting from the vinyl experience the same way Waylon does.  (I'm also now a member of Gaga's Fancorps team, so if I ever get them to send me any of her stuff on vinyl, I'll be sure to test this!)

Aside from the sound, there's one more important thing about vinyl worth discussing.  I've always been attentive to the sequencing of an album, having grown up in the era of the cassette and also being a geek.  I've been listening to CDs for nearly 20 years now, though, and the sequencing in the recent era is different.  I had sort of forgotten about this until I got to spinning some of these vinyl albums and it became readily apparent that each side has its own personality.  On CD, it sounds like the album kind of loses its initial tone and focus, but on vinyl you get a clearer sense of why those specific songs were grouped together and sequenced the way they were.  CD sequencing calls for more homogeneity, as the album is presented as a singular body of work.  On vinyl, though, you're really getting a collection of sides (typically two sides, but sometimes more, as is the case with double-albums).

It's not mere nostalgia (or faux nostalgia) that makes this worth discussing.  Remember, producers were mindful of the fact they had two sides to fill with music and their sequencing reflects this consciousness.  The most obvious kinship I can think of right now is to the nature of film aspect ratios, where directors and their cinematographers deliberately decide what imagery will fill the screen, and if you see a cropped version of the movie, you're missing out on what they intended you to see.  It's a technical matter that has a subtle effect on the artistic content.

I have no desire to come off as yet another pretentious hipster snob who's too cool for CDs.  I still like CDs, mostly so I can import music for my iPod at a bit rate of my choosing, and also because I'm a tactile person who likes flipping through CD booklets.  But there is something to be said for the vinyl format that's unique to it, and right now I enjoy exploring it.

"Batgirl" #1 (Nov 2011)

Cover art by Adam Hughes
Batgirl #1
Gail Simone - writer
Ardian Syaf - penciller
Vicente Cifuentes - inker
Ulises Arreola - color
Dave Sharpe - letterer
Adam Hughes - cover art
Katie Kubert - assistant editor
Bobbie Chase - editor
Batman created by Bob Kane
Date of publication: 7 September 2011
$2.99, 32 pages

Believe it or not, this is the first time Barbara Gordon has had a solo book in the character's history.  Batgirl is also one of two titles I was adamant about trying out among DC Comics's "New 52" relaunch (the other being All-Star Western).  I can't help it; I dig Batgirl.  Because of the nature of the relaunch there are couple of elements to this review out of the ordinary.  Bear with me.

Finding a Copy
To begin, I almost didn't get Batgirl.  Reports complete with photos have circulated online of comic shops dramatically jacking up the sale price of many of the new DC titles; one store had marked up Batgirl to $30.00!  That instantly soured me on this entire relaunch, though in fairness to my local shop I haven't made it there yet and I have no reason to believe they're partaking in this self-destructive practice of gouging.  I bring this up because, even as Batgirl #1 has gone into a third printing, I had already more or less accepted that I wasn't going to get or read this issue.  I'm a reader, not a collector, and I have a hard enough time with the $2.99 cover price; I'm not paying over cover for anything.

Sunday, however, while out and about after picking up my pills, we popped in on Barnes and Noble.  We had actually been there the weekend after Batgirl #1 was released to comics shops, but B&N had nary a title on their shelves.  I was therefore surprised when I looked up and saw Batgirl among several New 52 titles for sale.  After weeks of having given up on finding a copy, I had one in hand and was only being asked to pay the cover price.  Win!  Hopefully, this battle of excitement, followed by discouraged abandonment, is not going to be common to any further comic reviews--even if it had a happy ending this time.

Establishing "The New 52"
As the first issue of the relaunch, of course, I was curious to see how writer Gail Simone established the new continuity--with regards to reconciling with previous continuity, most specifically The Killing Joke, the 1987 graphic novel in which The Joker shot and paralyzed Barbara Gordon.  It's acknowledged with an entire page dedicated to flashing back to the incident, but glossed over.  For now, readers are asked to simply accept that Barbara was injured and is now recovered.

Fair enough, actually.  Barbara, now able to not only stand and walk, but return to action as Batgirl, moves into an apartment with a roommate.  The roommate makes a flippant remark about how upsetting it would be to be confined to a wheelchair.  Barbara keeps her reaction to herself, contented that the able-bodied woman intended no offense and spoke only out of ignorance.  This exchange was really more for the benefit of apprehensive readers, many of whom had accepted wheelchair-bound Barbara as a figure representing their own plight.  I've not been paralyzed, but with Crohn's and depression, I can tell you that Barbara's reaction rang quite true for me.  I can't tell you how many times I've heard people who have been spared serious health concerns say things that made me want to choke them, or break down and cry (or both) and I kept quiet instead.  I know that irritation, and the way it feels in your shoulders when you make the mental decision to silently forgive them by not engaging them.

