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Sunday in the City

Friday night I surprised Debbi by taking her to dinner at Sundance The Steakhouse, which we’d last (and first) visited for my birthday this year. It was as good as it was the first time!

Saturday we took the cats to the vet, Debbi taking hers in for a 2 pm appointment, then me taking mine in half an hour later. She was in-and-out and ran into me as I was arriving. It took longer for my guys to get their check-ups. Newton seems to be doing well enough given that he’s taking thyroid medication. Jefferson, however, has some really crummy teeth and his gums are looking pretty bad, including a spot that’s bleeding. He’s lost 3 pounds in the last year, and it could be because he’s having hyperthyroidism himself, or it could be because eating has been difficult because of his mouth. And the vet said there’s a chance that he could have a tumor which is bleeding. So both cats are getting blood tests, and we’ll see where to go from there. My bet is that Jefferson “just” needs some dental surgery.

Still, for 15-year-old cats, that’s not really too bad.

We had a more exciting day today, since I wanted to go up to the city for Borderlands Books‘ 12-year anniversary sale. We left early and got breakfast in San Carlos, but realized that we’d be getting to the bookstore well before their sale started, at noon. We tried going into Golden Gate Park to visit the botanical gardens, but there was no parking. However, we saw a sign on the way for the Disney Family Museum, which recently opened in the Presidio, and decided to go check that out.

Even with a $20 entry fee, I figured there was still some chance that it would be little more than a few trinkets that Diane DIsney Miller had inherited from her famous father, perhaps with some notes on his life. But in fact it was much more than that, and we spent more than two hours going through it (and could have spent more time than that).

There’s not much left inside that looks like an old Presidio building – they clearly spent plenty of money to make it a modern venue, with computerized displays in addition to the memorabilia, and even a theater in the basement. The reception area has hundreds of awards that Disney was given during his lifetime (including most of his Academy Awards) on display. Inside is an impressive collection of photos of Walt and his family, and many DIsney memorabilia, including a polo cup he won, one of the trains he built for his home, the fiddle his father played, and many of his early drawings (some the originals, most reproductions). The earliest known drawings of Mickey Mouse are among he collection.

The narrative is well-written, although the layout of the individual rooms makes it sometimes difficult to know where to start, so sometimes you experience things out-of-order. While it admirable grapples with a few of Disney’s less shining moments (such as the early 40s animators’ strike), it oddly glosses overt the construction of Disneyland, which occupied Walt for several years and was one of his greatest accomplishments.

While some have cautioned that the museum is more about Walt and less about Disney, anyone interested in either the man of his company ought to enjoy the museum. It’s a good companion experience to the biography of Disney I read a few months ago.

After the museum, we stopped for sundaes at Ghirardelli Square, and then headed to the bookstore, where I picked up a few things, and we got to see Borderlands’ two hairless cats, Ripley and Ash, the latter of whom I hadn’t met before.

The only blemish on the day was having trouble getting dinner cooked (stuffed pork chops from the supermarket that took about 25 minutes longer to bake than advertised), and watching the Patriots mysteriously hand the Sunday night football game to the Colts by not punting the ball on 4th-and-2 at their own 30, leading by 6 with 2:30 left in the game. WTF??? The Pats lost 35-34. Gah.

But that aside, it was a day of pleasant surprises, so I can’t really complain.

This Week's Haul

  • Batman and Robin #6, by Grant Morrison, Philip Tan & Jonathan Glapion (DC)
  • Batman/Doc Savage Special, by Brian Azzarello & Phil Noto (DC)
  • Booster Gold #26, by Dan Jurgens, Mike Norton & Norm Rapmund (DC)
  • Fables #90, by Bill Willingham, Mark Buckingham, Steve Leialoha & Andrew Pepoy (DC/Vertigo)
  • Green Lantern Corps #42, by Peter J. Tomasi, Patrick Gleason, Rebecca Buchman & Tom Nguyen (DC)
  • JSA vs. Kobra #6 of 6, by Eric S. Trautmann, Don Kramer & Michael Babinski (DC)
  • R.E.B.E.L.S. #10, by Tony Bedard & Andy Clarke (DC)
  • The Unwritten #7, by Mike Carey & Peter Gross (DC/Vertigo)
  • B.P.R.D.: 1947 #5 of 5, by Mike Mignola, Joshua Dysart, Gabriel Bá & Fábio Moon (Dark Horse)
  • Hellboy: The Wild Hunt #8 of 8, by Mike Mignola & Duncan Fegredo (Dark Horse)
Batman and Robin #6 The second arc of Batman and Robin has taken some criticism due to the fairly extreme stylistic change from Frank Quitely (on the first arc) to Philip Tan (on this one). It is an extreme change, but I thought Tan was fine in issue #4; the problem is his style got progressively looser to the point where it’s actually rather grotesque in this issue. It’s still serviceable, but yeah, I can see where the complaints are coming from.

