This Week’s Haul

  • 52 #26 (DC)
  • Ex Machina #24 (DC/Wildstorm)
  • Fantastic Four: The End #1 (Marvel)
  • Mouse Guard #5 (Archaia Studios Press)

The cover feature of 52 – featuring the Black Marvel Family – is pretty dull. More interesting is John Henry Irons confronting his daughter – who now works as part of Lex Luthor’s science-built superhero team – on a talk show. Boy, I hope she gets her comeuppance before this is over.

Ex Machina doesn’t get the press that writer Brian K. Vaughn’s other book, Y The Last Man, does, but I gave up on Y a long time ago, while Ex Machina still keeps me interested. It doesn’t hurt that it’s drawn by Tony Harris, a terrific artist who also drew the first half of James Robinson’s Starman. The premise is that a man gains the ability to talk to machines, has a brief career as the world’s only superhero, and after saving one of the World Trade Towers on 9/11 is elected Mayor of New York City. The book is part science fiction, part horror, and part political drama. Unfortunately that doesn’t leave a lot of room for deep character drama, but it’s still a good book, if a little on the slow side.

Alan Davis writes and draws Fantastic Four: The End, so you know it looks nice. Davis’ stock-in-trade as a writer is the conspiracy storyline, where the heroes have to untangle a web of villainout planning. Unfortunately I find this gets a little repetitive, and it looks like this series will be in much the same vein as his Superboy’s Legion or his two JLA: The Nail series, which means it should be enjoyable, but may not be very memorable.

I reviewed Mouse Guard on Four Color Comics back in June, and it’s nearly done. Clean artwork with a straightforward and fun story. I guess it’s been selling pretty well, and that’s good to hear.

One Full Month

I launched Fascination Place a month ago today. So far, so good, I think! As you can tell from my posting rate, I’m enjoying writing for the new format.

It’s hard to be certain, but I think I left behind about half of my readership from Gazing Into The Abyss when I moved. I suspect a big chunk is due to setting up a syndication account at LiveJournal for the site since I didn’t want to have to keep manually posting over there whenever I updated, and many readers over there haven’t subscribed to the feed for one reason or another (possibly because they happened to miss the posts I’ve made there announcing the syndication account).

Anyway, hopefully continued regular updating will eventually pull in some new readers, and perhaps bring back some of the ones I’ve lost.

I really like WordPress (the blogging software I’m using), and there haven’t been many tweaks I’ve had to make to my layout (other than trying to make it look better in Internet Explorer 6). The next hurdle will be upgrading to WordPress 2.0.5 – my first upgrade of the installation. Hopefully it will be straightforward.

One thing I’m considering adding is a “Recent Comments” section in the right-hand sidebar, like what J.D. has at Folded Space. Apparently his readers really like it.

What do you think of the journal, now that I’ve mostly worked the kinks out? Is there anything you really like, or really don’t like?

MBTA System Maps

At Felicitas Publica, some articles about changes to the MBTA subway system in Boston over the last 40 years:

The New England Transportation Site has some historical system maps, as well. And the Wikipedia entry on the T looks jam-packed with information as well.

The Images of America series of books (which I enjoy a lot) has a couple of volumes on urban rail lines in Boston: Boston in Motion (I think I might own this one), Trolleys Under the Hub and Boston’s Blue Line.

The Cost of Comic Books

Scott Marshall quotes an interview with comics artist Evan Dorkin regarding the price of comic books today:

The average price of a comic book in the US is around $3. Do you think, regarding the production and distribution system, that it is too expensive? What are the sales like nowadays in the US?

Sales are pretty depressing based on what they used to sell. I think a book that sells 100,000 these days is a blockbuster, and books were getting cancelled in the early 70’s that sold 250,000. Books regularly sold in the millions in the heyday of the 50’s. On a less depressing note, for all those sales, the older creators received no credit, little or no recognition from the readers, no royalties, no participation in licensing, no return of their artwork, few opportunities to get TV or illustration work because of their comics, etc. And they were often ripped off and exploited beyond belief. We sell far less, but we get far more out of it in some ways, and our creations are our own if we want them to be. Sales-wise it’s a car wreck, but creatively it’s a golden age right now. Some people talk about the “golden age” and the good old days of comics, but I don’t know if I’d trade places with the old-timers, despite the discrepancy in sales.