The Book
So, after the "will I or won't I" phase of coming to own a copy and the initial, if ambiguous, acknowledgement of the continuity elephant in the room, we're left with the issue itself.  You know what?  It was pretty fun.  It's a fairly straightforward plot: Barbara, as Batgirl, rescues a family from the Brisby Killers, a group of violent gang with a dark sense of humor.  Through thought boxes, Barbara's insecurities are shared with us.  I was afraid to find Simone plagiarizing from a text on trauma, but instead her text reads as believable.  Concurrently, a new villain calling himself (or herself) The Mirror is going around killing people on a list.  It seems The Mirror's victims "shouldn't" be alive and he (or she) is rectifying this.  (Think: Final Destination as a costumed villain.)

I have a couple of minor nits to pick, but on the whole I liked Batgirl #1 quite a lot.  The pace is even, but brisk, and it took me a solid 20+ minutes to read this issue, which is about my comfort zone.  If it takes me less than 30 seconds to read each page, then it better be a "silent" issue, because that's way too thin for my liking.

I also haven't said a word about the art, I realize.  It's a gorgeous book, and it was nice to see layouts that didn't make a splash page out of every action moment.  Penciler Ardian Syaf, colorist Vicente Cifuentes and colorist Ulises Arreola have turned in a gorgeous book.  We only see Barbara's father, Police Commissioner James Gordon, in one page...but the second panel of that page was perhaps the best in the issue.  Jim is sitting at the kitchen table with a mug of coffee, just smiling at seeing Barbara up and walking.  A picture really is worth a thousand words, and that one panel would have taken two pages of prose to describe.  I found it clean and easy to follow, but detailed enough to know I have no business trying to emulate it.  In short: professional work, from edge to edge.

Those Nits
Twice in this issue we see the term, "home invasion."  It's a peculiar term, conjuring Nancy Grace.  In its first appearance, it's paired with "murder."  Had Simone consulted me, I would have advised her to change "murder" to "homicide" for the sake of alliteration.  Also, in one panel, Barbara prepares to throw a Batarang and the thought box reads, "Gotham, bless my aim."  It's a reminder that atheists really don't have a substitute for God.  Something like, "Don't screw this up" would have been less awkward.  Lastly, Barbara's new roommate describes herself as, "kinda an activist."  There really ought to be a consonant in the middle of all that, methinks.  Again, though, no one asked me and in any event, these are trivial things that I suspect most readers overlook.

Will I buy issue #2?  Yup.  Looking forward to it, actually, and it's been quite some time since I could say that about a monthly book (about a decade).