Then again, the story’s not much, either. The main villain, the Red Hood (a.k.a. Jason Todd, formerly Robin) is portrayed as a vicious counterpoint to Batman, although as a despised character who died and came back to life, it’s hard to care about his motivations. Another villain, Flamingo, shows up here to take out the Red Hood, until Batman and Robin show up to stop them both. It’s a perfect example of how Morrison seems to pack just too much into his stories at times, and Flamingo’s arrival undercuts the drama between Batman and the Hood, which was underdeveloped to start with.

So far, Batman and Robin has been more style than substance, with Morrison unable to properly develop his themes or his characters. In fits and starts he’s pulled together some interesting pieces, but hasn’t really used them effectively so far.

Batman/Doc Savage Special The Batman/Doc Savage special appears to be an introduction to something called “The First Wave”, which from the back of this issue seems to be an upcoming series by Brian Azzarello taking a group of pulp and golden age heroes and introducing them in a new setting, apparently in the present day, but with a mix of styles dating from the 1920s to today. So here we have Batman (at the beginning of his career) and Doc Savage (an established hero), to be joined later by The Avenger, The Spirit, Black Canary and the Blackhawks. I’ve always liked the notion of relaunching established characters in a different milieu, but this is perhaps not the set I’d have chosen. But Azzarello seems to write a lot of pulp-influenced stuff, and it’s his show, so here we have it.

This story involves Batman suspected of murder and Doc Savage coming to Gotham to bring him in. Batman wields a pair of guns (but not to kill), Doc uses his muscle, and the two of course come to a meeting of the minds by the end. Chris Sims’ critique of the story is mostly spot-on, although I disagree about Batman using guns, a facet of his character here that doesn’t bother me, although his wishy-washy use of them is annoying, I agree. Batman has always been a character who could use guns, but mostly hasn’t for various reasons depending on his interpretation. But Sims hits the nail on the head as far as the plot goes: It’s obvious, and dragged out. Additionally, the characters just aren’t very likeable, and Bruce Wayne in particular is portrayed in a very annoying manner (honestly I think the occasional “Bruce Wayne, airhead playboy” schtick that some writers drag out is just plain stupid, and not in the least funny).

So overall this is a pretty weak introduction of a fairly interesting series. But The First Wave will have to be a lot better than this to be worth reading.

JSA vs. Kobra #6 JSA vs. Kobra was a 6-issue miniseries which sort-of spun off from the JSA’s battles with the fictional terrorist organization Kobra from their previous regular series, which doesn’t really explain why it’s being published now. It also relates to Mr. Terrific being one of the leaders of Kobra’s good-guy opposite number, the spy organization Checkmate.

Other than the JSA, none of these organizations matters one whit to me, and the series doesn’t relate to the team’s current adventures at all. So why bother publishing this? And heck, why did I bother buying it?

It’s also not much good. Its plot strives to be a games-within-games match in which Kobra is playing several different angles at once (although to what end, I can’t figure out; if Kobra’s angling for world domination, they’re doing a crappy job of it), while the JSA tries to outmaneuver them. There’s some ongoing tension between the JSA’s co-leaders, Power Girl and Mr. Terrific, mainly over whether Terrific owes his loyalties to the JSA or to Checkmate (the latter of which has been infiltrated by Kobra spies), but it never feels very suspenseful and is resolved almost offhandedly.

Eric S. Trautmann’s script (he’s an author I’ve never heard of before this series) is pretty mechanical, and Don Kramer’s pencils are pretty but not very dynamic. He does seem to meet one of the main criteria for a JSA penciller, though, that being an ability to put Power Girl’s chest front-and-center:

JSA vs. Kobra #6 page 12

At the end of the series, Kobra has been defeated, but obviously will come back in the future. The JSA hasn’t managed to eradicate the group, and none of the JSAers have really had any satisfying story arcs. The whole thing is played very low key despite the high stakes.

If you enjoy superhero pseudo-spy yarns, then this might be for you. Everyone else, give it a pass.

R.E.B.E.L.S. #10 R.E.B.E.L.S. #10 is one of two Blackest Night ring giveaway tie-ins this week (the other being Booster Gold #26, a series I already buy regularly). R.E.B.E.L.S. is a revival of the 90s series, which was the successor to L.E.G.I.O.N., itself a 20th century version of Legion of Super-Heroes that was launched in 1989 when the Legion was struggling to work out its continuity. If that doesn’t sound like one of the least-necessary revivals ever, then I don’t know what is.

Tony Bedard is a decent superhero writer, and Andy Clarke (whose name is misspelled on the cover – way to go DC) has an interesting style reminiscent of Steve Dillon. But issue #10 drops us ring-acquiring drive-by readers into the middle of an on-going story involving the nominal heroes (leader Vril Dox is more of an anti-hero) teaming up with some long-time DC villains to fight an even bigger long-time villain, Starro the Conqueror, who’s been transformed into a rather different entity than his already-chilling original form. (By the way, you can see an homage to the original Starro in the always-entertaining webcomic Plan B.)