My feeling about the rising cost of comics is as follows:

It’s frequently overlooked that in the early 1980s the comic book industry moved away from using cheap printing processes on cheap paper and started using spiffy printing and coloring processes on high-quality paper (sometimes very high-quality paper). While computers have helped mitigate the costs of the production and printing process, the cost of paper is still quite high compared to what was being used 30 years ago. (I think the paper industry went through a period of shortage about 15 years ago, and that pushed prices up even higher. I’m not sure of the details, though.)

And of course there’s inflation. Inflation calculators such as this one show that what cost 50 cents in 1980 would cost $1.27 in 2005. While this is a broad generalization, my recollection is that the paper industry also experienced higher inflation than the general market in the 80s and 90s. So I think the combination of more expensive paper and inflation account for the vast majority of the rising price of comics from 1980 to today. (Creator recognition may also be a factor, but I’d place it behind these two.)

Here’s a good way to compare apples to apples: Consider a hardcover graphic novel’s cost and the cost of a hardcover novel with a similar number of pages. In general, they are competitive, in the $22-$30 range. The graphic novel is usually somewhat more expensive, but I think that is primarily due to being printed in color rather than in black-and-white. For instance, consider the comic collection Avengers Assemble Volume 1, which is 384 pages for $29.99 (retail), vs. Alastair Reynolds’ novel Pushing Ice, which is 464 pages for $25.95. The pages in the former are larger, too (which means it required more paper-per-page to print).

I think cost is a significant factor in declining comics sales, because so many people think that “comics are for kids” and should therefore be competitive with the cost of a candy bar, and those who are more open-minded often remember when comics were really quite cheap and don’t understand why they’re so much more expensive today.

Comic books are still cheap entertainment, but they’re not completely-disposable impulse purchases as they once were. And that’s because everyone – publishers, editors, creators and the core consumer base – wanted better production values, and got them.

Doctor Who: One Versus Two

I’ve seen the first four episodes of the second season of Doctor Who, and I’ve noticed that they each resemble an early episode from the first season:

  1. The first episode of each season involves an invasion of Earth by some improbable aliens (“Rose” vs. “The Christmas Invasion”).
  2. The second episode of each season takes place in humanity’s far future and features a number of unusual aliens (“The End of the World” vs. “New Earth”).
  3. The third episode of each season takes place in the 19th century and involves a classic horror element (“The Unquiet Dead” vs. “Tooth and Claw”).
  4. The sixth episode of the first season and the fourth episode of the second season features the return of well-known figures from the original Doctor Who series (“Dalek” vs. “School Reunion”).

On top of this, both series feature a recurring background element (“Bad Wolf” vs. Torchwood, the latter I guess laying the groundwork for the spin-off series). Hopefully Torchwood will have a more rewarding climax than Bad Wolf did.

Is this correlation just coincidence, I wonder?

Roger Zelazny: The Chronicles of Amber (2)

Review of the second five-volume Amber series, by Roger Zelazny.

  • The Chronicles of Amber: The Second Series

    • by Roger Zelazny

I remember reading Trumps of Doom around when it came out, having just blasted my way through the first Amber series. And then a few years later reading the series again through Sign of Chaos when it was the latest book. And now, almost 20 years later, I’ve finally read the whole Amber series (modulo a few short stories).

The second series features Merlin, the son of Corwin, who was the hero in the first series. Like the first series, this one is narrated by its hero. Merlin is just as calculating as Corwin was, which probably suggests that the overly-analytical feel of the narrative is just Zelazny’s writing style. Merlin was conceived through deception, and was raised in the Courts of Chaos by his mother. Consequently he possesses the powers of chaos magic, but being of Amberite blood he’s also walked the Pattern and so has the skills of Amber as well. Though he feels more at home in the Courts, he’s recognized and welcomed in Amber, especially by Random, his uncle who is the new king.

What makes this series fun – for me – is how much of it occurs on our Earth, where Merlin has been living for seven years while he becomes a software engineer. He falls in love with a woman named Julia, and becomes good friends with a man named Luke. However, he reveals some of his nature to Julia, scaring her off, and finds that Luke is actually a not-too-friendly fellow with some surprising powers of his own. Also, someone has tried to kill him on April 30 for each of the last 7 years, and the day the book begins launches him on a considerably larger adventure than foiling a murder attempt.