19 September 2011

Reed Hastings on Netflix, Qwikster and How He's Bad at His Job

So here's what I and every other Netflix subscriber received this morning. Commentary from me follows.
Dear Travis,
I messed up. I owe you an explanation.
It is clear from the feedback over the past two months that many members felt we lacked respect and humility in the way we announced the separation of DVD and streaming and the price changes. That was certainly not our intent, and I offer my sincere apology. Let me explain what we are doing.
For the past five years, my greatest fear at Netflix has been that we wouldn't make the leap from success in DVDs to success in streaming. Most companies that are great at something – like AOL dialup or Borders bookstores – do not become great at new things people want (streaming for us). So we moved quickly into streaming, but I should have personally given you a full explanation of why we are splitting the services and thereby increasing prices. It wouldn’t have changed the price increase, but it would have been the right thing to do.
So here is what we are doing and why.
Many members love our DVD service, as I do, because nearly every movie ever made is published on DVD. DVD is a great option for those who want the huge and comprehensive selection of movies.
I also love our streaming service because it is integrated into my TV, and I can watch anytime I want. The benefits of our streaming service are really quite different from the benefits of DVD by mail. We need to focus on rapid improvement as streaming technology and the market evolves, without maintaining compatibility with our DVD by mail service 
So we realized that streaming and DVD by mail are really becoming two different businesses, with very different cost structures, that need to be marketed differently, and we need to let each grow and operate independently.
It’s hard to write this after over 10 years of mailing DVDs with pride, but we think it is necessary: In a few weeks, we will rename our DVD by mail service to “Qwikster”. We chose the name Qwikster because it refers to quick delivery. We will keep the name “Netflix” for streaming.
Qwikster will be the same website and DVD service that everyone is used to. It is just a new name, and DVD members will go to qwikster.com to access their DVD queues and choose movies. One improvement we will make at launch is to add a video games upgrade option, similar to our upgrade option for Blu-ray, for those who want to rent Wii, PS3 and Xbox 360 games. Members have been asking for video games for many years, but now that DVD by mail has its own team, we are finally getting it done. Other improvements will follow. A negative of the renaming and separation is that the Qwikster.com and Netflix.com websites will not be integrated.
There are no pricing changes (we’re done with that!). If you subscribe to both services you will have two entries on your credit card statement, one for Qwikster and one for Netflix. The total will be the same as your current charges. We will let you know in a few weeks when the Qwikster.com website is up and ready.
For me the Netflix red envelope has always been a source of joy. The new envelope is still that lovely red, but now it will have a Qwikster logo. I know that logo will grow on me over time, but still, it is hard. I imagine it will be similar for many of you.
I want to acknowledge and thank you for sticking with us, and to apologize again to those members, both current and former, who felt we treated them thoughtlessly.
Both the Qwikster and Netflix teams will work hard to regain your trust. We know it will not be overnight. Actions speak louder than words. But words help people to understand actions.
Respectfully yours,
-Reed Hastings, Co-Founder and CEO, Netflix
p.s. I have a slightly longer explanation along with a video posted on our blog, where you can also post comments.
Just...wow.  I've said all along that it's not *what* has taken place, but how it's been done that's the issue so the first paragraph was promising.  Let's not kid ourselves, though.  We only received this e-mail at all because last week we learned that a lot more Netflix subscribers have canceled their memberships than expected over the shoddy way Netflix has behaved in recent months.  (For more on that, see "'Separate but Equal' Netflixes".)

"Qwickster?"  Really?  Is this 1987?  Because that's about the last year I think you could have named anything except a parody supervillain, "Qwickster" and had anyone not laugh at it.  More importantly, how the hell does completely rebranding the DVD service make any sense?  Wouldn't "Netflix Disc Service" have been more intelligent, less confusing and significantly less lame?

Furthermore, in a letter that owns up to the importance of clear communication, I find it laughable that in *this* letter, users are informed of yet two more major changes that will go into effect nearly immediately: The aforementioned re-branding, and the addition of game disc rental.  I suspect a lot of us who dropped our disc service in the last month would have appreciated knowing they had these two changes on the horizon.

On one hand, game rental makes the disc service dramatically more interesting--we're not big gamers ourselves, but I can easily see where this would have been a deal-maker for those who are.  Yet in the same breath Netflix tells us this is now an option, Reed Hastings has also just made sure we understand they've set fire to the disc/streaming bridge.  The "separate, but equal" doctrine is in full force now that they don't even have the same name for either service.

This entire letter of explanation only confirms that Netflix's leadership fails to understand the lesson the opening paragraph insists they've learned recently.  You don't spring major changes on customers that affect their perception of the brand--unless the brand needs a dramatic image improvement.  This letter only digs the hole deeper, creating the necessity for Reed Hastings's eventual successor to have to issue yet another dramatic announcement in the near future.

15 September 2011

Disney Movie Rewards: "Dumbo" & "Spooky Buddies" Coupons

Disney is about to release a 70th Anniversary Edition of Dumbo on Blu-ray Disc and DVD on Tuesday, 20 September (that's next week, y'all), and you can snag a $5.00 coupon by clicking the banner below:
Disney is also releasing Spooky Buddies the same day.  It's a direct-to-video sequel in the live action dog series begun all those years ago with Air Bud, and targeted for families who want something kid-friendly to watch for Halloween.  Click on the banner below for a $5.00 coupon on that release:
Note: both coupons expire Sunday, 25 September so if you're going to use them you gotta do it quickly.