The Black Lanterns are almost perfunctory to this story, which focuses on Starro enlisting the aid of Dox’s even-more-super-intelligent son, backing the R.E.B.E.L.S. into a corner, although it looks like next issue will involve a fight between Dox and the Black Lantern version of a former member of the team, as the issue ends on a cliffhanger.

Still, in a book headlined by a rather despicable character, mostly featuring other C-listers I don’t really care about, I might pick up the next issue but this isn’t enough to make me sign on for the long haul, especially since I lost interest in the original version of this team over 15 years ago. (Don McPherson liked it better than I do, though.)

B.P.R.D.: 1947 #5 B.P.R.D.: 1947 was one of the best recent stories of this long-running series, but unfortunately 1948 doesn’t follow it up as strongly. Trevor Bruttenholm mostly stays on the sidelines, and the ultimate point of the story is to drive home to “Broom” that the department’s mission means he’ll be sending a lot of people out to their deaths, and can he live with that? This last issue is pretty good in that regard, but the first four, which focus on the mission in question, were pretty tedious, hamstrung by the fact that Broom stays at home the whole time.

I guess there will be a 1949 at some point, but since I expect to bail on B.P.R.D. after the long-running “War on Frogs” storyline concludes, I may not be around to see it.

Hellboy: The Wild Hunt #8 Similarly, while Hellboy generally has been stronger than B.P.R.D. over the years, The Wild Hunt has been one of his weakest series. Not only does the mythical Wild Hunt only put in a token appearance across 8 issues, but the story involves examining Hellboy’s surprising lineage, and an equally surprising – and, honestly, rather silly – development which comes to a head in this issue. It had me shaking my head, as Hellboy has always done best by staying away from popular mythology, and bring King Arthur into the mix as happens here feels very out-of-place for the series.

Hellboy is at his best when he’s an ass-kicking, wise-cracking fighter of larger-than-life mythical monsters, but over the years Mignola has shrunk that side of his character and expanded him being pulled through various scenarios in scenes that are more talking that action, and that’s a lot less fun. It’s like Mignola’s fundamentally lost touch with the character, and that’s too bad, because he’s one of the most memorable comics creations of the last 30 years.

Regarding the Yankees’ Payroll

A couple of sharply contrasting articles about the New York Yankees and their payroll coming in the wake of their World Series victory: Sportswriter Joe Posnanski believes it’s an unfair advantage, somewhat obscured by baseball’s 3-tier playoff structure (some follow-up comments here), while Apple blogger Jon Gruber thinks the Yankees are just trying to win, which is more than can be said for some teams. My own opinion is closer to Posnanski’s than Gruber’s, although Gruber has a few good points.

(It’s very hard for baseball fans to objectively discuss this issue. Anti-Yankee bias is extremely strong throughout baseball – as a Red Sox fan, I admit to chortling gleefully whenever their season comes to a premature end. I suspect Posnanski has some of this bias, and that Gruber is colored by bias as a Yankee fan; indeed, his gloating at their championship and his past comments on sports makes me think he can’t really assess his team rationally. Then again, it’s sports; rationality isn’t required.)

I think the Yankees’ market and payroll do represent an unfair advantage, but they don’t give the Yankees a “pat hand” as Posnanski puts it. You also have to try to win, as Gruber says (and I do think there are teams that don’t try seriously to win), and you have to be skilled in your trying. The Yankees’ days in the wilderness in the 1980s were because they had fallen behind other teams in collecting talent and assembling their roster. Their approach changed in the early 1990s, which laid the foundation for their run of success since then. But once you have all three elements – a huge payroll, a desire to win, and the skills to assemble winning talent – you’re going to be a winning team most years.

There are teams which have two components, but who lack the large payroll, and they are simply and clearly at a significant disadvantage compared to the Yankees (and to a lesser extent the Red Sox). The Athletics are a popular example. The Angels are a well-run team which have been regularly run over by the Yankees and Red Sox since they won their 2002 championship. And the Rays are one of the best-run teams in baseball (a few years ago if I’d said that you would have asked me what I’ve been smoking), but not only are they at a payroll disadvantage, but they’re in the same division as the two richest teams in baseball and so were on the outside looking in coming the 2009 playoffs. (The Blue Jays are in some ways the Rays writ small.)

To look at it another way, you could be the best-run team in baseball, but given their financial resources, if the Yankees and Red Sox are among the top five best-run teams, then their payrolls give them a huge ability to cover for their mistakes and outbid other teams for the top free agent talent, that they’ve just got a huge built-in advantage over you.

Revenue and payroll are not the whole story, but they’re a significant factor.

There have been some interesting articles about market size written over the years. The seminal work, by Mike Jones, seems to no longer be available. Nate Silver wrote some articles in 2007 keying off of that work, but you have to be a Baseball Prospectus subscriber to read them. (If you are, you can find them here: One, two, three, four.) One point I recall from Jones’ original article was that the New York City area is a large enough market to support four teams, maybe as many as five or six, teams, each with a revenue stream competitive with other Major League teams. NYC is a really big market, folks.