The first two volumes are a lot of fun in unravelling Merlin’s life from several different directions, and making you wonder how it’s all going to come together. Unfortunately I felt Zelazny didn’t maintain the illusion of a tight plot the way he did in the first series. In the ninth book the whole thing falls apart and just feels blatantly improvised. Luke – originally one of the heavies – I suspect was so interesting a character to the author that he ends up patching up his friendship with Merlin, and not very convincingly. And the strands of Merlin’s troubles in Trumps resolves itself into a very different story by the time Knight rolls around. Knight centers around a metaphysical confrontation that Merlin has in a strange Shadow world, while Prince focuses on the central tension between Chaos and Order and Merlin’s role in the realm of Chaos. All the while the shadow of Merlin’s father – who has been missing since the end of the first series – hangs over the story, but the ultimate resolution to this was just not satisfying. The story goes considerably far afield from where it starts; when it was about Merlin’s private little war potentially spiralling out of control, it was fun, but when it resolves into a long-running conflict between two powerful entities, it feels trite.

How did this happen? Well, my understanding is that Merlin’s story was originally going to be a 3-book series, and it expanded to 5 books. I think it would have been better served had Zelazny limited it to 3 books and forced the plot into a less grandiose resolution. Instead we’re presented with an extensive look at the structure of the universe of Amber and I just didn’t find it all that interesting. I think the story got caught up in trying to seem cool (or maybe profound) rather than be good.

The second series is an interesting counterpoint to the first in a couple of ways, though: First, while Corwin was the ultimate insider in Amber – being the preferred choice of some for the throne, and right in the thick of all events – Merlin is really an outsider, allowed in the clan due to blood, but with divided loyalties and not having grown up around his Amberite relatives. So Merlin’s story doesn’t feel like “an Amber series”, but rather the story of someone who visits Amber from time to time but mostly spends his time elsewhere.

Second, if Corwin’s story was about a man who starts out sure of what he is finding out that in fact that’s not who he is at all, then Merlin’s is about a man who’s not at all sure what he is and finding out that he’s actually well-suited for something he never expected nor was interested in. Father and son travel opposite paths.

Merlin’s story ends with a number of dangling threads (as opposed to Corwin’s, whose story felt complete in its five volumes), and I’ve heard that Zelazny planned to write a third series, which never materialized due to his unfortunate death in 1995. So the gestalt of Amber feels unfinished (and I’m not really interested in reading an Amber series by some other author, though one exists).

In summary, the complete Amber series is at its best inventive and fun, but suffers from haphazard plotting and a too-analytical narrative style. It’s entertaining, but feels a little too improvised at times. The first series is well worth reading, but the second isn’t essential.

Alison Bechdel: Fun Home

Review of the graphic novel Fun Home, by Alison Bechdel.

I said last week that the book Fables: 1001 Nights of Snowfall is (to my mind) the second-best graphic novel of the year. Alison Bechdel’s Fun Home is the best.

I’ve been a fan of Bechdel’s strip Dykes to Watch Out For for over a decade now, impressed not just with her linework but with her facility for character and especially her ability to consider liberal politics from some unlikely angles. In recent years I’ve felt like the strip was perhaps getting past its sell-by date, as it felt not as fresh as it had in the past. Of course, perhaps every reader of a long-running serial feels that it was better when they started reading it, but still.

Fun Home, though, shows that Bechdel is not only on top of her game, but that she’s got the chops to be a heavy hitter in the graphic novel line too, if she chooses.

Fun Home is autobiographical, and is mainly about her father. She grew up in a small town in Pennsylvania with her parents and three brothers. Her father was an obsessive-compulsive when it came to remodeling the old house they lived in, and by day he ran a local funeral home (from whence the title of the book). But he was also emotionally distant and treated his family more as resources to be used than as people. He was learned and read constantly, but he also harbored a dark secret.

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The story is told in chapters that are more thematic than chronological: Her father’s obsession with the house, her father’s death, her own obsessive quirks as a teenager, and so forth. The book is a peeling back of different layers to reveal things about her father, her family, and herself. Bechdel – as you may have guessed if you didn’t already know – is a lesbian, and her own realization of this is wound up in the events of the book.