Here are the advertised sales:

Best Buy

  • $15.99 DVD ($15.99 - $5.00 coupon = $10.99 sale price)
  • $22.99 Blu-ray Disc + DVD Combo Pack - in either Blu-ray or DVD packaging* ($22.99 - $5.00 coupon = $17.99 sale price)
  • *FREE Exclusive Dumbo plush toy with purchase of Blu-ray + DVD Combo Pack

Spooky Buddies

  • $16.99 DVD ($16.99 - $5.00 coupon = $11.99 sale price)
  • $24.99 Blu-ray Disc + DVD Combo Pack ($24.99 - $5.00 = $19.99 sale price)

Plus, Best Buy is offering an additional $8.00 off your purchase if you buy Dumbo and Spooky Buddies on the same receipt:

  • $29.98 Dumbo Blu-ray + DVD Combo and Spooky Buddies Blu-ray + DVD Combo
    ($22.99 Dumbo + $24.99 Spooky Buddies - $5.00 Dumbo coupon - $5.00 Spooky Buddies coupon - $8.00 promo discount = $29.98 sale price)


  • $22.99 Blu-ray Disc + DVD Combo Pack ($22.99 - $5.00 coupon = $17.99 sale price)
  • *FREE Exclusive Activity Book included

Spooky Buddies

  • $22.99 Blu-ray Disc + DVD Combo Pack ($22.99 - $5.00 coupon = $17.99 sale price)

Target is also offering an $8.00 discount if you buy both Dumbo and Spooky Buddies on the same receipt, so since their advertised price on the former is $2.00 less than Best Buy, it works out to:

  • $27.98 Dumbo Blu-ray + DVD Combo and Spooky Buddies Blu-ray + DVD Combo
    ($22.99 Dumbo + $22.99 Spooky Buddies - $5.00 Dumbo coupon - $5.00 Spooky Buddies coupon - $8.00 promo discount = $27.98 sale price)

Don't forget, Walmart will match advertised sales from their competitors so if you're not dead set on getting the plush toy at Best Buy or the activity book at Target, and you want both movies, just take the Target ad with you to Walmart and snag both Blu-ray + DVD Combo Packs there for $28.00.

I personally have no interest whatsoever in Spooky Buddies, and now's not a good time for me to be looking to buy Dumbo but I'm sharing this for the benefit of anyone who might be interested in using these limited time coupons.

Also, don't forget that the $5.00 coupon good for any of the Tinker Bell movies is still active through the end of September.  Lastly, if you pop in on Subway and buy a kid's meal, you get a $5.00 coupon good toward The Lion King!

"Star Trek: Infestation" #1-2 by Scott Tipton & David Tipton

Issue #1, cover A
Star Trek: Infestation #1-2
Written by Scott Tipton and David Tipton
Pencil Finishes and Inks by Gary Erskine
Pencil Layouts by Casey Maloney
Colors by Luis Antonio Delgado
Lettered by Chris Mowry
Edited by Tom Waltz
Assistant Editor: Bobby Curnow

Cover A
Art by John K. Snyder, III
Colors by Jason Wright

Issue #1 Published 9 February 2011
Issue #2 Published 23 February 2011
$3.99 cover price, 32 pages (each  issue)

Star Trek with zombies?  Hell, yeah, I wanted to read this!  Had this been any of the other Trek series, I would have rejected it out of hand, but there's something about the original series that makes something like this seem reasonable.  One of my favorite original series stories was actually a paperback called Bloodthirst, written by J.M. Dillard in which the Enterprise unwittingly takes on a vampire.  The highlight of the entire thing was when Chekov gloomily says to Sulu, "Starfleet Security can do nothing about...wampires."  Seriously, someone should make a time machine just to go back to the 1960s and get that book made as an episode.
One of the few Trekpaperbacks I recommend.
Anyway, Infestation was a crossover mini-series IDW ran in the Spring that connected Ghostbusters, G.I. Joe, Transformers and Star Trek as they all had to contend with the spread of a zombie contagion.  Don't fret; despite each series combating the same nemesis, there's no co-mingling of universes.  You don't have to endure seeing Peter Venkmen riding around inside Optimus Prime or anything on that level of fan fiction.  In fact, you're free to disregard any and all parts of Infestation that don't appeal to you.  I wanted to buy these two issues in February when they went on sale, but I missed 'em and they were long gone by the time I got to The Great Escape.  Lo and behold, however, they surfaced at Half Price Books recently on a night I had taken in two boxes of books and with my store credit I indulged myself.  Take a look at those covers; how could I not?  (Plus, they were priced at $2.00 apiece, a 50% markdown from cover price!)