And that’s kind of Posnanski’s point: You can’t really underestimate how big the New York market is, and how much that plays into the success of the Yankees. The Yankees have been a well-run franchise for nearly 20 years, and that counts for a lot, but their market counts for an awful lot as well.

I agree with Gruber that the Steinbrenners’ drive for success and excellence is admirable (is it, though, any more admirable than Oakland Raiders owner Al Davis’ stated desire to win?). Also admirable is the fact that they put their revenue back into the team, creating a feedback cycle of economic and on-the-field success. Not every team does this. (Gruber seems to imply by omission that the Yankees are special in this way, which I think understates what many other teams have done with much less.) And I’m certainly in favor of putting the earnings of baseball back into the game, and ultimately funneling much of it to the players who are, after all, where the true value in the game is created.

It’s not that I blame the Steinbrenners or the Yankees for this state of affairs. I do believe there are some structural problems in the business of baseball, for which the Yankees are somewhat culpable as co-owners of Major League Baseball (how much they specifically are culpable I can’t tell). But having purchased the most lucrative property in baseball and owned it for nearly 40 years now, I can’t fault them for exploiting what they’ve got for the greatest gain and success possible.

But I don’t think we can or should paper over the fact that the Yankees do have a large built-in advantage over every other team in baseball. (And I readily admit that the Red Sox have the second-largest built-in advantage, although the margin between #2 and #3 is much smaller than that between #1 and #2.) I think this is unfair, and it does make the Yankees’ successes less impressive by comparison with those of other teams. (I wonder who the team of the decade would be if you somehow adjusted for market and/or revenue stream? The Cardinals?)

I don’t know of a solution to this problem. Revenue sharing will never be big enough to have an impact. MLB isn’t going to put 2-3 more teams in New York City. (Look at how difficult it’s been just for the Athletics to move to a county which doesn’t even have another Major League team, since the Giants ostensibly claim the San Jose area as their market.) A salary cap would punish the players unfairly. What else is there?

In any event, complaining about the Yankees’ built-in competitive advantage will never go away, and that’s because it really exists.

The Pernicious Cold

The cold that kept me out of work for two days last week has been sticking around. Friday it knocked Debbi out of work for a day. Saturday she felt better, but I was very congested and actually spent most of the day feeling rather dizzy. Other than a trip to the supermarket, we stayed home all day. Sunday I felt better but Debbi felt worse, and we stayed home and watched football most of the day, but I did feel good enough to go to my book discussion group in the afternoon.

We’re both slowly feeling better, and have returned to work this week. I’m still congested and have a bit of a post-nasal-drip cough, but otherwise feel fine. I plan to go to frisbee tonight, although I might not make it through the whole evening. Debbi seems to be getting better, but skipped her aerobics class last night and then didn’t sleep very well.

Friends of ours have told us that this cold is a stubborn one, and that it hangs around for a while. Other friends have theorized that we actually have the flu. I’ve known people with the swine flu and to a man it’s knocked them out for a week or more and sounded absolutely miserable. This is a particularly mild strain, if so. It might also be the garden-variety flu, for which we’ve both had shots, and perhaps the shots only offered partial protection. Who knows. The fact that it feels like a cold and I often get a cold in early November, combined with Occam’s Razor, makes me think it’s just a nastier-than-usual cold.

Assuming no resurgence of symptoms, though, I’m hopeful that we’ll be entirely well by the weekend.

Karl Schroeder: The Sunless Countries

After Pirate Sun, which brought to a close the events in the first three books of Virga, I wasn’t sure whether Karl Schroeder planned to write more in the universe or if that was it (at least for now). While there were some loose ends, it formed a loose trilogy around three characters, Hayden Griffin, Venera Fanning, and her husband Admiral Chaison Fanning, as they embarked on an odyssey through Virga – a 5000-mile-wide, pressurized balloon in space – to stop their home nation of Slipstream from being destroyed by a more powerful rival. Along the way we learned a lot about how Virga works, and the wide diversity of civilizations that live within it.

As it turns out, there is more, and The Sunless Countries is the first book with a protagonist not from Slipstream, thus presenting a somewhat different view of Virga. Leal Maspeth is a young historian in the city of Sere, a collection of wheels in the sunless counties of Virga, the giant pressurized balloon within which the series takes place. Leal has been frustrated by not being able to crack the faculty of the university, and even more frustrated with the Eternists who are in power in Sere, a party who believe that Virga has always existed, rather than having been constructed by humans (and others) thousands of years ago. Sere is visited by Hayden Griffin, the heroic Sun Lighter, whose deeds in creating a new sun for his nation of Aerie have made him famous, but who has an uneasy relationship with the government.

Worse than the Eternists, something is lurking out in the dark, something which is probably responsible for disappearing ships around Sere and whose origins may hearken back to the origins of Virga. The government slowly moves to action, more for show than for effect, and Leal thinks she has some idea of what’s going on. Unfortunately, her theories run contrary to Eternist dogma, and her hopes of proving herself right fade when the government takes over the university to reconstruct it along their own ideals, barring people from the library.