The running theme of the book is one of emotional distance: Her whole family was very distant, and the book is told in a similarly distant manner, deeply analytical in tone. Granted, the events of the book are over 20 years in the past, but the similarity is eerie, and oddly powerful because the sense of pain and loss still shines through: Pain at her father’s death, at her father’s treatment of her, the loss of a piece of childhood that many kids have, the loss of some important events in her life as they were overshadowed by her father’s secrets and death. Credit the clarity of Bechdel’s narrative for bringing this feeling home; I can only imagine how long she must have worked to get just the right words down on the page.

On the art side, Bechdel is one of the great contemporary comics artists when it comes to drawing everyday people and events and making them visually interesting. She works an interesting territory between cartoon stylization and photorealism (and there are examples of the latter in it true form at a few points of the book). Her work is a textbook example of making people’s faces expressive and distinct with just a few simple lines. And in Fun Home she also works in a two-tone medium, with a soft greenish tone used for shading between the solid black lines, which makes Fun Home just that little bit different from her usual work, and giving it the feel of old sepia photographs.

Despite her overall skills, I did realize one thing while reading Fun Home: Bechdel’s characters rarely smile, and when they do they often seem like enigmatic, Mona Lisa-type smiles. Although entirely appropriate for the tone of the book, this is also true of Dykes to Watch Out For. Is this a deliberate decision on Bechdel’s part, I wonder?

I was hooked by Fun Home from the very first chapter, which shows off all of Bechdel’s art and storytelling skills as well as anything she’s ever done. I’ve browsed the book several times since then, and it’s still fascination to page through, with little details revealing themselves on repeated viewing. The book is a masterpiece of the art form. What a great book!

It’s The Long Dark Time

The Cardinals won the World Series, thus making my uncle Mike and my friend David happy. They also became the World Series winner with the worst regular-season record in history (beating out the 1987 Twins), although they’re only the second-worst team to ever make it to the Series (behind the 1973 Mets).

Congratulations to them! They did just about everything right, and took advantage of several mistakes by the Detroit Tigers. Despite this, it was a good series with 3 of the 5 games decided by 1 or 2 runs. The Cards’ surprisingly strong pitching kept them in position to take advantage of Detroit’s errors.

And now it’s the “long dark time”, as Syd likes to say. T.S. puts it succinctly as well.

I just say: Four months ’til spring training!

A Trip to Monterey

Today we drove down to Monterey and Pacific Grove for the day. Originally we were going to spend the night and then Debbi was going to walk the Big Sur Half Marathon tomorrow morning, but she’s been having problems with blisters on her feet and was concerned she might not be able to finish in the time alotted, so she decided to punt this time. But she still wanted to pick up her registration packet – including the nifty shirt – so we drove down anyway.

I don’t quite go to Monterey often enough to be able to find my way around without a map, but at least I have a better idea of how long it takes to get there than I once did. Actually, we got there in pretty good time, and found the registration site without any trouble. Then we walked through downtown Monterey (which is smaller than I’d remembered, which probably means we didn’t walk the whole thing) and had lunch there.

We then drove over near Cannery Row and visited some book stores over there. It turns out there’s a branch of Bookbuyers on Lighthouse Ave.

After that we did a drive along the coast in Pacific Grove, which is truly one of the most beautiful coasts I’ve ever driven along. We stopped for a walk at one point, and I took a few pictures:

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On the way back into town we stopped at the Monarch Grove Sanctuary, and it’s early in the season where monarch butterflies overwinter in Monterey. Just when we arrived we were fortunate to see a swarm of hundreds of butterflies near the observation area – apparently not a common occurrence! Sadly I didn’t have my camera ready, but I did later snap one decent photo of a lone flier:

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We may need to go back closer to the height of the season.

We did some window-shopping on Cannery Row and even got ice cream at a Ghirardelli shop there (which I hadn’t known existed). We decided not to go to the aquarium this time around, instead just seeing the rest of Monterey. (Besides which, the aquarium seems to have gotten awfully expensive – over $20 per person!)

It was surprisingly warm and sunny down there, which made for a nice day of walking. A fun time!

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