Allow me to say first and foremost that those covers were deceptive and IDW ought to be ashamed of themselves.  Those covers clearly depict the original characters as they appeared in the iconic TV series.  My mind was all a-tingle with the prospect of a group of ill-fated red shirts being overrun by zombies.  Yet, when I opened issue #1 I discovered that this little story takes place after Star Trek: The Motion Picture.  Admiral Kirk, Spock and Dr. McCoy are arriving at a planet for McCoy to receive some kind of medal, and they're quickly welcomed by a mob of zombies.  Quickly enough, they discover that the cause can be transmitted through bites as three security officers go down in succession.  Outnumbered by zombies and on the run for safe ground, the classic triumvirate eventually do what they do best: save the day.

I would love to know whose bright idea it was to choose this specific era for the story.  The Motion Picture uniforms aren't terribly interesting, and in any event, the aesthetic of the TV series would have been much better suited for this little one-off zombie story.  Still, I tip my hat to artists Casey Maloney, Gary Erskine and colorist Luis Antonio Delgado: just about every panel looks terrific.  The likenesses to William Shatner, Leonard Nimoy and DeForest Kelley are spot-on, the lines are clean without being too simplistic and it's easy to follow everything that's happening.  It's a shame these talented guys weren't given the chance to depict the old school uniforms and younger Shatner, and yes, I intend to gripe about this any chance I get until I die.

The story itself was fairly straightforward.  I thought issue #1 was stronger, largely because it got down to business quickly--we see our first zombie on page 5, and it's pure action from then on.  Not much in the way of story content, but that's okay.  I like seeing Kirk, Spock and Bones bicker while being pursued by a mob of zombies.  It's what I expected when I bought the issue.  The dialog was fairly well written, though there were more than a few instances of quoting or paraphrasing cliches that I found a little uninspired.  For the most part, however, it was pretty easy to hear Shatner, Nimoy and Kelley narrating their characters' lines and that's always a good thing in licensed comic book.

The second half (issue #2) was a bit disappointing, I have to say.  Our intrepid trio run into a sentient robot who explains that a woman calling herself "Britt" arrived on the planet some time ago and manipulated a cybernetic developer into experimenting with combining human DNA with robots.  This is just a ruse to introduce the zombie contagion to the population of the planet to thereby establish a zombie army to serve "Britt."  Ostensibly, her motivations and objectives are spelled out in the bookend issues, Infestation #1 and #2 but there's no more explained in these two issues than what I just conveyed.  It feels more rushed than the first half, and the conclusion is entirely too neat and obvious--though I might have cut it more slack if it had been set during the original five year mission (I told you I wasn't going to give up on this).

I'd give issue #1 four stars out of five, and issue #2 three stars.  It's a fun little diversion, and frankly I think it could have benefited from a third issue--though, again, I haven't read the bookend issues so maybe they satisfactorily address my concerns.  I think I would have been harsher toward these two issues if I had paid cover price; there's just no way I could have felt this was an $8 story but in fairness, I'm an older reader and I have a hard time with the psychological barrier of $3.99 for a standard format issue.

13 September 2011

What I've Been Doing Instead of Blogging or Dying

I feel a pang of guilt as I look how infrequently I have posted to this blog in the last month or so.  I think a third or even half of all posts were dedicated to DC Comics's "New 52" relaunch.  Partly that's because I'm a comic book nerd, but largely it's because I only had to copy and paste most of those posts and didn't have to write new content myself.  That lengthy post about "100 Things I Love About Comics" literally took me the entire summer to compose.  I started it in late May.  The main reason for my inactivity of late has been my vitamin D deficiency is out of hand again and it's hard for me to concentrate and my memory is faulty.  I've been trying to read Idiot America, lent to me by a friend, for months now.  I can absorb a few pages at a time and then I have no idea what I've been reading.  It's not the content, or Charles Pierce's writing style; it's my noggin that prevents me finishing the book.  So far all I can recall are the Creation Museum, a guy with an Atlantis obsession and the decline of quality AM radio deejays.  Oh, and Terri Sciavo.

I've also been fighting two never-ending battles with Crohn's and depression.  I've managed to go a whole month (shh!) without taking Prednisone regularly...but I can tell that's coming to an end.  My guts have been increasingly painful in the last few days and I don't think I can afford any longer reprieve from the steroids that have ravaged my back and hips.  I used to take comfort knowing that, even as my body conspires against me, I still had my intellect (such as it is).  The longer I go with this vitamin D deficiency, though, the less solace I have that there's anything useful left to me.  I keep trying to tell myself this is temporary and that I will at least regain my ability to concentrate and remember things, but maybe I won't.  Maybe the concentration returns, but my memory loss is permanent.  I don't know.  What I do know is that I feel a shell of my former self...and I wasn't particularly satisfied with my former self in the first place.