Schroeder continues to explore the ramifications of living in Virga, this time focusing on a relatively isolated nation without a sun, and what being surrounded in perpetual darkness means. His characters are always well-realized, as none of the protagonists of each novel feels much like any of the others. Leal actually feels a little more generic than the others, especially by contrast with Griffin, who has grown up a lot since he starred in the first book, and who is a leader but arguably not a natural one. Leal’s backstory involves deceased parents and a frustrated career as a scholar, making her a melancholy figure, but one whose beliefs strongly oppose those of the Eternists.

Schroeder uses Leal and the Eternists to score some social commentary points, as the Eternists conduct a referendum about the nature of truth, such that any disputed truths in Sere will be decided by public vote. It’s an incisive commentary on the dangers of direct public government, as well as a grenade lobbed at the opponents of scientific principles, such as creationists. Tyranny of the majority, when that majority votes based on irrational belief rather than rationality and evidence is a frightening and dangerous thing.

The Sunless Countries also delves deeper into the origins and history of Virga, and what lies outside it, the post-singularity phenomenon named Artificial Nature. Schroeder’s take on posthuman society is a little different from what I’ve seen elsewhere, arguably taking that portrayed in Charles Stross’ Accelerando a step further. He’s also starting to work through the implications of posthuman cultures living alongside human cultures, a scenario whose surface has only been scratched in the fiction I’ve read so far.

The novel works much better when dealing with the political, historical and science-fictional elements than it does in its character-based drama: Its setting and the exploration thereof is so rich and deep that it seems Schroeder can keep plumbing it forever. On the other hand, Leal is pushed into a position where she has to decide among several unsavory options, one of which would fulfill her dreams at the cost of her integrity, but the decision feels a little too mechanical, not as heartfelt as it could have, not to me, anyway.

Despite that, The Sunless Countries is probably the second-best of the series so far, behind Queen of Candesce. It’s clearly the first of a longer story (a second trilogy?) and it ends on something of a cliffhanger, but the potential for more neat stuff is so clearly evident that you can believe I’ll be around for the rest of the story. The Virga series is some of the very best hard SF being published today.

Torchwood Season One

It took a while, but we recently finished the first season of Torchwood, the Doctor Who spin-off about a team in Cardiff, England defending the planet against alien incursions, and featuring Captain Jack Harkness, the occasional guest-star of Who. As I’ve done with Who, I’ll list the first season episodes in order of most to least favorite, and as usual my comments below will contain spoilers.

  • Captain Jack Harkness (written by Catherine Tregenna)
  • Ghost Machine (Helen Raynor)
  • Out of Time (Catherine Tregenna)
  • They Keep Killing Suzie (Paul Tomalin & Dan McCulloch)
  • End of Days (Chris Chibnall)
  • Countrycide (Chris Chibnall)
  • Random Shoes (Jacquetta May)
  • Greeks Bearing Gifts (Toby Whithouse)
  • Combat (Noel Clarke)
  • Everything Changes (Russell T. Davies)
  • Small Worlds (Peter J. Hammond)
  • Cyberwoman (Chris Chibnall)
  • Day One (Chris Chibnall)

A friend of mine said on Facebook that you have to look at Torchwood as a guilty pleasure. That would be fine – since much of this season is very poorly written – except that I already tend to see Doctor Who as a guilty pleasure, and Torchwood is a big step down from it, so where does that leave it?

The most frustrating thing about the show is that the Torchwood team are mostly incompetent, which is a big change from most shows of this type where the government organization protecting us from the unknown is instead highly competent. But this isn’t really a theme of the show, it’s just a lever used for the stories: The characters are incompetent, so they do stupid things, and that results in problems.

So, for example, in “Cyberwoman”, Ianto has been hiding his half-cyberized girlfriend in the basement of Torchwood since the Battle of Canary Wharf back in Doctor Who season three. He doesn’t really have a plan to reverse her condition, and he certainly doesn’t trust that his co-workers would help him. Naturally it all goes disastrously wrong once she gets loose. Or the first episode, “Everything Changes”, when the characters are making selfish use of the alien artifacts that Torchwood has access to even though Captain Jack’s told them not to. All this would make more sense if the team were more of a research organization, but that’s not really what they do, and it’s certainly not what they’re set up to do. This pattern continues through the season finale, “End of Days”, when the whole team turns against Jack to do something remarkably stupid which puts the whole world at risk. I can’t count the number of times I said, “Maybe next time you’ll listen to Jack!” at the television during the season.

Not that Jack is a whole lot better, since he’s written very erratically. He’s certainly the most competent character in the group (although Tosh is okay; she’s a fair sight better than Gwen, Ianto and Owen), but he also swerves from being empathetic to being very callous and uncompromising. It’s like the writers couldn’t decide if they wanted him to be a tough-as-nails leader, or more of a heroic figure like the Doctor.