To make sure I understand how worthless I am as a human being and how much of a burden I am to society, the most recent GOP debate included the following moment, as described by Amy Bingham in her report for ABC News:
CNN moderator Wolf Blitzer’s hypothetical question about whether an uninsured 30-year old working man in coma should be treated prompted one of the most boisterous moments of audience participation in the CNN/Tea Party Express.
“What he should do is whatever he wants to do and assume responsibility for himself,” Paul responded, adding, “That’s what freedom is all about, taking your own risk. This whole idea that you have to compare and take care of everybody…”
The audience erupted into cheers, cutting off the Congressman’s sentence.
After a pause, Blitzer followed up by asking “Congressman, are you saying that society should just let him die?” to which a small number of audience members shouted “Yeah!”
"If they would rather die, they had better do it
and decrease the surplus population!"
Apparently, developing a chronic digestive disease that makes a conventional daily life impractical--if not outright impossible--was a risk I was free to take (by virtue of being alive, apparently).  I've already admitted that I am selfishly destroying America, but apparently nothing less than my death will satisfy those who haven't been handed an unexpected diagnosis.  I feel like I'm in an alternate universe where Charles Dickens held up Scrooge as the hero of A Christmas Carol and the Cratchits as the villains.  If I was still just a fetus, they'd be fighting for me but now that I'm an actual person, I'm expected to become a success in a vacuum or quietly go away and die and make room for the self-made successes.  Message received.

Over the weekend I broke down and purged from my book library.  Part of me feels like it's incumbent upon me to cultivate an interesting library but then it occurs to me that I'm the only person in the entire world who even knows or cares what books I have.  My wife and I have different taste and while she periodically insists she wants to try reading what I read to expand her horizons, the truth is that she just don't have time for recreational reading and even when she does, she's just not going to actually read what I've read.  There's only one bibliophile in any branch in either of our families, and she has likely already read whatever of mine may interest her.  Since I am extremely unlikely to re-read a book, it just makes little sense for me to keep books I've read.

It was particularly bittersweet to part with some of my works of non-fiction, like President John F. Kennedy's Profiles in Courage.  I felt like a fraud holding onto such books, as though by keeping them on my shelf I was somehow still going to ever accomplish anything in the field of history.  I'm not, and no matter what books I own I'm still going to be the guy whose body has thwarted his pursuit of a career in history.  Besides, now maybe someone who is actually healthy and can make good on their ambitions can find my old books at Half Price Books on the cheap and find something of value to them.

My participation in the monthly DVD Talk challenges has been affected, too; it's just hard for me to pay attention to movies.  This month's theme is the Criterion Collection and I was originally looking forward to it but now that it's here and nearly halfway over, I've barely participated at all.  It's hard enough concentrating on thin material; most of the Criterion Collection is comprised of complex works of cinema (how's that for alliteration?).
Marcello Mastroianni in Federico Fellin's 8 1/2.
Great movie, but taxing on a brain that can't concentrate.
It's not all doom and gloom, however.  I was recently able to resurrect my wife's record player and I've been spinning some vinyl lately.  I resumed participation with the Lost Highway street team (which is now run by Fancorps) and have recently received the new Robert Earl Keen album, Ready for Confetti on vinyl and CD (reviewed here) as well as the Lost Highway 10th Anniversary Edition clear vinyl release of Lucinda Williams's 2007 album, West (which features one of my favorite recordings of the last several years: the album opener, "Are You Alright?").

I don't own much vinyl myself, but I do have my mom's old 45s.  I've gone through them and found a few surprises, such as a George Jones single from 1965 I'd never heard of--"Least of All," which peaked at #15 and is backed with "Brown to Blue."  There were five Kenny Rogers 45s in the lot, but most of her 45s were pop/rock songs including five of The Beatles (for some reason, she has two copies of "Hey Jude"/"Revolution").  I'm familiar with quite a lot of the songs--the A-sides, at least--though I could never in a million years have identified the recording artist of most of them.  There are quite a few I wish I had in my digital library, and I'll likely scour Half Price Books for compilation CDs throughout the rest of the year.  The nice thing about pop/rock songs of the 50s-70s is that they're generally brief and simple enough that even my poor attention span can stay engaged.

Hell, it's taken me nearly three hours just to type this.  It's hard to blog when you forget where you were going with something and have to stop every few minutes to look back at what you've already said.