The season’s rocky start has one good episode, “Ghost Machine”, and a decent one, “Countrycide”. The former is an atmospheric story about a device that can show echoes of the past, while the latter is a creepy horror story whose punchline is very different from what you’d expect. But neither of these are episodes to build a season on; in a better show, they’d be meat-and-potatoes episodes rather than the standouts. And they’re amidst dumb episodes like “Cyberwoman” or the immeasurably stupid “Day One” with its sex-obsessed alien killer (gah!), or the faerie-inspired but muddily-plotted “Small Worlds”.

The series does get better as it goes on, though. “They Keep Killing Suzie” features the forgotten Torchwood member from the first episode coming back to cause trouble, a well-constructed episode that unfortunately peters out with a pointless chase sequence at the end. “Out of Time” involves some people from 1953 brought forward to the present and having to adjust to a very different era. It’s one of the more thoughtful episodes in dealing with this premise seriously. And the best episode of the season is “Captain Jack Harkness”, in which Jack and Tosh are thrown back to 1941 during the dawn of World War II and have to figure out how to get back even as Tosh is the subject of anti-Japanese sentiment. They also meet, well, Captain Jack Harkness of that era, who’s not at all what they were expecting.

That episode sets up the last episode, “End of Days”, in which the mysterious goings-on turn a promising set-up into the team turning against Jack pointlessly and resolving into another stupid monster story. It’s a bombastic story but it’s frustrating and not very satisfying. And it ends with Jack disappearing to adventure with the Doctor at the end of his third season, which makes the series feel even more like a spin-off which is subordinate to its original series.

Torchwood has all the ingredients to be a solid series, perhaps a little derivative of The X-Files, but with a flaboyant, unusual star character, an inventive visual look to the team’s headerquarters, and an unusual pedigree. But the writing just doesn’t follow through on the series’ premise, and rarely delivers stories that either make much sense on their own terms, or involve characters doing things that seem sensical. Overall, it’s mediocre, and never truly great.

This Week's Haul

Powered by the love and affection of the Wizard convention circuit, it’s time for another round of reviews:

  • Doom Patrol #4, by Keith Giffen, Justiniano & Livesay, and J.M. DeMatteis & Kevin Maguire (DC)
  • Secret Six #15, by John Ostrander & Jim Calafiore (DC)
  • Astonishing X-Men #32, by Warren Ellis, Phil Jimenez & Andy Lanning (Marvel)
  • Immortal Weapons #4 of 5, by Duane Swierczynski, Khari Evans, Victor Olazaba & Allen Martinez, and Hatuey Diaz (Marvel)
  • Nova #1, by Dan Abnett, Andy Lanning & Andrea DiVito (Marvel)
  • The Secret History book six, by Jean-Pierre Pécau & Igor Kordey (Archaia)
  • Absolution #3 of 6, by Christos Gage & Roberto Viacava (Avatar)
  • The Unknown: The Devil Made Flesh #2 of 4, by Mark Waid & Minck Oosterveer (Boom)
  • Age of Reptiles #1 of 4, by Ricardo Delgado (Dark Horse)
  • Witchfinder: In The Service of Angels #5 of 5, by Mike Mignola & Ben Stenbeck (Dark Horse)
  • The Boys #36, by Garth Ennis & Darick Robertson (Dynamite)
  • Star Trek: Romulans: Schism #3 of 3, by John Byrne (IDW)
Doom Patrol #4 I admit it: I’m a sucker. I signed up with my comics shop for DC’s Blackest Night promotional ring giveaway. It’s not like I don’t have enough random crap around my house that I need a bunch of plastic rings, but something about the idea appealed to me just enough to sign up. The catch is that I’ll buy single issues of a bunch of comic books I don’t usually buy, so we’ll see if any of them are good enough to me to keep buying them. And you get to go along for the ride with me!

And I’m far from the only one jumping on this bandwagon: Lots of other people have, too, which means a big sales spike for some DC titles. Which probably means more of this promotional gimmick in the future. But that’s okay, I don’t have to buy into any more of them if I don’t want to.

Doom Patrol is the latest incarnation of the venerable Silver Age comic featuring normal people who acquired super powers which made them outcasts from the rest of society. At its best, the series plumbed the depths of this premise better than its Marvel counterpart, The X-Men; at its worst, it was routine superhero fare. Not a bad legacy for a book that was – aside the bizarre Grant Morrison run in the 80s – a B-list title. But as with many such titles from DC, the book has a history so convoluted I really can’t figure out its continuity, including a re-launch by John Byrne (which I skipped) which seemed to throw all previous continuity out the door (which, honestly, is fine with me) and return to the original cast of Robotman, Negative Man, Elasti-Woman and the Chief. Apparently Infinite Crisis restored the team’s previous continuity, which makes absolutely no sense to me, and it appears from the Wikipedia article that DC went to greater-than-usual lengths to explain away the inconsistencies. Sigh.

So this issue – which features the deceased members of the “new” Doom Patrol of the late 70s coming back to fight the “new original” team of this decade – makes my head hurt, since I understand just enough of the continuity to know who these people are, but not enough to be able to make any sense of how these two teams could coexist in their current state. Would it be easier for a new reader to make heads or tails of this book, or harder? I really have no idea.

Is the story any good? Well, it’s not awful, but it’s little more than a collection of disparate fights, and I don’t have enough attachment to any of the characters to feel the emotions that I’m presumably supposed to feel about the dead characters coming back, and honestly the main Blackest Night title has pretty much gone the distance with that premise anyway. The issue ends on a cliffhanger which is interesting enough that I just might buy the next issue, but it’s a close thing. As an introduction to the series, this issue isn’t a very good one. The art by Justiniano and Livesay (what is it with single-name artists these days, anyway?) is pretty good, solid, dynamic, stylistic enough to grab my attention, especially in the last two pages. If you like Doug Mahnke’s or Ariel Olivetti’s art, you’ll find the art here to your taste.

The issue features a back-up story by the creative team of Justice League International introducing a set of fembot villains for the Metal Men, another B-list team of Silver Age heroes, and who barely appear in the story. I wasn’t a fan of the jokey nature of the JLI era, so this story didn’t do much for me. (As back-ups go, the Blue Beetle story in the back of Booster Gold has been much better.)

So I can’t recommend Doom Patrol #4 for anything more than the promotional ring.

Age of Reptiles: The Journey #1 Ricardo Delgado published two Age of Reptiles mini-series a decade or so ago, and as an unreformed childhood dinosaur lover, I loved them. They’re serious “this is what it could have been like” stories of the giant lizards hunting, eating, fighting, protecting their young, only a little anthropomorphized to give the story a plot. Delgado’s artwork brings the creatures to life like nothing else I can recall seeing. They’re well worth seeking out.

Now the reptiles are back in The Journey, the first issue of which has left me slightly baffled. As you can see from the cover to the left, all the animals seem to be heading somewhere, and there are hints inside that they might be looking for warmer climate as the earth cools, and the mix of beasts could be from the late Cretaceous period. But the story seems a little buried in the set-up. Still, as I recall from the first two series, it’s the whole that matters, not just the individual issues.

Delgado’s art is still great, although it seems a little less detailed than in the past. Maybe my expectations for this series were so high that I was bound to be disappointed by the first issue. But I’ll still be picking up the whole thing, so check back in a few months to see if the whole outweighs the sum of the parts.

Witchfinder: In the Service of Angels #5 I’ve been on the Hellboy bandwagon for so long that I guess I’m just jaded. Some of the stories are very good, most are okay, few are bad. When push comes to shove, Witchfinder is closer to the “bad” end of the spectrum. Sir Edward Grey was a (fictional) occult investigator in the Victorian era, much like Hellboy in the 20th century. His adventure in this 5-issue series just didn’t make a lot of sense to me, trying to stop a demon killing people in London by reuniting it with its bones, and with various occult stops along the way. The story was too convoluted for me to sink my teeth into, and there wasn’t a single character worth caring about. Overall I think the series was just too clever for its own good, and it lost sight of telling a good story.
Star Trek: Romulans: Schism #3 John Byrne’s Star Trek Romulans series apparently comes to an end this month, a bit to my surprise as I’d thought this was going to be another 5-issue series.

As I’ve said before, Byrne’s telling easily the most entertaining Star Trek stories I’ve read in years, maybe decades, and he has the visual look of the classic Trek series down pat. His Romulan story has been a shadow history of the Klingon/Romulan alliance implied by the third season of classic Trek. The Hollow Crown described how the Klingons engineered the death of the Romulan Emperor to put their own puppet on the throne to get around the Organian Treaty forced on them with the Federation. Schism is the other end of that story, as hostilities among the Klingons, Federation and Romulans come to a head in a fairly nifty (and wonderfully well-illustrated) space battle.

The only real downside to the story is that it ends rather abruptly, with a literal deus-ex-machina with no believable explanation for why it didn’t arise previously. The story ends seemingly setting up yet another arc in the same storyline, but I understand this is the last chapter, so I’m not quite sure what’s going on.

That’s really the achilles heel in Byrne’s Trek stories: They’re entertaining, but the endings are abrupt, ambiguous, and/or perplexing so it’s hard to see what the point of the story is. It’s frustrating, even as light adventure fare (which after all is what Star Trek is). All the pieces are intriguing enough that if Byrne keeps writing ’em and IDW keeps printing ’em then I’ll keep publishing ’em, hoping that eventually all the pieces fall into place and he produces a truly great one.

The Hidden Side of Webcomics

Interesting article at Robot 6 about webcomics that come to an end. The basic economy of webcomics – they’re freely available, and almost always free to read – means that the barrier to entry for a creator is low, but the return on investment can also be low. So many webcomics end after a few strips, and many more end – deliberately or through neglect – some time later:

“Over 15,000 webcomics now exist online,” Wikipedia tells us, but probably 14,000 of those stopped updating after six episodes. This is the dark side of The Promise of Webcomics: It is true that anyone can start a webcomic, and that without the usual barriers to publication, such as editors and budgets, the web has become a seething cauldron of creativity. However, things like slush piles and contracts and editors are there for a reason: Not just to keep the crap out, but also to make sure the creator finishes the damn comic. The internet imposes no such restrictions. Consequently, many webcomics start with a burst of enthusiasm and fizzle when the creator runs out of ideas or has to study for finals.

The parallels to blogging are obvious. I’ve been blogging for over 12 years now, and my direct return on that investment is measured in Amazon.com referrals. The indirect returns, on the other hand – in the form of friends and acquaintances and the things that friends and acquaintances can bring you – have been much greater. Not to mention that I enjoy blogging, which is the direct impetus keeping me going. (I could arguably make some money by putting ads on my blog. I doubt it would be enough money to make a difference in my life – I’m just not a popular enough blogger – and it might not even be enough to justify the effort to put up the ads in the first place.)

I’m enthusiastic enough about the webcomics I read that I have a fairly meticulous system for keeping up with them through RSS feeds and bookmarks. I also enjoy finding a great new webcomic with an extensive archive, and I will buy the print collections of the webcomics I most enjoy. But apparently I’m unusual in that respect, and for many readers a large backstory is a barrier to entry.

But then, this is a problem that mainstream superhero comic books have been dealing with for years: How to satisfy their meat-and-potatoes fans who are into the continuity, while still bringing in new readers. Television series have the same problem. The economics of those media are different, but the problem is similar.

Myself, I’d suggest to someone who finds a new webcomic they enjoy with a large archive not to be put off by it. Enjoy the recent strips for what they are, but also consider going back to read through the archive, even if over a period of weeks or months. You might find it well worth the time invested. And I’d suggest to the creators of those strips that they keep their “About This Comic”/”New Readers” pages up-to-date so new readers can jump in and feel oriented right away; it’s unfortunately quite common to come across strips whose orientation pages seem years old. (As a reader, I’d also rather see an orientation page than a list of cast members; I’d rather learn about the cast by reading the strip.)

For new webcomic creators who find their enthusiasm waning after a few strips, consider that someone who seems like an “overnight success” usually has put in years of work to get to that point, it just seems to other people like that success came overnight. But I bet that much like blogging, you need to be doing a webcomic because it’s what you want to do. Because I don’t think very many people make a living drawing webcomics.

(Another interesting read is State of the Webcomics Union by Jeph Jacques of Questionable Content.)

Just Sick

I’m home sick today – with a cold, not the flu, thank goodness. (At least, it feels like just a cold!) Slept in, read comic books, noodled about on the Internet, blew my nose a zillion times (but that’s better than the sore throat I had last night). Grabbed In-n-Out Burger for dinner while Debbi went shopping with her friend Lisa.

Some other year this would have been a great day to curl up in the evening and watch the World Series. But I just can’t watch playoff games with the Hated Yankees (not even Red Sox/Yankees series), so no World Series for me. Someday maybe MLB will put a couple more teams in New York City and level the playing field a bit. But I won’t hold my breath.

I read a tweet tonight that said “Yankees:Apple::Red Sox:???”. Given the Yankees’ cash flow, free agent signings and aging roster that looks like it had a very healthy dose of luck this year, it’s clearly the Red Sox who more closely resemble Apple, with their more blended line-up, and cutting-edge analytic approach to team management. Just the notion of comparing the Yankees to Apple makes my head hurt. Probably another reason why using sports as a metaphor for real life is a bad idea.

(Besides, if you’re honest about it, it’s the Devil Rays who look the most like Apple.)

Anyway, yeah yeah yeah, as with all things sports, wins by New York teams make the world a little blacker. But I guess it wouldn’t be dramatic without some black hats to root against.

Hopefully things will look brighter tomorrow assuming I can shake the rest of this cold!

Grass Patching

Over the summer I decided to adjust the sprinklers for our complex to see if we could save a bunch of water while keeping our lawn green, since California is 3 years into a drought. The default setting on the sprinkers is 10 minutes per sprinkler per day, which seemed like way more than was needed. Last winter I turned the sprinklers off for the rainy season, and when the rain ended I set them to 3 minutes. That didn’t work out so well, and the lawn started browning. Unfortunately, I thought I’d changed them upward but in fact I’d just imagined it, I guess, so the lawn got browner and browner until finally I changed it to 5 minutes, which seemed to do the trick. Alas, some patches of grass had just plain died, and two months later had not come back, even though the rest of the lawn was green and growing.

So I went out and bought some grass seed – actually a mix which included some green stuff to deliver the seed in, which I think also contained fertilizer – and spent some time digging up the brown patches to mix up the soil, laying down the seed mix, and watering the results. The one patch I tried it on a few weeks ago has come up quite nicely, so this weekend I did a whole bunch of other patches in front of my neighbor’s unit.

Last night Debbi and I were watching WALL•E after dinner when the doorbell rang: The neighbor had come over with a plate of delicious brownies to thank me for laying down the grass seed.

Sometimes good deeds do get rewarded!

(And we’ve hopefully saved a lot of water this summer, too. I don’t know how much water the sprinklers use, but if it’s 1 gallon/minute, then I estimate that that’s over 100 gallons/day! I bet it’s less than that, but still significant.)